“Don’t think about what you’ve lost. Think about what you’ve still got” a friend of a friend of mine once shouted up from the belay. In a moment when all hope seemed lost and a fall imminent– the magic incantation of encouragement uttered, they kept going, dug deep, and gave themselves the benefit of the doubt – a chance to surprise themselves. They got to the chains, clipped – boom.
I haven’t been climbing all that long, I started 4 years ago so am no authority on the ideas I’m about to explore. The experiences I’ve had whilst climbing as well as the time talking, thinking and dreaming about it has led me to the viewpoint that the psychological element and the awareness of its affect is simultaneously the most important and the most under-valued aspect of much of our collective approach.
Mind and manifestation
The power of the mind is incredible – just consider the placebo effect; belief and perception can manifest both symptoms and their cures in test patients. The “psych” that some well-timed encouragement; or witnessing the success of another climber creates is tangible. Just being around certain people can get it going strong. I’ve been at the crag a few times when send trains pull through. Somehow through the murky doldrums of multiple sessions of projecting various routes, partners or groups somehow chance upon and witness a unicorn moment as it steals its way across the rock, electrifying the bolts and unlocking sweet sendage en masse. Projects going down to china town, boom, one right after another. Likewise, I’ve been on outings when emotional states within the party make for a pretty savage time, steep walk-ins that have rattled cages and spoiled days’ out, shut-downs that turned into tantrums. Learning how to work with your emotional and mental state is a real game changer, a game maker even. Headspace can be observed, monitored and regulated (to some extent) through awareness of the influencing factors in your environment, the ability to maintain perspective in challenging situations is just an all-round great life skill – interacting with your own thoughts consciously really does make all the difference, and climbing offers very quick proof in instant pudding.
If you’re not psychologically equipped to climb it really doesn’t matter how strong you get, once you find yourself in terrain that brings on that unignorable doubt; the body’s responses are counter-intuitive to staying on, and those natural responses have to be mentally overridden. Climbing sometimes seems like a game I play with myself to see how calm I can be as the stakes rise, as physical exertion combines with ever increasingly improbable sequences and unlikely holds to push me towards my limit, towards a fall or – even worse – saying ‘take’ (oh the controversy).
Panicky vibes, ragged breathing, over-gripping – these all combine in a negative feedback loop and get us pumped. Absolutely there’s the actual lack of oxygen getting to the forearm muscles particularly and the resultant anaerobic respiration, build-up of toxic bi-products in the muscle; lactic acid, etc. This is an unavoidable process that requires conditioning to manage. But rather than focus solely on the biological/ metabolic processes I ask that you take a look at the holistic picture, how does your mental and emotional state influence the way you move – how you grip holds, the clipping or gear placing positions you find? These all profoundly influence the amount of energy required. True as Bob, I can think of loads of times I’ve set off on a pitch and been so jittery I’ve clamped my way into a despicable pump in no time with the crux still ages away, easy holds, good protection, but so pumped!! I’m gonna go out on a limb here and say that thinking about being pumped when you’re climbing makes you pumped. By and large the brain checks out before we have reached maximum effort, our bodies have some potent reserve tank that is well hidden from the conscious mind. It may seem as though we can’t hold on any longer – yet we generally can(?). We can even grab onto the next hold and stay on – at least, for a bit longer than what we generally allow ourselves to believe.
As I feel my iron resolve start to whither and fizzle into snowflakes; I glance down at the belayer, assess the fall – no longer in the here and now. Even with the fall terrain being super safe I move but don’t really commit. I make a theatrical swipe like a kitten hitting a ball of wool, knowing full well I’m not actually trying to stick it. Maybe you can relate to the feeling, the vaporization of all body tension when you realize the odds stacked against you just don’t look so great and chances of success are realistically slim. The limp wave, as I understand it, is essentially that dank-heavy, sinking feeling you get from your greasy fingertips and loss of body tension whilst non-existent footholds disappear as the ever more implausible beta wind floats up from the murky depths. The trick it seems, is when it starts rolling in you manage to get yourself to continue rather than succumbing to the doubts. That even though if you were stick around you’re definitely falling – somehow moving to new holds scores you some time to keep breathing, to keep holding and pushing, to shake out, to clip or place protection even though your hands feel like they’re slipping open uncontrollably off jugs. Give yourself the opportunity to surprise yourself, just go for the move – and I’m not talking about flapping your hand towards the hold in question – I’m saying really try to stick it, even when you’re above your last anchor and falling is very possible – provided of course you’re well protected (😉 lol, don’t take silly falls please). When you stick that move you weren’t sure about it can bring on some more of that sweet psych; which in turn can give you that little bit extra for the next crazy looking sequence.
Why so scared?
Fear of falling; perhaps in general more prevalent in the earlier stages, falling can be absolutely terrifying for certain people who’ve climbed for years; it’s without a doubt more of a factor in circumstances where you’re protected by gear you’ve placed. You have to take falls to get better – look at the crushers – they’ve fallen a lot. And through those “failures” have gained amazing confidence. If falling scares you in a severe way there are great exercises to explore with tips and routines online, ways of alleviating the fear by incrementally increasing the severity of falls within a controlled environment with a belayer you feel comfortable with. On that note; that belayer-climber relationship is central to the success of everything that’s been mentioned. We as climbers don’t put as much emphasis on belaying competency and the belayers’ attention as we probably should. The different feels of climbing when I know my belay is solid as opposed to someone that’s semi-confident is massive. Take the time to become a good belayer, speak up when people aren’t belaying you well or you feel insecure, even if they’re good climbers who suck at belaying – the idea is to have complete trust in the catch, without this as a point of departure we won’t get far.
Climbing outdoors; the difference in mental fitness and awareness required to complete a route on rock as opposed to in the gym is significant. It doesn’t make too much sense to become an accomplished gym climber with the view to making it easier to transition outside without developing the skills needed for outdoor routes. From day one the more you can climb outside the better, so take those opportunities when they come.
Having fun, growing, evolving; why do we climb? The absolute euphoria of completing something you weren’t sure if you could do or something you’ve struggled with before. Overcoming our fears. Being humbled by a route that keeps spitting you off. Seeing others progress and evolve – it seems like there’s a lot of change and levelling-up involved if you so choose, why not take the bull by the brain?