How to Keep Your Cool on a Challenging Climb

Marisa Aragon Ware keeping her cool while redpointing the super-sustained Esplanada (5.12d), Ten Sleep, WY. Horst photo.

 Climbing near your limit can be stressful. Desperate moves, risk of falling, and the uncertainty of what’s next can foster unproductive thoughts and physical tension that snowballs at a rapid rate. Left unchecked, such rising tension will cause you to pump out and quite likely fall. Even expert climbers occasionally experience rising tension while ascending a severe route, however they are masters at controlling tension on the fly. Similarly, your goal should be to develop such awareness and control over rising tension.  Here are three strategies for regaining control in the midst of a difficult route.

1. Focus on breath control

Deep, steady breathing is the number one antidote to tension. Not surprisingly, then, the common tendency to hold your breath on a difficult sequence is a prime cause of tension. While it’s okay (and often beneficial) to hold your breath for a single challenging move that requires you to bear down hard, it is common to continue to hold your breath, or breathe unevenly, throughout a series of difficult moves. By being aware of this tendency, however, you can take conscious control of your breathing during stressful times on a route. Strive for slow, deep belly breaths during the moves leading up to a crux, and try to regain steady breathing as you move out of the most difficult moves. This strategy alone will go a long way toward controlling tension as you climb.

Before you start up a route, try to predetermine the location of all rest stances and clipping positions. These spots should offer you the opportunity to take a moment to steady your breathing. Upon reaching one of these spots, close your eyes for a moment and turn your thoughts inward to feel air filling your lungs with each slow breath. As you exhale, visualize the tension exiting your body and feel a renewed sense of being centered. This entire process might only take five to fifteen seconds, but it’s invaluable for regaining an optimal state for attacking the next section of the climb. Make it a habit to steady your breathing at every rest.

2. Keep your thoughts productive and goal-oriented

Doubtful, fearful thinking is an on-sight or redpoint terminator. You simply can’t climb well with the weight of these negative thoughts in tow. Once again, you need to seize every stopping point on a route as an opportunity to tune into your thinking. Is it productive or unproductive in nature? Quickly evaluate any fears to determine if they are legitimate or just phantom fears trying to scare you off the route. In gym climbing, most fears are fraudulent, and if this is indeed the case, you must write them off as illusions and then redirect your attention onto your goal—sending the route!

The popular sports metaphor “keep your eye on the ball” is appropriate here. Resist the tendency to doubt your abilities or ponder the fall potential, and simply narrow your focus onto the next section of climb. It’s best to attack a route one chunk at a time. Concentrate on the moves up to the next rest and forget about what’s below you as well as what’s yet to come above the next chunk. If your only goal is climbing the 6 feet (or whatever) to the next rest position, the burden is greatly reduced and a big cause of tension is erased.

3. View Failures as Part of the Success Process

An important part of emotional control is the ability to deal with failure in a productive way. The natural tendency for many folks is to react to failures with emotional outbursts and a torrent of negative, critical thinking. Of course, such reactive behavior will make future attempts on a climb even more difficult. Not only does this create physical tension, but it also creates an emotional anchor to the climb that will plague future efforts. Even if you return to the route with a clear mind on another day, your subconscious can recall the angst and potentially sabotage your efforts.

While no one likes to fail, it’s important to embrace your failures as opportunities for growth and learning. Every time a route rejects you, it is also offering you a valuable lesson for becoming a better climber. If you simply write off the failure as “not being strong enough,” you miss out on the lesson. Strive to dig deeper and identify the true cause of each failure—is it poor technique, poor strategy, bad sequencing, fear and doubt, or maybe just a lack of “go for it”?

The very best climbers, or peak performers in any field, tend to be uncommonly curious individuals. They are always on the outlook for new information, distinctions, or ideas that will help elevate their game, and they possess an intense curiosity as to why they sometimes fail. By training yourself to respond to failure in a similar way, you will gain some of the personal power of these elite performers. The bottom line: Don’t curse your falls, embrace them! They are guideposts and stepping-stones to the higher grades.



Projecting 101 – 6 Tips to Sending Your Project!

Cameron Hörst sending "FdA" (5.14a), Ten Sleep, WY

Cameron Hörst sending “FdA” (5.14a), Ten Sleep, WY

 For a foaming-at-the-mouth sport climber, nothing beats the feeling of going to work on a sick rig and piecing together a redpoint ascent before the sun sets on another great day at the crags. All too often, however, the project might demand a second day of work—and perhaps many more—to complete. While it’s great to have a long-term “lifetime project” to aspire to, becoming a better climber comes primarily by way of sending routes at or just below your maximum grade. Therefore it’s important to avoid getting sucked into the confidence-killing modus operandi of spending most of your climbing days hanging all over routes that are clearly an overreach at your current ability. Always remember, it’s the act of sending routes that elevates your mental and technical skills and, thus, moves you closer to being able to send that lifetime project!

If you are new to the projecting game, I’ll first layout the basic strategy for effectively working—and sending—the rig! Next, I’ll give you some tips on how to best attack a route that doesn’t go down on the first day; and to conclude we’ll take a philosophical look at dealing with those frustrating long-term projects.

6 Tips for Working and Sending Your Project!

1. Picking the right route is an important first step. To avoid getting bogged down in a long-term fight, pick a route between two letter grades below and one letter grade above your hardest redpoint of the past six months. Avoid picking a route more than one letter grade above your limit, unless you happen onto what you feel is the perfect route to go for a PR send.

2. Chunk down the route into three to five manageable parts defined by the best rest positions. A sustained route with no good rests will need to be worked bolt-to-bolt. Get to work on solving each chunk as a mini-route of its own. The first (and lower) chunks will naturally get the most work, but be sure to wire the final chunk of the route so that there’s no doubt you can send this closing section in a fatigued state—falling off on your way to the anchors is form of self-torture!

3. When you identify the crux sequence or sequences, spend plenty of time sussing out the best moves to surmount the difficulty. Be careful in accepting other folk’s beta as the “best way” to do the crux. Resolve to test out a couple different sequences of your own creation—there’s nothing wrong with climbing up, “taking” or falling, lowering and doing it all over again a bunch of times. Widen your view and search for creative solutions: look for sidepulls, underclings, hand matches, hidden footholds, heel hooks, and unchalked intermediate holds. It’s discovering a new handhold, body position, or foot finesse that often makes an impossible-feeling move possible!

 4. Really dial in the crux sequence to the point that it seems almost automatic. As a rule, you should be able to climb the crux chunk three times without falling before considering it to be redpoint ready. A powerful learning strategy is to identify proprioceptive cues that will guide you through the hardest moves. During your practice burns, focus on the sensations (proprioception from your arms, legs, and torso) of doing the move successfully, and compare these bodily feelings with those of your failed attempts. Noting the physical sensations of doing a move or sequence correctly is a powerful resource to tap when you hit this crux section on your redpoint run.

5. After working through the entire route, including climbing the crux chunk three times, take a thirty- to sixty-minute rest before going for the redpoint. Research shows that consuming a sports drink and engaging in active recovery hastens recovery, so take a mental break from the climb by going for a short walk and sipping a beverage along the way. After ten to fifteen minutes of strolling around, return to the base of the route and engage in some visualization to help preprogram a successful ascent.

6. As you rope up for the redpoint attempt, allow a calm confidence and expectation of success to swell within you. View any nervous feelings as a good sign that your brain is triggering a release of adrenaline to best prepare you for a top-notch physical effort. Finally, nix the fear of failure by pre-accepting a failed outcome should it happen. By accepting that it’s okay to fail—and by likewise believing that success is inevitable given perseverance—you massively increase the odds of success by eliminating the debilitating fear of failure. Now empty your mind, engage the moment, and let a successful redpoint unfold one move at a time.


3 Tips for Working Multi-Day Projects

1. If the project doesn’t go down on day one, you’ll need to determine whether you have it in you to send on day two. Obviously you won’t be as physically fresh in attempting a day-two send, however, your brain often makes up the difference given that the subconscious mind will guide you through the hardest moves more efficiently on day two. It’s for this reason that many tired climbers are often surprised with a miraculous day-two send! Obviously, with a less-than-full gas tank you might only have one or two good goes to give the route. If the send eludes you on day two, then you’ll want to take a couple days or a week off before returning to the scene of this climb.

2. If you have a home wall consider setting a simulator of project’s crux sequence. Work the simulator sequence several times per workout to develop the specific motor programs and strength needed to send the project. Supplement your physical practice with ten to twenty minutes of bedtime visualization—make this mental movie as vivid, detailed, and as bottom-to-top complete as possible.

3. When you return to the project resist the urge to go for the send straight off the bat, and instead climb the route bolt to bolt (or rest to rest) to physically and mentally prepare for a successful ascent. Strive to confirm the proprioceptive cues of successfully executing the crux sequence, and be sure you have the final run to the anchors dialed in tight. Once you’ve worked through the flash-pump stage of getting warmed up, lower to the ground and rest for thirty to forty-five minutes before going for the send.


What To Do When Your Project Becomes a Prison?

Failing on a route for many days—or even weeks—can damage your self-confidence and perhaps even destroy your motivation to climb. When you reach this point—and, ideally, before!—it’s vital that you give the project a rest and shift your focus onto something else for a few weeks. The best way to regain your confidence and invert negative emotions is to send some routes! Dial your expectations back and go climbing for a few days (or weeks) with the only goal being to regain your mojo by sending many routes three or four letter grades below the project grade (if your project is 5.13a, then set out to send a slew of 12a and 12b routes). After a period of absence your heart will grow fonder to the prospect of returning to the project—you will know inside when the time is right.