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.