This piece was first published – in a shortened version – as a guest post on River and Rock.
With 12 years under my belt I should be a pretty good climber. But I have a problem – my head. If there’s one thing that gets in my way time after time, it’s my own brain freaking out when there’s no reason to. I went from leading 6c+, to backing off 5s, to now being able to work 7a moves (on toprope) on very exposed routes. As you get older the way you climb changes, but I’m determined to make that change a positive one. I’ve learned how to get my head in the right place so my body can do what it does best – climb. And I’m sharing my tips with you.
It seems obvious, but seriously, try to relax. A stressed mind causes a stressed body, and a stressed body is a nightmare on the rock. It’s a vicious circle – you’re stressed, so you get pumped, so you stress more feeling like you’re going to fall off. Find a way to calm your mind in everyday life, and this will move into your climbing life. I’ve started Body Balance classes – a combination of Thai chi, yoga, and Pilates. Initially this was to help strengthen a bad back, but it also allows me to let go of mental tension – it’s not necessarily meditation, it’s just about allowing your mind to switch off and consciously relieving tension. Plus the class ends with 7 minutes of literal relaxation, where you just lie on the floor in a dark room while twinkly music plays and a soothing voice tells you to stop clenching your jaw. Sounds bizarre, but it works.
I mean this in the most literal sense. Do not stop breathing! I have a tendency to climb too fast and hold my breath, which isn’t conducive with good climbing. Slow down your movements and remember to keep your breathing regular. This will encourage oxygen to your muscles, helping to reduce pump, and allowing you to think more clearly about what you’re doing. Reading Natalie Berry’s tips for de-pumping made me realise I climb in a completely inefficient way – every step was the opposite of how I move naturally. However she has some real wisdom in there, so do check it out for additional insight!
Focusing on each move rather than the end result can do wonders. I was getting hung up on the fact that halfway up a climb was a move that looked horrible and scary and I don’t think I should even try because I don’t like dynamic moves and what if I fall and even if I do make that move there might be something worse higher up and and and… see the problem? Focus on the first few moves. Then the next few. Each will flow into the other and before you know it you’ve used mental momentum to get passed that ‘horrific dyno’ and onto easy ground. A few weeks ago I was climbing on Portland, and faced two exposed arêtes. Not my style of climbing at all – they required technical skill, balance, coordination, and a clear head in the face of quite gusty wind. My tendency is to pull hard and use my (not-inconsiderable) strength to haul myself up. But there were clear sections. I just focused on each part – broken up by wonderful ledges – and managed to get up both of them clean, with no fuss or faff, and with a great sense of satisfaction.
Cut yourself some slack
My final word is this – let yourself have your moment. It’s not the end of the world if you have an epic on that juggy 5+. If your head’s telling you to back off, maybe listen to give yourself a chance to evaluate why it’s told you to do that. Everyone has off days, weeks, months. I’ve had about 3 off years if I’m completely honest with myself. And do you know what? It’s okay. I’ve stopped focusing on the negative, on the fact that “I used to do this…” or “5 years ago that would’ve been easy”. For whatever reason, it’s not easy anymore, so it’s time to start again and probably develop some better technique as I go along. No-one’s going to know your journey but you (unless you tell them), so cut yourself some slack, and remember that climbing should be enjoyable. Unless you’re in it to win some big competitions, as long as you’re having fun, you’re doing alright.