09 Jun Mind over Matter
I’ve been thinking about this post for over two months now, so please forgive me for backtracking a little bit here. But, long before the Epic Road Trip happened, I went climbing locally with a friend and found a 5.13 I wanted to try. As I was sizing it up, my friend mentioned that the route shared anchors with an 11a. I thought it would be nice to work the moves on the 13 without worrying about clipping or whipping, so I decided to climb the 11a and set up a top rope.
11a is generally a mellow grade for me, so I started the climb feeling confident. I was only a few bolts up however, when I began to falter, getting tired out by a series of technical overhung sequences. I wasn’t too worried though; I figured this was simply the crux and a good rest would be coming up soon. Oddly, that rest never came and the route never really eased up. I continued to push through, struggling, but confident in my ability to send a route of this grade. When I reached the anchors I called down to my friend, “Wow, that was the hardest 11a I’ve ever done!”
“Yeah, that was an 11d” she shouted back, “Sorry I read the book wrong! But I knew you could do it!” I was pretty shocked. Not because of the grade, which actually made sense, but by the fact that I had onsighted the route. 11d is getting closer to my red point grade and its rare for me to onsight at that level. My friend might have known I could do it, but had I known the route was an 11d, I’m almost certain that I wouldn’t have done it! I would have doubted myself. I would have been nervous about falling. I would have hung at a bolt when I started getting tired. Instead, I was so confident in my ability to send the route, that I simply sent it!
The following week, on my trip out to Red Rocks, a similar incident occurred. I was stuck at a tricky section on a route, getting tired and sure I would fall. I wanted to take, but I had so many friends cheering me on and telling me I could do it, that it gave me the confidence to keep going. It turns out they were right; I could do it! I didn’t fall, and I got a 5.12a onsight!
It’s funny, because on the other side of either of these scenarios, I know I too would have been on the ground cheering and believing 100% that my friend could send a route. So why then, when I’m on the wall, do I have the opposite reaction? Why do I hold back and question my abilities? I think the answer is simply fear. As with many climbers, I’m definitely still nervous about taking those big falls and I still have moments where I doubt my gear and worry about getting injured. But there is another type of fear that comes into play as well; the fear of failure.
Sometimes I get so nervous about not living up to the expectations that I’ve placed on myself, or the perceived expectations of others, that it nearly paralyzes me. I’m afraid to let myself down and prove that I wasn’t good enough. This makes it easier sometimes, just to quit by choice, rather then risk failure and the frustration and judgement that might come along with it.
Again, it’s funny, because on the other side of the situation, if a friend told me that they suffered from these types of fears, I know exactly what my response would be. I would tell them to trust their gear and their belayer. I would tell them it’s okay to fall, that there is no failure in the attempt. And I would reassure them that there is absolutely no judgement from anyone on the ground – other than thinking they’re pretty awesome!
So even though I logically realize these things, it can be hard to put it into practice for myself. But the two back to back incidents I mentioned above, really made me think about my reactions and ever since, I’ve been trying to climb with more awareness of what’s happening in my mind.
What would happen if I cheered for myself the way I did for my friends? What would I accomplish if I risked my ego a little more and didn’t run from failure? What could I do if I doubted less, pushed through fear, and believed in myself a little more?
I went to Bishop soon after that Red Rocks trip and really tried to put this mindset into practice. The first test came while bouldering in the Sads, when I spotted a striking V5 highball line that I just had to try! It was a beautiful, slightly overhung problem on a little plateau overlooking the sierras. It was an obvious jug haul at the bottom, meaning the crux would be at the very top. This was unlike any highball I’d done yet, the others all having low to mid height crux’s.
My first few attempts I stopped just below the crux, frozen when those same old doubts and fears cropped up again. I was worried about falling from the top, and I was nervous that if I did fall it would mean something. What did it say about me as a climber if I couldn’t do this V5?! Something that should be well within my abilities. There was a moment there when I very nearly gave up. Instead, I paused and forced myself to assess the situation and my own thoughts. Was I safe? Yes. I had plenty of pads and spotters, along with a flat landing zone. A fall from the top would most likely be without incident. And what did falling mean? Well, nothing really. Sending or not sending the problem was arbitrary, it changed nothing about who I was and how strong I was.
All that mattered was that I had found a problem that inspired me, and I should go for it!
It sounds really silly but I snuck behind a rock then and changed into another top I happened to have brought with me, one that made me feel kind of like a bad ass. Then I marched back to the route and rather loudly started giving directions to my spotters. placing them in the exact positions that made me feel most comfortable in case of a fall. “I’m going for it this time. I need you to stand here. I’m pretty sure I’m going to send it, but if I don’t I’ll be falling from the top so you need to be ready.”
Funny how just verbalizing my intentions and pretending I believed in myself started to change the way I was thinking. I felt more focused, more positive, and more confident that I actually could do it. Believing that made all the difference in the world! I climbed through the jugs, committed to the crux, stuck it, and topped out. It felt fantastic!
Things only got better later that afternoon when we returned to our campsite, which happened to be on a long, high ridge above the bouldering sites. The wind was coming in perfectly straight and smooth and I was almost certain the ridge would be soarable. I wanted to fly, but being the only pilot, especially at an unfamiliar site is always a bit nerve wracking to me and often causes me to doubt my abilities and my judgement. But the truth is, I am a good pilot. I am smart and conservative, and I know the variables to take into account. Again, I made myself talk it out, considering such things as wind direction and speed, possible areas of turbulence, bail out LZs, air space restrictions, etc. I determined that the conditions were very favorable and announced to my friends that I intended to fly. In the end, the flight was awesome! I was able to bank up high above the ridge, soar all the way over the boulders we had climbed earlier, and then land right back at our campsite before dinner. It was such an incredible day of accomplishments and definitely motivated to keep pushing through those mental barriers.
It hasn’t all been perfect since then; I bailed on leading a 12a just a few weeks ago, I recently walked away from a new set at the bouldering gym because I was scared of embarrassing myself in front of all the burly guys, and I didn’t launch on a perfectly soarable day. But I’ve also jumped on problems I never would have tried otherwise, including a V10 in Bishop, I’ve increased my climbing grade at the gym by putting myself on harder problems, and I’ve battled high winds on my glider and won!
I know I’m going to struggle with doubt and fear continually, but I think I’m also starting to realize that as long as you’re being safe, there’s really something to be said about just going for it. It might be scary and you might fail. But in allowing yourself the chance to fail, you also must might succeed. And it will be awesome!