Climbing makes me nervous. Not in the “Oh, that doesn’t look safe, I don’t like you doing that” way my mom gets nervous about it, but more along the lines of stomach-churning, palms-sweating performance anxiety. I’ve been climbing for a pretty long time, long enough that I feel like I shouldn’t still get so freaking nervous when I’m going for the send. When I played soccer, the more preparation and pre-game effort I put in, the less nervous and anxious I would be before the big moment. Of course I would still have some game-time jitters, but I could always remind myself, “Hey, this is exactly what you trained for, get psyched!” As soon that ball was centered in the middle of the field, I felt focused and ready to go. The problem with climbing—for me at least—is that no matter how much I’ve trained, it’s completely random and unpredictable as to how I’m going to feel and how I’m going to perform.
My good friend Paul and I went climbing the other day with my mini-project in Boulder Canyon on my mind. We were out for just a few hours in the middle of the afternoon; I had morning errands and he had something to do late in the day so it was going to be a quick mission. It was the first really nice Saturday in Boulder, sunny and 70, slightly cooler in the canyon, not a cloud in the sky. It was one of those days where that delightful Boulder Canyon granite was perfectly dry and sticky, and felt blissful under my hands, especially after fondling a lot of plastic in recent months. The route I was aiming for was Free Fall, a short 5.12a (online haters downgrade all you want, I’m still calling it 5.12a) with a super-fun bouldery crux right in the middle. The line was completely within my abilities, and the only reason I hadn’t sent is that I just hadn’t sent. Every time I had been up to climb the route, it was after work or whenever I had some other sort of time constraint (like this particular session). I never chose this spot for a full day of cragging because I had done everything I wanted to do there over past visits. Except Free Fall.
I had some kind of weird hang-up about this route, to the point where thinking about it the few hours before we actually went up there made my palms sweat and my heart race. Maybe it was the crux’s big dynamic move followed by a campusing hand-match that I had to do without my feet. Or maybe it was the fact that the bolt protecting the crux is in an awkward place, so it’s easier not to clip it and just take the whip, which is a bit intimidating because with the angle of the ground below, it feels like you’re only about 10 feet above the deck with five feet of slack out…. (Read first ascensionist Richard Rossiter’s awesome story about why the bolt is placed there and how Free Fall got its name here.) Or maybe it was the fact that I knew 100% without a doubt that I was physically capable of sending this route, and the only thing standing in my way was my own dumb head. Whatever it was, I hadn’t sent yet, and it was looming over me. I hung the draws to warm up, and the crux felt ridiculously easy, so easy that I said to myself with more than just a touch of sarcasm, “Remind me again WHY you haven’t sent this yet?” I rested for a while, and as my friend and I sat underneath the route, he asked me, “On a scale of 1 to 10, what’s your psych level?” My response was, “Eh, about a 6.” He replied, “OK, well I need you at an 8.” (Keep in mind this is the person that likes a headbutt in the stomach before pulling onto a hard route, and he suggests them for other people as well—needless to say, he’s a freaking great climbing partner.) As my head fluttered and my stomach reeled from nerves, I said, “Well if I could just throw up, I would definitely be psyched!”
I’ve actually heard about super-strong climbers yacking right before big sends, so if it works for them, why can’t it work for me? But why was I so nervous in the first place? I’ve been climbing long enough to know that I was gonna walk out of there that day—having sent or not—and it wouldn’t mean a whole lot. I had left without the send of that exact route several times before, and nothing had drastically changed, the apocalypse didn’t start, and it didn’t mean I was weak, incapable, or not a good climber. I just...failed. Have you ever heard the saying “last day best day” in reference to climbing trips? I take that to heart, and if I haven’t already sent a project on a trip, I like to give it one more solid session on the day we leave. A few times I have actually completed the climb, getting in the car for the ride home buzzing and elated from capping off an already-great trip with one last personal success.
However, a more common scenario is me NOT sending, and the funny thing is that I still get in the car completely satisfied and happy that not only did I try my best and put in the effort, but I also just got to go on an unbelievably cool and fun climbing trip. The only pressure I ever feel is completely self-imposed, so if I can put pressure on myself to succeed, can’t I just as easily flip the switch and remove that pressure and the resulting anxiety? So here I was, with all my knowledge and experience of failing and succeeding, and my stomach was still doing backflips in between dancing the two-step on top of my intestines.
As I pulled on and did the first few easy moves, my nerves slowly gave way to my brain focusing in on the task at hand, willing my body to do the same. When I got to the crux, I pulled the campus move pretty effortlessly, without even thinking about it, and I was able to send. Obviously I was overjoyed, but mostly just so I didn’t have to go back up there for a really long time if I didn’t want. I rode the high of finally sending my mini-project for a day or two afterward, but the thought that’s been floating in the back of my mind since I clipped the chains that Saturday is “What’s next?” A few days ago, I found another project in the canyon: Jolt Cola (5.12a). I did all the moves on toprope my first time on it, but the second go (also on TR), I was back to the cycle of sweaty heart-palpitation nervousness. What is up with that? I get that the nerves and buildup are all part of the fun, but that doesn’t mean I like it! Rock climbing is inherently scary, so duh, we're going to get nervous. Rock climbing is also very hard, so duh, we're going to fail. Since this seems to be a never-ending cycle for some of us (ahem, me), let me pose a question to y’all, because I can use all the help I can get. How do YOU deal with pre-sending nerves?
Follow Editor at Large Julie Ellison on Instagram: @joolyhart.