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The Path To Enlightenment: How To Enjoy Climbing More

At some point in your climbing path–no matter who you are–you’ll likely become entangled in the trap of endless expectation, peer comparison, and the insidious need to always get better. Here’s how to overcome that and actually enjoy climbing again.

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Somewhere along the way for Andrea Brennen—a dedicated climber who has spent decades sharpening her craft—climbing started to feel like work. Today, with the help of a sports psychologist, Andrea is working on reconnecting with a time when climbing was simple and free. How do we go on enjoying the sport like we did when we started while also pushing ourselves? Through an interview with Andrea Brennen and her work with Mindset sports psychologist, Christina Heilman (PhD, ATC, CSCS), we’ll explore the answers to those questions.

***

As I steadily plod along the six-hour drive down highway 395 from Sacramento to Bishop, I blankly stare at the unraveling pavement ahead while daydreaming about bouldering in the Buttermilks. 

I imagine myself climbing with confidence and control above the pads, breathing well, placing my feet with precision, and just being in one of the coolest places on Earth. Most of all, I’m excited to get back on a project that deep down I don’t know if I’ll ever climb. As a Boston-born New Englander myself–only recently transplanted to California–being able to climb “locally” at places like Tahoe, Yosemite, and Bishop still feels surreal. Simply walking through these zones is like wandering through my teenage dreams.

After parking in the main lot, I step out of my car and begin organizing gear for the session. Within two minutes, someone I know approaches me and presents himself with the usual pleasantries before our conversation inevitably funnels itself into the all-important question: 

“Whatcha’ gettin’ on today?” he asks, brimming with swagger.  

Before I could come up with an answer that veiled my true intent, which was to wander, stalk nature, and put another several hours into a project that was meaningful only to me, this person began to tell me what they had done that day. 

“I sent a V7, two V8’s, day-flashed a V9, and got really close on a V10,” he says, crossing his arms and raising his eye-brows. “I think I’m definitely the strongest I’ve ever been right now.” 

I think to myself: That’s rad. But what the fuck is a day-flash? Am I too old for bouldering? How come people always want to tell me their tick-lists while I’m booting up? And honestly, why do climbers often feel the need to flex on one another? 

I suddenly felt competitive. I wanted to tell him my proudest send of the year to prove that I’m just as good, or better. Maybe I should just drive back home and work on disappearing. Ridiculous for me to think that, right? I kept quiet and remained focused on the task at hand: Be grateful, go climbing, and enjoy every second.

“I want to get back to a place where climbing feels really fun. Sometimes I need to remind myself that I don’t have to make every day about expanding my tick-list so that I can go home and tell the people what I did on my trip.

Climbers jockeying for position over one another is nothing new. Unless you live like a monk somewhere in a cave without a phone and interact with absolutely no one–a vision I often consider for my future self—it’s nearly impossible to avoid the unsolicited barrage of other people’s climbing programs. 

In The Rock Warrior’s Way, Arno Igner writes that “our performance is greatly affected by the subconscious, hidden parts of our minds.” He believes that our unconscious is our habitual system of beliefs and motivation. Humanity’s early days of learning through socialization has determined much of the mental structure that impacts our potential. Given this innate inclination to seek out and share information, it’s no wonder that modern day climbing culture can sometimes pose a threat to the purity of one’s individual pursuit. 

As illustrated by this glorious occasion in Bishop, our environment can greatly influence what we think climbing should be. Moments like that can tend to make us–or at least me–a slave to externally derived influences, rather than being the master of my own internal mental environment. 

This behavior often derives from “a deep unconscious attempt to align ourselves with people we admire or to get others to like or admire us,” writes Igner. He implies that our ego and self-image can force us into using an “external value system” for measuring our climbing experience. Consequently, we see ourselves as either better or worse than others based on how hard we climb. 

We have been conditioned to believe that great accomplishments somehow make us more valuable. If I climb 5.10 and you climb 5.11, you are better than me, and therefore, more valuable. This logic, while clearly flawed, pervades the unspoken social hierarchy of many rock climbers. As a result, our self-worth becomes tied to our performance. 

Where am I going with all of this mumbo-jumbo? While I agree that having goals and working hard to achieve them is an admirable and important part of life, judging your climbing experience based solely on the completion of goals can be damaging to one’s overall ability to climb harder and better. More importantly, this type of linear thinking can make it exponentially harder to enjoy the sport itself. 

I’m not a pro-climber. Not even close. I’m a random scaler that tries hard outside and fails often. But I take it very seriously on the inside even though I know rock climbing is nothing more than a recreational activity. Despite this awareness, climbing still has a strange way of plaguing my mental health. When I’m sending, I feel good about myself. When I’m not, I want to crawl under a rock and hibernate until my self-image recuperates. 

Whether in the gym or outside, it seems to me that the emerging climbing culture is fixated on performance and comparison to others more than ever before, as if the only metric in the sport is represented by sending, improving, and getting stronger. 

In the following, I’d like to explore Andrea’s reckoning with one of the most common burdens of many long-time climbers. While pursuing our limits can feel especially meaningful, it can also make you want to quit. 

Back to the Basics:

Andrea Brennen at Lone Rock Point, Vermont. Photo: Andy Salo.

“You’re working with a mental coach? Is that to help you send?” asked Peter Kamitses, an East Coast crusher who has climbed nearly fifty 5.14’s. 

Most people think that seeing a sports psychologist is just about overcoming performance anxiety. Do you psych yourself out bro? Do you totally freak out before the send go? Just chillllll. This is not Andrea’s issue. In actuality, the crux for her is about her relationship with the sport itself. 

“At some point, climbing started feeling like work,” says Andrea, the sort of climber who has no problem overcoming nerves to execute and finish projects when opportunity knocks. “Not all the time, but most of the time. I just want to get back to that point where I love it again.” 

Like many people who have made climbing a priority in their life for decades, reconnecting with the original joy–that first chapter of the climbing story where you are oblivious to expectations and goals–can be a particularly daunting task.

The Learning Phase:

“I loved climbing right away, but I also knew that I wanted to get better at it,” Andrea explains to me about her first experience climbing at Smith Rock. She climbed a 5.7 crack and thought it was the coolest thing ever.  

“I definitely had this sense from the very beginning that climbing would be more fun and that I would be able to climb in more areas once I got better. Even then I loved that climbing is always a challenge. As you get better, it doesn’t get less challenging. Because as you develop more skills, you just get on harder climbs. So it’s always as hard as you want it to be. That’s something that I’ve always really liked about climbing.”

The Shiftiness of Improvement:

“We all start at different points. We all have different motivations. We care about climbing for different reasons. And we put different amounts of energy into it. But then we all measure ourselves on the same grading scale. And it’s hard not to compare yourself with other people. I’ve been lucky enough to climb with really supportive, great people who are much better than me and I’ve learned a lot that way.” 

But climbing exclusively with people who are much stronger can be rough. 

“I don’t know why sometimes it bothers me now when it didn’t used to bother me.”

Speaking from experience myself, being the weakest amongst a group of elite climbers doesn’t exactly do wonders for your confidence and growth. Like a small tree reaching for the sun amongst a grove of towering sequoias, the chances of that little tree finding its groove are diminished by the shadow of its neighbors. 

“Lately, I’ve been struggling with this idea of always wanting to get better. I just want to make sure that I’m enjoying climbing the way I did when I first started. I just loved it. I was obsessed. But at some point, it started feeling like work,” she says. 

“I want to get back to a place where climbing feels really fun. Sometimes I need to remind myself that I don’t have to make every day about expanding my tick-list so that I can go home and tell the people what I did on my trip. When I feel psyched and I want to try to send a route for myself, then I’ll try to send it. But if I just want to climb easy stuff all day, that’s okay too.”

“I’m realizing that external motivation—like wanting to tell people what I’ve done—isn’t good for me. I want to reach my goals, but I have to make sure I’m not thinking about other people when I set those goals. Because even when I achieve them, I feel shitty. It doesn’t actually make me feel good to go back to the gym and tell people about what I’ve accomplished, if I didn’t really care about the goal in the first place.”

“I just have to focus on doing what feels good that day. To do the climbs that I’m really psyched to climb for whatever reason. Sometimes that means getting on a hard project that I’m trying to send. But sometimes I just want to be up really high because it’s fun.” 

Of course, no matter how much intent we put into maintaining a fluid, balanced headspace, the tantalizing arms of progression are never too far from reach. 

“It feels good to make progress, but progressing doesn’t always have to be about higher grades. Sending a hard route gives you a good story. But I’m trying to remind myself that I’m climbing for me. If I don’t end up with a story that sounds impressive, then who cares? At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter. But it’s so easy to get caught up in this mindset—of measuring my progress based on what other people are doing.”

We’ve all heard dialogues like this before: Oh, you didn’t send that route? Dan did it in four tries. Said it was soft. Maybe you weren’t using the right beta?

“I just want to try to tune all of that stuff out. I wish I didn’t care, but it’s easy for me to get caught up in it. I’ve been climbing for long enough that I feel like I should be good, whatever that means. I feel like I should be an accomplished climber because I’ve devoted so much of my life to climbing.”

The Art of Feeling like a “Good Climber”:

Andrea Brennen in Rumney, New Hampshire. (Photo: Lee Hansche)

“I’m not a beginner anymore and the rate at which I’m getting better has slowed quite a bit. When it seems like everybody I know climbs 5.14 or 5.15—and I’m the only person who can’t do the climbs at an area we go to—it’s easy for me to feel like I’m not good enough.”

It’s true, climbing with people that are stronger than you all the time can be motivating and equally frustrating. Hey there buddy, mind if I warm-up on your project while you question your existence? I feel like I do my best when I’m not in competition with those around me, but just in competition with myself. 

“I think, really, it’s just an ego thing—I have to accept that there is this pursuit that I’ve taken seriously and put a lot of time and effort into, and I’ve gotten to where I am. Maybe I’ll continue to get better, but I don’t know how much better I’m really going to get. I guess I no longer feel like there’s a limitless potential in terms of my climbing progress. I’m not saying that I can’t get better, but it requires a lot of effort for me now just to maintain where I’m at, let alone get better.”

This is a dialogue many of us devoted climbers have heard playing in our heads on repeat for years. If getting better gets harder the deeper you go into the sport as you gradually approach the ever-steepening exponential curve of improvement, then what are we left with? What are we really seeking? What does “getting better” mean outside of sending hard?

Identifying the Ideal Climbing Day:

As Andrea and I fall deeper into our conversational rabbit hole, her voice suddenly becomes steadier and more assertive. 

“One thing I learned from Chris is that people tend to fall into one of two groups. Either they’re goal-oriented, or they’re task-oriented,” Andrea tells me, reminding me that the following points are derived from Chris’ extensive research, which means that Andrea’s experience, including my own current skepticisms towards climbing, are not only felt by us. 

“Task-oriented people are motivated by how they feel doing something or by developing a sense of mastery over a task. Your subjective experience in-the-moment is very important,” she says. “As opposed to someone who is more goal-oriented, and motivated more by extrinsic factors.” For example, someone might be motivated by sending a V13 strictly based on the gratification of attaining that number while another may be fixated on finding a flow-state regardless of the grade. 

“When you take task-oriented people and you put them in a very goal-oriented environment, they often experience plummeting motivation. And I think this is part of what’s been going on for me lately. I spend a lot of time around people who talk a lot about the goals that motivate them. And that’s great. There’s nothing wrong with being motivated by external factors. It just isn’t always what I need.” 

But how does one identify what type of experience suits them best? Chris helped Andrea ask some of the most important questions to this whole puzzle: What do I want to get out of climbing? What is it that I enjoyed the most back in the day? When I think of my best climbing day, what do I think about? 

“Talking to Chris, it became really clear to me that my best days climbing are not necessarily the days that I send a project. For me, the great days of climbing are when I feel really in tune with what I’m doing. I just love the feeling of being so focused on what I’m climbing—feeling connected to my body, finding that flow experience—that I forget about everything else. I also love being at the crag with a great crew of people, where it’s just good energy and people are supporting each other.”

Of course, it’s not all just woo-woo-hippy-dippy-fun-loving sunshine in my eyes, spirituality man. “I also do like the feeling of getting better. That has always been important to me.” 

Finding that happy place between incessantly scratching for improvement and allowing yourself to feel satisfied with progress can be tricky when your personal climbing experiences are plugged into the inherently comparative realm of your peers. 

Social Environment, External Motivators, and Climbing’s Social Hierarchy:

Brennen, in Lone Rock Point, Vermont. (Photo: Andy Salo)

“I’ve realized that when I’m in an environment where everyone around me is focused on very concrete, specific goals, it’s easy for me to get wrapped up in that mentality and internalize their goals. But that’s just not good for me. Either I don’t achieve those goals and then I feel bad about myself, or I do achieve those goals and then I don’t really care … because that’s not what motivates me,” Andrea says. “Sometimes I feel a lot of pressure to do a route because I got on it or because I said I was going to do it. So then I’ll just climb on the route until I send it, even if I don’t enjoy the climbing at all.”

The funny part about this is that nobody is forcing us to rage on our projects. It’s all in our minds. And Andrea knows this. 

“So many conversations that climbers have about climbing are focused on grades. People want to know what you did. And it often feels like they’re just asking you because they want to know how they compare. They’re trying to suss out their position in the climbing hierarchy.” 

Climbing Shouldn’t Feel Like Work:

So how do we tune out all this noise? 

“I don’t have to send this route. No one cares. I don’t even care. Why am I making it feel like work when there’s no reason? It comes down to my own self-talk.”

These days, when Andrea is being negative because she feels like she’s not living up to “some arbitrary goal that came out of nowhere,” she notices what she’s doing and then tries to remind herself, “Okay, why am I doing this? What do I actually care about right now?”

“I remember I’m going after this feeling that I enjoy, which is feeling strong and feeling confident climbing and feeling connected to my body,” she says. “I try to stay focused on that. And not put so much pressure on myself to meet some specific grade. I’m not saying everyone should do this. Tons of people are motivated by grades and I have been very motivated by climbing specific grades at different points in my climbing. But right now I’m just trying to chase enjoyment because I think that’s healthier for me.

“I’ve been trying to not force myself to climb when I don’t want to climb, which sounds kind of silly. But there used to be a lot of days where I would go to the gym to train even though I didn’t want to climb.” Andrea wouldn’t leave because she felt like if she did, she would get worse. Chris helped her to realize that these thoughts are a wee-bit crazy. “Now, I’m trying to listen to my body a little bit more.”

For example, one beautiful day she was climbing in the Red River Gorge at the Motherlode. But she didn’t feel good. So she did her warm-up and left. “I didn’t want to get on my project. I just came home instead. I don’t think I would have done that a year ago. I would have forced myself to get on the project anyway. Maybe that’s what makes climbing feel like work sometimes. When I just constantly put this pressure on myself to send and to try to get better. When I let go of that a little bit, I enjoy climbing a lot more.”

Sending is the best, but it can’t be the only goal because completing a climb near your limit happens on days that are few and far between—at least for mortals like myself. 

Igner writes, “The Higher Self isn’t as competitive, defensive, or conniving, as the ego is. The Higher Self derives self-worth not from comparison with others, but from an internal focus that is based on valuing growth and learning.”

With the initial chapter of her climbing story in mindgrowth and learningAndrea is working on optimizing her experience around what she truly loves about climbing. Being outside. Being up high. Challenging herself. Doing things that are hard for her. Chasing moments of mastery. And tuning out the noise. 

“I’m taking way more rest days because on the days that I don’t feel like climbing, I just don’t climb. And I’ve had a great season. I’ve been climbing harder 5.12’s much faster. And the days when I do climb, I really want to be there. It’s way more fun.”

***

Despite my horrid interaction with the stranger, that day in Bishop ended up being great. I chilled out. I realized how lucky I was to be there and had one of the most memorable sessions of my life. Maybe that’s our problem: serious climbers needn’t be so serious. And maybe I should be less judgmental and more curious. 

When I got home a few days later, I was reading on Climbing about Marc-André Leclerc. Despite his world-class, solo-alpine climbing super prowess during the time that he shined before his tragic death, his pursuit in the mountains always remained true to nature and the experience; never about records and fame. 

“More and more, climbing is where I escape and live in this beautiful place,” Leclerc wrote. “Even if it’s just for a few days, where I explore and climb and just be there.”

It’s certainly easier said than done—not being petty and worrying about grades and comparisons and sendage—but it might be a solid strategy towards fulfillment and overall enjoyment as we move further along our individual climbing paths. 

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