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Breathe Easier: Mental Tacks to Get Through Tough Climbs

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Notoriously sandbagged routes are intimidating. They can cause anxiety and lead to disappointment if you don’t redpoint the grade you’re used to completing easily. Arno Ilgner, author of The Rock Warrior’s Way, says the first step to combatting anxiety when faced with a sandbag is to forget the grade. “Move your perspective to where the grade of the climb isn’t an issue,” he says. “When you do that, no problem or anxiety will exist.” Instead, focus on the route’s movement, protection and rest opportunities, and the consequence of the fall zones.

A “no-fall zone” is an area where taking a whipper could not only do physical harm, but also scare the crap out of you, thus diminishing the quality of your climbing. A “yes-fall zone” is one where you have experience coming off climbs like the one you’re attempting. Focus on identifying the fall consequences and determining the appropriate risk rather than the pure difficulty of the route. Guidebooks and topo maps are helpful in assessing those fall zones. If you identify a no-fall zone, it’s important to know where your resting stances are below that zone, and use them to slow your breathing, collect yourself, and calm your heart rate. (Visualization can also help get through tough sections; scroll down for more on this method.)

At the base


Before getting off the ground, ask yourself these questions:

  1. How does the climb protect?

  2. How frequently can you place gear or clip bolts?

  3. What’s the quality of that protection?

  4. What are your fall consequences?

On the climb

Once you’ve assessed the situation, pick out “decision points” where you’ll rest, place gear, or look ahead to the next section of the climb. It’s important to take the climb one section at a time, instead of looking forward to the top the whole time. “Anxiety comes from letting your attention shift into the future, into the unknown,” Ilgner says. “And it happens to all of us. Just recognize it when it occurs, and redirect your attention to the current task.”

Don’t let anxiety compromise the quality of your climb. Once you start climbing, simply focus on how you’re engaging your body—what you’re grabbing or jamming, and what you’re stepping on—your breathing, and calmly clipping or placing a piece of pro when you reach those spots.

When you reach a resting stance, Ilgner recommends breathing slowly and deeply through the mouth to collect and recover. Emphasize belly breathing; this will allow more oxygen to flow in, and more carbon dioxide to leave your body. Lower your heels, loosen your grip, and hang on straight arms—this will all help you relax.

Once your heart rate lowers, that’s the right time to look ahead for what’s next—where you’ll stop again, where the next protection opportunity is, and what the next section’s fall consequences are like. Taking the route section by section will help thwart that anxiety from building up again. Ilgner says once you take the grade out of the equation, it becomes a non-issue.

“Climbers tend not to climb routes not knowing the grade,” he says. “With a first ascent, we don’t know the grade; rather, we’re thinking about how the climb protects and where we might fall.” Take into account this same mindset when climbing something sandbagged: “Look for climbs that appeal to you and protect in a way that allow for yes-fall zones. Personalize it instead of taking a route out of a guidebook with a certain label of difficulty that someone else objectively put on it.”

See Success: How visualization leads to redpointing

The elation of sending a sandbagged route is a great joy in climbing—as much for the physical accomplishment as for the mental hurdles you encounter along the way. Hard routes can be stressful, and that is a double-edged sword: It can drive your motivation by fueling your adrenaline when facing a challenge. Conversely, it can lead to discouragement and lack of confidence on a route you’ve trained for and have set as a redpoint goal.

Escape mental pitfalls that negatively impact physical performance through visualization training, a process of imagining yourself climbing a route as you hope to. It involves vivid imagery of all your senses throughout the activity; essentially, it’s like watching yourself executing the moves before you lay your hands on the rock. This concept is used across the board in all sports and vigorously studied by experts. “Visualization works by priming the body to perform,” says Dr. Mark Aoyagi, director of sport and performance psychology at the University of Denver. For example, experts have monitored alpine skiers both while skiing a course and while visualizing skiing the same course. The result: Their nervous systems and muscles activated in the exact same patterns throughout both practices. Visualization helps athletes feel prepared and confident to perform the motor tasks involved in the actual challenge before them.

Dr. Doug Jowdy, counseling and sport psychologist, agrees that boosting confidence is as essential to overcoming anxiety as water is to putting out a fire; the two are strongly linked as mental opposites. “We almost always find that when athletes are anxious, their confidence is low, because they don’t believe they have what it takes to accomplish the challenge in front of them,” he says. Climbers can build their confidence by using visualization training to mentally practice the skills they need to succeed. “It’s [like] going to the gym in your mind,” Jowdy says. “It’s another way to rehearse physical skills.” This mental walk-through leaves patterns engraved in your brain cells, so it feels like you’ve already actually climbed that route.

You can practice visualization at home or at the crag. Sit somewhere quiet with your eyes closed. Picture the route in your mind, and rehearse each move until you have the climb mastered. (It can help to keep a written or audio diary of the beta for this so you don’t forget any crucial moves.) “Imagine your hands on the rock, the chalk on your hands, the sun on your back, and the tension in your legs and arms,” Jowdy says.

Visualization is a type of meditation. Meditating activates certain regions of your brain that oversee an array of emotions and their physical manifestations (worry and fear leading to an increased heart rate, for example). Visualization relaxes you, which decreases anxiety. The next time you’re faced with a difficult climb, take a few minutes to visualize the route before you chalk up.

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