Escaping Tunnel Vision: How to Fight Climbing Blinders

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A few years back, I found myself seven pitches up a stunning, vertical 5.12 on some of South Africa’s most pristine sandstone. My husband, Arjan, and I had hiked 3 hours uphill, starting from our driveway, for this 10 pitch excursion. We swapped leads, and as I moved up the pitch, the holds became smaller and I felt like a fish out of water following Arjan.

I find toproping scary. I consider the lead rope below me as a sort of “safety net”, and what good is a safety net when it’s above you? I know it’s irrational, but feeling the rope stretch as I bounce off the wall freaks me out, never mind the inability to pull back up the rope to get back to my falling point. As I climbed up, I felt slightly pumped and not wanting to fall, I panicked. Suddenly I was grasping for imagined holds while unnecessarily swapping my feet back and forth. I struggled to find a sequence, lost my composure and flailed for a few minutes. I wore myself out before falling into the dreaded rope stretch abyss.

Moments later, with renewed clarity, I found a giant foothold at knee height. My little frenzy brought turbulence to an otherwise calm situation, preventing me from utilizing obvious resources. Tunnel vision strikes when we’re out of our comfort zones.

Think back to a moment when fear, uncertainty, or pressure prevented you from climbing your best. Perhaps you missed a jug right in front of you during your first lead in the gym. Maybe nerves caused a blip in memory, and when you finally reached the crux of your project from the ground, you lost all recollection of the beta you’d so carefully rehearsed. You end up bumbling around aimlessly while wasting energy. I’m afraid you’re suffering from a case of tunnel vision.

The author, outside of her comfort zone while following a pitch in South Africa.

The author, outside of her comfort zone while following a pitch in South Africa.

It’s not only fear that can cause tunnel vision. Pressure to perform can trigger an onset as well. When the stakes are high, we’re prone to blow it. Are you attempting your most difficult onsight? Are you giving a Hail Mary burn on the last day of your trip? Did you finally make it through the crux of your 40-meter project but know you must keep it together for the moderate outro climbing? Are you trying to impress a cute girl in the gym with your mad bouldering skills? The larger the perceived consequence, the more our nerves kick in. And a nervous climber rarely performs their best when stricken with tunnel vision.

Related: Fancy Footwork—Six Foot-Focused Tips to Help You Glide up the Rock With Ease

Tunnel vision can also attack in the form of conformity. This summer, I spent a few days projecting Waka Flocka (5.14b) at Rifle’s Project Wall. Climbers know the limestone canyon of Rifle for its intricate beta as well as the crag patron’s propensity to spray unwanted beta. Last weekend, I approached Waka Flocka’s crux while considering the sequence bequeathed to me by fellow Waka Flocka attempters. I decided it looked ridiculous, and then pulled past the crux by using a far left foot. My beta skipped one horrendous handhold, replacing two extremely difficult moves with one moderately difficult move. Gasps erupted. A crux sequence different from the agreed upon norm? Outlandish!

Receiving beta from climbers with different body types, skill sets, and mental processes can prevent us from finding our own creative solution to an obstacle. It can also prevent the manic redpoint climber from thinking outside the box. Tick marks play a similar role, pointing climbers toward the path of the majority. These “taped holds” so to speak, are blinding us from more obscure but possibly advantageous options, particularly when it comes to our footwork.

This form of tunnel vision can be just as debilitating as fear or pressure.

The solution to dealing with tunnel vision starts with calming the body’s physical responses to stress and refocusing the mind. Begin with a deep breath. Check out the scenery behind you to remind yourself the world is bigger than the small box you’ve cordoned off in front of you. If you’re still on the wall, there’s time to “pull yourself towards yourself”, as my husband likes to say. The key is to regain composure. If you’re on a decent hold, stretch one arm straight out behind you, opening your chest and releasing some of the tension you’ve built up. A simple deep inhale while you shake out your arms can help snap the body and mind out of the frenzied tunnel vision state.

Now that you’re composed, look outside of the box. Scan the wall in a four-foot radius from your body, rather than a two-foot radius. Renowned coach and climber Justen Sjong recommends looking in a wide, slow arc with a soft gaze, allowing yourself to take in as much information as possible. Imagine the options that could appear when your playing field quadruples in size! Look for additional footholds, which could allow a slight change in body position to balance your weight. A small ripple or extra texture in the rock could be just the foot you need.

Next, think outside of the box. Just because everyone else lunges dynamically through that big move on your bouldering project doesn’t mean that you might not find a sneaky drop knee. Or a new foot could transition your center of gravity transforming that left hand sidepull into a right hand gaston to unlock your sequence. Our individual skills make us uniquely equipped to solve problems. Your solution is likely wildly different than that of the beta sprayer hollering from below.

The next time you’re suffering from debilitating fear or pressure, whether it’s dangling at the end of a toprope or unable to sort out good beta in Rifle, take the steps to regain your composure before looking for your next move. Share these steps with your friends to help eradicate tunnel vision worldwide! 

If you’re serious about climbing harder grades with reduced fatigue, then improving your footwork will help you accomplish your goals—and send your projects. Climbing Magazine and pro climber Paige Claassen have teamed up to create Precision Footwork, a 7-week online course which focuses solely on footwork, one of the most crucial—but all too often overlooked—aspects of rock climbing. Learn more and sign up here.