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Climbing / School / Getting Your Head Into Gear

Getting Your Head Into Gear

Getting Your Head Into Gear by Katherine Schirrmacher

All too often (in fact 99% of the time) climbers spend all of their energy training their bodies. Countless days per week are spent at the wall or down the gym pulling on slopers, pushing weights, dangling off finger boards or sweating it out running round the park.

But how often does it all go to pot when you are 3ft above a wire or 2 metres above a bolt. You down climb, you climb back up, repeat this a few times and ‘rest’ because you’re too pumped. How often do you lower to the ground having plummeted all of 4 metres because you just couldn’t commit? It’s happened to all of us, including me. When you see climbers at the crag it’s so common to see their heads getting in the way of reaching the top rather than their biceps. That might even include actually reaching the top successfully, but inefficiently placing 6 pieces of gear when 2 were adequate. If you could just get by with the necessary minimum, you might possibly be climbing a grade harder.

So why don’t we train our heads? Do we forget, or do we just not know how to? Deep down, we know that the cliché ‘its all in the mind’ is true. Some climbers have naturally strong fingers, others are flexible and for others their head never becomes a problem but others the opposite is true. We are all different and all have our strengths and weaknesses.

Having, in the past been quite a confident trad climber, I could never understand why I had such a problem pushing myself onsighting on bolts. About 2 years ago I became very conscious of it and realised that this was holding me back as much as anything else. It still is a problem for me, but because I know its one of my problems I have started to address it. I tried to fix it by practising big falls on redpoint routes. I seemed to have no problem throwing myself off routes, but not when it wasn’t planned. I didn’t like the fear of the unknown. It didn’t work when I was onsighting.

Then it dawned upon me, what it was all about. Last Spring, when I thought I’d begun to crack it, this problem loomed again. I was trying to get between the bolts on a 7c at St Leger in France. I had made a decision that I wanted to push myself, having felt that I was content with what I’d done already at lower grades but this particular route had grabbed my attention and I wanted to try it. With a powerful, steep start, it became vertical and then slabby, my kind of route I thought. I hadn’t particularly looked at the bolts, but I thought, what’s the worst that can happen, I’m only bolt to bolting…?

Suddenly, after the bottom crux I found myself way above a bolt with no sign of one appearing soon. Down I climbed back to the safety of a bolt, I rested and leant out. My stomach turned as I spotted the next bolt… miles away. More attempts later I was still trying to get to the next bolt. Closer and closer I got, but still I down climbed. I guess I wasn’t asking my husband to go up for me (which I wouldn’t do anyway as I’d never hear the end of it), but I wasn’t going upwards either.

My friend Dave shouted out “Come on Katherine, this is what you’re here for. You chose the route, you chose this challenge. Either rise to it or get off the route”. He was right. I picked this route especially, I liked the look of it. I’d climbed some 7bs happily, hadn’t spotted any 7b+s that I wanted to do, this was the one I chose. I wanted the next step up. So why was I suddenly so cross that it was hard and there was a run out? Ok, so I didn’t know it was going to be run out, but even if I’d known, I might have picked the route anyway. I was shying away from the challenge and I knew it. I took some time and considered the facts. It was probably about 7a climbing and it was a bit of a way, but I wasn’t going to hit the ground, I wasn’t going to even hit any rock. I’d done tons of 7as, I could climb that grade. Next time I went up, I was much more determined and I got to the bolt, without any fuss, but after all that effort with tired arms. From then on the bolts were still miles apart, but the climbing eased and my mind was how it should be.

Since then I have really considered this experience and tried to apply it to other climbs: if you are going to take on a challenge, rise up to it. The hard part of a climb is the reason you are there. You should embrace the crux. If the holds are bad and you feel you could slip off any moment, don’t curse at how poor they are, relish these moments, this is why you climb.

Of course if you don’t want the challenge, that’s fine. If you find yourself in a situation where you are uncomfortable or unhappy, that’s fine. Back off and go down. Following this experience at St Leger a week later I found myself in the Czech Republic, where the bolts really were a long way apart. I didn’t like it, I didn’t want to be there. Nic and Tom did of course and they were in their element – I just couldn’t get into their state of mind. After a while I realised I had to accept that was the way I felt. After a few days top-roping and walking past a gobsmacking line I noticed the desire to pull myself together creep in. On the last day, having battled with my head for 10, I rose to the challenge, hard though it was and climbed this immaculate arête. Shaky but focused I speed climbed through the run out difficulties. Perhaps my head wasn’t perfect, perhaps I could have done it a bit better, but I had talked myself through it all and embraced the challenge. This is what climbing in the Czech is about. The satisfaction was immense.

Applying a strong mind to climbing isn’t always about dealing with danger though. When bouldering or redpointing, in order to achieve success, a few seconds of movement must include 100% of effort combined with perfect precision. The slightest lack of concentration or forgetting one crucial toe movement might mean failure. Its seems simple enough, but have you ever experienced that nagging fear of failure, those small doubts, any distractions that mean, when you fall to the ground you know deep down you only gave it 95%. Its easy to forget how hard you actually need to try. That feeling, when your mind is clear, when you know you couldn’t have tried any harder, when it was all out, when you are fighting and battling, that’s what we as climbers are looking for and at the end of the day all you can ask of yourself.

Here are some key pointers:

· Accept the challenge – it’s the difficulties you are searching for

· Look at the facts – think logically, is it really that bad?

· If you aren’t looking for a challenge – back off, don’t put yourself through it

· When everything goes wrong, learn from it, don’t beat yourself up

For further reading see: “The Rock Warrier’s Way – Mental Training for Climbers” by Arnold Ilgner