For some folks who come to First Ascent, climbing is simply a diversion. Hanging out at the gym is a fun, physical way to spend a cold, wet or gale force windy Saturday in Chicago.
Many of us at First Ascent are more passionate about the sport. We’re here at the gym several days a week. We push ourselves; whether moving to the next letter grade on an Avondale sport climb or projecting that mythic boulder problem out at the Buttermilks. I’ve often heard that climbing is like a puzzle you solve with your body. We climb because it engages us physically and mentally. We climb because the movement helps us decompress after a stressful day at work. But if these are the only reasons we climb, then climbing remains a diversion for us. Climbing is no different from a game that we play to avoid Chicago’s cold, wet gale force windy days.
But climbing can be more than a mere diversion. The risk, fear and ego involved in the sport can be used as tools to learn more about ourselves. For the introspective climber, a difficult route is more about self-discovery than pushing the letter-grades. The schadenfreude experienced when seeing our partner fall on a route is a lesson in our own ego. Falling on the same move every burn is a lesson not just about physical strength, but of mental barriers.
If you’re interested in becoming a more reflective climber, The Rock Warrior’s Way by Arno Ilgner, is a great first step. Ilgner has culled literature from the warrior tradition, applying its wisdom to climbing. The warrior philosophy prepares a combatant to completely focus in order to face the rigors of warfare. A climber must similarly maintain perfect focus if he or she is to climb at their absolute limit. But how does one maintain absolute attention?
Ilgner’s first step is taking a third person view of oneself while climbing. Have you ever recorded your own voice? If you can stomach how odd your voice sounds when you play it back, you’ll notice certain eccentricities that would’ve otherwise gone undiscovered. By viewing himself from afar, the climber is more able to objectively assess the situation.
The next step is to take responsibility for that situation. Instead of complaining about fatigue before a climb or blaming bad skin for a poor performance, the climber recognizes that his muscles are sore and skin is torn because it’s his third day. Rather than wishing he was fresh, he accepts his fatigue and recognizes it’s the result of his previous decisions.
Once a climber observes the situation objectively, and then takes responsibility, she must make a decision about the climb. Is the risk worth it? Ilgner writes, “If you’re going to back off, you do it without misgiving. If you go forward, you do so with your full being, without looking back.” Once engaged in the climb, the climber continuously assesses the route looking for anything previously unseen to inform the climb.
Ilgner has a background in trad climbing, and a lot of his examples come from that side of the sport. Readers just getting into climbing might have difficulty in parsing all the terminology. Likewise, experienced climbers looking for step by step instructions on how to overcome their fear might be disappointed. The Rock Warriors Way is more a philosophy of climbing than a regimented training guide.
This is why the book’s title, Mental Training for Climbers, is a bit misleading. Mental training comes from climbing and reflection. It cannot simply be imparted through a book. The subtitle did lure me, however. Fear was getting in the way of my progression and I needed all the help I could get. It didn’t instantly cure my lead head. But it did set me on the path of becoming a more self-aware and reflective climber.