(Sorry, this is a long one!)
I hear this a lot but it’s not something that rings true to me! When I think of sport climbing I think of climbing at my limit, not just physically but mentally too.
Onsighting a hard trad route (the grade is irrelevant, if it’s hard for you that counts as hard) is scary. We have a lot to think about, the moves, the exposure, the gear that’s below your feet, the potential fall you might be about to take, the fading strength in your arms.
Where’s the stress in sport climbing then? We know the bolts are safe, we can see the next one shining away in the near distance, even if we do fall, we’re not going far. The fear factor is taken away. The stress comes from other places.
Redpointing: working a sport route until you can lead it clean, once you have lead it clean that counts as a successful redpoint ascent. Sometimes you might practice that route just once, then get it clean, maybe three sessions, maybe 5 years! In a similar vein, Headpointing is the same thing but on trad routes.
The pressure. The pressure can be overwhelming. The pressure is self inflicted. I suppose sponsored superstars might feel the pressure from their sponsors, but for most of us, the pressure is from within. That’s silly isn’t it?! Be that as it may, the fear of success can cost you that success you want so bad. That fear can cause you to move badly, over grip and waste precious power and fail on your route. It might kick in before you set off, it might kick in when you’re past the crux and you realise you might actually succeed. Fear sucks!
The psychological side of climbing is fascinating and by understanding it better, we can begin to control the fear and stress, hopefully enabling us to tick those projects. Before we can start to address the fear of success, we need to get rid of any other more basic fears.
The standard basic fear when sport climbing is the fear of falling, but is this a rational fear? Falling can be bad, before the first bolt and you’ll need spotting, falling whilst clipping the second bolt isn’t a great idea, but beyond that, with a good belayer (get a good one!) you’re probably going to be ok, assuming the bolting is good and there’s no ledges or protrusions to hit. Whether it’s rational or not we still need to normalise it, so build up that trust with your belayer and when it’s safe to do so, practice falling off, a lot!
What else is there to be scared of? Equipment failure? Thankfully that’s super rare but mileage will sort that fear out.
So you’ve spent some sessions with your belayer, taken loads of falls with them and you’re both properly in tune, with them paying out slack right when you need it, shouting encouragement exactly when you need it, that’s all squared away. How else do you succeed psychologically?
Don’t talk yourself out of it with negative thoughts or words. “I can’t do it”, “The holds are too small”, “I’m not strong enough”, “This is horrible”, “The feet are rubbish”. Go to any crag and you’ll here someone like this, they’re setting themselves up to fail, don’t be that person. That doesn’t mean you need to be an arrogant prat or some super positive hippy, but be kind to yourself and give yourself every chance of performing to your best.
I’ve written before about performance preparation, this includes your physical warm ups, your dynamic stretching etc, route reading, visualisation, this is your next port of call to get your head in the zone.
So you’ve done all the above and you’re ready to give that project an attempt. Everyone’s different in what they need to do. Some people meditate a little bit, some people visualise themselves cruising the moves and clipping the chains, others have a laugh with their belayer or maybe even just get a tune in their head that helps distract from the pressure. There’s people who specialise in coaching the head game, and there’s loads written on the net, so get reading and put some techniques in to practice.
The last route I worked was one I’d wanted for a while. A friend of mine had mentioned Empire of the Sun, 7b, describing it as possibly the best route of that grade in the country, I immediately wanted to do it. Conveniently Laura’s parents only live about 20 minutes from the crag, Ansteys Cove in Devon, a crag I’d never been to when I lived down South because it’s got a reputation for being hard and steep, even though it’s got a few lower grade decent routes these days. Me and Laura were on a little road trip, starting in Portland where I ticked a few routes including a quality route that had been on my hit list – England’s Dreaming 7a+, which is a really cool line. Next stop was Devon and more precisely, Anstey’s.
Empire was just as steep as I had imagined. I jumped straight on it with the clipstick and the low crux felt hard, I wasn’t sure how I was going to hold the small crimp to make the big moves, then the other big moves and the other big moves and the other big moves..! You might get the picture! The technical crux is low down, but the moves just keep coming, power endurance is the key to this route, right the way through to one last big move to the finishing jug which is easy in isolation, but hard after 20m of steep stuff. I had two days to get it, which might sound a lot (bear in mind some people project stuff for months and years), but I could only have about 4 proper goes a day due to my arms getting so wasted on it. Thankfully I had a bit of a secret weapon (in addition to Laura being my perfect belayer!), by the name of local climber Paul Roberts, who knows every fine detail of every move on the route and probably the whole crag. Paul turned up on my first play on the route and continued to drip feed me and another mate, also called Paul the beta of sequences, holds and body positions throughout the day, most of which worked perfectly, but there’s always the odd bit that I’ll do differently. The route started to come together and on my first decent redpoint effort I did better than expected, I was sure it would go down on day 2!
Day 2 and I was super psyched and confident, as well as being a bit nervous. Both the Pauls were there again when me and Laura turned up. I got straight on Empire, with the clipstick again to put the clips in ready for a redpoint blast. Paul Taylor was up first and he smashed it, getting so close! He got the big jug but just didn’t quite have the gas to use it to get the last few holds to the chain, gutted! I think I had three proper goes that day and was getting to a similar spot near the top but just running out of gas, I had the moves but my arms couldn’t keep up. A rest day was called for, which was lucky because we had to go and visit my family anyway. We weren’t supposed to be going back down to Devon, but I needed this route and Laura had a route she wanted to do too!
Day 3. I was convinced it would go down first go. It did not.
I got one move from the big jug.
I shouted, like I’ve never shouted before I think! I was gutted. The moves went well, a little key sequence near the top went down smoothly, but I just didn’t have the power to latch the jug.
When I got back down to the floor, I shouted some more, then some more, before launching a ‘draw into the bushes, after which my cap got smashed in to the dirt. Not my finest moment, but that route meant a lot.
Second go. I’d rested for about 25 minutes, which isn’t that long but I felt ready to have another go. I can’t quite put my finger on how I sorted my head out, but I felt a lot less internal pressure on attempt number two and this time the moves flowed, each one going down perfectly first time, everything in balance, dropping a knee here and there, really making the most of each sequence. The last move to the jug, my nemesis, eyeing up the jug and tick mark, just about aware of Laura’s shouted encouragements. I didn’t climb these couple of moves as well as I should, but my legs drove up just enough that as my right hand launched up towards the jug, it stuck.
I knew I wasn’t letting go now.
All over in 3 minutes 30 seconds.
The relief, a couple of low key shouts and a smile down to Laura summed up my feelings. Happiness.
That feeling is where the pressure comes from. That feeling is a drug. You want it, you need it. Make it last, enjoy it, soak it up. It won’t last.