Improve Your Lead Climbing Outdoors

Climbing is a mental challenge for me.  I’ve felt embarrassed and frustrated in equal measure at my slow progress in trad lead climbing outdoors.  If I had a pound for every time my friends and climbing partners said ‘you can easily do that – it’s well within your capability’, before I backed off a route (sometimes before even starting!), then I probably wouldn’t have to work again.

However, a few things have fallen into place over the last six months that have helped me to improve my climbing and my ability to control my fears, which has resulted in me leading some harder routes recently – it feels like finally I’m making some progress and it feels positive.  I’m not talking E4’s, but more Severe and VS grade climbs, where previously I would only have attempted VDiffs and often become incapacitated with fear during the process.

Of the things that I feel have helped firstly I had a book recommended to me:  The Rock Warrior’s Way.   I read this and was able to put into practice a few of the strategies from the book.

“Mental training is scarcely covered in the climbing literature, yet it is as important to performance as strength, flexibility, and technique. In his unique approach to mental training, Arno Ilgner draws essential elements from the rich ‘warrior’ literature, as well as from sports psychology, and combines these with his extensive climbing experience to create The Rock Warrior`s Way. Here is a comprehensive program for learning how to focus your mental resources during a challenging climb.

It includes step-by-step guidance on motivation analysis, information gathering, risk assessment, mental focus, and deliberate transition into action. Poor use of attention creates fear, which can manifest itself as anything from performance anxiety to sheer terror. By using attention more purposefully we can understand how fear is created, deal with it effectively, and free ourselves to get back in touch with a far more powerful motivating force–our love of climbing. We can then create the kind of unbending intention that leads to outstanding performance. The Rock Warrior`s Way is a revolutionary program for climbers who want to improve both their performance and their enjoyment of climbing.”

Secondly I spoke to a highly experienced coach, whilst doing the BMC FUNdamentals coaching.  He had a snippet of wisdom about trust that really stuck with me… You have to trust every aspect of your setup:  Rope, harness, gear placements, belayer.  If there is any element of insecurity there, it will impact your mindset, often subconsciously, and negatively affect your climbing.

I unpicked this and realised that my harness was worn enough for three people to have commented on its furry qualities.  I didn’t think I was worried about this, but safety is something that matters to me a lot and it was probably worrying my subconscious brain.  I have a child, aged 13 and I don’t want to die or seriously injure myself.

Where gear placements are concerned I’ve taken a much keener interest in finding out about gear, testing my placements and being more methodical about my organisation and storage of gear, making sure I know exactly where it is, how it’s stored and being generally anally retentive about it.   My rope is something that I’ve always been precious about.

I never lend it to anyone, because all it takes is for someone to drop your rope in a car park on a few drops of battery acid and bingo, your rope is silently degrading just in time for that moment when you drop off on a lead fall.  I keep it in a rope bag and store it out of light.

I digress.

Who belays you has an impact on your performance.  What’s happened to me is that my main climbing partner, Emma, has all but stopped climbing (very selfishly) to train to run across Africa later this year.  I’m a very active member of a mountaineering club, but haven’t had a regular partner for some time.  Couple that with running a climbing website and trying to encourage new climbers and you get a recipe that looks like a bad day out at the GUM clinic – multiple partners with unverified history and unknown proclivities.  I’m certainly not complaining.

I love climbing and it gives me great pleasure to see people advancing their skills, but I’ve generally felt that I can’t push my grade when I don’t know my belay partner well.   The past few weeks I’ve taken a few small departures from this and led routes straight off with people with whom I’m not familiar.  These outings have been fairly successful, so I’m going with this departure and seeing where it takes me – opening my mind to the opportunities.  Watch this space and we’ll see what happens.

Emily