“Your head will collapse
If there’s nothing in it
And you’ll ask yourself
Where is my mind?” -The Pixies
Climbing is not all about being physically strong. This is what I love about this sport- our success is largely dependent on our mental strength. I find this fulfilling, otherwise I might decide to be a meat-headed weight lifter in the gym. That being said, the mind can be your greatest asset or biggest weakness in projecting a difficult rock climb.
Projecting a route at your physical limit involves failing. A lot. How you deal with repeated failure is what ultimately determines your outcome. Will you back away from the challenge or will you keep trying and eventually succeed?
Chris and I have been in Las Vegas for the past few weeks and I’ve been trying a climb at the Secret 13 wall called Where Is My Mind (5.13c) — one of the hardest sport routes at Red Rock.
I’ve looked at this climb for years and have always thought it appeared impossible. I’ve seen some really strong dudes get their butts kicked on this route. There just aren’t many holds, and the ones that are still there have been known to be continually breaking, leaving less and less stone for the grips.
I recently had the pleasure of climbing with Brooke and Robyn Raboutou here in Vegas, and they checked out the route. Brooke impressively sent in four tries, and Robyn did really well. They both really enjoyed the movement and inspired me to give it a whirl.
To my surprise, I was able to do all the moves.
What I didn’t tell you is I spent about an hour sitting on the rope trying to figure out the crux, and I’ve tried the route a dozen times by now and still haven’t even two hung the darn thing.
But I’ve done all the moves- I know I can do the route.
Most highly successful people have only achieved their success after repeated failure. My favorite failure to success example is Walt Disney. Early in his career, the iconic film producer was fired by a newspaper editor for a “lack of imagination and not having any good ideas.” Walt’s first cartoon studio went bankrupt, and he suffered many criticisms for his work. He was told Mickey Mouse would never make it on the big screen- it would only make women scream.
“All the adversity I’ve had in my life, all my troubles and obstacles, have strengthened me… You may not realize it when it happens, but a kick in the teeth may be the best thing in the world for you.” -Walt Disney
I see so many strong and talented rock climbers shy away from routes as soon as it takes more than a few tries. They’ll say they need to come back to it after they train harder, or just say something like they don’t like the style and avoid it altogether.
But physical strength isn’t everything. I’m certainly a far stretch from being one of the strongest climbers, but what I do have is the mental ability to deal with repeated failure and I know how to work hard. I’ve also had to deal with a number of hardships, like the death of my mother as a teenager. These kinds of traumatic events and hardships in life can destroy you and you can live the rest of your life as a victim. Or they can make you tougher and stronger. I strived for the latter.
In my veterinary school application letter, I wrote that living through my mother’s death was the hardest thing I’d ever gone through. If I had the strength to get through that hardship I knew I’d have the mental toughness to endure the rigors of vet school.
It worked. And it was true- I did have the tenacity to get through it. I’d like to think my acceptance into this highly competitive program was my mom’s gift back to me.
And so maybe, as Walt describes, these “kicks in the teeth” were the best things for me.
Of course it’s not necessary to have tremendous hardship in order to succeed, but it does prepare your mind to deal with difficulty. In a world of instagram and insta- gratification, we sometimes forget that anything worth doing often takes time and effort. There is a direct correlation between difficulty and time invested with worth and value in anything we do.
Here are seven tips for projecting a difficult climb.
- Don’t expect to do all the moves your first try. In my opinion, if you’re doing every move first try it’s probably too easy. Try something harder.
- Patience is key. I like to think of figuring out cruxes like solving a complicated math problem. It takes time. Be smart and creative in order to unlock the sequence.
- Never stop experimenting. It’s common to see climbers execute a move on a route one super hard way for them, but they think that it is the only way. Take your blinders off and be open to other possibilities, particularly if you keep falling in the same spot. Sometimes the difference between sending and not sending is discovering a better foot, an improved way of holding a hold, or other minutia.
- Be kind to yourself. This is the hardest part for me and it is a constant learning process to stay positive. It’s easy to beat yourself up and think you’re not good enough or you’ll never accomplish your goal. All of this negativity only hurts you, so try to let it go.
- It’s okay to freak out a little bit. Allow your self to have a release. I’ve cried and cussed and all that wobbler jazz, after repeatedly failing on a route. As climbers we put so much energy and effort into climbing and that energy needs to transfer in some form. Just try to make it a short outburst and get over it quicker than later so you can be a supportive climbing partner.
- Train your rests. Learning how to rest is just as important as figuring out the cruxes of your climb. Figure out the most efficient way to recover.
- Treat any kind of progress as a successful day. This may mean something as subtle as figuring out better beta or learning a more efficient way to clip. Sending is always the ultimate goal but try not to focus on the outcome.
Chris and I are here in Vegas for another week before we head back to Colorado. It’s not a lot of time for me to succeed. I know there is a good chance I won’t be able to do the route this time. It’s a gamble.
But when in Vegas I’m going all in.
At the end of the day I might not succeed. My head might collapse.
And I’ll ask myself “Where is my mind?”