With the alpine guiding season coming to a close I find myself, as many guides do, with quite a bit of free time. This free time generally coincides with the best months of the year to be out rock climbing. Unfortunately for me, it also coincides with the months when I am most likely to be punting like a gumby off routes that used to be my warm ups. While it is certainly not my first experience with this phase, it is the first time that I have decided to really focus on and examine it. In the past, I simply went out climbing. It would be frustrating and it would take some time, but eventually I would find myself back to where I wanted to be. More so than in the past, I crave the exhilaration of pushing through my physical limits and attaining goals. These are the very elements that first drew me to rock climbing. I don’t want to waste the best temps and weather of the year. So, yes, I am in a bit of hurry. I want to be strategic and focused in my approach. I want to avoid the frustrations of reality not matching up with my expectations of how I should be climbing or how I want to be climbing. So I am looking at the process as more of an experiment this time. I am going to keep a public journal of my progress through it. Hopefully I find some things that are helpful to share. For all sorts of different reasons, all climbers face the challenging elements of the mental game from time to time. Perhaps this sparks a conversation that we can all learn from. That’s my hope at least.
There are two glaringly obvious causes to this not so phenomenal phenomenon. First, I spend most of the summer huffing heavy loads up and down steep hills. While there is plenty of technical terrain that gets covered, and clients are I are often roped up, we do very little difficult fifth class climbing. Second, spending so much time in remote and dangerous environments results in me feeling highly averse to climbing falls. Often a plethora of objective hazards related to weather, rock fall, bad conditions, and sheer remoteness are so taxing on the nervous system that I elect to do all I can to take the falling hazard out of the equation all together. In other words, when I am working, my mind is in the “no fall” zone nearly all the time. That remains the case even when a fall would be completely protected. Call it a habit. And habits are hard to kill. In the simplest terms, months of not climbing and avoiding falls at all costs, makes an easy to follow recipe for regression. There are also a few more subtle elements I have identified, that are worthy of examination. First, I am guilty of playing victim to a particular mindset that I’ll call the crusty old guide’s syndrome, or, COGS for short. It’s a self fulfilling prophecy. I have embraced the fact that as a guide, my job is not to send the pitch. My job is to safely get the rope, and my followers, to the top. I learned this lesson on day one of my first rock guide training. Upon reaching the top of a climb, the instructor turned to both my partner and I and commented on how we both struggled with the cruxy bit in the wide crack. When we both hung our heads a bit in shame, he then proudly admitted that he just pulled on the gear to get through it. A light went on in my head. That light opens up a whole range of privilege when it comes to pulling, hanging, and stepping on gear. Once you get a taste of that privilege, it is not easy to turn it away. So as soon as the climbing starts to feel hard enough that I don’t have 100% certainty I will stick the moves, the symptoms and side effects of COGS quickly come to the surface. On a deeper level, it’s a perpetuating cycle of negative self talk. “eh, I’m probably going to flail and pull on gear.” So I do. So on and so forth, and the comfort zone shrinks smaller and smaller. While there are some cases where COGS is a valid diagnosis, I am neither crusty nor old. So I should not be using it as an excuse. Ever. Even when I am crusty and old, I want to be climbing hard and having fun doing it. We all carry the baggage of our careers into other areas of our lives. As a climbing guide, this is me doing that. Someone needs to tell me to leave my work at the door when I come home. Or when I go climbing for fun.
I have also keyed in to a lack of alignment between reality and my expectations. There was a time when all I did was climb, and train to climb. I was projecting routes in the 5.13 range. Occasionally I would send them. I could warm up on and onsight 5.12. Obviously that brings up the issues of strength and fitness, which at the time, I poured nearly all of my energy into. I have very little natural talent for hard climbing. I have to work extremely hard to climb sort of hard. While I don’t plan to get much into the physical aspects of training here, feeling strong goes a long way towards improving my mental game. When I find myself flailing on climbs I used to onsight with ease, I end up in a swirling mess of internal forces. Despite the fact that I barely make it into the climbing gym, haven’t been on a campus board or hang board in months, and get out sport climbing about twice a season, deep down I still expect to be climbing at the level I was when all I did was train for it. On one hand, I know what I am capable of and can use that as motivation. On the other hand, I am not really accepting where I am at and find myself left with unmet expectations. That creates a cognitive dissonance, which in turn creates frustration. Anti-psyche. All of it makes climbing a little (sometimes a lot) less fun.
So, what to do about it all? Stay tuned. I’ve got some ideas.