branch-1290017_1280Bob Johnson climbs regularly at the Shawangunks (Gunks), a traditional climbing area in New York. He progressed through the easier grades, succeeding on 5.3s, 5.4s, 5.5s, 5.6s, 5.7s, and improved rapidly. Then, Bob decided to climb 5.8s, which required more mental and physical strength. He’d already been challenged somewhat on 5.7s. Thinking about climbing 5.8s caused his stomach to be in knots and his mind to feel anxious. He wanted the routes to be finished and to be standing on top of them.

He climbed several 5.8s in this stressed state, found them challenging, but did well. Then he choose Birdland, considered one of the harder 5.8s. When he arrived, another climbing team was on it. So he decided to climb a nearby 5.7 instead. After finishing the 5.7, he decided not to return to Birdland, even though no one was on it, and instead climbed more 5.7s.

Bob decided to return to Birdland on his next visit. He started climbing and encountered difficulty quickly. He identified the next rest stance, about ten feet above. Climbing to the stance looked difficult so he looked for an easier alternative. He saw larger holds going to the right, so he followed them, but they led him to a dead-end. He climbed back left and positioned himself below the difficult climbing. He wanted to back off.

Bob made decisions about which routes to climb based on difficulty. When he considered climbing 5.3s he’d ask: “Can I do it or not?” Since 5.3s are very easy, even for beginners, he answered “yes.” So he climbed 5.3 routes. He then applied the same decision-making process to 5.4s, 5.5s, 5.6s and 5.7s. When the difficulty increased to 5.8, he couldn’t answer “yes” to this question anymore.

Asking “Can I do it or not?” focuses on the end goal and the ego’s desire to achieve it. This motivates the mind toward the future achievement, seeking the comfort we’ll experience when the goal is achieved.

Achieving harder grades, of course, requires work. The ego’s desire for achievement causes us to be caught in a motivation trap, torn between the desire to achieve and the resistance to do the work. We end up not being able to satisfy either motivation, which leaves the body in knots and the mind feeling anxious.

We resign ourselves to climbing routes within our comfort zones when we’re caught in this motivation trap. Or, we climb challenging routes while seeking escape from doing the required work. This is what initially happened to Bob. He avoided Birdland, climbing 5.7s instead. When he finally did get on Birdland, he sought to escape the stress by following a line of bigger holds to the right, which led him to a dead-end.

Asking “Can I do it or not?” is not the correct question to ask when facing something challenging. If the route is challenging, it’ll be outside our comfort zones. So, obviously, we can’t answer “yes” to this question. We only know we can do a route that’s within the realm of what we’ve experienced, our comfort zones. This question sets us up for all-or-nothing thinking. If we decide we can’t do it “all” we do “nothing.”

It’s important to increment slowly to develop skills. Starting with easier grades diminishes the possibility of falling, reduces stress, and allows us to learn basic skills in a more comfortable situation. The easier grades at the Gunks are no-fall zones. They’re slabby and have ledge obstacles. But as the difficulty increases, so does the steepness of the routes, diminishing obstacles.

The flaw most climbers make is continuing to push themselves into harder grades without gaining falling experience. It’s important to be in yes-fall zones when pushing ourselves. Getting familiar with falling helps us respond to falls that will ultimately occur.

The Warrior’s Way defines yes-fall zones as zones that have falls similar to what we’ve experienced. Therefore, all routes are no-fall zones if we have no falling experience. Thus, as we push ourselves into more challenging climbing, with no falling experience, we’re climbing in no-fall zones, at our limit, and taking inappropriate risks.

Bob knew he needed to gain falling experience to diminish his anxiety climbing 5.8s so he signed up for a Warrior’s Way Trad Camp at New River Gorge. He learned how to fall and developed confidence that he could trust his trad gear. He also learned the importance of shifting his motivation to finding little ways to engage challenges.

Decisions about which routes to climb need to be made differently once basic skills and falling are learned. We ask, “What’s the fall consequence?” not “Can I do it or not?” Asking “What’s the fall consequence?” is a question we can answer if we have falling experience.

Instead of allowing the mind to think in all-or-nothing ways, we focus on engaging in little steps. It’s easier to take a little step, which focuses our attention on doing the work. We escape the motivation trap by shifting what we focus on.

Let’s return to Bob on Birdland. He was positioned below the difficult climbing and had a choice to make. He didn’t want to back off so he forced himself to continue. He asked himself “What else can I do here?” He quickly identified some higher foot-holds and used them along with some smaller hand-holds and easily propelled himself to the next stance. Then he continued climbing. Whenever he felt the urge to back off, he kept asking himself “What can I do here?” Before he knew it, he had done all he needed to do, and was at the top of the pitch.

We escape the motivation trap by getting falling experience and making decisions based on falling consequences. Without the body in knots and the mind feeling anxious, we relax into doing the work. We understand that being in stress, working through it, is why we came to the challenge in the first place. It’s through doing the work that we grow as climbers.

We don’t have to be victims of the ego’s motivation trap. Rather, we can focus our attention on making little steps into stress, relaxing into it, and enjoying the whole process. We can ask, “What can I do here?” as Bob did. Making this shift changes how we approach challenges. With practice, we don’t have to force ourselves to engage; we engage intentionally, focusing our attention on little actions that moves us through the challenge. We aren’t motivated solely by achievement, expecting to fail; we’re primarily motivated by enjoying the challenge, expecting to fall. Falling and work become important parts of our climbing journeys.


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This Post Has One Comment

  1. As always, incredibly timely and helpful! Thank you.

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