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by Warrior’s Way trainer, Jeff Lodas

“This is not a lecture, where you listen, you are told, or given certain concepts, certain formulas, certain cliches, and you accept them and go home. Here we are not lecturing, we are having a conversation. Like two people having a friendly conversation to find out, to enquire deeply. And I hope that you are going to do this, not merely listen to the speaker but also use the speaker as a mirror in which you see yourself. And when you have seen yourself you can throw away the mirror. The mirror is not important.” 

-J Krishnamurti, On Fear, 1982

I first met Hazel last Fall around a campfire at Camp 4 in Yosemite Valley, along with half-dozen other climbers from the UK. They welcomed me with a charismatic blend of dry wit, touched with humble sarcasm and a shot of liquor. Hazel and I got to talking about an area of keen common interest, the mental side of climbing.

Hazel first visited Yosemite six years ago, at age 19. She said, “I struggled to climb a 5.8 hand crack at the Cookie Cliff. At the time 5.8 was far below my warm up grade. I started climbing at too young an age to ever remember feeling like a beginner, but on that day I did, and it rocked my ego like nothing else. Since then I made it my mission to learn how to crack climb.” Now, a professional climber, Findlay’s accomplishments include freeing three routes on El Capitan (Golden Gate, Freerider, and Pre-Muir), first ascents in Squamish and Morocco, as well as numerous trad and sport testpieces. She’s also known for her bravery in climbing scary routes.

I caught up with her the next day for an interview, while she was resting and doing laundry. Her initial reluctance to talk about the mental game, saying she was “not an expert,” gave way to 90 minutes of insightful dialogue, ranging from the practical to the philosophical. I share both her passion for mental training as well as the feeling of not being an expert and immediately we arrive at one of the great mysteries of mental training: how is it that, no matter how much we practice, no matter how skilled we become, in some way we are always at the beginning of the process?

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As a professional climber, Hazel has been branded by the climbing media:

…maybe pigeon-holed is the right word. Like apparently now I’m some super bold person who only climbs choss and searches out the scariest stuff. It’s just not true at all. That said, I am interested in the mental side of climbing. It’s something I think about a lot, in my own climbing and the people around me. I see a lot of people at the crag suffering from self limiting mental practices. It’s something I think we largely ignore as climbers, just because it’s the trickiest subject. It’s quite easy to pick up a book and look up why muscles work a certain way and how to make them stronger, what to do to make them stronger, what to eat to make yourself stronger, and all that sort of thing. There’s a relatively straightforward science on that, but areas of the mind [are not that easy]. You can say that climbing is just a microcosm of wider society. General health is much more researched and thought about than mental health, which is just sort of this sticky area of medicine that most people stay far away from, because we don’t have all the answers.

If mental training isn’t easy, then what attracts her to it? Hazel describes:

The mental challenge in climbing is probably the reason I go climbing. There’s tons of sports you can do outside; there’s tons of sports that test you physically. But climbing has this really nice combination of being tested physically, but also mentally, on multiple levels. I really like the problem solving element of climbing, reading the rock, reading your own body, and making decisions based on information you get from both. Also the mental challenge of being afraid, when you’re at risk, or in an uncomfortable or frightening position. Then there’s the mental challenge of dealing with your ego, and dealing with how other people perceive you, and all of that. It’s not just like there’s this one mental challenge; there’s this whole host of mental challenges associated with climbing.

Let’s consider some of those challenges. In the Warrior’s Way Falling and Commitment clinics, we work with students in what we call “the most interesting space” in mental training. It’s the precise moment when the mind doubts whether or not we can continue climbing. At this moment we have the opportunity to grow mentally or retreat into our comfort zone. Hazel breaks it down:

I can just see it in myself, if I haven’t climbed trad for awhile, I’ll just know when I’m in that zone. I know I’ve got this fall potential, and it’s just that perfect little bit where you’re like, ‘I could panic right now, but I’m not going to. I could say ‘take’ or jump off but actually, I’m going to stay focused and do these five more moves or something, and I might fall or I might get to the bolt.’ That’s the bit where you’re pushing your comfort zone, that nice little sweet spot where you’ve been challenged. The fall potential has challenged you, but you made the right decisions. You’re still safe, but you’re pushing yourself.

Another challenge is learning to distinguish between yes- and no-fall zones. We emphasize that climbers must have some falling experience to make this distinction, which allows them to make intelligent and appropriate risk decisions. For example, in the clinics, students work with their attention during practice falls, creating yes-fall zones through experience and awareness. Hazel explains:

I get that quite a bit on the gritstone. Say you’re in a no-fall zone, you know you’re not going to die if you fall, but you could injure yourself. You could easily just down climb, and then jump onto a pad or whatever. Or you could slowly probe your way upward, and carefully deal with the risks.

Every time we climb, we make risk decisions based on any number of factors, consciously or not. Mental training brings consciousness to the decision-making process so we know when to push and when to back off.

Discussing mental training isn’t complete without considering the ego. The ego is based on factors such as our ancestors, upbringing, education, personal history, relationships, and so on, creating a dragon of sorts with a thousand ever-shifting aspects, shaping our mental habits and affecting our thoughts, feelings, and actions. Do we rush, or hesitate; blame others, or ourselves; put us below others, or above? The beautiful thing about the human mind is that it’s adaptable. Climbing offers us this amazing gift: a perfect laboratory to observe ourselves, and develop mental qualities that counter the ego, such as awareness, patience, intelligence, balancing analysis with intuition, and taking responsibility.

Although this dragon has 1000 heads, let’s look at a few common and related aspects of it. First is motivation. Are we motivated by future end results, or by present moment processes? Hazel explains:

When I ask myself, ‘Do I want to climb Indian Face [5.13 X]?’ My first answer is ‘yes,’ of course I want to climb Indian Face, because it would be so cool to have climbed that route. But then when I picture myself with a death fall beneath me, do I actually want to do those tricky moves with that fall potential? That’s something that I don’t know exactly, whether it’s yes or no, but my instinct is maybe not. Maybe I don’t want to risk my life on that piece of rock.

Hazel balances end result and process motivations, to help her take more appropriate risks. End result motivation gives us clues about bravery. Hazel said “it would be so cool to have climbed that route.” This is an example of the ego’s desire to achieve the end result, and then to use it as evidence of being above (more important) than others. End results can give us vision and direction, but beyond that, our primary motivation needs to be a desire to be in the climbing situation itself. In Hazel’s case, being brave when considering Indian Face is choosing a risk she wants to take, not “to have climbed the route.”

Second is comparison, the habit of placing ourselves above or below others, in any way. Being known for her bold ascents, Hazel often sees other climbers place themselves below her, and the detrimental effect it has on their mental game.

I get that a lot of the time: ‘You’re so lucky to be so brave’ or ‘How is it that you are so brave; were you born that way?’ It’s a massive pet peeve of mine, because you’re not born with that capacity. You’ll never be a mentally strong climber if you think that it’s something that’s given to you. It’s really just to do with them letting themselves off the hook to actually work towards that. It’s them saying, ‘I will never be that good because I can’t be that good,’ or that brave, or that strong, or whatever…  I really dislike this whole hero worship thing.

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Bravery is defined as possessing or exhibiting courage. Exhibiting courage points toward the process of climbing. Bravery has to do with work, being willing to put ourselves into stress and work through it. We all can become more brave if we approach risk this way. Hazel advises that:

Instead of seeing bravery as this thing that you don’t have, you actually just equate it to how much you want to do something. I really like that way of thinking because it’s actually a better depiction of what’s going on in your brain, and it’s more beneficial. So if I say to myself, ‘I’m not brave enough to do Indian Face,’ what I’m really saying to myself is, ‘I don’t really want to do Indian Face.’ Because, if you do [want it] enough, then you’ll be brave enough. Do you see what I mean? Then, at least you can be like, ‘Fair enough, I don’t actually want to do this route enough because I don’t want to be put into that stressful and scary situation. All I want is to say I’ve done the route, or I want to have done it in hindsight.’  Then you can step back and be like, ‘Ok, I’m not going to do that route’ and you can pick another challenge.

Hazel’s emphasis here points toward our motivation. To “have done the route” points toward the ego’s extrinsic motivation to add an achievement to its level of importance. But, “how much you want to do something” points toward intrinsic motivation, moving us toward the the actual stressful engagement with the risk. Bravery is a by-product of our desire to engage the challenge.

Third is socialization. Our egos are built around a societal context, within specific cultural constraints, including gender roles. Hazel has a particularly insightful perspective on the mental side of gender in climbing.

Maybe evolution has molded us weaker physically, but then society has molded us into slightly mentally weaker beings. You often see [this in] a lot of girls; they’re more happy to admit that they’re not brave or that they’re cowardly, and that it’s somehow okay because they’re a girl. Men are socially molded too. Being brave and courageous is a manly quality, and being timid and scared is a feminine quality. If you want to be attractive in the eyes of the opposite sex, then you better be those things. So I think a lot of women fall into that role just as a lot of men fall into that role. It seems weird for women not to capitalize on our mental strength because we are physically weaker. We’re just not going to compete with men at competition climbing, but that doesn’t matter to me in the least, because the challenges are all personal anyway. Also I think the cool thing about capitalizing on mental strength is that it doesn’t require hours in the gym. It’s the lazy option. I really love it when I think about it in those terms.

Becoming self aware of gender roles allows us to move beyond them. Women can become aware of being socialized as the weaker sex and choose to move beyond it. Women can choose bravery as a quality they want for themselves and then do the work to develop it. For the men, our socialization is the opposite in some ways: we tend to not admit to feeling fear, to be too competitive, goal oriented, aggressive, and knowledgable even when we are not.  Any of these personality traits can be found in anyone; of course it’s a generalization to peg them to a specific gender, but perhaps a useful one. It doesn’t take much imagination to see how they can become a big handicap or a bigger liability in climbing.

No discussion of mental training would be complete without a word about attention, and specifically, its relationship to fear. The effective use of attention is a state of awareness where attention is focused in the present moment, unpolluted by judgements of any kind. It’s a state similar to being in the zone in sports, in the flow state, and even resembling mindfulness meditation. Recognizing, developing, and trusting this awareness, and learning to adapt it effectively throughout the cycles of a climb, is at the core of the Warrior’s Way. It can be an antidote to fear, egotism, and a source of pure, childlike joy that initially motivated us to climb in the first place. It’s in the very nature of climbing to call forth this awareness, but we struggle to allow it to come out, held back by some form of fear or negative thinking. Hazel points out that it’s our view of that negativity and our response to the fear that keeps the awareness from surfacing.

Fear has all these negative connotations that modern society has latched on, massively. I definitely feel everyone’s a bit bogged down in the fear thing. It’s just like what Ilgner is saying in his book; you see the doubts, you see the stress, and then you step outside of it. As long as you can step outside, and be like ‘I’m afraid,’ then you’re not really getting bogged down in it. You might see it as a useful thing. That’s not just in climbing, it’s in everything.

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The mind can be a chaos of contradictory thoughts and motivations that makes it difficult to allow this awareness to surface. We coach students to respond to this chaos by simply delaying reacting to the chaos. Findlay also finds this valuable.

It’s something that I think a lot of people would benefit from. I think one of the most interesting areas is actually not in these risky situations, but actually just when the risk is appropriate. There really isn’t much risk at all, but people still struggle mentally, still limited. It’s crazy, I see people climb up to 5.14 and they’re still limited by fear of falling, mostly. I think the ‘delay’ tactic Ilgner talks about is a really cool way of breaking people out of that.

Viewed from this perspective, fear becomes a useful internal guide. We’re aware of it and respond with intelligence.  Consider the following analogy:  when our coolant light goes on in our car, we stop, and pop the hood. If we find the coolant level to be merely low, we can keep driving, ignoring it for now, and remember to add coolant soon. However, if we find no coolant at all, and the oil temperature is high, we need to act immediately, or risk engine damage. On the rock, when fears come up, we can delay reacting and “pop the hood,” using awareness and analytical skills to see the situation clearly. Then we can respond appropriately, redirecting our attention to the task at hand.

In this way, we are not attempting to get rid of fear by running away from it or pushing through it.  We are focusing a special kind of awareness directly on it, transforming it into intelligence and appropriate action. On one level, we’re writing new scripts in the brain, as psychologists describe it. This is useful and a necessary first step, to take hold of the reins of the mind, so to speak. We need to be able to change how we respond to fear, and in the process, develop mental flexibility and gain control of our attention. On a deeper level, awareness can “see” itself as well. We can observe where our attention is. We can see the scripts, whether they’re useful or detrimental, mental constructs, which are judgements in a sense. The most authentic experience in climbing comes when we’re no longer scripted. Thinking happens intentionally, and besides that, our attention rests in the constantly shifting experience of the body.

As the reader may notice, everything in mental training dovetails with everything else in some way, because of a common factor: the mind. It’s the same mind that is operating, whether or not we’re tied into a rope. The same mental training that climbers benefit from can be applied to any challenging situation, such as our careers, relationships, or even simple tasks like washing the dishes or drinking a cup of tea with a friend. Present awareness becomes an integral part of everything we do. Fortunately for us, climbing is one of life’s more beautiful and rewarding experiences: an intelligent human moving up a vertical stone in a wild place.

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It’s an honor and a source of happiness for me to present these ideas to the reader and especially to the students in the clinics. Visit WarriorsWay.com for an up-to-date list of trainings, or jefflodas.com, to see the ones I’m teaching.

Check out Hazel’s website and blog.


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