I was climbing at Sunset Rock near Chattanooga, Tennessee recently on a climb called Golden Ledges. The route followed a crack until mid-height and then wandered up an indistinct face. Climbing the crack was straightforward, but figuring out where the climb went on the upper face was difficult to determine. Not knowing if I was climbing in the right direction, I followed some features until I arrived at a blank section near the top.
I placed two solid cams in a horizontal crack near a rest stance and probed options for continuing. Going to the left or straight up didn’t seem to work. Climbing to the right and then up seemed like the best option. If I committed to this option, then I felt like I’d probably succeed. I climbed up, but was shut down by rounded holds, so I climbed back down to my stance. I did this several times, but wouldn’t commit. I felt uncertain, lost in thought about what to do to climb and not wanting to fall.
Alex Honnold’s “If, Then” Statement
In 2017, I interviewed Alex Honnold after his free solo of El Cap and asked him about commitment. He said he was hesitant when he first started climbing trad. He’d climb until he got scared, fumble in a piece of gear, and felt gripped the whole time. He read The Rock Warrior’s Way and said he learned a lot about commitment. In the interview he said “If I’m going to do it, then really do it.” “If, then” statements help us be decisive. One way he improved his commitment is by being decisive.
The word decisive comes from the Latin root decidere, which literally means to cut off. We’re decisive if we cut off all options except one. Narrowing our options to only one eliminates all other options the mind may use to escape stress.
It’s difficult to be decisive—to be able to say “if, then”—unless we’ve prepared well. Alex said if he’s not comfortable, then he’ll do more preparation. Preparation clarifies the risk. We clarify where the next protection point is so we can determine if the fall is a yes- or no-fall type of risk.
Preparing Properly and Understanding Commitment
Preparation also includes training on the rock. A big part of Alex’s preparation included free-soloing other long routes and time spent on El Cap with ropes getting familiar with The Freerider route. My effort on Golden Ledges was onsight. I’d prepared by on-sighting many routes in the past to develop my onsight skill. I reflected on my half-hearted efforts and realized I didn’t lack commitment due to my onsight skill. Rather, I hadn’t clarified the risk. I needed to do a thorough thinking process to prepare myself.
First, the end of the risk was the anchors, about ten feet above me. Second, the fall consequence was 25-30 feet, on a vertical wall, with no obstacles. This indicated to me that I was in a yes-fall risk because I’d taken many such falls. I checked my cams to make sure they were securely placed so they wouldn’t fail and cause a longer fall. Third, I looked for features in the rock along the one option I’d chosen. My plan also included committing forward; I cut off the option to down-climb. I’d either succeed or fall. I told myself that if I was going to do it, then I’d really commit to it.
But what does “it” mean; what are we committing to? In order to be effective, I needed “it” to be a process that occurred in the present moment, not the achievement of the end result. Committing to “it” meant I was committing to exerting effort by focusing on breathing, staying relaxed, and moving continuously as much as possible. My “if, then” statement cut off escape options, but I also needed to clarify what I was committing to.
I climbed to the point where I had been shut down before and grabbed the rounded holds. They felt insecure, but I placed my fingers in the best position to grab them. I doubted my ability to hold on while I moved my foot up, but I redirected my attention to move forward or fall in the process of my effort. I stepped my foot up and my grip held. I made a few more tenuous moves in similar fashion and soon arrived at the anchors.
Commitment is a multilayered concept. We’re aware of the mind’s tendency to seek options to escape stress and cut off all options but one. We do a thorough preparation process, and then use “if, then” statements to be decisive. Finally, we improve our commitment by knowing what we’re committing to: exerting effort.
Practice tip: If you’re going to do it, then do it
Find a route to onsight that has a yes-fall risk with a difficult crux where you’re likely to doubt yourself. This crux section is a mini risk for applying your “if, then” statement. Base this yes-fall distinction on your falling experience; you can do this on toprope or lead.
Next, climb to the crux section and think about the mini risk ahead of you. Prepare by identifying the protection point at the end of the mini risk and the fall consequence. Identify several options for climbing and probe them. Finally, be decisive; choose one option. If you’re going to do it, then do it. Remember, “it” means exerting effort to climb up without down-climbing. Focus on breathing, staying relaxed, and moving as continuously as you can. You’ll either succeed or fall. Either way, you’ll learn a lot about commitment.