In 2014 I visited Puerto Rico to teach and climb. My Puerto Rican friends took me to Cayey, a basalt crag inland, for a day of climbing. They showed me a traditional route called Head to Toe and said it was 5.10c. Well, that’s what I thought they said. The route followed a crack and finished with some face climbing. So, I collected my gear and began.
The route had several resting stances where I could place protection and scan the next section. I identified the features to use for climbing and made a plan at these stances. The climbing was difficult, but I was able to climb through each section to arrive at the next rest stance. Finally, I reached the anchors and lowered to the ground. My friends were happy for me, saying “You on-sighted a 5.11d.”
A common mental training problem is making a route mentally harder than it really is. We let the grade of the route determine how difficult the climbing will be for us. We think it’ll be difficult when we climb routes above our limit. Or, we think it’ll be easy when we climb routes below our limit.
Either of these ways of thinking distracts attention from climbing the actual route. We’re climbing an image in the mind instead of the rock in front of us. Doing this creates expectations of difficulty, or ease, that interfere with our climbing.
We can see the benefit of thinking we’re climbing an easier grade, as in my experience on Head to Toe. We trick ourselves—or someone else tricks us—into having a more relaxed mind when climbing. Thinking that I was climbing a 5.10c relaxed my mind so I could focus better. Tricks such as this, however, circumvent stress to achieve short-term ends. There’s benefit in facing the stress of knowing the actual difficulty grade we’re climbing. Be aware of such mind tricks and bring attention back to the actual situation to see it as clearly as possible.
Conversely, we can see the limitations of thinking we’re climbing a harder grade. We make the climb more difficult than it actually is. We fear the rating instead of focusing on real parts of the climbing situation, such as the type of holds, falls, and protection.
We need clarity and objectivity. We see beyond the mental image in the mind—whether it’s an image of difficulty or ease—so we can see the various parts of the route. We describe these parts objectively so we don’t make the climb “more or less” than it actually is. We describe the stances for protection, fall consequences, and climbing possibilities objectively. Then we stay curious to utilize whatever the route offers to climb it. Doing this helps us stay objective and see more clearly.
Mental tricks and tactics circumvent stress. Mental training addresses such mental tricks and eliminates them. Stress must be faced directly in order to learn. Facing stress and working through it, builds a solid foundation for engaging new, more stressful learning situations. Don’t make the route harder or easier than it really is. See the route as it is and then engage the stress with full awareness.
Practice Tip: Focus on Possibilities
If you don’t know the difficulty grade of a route, then you’re forced to focus on possibilities for climbing. Your attention won’t be on how hard or easy the climbing will be; it’ll be on actions to take for climbing.
Go to a climbing area that has routes unknown to you. Don’t take a guidebook. Seek routes that look interesting and select ones based on the fall consequence rather than the difficulty. Make sure you have experience with such consequences. Then, focus on possibilities as you climb the routes. Later you can look in the guidebook to check the difficulty rating. You may be amazed what you can climb by focusing on possibilities instead of the grade.