1-WarriorsWaylogo®by Warrior’s Way trainer Tracy Martin
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City of Rocks is a beautiful granite climbing playground in Idaho. Seven years ago I had a terrifying experience that has haunted me ever since. I decided to climb Brown Flake, a traditional climb first climbed by Greg Lowe in 1965. Brown Flake is rated a moderate 5.10d grade, but many climbers think it’s much harder. In fact, some think it’s harder than another “City” classic also done by Greg Lowe: Crack-Of-Doom, rated 5.11c. Brown Flake is a dihedral that you climb by lie-backing, making it pumpy and difficult to place gear.

I wasn’t as experienced with trad skills as I am today. The whole climb felt hard and then I arrived at the flake, the crux. I placed a #3 Camalot, shook out as best as I could, and climbed up the flake. I was totally pumped, couldn’t climb up or down, and fell. Somehow I ended up flipping upside-down. I lowered to the ground and left. I was afraid to get on the route again. That fall created a strong negative memory that has continued to affect me.

brown flake-1I didn’t like the fact that I was afraid of getting on Brown Flake again. I don’t think any of us like the feeling of being defeated by a climb; that a climb has the power to make us afraid. I had to return and face my fear. I needed to reclaim my power from that negative experience.

Mental training is about developing our ability to face our fears. But how do we go about doing that? Do we simply get back on the route and give it another go? Or, do we need to change our strategy. There’s a lot of strategy when we do physical training. We can outline a specific training program that builds power over time. Mental training also needs strategy.

Our mental training strategy needs to include attention and how we choose to focus it. Going back to a nemesis climb can cause our attention to be focused on the past negative memory, distracting it from the current situation. Our mental training strategy needs to include how we deal with this distraction.

The Warrior’s Way mental training strategy emphasizes two ways of focusing our attention. We focus our attention on thinking with the mind when we stop and moving the body when we climb. We focus on thinking, to create our plan for climbing, when we’re stopped; we focus on acting out that plan when we climb. In other words, we commit our attention to one or the other. Most climbers lose effectiveness with their attention because they mix these two.

Our strategy for thinking includes creating a plan for the current situation. We identify the next protection placement, evaluate the fall consequence, and our plan for climbing…based on the situation now, not the past. Our strategy for climbing includes focusing on the somatic activities occurring in the body, such as breathing, relaxing, and moving…based on the situation now, our current level of physical skill. Neither of these include thinking about the past negative memory. We can draw on the past experience, but only in ways that help us perform better, now. We engage the route as a new challenge, seeing it as it is now, not as we negatively experienced it in the past.

I walked over to Brown Flake. There were about a dozen people climbing, but none of them were on “my route.” I could sense what they were thinking: “Wow, no one does that route.” I didn’t say a word either. Past memories started to come back as I was preparing.

I started climbing. Every move was crystal clear. I felt smooth and controlled, yet mental chatter was creeping in. “I remember there was something hard here.” I thought “surely the hard part is coming up,” but then I easily climbed through that section. And then it happened again. Now, perched under the crux lie-back—the brown flake—my heart sank. “Here is the hard part” I thought. I placed the #3 Camalot, the same piece that caught me seven years earlier.

I could hear all the people chatting down below. I could feel them looking up at me. I felt stressed thinking about taking that upside-down fall again. I took a deep belly breath, looked down, and made eye contact with my belayer. I looked at my feet. I checked in with my hands and arms and I felt no pump. I pulled up a move to place the next piece of gear. I noticed a slightly higher foot and I could see my next handhold. I exhaled and moved up into the lie-back. I plugged in a small bomber cam, one I didn’t place last time, and without hesitation reached up to the small finger-tips lie-back. I felt a huge smile come across my face. There I was, mid crux, feeling relaxed. Every move was crystal clear. I didn’t want it to be over. I wanted to stay there for another second before I reached for the finishing jug.

We can see from this experience how my mind was distracting my attention to the past memory. My mind kept thinking “this is where it should be hard” based on my past experience. Yet, what did the climbing feel like now? I redirected my attention to the present situation each time it would get distracted to the past.

When I stopped, I focused on thinking about where I could get protection and my plan for climbing. When I climbed, I focused my attention in my body, on processes such as breathing. I connected my attention with how my body was feeling: how pumped was I now? Breathing, eye contact with my belayer, feeling how pumped I was, where to place gear, where foot- and hand-holds are, all point to using my attention now, without allowing it to be distracted to the past memory. Doing this allowed me to notice new aspects about the climb, like a higher foothold leading into the flake and an additional cam to protect the crux.

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When we focus our attention this way we shift it into the present moment on what is actually occurring. Doing this helps us relax into the stress more completely and actually enjoy the experience. I wanted to be there, in the middle of the stressful climb, without rushing to the finishing jug. I’d reclaimed my power by focusing my attention on what was happening now. How much more rewarding is such an experience than allowing a climb to hold power over us? I’d say…a lot.


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