Wednesday, January 30, 2013

The Rock as an Ally

The climbing vernacular tends to place the rock (or ice or snow) in an adversarial relationship with the climber.  We “conquer” mountains, “crush” sport climbs, and “get aggro” on the hard moves.  We look at bouldering lines as “problems” to be solved or circumvented.  Climbers often “prepare for battle” against a big wall or scary route.  Clearly, there is some credence to the notion that the climbing community subconsciously (or even consciously) sees itself at war with the very mountains, cliffs, and boulders upon which we climb.

In the same vein as a few of my other posts on keeping the positivity in climbing, I’d like to see this change.  We can certainly still go send, crank, and otherwise climb hard, but the notion that we’re going to “rage” against a climb doesn’t seem appropriate to me.

I prefer a less egocentric approach.  We shouldn’t be bending the rock to our will or bringing it into submission; for all practical purposes, the rock is rather immutable.  Instead, we should be considering how we can best ascend the features which the rock has laid out for us.  We should be determining how to flow most efficiently across the terrain that exists in front of us.  If a primal scream is required from time to time to nab that heinous crimper that happens to stand in the most efficient path of movement, so be it.  But, I’d ultimately much rather see the rock as a partner presenting me with unique and potentially challenging and enlightening opportunities for ascent as opposed to an adversary barring me from the summit.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

The Power of a Smile

In his books The Rock Warrior’s Way and EspressoLessons, Arno Ilgner recommends taking a few steps to help mental focus while climbing, such as breathing control, looking with “soft eyes,” and consciously relaxing the posture I would add another small task to this list--smiling. 

Neuroscience has taught us some interesting things about the way the brain perceives emotion.  (Here is an article from Scientific American on the subject; one relevant research article can be found here for those so inclined.)  Notably, the brain uses physical indicators as feedback for how it should activate your limbic system to make you feel.  For example, when you see someone else frown, you frown too, causing you to feel a negative emotion, likely similar to what the other person is experiencing.  This is particularly valuable as it creates a ready pathway for empathy, thereby facilitating productive social interaction. 

Similarly, when you smile, your brain senses the position of your facial muscles and makes you feel happy.  Note the ordering there--you smile first, then you feel happy.  Once you feel happy, you keep smiling, and your brain continues releasing the neurotransmitters that make you feel happy.  It’s a beautiful feedback loop.

What does any of this have to do with climbing?  It’s hard to focus when you’re tense, distracted, and thinking negatively.  Ideally, we want to be relaxed and open when we’re climbing.  Unfortunately, it’s those nerve-wracking, stressful, physically demanding climbing situations that make us most anxious, precisely when we need to be the most relaxed.  One easy way to reduce stress is simply by smiling.  Forcing a smile causes your brain to recognize that it’s supposed to feel happy and, more importantly, relaxed, at that particular moment, even if you don’t necessarily feel like smiling.

The next time you’re sketching out high above your gear or cruxing on what was supposed to be a for-sure redpoint, find a stance or a rest, pause a moment, and smile.  I can almost guarantee you’ll be more relaxed and focused.  You may not send, but you may very well do better than you previously thought.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

The Climbing Superpower

Recently, I’ve been thinking a bit about the way we approach climbing mentally, and I feel that the climbing community at large could be more positive about its approach, hopefully with positive results.  One common theme I hear in the gym and at the crag is the notion that something “just isn’t my style,” and perhaps more adversarial, “you can only do that cause you’re tall (short, have tiny fingers, insert lame excuse here).”  The beauty of these excuses is in their simplicity.  Nothing is open for debate--style is quite subjective and height is an uncontrollable physical attribute.  It clearly wasn’t a deficiency on the part of the climber that resulted in a fall--it was a deficiency in the route by failing to match the style or body type of the climber.

I think the positive corollary to this sentiment is to figure out what is your style, and then use this as your own unique climbing “super power.”  For example, maybe you are a master of all things slopey.  Perhaps you can high step with your foot next to your ear.  It could be that you were blessed with superb campus strength.  Or, your lock-off strength might be unparalleled.  Whatever it is, we all have a strength (maybe even more than one).  I want to encourage recognition of those strengths to exploit them for better climbing.

Please don’t misunderstand me; I’m not proposing that we acknowledge our strengths while being blind to our weaknesses.  One sure way to improve as a climber is to focus on deficiencies and work on them until they’re no longer deficiencies.  I strongly recommend this. 

What I am suggesting is that in addition to improving our weaknesses, where we know we will struggle, we should eliminate making up excuses for when we struggle unexpectedly.  If a route “just isn’t your style,” perhaps the right question to ask then is, “How can I use my strength(s) to find the beta that works for me?” or maybe, “Is this route exposing a weakness that I wasn’t aware of until now?”

For me personally, my “superpower” is what I affectionately refer to as “go go gadget arms”--my ape index and lanky build allow me to reach through nearly anything.  My corresponding weakness lies in climbing horizontal terrain.  My butt sags ridiculously on roofs, overhangs, or any time a heel hook is required.  The best bet for me is not to lament my gangly frame or to attribute another’s success simply to their smaller fingers, lighter weight, or other difference.  Instead, maybe the solution for me is to just skip all the intermediate bumps and reach straight for the lip of the roof.  The take home point, though, is that I’ll be much better served in the long run by figuring out how I can use my unique style to do the moves instead of lamenting that the moves are easier for someone with a different set of physical characteristics.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Rope Management - Rule #4

This is the final post in a series on good rope management techniques.  You can find the others in the series below:

Rule #1:  Know where both rope ends are
Rule #2:  If it's a mess now, it will be a mess later
Rule #3:  Don't drop the rope!

Rule #4:  Ropes like to be coiled (or stacked).

The last rule is a corollary to rule #2 (if it’s a mess now, it will be a mess later) that aims to prevent having to untangle a messy rope in the first place.  For example, while out sport climbing, instead of dragging your rope from climb to climb, save yourself from grinding dirt into your rope and stack the rope on a tarp or coil it over your shoulders to carry between climbs.  It’s a slightly longer investment in time initially, but if the rope were to snag on just one root or boulder as you drag it across the ground, you’ll already have saved time by being organized. 

Similarly, if you’re bringing up a follower and not stacking the rope neatly as you belay, when it comes time to lead the next pitch, the belayer is likely going to have some fun trying to untangle a rope while simultaneously feeding slack to the leader.  If you need to flip a rope stack over, you’re pretty much guaranteed poor results unless the rope was well-stacked from the start.  When tossing the ropes for rappel, a neat stack with the rope end on top facilitates an easy toss, while a messy stack will leave you untying a knotted rope on rappel (though it will probably ensure you can’t rappel off the ends!)

The moral of the story with all of these rules is that good rope management takes a little bit of time and little bit of effort, but over the course of your climbing day can save you innumerable hiccups and annoyances.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Rope Management - Rule #3

This post is the third installment in a series on rope management.  You can find the first two here and here.

Rule #3:  Don’t drop the rope.

This rule is by the far the simplest conceptually--just don’t drop the rope.  However, this may be cumbersome in practice, especially when changing over the anchor on a single pitch climb as you thread the rope for rappel.  A recent incident at Yellow Bluff, Alabama, where a climber dropped the rope and found himself stranded at the anchors, sheds light on just how easy it can be to make this mistake.

Many climbers tie the rope off to their harness in some way before untying their figure-8 knot to thread the rope for rappel, often tying 2 or 3 knots in the process of changing over the anchor.  I recommend the same approach whether you are rappelling or lowering off.  The following steps minimizes the amount of tying and untying that goes on:

1)  Starting at your figure-8 tie-in knot, pass a bight of rope through the rappel rings. 
2)  Tie a figure-8 on a bight with this bight of rope on the side of the rings opposite from your tie-in knot.
3)  If you will be lowering, clip this new figure-8 on a bight to your belay loop, untie from your tie-in knot, and lower off.  If you will be rappelling, untie from your tie-in knot and lower the figure-8 on a bight to the ground.  If you have been following my recommendations from rule #1 (always know where to locate both ends of the rope), then at this point you will have a stopper knot in each of your rappel strands and you will have avoided any chance of dropping the rope.

Another place where you might find yourself without a rope is on a traversing multipitch rappel, particularly if you and your partner arrive at the anchor and let go of the ropes, watching helplessly as they swing away from you to a point under the plumb line of the anchor above.  This can be mitigated by keeping a firm grasp on the ropes (the prussic hitch you used to back up your rappel is useful for this--you did use a prussic, didn’t you?) until you’re ready to thread them.  You can even save yourself a step by beginning to thread the rope while your partner is rappelling.

You may also find yourself in a similarly unpleasant situation on a multipitch rappel under very windy conditions where the rope ends may whip around violently and get stuck on a rock feature some place far away and likely inaccessible.  In the case of severe wind, the safest course of action is to stack each rope end into a sling hanging off either side of your harness (known as “saddlebags”) so the rope can feed out as you rappel without whipping around in the wind.  Of course, if you’re following rule #1 (know where to locate your rope ends), then you’ll have already accounted for this since you don’t want your rope ends stuck around a corner somewhere.