Mental Space for the Climbing Mind

Everyone is different. Everyone has different fear and anxieties. A non-climber might ask someone who does climb how they could possibly do it, might even call them crazy. The reality is, we kind of have to be in our own way. We have to be able to conquer our fears and anxieties enough to be able to succeed.

How do we do it? How do we get into the mental focus and space required to successfully top out on a wall or a summit.

Well, again, everyone is different. The best I can do is share my experience. In reality, I have incredibly severe anxiety. Sometimes I feel like a bit of a mess and it is a wonder how I am able to conquer it for the sake of climbing. The truth is, climbing and mountaineering is one of the very few ways I can focus my mind and I know many other climbers that feel the same way. I like to compare it to those who use yoga as a meditation practice. When you do yoga, you have to focus on balance, posing, breathing, and it is nearly impossible to think about anything else that is bothering you in your life. Climbing does the same thing for me. I hone in and focus on my moves, each step I take, each hold I grab, always looking onward and upward.

I had an experience this week on an incredibly easy wall that tested my mental space. This is a wall I have done so many times I have lost count, a route so easy, I honestly could free solo it. I am not sure exactly what it was, but on this particular day, my head just wasn’t in it. I set up the top rope, and I normally repel down from the top, no fear, no big deal… I couldn’t do it. I psyched myself out. Later, climbing the route I got about 3/4 of the way up and froze. I ended up pushing past it, but the thoughts going through my mind were a complete lack of trust in my rope and my gear which NEVER happens. Why on earth was a suddenly freaking out? What was it about that day or that climb that made me so nervous despite doing it dozens of times in the past?

Reflecting back on it, I realized I was not focused, and I wasn’t in my right mind set, I wasn’t climbing for the right reasons that day. I climb for me. I have always climbed for me. It is my therapy, it is how I am able to get an escape, it is a spiritual experience and place for me to be, and it is how I am able to find a sense of peace and calm in my chaotic world. That day, I was not climbing for me…. I am not even sure what I was climbing for… Attention maybe? Showing off to my husband? Embarrassing as it may be, I am quite irritated at myself. It reminds me that no matter how simple the task, I need to be focused on it, and not let other things in my world cloud my judgement. It might not be a big deal on a simple top rope route, but say I am climbing up a Himalayan ridge, that mental space is crucial for success as well as safety. If I got too distracted that I panicked, I could put my life or someone else’s in jeopardy…

I reflect back on my trip to Nepal, and there were a lot of factors that wreaked havoc on my mind. Getting food poisoning early in the trip put a lot of doubt in my mind. It wasn’t until I started feeling better that I received a surge of confidence, that is until I got sick again. The day I climbed Kala Patthar, I was not mentally where I really needed to be at the start of the climb. It was cloudy, and I was more focused on “What if the clouds never move? If I get to the top of this thing and I can’t even see the view I’m gonna be so pissed!” I then began to panic because I wasn’t getting enough air. It was my first experience at 18,000′ and I was beginning to doubt if I could even climb this stupid hill in front of me. About 2/3 of the way up I stopped for a little while, I had to refocus my mind, and get “out” of my head. Focus on my steps, focus on getting to the top regardless of what the weather does. I had to remind myself that whether the view is cloudy or not, it is still a massive accomplishment and I would hate myself if I turned back. I took about 10 minutes to gather my focus and continued onward. I climbed, I made it, and luckily the clouds parted just long enough for me to snap a picture of Everest.

It takes practice to focus the way I need to to be able to successfully climb a wall of summit a peak, and I am only human… some days just aren’t my day. The key is learning to push past whatever is holding you back to be able to focus when it really counts. If I really want to climb Everest and the other Seven Summits, I need to be 100% focused. I need to remember WHY I am doing it and I think the same can be said for anyone who has a goal they want to accomplish in life. Why do you want to do it? Hold onto that, focus that, and don’t let anything else get in your way.

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