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.

Solo Trekking

Finding myself in the woods.

Report from 10/7/15

Over the summer, I struggled through some life bumps in the road. After 6 years in therapy, I was finally getting to the bottom of my deepest darkest inner demons that had resulted in my depression as a teen, and my eating disorder during adolescence. This was that stuff no one ever wants to look at, let alone work on. As the school year began to close in on me, I decided I desperately needed some alone time in the mountains and not just a hike by myself, but an overnight trek into a quiet place where I could decompress, de-stress, and get in touch with that nature-linked spiritual side. I had hiked alone plenty sure, but I had never slept out in the wild alone. It was sure to be an interesting night.

Life delayed my solo trip for a few weeks, but once school started I knew I needed to make it happen before my brain felt like it was going to explode. A few weeks ago in mid-September, I embarked on my night alone in the wild. I picked a beautiful spot, in the saddle between Devil’s Castle and Sugarloaf Peak Utah; a saddle between two peaks that I had been curious about camping in for years.

I made it to the saddle just after sunset. The hike itself only took me two hours, but I had a much later start than I had hoped that day. I pitched my tent in a small wind shelter built out of slate, cooked my food, and went to lay down in my tent.

That night was NOT a quiet as I hoped…. The weather forecast was calm and clear, but just after dusk the wind picked up. Sleeping at 11,000 feet, I knew there was a chance of wind, but the normal wind pattern for this area of Utah has southerly and westerly winds which the shelter was built to block out. What I encountered were winds from the North winds which would blow into the doorway opening of the shelter and swirl around in my small little nook. My tent was SO LOUD, and the wind didn’t die down until after midnight. I felt myself digressing to my childhood ways of hiding under my sleeping bag from the wind as I slept alone, on a mountain, in the wind. At around 2am I was awoken by howling in the night. The saddle I was located on straddled 2 valleys with great acoustics and full of wildlife. I could hear the howling and laughter of coyotes but I couldn’t tell which valley the sound came from or how far away they were. I continued to hide in my sleeping bag wishing for the sun to come up. It was a new moon, and with a thin layer of cloud cover, the night was dark and empty. I had never felt more alone in my life. Not a star in the sky, no one to comfort me but myself. It was a test of strength of mind and a test of self.

I woke up the next morning just before the sun rose. It was calm, cool and the most refreshing feeling in the world (despite my lack of sleep). Every dark, lonely feeling from the night before was immediately washed away with the sun’s morning rays. I sat on the ridge overlooking the Albion Basin below me. The Autumn colors were glowing at first light and I felt that indescribable feeling of awe as I watched the sunrise. After about a half hour of just enjoying the view, I decided to greet the sun in the best way I could think of that had been inspired by a wandering friend… 😉

Something about that moment was awe-inspiring. (I don’t know what it is, but if you have never gotten naked in nature, I highly recommend it.) You feel completely free in every way imaginable. No worries, no stress, nothing to constrict you both mentally and physically. You really can embrace the world around you and truly become one with nature.

After my hippie moment, I finished off my morning by trekking up Sugarloaf Peak. It was a short hike from my campsite and it was a great way to finish off my experience. I had climbed these mountains countless times over and over but had never seen them quite like this. It was exactly what I needed and left me feeling rejuvenated for everything that was still in front of me. The greatest lesson learned in the whole experience was that despite whatever darkness or challenges you may come across in your life, you can make it through it and will be greeted with light on the other side.

~Sometimes you just have to get out there and get lost in the world~