Better Leading

“Falling!” I yell. A pathetic fall more indicative of giving up than giving your all. My waist was barely above the piece and a bolt only a body length higher, but I was pumped out. I spent too much time hanging out on small holds, trying to make it more secure than necessary, rather than just going for it. After hanging for a few minutes, I committed, moved up, clipped the bolt, and completed another challenging sequence before the climbing eased. Rather than proud, I felt defeated. Why didn’t I just commit to doing the moves the first time?

Time to commit above thin gear on Fred (5.11a), Tahquitz Rock.

I hate the giving up style of failure when I attempt routes at my limit, but I do it more than I should admit. It’s frustrating to know that you can climb better than your performance suggests, and even more frustrating to know you just gave up. I sought to find out why I was struggling and work to fix the problem.

It’s been a problem for years. I’ve seen little to no improvement in leading difficult routes, all the while knowing I could climb harder. Looking for answers is harder than chalking it up to the vague “I just not strong enough” excuse. Rather than make yet another commitment to get stronger, I sought to identify the real problem

I made a list of my hardest redpoints and onsights. It soon became obvious that I could lead slab and face climbs at a greater difficulty than I was willing to attempt with crack climbs.

I’m a proficient slab climber, but I prefer crack climbing. I could cleanly toprope cracks 3-4 letter grades harder than I was willing to attempt on lead. But with slab climbing, I could lead within a letter grade or two of what I could toprope, if the protection was adequate. And it wasn’t simply that I’m a better face climber. In fact, I could cleanly toprope cracks at a harder grade than slab and face climbs. Why was there there such a disparity in my leading ability?

For me, it boiled down to that slab climbs have fixed gear and almost no options for pro anywhere else. I don’t enjoy long runouts, but I’m not overly fearful of them or of falling. Runouts force me to focus solely on climbing. This singularly focused mindset was missing from my crack climbing leads and is the missing piece of the puzzle.

I realized that on traditionally protected routes, I rarely focused solely on climbing moves. Most of the time, my mind fluttered rapidly between climbing and thinking about placing pro or the quality of protection. An unfocused mind cannot climb hard.

Focusing on climbing through the crux with pro below my feet in the intimidating chimney of Dark Horse (5.10-), Cochise Stronghold.

I reflected more deeply on that problem. I discovered I actually spent way more time thinking about when and how I could put that gear in, and comparatively little time focusing on the actual climbing moves. It was like climbing was an afterthought to placing gear.

I took the mantra “place early and often” too far. I placed gear too early, too frequently, and from poor stances, often when a better stance was just a move away. This approach, while safe, was not conducive for me improving my lead ability beyond easy 5.10s. It made climbing harder more stressful and way more tiring than necessary. The too early and too often approach wasn’t making me a better climber, it just made me better at placing gear.

The answer to my leading woes was deceptively simple: climb continuously between rests and place pro during those rests. Make a conscious effort to focus on the one task that is appropriate at that specific time: climbing, resting, or placing pro. Pick one and give it 100%.

But the mindset needed for doing just that doesn’t come easily, it takes work.

Consistent, positive self-talk and visualization have been the key. At the base before leading a challenging route, whether I have climbed it before or not, I visualization the climb. I plan out where rest stances may be, where I must place gear to keep risk to a minimum, and how I might approach certain sequences. I don’t stop visualizing until I reach the end of the pitch successfully.

When it’s time to start climbing, I focus purely on movement until I reach the next rest stance. During the rest, I look up at the next moves and visualize how I will climb to the next stance. As I move up, I place enough protection to keep my mind at ease and to keep me as safe as possible. I consciously reject over-placing gear out of unreasonable fear or just to delay committing.

Committing to keep moving to the next stance when the protection is good on Amanda (5.10a), Joshua Tree.
When reaching the crux, I find the closest rest and place a solid piece of protection. I study the rux and the surrounding terrain. I take special care to consider any dangers for falling during that crux. After assessing potential fall danger, I look for additional gear placements if necessary. Many times, I can place that protection by making a few moves into the crux, then downclimbing back to my rest stance. Other times, I see that I may need to place a piece from a tenuous stance during, or shortly after the crux. Regardless of the scenario, I make a plan, take a breath, and fully commit.

When it’s time to climb, all energy and focus must go towards moving up. I want my hand and foot placements to be as good as they can be, but I resist the temptation to fiddle around. Good enough is good enough. Now is not the time to make sure everything feels bomber.

When the climbing is hard, I must push myself to keep climbing. Fear tries to take over and cause panic, but if I have appropriately chosen the route to my ability and am protecting it adequately, it is reasonable and necessary to push that fear out. If I do end up in no-fall territory, I better just keep on climbing until I can rest or place gear. Losing focus is the worst thing you can do if you’re in no-fall territory, especially on difficult terrain.

If pro is needed mid-crux, I commit to placing it quickly and keep going. If I find a decent stance I did not anticipate, I may rest and place gear, otherwise I continue climbing until the difficulties are over.

While the answer to my problems was simple, practicing this mentality requires conscious thought and constant reinforcement. I’m not always successful and I fall back into comfortable patterns. Old habits are tough to break, but with consistent practice I’m seeing improvement. When I do fail, I avoid negative self-talk as much as possible. Instead, I redirect my focus on specifically what I should do right the next time.

Keeping it fun through a wide section of Ides of Middlemarch (5.10-), Cochise Stronghold.

Becoming a better climber is hard and is different for everybody, but the challenge is part of the reason we love climbing. When frustrated, I try to remember that climbing is a process and I’m doing it for fun, so there is no need to stress out over minor failures. I learn from my successes whenever they come; I try learn even more from my failures. Most importantly, I remember how fortunate I am to be climbing and I try enjoy the process as much as possible, success or not.

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