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Last week, I wrote “Happy Climber Tips: Part 1” which discussed a few ways we as climbers can develop a level of mental and emotional balance throughout our careers. Our mental state as climbers, unfortunately, is often quite predictable. We send and we’re stoked, we don’t send and we’re bummed. That’s not a sustainable or reasonable way to think, obviously, but in spite of ourselves, we slip into those patterns. It’s only natural. All activities that incorporate some measure of “success” or “goals” are likely to make us feel bummed when we don’t achieve said goals.
I’ve suffered from neuropathy and fibromyalgia for my entire adult life, and as a result had to figure out fairly early on how to be happy as a climber even when I couldn’t project hard (or climb at all). Easier said than done of course, but here are a few tips I’ve come up with over the years to help me cultivate that upbeat mentality. This is “Happy Climber Tips: Part 2.”
Take a Belay Day
Taking a belay day means spending a day belaying, exclusively. No projecting, no warm ups, no getting on the wall at all. You’re at the crag or gym, but you’re just motivating your buddies. Holding their rope, keeping them stoked, watching them climb. Simple.
A belay day is different from an off-day, because you’re not completely taking the day off from climbing, you’re still there at the wall, but you’re focusing on everyone else’s climbing except your own. It’s a really minor thing, but spending the day just watching others climb and inspiring them to crush will help center your mind and get you back in the spirit of the whole endeavour.
Leave the Guidebook at Home When Bouldering Outside
A few weeks ago, I went down to Horse Pens 40 (a bouldering area in Alabama) for the weekend. I hadn’t been bouldering in quite a while, and hadn’t been to HP40 in years. I was super stoked to mess around on some of the old problems I loved as a kid, but was getting my butt kicked constantly. I kept checking the guidebook, making sure I wasn’t missing something. V4 seemed like V8. I could barely send anything, and the stuff I was topping out was leaving me outrageously pumped and gassed. I’m so out of shape, I thought.
At one point, I just decided to leave the guidebook back at the tent and go walk around in my approach shoes. I wasn’t planning on climbing anything, just walking around looking at the rocks, but eventually I started scrambling around, and soon I was sending a few mellow problems. I don’t know what grade they were, maybe V0, maybe nothing, but I didn’t care. I was having a good time. That experience salvaged the whole trip for me, and later that day, I was even able to send a few of the problems I’d struggled on before.
This is one of the great luxuries of climbing outside. You don’t have to know what grade the route is. Leaving the guidebook in the tent didn’t magically make me stronger, but it tricked my brain into stopping with the self-loathing “I’m so bad at climbing now” bullshit. If you’re getting bogged down in thoughts of what once was or what could’ve been, throw away the guidebook and just hop on stuff that looks fun. You might be surprised at how much better you’ll feel.
Accept Some “Craigslist” Partners
I wrote about this more in-depth in my column, “The Gumby Guru,” but the Craigslist Belayer / Climbing Partner is basically a stranger. The person putting up the notice at the front desk of your gym asking for a climbing buddy.
Obviously you want to vet these people and make sure both of you are comfortable with the same safety practices and standards, but climbing with someone new every now and then, as opposed to the same two or three people your whole life, is a great way to improve your mentality. You often meet people with interesting stories, people in their 60s who just started climbing, people from foreign countries, and so on.
By nature, someone who is looking for a climbing partner is likely someone who is relatively new to your gym’s climbing community. If you’re feeling a bit down on yourself and your climbing, chances are meeting up with someone like this will be a great way to spring you from your funk. You’ll get a fresh perspective and be able to remove yourself from the mindset of all the projects you and your usual partners are working. Instead, you can just focus on sending a few fun routes with a new partner. You might also make a lifelong friend.
Visit New Gyms
Every climbing gym offers something different. A different climbing community, a different style, and sometimes even different rules.
If climbing at your gym has gotten stale for you, or you’re stuck in a rut and need some change, try a couple new gyms. Just like the Craigslist Belays, you’ll meet new people, probably send some new types of routes, and most importantly get a break from the same old grind at your regular rock gym.
And now, the big one…
No, I don’t mean practice touching your toes (although a little daily stretching is a good way to boost endorphins). By being flexible, I mean being flexible with your goals and your aspirations. As climbers, we’re taught to hold on to the rock for dear life, tight tight tight, clenching everything we have to stay on the wall. That physical training can often carry over into our mental experience as climbers, and while it’s a necessary part of the physical aspect of climbing, mental inflexibility is toxic.
When I first developed neuropathy, my previous climbing style (super crimpy routes) was shot. Crimps were impossible for me with my nerve pain in my hands. I couldn’t work any of the routes I’d loved before. So I started climbing more slab routes, where I didn’t have to use my hands as much, routes that required more technique than strength. Soon I learned to love slab climbing.
Later, when my overall situation got much worse and any anaerobic exercise like climbing was beginning to be out of the question, I decided to set a goal for myself to summit all the 14ers (14,000-foot peaks) in Colorado. Almost none of these mountains require any technical climbing, but it was still a “climbing”-esque experience, and one that kept me stoked and gave me something to be proud of. Hiking these peaks was still tough, of course, but because it was mostly aerobic exercise it didn’t exacerbate my neuromuscular issues as much. In the process, I found a new passion, mountaineering.
Being flexible with yourself and with what you let bring you happiness is the #1 Tip I have for anyone who wants to stay happy throughout a climbing career.
If you can be flexible with your happiness and flexible with your goals, you’ll find happiness in just about any climbing situation, whether you’re sending V15 or V1, whether you’re in Yosemite or climbing a mud-covered boulder in your backyard.
Feature image by Eddie Fowke/IFSC
Owen Clarke is a writer currently based in Tennessee. He is a Contributing Digital Editor at Rock and Ice and Gym Climber. He enjoys Southern sandstone and fish tacos, and is afraid of heights.
Follow him on Instagram at @opops13.