by Mark Anderson
A recent discussion got me thinking about some of the mental impediments to advancing to the “next level.” Whether the next level for you happens to be 5.11a or 5.15a, many of us encounter a feeling of inadequacy when pondering the next jump in difficulty—a sense that “I’m not worthy of [insert grade or route].” Nearly every time I’ve dared to attempt any sort of advancement from one level to the next (be 12a, 12c, 13a and so on) I’ve faced self-doubt. When it came time to try 5.14 it became a serious problem. I had decided that only legends climb 5.14, and I’m not a legend, so logically I couldn’t climb 5.14.
Even after I convinced myself to try (and eventually send) my first 5.14, I was still self-conscious about being seen on other routes of the same grade. When I travelled to Smith Rock to attempt the legendary line To Bolt Or Not To Be, the crux of the campaign was just getting up the nerve to drop my rope below it on the first day (a Saturday no less)! The route is smack dab in the middle of the park, in plain view of hundreds of other climbers. I sheepishly felt that maybe I didn’t “deserve” to be on such an historic climb, or perhaps other climbers would think I was a “poser” [Note to millennials: a “poser” is someone who pretends to be good at something they are not. In the 1990s, it was important to NOT be a poser. Social media has made this term obsolete, since now everybody is posing all the time 🙂].
One of the areas where Mike has always been better than me is that, at least outwardly, he seems to have much greater confidence, and a willingness to dream big. If not for his lead and example I wouldn’t have accomplished a fraction of the routes I have. Especially in our early days as alpinists and adventure climbers, Mike usually set the agenda and picked out objectives that I would have considered too difficult—routes like the Cassin Ridge, Devil’s Thumb, Mt Waddington or the Greenwood-Locke. Sometimes we got in over our heads, but most of the time it worked out, and I learned inch-by-inch that we were better than I had estimated.
So what causes this self-doubt? There are many contributing factors, and they surely vary from climber to climber. Here are a few mental traps that I believe have undermined my climbing over the years:
Worshipping History: I love climbing lore. I gobble up biographies and make a point to learn the backstory on all my goal routes. I’m so frequently saying “Wolgang Gullich this…” and “Jerry Moffatt that…” you’d think I was living in 1989. I’ve spent so many years idolizing different climbers that by the time I get good enough to try their routes they seem almost forbidden. This NOT-SUITABLE-FOR-WORK clip from The 40-Year-Old Virgin sums up this mindset pretty well:
WARNING: This clip is not suitable for work:
I periodically make the mistake of putting that “next level” project up on a pedestal, treating it with excessive reverence, as though it’s some unfathomable, unattainable fantasy. Whether the next level is a landmark grade (such as 5.13 or V10) or a specific, premiere route, in reality, it’s just the next arbitrary increment on a fairly linear spectrum. There’s usually no empirical reason why it would be any more difficult than your previous increments of improvement. The only differences are superficial distractions fabricated by your reluctant mind.
If history-worship is holding you back, ponder the last time you made a jump in difficulty. Perhaps at the time you felt unworthy of those jumps as well, but you succeeded anyway. Another option for some is to try a route at the next increment when you’re on vacation. In the US, 5.12a is a “big deal” because it’s the first sub-grade of 5.12, whereas in France (and most of the rest of the Sport Climbing world), a route of the same difficulty is just 7a+ (in other words, “no big deal”). If you’re overwhelmed more by the iconic nature of a particular route than you are its grade, consider trying another, less-legendary route at the same grade. Attempting “just another route”, even if you have no intention of sending it, can build your belief that the goal route really is not such a big deal.
Comparison to Others: Some improving climbers may compare themselves to individuals who climb at the “next level”, and think “I’m not as good as they are, so logically I can’t climb the same routes/grades they do.” You could be dwelling on a specific difference such as, “Everyone I know whose done Route XYZ can do a 1-arm pull-up. I can’t do a 1-arm pull-up, so I probably can’t do Route XYZ.” Or perhaps you are bounding your own potential to that of your mentor. Many of us have a climber or two that we look up to because they showed us the ropes, gave us encouragement, and indoctrinated us into the sport. These people are often our heroes, and it may seem unthinkable that you could succeed where your trusty ropegun did not.
Or, as in the case of Mike and my ascent of Freerider, it could be more general. At that time every other person who had freed El Capitan was a full-time pro climber, and most of them were household names (Skinner & Piana, Lynn Hill, The Huber Bros, Yuji, Tommy and so on). I was understandably skeptical that two nobodies could roll into the Valley and free the Big Stone (the fact that Mike did it, unrehearsed, with no falls, is so unfathomable it probably explains why it has since been largely forgotten by the media). But we did it anyway. We got up the nerve to try, and once we were engaged, we just kept putting one foot in front of the other, and before we had time to hesitate over the improbability of it all, we were at the top.
If some form of comparison is a problem for you, remember that we’re all human. When looking inward, many of us have a tendency to dwell on our weakness and understate our strengths. When looking at others, we do the opposite. That’s not realistic. While it’s no secret the best climbers all have certain talents that give them advantages, the big taboo is that even the world’s elite have significant weaknesses, just like everyone else. The difference between them and the average Joe is that they don’t let their limitations hold them back. They maximize their strengths and minimize their weaknesses. You can do the same thing. Everyone has talents, and you likely have strengths where some of your peers, mentors, or even heroes, are weak. You may be able to compensate for a disparity in one attribute, say finger strength, by excelling in another, such as footwork. Your hidden strength might be the ability to lay out a long term plan and stick to it even when the payoff is months away. This “talent” is surprisingly rare, yet the people who achieve greatness in this world, in any field, do it because they never lose the drive to get the most out of each day. Those who have that drive will eventually outpace the vast majority of climbers, despite any lacking physical talents.
Fear of Failure: One of the unexpected side-effects of training effectively is that sometimes your body improves more quickly than your mind can really accept. This is often the case for those new to training, even more so for those who adopted training after experiencing a long plateau. Our Egos have a lot invested in our self-image, and it likes to maintain the status quo. That goes both ways–at times providing false confidence in something we haven’t done in a long time, while at other times preventing us from accepting that we’ve improved. The Ego finds comfort in sticking to grades that are well within our known ability, because success is nearly assured. The Ego doesn’t really like challenges, because they carry an inherent risk of failure. The problem is, facing challenges is essential to improving. If you want to get better, you will have to learn to overcome the objections of your Ego, including allowing for the possibility that you are stronger/better than your Ego can accept, even if that means risking failure.
I’ve struggled with this constantly, delaying attempts at the next grade countless times over the years. In the end, I always tried eventually, and while I didn’t always send right away, I almost always discovered that I was closer to that level than I had expected. I still struggle with this even now, but it helps knowing that I’ve faced this dilemma many times before, and the vast majority of the time “going for it” was the right choice. With sport climbing in particular there is very little physical risk in attempting something that may be “too hard”. If you are considering attempting a next level route, the choice is simple: go for it! There really is no downside, beyond a bruised Ego, and that really isn’t so bad. Even if you “fail”, you will surely learn something valuable in the process, such as the skills and abilities you will need to develop to reach the next level.
Fear of Commitment: For most of my career, I struggled with the first three items on this list. Now that I’ve overcome those limitations time and again, I tend to struggle primarily with a fear of commitment. I’ve persevered through many successful campaigns, including my share of protracted sieges, and I know very well the effort required. Generally I will do whatever it takes to see a goal route through to completion. Committing myself to such a route when the send is still likely multiple seasons (or even years) away can be incredibly daunting. Now my greatest mental obstacle is the knowledge that reaching my next level will require working even harder in training, making even more sacrifices in daily life, and spending even more days on the project. It’s hard enough just maintaining my current level, do I really want to up the ante? It seems that at present, I do, and that is somewhat terrifying.
Clearly making such a commitment is completely personal. For some climbers, committing to the next level might mean dedicating two weekends to a goal route instead of the typical in-a-day send. If the next level for you will require a relatively large amount of time, visit the route and give it a few tries before you decide. You may find it will go more quickly that you think. You may find that you enjoy the process enough that committing more days than usual isn’t a burden. Or you may find you’d rather get a few more training cycles under your belt, consolidate your route pyramid at the levels you’ve already reached, and save the next level for the near future.