I recently attended a webinar presented by Carrie Cheadle, an expert in mental skills training, on the psychology of suffering for endurance athletes. Basically, when all else is equal, its your ability to dig in and keep going, despite feeling like you’ve been hit by a train, which determines who comes out on top, and is often what separates the great from the good. That’s pretty obvious, I know, but its a weak link for a lot of people and effects training as well as performance, so its important to understand it in order to improve it.
Pain is pretty subjective, everyone handles it differently and some people seem to be able to handle suffering better than others. Now, there is a genetic aspect (apparently), so maybe your maximum ‘suffering tolerance’ potential is less than others’, but you might not have reached that yet. It can affect your ability to reach your goals in quite a few ways, and sometimes its hard to tell if it has had an effect on your performance, for example, have you have fallen off a route and wondered whether you actually gave it your all? So what if climbing is a very skill intensive sport and you fell because you got it wrong, you still could have tried harder.
There are a number of reasons pain might affect how hard you try. Firstly, you might actually just be in a lot of pain and can’t actually go on any harder. This is often not the case, even if it feels like it is, because you might be so tired that it might not even occur to you that you have more to give – someone shouting at you to give it beans can solve this. Secondly, the expectation of pain (or failure) is a real limitation for a lot of people. This often comes through previous association with pain in a similar situation, whether that be a grade or style of climb or the same climb – if you expect it to hurt then as soon as it does start hurting you’ll focus in on the pain and make it seem worse than it is, so you’ll give up or fail sooner. Finally, the fear of pain (or failure) can stop you from giving your all. This could be reluctance to leave as rest, or do a certain session, or one of times where you mess up a sequence at the start of an onsight and get pumped earlier than you hoped so give up because you think there’s no chance anymore.
Luckily, there are ways to improve your pain and suffering tolerance. So first, if you want to get better and want your performance to reflect your physical ability, then you’re going to have to accept the pain. Embrace it, enjoy it, revel in it. This involves changing the way you view pain; its not bad most of the time, its good and its productive. To get better at this, having some kind of pre-climb prep or ritual can prepare for the ordeal ahead, or you can immerse yourself in the suffering and see just how far you can go by sticking a bit extra on the end of your last interval. Just to see how much you can take.
Secondly, you have to relax; your suffering tolerance is affected by your physical and mental state, so if you can relax then you’ll find the pain isn’t so bad. Dave Macleod wrote a related blog about how your facial expression can effect performance.
Thirdly, focus on something, whether that be the pain or something to keep your mind off the pain. Focusing on the pain is a funny one, I think this could help you gauge just how bad it is, and it can be quite satisfying to know you’re trying really hard, harder than the other person your training with, for example. There are a few ways to disassociate yourself from the pain, some people use music, you can focus on the moves, grabbing holds correctly, repeating a mantra, counting moves, and pretty much anything else to keep your mind busy. This can also help to keep nerves at bay on an onsight or redpoint because it stops you thinking about success or failure. Another way to keep your mind busy and be better at suffering is to set an end point for that pain. Break it down and set checkpoints along the way to make the overall task seem less daunting. This could be rests on a route or each individual interval in a monster circuit session. You have to be cautious with this on onsights if you’re not sure how good a rest is going to be, because if you get to a checkpoint and its not very restful then you might panic or give up immediately, so its important to have a plan B. Related to this are moments on a climb or in a session which can make or break you. If you handle these well then you will get a confidence boost that could take you to the end. These are points where you might expect it to be hardest or where you didn’t expect it to be hard and it is. You can prepare in advance for this to shorten your reaction time and make it a more positive reaction.
Finally, setting a goal is really important. These can provide a LOT of motivation and give you a good reason to suffer. Be honest with yourself, first about how achievable the goal is otherwise you may end up disheartened or intimidated, and second so you don’t have any secret goals which can lead to disappointment. They can be outcome goals, e.g. doing a certain route or grade, though this can often stack the pressure on which can be a good or a bad thing. Process goals, which you set within the climb, can be very effective and can have a secondary effect of making you climb better i.e. your goal is not to do the climb, but to climb it well or to improve at a certain technique.
If you think you’re not that good at suffering but have the will to improve, then try out a few of these things and hopefully they’ll help you eek a bit more out of each session and each attempt. If you think you’re good at suffering then read Fergus Flemming’s ‘Tales of Endurance’ or Shackletons South for some perspective – I bet your circuit session wasn’t as hard as living in the Antarctic for 2 years, subsisting on seal meat, toe nails and leather before rowing a few hundred miles across the Pacific and crossing South Georgia on foot. Then pull your finger out.
The concept of difficulty in climbing is not easy to fully comprehend, and even harder to quantify. It is as elusive as it is prolific among our thoughts and forms the impossible justification of many climbers’ motivations, and yet clearly it is there, defining the nature of the sport. ‘Difficulty’ is a somewhat vague term which is almost contradictory; it encompasses the amount of physical, technical, and mental effort and proficiency required to achieve something, and yet it is entirely subjective and can not be shared. I want to try and discuss the idea and the extent to which perceptions of difficulty can influence progression, how those perceptions originate, and their pervasiveness at the local and national scales. This is very much exploratory for me, and I’d be really interested to hear some of your thoughts on the subject, so please comment.
Absolute difficulty can broadly be described as the amount of effort required to do something, or the amount of energy required. This is problematic for climbing because it doesn’t account for efficiency or relative ability. If it was purely based on energy required then, in order to climb the ‘most difficult’ thing, you’d have to do it least efficient way; this is clearly not the case, and explains why bouldering in particular is so hard to explain to non-climbers. Also, a relatively better climber will be able to climb a certain problem with less perceived effort than a relatively worse climber, so it will seem less difficult to the former, but that doesn’t change the absolute difficulty of the problem.
Therefore, difficulty is deeply personal and very subjective, and as I said earlier, it can’t be shared. The difficulty, and the effort required, to do any given thing is determined by your personal ability, moreover, the perceived difficulty of that task is also determined by personal ability in addition to your personal definition of what constitutes ‘difficult’. Or, in other words, the scale of difficulty that you use. For example, some people will try problems that they can barely pull onto and regard it as completely impossible, or way to difficult, whereas others view it as something which just requires more effort. The same applies in training: for one person a session could have required a lot of effort and feel extremely difficult, but for another person of the same ability, so the session had the same absolute difficulty, the session was not as high up their own personal ‘difficulty scale’. These perceptions of difficulty can’t be shared because its not measurable and because no two people will have their scales of difficulty calibrated equally, so there will always be a degree of misinterpretation.
So are perceptions of difficulty likely to influence progression? It would be reasonable to assume that those who perceive the difficulty of something to be less would have the potential to train harder and so could improve more, provided the training is appropriate. That would imply that there is an optimum perception of difficulty which is perfectly aligned with your bodies needs – you will train at an intensity high enough to stimulate improvement but not so high that you injure yourself. In reality, this is unlikely to occur, and I’d be tempted to say that most people probably perceive the difficulty to be higher than it is, or they don’t fully understand the difficulty required to stimulate improvement – which is, of course, specific to each person.
I would argue that these perceptions are not inherent at birth but evolve over time as a result of your experiences through childhood, especially, and as a reflection of other peoples’ perceptions. At an individual level a myriad of factors likely contribute to your perceptions of difficulty: prior involvement in sport and the degree to which it was pursued, coaching at a young age, work ethic of immediate family and friends, education and schooling, who you climb with, and development of the sport at national and international scales. I would be hard pressed to evaluate the relative importance of each of these, but one which I want to go into a bit is the level of development of the sport at national and international scales, and resulting national perceptions of difficulty.
The development of a sport, or more importantly, the current limits and records set in that sport, play a considerable role in defining perceptions of difficulty as they have a significant psychological influence on individuals. As a sport evolves the limits are pushed, but the improvements are incremental, until eventually the old limit is commonplace. This is particularly evident in climbing, which, being a relatively undeveloped sport, has seen its limits raised dramatically over the past few decades – It’s not that long ago that 8c was the cutting edge, and now its not even very hard.
However, changing perceptions of difficulty do not seem to have occurred equally everywhere as climbing has progressed. In fact, perceptions at a national scale seem to be influenced much more by relative improvements of that country, rather than by the development of the sport itself, although that does have an influence. This has been apparent over time; as British climbers led the improvement of the sport in the 80’s and 90’s the perceptions of difficulty at a national level rose with it, then as other countries have experienced another wave of improvement culminating in ascents of 9b+ routes and 8C+ boulder problems, the perceptions of difficulty for the countries experiencing the developments have risen with it. For example, in Spain, climbing anything less than 9a is not newsworthy, and even the magic grade is losing its aura, unless you’re very young or new to climbing. The likes of Daniel Woods and James Webb have begun to redefine bouldering, where 8B is only newsworthy if its flashed. Other countries might be fully aware of these developments, but their perceptions as a whole seem to remain calibrated against the current limits of that area.
Clearly then, perceptions can be changed, all that is required is the experience of progression as well as awareness. Personally, I’m excited about the future of climbing in Britain, I think that a wave of improvement is approaching, and that will influence perceptions of difficulty. It might not be significant at a global level, but it will be a step in the right direction.
Despite my best efforts, ‘the grain’ has not succumbed to my repeated floggings of late. In fact, I’m beginning to think that the pile or organic mush that is the human body is no match for the mighty wood. In a desperate attempt to get better I keep going back for more though; the feeling of leaving the climbing wall better than when you walked in is pretty satisfying, satisfying enough to outweigh the odd looks you get when you shout YYFY because you finished the hang with an extra kg, anyway.
Word on the street is that the grit has been well and truly called. There’s been a slew of apparently newsworthy ascents recently, and I commend you all on your bravery and climbing skill. But clearly all the clambering over sharp, painful rock has distracted the climbing community from the real achievements of late; the aforementioned hang with extra weight, plus the move I did on the motherboard, plus the one half-decent campus board session I had – the rest were shit, but the burl is on its way…
Anyway, not wanting to feel left out, I thought I’d go and see what all the hype was about. My first impression was that it fucking hurts your skin, wood is much more friendly to the aspiring ‘crusher’, and not wishing to become a party of the now fashionable trend of posting pictures of bleeding tips on facebook I didn’t pull on any little minging holds, and certainly not on any pebbles. I managed to find a suitably dark and dank Pitt to have a go on, and I’m going to give a personal grade of 7b+ – mainly because I want Jens to call me brave and humble.
After single-handedly saving the world from the threat of grade inflation it was back to board. Then to the other board. Then the other board. We’re not very imaginative with our equipment names, us climbers. Perhaps that’s why so many people are less than fond of training; it always involves using something that is literally bored. Maybe if we renamed them something more inspiring then I’d have more people to talk to whilst dangling.
Now, I must get back to work so I can go on the wave later. Ah the wave! Now that’s not boring.
Back when I was in Rodellar I was fortunate enough to meet Stefan Joller, The (other) Swiss Machine, whom I teamed up with for a couple weeks, during which many a heated pool game was had, which, by the way, became the main focus of the trip during that time. There had never been such a competition between a Brit and Swiss, one time it even resulted in an international competition, with Myself and Mark Busby representing the Brits. However, when our trips came to an end, the score was tied and a rematch was in order. So a couple weeks ago I made the journey out to Switzerland for the final battle.
Unfortunately, we couldn’t find any pool tables in Lucerne, so we had to make do with some climbing.
The plan was to get on some multipitch routes and have a bit more of an adventure, rather than going for performance. I was a complete beginner in this style, I didn’t even know what a prusik was, but Stefan was the perfect partner and showed me how to be as efficient as possible; still more squashed-snail-esque than Ueli Steck, but passable I guess. Well, no one died anyway.
We managed to get up a few without a hitch, albeit a little dehydrated and sunburnt, but during our second night in Ratikon we were rudely awakened by some rain, resulting in a quick
dash stumble in the dark to the car, sleeping bags in hand, to get a bit more kip before making a quick getaway along the sketchy dirt road, with our eyes peeled for rockfall we were quite surprised to see some of the locals in the middle of the road.
After navigating round these with by persuading them, with some some difficulty, to go the other way, or at least to pull into a passing place, we drove South to Ticino after stopping at a dark and damp sport climbing area called Motel where I opted to try a boulder problem called Whale Sandwich at the base instead. It was pretty simple but very fun; just squeeze! Something I haven’t done much of, so was reduced to a panting wreck after each attempt, but managed to reach a big jug where I presumed the hard climbing to end, but unfortunately also where the cobwebs and dirt began.
Chironico is the land of clean cut overhangs and positive crimps. Basically, the stuff of my dreams. The first day there I ran around like a kid in a candy shop, so excited to see what lurked in the darkness under each boulder. I’d had enough vitamin D, I wanted the cold wind to barge past and to wake up to a clear frosty morning. Summer hadn’t quite realised that it wasn’t wanted anymore though, but we made do by climbing in the evenings, and our motivation for being in one of the best bouldering areas in the world more than made up for the lack of friction. Skin was the only limiting factor, but nothing that a bit of gurning couldn’t fix.
I tried a couple things, Komilator first, which I knew nothing about except the name and that it was 8a in the guide. It required a bit of shoe faggotry, I found a way to make the heel stay, but not before I had almost trashed two right shoes so had to wear a left shoe on my right foot for it to work, and managed to pull up to the jugs at the top. I later found out that it has been chipped and is now 7c+ ish, and that I’m an idiot and used shit beta because in my desire to follow just the holds on the face, I assumed that you couldn’t use a big hold on the left, or a massive jug just above. I don’t think they made much difference to the difficulty though, not at my height anyway.
And yes, if you’re wondering, what started off as a nice easy multipitch trip where performance didn’t matter at all, it had now become a bouldering trip where performance was everything! With my goal for the winter being to boulder 8a I thought this a good time to give one a blast, so I tried Le Pilier, and after getting absolutely spanked in the afternoon heat, I waited for the sun to set to try it with cooler temps. After a bit of faffing around and using smartphone tactics to get beta/save skin I yanked my way up it the next day all square on feeling like Daniel Woods. It does sort of climb like that though, rather than me just being shit.
I loved Chironico. It’s made for me so I imagine I could do well there, so of course I’d like it. But going and doing long multipitch routes with great company in great surroundings gave a different sort of enjoyment, something probably a little closer to ‘normal’ fun which isn’t what I normally go for, being an improvement obsessed type. It was fun though, at the time, but the satisfaction isn’t very long lived, though sometimes its nice to go away and just bumble about for a bit.
Bumbling doesn’t make you stronger though. Now I’m back and living in Sheffield, and there shall be no more wandering round like a babbling bumbling buffoon, to paraphrase Ms McGonigall. Last time I checked bumbling wasn’t part of The Plan.
“One feels the dearth of human words, the roughness of mortal speech in trying to describe things intangible” - Sir Ernest Shackleton
Iceland! What can I say about Iceland? Well, it’s… It’s raw. I think that was one of my first thoughts there. It’s old yet new, dynamic yet undisturbed, it’s Natures laboratory. The pictures do the place more justice than my words ever could, and even they fall far short of the mark. Just go there, and you’ll see (but avoid all the touristy crap. That’s not Iceland).
I’ll briefly summarize my trip so you can get back to ogling. The morning after flying into Reykjavik I got a bus to Landmannalauger in the central highlands via the moon. Yes, the moon. We drove across the moon in a bus. That’s not even the best bit, not even close. I was dropped off on a plain next to a braided river – some parts hot, too hot to bathe in, but you could bath in the confluence between the hot and cold parts quite comfortably – surrounded by colourful mountains – orange, golden, brown, even green! Oh, and there was a huge lava field looming over the campsite, just waiting to engulf us. And there was daylight, all the time. Though not always sunny…
After spending a couple days there doing shorter walks with Beth, Jo, and Taz, who I met on the plane, I set off on the Laugavegurrin hiking trail, a 3 or 4 four day hike to Thorsmork, past lava fields, snow fields, glaciers, fumeroles, mountains, waterfalls and some spectacular scenery. On the first day I was lucky enough to bump into a very nice group of Americans who made the next week a real pleasure! Thank you guys!
After a couple days walking in rain and wind, then another in beautiful sunshine we arrived in Thorsmork where we decided to continue to the coast via the Fimmvorduhals! Which is as cool as it sounds and goes something like this: You traverse Mount Valahnukar before crosser the Krossa river and head then with caution to the Strakagil ravine before reaching Kattarhryggir – a narrow crest with deep ravines plummeting down to either side. After making a steep, slippery climb you eventually reach the Plains of Morinsheidi! Then ascend to the Fimmvorduhals, the five cairn throat, via Heljarkombur and Brottafonn, between the glaciers Myrdalsjokull and Eyjafjallajojull. If you survive all that then its a pleasant descent along the Skoga river passing no fewer than 23 waterfalls. Not a bad day, really.
After arriving in Skogar we went our separate ways; Dave, Nicole, Emily, Joel, Lexi, and Jed went back to Reykjavik to get their flight home, and I decided to hitch hike round the island, some 1300km, but there’s only really one road in Iceland so its actually very, very easy to hitch hike there. The main places I stopped at were: Skaftafell – touristy, wouldn’t recommend it; Jokulsarlon – very touristy and not that impressive but cool nontheless; Seydisfjordur and Eskifjordur in the east fjords, which was one of my favourite places and where I had a mini epic on a day walk; Dettifoss, the most powerful waterfall in Europe when measured by discharge; Myvatn area including Hverir, a geothermal area, next to the richly coloured rhyolitic Namafjall, littered in boiling mud pots and fumeroles, which reek of sulphur, and also the Krafla volcanic area; Akureyri, a lovely town/city in the North; and Snaefellsnes Peninsula, where I stopped in Grundarfjordur and climbed Kirkjafell, before going on to Djupalonssandur and Arnastapi; finally finishing in Reykjavik where I did the famed, yet utterly terrible, golden circle – its been completely overrun by tourists and the attractions are far less impressive than a lot of the other stuff I saw in Iceland. Enjoy the photos!
They say time flies when you’re having fun. I don’t know about that so much, but I can honestly say that when you’re having the time of your life, doing what you love the most, time races past you faster than our Brad in a Tour de France time trial. Four months is a long time, but its so easy to let that time flicker away; make a list of venues and all of a sudden you’ve only got a handful of consecutive two week trips with a bit more on the end. Then when you add on travelling, rest days, short excursions to smaller areas, bad weather, and projects, all of a sudden you find your time quite limited, and once its gone you can’t get it back. Everything has to end though, but that just makes you appreciate them more.
Me and Will left England at the end of February, full of anticipation for the up and coming adventures. We had a plan; we had lists of venues and routes, we had sort of an idea when we’d be in each one and where we would stay. Not much was set in stone though – if we decided we wanted to head off somewhere else then we could – that’s the beauty of a road trip, you’re totally free, if you can afford the fuel. In this way especially, road trips are different to normal climbing trips. Yes, you’re there to climb, and the climbing is important, neither of us were afraid to admit that we were there to push our limits and try really bloody hard. It wasn’t to be an adventure holiday where you bumble about scaring yourself silly. We were there to try our best on boulders and sport climbs.
But, it’s not just about the climbing, and that’s an important thing to remember. When you’re travelling for a long time always trying to push your limit it would be so easy to burn out, so we made an effort to remind ourselves that its not the end of the world if we weren’t motivated to push it that day, because you can’t be motivated every single day, and if you had a bad day then that’s just what it was – a bad day. You can’t perform at your best 365 days a year, that just doesn’t happen. Something that I felt was equally important was to really try and enjoy the areas for what they were, and to appreciate the company of others instead of only thinking about the climbing – though I’d be lying if I said that it wasn’t the focus of at least 90% of my thoughts…
The first stop was Fontainebleau. It was my first time in the forest, and obviously I’d heard a lot of good things about the place so my expectations were high. To sum it up, the climbing was as good as I could have hoped but the weather was less than ideal. Snow and rain seemed quite determined to stop us from climbing. But we were keen and made the most of it by running round looking for any dry rock – not a good idea to climb on damp sandstone, but if you pick your area right then you can often find enough dry to keep you busy. The thing for me which makes Font so good is the density of really high quality rock – its some of the best I’ve ever climbed on – almost as good as the County…
After sliding off some terrible font slopers in less than ideal conditions for a while it was time to get tied in and get pumped silly on jugs. It always amazes me how easy the moves are on most routes, even on Pata Negra I don’t think there was a boulder problem harder than 6c or 6c+, so I always wonder why anyone ever falls off. Until I try and link a few moves together, that is, and I’m painfully reminded of how useful oxygen is when it comes to respiration and how dangling off your fingers is not conducive to a constant supply of that most valuable element. Oh how I’d love to be 12 again!
St Leger, Buoux, Lourmarin, Chateauvert, Gorges du Loup, Gorges du Tarn and finally Rodellar. It felt like we were never in the same place for long, and since we were both horrendously unfit from all the bouldering, much of this time was embarrassingly bad grade wise. It was all preparation, I told myself, for the main event – Rodellar. There was progress though, the fitness which I missed so much did slowly come back. By focusing more on volume and onsights in the first month or so of the sport climbing portion of the trip I got into reasonable shape, though still not particularly good.
I only spent a week in Gorges du Loup, but it really was a brilliant experience. We were both fortunate to be invited by a friend, Peter Wuensche, to stay in his house there with a few other young British climbers. There weren’t any particularly significant ascents by anyone on the trip, but there were several personal bests which is much more important! What was more interesting was getting a glimpse at the future of British climbing, I expect good things from everyone on that trip in the next few years. Its an exciting time to be climbing in Britain.
It was interesting to say the least. To essentially start from scratch and work back through the grades, it felt like I was reliving the process of improvement through my climbing career so far, only in fast forward. The achievements were the same, and still represented improvement, even if they weren’t personal bests at the time. One example springs to mind: At Buoux I onsighted a 7b+ (sort of – in my hypoxic state I accidentally stood on a hidden bolt below a bulge which definitely helped), which is no where near a personal best for me, its something that I expect to do when I’m in reasonable shape. However, this one felt like a first, like a huge leap forward in the progression of my climbing. I tried really bloody hard. I should have fallen so many times but managed to scrape through, barely. The fact that it was a 7b+ didn’t mean anything at all, I was happy because it would have been so easy to give up, but I fought on even when I was convinced I was off, and that is such a rewarding experience.
It doesn’t matter where you are at in your climbing, 5a or 9a, you can always try your best and that’s something about climbing which I really like. I know from personal experience that the climbs I’m happiest with for the longest time are not necessarily the ones with the biggest number (though they are sometimes), but the ones where I had to push my self to my absolute limit. There’s something very satisfying about trying really hard, to the point where success or failure becomes quite secondary – how many routes have you clipped the chains of without much effort and been satisfied with? I bet the number is pretty small, and those ones are likely to be more adventurous routes with friends where technical difficulty is not such a big part of the experience.
I tried to carry that attitude of ‘try hard’ forward throughout the whole trip. This really worked, it took the pressure away from success or failure, so you ultimately perform better in the end. This really made the process of trying hard routes a lot easier, even on Pata Negra, I never left the ground worrying about the moves at the top or about whether I would clip the chain or not. Instead, I focused on each individual section of a route at a time, breaking it down to trick myself into thinking it was achievable. And, following some advice from Katherine Schirrmacher, I also tried to learn something new on each attempt, however subtle, as its often the little things which make the big difference.
Back to the trip though. For me, Rodellar really was the highlight, everything else was great and made the whole trip a much fuller experience. But Rodellar really does suit me perfectly, and I think that had a lot to do with my success and overall enjoyment of the area. Pata Negra was the big one for me there, but I did a few other things which I was quite pleased with, nothing that significant, but I felt like my base level increased by a grade or so. 8a+ 2nd go became the norm, even managed a couple in a day, and 8b’s were no longer drawn out battles. I didn’t really focus on onsighting this trip though, so nothing much to shout about there – can’t do everything I guess, unless you’re Ondra…
Not many people get the chance to go on a trip like the one I’ve just been on, so I feel pretty fortunate to have had the opportunity and I feel like I made the most of it, but everything has to end at some point. The gap year isn’t quite over yet though. I’m going to Iceland for month where I won’t actually be climbing, after that I’ll potter round the UK a bit before either going to Switzerland or back to Rodellar before starting University in Sheffield!