I love climbing, BUT…I can name quite a few times where I have been sitting at an anchor, or trying to on a sleep a ledge, before I suddenly started to question what the **** I was doing. Anybody been there? It was all fun and games all day long until I hit a wall where I felt scared, unmotivated, apathetic, and negative. Usually this comes after a great safe day of climbing. I’ve been reading about fear, brain chemistry, and metabolic processes to try to understand why this happens. Here are some of the patterns and solutions I have discovered.
Step 1: Avoid getting cold
One of the places first places I have noticed being apathetic or negative about continuing on a route is when I get cold at the belay. I’ve also noticed myself making mistakes with gear management or personal safety. After some quick research, I discovered that apathy and poor judgement are early symptoms of hypothermia (http://www.webmd.com/first-aid/tc/hypothermia-and-cold-temperature-exposure-topic-overview).
Most folks would counter that they are not hypothermic just a little cold. What’s the real difference? Medical trials/research have shown that even a mild drop in core body temperature (one that does not meet the definition of hypothermia) can have an effect on cognitive performance (https://research.libraries.wsu.edu:8443/xmlui/bitstream/handle/2376/4002/K_Tinker_010206939.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y).
So, the easy trick? Stay warm. Its better to overheat than to be cold and bail from a route because you ran out of sending power (or worse: made a deadly mistake).
Some of my tricks to stay warm:
- Find a jacket that you can wear anytime, anywhere, not matter what climbing conditions. Bring this one on anything past 2 pitches in length. I find the OR Ferosi jacket to be the ultimate piece of rock climbing apparel. It offers light rain, wind, and sun protection all in one, yet doesn’t get too hot while I am leading or following quickly. I am able to leave it on all day…basically a complete no-brainer.
- Put a thin hat or buff in your pocket. You can wear it under your helmet without much bulk, but it won’t be bulky on route.
Just warm enough to be happy after climbing Loving Arms in the winter
Step 2: Stay fed and hydrated.
The next easy trick while you are sitting at the belay is to make sure you continue to eat and drink. You might not feel hungry, but eat a little anyway. It pays off in the end. Remember that last climb you did when your partner was really dragging on the last pitch, and just wanted you to rappel and clean the darn thing? Imagine if they had just a bit more energy to stay psyched.
Most people continue to eat naturally (myself for one). I’m not espousing it, but during an overnight ascent of Leaning Tower in Yosemite, I found myself rifling through the haul bag for peanut M&Ms every time I got it to the belay. Probably not the best thing to use as fuel, but it sure kept me happy after some scary leads.
In general, managing blood sugar swings and staying hydrated will help you to maintain motivation and mental clarity. I often try to share a little bit of my food with partners on upper pitches, just to make sure the whole gang stays happy. You’ve got to love partners who do the same! Best to consume carbohydrates and a small bit of protein for short duration events (< 6 hrs) every hour or so. As your climbs get longer, add fat and protein to the mixture. Check out this post for more details here.
Step 3: Maintain a strong aerobic base and fat burning pathways through lots of low intensity exercise and low carb diets between climbing events.
Climbers like Steve House and Ueli Steck don’t get to eat all the time. They eat when they can. So how do they maintain pace and mental stamina during the constant barrage of mental and physical challenges on route? Steve and Scott Johnson discuss how to train yourself to use fat as fuel in their book Training for the New Alpinism. The concept of using fat as fuel has entered a new spotlight as modern research and personal anecdotes highlight the benefits of Paleo and Ketogenic diets. The benefits of these diets have even started to show up in other climbing arenas, like sport climbing. (http://www.rockandice.com/rock-climbing-training/eat-fat-climb-harder-the-ketogenic-diet). It turns out that type of low fat diet can have profound impacts on mood, not just athletic performance. (15601609?dopt=AbstractPlus)
Lately, I’ve been trying to build my aerobic base and fat burning pathways through lots of long intensity exercise (I discussed how you can work this type of exercise into a busy schedule here). As your body naturally adapts through increased mitochondrial density, and you build the ability to run off of fat stories, you reduce the risk of depleting blood and liver glucose to levels which will take you out of the game. Its not an overnight fix, but I definitely feel the difference on long routes with little food or water. For more information, check out Primal Endurance: How To Escape Chronic Cardio & Carbohydrate Dependency & Become A Fat Burning Beast. (http://www.bengreenfieldfitness.com/2016/02/primal-endurance/)
Step 4: Bring an iPod for those sleepless nights
I would call myself a luddite over a technologist, but I recognize the fun in great photos and the power of portable, on-demand music. During those sleepless moments on the wall, my iPod (i.e. iPhone) has become an indispensable tool for winding down the day and quieting the mind. I don’t have particular songs I listen to, just a selection that are mellow and easy to listen to. As you listen zoom in on how the woods and the sounds come together and be present. By song 3, you’ll be ready to hit the sack.