Road To The Celtman Triathlon17/06/2020
AUTHOR | KEV SHIELDS
I am back at the base of Skyfall yet again, it’s the most protracted mental battle I’ve had with a route to date. It is dangerous, committing and bold, exactly the style of climbing I love but for some reason, I keep walking away; it does not feel right. I can’t quit though so I know I’m in for a fight that will require me to work on my mental strength.
The mind holds the key to the next level of climbing, whether that being the ability to teach yourself to take more punishment during training, to control fear or to commit fully to a route. You could be the strongest climber at the crag but all the strength in the world won’t help if you’re afraid to make that sketchy committing crux move. Physically I’m not a strong climber but I have bypassed many of my ‘stronger’ peers because of my mindset.
Back at the base of Skyfall I know I’m going to need to change my approach for this route and I leave to reassess my tactics and to assess what is holding me back.
I was present at the first ascent and watched the guy fall on the first attempt, seeing the fall was negative so I had to turn that into a positive, how? I convinced my brain that to fall was okay and not something to fear and that the gear in the break was solid.
Secondly, I couldn’t place the second bit of gear due to my hand. So that means I don’t need to waste time, I can climb with less faff and more flow.
Third, I was approaching the route too softly. I knew I’d have to be more aggressive with it and treat it more like a hard boulder than the technical slab it was which is a bit like treating a ballet dance like a street fight, but I thought it worth trying. These were the major holdbacks and I had them sussed. This is where having plenty of time focusing on mental strength training makes the difference, in seeing the problems and knowing what to do to turn them in your favour.
I spent a few days in the build-up digging deeply into my mental triggers to put me in the headspace I needed to be in to complete this route.
I can’t help with what makes us choose to step onto a route and take risks, the triggers we need for these things are deeply personal and best left to the individual.
Yet another visit to the crag but this time I feel different, more focused – unbeatable. My mind is stronger than ever after the recent training I’ve undertaken. I sit at the base of the route and run through my usual checklist, which can take minutes, hours, weeks or even months. Do not rush it. You have to be very honest with yourself here, there is no room for deceit that covers a potential weakness in your armour which will cost you later.
- Is my mental strength in line with the physical?
- Have I dedicated the time to feel confident on the rock in everything from gear placements to trust in rock shoes which will provide the fluid and relaxed movement?
- Am I willing to give the route everything? Can I give this route the commitment it deserves, can I risk whatever it takes to truly test and push myself? – Am ‘I’ ready for this?
After asking myself these critical questions I move on, accepting all possible outcomes. Can I accept failure and have to retreat and work harder to train my mental strength, that I will have more sleepless nights, more time trying to learn from failure? Have I completely accepted the risk?
Next is to assess fall potential, I do this on every route on every attempt as it helps me relax. How realistic is a fall, will I deck it, will I hit anything other than the ground, where am I most likely to fall and why? Where is the best position for my belayer, do they need to run or jump in the event of a fall to take in slack. Are they well briefed, have I gone over all the scenarios I can think of? Most of all I make sure myself and my belayer are totally in tune with each other. I cannot stress how important a solid climbing partner is when you are pushing yourself. A truly solid partnership is priceless.
I concentrate on relaxing by breathing slowly and tuning into my surroundings. On Skyfall, I focused on the sound of a nearby burn trickling away. Once I’ve relaxed enough I look at the route and go through every hold, this plants the sequence in my mind once again and helps me relax. If anything breaks the flow of moves from bottom to top I start again. Then; it’s time to go for it….
I make the big committing move straight up from the flake and place my only gear, then it is time to get stuck in. I struggle up another big move and stand in the break – no going back now. I feel my heart rate begin to thump, close my eyes, take deep breaths through the nose, exhale hard, open my eyes and keep going. I’m in my own world now.
I like to imagine I’ve pulled a black hood over my head and nothing should make my mind slip. It cuts out all peripheral distractions and allows me to only see what is necessary. I reach the crux and it doesn’t go as planned but all the mental strength I have gained from psychological training pays off. I don’t panic even though a fall here would be very consequential. I make it through.
Controlled aggression was needed for the big moves and to help me commit, now its time to flow on the delicate upper section of the route. I take it one move at a time, each time I attain a small rest, every breath a chance to relax. Another small mishap but I fix it easily, I’m confident in my belayer which gives me less to worry about should I fall high above my only protection.
The end is in sight. I hear Nathan’s nervous breathing; he is taking photos from above, but I don’t rush for the top as rushing will end in defeat. I keep climbing, hands clasp the top, it has been a hell of a fight to get here and the personal rewards are almost beyond words. – Skyfall E6 6b (3rd Ascent)
Testing yourself is not easy and I guess that’s why many of us do it. Enjoy the challenge of pushing yourself physically and mentally but do not take it lightly. Climbing a route that has been a true mental battle is a journey deep into our psyche. It allows you to see who you really are and to learn about yourself in a way many will never know.
This is only the basics of building and using mental strength, but I hope it helps in some small part for some of you to reach the next level in your climbing.
Photo Credit: Nathan Adam, Jane Holmes, Conor McCarthy & David Lamond
About the author
Professional rock climber Kev Shields is best known for climbing difficult bold routes with just one fully functional hand. He has a history of impressive first ascents including Cù-Sith E7 6c and The Rebellion E6 6b plus rare solo ascents of Firestone E7 6b and Fast and Furious M10.
You can watch the 2019 Final Crux Kendal Film Festival entry ‘We need to talk about Kev’ here.
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