Climbing is a mental game. Your attitude and emotions act as allies or enemies when attempting a difficult route at the edge of your ability, The best climbers aren't necessarily the fittest or the most skilled. Instead, elite climbers share a passion for climbing combined with the ability to exert then will and to pay attention to both internal and external conditions.
Great climbers remake themselves. They pare away impedimenta from life on the ground and cast a new character suited for the challenges ahead. Although born with an internal fire, they temper that fire with the recognition that only an unsentimental view of themselves will show where they need to improve and learn. Once they see the path to their goals, they adhere to it despite setbacks and difficulty.
It makes sense to emulate the great, but don't look at their accomplishments. Instead, learn from their preparation. Focus on the mental over the physical. At some point on a climb that stretches the limits, the only strength that matters is in the mind.
First, understand who you are, what you want, and what drives you. Self-understanding is the first step toward building self-control. Practicing self-discipline while climbing constructs habits of mind that begin to kick in automatically as experience grows. With expcricncc comes self-confidence, a prerequisite for tackling extreme climbs in the great ranges.
Assess your personality before starting on the road to extreme alpinism. Are you an engineer or are you an artist? Some people approach climbing like an engineering problem, solvable step by step. These climbers train in a quantifiable way. investigating calorie consumption and planning meals accordingly, painstakingly weighing and organizing gear, researching weather patterns, and interviewing others to discover the best time to try the climb. They map the route on a photograph, planning each pitch, each night's sleep, each climber's responsibilities.
Other climbers behave like artists. They look at a route and intuitively know where it will go. They believe it will go. They load a pack with what they think they'll need, and upon shouldering it, they know whether that weight means success or failure. They plan casually, They know the season when conditions may be best, and they sense how little food and fuel they can get by with. They train just enough. They act flexibly, often probing with tentative forays to the mountain before committing to an all-out push.
Most climbers possess some of both traits, one more dominant than the other. Learn which speaks loudest within you, and obey it.
Paqes 18-13: Barry Blanchard climbing an overhanging serae at 22.500 feet on the Merkt icefield of Manga P^rbat's Rupa) Fitce in Pakistan. We climbed the serac to «»void a huge winSiiiab on a lower an<fic<i slope. Photo: © Mark Tuvigtit
ATTITUDE AND CHARACTER
Assess your strengths, weaknesses, experience, and ability. Don't attempt the southwest face of Everest in alpine style after climbing the Cassin Ridge on Denali in eight days. The leap isn't rational. Experience at 20,000 feet, lower than the starting altitude for climbing Everest, is insufficient. Of course, dreams are important. Dreams lead toward the great routes of the future. Recognize them as goals and march toward them, running toward them every now and then. Still, they belong to the future.
Beware of accidentally succeeding on a route above your ability. Success tends to breed ambition. The next time, a route of similar difficulty and danger may deliver the hard lesson that a single success at a high level may represent luck and not skill. Learn to recognize when you lucked out and when you met the challenge. Without this understanding, such a victory will feed contempt for easy routes on forgiving mountains. Contempt leads to a casual attitude, which results in carelessness and ultimate failure on a grand scale. Respect the routes you complete and those that turn you back. Respect for the mountains is a cornerstone of a long and fruitful career.
Understand your temperament. Read studies on temperament types and apply their insights to particular sports and their subdisciplines (read Jonathan Niednagel's Choose Your Beat Sport & Play It, listed in Appendix 2, Suggested Reading). Understanding your type will help direct you to routes that match your predispositions. If you diagnose your abilities correctly and combine that with knowledge of your temperament type, the choice of a style of climbing within alpinism will be simple.
For example, great aerobic capacity doesn't translate into the ability to climb K2 in under 24 hours if you are not psychologically predisposed to that style of climbing. Many climbers are disinclined to suffer the monotony of moderate terrain. Others shun the risk of climbing without a rope. Some choose harder, more "interesting" routes at lower elevation rather than high-altitude forays. Pure difficulty bores some people: The drudgery of reclining on a portaledge while the leader spends 4 hours on a pitch may frustrate someone who relishes movement and loves to cover as much terrain as possible in a given time.
Look for routes where you can exploit your strong points, and where you'll be psychologically comfortable and satisfied. Experiment with different types of climbing and learn how you perform both physically and emotionally on them. If you just want to do hard routes so you can say you climbed them —that is, if you are climbing for other people— you'll probably have one or two close calls and then quit. Only by knowing yourself can you avoid using other people's yardsticks to measure your own achievements or to decide whether a route is worth doing.
Inexperienced climbers hold the grand masters in awe because of their apparent fearlessness. But whatever their actions suggest, no person is immune to fear. Although the great climber feels comfortable in terrifying situations, he or she knows to fear only that which should be feared. Don't imagine the grand master dispassionately contemplating the arrival of a killer storm. This climber is scared but not paralyzed, terrified but able to turn fear into productive action. The mind produces fear, so fear is subject to its control and direction. Acquire the difficult yet essential skill of directing feaT, harnessing it as a source of energy. There is no recipe for this skill, because each mind is different, but some concepts may provide direction.
Nobody controls a situation in the mountains. It is vanity to imagine one can. Instead, grow comfortable with giving up control and acting within chaos and uncertainty. Attempting to dominate constantly changing circumstances in the mountains or to fight the loss of control serves only to increase fear and multiply its effects. Embrace the inherent lack of control and focus on applying skills and ideals to the situation,
Tb climb through fear, to point fear up instead of down, you need to maintain the desire and strength, the will and discipline, to go until the end of the pitch. If you are scared, reinforce your confidence by biting off what you know you can chew. Successfully swallowing it will encourage you to take another bite, another pitch. TYy to keep sight of the long view. Any time your mind can accept a bigger bite, go for the top in one big gulp. Preserve your drive. Don't sketch around or get psyched out or consider lowering off to relinquish the lead. Trust in your skill, and give yourself up to the action.
The scared climber often points his fear at the ground, believing retreat will deliver a more comfortable state of mind. This climber has too strong a connection to the ground. An irrational fixation on retreat will impede upward progress when retreat isn't an option. Instead, learn to aim fear at the belay above. My climbing partner Scott Backes once described a climber as "going for the belay." He meant the guy was psyched up—that if he hadn't run out of rope, he would have kept going. He didn't just to the target, he punched through it. Anyone who climbs like this will feel fear, greet it, and keep going.
When self-discipline fails and fear runs unchecked, the spiral into panic is not far off. Panic is uncontrolled, undirected fear and as such is unproductive. It takes a huge amount of energy to panic, and you receive little enduring energy in return. Panic is great for lifting a car off of a baby or fleeing a charging mastodon, but it is useless for getting out of a dangerous predicament in the mountains. Panic blocks thought, if you can't think, you die.
A productive response to fear doesn't derive from the simple decision not to panic. I learned that during my formative years when I was climbing a lot of winter routes in the North Cascades of Washington State, where fear caused me to retreat numerous times. My ambition far outstretched my physical and psychological capacities. After a shouting match with Andy Nock on the summit of one of the TWin Sisters—he wanted to descend and climb the other peak while I simply wanted to get out of there—I quit climbing altogether. I wasn't comfortable in the mountain environment. Fear held me hostage.
My mentor, Gary Smith, believed I couldn't learn any more from climbing itself. He had served with Marine reconnaissance in Vietnam, so he was well acquainted with Mr. Fear. Gary suggested I study martial arts and introduced me to a school in Seattle's Chinatown. I trained there three nights a week, three hours each night, for eighteen months.
Mark Twight retreating across the bergschrund after attempting to solo a new rovte ort the north face of Pic Communism in the Pamir mountains of Tadjikistan. Photo: <£> Ace Kvale o -
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There were no belt ranks, no tournaments, and no bulishit—only discipline, hard work, and slowly emerging self-confidence.
Training with more experienced students, who were capable of really hurting me, taught reasonable responses to fear. The belief in my own strength—developed during my time at the school and during early-morning sessions with Gary learning to play the Japanese strategy game Go—eventually turned me back to the mountains. 1 said farewell to my mentor and to the school's sifu, John Leong, to begin climbing again.
Every martial art and Eastern philosophy has at its heart the "conquest" of fear. Breathing and relaxation techniques learned from the martial arts, meditation, or biofeedback training may be carried everywhere once you learn them. (See Appendix 2, Suggested Reading for works by Krishnamurti, Reinhard Kammer, and Bruce Lee.) These techniques reshape panic into plain old fear or discomfort, thus gaining power over it or releasing it altogether.
The difference between a good alpinist and a great one is will. Tb be a great climber, you must exercise the discipline required to know yourself. You train to be stronger than you think necessary. On a route you eat an energy bar even if it makes you gag, and you drink regularly to stay hydrated. You stop in the middle of a pitch to pull your hood up if the spindrift gets bad, instead of waiting to reach the belay, and you stay dry because of it. You maintain the discipline needed to melt enough ice each night to fill the water bottles, and you sweep snow out of the tent instead ofletting it melt. You don't care if your partner's pack weighs less. You wake up and start the stove as soon as the alarm goes off. As a disciplined climber, you recognize when you're having a bad day and admit it to your partner; then you relinquish leads where you might slow the team. You do all the cooking that night. As a strong-willed climber, you fast for a day or two without complaint to wait out bad weather.
Where does this strong will and hardness come from? It derives from recognizing desires and goals and then enduring whatever it takes to fulfill them. A strong will grows from suffering and being rewarded for it. Does a strong will come from years of multihour training runs or do those runs result from a dominating will? There is no right answer because will and action feed one another.
Suffering provides the opportunity to exercise will and to develop toughness. Climb on local crags in weather conditions far worse than any you would intentionally confront in the high mountains. Austrian climber Hermann Buhl carried snowballs in his hands to develop his tolerance (psychological) and to increase capillary capacity (physical). He climbed the local crags all winter long, even in storms, and bicycled for hundreds of kilometers on his way to the mountains. It all paid off when he climbed alone to the summit of Nanga Parbat—history's only solo first-ascent of an 8,000-meter peak.
The mind and body adapt to both comfort and deprivation. The difficult experiences of mountaineering may appear irrational and risky from the comfort of the armchair, but learning to deal with them is essential. Relish the challenge of overcoming difficulties that would crush ordinary men and women.
ATTITUDE A Nil CHAR AC T ER
Michael Gilbert and Scott Backes got soaked to the bone climbing the Waterfall Pitch on the north face of the Eiger. When they stopped for the night at the Brittle Ledges, they discovered their sleeping bags were drenched as well, Michael asked, "What are we going to do now?" Scott replied, "We're going to suffer,"
Experience acts as a shield against disaster. An experienced climber spots potential problems and takes the right steps to avoid them, Experience provides the raw material for imagining and executing hard routes in the mountains.
But if you don't have the experience, how do you gain it without becoming discouraged or injured in the process? Bite off a little at a time. Choose mountains and routes that fit your ability. Develop a program that promotes progress without getting you thrashed or discouraged. Jumping into the deep end of the pool may be the fastest way to learn to swim, but history abounds with examples of climbers who "swam" too far, too soon, and never came back.
It's easy to look at pictures of skilled climbers on difficult routes and say to yourself, "I want to be there doing that, right now." Instead, move one step at a time. Don't depend on luck instead of skill. You maybe cool, you may be talented, and you may have gotten away with some "serious" roadside routes or local alpine test pieces, but don't plan on succeeding on any worthwhile routes your first few times in the Alps, Alaska, or the Himalayas. Don't count on fulfilling your dreams right away, Don't even try If you are in. it for the long run, you have plenty of time—and that's what it takes.
Learn how to leam. Write eveiything down if there's a risk of forgetting, and refer to these notes whenever a question arises. Read the stories of the grand masters of alpinism. (Books by Reinhold Messner and Hermann Buhl are listed in Appendix 2, Suggested Reading ) These stories aren't intended as instructional, but you'll leam plenty. Ask questions of other climbers; only the unasked question is stupid. And learn from your mistakes. The intelligent climber makes each mistake only once, and he is cured. The burned hand teaches best,
Find mentors with experience relating to your goals and with the willingness to pass it on. If you show dedication and desire, an inclination to leam, and some talent, many climbers will tell you or show you what they know. Even if they refuse to climb with you—and most will decline the honor—a mentor who knows the path you wish to tread can teach far more than any video, book, or school.
Confidence makes hardship easier to bear, renders extreme cold less debilitating, and allows you to take long runouts above dubious gear without experiencing a paralyzing fear. Climbing while riddled with fear and doubt conjures worries about the condition of the ropes, the prospect of storms, and whether the "welded" half-inch angle piton will hold. These concerns should prompt attention, not fear.
Most climbers graduating from big-wall climbing, cragging, or sport routes on ice and mixed terrain to major routes done in alpine style allow apprehension and ignorance to
degrade their technical ability. This remains true until they adapt to the environment and begin to fully tap their skills. Until then, A2 seems harder than it is. A rating of 5.8 feels like 5.11, and M5 seems as sketchy as M8. All belay anchors look suspect. The awful scale of the mountains seems to transform routine moves into difficult and dangerous ones.
This is a natural reaction. Just remember that nuts have the same holding power at 14,000 feet as they do at sea level, and that 5.8 here equals 5.8 anywhere. If you did it in the lowlands, you can do it here. The consequences of falling are far more serious in the mountains, but performing up to your potential is more important than worrying about falling.
To imagine a difficult new route, to plan it and believe in your ability so strongly that success becomes possible or even probable, demands a powerful ego. Genuine confidence is rare. More often we see a cavalier attitude toward life and death. People with inadequate experience don't understand the consequences of risk and tend to bluster and pose—at least until an accumulation of near misses or the deaths of friends confront even dullards with reality.
The audacity and certitude of youth often have no foundation, yet many routes in the Alps and the Himalayas were realized by pure desire leavened with luck. The young climber who survives his years of boldness will develop into a self-assured, calculating, and mature climber with better chances of both success and survival. Try to live through the learning curve by exercising caution until skill develops.
Talent alone can't get you there. Ambition fueled by ability and vision must be tempered with uncompromising honesty about the limits of your talent, who you are, how much risk is acceptable, and which style of routes fits you best. Belief in your ability is earned. Don't pretend. Understanding your weakness is part of confidence, too. Posturing is fatal.
Failure—and the lyranny of Success
People usually treat climbing as a goal-oriented sport instead of an experience-oriented sport. However the lessons and spirit of climbing come from the act of climbing, and their value doesn't depend on reaching a summit, All goal-oriented enterprises contain failure as their antithesis, but turning back on a climb doesn't invalidate the hard work and tough lessons encountered along the way.
Treating climbing as a means to nab a summit or complete a route engenders a fear of failure. Failure then becomes a physical or psychic defect. This is the fate of climbers who value summits over experience, who succumb to the tyranny of success. Unlike other sports disciplines, high-level alpinism becomes more dangerous the more you do it. The druglike demands of harder, higher, lighter, faster have killed most of the very best climbers the world has ever seen. No one is immune. On the other hand, people who want to learn, who want to live long enough to do a number of good routes and to become climbers that partners and family can trust, leam how to fail and when to fail.
All alpine climbers struggle with learning when to fail. It is one of the most difficult lessons. Every great climber turns back too soon on occasion—or waits too long to retreat,
goes past the point of no return, and is forced to "fail upward." No formula determines the correct moment to fail. It can arrive upon shouldering the pack, it can arise fifteen pitches up an eighteen-pitch route, it can bite you after days of toiling upward. Self-knowledge usually solves the problem: You should fail and retreat before completely losing control of yourself.
Learn to turn back before losing all ability to influence what will happen to you. Although no one fully controls a situation in the mountains, you should never voluntarily relinquish control of yourself. Force circumstances to wrestle away your self-control only after a hard fight. Even then, don't allow panic to induce paralysis. Everyone loses it at some point, but those with enough training and experience are able to rely on reflex and their survival instinct to make decisions. Reflex is the result of training, training, training. The will to live is programmed into everyone. Some people's will is stronger than others. Is yours strong, or will you just give up without much of a fight? Know before you go.
Learning how to fail is a bit easier. The mechanics of retreat are covered in the final chapter of this book. Besides being physically intricate, retreating safely and efficiently is a state of mind. Depending on the margin of safety, the slightest potential problem with weather or psyche could mandate retreat, or the team could be strong enough to get in really deep before needing to pull the plug. The style of ascent corresponds directly to the style of retreat. Dealing with the possibility of both retreat and of "failing upward" is an integral part of planning for any route in the mountains.
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