I want to preface this essay by acknowledging that in the world of climbing, I’m a nobody. I’ve done no significant first ascents. I haven’t written a guidebook, I haven’t developed any new areas, and the only way you might be impressed by my hardest redpoints is if you just happen to really love the number 11.
I’m writing this essay because I am your average obsessively-dedicated climber with a head game that totally screws me, especially when going for the send. I’ve finally made some breakthroughs with regards to redpointing, and I think my experience could benefit other climbers.
The secret to my redpoint success is Super Mario Brothers (Nintendo Wii version). Before I get to Mario, however, consider my pre-Mario redpoints:
Last Spring, I found myself taking a third burn on the 5.10 offwidth, In the Crack or On Your Back at Horseshoe Canyon Ranch. Aubrey, my (now) wife, TRonsighted it after my first lead, and then pulled the rope and led it perfectly. I still hadn’t got it clean on TR or lead. I shuffled up my #5, locked in a butterfly stack, and pulled through the mini-roof. I found a spot just big enough for a knee jam. I moved the cam again and reset the hand stack. Finally, the crack peeled open to an off-#6 size, too big for even a fist stack. I had to transfer from the butterfly stack to a layback and get my feet on a crimp rail. Just like the past two tries, my feet popped. I slid down the wall, dangling below my #5.
I screamed the F-word so loud that I scared the Ranch horses. Aubrey stared at the ground and said nothing, bracing herself for a tantrum.
Everything is so easy for you,
And so hard for me. I just suck.
You don’t suck,
I do. No matter how much I train or how hard I try, I suck. I don’t even deserve to climb.
Related: Redefining Success in Rock Climbing
You might think that I’m making that dialogue up. Perhaps I’m trying to recreate the drama, and I can’t think of anything less cliche than, “I don’t even deserve to climb.” I swear on my trad rack, I have said those exact words on multiple occasions. Looking back now—detached from the emotions of the moment—I recognize that I sound like a melodramatic teenager. In the moment, it feels so real.
On another occasion, I was attempting to redpoint an obscure Arkansas .11b sport route called Great Expectations. It would be my first of the grade. The draws were hung from previous attempts. I knew the route decently well. I had done all the moves cleanly, yet each redpoint attempt got progressively worse. I slipped on the 5.10 moves. I set up for the crux, and then decided I wasn’t in the right position and slumped drearily onto the rope. I called for “takes” when I should have gone for it. After each failed attempt, I wailed. I complained. I slapped the rock like a toddler. I screamed the F-word so loud, birds fled from their nests, leaving their young to die.
Aubrey had learned by this point in our relationship to stay quiet and let me flagellate myself. I had inadvertently taught her that anything she said would be used against her. These tantrum scenes were incredibly embarrassing, but compounding the issue was the fact that my sour mood didn’t fade away after the next climb. A redpoint meltdown could cloud the whole weekend for me.
Around the fire that night, I wasn’t fun. I didn’t tell jokes or stories. I sulked and obsessed over my climb. Aubrey didn’t like being around me. Eventually I started berating myself for berating myself. I was stuck. I tried to rationalize it away.
I’m just an onsight climber,
Onsighting is more important, anyways. You don’t project multipitch routes. Your onsight ability is your climbing ability.
This story only carried me so far. Sometimes I couldn’t get the route on my first go, but I was inspired by it and wanted to try again—to send the route more gracefully. The second try, like it or not, was a redpoint attempt. On these, I was mental mush. Eventually, Aubrey only wanted me to try routes at my limit when no one was around.
My red point breakthrough happened while playing Super Mario Brothers.
I bought the game for my eight-year-old son. We started out playing together, but before long he lost interest and I took over. After a few months of intermittent gaming—aided by an ankle injury and illness—I defeated Bowser and saved Princess Peach. Finally, I was free of this stupid game. I had my life back.
To my chagrin, however, I realized it wasn’t over. Saving Peach unlocked world nine: a star-shaped world with eight new levels. To unlock them, I had to redo the previous eight worlds, this time collecting three star coins at every level. I basically had to beat the whole game again.
Seeing no other option, I started back at world one. Collecting the star coins was complicated and added a whole new element to the game. Some of the coins were easy; others were exceptionally tricky. Some coins could only be ascertained with a certain “suit.” If I lost the suit, I couldn’t get that coin. It was no longer enough to just survive; I couldn’t bumble around and then bolt to the final flag as tiny Mario.
These levels were at my limit, and I had to execute them perfectly. The process was frustrating and occasionally invoked mini-meltdowns. On one particularly treacherous star coin, after dying for the seemingly hundredth time, my son said,
You’re never gonna get it.
I said. He looked at me with shock in his eyes. Realizing that I had just yelled at an eight-year-old over Mario, I softened my tone and tried to explain:
I’ll get it if I keep trying. It’s just a matter of persistence.
I was right. I tried a hundred more times, and I got it. I think that conversation led to my epiphany. Somewhere around world six, I realized that I could beat any Mario level and collect all three star coins if I tried it enough times. I also began to recognize progress in my “failed” attempts. I saw that when I started working a new level, looking for coins, dying was a necessary part of the process.
With every death, I came to know the level a little bit better. I might not finish it in the next thirty minutes before my wife got home, but if I kept trying, I would finish. Somehow, and I know it seems stupid, that realization bled over into my climbing.
Related: Mastering the Mind: An Interview with Mental Training Specialist, Paul Roberts
I saw that redpointing was the same way. I had to release the need for success now. I had to appreciate incremental progress. I had to accept falling as a part of the process and see that with each “failed” attempt, I came to know the route a little better. I might not get it today, but I will get it. If I repeat the route enough times, it will eventually become so familiar that even I can’t stop myself from sending it.
To well-adjusted climbers like my wife, these statements are obvious. But to me, a guy that has always desired perfection on my path to perfection, these thoughts qualify as breakthroughs. When I start up a route with no intention other than to become more familiar with it, I relax. The pressure releases. I can focus. I climb better. I also have success on every burn because every burn gets me closer to the goal.
Over the last few months, I’ve redpointed some hard routes (for me). A few weeks ago, I starting working an .11b trad line in the Wichita Wildlife Refuge called Drop Dead. It would be my second .11 on gear and my first of the grade. I gave it four honest tries, one-hanging my last two attempts, but I couldn’t make the send. I swore on my falls, but I didn’t lose control. I didn’t send baby animals fleeing from their nests. I didn’t slap the rock. I didn’t pout all night and spoil the whole weekend. Most importantly, I didn’t make my wife feel bad.
I went back to work, training, and rehearsing the moves in my head. Two weeks later, I sent the route on my first attempt of the morning. All those “failed” attempts prepared me for the send.
My wife rolls her eyes when I say that Mario taught me how to redpoint. She credits our summer trip and her positive encouragement. Without doubt, those things helped. But the little mustached man is my secret weapon, and I know that when I pick up that Wii controller, I’m pretty much training.