I think you could stand to realize how your frustrations can lead to power sinks in your climbing.

– Arno Ilgner in The Rock Warrior’s Way

best rock climbing mental training book: The Rock Warrior's Way by Arno Ilgner

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I leaned forward in my chair, feeling myself getting fired up again. It was the debrief of my first climbing course. Some of this feedback stung like the poisonous plant I had accidentally gotten in my eye the day before. It had been an exhausting few weeks for me.

I looked at the director of the NOLS branch who was running our debrief and retorted “Can I respond to this? Because I really want to!”

Yes, I (at age 24), had quite the candor and lack of intimidation by people far above my novice self! He chuckled and nodded. The words streamed from my brain into the open air perfectly and confidently, fueled by energizing anger:

“In the situation of a climb being clearly bolted by a tall person to the point where a bolt is 3 inches out of reach when I stand on the only obvious clipping ledge and thus have to risk a large slabby fall onto the last anchor, I get to be frustrated! I’d also like to point out that I funneled this frustration into a surge of energy with which I forged my way up a chimney instead. I completely disagree with the idea that my frustration was a waste of energy because I know my frustration was a power source, not a power leak!”

It felt so good to let those words out! Looking back now, even as a far more level-headed climber, I still love my audacious 24-year-old self who was, just weeks before, trembling on a slopey ledge, reaching fruitlessly for a bolt just out of reach. The last anchor was about 12 feet away on a route where downclimbing was not an option.

A Vent Session on Slab

The stress from the pressures to perform well as a first time NOLS climbing instructor was draining. My co-instructor and I were scouting a multi-pitch to see if I would feel comfortable leading it with students the next day. There I was, stranded on slab, in the middle of the second easiest multi-pitch in the whole darn place.

“Can you stand on a balled-up piece of cordalette?” asked my far more experienced, taller, calmer belayer.

“Errr I don’t know… I guess so…”

The added inch or so did not help at all. I trembled and stalled. I mumbled and shifted my feet back and forth. I reached. I re-reached just in case something had changed. Damn it, you have got to be kidding me!! Finally, I exploded.

“F@#$ this! I get it, I’m short. I accept that. But someone came up here, who was probably 6’2” and thoughtlessly put this bolt as far up as THEY could reach. This is just dumb. It is SO CLEAR that this is the clipping ledge. I hate this!!”

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Aleish Rice climbing in Necedah Wisconsin

Aleish Rice climbing in Necedah, Wisconsin. Photo by Bloodgood Foto.

With that, I took a couple of decisive looks right and left, and traversed the ledge far to the left into a chimney. I stormed up the chimney with more drive and confidence than I’d had all course. I didn’t question a single move I made in that thing. A second before, I was staring at a mountain of apprehension, and now I was doing things my own way. Nothing could stop me now!

In The Rock Warrior’s Way, Arno Ilgner argues that anger and frustration are power sinks, or ways that we lose power. However, anger and frustration rise up in excellent climbers and I believe they can be channeled productively.

Let’s rethink these emotions in climbing in three ways. First, anger as a motivator. Second, anger as a force of change. Third, anger as a means to self-acceptance.

Anger as a Motivator

After deciding I hated the predicament I was in, I felt like a compressed spring, ready to surge forward with a burst of energy. On “Rethinking Anger,” a recent Ted Talk, psychologist Ryan Martin explains that anger is a way of alerting ourselves that something is stopping us from reaching our goals. He argues it can be a strong motivator to “plow through those frustrations and obtain our goal.” When we really want to finish a route and all that lies between us is one crux move or one heady step, anger can help us power through.

Now, there is only a slight difference between frustration and determined focus, and I believe it is in the way we channel the same emotion of anger. What do we do when there is an obstacle in our way? I like when Ilgner analyzes the facial expression of a boulderer about to pull through a crux move. He explains the facial expression as “focused, determined, and optimistic.” This boulderer chose an optimistic approach to plow through that obstacle. Ilgner compares this look to a grimace and explains that a grimace is a defensive look which “creates tunnel vision, limiting what you can mentally ‘see’ (30).” Ilgner argues we should maintain a “soft eyes” focus, which allows us to see more possibilities and remain focused. With more possibilities, we can see an optimistic end to the crux.

This doesn’t mean to climb without passionate determination or to stifle-a-natural-scream-yourself through a crux sequence. Soft eye focus and screaming can co-exist! The key question to ask ourselves is, “What am I going to do with this obstacle that’s keeping me from my goal? Will I get defensive? Or will I power through?”

Climber in Necedah Wisconsin

Focused climber in Necedah, Wisconsin. Photo by Bloodgood Foto.

Anger as a Force of Change

Secondly, anger alerts us to injustice. In my case, I was standing on a ledge trying to clip a bolt way above my head that I couldn’t reach. Ilgner claims that we “struggle and whine” until we “finally get mad at ourselves, drop our excuses, and improve our focus in that reactive sort of way.” This assumes that in a frustrating situation, we are the ones who need to adapt. In a lot of situations, I tend to agree, but the world of climbing holds room for improvement.

For example, I remember hearing people hating on a warm-up route at Willow River State Park in Hastings, WI, a poorly bolted 5.9 warm-up hidden next to an amphitheater of 5.12 climbs. The risk of a fall on a 5.9 was so low to most climbers at the crag that the bolting didn’t phase them, but the risk put some people in the hospital. After years of people complaining, someone finally added a bolt. Now the 5.12 climber’s 5.10 friend can lead something without being terrified.

I have progressed in my climbing enough that I don’t often hesitate to take that extra step off the ledge to clip the bolt anymore, but that will always be a greater risk for me than for the tall guy. I don’t think the world of climbing has to stay this way. Ilgner does not mean for us to calmly accept all risks. He asserts that many risks are not worth taking. I would go one step further. I say that we should find these moments of frustration as opportunities to empower ourselves to change the status quo. I do agree with Ilgner, that we should drop the whining before we act. Stop questioning yourself and speak up.

Anger as a Means of Self Acceptance

Finally, while frustrations can be a waste of energy, not expressing them can be taxing, too. Ilgner argues that distancing ourselves from our emotions and viewing ourselves from a third party perspective can help us break habits and maintain a calm and collected demeanor. With this demeanor we can face challenges with a more level head, dissociating ourselves from our automatic and sometimes emotional responses or negative habits. He calls this the “observer” position (22). I generally don’t endorse the idea of distancing ourselves from our emotions, even if at times it can be beneficial.

Stoicism is not a requirement of being a good climber.

In fact, I’d like to think that self-acceptance opens the door to climbing as hard as we possibly can.

Jacob Bach Devil's Lake Wisconsin.

Jacob Bach Devil’s Lake, Wisconsin. Photo by Bloodgood Foto.

Let’s go back to this climbing course. It was challenging for me long before that dreaded ledge. Two weeks of being the youngest, smallest, least experienced, and only female instructor drained me. Gaining the respect of my students was an uphill battle for me from day one, and I was tolerating it until now. The ledge was the last straw.

Returning to the TED Talk by Soraya Chemaly, award winning writer and media critic, she argues that resisting expressing our emotions is unhealthy. She says people, especially women, learn to set aside their anger. When we’re frustrated, we quickly add on “no really, it’s ok!” It’s a dangerous road to go down, since ignored emotions can turn into anxiety or physical ailments. While I could have stoically made the move to the bolt and been fine, and I could have accepted the feedback and been grateful for the opportunity to better myself as a climber, I’m glad I got mad instead. Any other response would have been disingenuous and unhealthy.

Climb the way you live; Live the way you Climb

I like how Ilgner explains that people live the way they climb and climb the way they live. While living and climbing with a level head may work for some, I think it’s more sustainable to practice living and climbing genuinely. If every once in a while a productive temper tantrum arises, don’t be too hard on yourself! The climbing community can pressure people to not express their frustrations with the status quo and to take on challenges with stoicism. I don’t think that is what Ilgner is really encouraging in The Rock Warrior’s Way. So, in step one of your transformational journey toward being a rock warrior, know that at least one other climber out there with high aspirations and a generally positive attitude has no problem swearing at a bolt and doing things her own way.

Citation: Ilgner, A. (2006). The Rock Warriors Way: mental training for climbers. La Vergne, TN: Desiderata Institute.