What I love about rock climbing is what most people love about climbing.

Purpose in the form of meaningful goals.

The reward of progressing up through the grades.

The excuse to travel and see rare corners of the world.

The daily opportunity to push beyond the comfort zone.

Another reason to be healthy.

A chance to be a part of one of the smartest, brightest, and best communities of characters that I’ve ever met.

And, of course, how my harness makes the bulge in my pants look bigger than it is.

All of it, coming together in raging synergistic bliss.

But what I also love about rock climbing is that it offers many opportunities to learn how to be a better, stronger, braver, more mindful, and more centered human being in other areas of life, too. The lessons learned and the habits gained from our time spent on the rock often have direct applications to our normal lives.

Have you ever noticed how climbers are the ones who panic less when shit hits the fan at the office? How they are often not the ones who freak out every time there’s an unforeseen hazard that sends a project awry?

I suspect that there’s a link between learning how to stay cool on the sharp end of the rope, and learning how to stay cool under the duress of normal life.

The rituals I’ve practiced as a climber have informed my best practices as a human being, and vice versa.

But what are “rituals”?

When I ask climbers if they have any climbing rituals, usually most people say something glib, such as, “I always put my left shoe on first!” But what they’re describing is, in fact, not a ritual but a routine.

The big difference between rituals and routines is the intent behind the action, and the mindfulness you bring to each moment. Picture, as an example, two climbers loading up their belay devices as their partners prepare to climb. Both follow the exact same routine, which is they thread the rope through the device, clip it to a locking carabiner, then lock the carabiner. Superficially, it appears that they’re both doing the same thing.

But one climber is thinking only about the beta on his project as he belays—his mind is in the future, in a place of anxiety, and he’s just going through the motions of belaying.

Meanwhile, the other climber, who has ritualized the act of belaying, has habituated herself to enter a mindful state as she goes through these common motions. Loading the rope into the belay device triggers thoughts of respecting the responsibility of what is being asked of you. Paying out slack triggers feelings of honor for being entrusted with someone else’s life. And lowering someone safely engages a mindful state of gratitude to be out climbing with a good friend.

I might wager that there would be far fewer belay accidents if we all ritualized the routine act of belaying into a more mindful practice.

Rituals allow us bring more of what’s good into our lives so that we don’t forget what’s important. By focusing on intent, staying present, and being mindful of what we’re doing and why, we can heighten the climbing experience, make it safer, and make ourselves better people.

Here are some of my rituals.

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The Warm-up Ritual

How you approach the first route of the day makes a huge difference in how you perform later on when it matters.

Warming up isn’t just about limbering up the muscles and getting blood flowing to your tendons on some mindless, easy jug haul.

Warming up is an opportunity to check in with your body and your mind, and optimize yourself physically and mentally so that you are ready to perform later on.

The best way to warm-up is to do a route twice, back-to-back. Usually, I do this by first leading the warm-up, then climbing it immediately thereafter on top rope. But you can also perform this ritual by top-roping something twice, or even leading something twice.

My ritual is to allow myself to make mistakes on the first lap, then identify two or three things that I either did wrong or that I could improve upon while lowering down the wall. Finally, I will climb the same route again, and try to do so without making those two or three mistakes.

I’ve identified those mistakes, lined them up, and now I’m going to shoot them all down. They’re gone.

This ritual demands that you know what kind of mistakes you should be looking for, which might not be easy for beginners, and even many experienced climbers. But try your best. Examples of some of the most common and recurring mistakes for me are:

Sloppy, imprecise footwork or just general uncoordinated climbing. (Fix: Make a conscious effort to place my toe perfectly on the first try; try to hit each hand hold perfectly, athletically, and with coordination.)

Tension or over gripping. (Fix: At a shake or rest, look at a single, arbitrary point on the rock in front of you, and stare with a soft gaze at that spot for five deep consecutive breaths, allowing the tension to release.)

Anxiety, whether that’s feeling generally scared to fall, or just nervous about sending the project later on. (Fix: climb above a bolt on the warm-up and simply just take a fall. Giving ourselves permission to fail, even on a warm-up, is what gives us confidence to succeed when it counts.)

Think of a warm-up as a chance to purge all the negative stuff that holds you back from performing, so that when it’s time to try for a redpoint attempt on the project, you’ve already dealt with those issues and you can climb with a clear, unattached, performance-oriented mind.

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The “Doing Something You Don’t Want to Do” Ritual

One time, my partner and I found ourselves on a ledge about 500 feet below the rim of the Black Canyon at 10 p.m. It was our third route on the South Rim that day, and we were both knackered.

Despite having no water, bivy gear or warm clothing, we resigned ourselves to just calling it quits and sleeping on the ledge till morning. We sat there for all of five minutes before I realized that there was no fucking way I wanted to spend the next eight hours sitting on this ledge, spooning this smelly dude.

My partner didn’t want to lead in the dark, and neither did I. But my feelings for not bivying on that ledge were much stronger than my fear of leading in the dark, and so I grabbed the rack and somehow got us up to the top of the rim by 3 a.m.

Situations like this, in which you find yourself between the proverbial (or literal) rock and a hard place, can sometimes make it easy to step up to the plate and do something hard or scary—and surprise yourself in the process.

But I also think it’s important to do something that you don’t want to do (but know you should) at least once a day—even if you have to force it. Especially if you have to force it.

Whether that’s doing that extra fitness pitch at the end of the day when you’re really tired, or whether it’s just taking a big fall that’s been scaring you for the last week, or even whether it’s spending an extra 10 minutes cleaning up someone else’s trash that’s been left at the base of the crag, we could all make a better effort to not avoid the hard path simply because we’re tired, scared, or lazy.

Sometimes, when I’m working on a climbing project, I find myself lowering down before going to the anchors. I’m tired, and feel like the effort I’ve given is good enough. I don’t want to keep going, even though I know I should. That’s a perfect opportunity to check in, be mindful of this decision, and choose the harder path.

That’s how progress is made, by making incremental, conscious, mindful decisions to push ourselves a little bit more out of our comfort zones.

Do something you don’t want to do but know you should. Every day.

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The Post-Climb Beer Ritual

I enjoy drinking a beer (or three) with my climbing partners after any day of cragging. But when I recently realized that those beers often go down a little too mindlessly—without any real reflection, without any real gratitude, without any real celebration—I felt ashamed.

Type-A driven people (like myself, and probably most sport climbers) tend to struggle with celebrating the small successes. We want to redpoint the long-term 5.14 mega project, not the 5.13 mini project (or whatever the grade is for you).

This type of thinking puts you on the fast lane to frustration and ultimately burnout.

Just as my warm-up ritual allows me to identify one or three things I’m doing wrong in my climbing, my post-climbing beer ritual gives me permission to identify one or three things that I actually accomplished that day—and truly celebrate them.

The smaller the better, too. We can’t just make a habit of only celebrating our big successes. Celebrate the small ones, too. Pushing yourself when you were tired, having an engaging conversation with a new person, helping someone out with new beta, whatever it is.

After climbing, crack a beer, cheers your homie, and take a sip. Express gratitude, inwardly or explicitly, to your partner for a good day on the rock. Take another sip.

Review your day and find at least one thing you did well. Maybe you didn’t send. Most likely you got your ass kicked and failed in a major way. That’s OK. Have another sip.

But there’s something you did right. Identify it. Then celebrate it—inwardly or explicitly, if it’s appropriate. Now have another sip.

All photos (c) Keith Ladzinski.

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  • Naomi Byerley

    My ritual-decompressing with my partner before climbing.
    Carrying the stress of the day or the week or the month means my mind isn’t on what I’m doing. It is amazing how much an inside joke, analyzing climbing news, or just enjoying the company can change my entire approach to the day’s climbing!

  • Alex M.

    Sadly, I used to smoke, so my ritual always involved centering myself by having a cig at the base of the route and visualizing the moves in my head, if it was a redpoint burn. Since I quit last year, I’ve had to find a new ritual, which is great. As a non-smoker, only now do I realize how awful the impact of discarded butts is on our wild places. My new ritual involves trying to find a discarded cigarette butt and putting it in my backpack to hike out. This helps me feel like I’m doing something, however small, to mitigate the impact I had as a smoker. it also makes me feel a little more in-tune with the crag, which hopefully buys me some karma points on my redpoint burn!

  • Richard Brereton

    Packing the bag the night before is a ritual probably familiar to most. To me it’s the time when I set the plan for the day at the crag. I think about my goals and my partner’s goals and how best to set ourselves up for success given the weather, our time window, how ready to send I think I/we am/are. I used to be a shitshow of a partner, packing the morning of, all hungover, and showing up a half hour late without my chalk bag or even climbing shoes (I’ve done them all). Packing the night before was my remedy to all that. Want to be a good partner who gets invited climbing over and over? Start by packing the night before and showing up on time, ready to crush the day’s plans.

  • Nemo Edwards

    As both a follower and leader, taking a moment to high five or fist bump when meeting at the top of every pitch. It’s as much a ritual and habit for me as locking my biner into the anchor, or handing off gear for the leader of the next pitch. It’s a tiny acknowledgement of your partner, of the experience you’re sharing, and a moment to celebrate being outside.

  • Stoned Munter

    Turning up to the crag and circulating around to say what’s up to everyone. Watch everyone either crushing or flailing on their project and of course giving mad beta spray regardless of whether it’s wanted or not. Then of course it’s time to wrap your entire body in strapping tape and complain your not at any other crag and how the others are all so much better.

  • Royal Magnell

    I just do a simple mental check. Try and get my mind in the right frame of reference. I’m entering a world where I’m totally responsible for my choices and there is instant feedback on those choices. Mess up, and I’m gonna get hurt. For me, it takes a lot of effort to be in the right mental headspace to lead. I have to really get honest about my motivations and expectations. I need to rationally work through the objective risks and really be on top of my game. Assessing my physical state is huge too. And having a good partner makes it massively easier. You have to trust the person you tie in with.

  • Dylan

    It’s simple, but my favorite ritual, whether belaying or climbing (often when climbing is when I forget it the most), I always fist bump my partner and tell them they got it, (or myself if I’m climbing). If they are climbing then it just reinforces that I’m going to give them a good catch and that, no matter how they feel, someone believes they can do it. If I’m climbing I use it to make sure my belayer is paying attention and to exhale all the stress and hesitation I feel about my project.

    • Dylan

      So did I win? 😀

  • Doligo

    My ritual as a belayer is to keep an eye on my climber till they are back on terra firma even if they are off belay. It is my responsibility as a belayer to make sure both of their rope ends are on the ground. And I would never take them off belay until I have a clear visual or verbal confirmation of that’s what they’d like me to do.

  • Eddie Marovich

    I like to slap myself in the face repeatedly until I shed tears. I wipe the tears and dip my tear soaked fingers into my chalk and once the chalk dries the tears I know it’s on. I have done this before every red point attempt ever and I have never red pointed a single pitch ever.

    • Face slapping is a ritual I used in college, but never thought to apply it to climbing … I’ll be sure to try it

  • Tyler Lomprey

    My favorite ritual begins with shouldering my pack after arriving at the TH and then proceeding to walk to the crag/base of wall. This sometimes too short and yet sometimes too long walk is the perfect opportunity to fully immerse ourselves in the present moment; bringing ourselves into “flow” and setting the stage for a ridiculously fun day, whatever the outcome might bring. It’s a time to smell the fresh air, feel the dry crispness on your cheeks, and to feel the firm ground underfoot. Beginning the climbing day with this positive, and thankful to be alive mindset is the perfect recipe for a beautiful day out.

  • Dono

    I like to get naked and send/repeat a route or boulder. It’s so easy to take climbing and ourselves way too seriously, baring it all sure helps put some silliness back into life. I’m currently developing a new area and have aspirations to snag a simultaneous fa and fna. So far only managed to snag a second ascent/first naked ascent.

  • Al C

    I tend to get very nervous and scared and kind of hyperventilate-y when getting on anything at my limit, trad or sport. For me it’s focusing on the safety and touching base with my belayer. I say out loud, “Locked, knotted, and out the top [in regards to the rope leading to the climber],” while also double-checking these little safety things. There’s something about doing that that forces me to take a few deep breaths and put my fear aside and trust that my partner and belayer is worth trusting with my life.

    TMI, I also have to empty my bowels before tying in and on getting on anything that really scares me…I don’t know it that’s a ritual or just pathetic.

  • Dmitry V. Dylov

    In the alpine environment, the majority of accidents occur after the summit is reached, usually during rappelling or walking-off: when the goal is already behind you, the mental focus disappeared, and the fatigue kicked in… That’s why I developed a silly (but functional!) ritual for myself: at the top of the climb I give myself a “decent flick” on my nose as a reminder. This triggers mental awareness that the danger is perhaps just ahead of me; I start double-check’ing the rappel device, place my feet more carefully, consciously make effort to conserve energy. One can spread two-three such flicks throughout particularly long descents, and engage partners for making it a fun collective ritual (especially, if someone does something stupid and endangers the team).

  • Dmitry V. Dylov

    In the alpine environment, the majority of accidents occur after the summit is reached, usually during rappelling or walking-off: when the goal is already behind you, the mental focus disappeared, and the fatigue kicked in… That’s why I developed a silly (but functional!) ritual for myself: at the top of the climb I give myself a “descent flick” on my nose as a reminder. This triggers mental awareness that the danger is perhaps just ahead of me; I start double-check’ing the rappel device, place my feet more carefully, consciously make effort to conserve energy. One can spread two-three such flicks throughout particularly long descents, and engage partners for making it a fun collective ritual (especially, if someone does something stupid and endangers the team).

  • Prachi Patel

    I climb up about 15-20 feet while warming up, place my palm flat on the rock, take a few deep breaths, and allow myself to well up with love and gratitude and respect for a few moments. Then I whisper to the rock and the universe, “thank you for letting me be here.”

  • Carson Darling

    For me, one of the more important rituals is flaking the rope before getting on the wall at the beginning of the day. In many cases it can redundant, but it’s something small that I can do. Going through the process of squaring away the rope is an easy way to check the safety of one of the few single-point-of-failure pieces of gear. It also puts me in a mindset to respect the situation that I’m putting myself into and to make sure my head is in the right place before starting a climb.

  • Rob

    The first thing I do when I turn up at the crag is turn on my phone and start commenting on the internet. Maybe I’ll start spraying about my sick new project #crimpmyride #bigcrimping #harnessmuffintop or maybe I’ll enter into a competition to win some sick new approach shoes so that all the girls at the bar will know I’m a climber / require orthopedic shoes. Who cares if it gets dark before I’ve even tied into my warm-up my social media game is on point son. peace.