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.
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.
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.
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.