24 March 2009
“I regularly find the difference between success and failure on a route can be distilled down to state of mind on the day - the confident relaxed approach to just go for it that sees you through the crux before you know what's happening as opposed to the doubt, hesitation etc that can lead to panic, missing obvious sequences, placing too much gear then falling off. Working a route removes the unknown which makes it very easy to stay composed - but do you have any tips for attaining / maintaining the right frame of mind for a hard onsight attempt?”
There are several strategies to help create a relaxed confident frame of mind for an onsight, but here are my top five:
Don’t get too built up - Often, getting excited about an onsight you’ve been looking forward to for ages can pile on a lot of unnecessary pressure. It’s not so bad in sport climbing because if you fall off a nice 7b, there are a million others in the sea, but in trad it can be worse if there are not so many rotes of that style/grade that lend themselves onsighting. So, the challenge tends to be to not think too much about specific routes you want to onsight and more about a general level. When you think about specific routes, it’s all too easy to let failure scenarios take over your imagination and destroy your composure on the actual attempt. It’s usually better to think about the result (success/failure on a specific route) as little as possible, and just to focus on how you are climbing generally. It might be better for some people to not prepare too thoroughly for the day of the attempt - anything that increases the sense of occasion might place more subconscious pressure on you. My tactic has always been to convince myself I don’t care whether I fail on the route at all and just go for broke. I just focus on climbing the next move or section well and nothing more. Hopefully you find yourself at the top?!
Think of past successes. The trouble with onsighting is it’s impossible to visualise the moves based on actual experience of doing them (obviously you have to when reading the route from the ground). So all you have to go on is past successes. So it pays to play back the feelings of confidence and good movement you had in previous onsights that went well. The more similar the route to wheat you are aiming to onsight next, the better.
Get familiarity. Your best onsights will tend to happen during a run of a lot of similar climbing. In redpointing it’s often not too important to have done a lot of similar routes recently. But for onsighting, the more you are immersed in every aspect of the routine of onsight days and climbing, the less the ‘shock of the new’ will make you worry about success/failure and the more you will just centre your focus on the immediate job in hand - the next move.
Get trust in your gear - There is no easy way to do it, falling onto gear, especially unanticipated falls will give you the largest single jumps in climbing confidence you’ll ever have. So a good tactic is to try ‘bold but safe’ routes where there tends to be harder climbing and a bit run out, but above very good gear. If you try a lot of them near your limit, you’ll experience that sickening feeling of realising you are about to fall and there’s nothing you can do about it. But it’s only sickening at first. Once you have experienced it many times, you’ll be able to recognise it for what it is and not let it destroy your focus on fighting through that last move to the resting ledge. It will also help you for future routes to accept that a gear placement is totally reliable and you’ll beat the tendency to stop right in the middle of the crux in a fruitless search for more gear when it’s unnecessary.
Break routes down - The more you look at routes and break them up mentally into a series of short hurdles between rests/gear, the less you’ll feel the choking sense of taking on something huge. Start off with the aim ‘just to get to the first gear’ or the crux or whatever the natural break in the route is.
The common theme is all of these points is that the conditions for confidence are created in advance, sometimes a long way in advance. It’s nearly impossible to magic confidence out of panic in the moment of an onsight. Only well grounded tendency to have confidence over the long term will be able to bring your focus back from the brink. Start now.