Saturday, October 9, 2010

Prescription Top Roping

Touchstone ClimbingIn the culture of rock climbing there is one all pervasive thread of existence and that is risk. We develop skills and knowledge to manage risk, contain risk, prevent risk, and react to risk. Even psychology researchers have studied risk and why rock climbers are seemingly attracted to it. But what if risk didn’t exist in rock climbing? Would we still grow as rock climbers? Absolutely.

An environment without risk in rock climbing already exists and has existed for some time now in the form of climbing gyms. Gyms create an environment where risk is so minimized that it is practically non-existent; you have to pretty much try to hurt yourself in the gym. Some would argue that this waters down the sport and that if you take risk out of the equation then it’s not really rock climbing. Or that somehow you are not as mentally tough as other climbers who incorporate risk into their practice. Perhaps.

But I would argue that you can, and should, use the gym as another tool to sharpen your mental skills in the absence of risk. There is a lot to learn about yourself and your thought processes when you remove risk and sometimes only when you remove risk. Psychology is a lot like the layers of an onion. You have to peel back the layers to get to the core psychological beliefs that often drive other thoughts and behaviors piled on top. In climbing we often focus so much on managing the risk that we forget to focus on what core beliefs may be behind them.

If you want to experience peeling back your layers try this the next time you are at the gym: spend your work out exclusively top roping (no bouldering or leading) and incorporate climbing routes that either approach or max out your climbing ability. When you are done with each route take a minute to think about how the route went and the messages you told yourself as you were climbing. Those little automatic often unnoticed negative things we say to ourselves. What were they? These are your core beliefs in the absence of risk.

For me, as an example, I can think of a bunch of things I have said to myself on top ropes: I can’t do it (= I’m not good enough), I’m too short (=the cover up for I’m not good enough), this route sucks (=blaming others for why I’m not good enough), and my all time favorite – I might hurt my fingers, shoulder, etc. (=the consequence of not being good enough). So for me what it all boils down to is I’m not good enough. Yikes. How’s that for a dose of realism.

Now imagine me taking that big heavy baggage of I’m not good enough and add in a whopping serving of risk piled on top. It’s going to compound that negative message that I carry around like a heavy backpack. And that’s exactly what happened when I first began lead climbing. What it boiled down to was that I believed I wasn’t ready to lead because my core belief was I’m not good enough. I could have and did push through both learning to lead and managing my negative core beliefs but it was messy at first. I spent more time managing my risk and learning the mechanics of leading than managing my core beliefs. The awareness of my negative core beliefs came much later. But since you are reading this post now, I highly encourage you to identify any negative core beliefs that may be holding you back. Developing mindfulness around these beliefs and countering them with more positive helpful beliefs helps them go away much faster.

Climbing without risk is an important tool in peeling back the layers of what you bring with you when you climb. It can teach us more than just what our negative core beliefs are. In the absence of risk I believe that we can also deepen our awareness of our bodies, develop more mind/body connections, and have more space to open our minds without the presence of fear. With that said, I also don’t recommend staying in this safe environment for very long if you want your climbing ability to grow. Think of climbing without risk as a developmental tool. Then get back out there on the sharp end to further develop the rest of your skills.


  1. Very insightful, Rana. I think there's also an element of perceived risk that we can't eliminate even while on top rope that holds us back sometimes from success. I know I find myself dealing with irrational fears and catch myself consciously reassuming myself that I'm safe. Maybe that says something about my core beliefs, too.

  2. But what if you could eliminate them? I believe that irrational fears and negative core beliefs all have one thing in common that perpetuate them: our lack of awareness to them. The more aware of them we are, the less power they have over us. Our awareness of them weakens them. Our conscious effort to undo them eventually makes them go away. Keep facing your fears!

  3. I stumbled across your blog while searching for some tips on how to read routes. Thanks for all the great posts! I've been climbing for just over a year and am in the process of transitioning from indoor top rope climbing to indoor and outdoor lead climbing. I have some huge mental blocks when it comes to my fear of falling and I'm slowly trying to work through them. Your posts about flow, the integration of yin and yang, and being vulnerable vs. stong and independent as a woman climber are fantastic for giving me things to contemplate in both my climbing world and my day to day life. Please keep the posts coming!


  4. Ann, thank you for reading! I wish you luck as you move forward with your lead climbing. I haven't written about lead climbing yet as I've been focusing on a broader foundation for it. Your comments have inspired me to revisit writing about lead climbing though. Stay tuned!



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