Mental approach: trad climbing
Climbing on traditional gear is the mainstay of British climbing. As we all know it’s not always dangerous and scary; there are so many relaxed incredible adventures and wonderful days to be had. However many of us reach the point when we want to start pushing ourselves a bit harder. This might mean your first trad leads, or conquering a new grade. No matter how fit or strong you are, taking the right mental approach can mean the difference between success and failure.
Sam Whittaker on his route Appointment with Death E9, Wimberry
Photo: Adam Long
Some people have naturally good heads, others don’t. Still, most of us pay more attention to training our bodies in the climbing wall than training our heads.
In this series of interviews I explored the different approaches people have to push themselves mentally. First off let's meet Tom, Briggs, Nic Sellers and Mia Stacey talking about onsighting; that is turning up to a climb with only the guidebook for information, setting off from the ground and reaching the top successfully without weighting any gear. This is the purest form of climbing and for many people the thrill of the unknown is what it's all about. Nic and Mia have very different approaches; Nic get's confidence from his physical ability and Mia is able to 'have strong words' with herself.
Tom is a die hard trad climber. Whilst he loves all types of climbing, adventure and onsight trad is what he's all about. Modest and unassuming, Tom is always out there, always clocking up the classics and has onsighted up to E7. Here he talks about his recent onsight ascent of Conan the Librarian (E6) at Gogarth, three committing pitches above the sea. Ticking this route was a big deal for Tom; it had been on his ticklist for 10 years. Tom has a very planned and considered approach to performing at his best.
Nic has a strong background in sport climbing, both in redpointing (8c) and onsighting (8a) and there's no doubt this has helps his trad. Many of the top trad climbers sport climb such as Dave Macleod, Lucy Creamer and James McHaffie and I'm sure they would argue it's vital to their performance. Here Nic talks about how he put it to good use. In the last 8 years he has almost shunned sport climbing altogether to focus on the trad, bringing him a number of E7 onsights and one of the few regular E6 onsighters.
Mia has a very good 'head', often stunning people with this particular skill, whether that's highball bouldering (Super Prestat 7b+, Fontainebleau) or bold trad (Archangel E3/4, Stanage, ground up ascent). On some climbs such as Archangel and on a headpoint of Life Assurance E6, Burbage), she fell from high up, yet got back on straight away and fired up to the top. Mia articulates very clearly how she gets her head in gear.
Now let’s meet husband and wife, Sam and Lucinda Whittaker. Sam is one of the owners of the super duper Climbing Works bouldering wall in Sheffield. They climb extensively in the Peak on the local rock: gritstone. Gritstone climbs are generally very short, and to make up for this often require a high level of committment. Both have excelled in the art of headpointing i.e. pre-rehearsing a route on top rope before a clean lead. Whilst this is a completely different world to onsighting, it’s interesting to find out how they deal with the concept of danger.
Sam has a glowing track record of gritstone routes. In this interview Sam gives us a fascinating insight into the mental preparation he went through to make the first ascent of the very dangerous Appointment with Death (E9) at Wimberry. It takes a bold wall/slab with no protection and only a few pebbles to grip onto. Despite this being a headpoint, much of what he says can be applied to onsighting, but he talks also about the slightly different approach he uses for onsighting at his limit. For Sam, the mental game in climbing is something that entirely consumes him when he’s involves in a route, taking over ‘normal life’.
Lucinda has headpointed two E7s on gritstone Kaluza Klein (at Robin Hoods Stride) and Deathwish (at Ilkley). Her approach is quite different to Sam’s, tending to ‘switch on’ what she calls her ‘climbing brain’. Interestingly she likens her approach to when she was competing, which required similar levels of intense focus and concentration.