This last year I’ve been trying to break into 5.10- trad. Being the stronger climbing partner of my team, that often meant pushing myself on lead. However, decking from blown gear last August lost a lot of my lead head and confidence to climb, even at the levels I was previously confident. However, I’ve had a resurgence over the last month of not only getting my confidence back but pushing into 5.10 trad. I’m really proud of myself and feel empowered by what I’ve learned.
In the last year, I broke my foot after an offset pulled on my first big wall, descended cliffed out loose scree at midnight in a lightning storm, survived a 2000 ft 5.8 X after a wrong turn, decked off another blown gear placement and got nighted for the first time a dozen miles into wilderness and 16 pitches into a route. Which means a lot of great adventures, but when combined, I really started getting anxious about climbing, risk, and leading. Having injury take away the focuses of my life (mountains, wilderness, adventure, activity) a couple times last year really shook me with the consequences of taking on more risk.
When I came back from traveling, tackling this fear was one big thing I focused on. I found even in the safest settings like gym top rope, I could fear a missed redundancy. I found just ‘getting back on the horse’ didn’t fix these fears for me when nearly in tears and overwhelmed with emotion even while safe at belay 150 ft up Glacier Point Apron. Things that did help were pro-actively using visualization to create a positive, successful image of leading, using self-talk to calm and support myself and mindful techniques to focus on breath and the physical sensation of the climb when I started feeling nervous. Besides those suggestions from Matt Lloyd, I also talked to climbers often about overcoming injury mentally and received a lot of validation and reassurance that these cycles can be normal. Finally, Majka Burhardt’s suggestions to focus on routes I’ve done before, loved, and in grades that aren’t scary worked wonders to get me feeling normal again.
The outcome was starting to feel confident after days of multi-pitch moderates in red rock in early April.
Some of the other advice I’ve been soliciting from every experienced veteran and 5.10+ climber I know is how to safely push on lead when trad is primarily multi-pitch and crack climbing in NorCal. What stuck with me most is, “you need to get smarter about top rope”. Meaning, I need to figure out more ways to climb harder stuff from top rope. Its not impossible to find top ropable trad, get creative.
So I started searching out and prioritizing such routes. After one safe weekend of climbing offwidths in Cosumnes River Gorge and perfect finger cracks at the Grotto I started to hone in on where exactly my crack skills were. To my surprise, I was capable of climbing a lot harder stuff then I was expecting and I am now more choosy about what quality of route I choose to push my grade on. Think deep finger crack over shallow and flared.
A final change I made was more aggressively seeking out climbers that are better than me to climb with. Having a consistent team is awesome for the number of routes on rock, but it also meant I was consistently the strong climber. Following on harder stuff than I can lead has had a lot of the same benefits of top rope, putting me in the place of realizing exactly my level of ability without lead risk. It also exposed me how these people think about safety and their techniques when things get hard like placing high, walking cams and breathing through difficulty. Finally, it allowed me the safety of being able to back down on a pitch, swapping leads and still finish a climb.
I used all these techniques to not only get back into climbing but start feeling more comfortable climbing harder things than before. The great walk towards complete confidence at 5.10 is much further along than ever before but I still have a lot more pitches to go.