Acknowledging and Overcoming Psychological and Stress Injury in Climbing

 One of the most striking parts I remember about Free Solo, featuring Alex Honnold trying free solo 3000 granite feet of El Cap, was when he was filling out his mental health questionnaire before an MRI to measure his fear tolerance. He was discussing in classic Honnold fashion about how much of a no big deal free soloing is, but then pauses on a question. “Am i depressed… huh…” he contemplates. 

We are more than the grade we climb

Serenity Crack with Will – Yosemite

People have a lot of reasons why they climb and take on additional risk into their lives. I think we all benefit from the mind and body challenges we overcome in climbing that require as much mindful focus as yoga or meditation. However, I’ve always had a hard time aligning myself to the, “the best climber is the one having the most fun” camp. It is easy in a sport built upon grades and levels that finely measure our abilities and skill to use climbing as an analogy of self-worth. “You are only as good as the grade you climb and the things you accomplish” has been my self-voice many times. Often making it harder to enjoy the sport and to be content with my own accomplishments. Tying self-worth to accomplishment is a driver, maybe the driver for Honnold that pushes him forward, but this acquired self-value isn’t as full and sustaining as implicit self-worth. In ‘measured self worth’, we critic and judge ourselves to determine our value and it is unsustainable to always come out on top. I’ve found this unrelenting self-critic to be a great driver and feedback cycle for improvement, but also unrelenting harmful to my own self-esteem. I wonder if that is what Honnold’s pause was getting at. That he actually isn’t happy because he feels he needs to prove his worth constantly. That would be a relatable emotion to my own.

I’ve found climbing to be an endless cycle of improvement and humbling that requires a fine-measure of ourselves on how much risk and challenges we can take on. We pass new barriers with elation, but often relapse, unable to perform feats we’ve previously been able to accomplish. Progress is not always forward, but an upward cycle. Injury can be common, as well as distractions that take away from the consistent effort required to maintain strength and skill. Dettaching self-value from our abilities must happen to maintain happiness through these cycles and is probably the first thing we work on to avoid psychological injuries from failures or difficulties in the mountains. Accepting ourselves will probably lesson the commonly mentioned post-objective depression that occurs after completing long sought after objectives. Celebrating the objective but working on enjoying the process, the present and the moments when things feel right regardless of grade. Chasing the pursuit of flow instead of comparison to others or arbitrary goals is proven to improve happiness. Its probably the skill we should work on regularly to help us maintain stoke as it will ebb and flow more gracefully with our skills while our skill-goal gap will be more brittle over time to break.

Understanding Stress Injury

I was listening to the latest Sharp End podcast on Psychological First Aid when Laura McGladrey’s words hit my experiences this summer dead on. Discussing the symptoms of stress injury she describes how, “we end up with a pretty big shame-wall because I used to love this and my friends still love this so I’m going to pretend for as long as I can but then I’m going to drift away” [20:00]. It brought home the constant emotional battle of ‘trying to get back up on the horse’ doing things outside but not enjoying it. Of being on a ridgeline in the Trinity Alps backcountry in tears because I was supposed to love what I was doing and where I was, but I just didn’t. It creates a negative cycle of ‘not enjoying things that were central to my life’ and ‘feeling shame for not enjoying those things’.

As the podcast went on, I recognized that maybe those emotions that caused me to frequently bail the minute something felt off near the end of my dirtbag road-trip in 2017 was probably a symptom of stress injury. A result of my ground fall at Snowshed Wall in Tahoe in a year in which I also tore my shoulder and broke my foot in two separate incidents.

I guess its time for a change in plans..

Post Traumatic Stress

I knew I had some Post Traumatic Stress after that Snowshed wall incident because a couple weeks after it I was overwhelmed with fear while safe at an anchor on Goodrich Pinnacle. My logical brain knew I was safe, but I was nearly shaking and nearly in tears. Instead of processing it, I went off to travel developing economies for a few months. However, it was still there when I returned to the states and I worked incredibly hard on grounding techniques and positive visualization to overcome it so I could go to a Mountain Project Admin climbing weekend in Red Rocks.

Red Rock weekend with the MP crew.

When I started back into climbing after traveling, I even felt scared being lowered on top rope in the gym. The biggest challenge with this Snowshed fall was how dangerous the consequences a ground fall could have been: Landing on your back on uneven rocky ground could have broken my spine and parallelized myself for life. This high risk was coupled with the inability to resolve this incident as an accident. I couldn’t logically determine anything I had done wrong. I had placed decent gear. I had tested that gear. However, it pulled when I fell upon it. I had a really hard time feeling anything was safe because in my mind, I had used safe protection but the safety had failed when it shouldn’t have in an unpredictable way.

One great suggestion I employed from a really good climbing magazine article on injury was to do climbs much below my ability and just for fun. Repeat climbs you know and have really enjoyed. If you aren’t having fun then don’t do it. Stopping pushing myself for technical improvement and focusing on just easier, more comfortable stuff inside my abilities helped. However, it also made me feel that either I’m doing something easy and a little boring (fun objectives) or something that I feel overwhelmingly scared on (trying the status quo objectives). Neither was quite satisfying and I could feel stuck, trapped, unable to get out of this funk.

Overcoming Injury

As mentioned in the podcast, one of the things we can do to combat injury is to create a sense of control over a traumatic event. For me, it was giving myself a license to just say no to routes if they don’t look incredibly safe and to see other climbers who were much better at me, cranking Yosemite 5.11s, have similarly low risk tolerances after experiencing their own trauma. No runnouts, no PG13 and no super flared cracks with marginal protection.

The other tool I use most is tactile grounding which I learned from trama treatment and another great article on climbing injury. When I start getting scared or worried I touch with my fingers against some material: my pants, the rock, etc. Focusing on what it feels like to bring me back to the present and out of the pure emotional non-rational world. This way I can stay calm and enjoy the challenges instead of reinforcing the negative emotional relationships.

Finally, I got medical help. I was super nervous about the label of seeking mental health services so I’ve avoided it for years. However, things were pretty bad so I finally reached out to figure out the medical approach. It was very validating to have my own suspicions about my mental health confirmed as medical issues. Just like how hearing The Sharp End describe my symptoms as a normal part of a stress injury helped me feel empowered that this is something I can fix.

Things to Work on

A fire with some very cool MP people at RR.

I’ve written and had a guest post on the topic of injury before. Its been constantly on my mind for two years and I wanted to end this story with three things that will help anyone enjoy climbing more as well as prepare and recover from injury:

1. As I said before, focusing on flow instead of comparison to yourself, others or some arbitrary goal is the best path towards happiness and fulfillment in climbing. It will help combat some negative judgemental tendencies in a sport full of measuring ourselves against precise grades, skills and accomplishments. You are more than your routes.

2. Working on grounding techniques is super important to any mountain sport that has risk so you can make rational risk assessments while in tricky situations. It also will help with fear and be 10x more helpful overcoming psychological injury in the future. Build the skill while it’s easy.

3. Reaching out to others to share these feeling can be helpful. Many people who come back from traveling abroad feel disoriented and had a lot of hardship not on instagram. Many climbers have experienced trauma from their own or friend’s injuries and can relate. While you may feel your lack of desire to pursue the activity distances you from this community, it also connects you in new ways. Noticeably, the American Alpine Club is putting together a program to provide affordable mental health resources to climber across the USA.

Good luck and please reach out to me if you can relate, have feedback or I can help you on your journey.