See the Send

Despite a slight delay with getting this posted, I had a great time bouldering this past fall in Bishop and was excited to share some things I learned about visualization during the process.  I was also quite happy to have this post featured on Mike and Mark Anderson’s website.  They have been quite influential in my climbing, and their thoughts on training are indispensable to anyone looking to improve.

Over the past six months, I have been obsessively working my projects to death in the least physically demanding way. On rest days, while lounging around in the sun or on nights before a hard redpoint while curled up in my sleeping bag with homemade skin salve slathered all over my hands, I meticulously visualize climbing my goal route.  From the point in which I take one final glance at my knot and give my shoes a quick wipe against my pant leg to when I am relaxing into my final clipping stance and dropping my rope smoothly through the quickdraws at the anchor, I use my mind to live and practice everything I need to perform during the send go.

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Looking down the Eastside of the Sierra Nevadas after a tiring day at the Happy Boulders. Photo by Philip Lutz

I don’t know exactly what motivated me to start rehearsing my intended climbing performances over and over in my head. It could be that I spent the last five years of my life preparing for classical guitar performances.  The associated habitual practicing and eventual performance is similar to climbing in that you must memorize a ton of information, execute all the cruxes correctly and consistently, and then bring a whole performance to life at a particular moment in time.  While I could practice guitar at any hour of the day or night in a prominent music conservatory where you are expected and encouraged to practice at least five hours every day of your life, I could not endlessly rehearse the moves of my climbing projects which were six hours away in Kentucky.

Besides the physical distance and limited time that I had in my life, it also wasn’t an efficient use of skin and physical energy to “remember” and reacquaint myself with a project when I only had a day or two to send.  I realized the more information I could keep fresh in my mind while I was away from the project, the easier it would be to recall those moves and then bring that experience into reality.

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Overlooking Bishop from the Druid Stones. The views and bouldering at the Druids are definitely worth the uphill trudge (if you ever get sick of simply jumping out of your car at the Buttermilks and instantly being at amazing boulderfields). Photo by Philip Lutz

Regularly running through the correct beta through visualization is not only a great way to make sure that you won’t forget a key foothold mid-crux after paddling past 20 meters of power-sapping pockets; it also builds mental confidence. While many people are putting in the hours “working out” and possibly training (if they have the discipline, patience, and organization) in order to build their physical ability, many are not performing a critical step; putting in the work needed to believe the goal is possible.  In my mind, the easy part of getting better at climbing random pieces of rock that were never intended for people to be on is the physical training.

THE Training Manual clearly and specifically describes all the exercises that you need to do to prepare your body to climb the routes of your dreams.  If you get organized, do the exercises (while trying as hard as you can), rest even harder, and repeat following the structured training plan, then you WILL be physically stronger.  This is one of the most valuable features of the RCTM and was what lured me into the program in the first place. However, the real treasure of the RCTM is the full suite of tools presented that work together to assemble the ultimate climbing machine.  Climbing performance is highly dependent on one’s mental ability, and the mental preparation discussed in the RCTM is a great way to navigate the abstract adventure through your own mind.  The confidence built through mental training like visualization, or positive self-talk, is what I seek to gain during my performance phase and is what I need to send.

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A technical training goal of mine is to use heel-hooks more effectively. I have always avoided them when I could and I never felt totally comfortable on them. A large part of this is mental, and physically feeling the positions and movements are a way for me to overcome the lack of confidence. I think I made some progress this season, but there is still a ton of room to improve. In this photo, I’m about to pull the lip crux on the characteristically crimpy Milk the Milks, V6. Photo by Charlie Marks.

After weeks spent hanging off a plastic edge and hopping between wooden rungs, visualization is a common homework assignment that gets me ready for the final exam. When I visualize a route, I sit down, close my eyes, and actively climb the route in my mind.  I do not imagine watching myself climb; I go through each move exactly how I perceive it in reality.  Stick the right hand edge, readjust it to a crimp, look down at that ticked pocket to my left, highstep my foot…  Just like repeating a difficult section while learning a route, repeating moves in your mind will make you “stronger” and allow you to do them more consistently.

This is where my approach differs slightly from what is presented in the RCTM. In the RCTM, the Andersons suggest that some may benefit from taking a third-person view during visualization (imagining you are a spectator, watching yourself climb the route), yet I have avoided this as I think it would create a meta-distraction in my climbing performance.  My climbing is purely between me and the rock.  I feel the best when I am completely self-motivated.  If I created a third-person presence that would expect me to send the route, I would simply be annoyed and probably become detached from the present during the performance. On the other hand, you might perform better with an external presence created from visualizing in the third person view, and this is dependent on each climber’s unique personality.  It is important to spend time learning about yourself in order to figure out what will improve your mental game.

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Upon arrival in Bishop and during my hangboarding phase, I managed to do some easy outdoor mileage and enjoyed classics like the Buttermilk Stem, V1. Outdoor mileage specific to your goals is a great opportunity to improve your mental abilities for later in your training cycle. Photo by Charlie Marks.

A little over three months ago, I moved to Bishop, California to gain access to world-class climbing, beautiful weather, and a relatively low cost of living while working a simple job and figuring out what I want to do with the rest of my life. Because I want to greatly improve my power while I am somewhat young and because I have an abundance of quality bouldering within 30min of driving, it seemed like an obvious choice to devote at least a few months (maybe seasons) away from ropes and bolts.

Due to the high arousal level needed to complete powerful moves at your limit and a limited amount of quality attempts on seriously abrasive rock, visualization is an incredibly useful tool for bouldering around Bishop.  In between redpoint attempts, I can build my mental confidence while ensuring that I take a moment to slow down and adequately rest.  For example, if you don’t trust that you can prevent your feet cutting as you hit that sharp two finger pocket, what is the point of getting all “agro” and grunting your way up a route? You’ll probably just end up with a bad flapper and wasted time spent training.  A fear of success, or rather an inability to believe that a goal is attainable, can be just as crippling as a fear of climbing above the bolt or fear that your spotters won’t protect you.

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Soul Slinger Right, V8. The problem that ended my bouldering season. I missed the pads and sprained my ankle, but before swelling set in, I gave it another burn and sent. I failed on this problem in January when I first visited Bishop, and this send was more satisfying than my Thanksgiving turkey. Photo by Charlie Marks.

I recently finished my first bouldering-focused training cycle, and I was very impressed with my resulting performance. Due to a variety of factors, my main projects were in the Volcanic Tableland.  I managed to send my first two V10s, and visualization played an important role in the redpoint process of each problem.

The first one I sent was Acid Wash, which begins with a crunchy, tweaky, and powerful drop knee move to a huge slot jug.  Consensus seems to be that, from the jug, the climbing is around V7. From my initial impression of the problem, I knew I could send it.  The first move was very inconsistent, and I only stuck it 10% of the time.  Visualizing the whole problem calmed my nerves and eliminated all the thoughts that separated me from the present moment when I would stick the opening move.  There were three attempts when I stuck the first move and my mind would begin to race as I continued to climb.  Those attempts ended up with me being very distracted and eventually I would fall off at the reachy bump move to a crimp jug.  Moments before my send go, I had one of these attempts, and after a nice yell (letting the whole canyon know my frustration), I stepped away from the tiny cave to relax and collect my thoughts.  On the send, thanks to my visualization routine, I didn’t have any doubts, and the moment I hit the initial jug, I kept climbing, feeling calm and focused.

The uncut send video of Acid Wash V10:

Deep inside a more secluded section of the Tableland, I found myself getting cozy on cold, windy evenings after work in the Ice Caves. Despite the constricted corridors and an exceptionally high risk of dabbing at any moment, the Ice Caves have many steep and difficult lines including Beefcake, V10, a power-endurance roof problem.  Figuring out and internalizing the sustained 8 hand-move (and at least twice as many foot and hip moves) sequence was steady and physically draining work.

On one really good evening, despite getting shut down in the Buttermilks earlier that same day, all of the pieces of the problem began to come together as I flowed to the last hard move of the problem, a large cross-over move to a jug pocket.  I fell on the final move from the start three times in a row, and despite the immense progress, I could not have been more pissed off.

Over the course of two rest days (yes, you can be in Bishop and take rest days), I climbed the problem countless times in my mind.  I had it wired, and I was just waiting for the moment when my body was ready to fight again.  On the next evening out at the Ice Caves, I went through my usual warm-up circuit and then very briefly warmed up the moves of Beefcake.  With all the holds brushed and ticked appropriately, I sat at the start and laid down on the crashpads to mentally climb the problem one more time.  I topped it out, opened my eyes, and then pulled up into the sloping undercling.  Sending Beefcake felt like V3, and it was one of those rare moments when climbing was perfect and effortless.

I really connected with how the climber felt about the last hard move in this video:

Visualization is a very important exercise for my climbing performance. It allows me to keep a large amount of information fresh in my mind; builds confidence in my ability to complete moves and achieve goals; and eliminates doubts and distracting thoughts that cloud my brain while climbing.  When climbing routes, I find it most convenient to visualize on rest days and right before going to sleep on nights before a performance day ( I don’t think my climbing partners would appreciate me as a completely spaced out belayer). When bouldering, I find it helpful to visualize between attempts in addition to my nightly mental rituals.  There seems to be much more inactive time while bouldering, and often, it is beneficial to take a little more rest than you think you need.  Visualization can be a good use of this time, and it will hopefully prevent you from hastily returning to your project.  The “smarter, not harder” mantra/theme throughout the RCTM has become an integral part of my personal improvement, and visualization is one of many ways discussed in the book to train the mind, and thus, train smarter.  Like any training program, attention to detail and commitment to quality are essential to visualization, and the results can be extremely satisfying.

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Beefy night sessions in the Ice Caves were a staple for me.  Quickly and correctly setting all the heel and toe hooks was necessary for me to send Beefcake V10. Knowing my beta well and internalizing it through visualization helped me accomplish this.  Photo by Charlie Marks.

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