Why Are You Taking a Risk?

by Arno Ilgner Oct/2005
This article has been read 13,204 times

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A headpointing American, Lisa Rands. Just for the number? © Alex Messenger

As I stated in the earlier article (Feeling Safe is Dangerous), people want to feel alive. We feel alive when we take risks; however, we need to take risks that are appropriate for us. We also need to sensitize ourselves to them. We do this by engaging our senses and understanding our intentions. We engage our senses by feeling (sense of touch) the rock and our body's contact with it. We look (sense of sight) for possible sequences for climbing and possible falling consequences. We also examine our intentions to acknowledge whether we are motivated by our ego or by the desire to learn and grow.

Many climbers begin climbing in a gym. Mark Twight (Rock & Ice #136, Barbarians at the Gate) points out that down the climbing wall, a climber expects to confront a minimal amount of fear and to have anxiety managed by others. We become accustomed to someone else managing these risks, which can lead to a false sense of security when climbing outside. In this way we tend to insulate ourselves from the situations we are engaged in. We've expected others to manage the risk while we were focused on having a nice, comfortable experience. The more comfortable and safe we make situations, the more separated we are from them. Cars, these days, lock the doors, turn on/off the lights, and beep when we haven't put on our safety belt. Decision-making has been taken away in an attempt to keep us safe. Does safety lie in gadgets making decisions for us or in technology that disengages us from the risk? Henry Barber's maxim is “do more with less” (Rock & Ice #138, The Elements of Style). His approach puts him in close proximity to the risk with minimal insulation. He states that doing more with less (technology) requires creativity. It allows us to be the leader of our life and decisions, rather than succumbing to the sheep mentality. What we need to keep in mind is why we do what we do. A crux issue seems to be whether we truly value learning or simply want ego aggrandizement.

Honesty is such an important ingredient for making this differentiation. In Rock & Ice #140, John Long wrote about his mentor Paul Gleason and Gleason's motivation behind his climbing. John had been doing many classic climbs and told Paul he could and should have climbed those also. Paul said, “It doesn't fit me.” His priority was his family, a low-key life, and the bouldering he still loved. For Paul, following his own inner compass was what's important. This type of honesty allows us to make choices that are based on learning and not the ego.

While honesty keeps us aligned on our path, it also helps us recognize ego intrusions that distract us from learning. Our ego simply wants to have accomplished a climb. It is not interested in learning. This point is obvious in so many climbing controversies (Gripped Vol 6, Issue 5, Climbing Controversies by Mark Cohen). Frederick Cook's ego got the best of his claim for the first ascent of Mount McKinley. In his desire to be the first, he climbed a lesser peak and took a photo of a team member, Barill, who later admitted the picture wasn't taken on McKinley. As climbers, we've all partaken in this but perhaps in more subtle ways. Jim Erickson, a prominent climber in Boulder during the 1970s, once said that ultimate climbs have tended to be achieved by dubious means. In other words, our ego wants to falsely claim a first ascent even though we didn't do it. Perhaps we climbed through the crux and then fell. We rationalize our effort by saying we did the hard part and so we deserve the ascent. We justify our effort to allow our ego to claim the first ascent. This distracts us from the learning needed to truly ascend the climb.


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down the climbing wall, a climber expects to confront a minimal amount of fear and to have anxiety managed by others © Nick Smith

Ego driven results can be found in the relatively new sport of headpointing. This involves top-roping a poorly protected route many times and then leading it (Rock & Ice #138, Head Games by Matt Samet). It's interesting that in England there is more emphasis on this style of climbing than in the US. Samet suggests that the reason may be the English E grade rating system for dangerous routes which is not part of the American grading system. If there is no rating for this type of climb would we really engage in it? Our ego tends to chase number grades. Samet also relates a story about some young climbers headpointing the first repeats of Skip Guerin's testy Superfly (5.12d), a severely overhanging dihedral in Eldorado (Colorado) which Guerin did ground-up, taking 30-foot falls near the top onto a sideways #4 stopper. When they met Skip, they were almost embarrassed to tell him they'd climbed it, given their respect for the original effort. They felt their ascent was uneventful and self-serving. Their desire for an experience of feeling alive was taken away by how they engaged the route. Their attention was distracted toward making the situation safer. And, if they examined their intentions they probably would have found they were motivated more by their ego than their desire to learn. The ego just wants the end result and in the process removes the very experience we deeply desire for feeling alive.

So, why are you taking risks? If you look deeply enough, you'll realize you take risks to grow and growth gives you experiences that make you feel alive. It's important to recognize when your ego takes you off that path of growth. Only by slaying the ego will you understand your true path, take risks that are appropriate for you, learn what you need to learn, and feel alive and fulfilled in the process.

Arno's book book The Rock Warrior's Way: Mental Training for Climbers is available from his website The Warrior's Way and from Amazon.



UKClimbing.com asked two of Britain's best headpointers to comment on Arno's thoughts about headpointing.

Seb Grieve, first ascensionist of Meshuga E9 6c, second ascensionist of Parthian Shot E9 6c and star of the film Hard Grit had this to say.

[Missing photo!]

Arno has a point on the grading system, however, I thought the US system enables xxx grades to be added? I used this when I was explaining hard grit route grades in the US which seemed to work pretty well. The trouble with the UK system is that it does not tell you how hard the climbing is only the overall risk. This led many people to start using the French grade to explain how hard a route was. For example Gaia is UK E8 but that meant nothing to anyone outside the UK and if converted literally lead to the assumption that people were virtually soloing 8b. However, the reality is that it is about 7b/7b+ to top rope. Using the USA system then Gaia would be 5.12c xxx.

The fact is is that all grading leads to ego driven ascents.

John Arran is one of the most accomplished climbers in the UK, with free ascents of multi-pitch Venenzuelan jungle walls, hard sport routes, hard cracks and of course Hard Grit with his Doctor Dolittle E10 7a (guidebook grade) at Curbar being one of the hardest rock climbs in the UK (and unrepeated). John was actually unwilling to give this route an E grade for an onsight ascent and proposed H9 - H standing for Headpoint - to distinguish the style a route was climbed in.

I agree that ego may be a factor in determining what climbs people choose to pursue, but I think this is true regardless of the risk involved. The ego-driven chasing of big numbers seems to be common regardless of the prevailing norms of climbing style. Witness the many days, months or years spent working sport routes before redpointing. One important difference is that trad climbing seemingly allows people to cut corners to big numbers by rehearsing routes and headpointing. This may give the illusion of having climbed higher grades, but as climbs in the UK are (supposedly) graded for onsight ascents, such achievements cannot really be compared with their onsight equivalents. But I don't think that in itself is a good reason to dismiss headpointing. It isn't always a shortcut to high grades. Often it's a completely different skill and completely different buzz; it adds to the diversity and richness of climbing experiences available. And more generally I don't think ego is necessarily such a bad thing either. Ego gets such bad press nowadays but whatever the reason for going into a climb or project you still may get worthwhile things out of it. The idea that there is a 'true path' in climbing or life seems wrong to me. Each to his/her own, choose your own risk, reap your own reward.

Arno cited Matt Samet, you can read Matt Samet's article on 'The Pros and Cons of Headpointing' from an American perspective at the Metolius website.

For more information visit The Warrior's Way
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