The Rock Warrior's Way: Mental Training for Climbers by Arno Ilgner

© Adam Long
The Rock Warrior's Way: Mental Training for Climbers
© Arno Ilgner
A recent thread at discussed (link) "How do you cope with run outs?"

It began, "I've never been any good at running it out - as soon as the gear is by my feet I start getting scared. Even if I know the gear is 100% bombproof, and the fall will be a clean one." There were lots of similar tales and some advice on how to cope. Arno Ilgner's book, The Rock Warrior's Way: Mental Training for Climbers, specifically deals with the mental aspects of climbing and offers advice on controlling fear and managing risk, so that you can enjoy your climbing more. Dave MacLeod, first ascensionsist of many bold routes including the UK's first E11, Rhapsody, takes a closer look at Ilgner's approach.

Some books demand extra special attention. You hardly have to read a few pages of Arno Ilgner's book on mental factors in climbing to realise that this work is an expression of a lifetime of research, study and passion in a subject that has eluded scientific understanding and mass participation with the passage of time; mind control during risky climbing. The intention of the author is to equip you with the means to take control of this, the most elusive of performance elements in climbing and start to make lasting changes. Quite a task.

The angle taken by Ilgner in approaching this is inevitably influenced by his background, incorporating both psychology and various philosophical approaches and fields for reference, example and guidance. We cannot fault Ilgner for taking this approach. Even in this century, the workings of the mind in the area of risk and fear have continued to confound standard scientific approaches for study and developing good practice, and we surely cannot discount at least some of what ancient and alternative philosophies might have to offer sport mental performance? When studying sport psychology myself I was surprised (but later no so) to learn that universities still regularly debate whether to offer psychology related degrees within their science faculties and even if this discipline can be justifiably called a science at all. The mind simply cannot be well understood by applying current day scientific method. That said, my scientific defences were already up before I even got out of the introductory chapter when Ilgner makes reference to possible “divine intervention” in his life!

Some, especially a British audience might well get 'the fear' just from the book's rather romantic title. Do we really want to become “rock warriors”? The book is without a doubt steeped in Ilgner's personal love for 'warrior's way' philosophy and how it has worked for him in succeeding on bold rock climbs. But it's also doubtless that there is much to learn from his book.

So what elements of value came out of the read for me? Well, the biggest benefit to be had is truly learning that mental performance in climbing is a process, not a sudden event to be conjured out of the depths of your mind when 20 feet out from a runner. And that process starts long before you even tie onto the rope at the base of the route. It also refocuses you on using your mind as a tool to get clearer understanding (and therefore control) over the actual task you are setting yourself when leading a route; observing the right things, focusing on the right tasks at the right time, eliminating extraneous and inhibitory thoughts and tasks and the steps that need to be taken to arrive at the moment of truth – commitment.

Also the power of adopting 'the witness position' as Ilgner refers to it, of stepping out of your body and how this can help you make a better and more informed decisions on courses of action during climbing and also to prepare yourself to focus on the right things. In fact, throughout the book I recognised most of the mental strategies that have led to the best performances by climbers operating at the limits of climbing of all types, including bold routes. However, at times I found the writing may have benefited from the influence of more co-authors to sharpen up the key messages and distil out some of the surrounding text that occasionally clouds what are essentially simple practices. For the reader, this means some hard going at times, and I would recommend reading it a couple of times (if you are up to it!) to get Ilgner's key messages well understood and internalised.

The big question is of course will it actually help you control your fear and reach your potential on bold leads?

For some I think it will help, and many of my clients who have read it report that they benefited from it. However, I feel that the practical advice in the Rock Warrior's Way may be in need of further development and readers may be left wondering how they can realistically put their new knowledge into practice. This is where a truly effective coach, or self-coaching manual succeeds or fails – in recognising that integration of theoretical knowledge and day to day practice is the most critical aspect for getting to the next grade. Some climbers may be left needing more advice in translating knowledge into results by using the strategies on real life climbs. It is a lot to ask of one book though; to make a comprehensive picture of the theory and provide detailed practical advice as well in what is a massive subject. Ilgner has focused on the former objective.

However, they will have been well educated in the theory behind boldness by the Rock Warrior's Way, and at times entertained by the language and terminology that you only find in mental self-help books, especially American ones! So, adopt the warrior position, breathe deeply and prepare for a long night's reading, possibly aided by some strong coffee to get to the end. But, if you can find a way to put Ilgner's wisdom into practice, you might just be OK out there on the sharp end next time round?

The Rock Warrior's Way: Mental Training for Climbers The Rock Warrior's Way: Mental Training for Climbers by Arno Ilgner
ISBN 13: 9780974011219
No of Pages: 144
Page Size: 235 x 159
Publisher: Desiderata Institute
Published Date: Aug 06
Edition: 2nd
Illustrations: illustrations
Weight: 300 gms.
Price: £14.95

The Rock Warrior's Way: Mental Training for Climbers by Arno Ilgner is available from Cordee in the UK. Follow this link for a detailed synopsis of the book.

You can read several essays by Arno at

Feeling Safe is Dangerous HERE
Learn to Expect; Expect to Learn HERE
Why Are You Taking a Risk? HERE
No Expectations HERE
Motivation Justification HERE

Dave MacLeod
Dave MacLeod is one of the world's most accomplished climbers (he sport climbs, boulders, climbs trad and is a top winter climber...The Hurting XI,11 was the world's first grade XI winter route). He climbs as often as he can, trains most days, has a website, two blogs, writes magazine articles, coaches (both live and online) and he works for several climbing companies as a sponsored athelete (Black Diamond, Scarpa and Mountain Equipment). His last article for UKClimbing was: Dave MacLeod Answers Your Training Questions. You can read it here

You can read about his groundbreaking ascent of Rhapsody, the UK's first E11 at the article, The Modern Taditionalist here.

This ascent was imortalised in the award winning film, E11 produced by Hot Aches. Read the review of E11 here

  • Dave MacLeod's main website:
  • Dave MacLeod's coaching

  • 9 May, 2007
    About time this book got some more attention. RWW is not so much a useful climbing book as a very important one - particularly about one's attitude towards climbing and life.
    9 May, 2007
    Wow. I must say, it's great to be held up as a shining example of a complete climbing scaredy-cat in front of so many tens of thousands of people... ;P but at least I know what my bedtime reading will be for the next week!
    9 May, 2007
    Ditto Nick. My lead head needs serious work. Mick
    10 May, 2007
    BUMP. This should not be passing under the radar. A lot of people should be checking out this book, for a variety of reasons.
    10 May, 2007
    Give it time Fiend. Many access articles directly, just like the news page (which gets viewed 2,000 times a day), rather than via the forums. For example:all by Arno Motivation Justification went up on 17/Apr/2007 and has had 2,817 views Feeling Safe is Dangerous is dangerous has had 7,074 views Why Are You Taking a Risk? has had 8,636 views Mick
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