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 by Arno Ilgner
ISBN 13: 9780974011219
No of Pages: 144
Page Size: 235 x 159
Publisher: Desiderata Institute
Published Date: Aug 06
Weight: 300 gms.
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 about his groundbreaking ascent of Rhapsody, the UK's first E11 at the UKClimbing.com article, The Modern Taditionalist here.
This ascent was imortalised in the award winning film, E11 produced by Hot Aches. Read the UKClimbing.com review of E11 here
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