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Balancing Act

Submitted by arnoilgner on 2007-04-18 | Last Modified on 2007-04-19

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Unlimited Possibilities? the Blueys of Australia
arno ilgner
Unlimited Possibilities? the Blueys of Australia. Photo by: Arno Ilgner.

I sit at a small table playing checkers with my five-year-old daughter Emma.. She makes a move that would allow me to jump three of her checkers. Do I take the jump? Sure, it's possible to win this way, but is it appropriate? What is the purpose of this game -- winning or learning?

Possibility drives us to do things, many times to the detriment of other parts of our lives. Possibility, tempered with appropriateness, can guide us to deeper levels of learning and connections with our world. Possibility, tempered by appropriateness, will help us take risks that allow us to learn and reduce chances of injury. Let's see how this plays out in climbing.

When you assess a risk, you go through the preparation process and gather information. Possibility is part of this phase. You assess the possible consequences should you fall and possible sequences for climbing through the risk. The assessment process, however, doesn't stop there. The last step of assessment occurs in the transition from preparation to action.

The transition phase allows you to ask a question to determine appropriateness. What is the consequence weighed against your experience with such consequences? This last step helps create an experience that maximizes learning and minimizes chance of injury. It is not focused on the end goal but on the process goal; not on getting to the top of the climb but on what you need to learn to get to the top. Learning can only take place if the risk is appropriate. If you have insufficient experience with the fall consequence you're facing, then the risk isn't appropriate, even though you may be able to climb through and not fall. An inappropriate risk will subject you to either injury beyond what you had considered, or to scaring yourself so much that you'll be unwilling to engage risks in the future.

A true learning situation transcends our ego self and enhances self-knowledge. This, after all, is what learning implies -- embracing new information and situations that will increase our self-knowledge. Whatever the activity is -- climbing, work, etc. -- it is only a vehicle for self-discovery.

If we only focus on possibility, we tend to take a linear, ego-motivated approach. We ask only, "Is it possible?" regardless of the consequences to the broader situation -- to the climbing community, our family, our world. When we chip holds, bolt on private land, solo for ego reasons, etc., these activities are centered on us and block out the broader context we are part of. Pure possibility is a product of our left-brained mind, which is very effective at dissecting, separating, and focusing on a concrete goal. It also tends to withdraw from a more holistic view of the situation. Possibility thinking is very important to develop, but it needs to be balanced with our right-brain mind that, instead of dissecting, connects us to a broader context.

When we consider appropriateness, we temper possibility and make it fit into a larger picture. Appropriateness tends toward connecting us with our broader situation and seeks balance -- balancing the desire to gain some end goal with the desire to learn. Appropriateness engages the more intuitive mind, which helps us blend with the situation and take it on as a whole.

There are two forces at work: constant change and a movement toward balance.. Focusing on possibility helps us identify options for moving through change. Once engaged in change, however, we move through it by moving from one balanced position to the next. We move through change by moving toward balance. This keeps our process appropriate and balances possibility with appropriateness. Before chipping holds or bolting on private land we consider the desires and ideas of other local climbers and land owners. Before soloing we check our motivation and eliminate ego-based elements and ground our motivation in learning.

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Hotel California, Grose Valley, Blueys in OZ
arno ilgner
Hotel California, Grose Valley, Blueys in OZ. Photo by: Arno Ilgner.

Let's look at two specific climbing examples: well-protected climbs and poorly protected climbs.

On well-protected climbs, such as most sport routes and trad climbs that accept protection every five to ten feet, your assessment will include the possibility of taking a fall. In preparation, you identify where your next protection point is, how long the fall will be, and if there are any obstacles you may hit in the fall. You also gather information about what you can do to climb the section you're facing. In transition, the last step before launching into the risk or escaping from it, you weigh the fall consequence you've just identified against your experience with such falls. You ask, "What falls have I taken that are this long, on this type/angle terrain, and with these obstacles (like ledges)?" If you have experience with such falls, then how much exactly do you have? Have you fallen a lot or just once? What do you know about how to take such falls safely? If you've fallen a lot but shorter distances, then how much longer is this fall you're facing? Is it a small increment or great? If the fall consequence is similar or a small increment longer than your experience then it is probably appropriate. You can then feel confident that should a fall occur you can respond to it with little chance of injury. If you have little experience with such fall consequences, then it isn't appropriate, even if the fall is clean with no obstacles. If you ignore this and commit anyway, convincing yourself that the fall is clean and you won't hurt yourself, or that you probably won't fall, then you aren't valuing the learning process. Sooner or later you will assess such a risk and fall unexpectedly and injure yourself or scare yourself so much you won't want to push yourself. Injury usually occurs due to tensing up and becoming rigid. Even in a clean fall you can hurt yourself if you become tense and rigid. The purpose is to learn how to take falls safely and how to commit well when you climb. If you ignore the learning that is necessary for the falling outcome, then you will be distracted when you commit to climbs that are difficult for you, thus preventing you from realizing your full potential.

On poorly protected climbs, such as runout trad, ice, mountaineering, soloing, or headpointing, your assessment will focus on reducing unknown factors, while staying within your present ability and avoiding a fall. In preparation, you identify where your next protection point is, how long the fall will be, acknowledge that taking such a fall could cause injury. You also gather information about possible sequences, what you can do to climb the section you're facing, looking for a way to stay within your ability to climb with minimal risk of falling. In transition, the last step before launching into the risk or escaping from it, you assess your energy level and strength against what it will take to climb to your next protection point. You might probe the section by climbing up to figure out the moves and evaluate how difficult they are. As you probe you will be able to see more clearly what's ahead, further reducing the unknown. You may see rests, protection placements, or holds you didn't see from below. You can also identify a mini-decision point between your last stance (where you have pro) and the next known protection point, a midpoint in the runout where you can reassess. This mini-decision point would be a point where, if you fell climbing to it, you'd be able to respond to the fall with little chance of injury. If you become too pumped and tired by the time you arrive at the mini-decision point you can fall from there, or down climb some and take a shorter fall, or down climb all the way back to your previous stance. With this approach you allow yourself to engage the poorly protected section one step at a time and learn what that section is like and what your level of strength is.

Sure, it may be possible to climb the section and not fall. But, what have you learned? You've learned to blindly push yourself into poorly protected climbing, hoping nothing "bad" happens. No positive learning happens with this approach, and your chance of injury is maximized. When you do engage poorly protected climbs, you initiate change, but you move through that change by blending with it. This blending moves you from one balanced position to the next as you work up the climb to your next decision point or mini-decision point. You are fully committed to climb to the mini decision point and will either continue if you have enough strength or retreat to your last stance. And, either outcome will provide learning.

Thinking from the left brain in possibilities is an important skill, but it must be tempered with right-brain appropriateness. Let the last step before action be weighing the appropriateness of the risk so that learning is maximized and chance of injury is minimized. As I sit across from Emma and see her make her fatal checkers move, I ask her to reconsider it. I want her to learn how to think of possible moves and consequences for those moves. She says she wants to stay with her move, so I jump her three checkers -- not because I want to beat her and reach an end goal of winning, but because she made a choice and can now learn in the most direct and effective way -- from her experience and my impact on her experience.


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8 Comments CommentAdd a Comment

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5 out of 5 stars Great article. Thanks for taking the time to point out some of the most important aspects of the decision-making in climbing.

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I just finished reading Arno's book 'The Rock Warrior's Way' this past week and definitely recommend it for anyone looking to understand and train their mental climbing composure in addition to their physical training. The book also recommends ~30 additional readings which will help to hone the mental aspects of not just climbing, but all aspects of your life.
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Personally I think buying ad space is a more appropriate vehicle for flogging one's wares.
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The article was fine, but I didn't find it awe inspiring.
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5 out of 5 stars Knieveltech -- how about buying ad space to flog your own misinformed opinions? Nowhere in this article was there any "flogging of wares." The book wasn't mentioned; he didn't even use the term "Warrior's Way." This was not free advertising, it was an article on some very practical ways to improve your climbing.
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5 out of 5 stars This is an awesome delving into one of the finer points of risk assessment........weighing the broad consequences of the risk. I particularly like the point that even if you don't fall, there are negative consequences to making poor decisions that may ultimately catch up with you. Once again, Arno has done an outstanding job at going past the superficial aspects of lead climbing and getting to the core issues. I benefit so much from these articles.
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5 out of 5 stars This is a very useful article for me personally and hopefully for others. My climbing partner(s) normally encourage me with: "go for it, the fall is clean". They don't quite understand when I said the I don't feel comfortable even though the fall is clean and the gear is bommer because the distance of fall may be longer than I ever experienced or used to. I was injured a few times from "clean" falls because I tensed up and reacted wrong. Which in turn, scares me even more to take any falls. This article gives me a better understanding and now I know what I need to do. Thanks, Arno. Ignore the negative comment above about the free ads. If anything, your articles have been valuable free tools to us. Hey, it's a whole lot more useful than many other junk threads ;-).
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5 out of 5 stars very good read - ironically i didn't even realise that Arno was the 'RWarrior' author til knieveltech brought it up

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