Rock Climbing Lessons: Celebrating the Small Victories on Lead

Many of us underestimate our accomplishments and the small strides we make toward much larger goals. We think, “It wasn’t that big of a deal,” or “this little thing I did doesn’t compare to big things other people are doing.” But no matter how small a victory might seem, it's still a victory. Succeeding at our long term goals often requires these small victories. They add up over time if we let them, and can help motivate us to keep reaching. They confirm we're doing something right.

I kept trying to convince myself the lead at Rumney last weekend wasn't a big deal. It was only a 5.7, only had 5 bolts, was only one climb, anyone can set up a top rope, and the list goes on and on. I looked at all the climbers around me and thought, “How can I be proud of one easy lead when everyone else here does the same thing, but harder, and five times more often?” But it was a big deal, and a small victory I needed to hang on to. As someone who’s particularly critical of themselves, the act of practicing my fist pump and using it regularly is so important.

My small victory and I went to Go Vertical this weekend to work on my nemesis. I'd call it a project, but to me, projecting means finding a beautiful, intriguing route just beyond your ability, just out of reach, and working it in pieces until you get it. My nemesis - a straightforward but extended, overhanging, juggy, pumpy mess - doesn't fit the criteria. 

It's among the "easy" lead climbs in the gym, and rated 5.9-. The beginning is steep, then it levels off slightly until about 15 feet from the chains at the top where it steepens again. That's where the fear set in. I'd get through the steep part in the beginning, enjoy the slightly less overhanging middle, then look up and see what I had left. It looked like miles of climbing. I'd start breathing harder, over-grip, and finally yell, "Take!" before I even had the chance to fall.

I called it my nemesis because no matter how fresh I was, how in shape I felt, or what I ate for breakfast, I couldn't get myself to push through without resting. I was too scared to fall, and was convinced it was inevitable as soon as I moved on to the steeper section. I'd tried everything from jumping on it as soon as I got to the gym to warming up on confidence-building easy routes first. I'd even tried telling my belayer not to take in slack when I asked for it, just to let me fall. Nothing worked.

On Saturday, I got to the gym and roped up quickly. I didn’t give myself time for negative self talk, just like I'd done at Rumney. I was so gung-ho and jittery I managed to back-clip the rope into the first draw and I had to start over. With a renewed focus, I got on and made it through the first two thirds of the climb, pausing just below the last, steepest section. 

I looked above me, and for some reason, the last third didn’t seem that intimidating. It was still a bit of a distance, sure, but only a few more clips. I was breathing hard, sure, and shaking out didn’t seem to relax my arms at all. But for the first time, I believed, and I made it. Now I have two small victories to use in my quest to overcome my fear of falling. I'm building an army.

“But it was only a sport lead in the gym. It was only a 5.9-, and probably doesn’t deserve that grade.” My self-critical brain started trying to minimize what I'd done as I lowered to the ground. But I pushed it all away, hugged my belayer, and let myself be happy if for no other reason than I wouldn’t have to get on the climb again!

The next time you succeed in making a stride toward a larger goal, allow yourself a real fist-pumping cheer. Then take your small victory, relish in it, and use it to fuel the next stride. You deserve it!


Craig said…
When I read this post, I felt like someone was typing my thoughts. I do the same thing when it came to climbing. I stopped sport leading because I convinced myself that I couldn't do it.

My recent nemesis was a 15ish ft V3- boulder problem at my gym. I would look at people climb it, and would say to myself "Thats outta my league. Im not a V3 climber, Im a V2 max climber. Its too high. Im not strong enough, My technique is bad." I sent it after the 3rd try on my second day, but I made every excuse for it.

After reading this, I'm gonna take it and keep building my own army of small victories Thanks!
Katie said…
Craig - I'm so glad this made a difference for you! It really does help, accumulating small accomplishments. I'm pretty sure you're underestimating yourself! Sending a problem you didn't think you could do on the 3rd try is pretty darn good :)