By McKenzie Long
I stood in a little rock alcove, looking out at a number two cam wedged in a crack that traversed out of a big roof. The cheerful yellow metal was taunting me. I hate roofs. But I had to go out there, clean the cam and pull the roof. I’d tried and failed several times already.
The move involved hanging upside down from a hand jam over a lot of empty space, and throwing one arm up to a flaring, slippery, insecure hand jam, and somehow from there hauling myself all the way over the edge. I was terrified. I tried again and again until my partner thought he was going to have to re-rig the ropes to rescue me. Eventually I flopped up onto the mossy ledge, physically and mentally exhausted, and without the cam I was supposed to clean. I was so upset, the entire hike out I questioned my ability as a climber. I obviously did not have what it takes.
It wasn’t until much later that I learned the value of discipline and how it would help me climb. Why would it even occur to me that every aspect of climbing would be easy? I used to think I could do things naturally, almost by magic. Every time I tried something new- a new sport or a new academic venture, I imagined myself brushing through it easily and accomplishing great things with almost no effort, which was hardly the reality.
I still had a little of this feeling when I began climbing five years ago. My natural athleticism made some of the beginning stuff seem easy, but that only got me so far. As I fell more in love with the sport I began to crave bigger walls, tougher pitches, more unique challenges. My natural athleticism couldn’t take me to these places. I had to work. Not only that, I had to really focus on working hard.
To me, discipline is a determined commitment to keep at something, even when you don’t want to, with the end goal being improvement. I decided to train for climbing with the hopes of getting stronger and ultimately better at it.
It’s not easy to invest the time and energy that training in the gym requires. Not only is it a huge time commitment, it is a huge physical commitment. It can be really hard to motivate to train at the gym right before a weekend full of fun plans when you want to reserve your energy to go out and play. Sometimes I felt like I was in the gym more than I was actually climbing. Sometimes it hurt. Sometimes it was unbelievably humbling. A lot of times I just wanted to sleep in. But once I made the commitment that I was going to train hard and really focus on improvement, I started to feel the benefits that also came with the hard work. I noticed a dramatic difference in my strength, ability, and confidence. I made great strides in my fitness that could not have come from just climbing itself.
Once I started noticing these effects, it only made me more determined to stick with it and push myself harder. The training brought me from being a decently strong climber, to a much stronger climber- which allowed me to attempt harder routes and try different types of climbing- like ice climbing. My time climbing outdoors has become much more enjoyable and successful.
In a strange way, the training also helped me to locate an intensity within myself that I wasn’t previously in tune with. There is something about the mental attitude of training where no matter what, you can’t give up- I can hang on for two more minutes- I can push a little harder for the last 30 seconds- I can lift a little heavier… This attitude made things that I thought were really hard, seem easily within my reach. This attitude is mental discipline.
Without this- my mind wanders, gives in when I am uncomfortable, lets go more easily. When I force myself to focus on the immediate task at hand- tune everything else out and really try- I am a much more capable climber.
This is the place of strength within my mind where I retreat when I am tired and in pain. It shelters me from discomfort, and drives me to push forward when it is most necessary. It helps me cope when things get difficult and scary, deal with exhaustion and dehydration, focus on the forward progress and not the terrible consequences of failure. This isn’t an easy place to reach. I have to make a concerted, disciplined effort to go there and force my mind to work that way. Some days are easier than others, but the more I work at it, the more of a habit it becomes.
It is so easy, and more common in typical daily life, to think “this hurts, I want to stop” and to try and give yourself the comforts your body is missing. That gets you nowhere climbing. Contrary to nature, you need to convince yourself to keep going even when it hurts and especially when it is hard. Sometimes thinking about the task ahead becomes too much- the route seems too long, or there is such a long way to go until the summit. These thoughts leave me feeling helpless and defeated. But if I discipline my thinking, push aside self pity, and focus on just the task at hand, and then the next, and then the next, I make the “daunting task” smaller, and manageable.
There is another memorable roof, this time much smaller, and while sport climbing. When I got to the critical move of reaching over, committing to my feet, and hauling myself upward, I kept thinking of how much I didn’t want to fall. What did I do? Fell, over and over. After resting and reflecting for a bit, I got back on the route, this time determined to get it. This time when I reached my hand up I focused on how easy the move actually was, and how strong I felt, and how confident I was that I could make this move smoothly. I pulled right through, actually surprising myself at how not-scary the move was. It was the mental discipline-letting go of my fears, focusing on the objective, and trusting in my abilities- that pulled through.
Overall, I find this disciplined attitude not only helps me in my pursuit of climbing, but it crosses over into all aspects of my life. I find I am a more focused, more determined person than I used to be. I am better at buckling down and giving my all to something. And now my dreams are even bigger, my goals are more grand, and more importantly, I have the confidence and the mental skills to put myself out there and give it my best shot.
And if my best shot isn’t good enough? I will step back, train hard, come again, and get it.
This is the power of discipline.
McKenzie is an accomplished climber, artist, and author.