We often hear our fellow climbers reminding us to breathe when we are climbing, and, likewise, it is us shouting it up to the climber.
When we are climbing at our limit it can often be the first thing we forget about. I don’t need to tell you how important it is to breathe while climbing, or for just generally living. But I do want to explore just how important controlled breathing can be while climbing.
Breathing and particular types of breathing can help you manage your fears and anxieties – pre and during climbing. Regardless of what type of climbing we are doing it’s common to have anxious feelings at times, whether it be a fear of falling, of failure, of blowing an Onsight attempt on a route you have been saving for years! The list goes on.
A technique I came across in researching breathing techniques to use with my counselling clients was hacking the Vagus nerve.
What’s the Vagus nerve I hear you ask?
This nerve secretes a fluid which helps regulate our heart rate. As our body can’t distinguish the difference between what our mind is making up or what we are imagining, it responds to whatever story the mind is telling it.
Therefore, if we start getting fearful or anxious before a climb, our body responds. It elevates the heart rate and will produce adrenaline and a whole host of bodily functions are affected.
That explains the sweaty hands…
We can hack this nerve by performing longer exhalations, simply take a deep inbreath and on your outbreath make it slow and controlled and slightly longer than the inbreath. This stimulates the Vagus nerve and therefore slows down our heart rate, putting the body into a calm state.
Breathing deeply also has the added benefit of allowing more carbon dioxide to enter our blood stream, and having more carbon dioxide in our system slows down parts of the brain, including the amygdala, which is where fear is generated. Deep rhythmic breathing can also help us focus, when we get scared it takes our attention from the task at hand, to climb, to place protection well.
Do breathing techniques work?
In my own personal experience yes, they do. I can remember countless times on routes where I have been scared for whatever reason, a little voice in my head tells me to focus on breathing, in doing so I’m able to shift my attention back to climbing and continue. Unfortunately, that little voice doesn’t always appear, and my fearful mind takes over, I hesitate, get pumped and either down climb or ask my belayer to take. I’m still working on using this powerful tool myself.
Disclaimer These breathing techniques can be used to help you manage your mind and body whilst climbing, including your fears. I am however not suggesting you should not be fearful, fear keeps us alive and stops us from hurting ourselves. Climbing is an inherently dangerous activity and managing your risk is your responsibility. It’s science!
I have linked a few articles I used as inspiration, they go into greater detail about the techniques used as well as the science behind it all, it’s interesting stuff.
Thanks for checking out the first instalment of my blog, I hope you find using the power of the breath useful not just in climbing, also in your day-to-day life.
If you see me at a crag, say hello and let’s do some breathing together!
It has been a minute. I’ve not gone many places, other than some of the darker zones in my mind. But we’re back now and exciting things are happening, and who best to tell but you guys. Aren’t you lucky?
So now, when people ask where I live, I tell them ‘Astra Estate’ – it’s amongst the ranks of the X-Mansion, the Umbrella Academy and Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry – in the small town of Vauxhall. It has a white exterior and large windows, no double glazing but excellent natural lighting, complete with an office and a walk-in wardrobe…. Also four wheels and an engine.
YES I have moved into my car like any normal, itchy-footed, travel-starved gal would do when overseas exploration is off-limits and she also wants to hold down full-time study and two jobs in her beloved North East England.
Why? Oh, for so many reasons, but namely – why not, and why not now? I have always fancied van-life but, well, I don’t have a van and can’t afford one right now. Life changes and it seemed like the opportune moment to get on the road. Plus, one of my jobs involves a lot of late-night travel in the car anyway and I don’t want to be chugging down the motorway at 60mph guzzling more diesel than my mileage contributions can cover.
I’ve sacrificed space and headroom for a better fuel economy, comfy riding and WAY easier parking.
I’d like to say it’s stealthy… but it may well be even more obvious than a van when all of the reflective window covers go up. I found cooking difficult enough in a fully equipped kitchen, but I reckon I’m better with a penknife and plastic chopping board anyway. My hygiene levels have actually probably increased because I make a conscious effort to battle the usual stigma. My wallet thanks me because I’m not allowed to buy more clothes or toys as I simply have nowhere to store them.
Internet? Unlimited data deal.
Showers? University/climbing wall/flannel and water/the sea.
Toilet? Nature’s bathroom. Or time it with a supermarket run.
Views? Spectacular. Also, incredibly ordinary. And I love both.
I figured to use a lint roller in lieu of a hoover
Talk about making mountains out of mole-hills, I found a new way to store away my blinds and my day was MADE. I discovered a little cubby-hole that is now dedicated to hot drinks, and don’t even get me started on the car-kettle. I’m getting the highs of summitting mini Everests on the daily.
Honestly, my biggest problem is that the ‘carlife’ hashtag on Instagram is taken over by Ferraris and Aston Martins that wouldn’t fit a picnic basket, let alone the whole life of a dirtbag climber that works the mornings in muddy fields and the afternoons in a research lab.
It’s been about one month already and I have no intention of stopping any time soon.
I’m also making it a little harder for myself by trying to be as plastic-friendly as possible – no single-use wipes or cotton pads, soap bars instead of bottles, refillable water containers, loose-leaf tea etc. In fact, there are several aspects of car-life that are arguably more environmentally-friendly such as water usage, electricity and food wastage, but that’s another blog.
I will strongly emphasize that this is entirely my choice. I am no more financially strapped than your average student and I have a wonderful network of family and friends that offer unlimited home-comforts which I gladly accept if I’m feeling particularly starved of convenience.
Looking forward to sharing some more of this adventure and always on the look-out for new park-ups. Anything in particular you want to know or read about? Any neat tricks or personal anecdotes to share? Need someone to cat-sit for a weekend? Tell me!
Finally, keep an eye out for when I’m headed your way – I’ll make you a Trangia tea and let’s catch up.
As the mornings get colder and the leaves begin to golden, we asked Dirtbags climber Anna Taylor to reflect on her summer of climbing both in the Lakes and Yorkshire. The second part of this blog will follow, covering her time in France, and looking onward to Autumn on Gritstone.
Anna’s Summer ’19 climbing diary part one:
In the first part of this blog, I’ve written down my account of some of my favourite routes this year. The hard routes, and particularly the new route, pushed my boundaries mentally in one way or another.
It was July, and I thought that it was about time I tried an E8 again. I wasn’t sure what to go for, it was too hot for grit, but I didn’t want to commit to a project on a mountain crag and get rained off either. After a bit of research, I decided that Disorderly Conduct at Reecastle crag might be a good option, it was five minutes from the car, and was apparently steep and crimpy, so would potentially suit me. So Ben and I headed up to have a look.
Our first session was on a scorching hot day, and although I quickly did all the moves, I really didn’t feel like going for the lead. The gear also wasn’t as good as I’d hoped for, there were quite a few pieces lower down, but none that I trusted 100%. The good bits were all too low to be of much use.
The climbing itself was interesting, it started with a really burly lower section on good holds, that became very strenuous if your feet were in the wrong place. Then there was a crux throw to a tiny pocket, followed by a run out on small, sharp crimps.
I was finding the crux particularly annoying as I couldn’t quite reach the pocket from both of the good footholds and had to bump my right foot up onto a smear before committing to the move, making it feel slightly more sketchy. The sharp holds on my skin meant we quickly called it a day. I was keen to return.
Two days later I was back at Reecastle, standing under the route and taking a couple of deep breaths before going for the lead. We’d had a slightly shambolic morning to say the least, featuring a flat tyre and a lot of driving to and from Keswick to sort it out. Warmed up and ready to go, I was a bit nervous mostly because all my hard headpoints in the past had been slabs or vertical walls, so I’d never had to worry about getting pumped or my fingers uncurling before. But I knew I could do it as long as I stayed calm. Setting off, as always, was the hardest part, and once I was on the wall I found it easy to get into a rhythm and flow through the moves.
Once I’d passed the initial overhang and stuck the pocket move I went into auto-pilot, and before I knew it I was at the rest jug and it was all over! I placed a couple of cams then wandered up the super easy upper section to the top of the crag.
Yes! I was really happy to have done the route, as I felt like it was a step out of my comfort zone in terms of style, but the thing I was most happy about was that it actually hadn’t felt that hard. I had to try, and try hard, but I knew that I wasn’t physically or mentally at my limit, and that more than anything was a victory to me.
Priceless E7 6b
A new one! I’d found a new line in Langdale.
Whilst I could top rope it fine, there was a bit of an issue with the gear…mostly the fact that there wasn’t any. One humid evening I found myself stood under the route, without a harness, just one bouldering pad and Neil Gresham for company. Realistically it was way too hot to contemplate a forty foot solo, but sometimes things just happen…
It was one of those angel/devil moments.
After a twenty minute spell of dithering, I found myself stepping off the ground. I’d told myself that I should just climb up to the first rest, then from there I’d decide what to do. Of course I knew that once I was up there it was irreversible and I would have to commit. Soon I was smearing gingerly across the first traverse, trying not to put too much weight on that suspect handhold. I’ll admit that I was pretty scared of the next bit, the fact that the rock-over had felt so hard last time (on a rope) was haunting my thoughts, but too late for that, I was there.
I’d stepped my foot high, and I was suddenly in the middle of the move. Just balance, balance, push with your leg, stand up, reach, got it!
I was incredibly relieved to have made it to the good holds. While the next traverse was balancy and would surely feel outrageous without a rope, I’d never fallen off it, and I was not about to now. The forty foot plunge into a pile of boulders would not be an ideal end to the night. In reality it was just going through the motions, the hard part was long behind me and soon I was pulling over the slopey top out to victory.
In the end, I named the route Priceless. Grade wise I gave it E7 6b, which is nothing but an estimate, but it felt about that to me. It was nice to finally get another new route done, but next time I might wait until it’s a bit cooler!
The July heatwave was proving a bit much for Ben and I, so we decided to leave the Lakes and head over to North Yorkshire for a couple of days. There was a lot more time spent on the beach and playing cards than actually climbing anything.
Firedance at Stoupe Brow is a big, imposing looking arete perched half way up a steep hill, with beautiful views of the coast. For some odd reason, there is a line of bolts on the right hand side of the route that, while a bit silly, did save us the task of bush-whacking to the top of the crag. Ben led the route on the bolts, and climbed it easily apart from one move where he looked like he was on the absolute limit of his reach.
Sure enough, when it was my turn, I couldn’t quite make the span to the hold. This was so frustrating, particularly as the rest of the route felt fairly easy, and I knew that if it wasn’t for this move then I’d solo it without a second thought. Eventually, after quite a lot of swearing at the rock for not forming holds that were closer together, I discovered that if I used a slightly higher foothold, I could just about creep my fingers onto the hold. The problem now was that I was so stretched out that my feet were doing nothing, and the only solution was basically to do a pull-up to get my feet back on. Not ideal, but there was no alternative.
After a while I was top-roping the route cleanly every time. Slowly, the thought of going for the solo was re-entering my head. I decided to come down for some thinking time. For a while I wandered about, with the usual dilemma in my head. Do I or don’t I? I’ve been in this situation so many times now that you’d think I’d be quicker at deciding, but it always takes a while. In the end, as per usual, I decided to give it a shot. I knew Ben thought I was being reckless, and maybe I was a little bit, but I knew that I could do it.
A few moves in and I was at the point of commitment. Not wanting any long pauses to put me off, I went for it. All I remember from the crux is thinking “shit…I’m really having to try here!” but I managed to just about creep my fingers onto the hold, before my feet came off and I hauled my body weight up and back onto the wall. Although Ben looked like he was about to have a heart attack, I could tell he was happy that I’d gone for it. We packed up and left the crag, and as soon as we got back to the Lakes we jumped into Rydal water to finally cool down (the joys of owning a van with no air-con).
In a way I’m still surprised that I went for Firedance. A year ago I would have wanted perfect conditions for such a sketchy move, and some decent bouldering pads, but I was happy in the knowledge that the heat and lack of any sort of protection didn’t matter as I knew I wouldn’t fall.
Some people may think that that’s crazy, but these routes all come down to confidence, and if you have enough of it, then I think you’re pretty safe. I’ll definitely be planning a return trip to North Yorkshire later in the year.