V is for Visualization

November 10, 2008

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I’m sure many climbers would be shocked how little climbing I often do, sometimes going months without putting on my rock boots and harness.  Of course, like any climber I’d love to be climbing all the time, but things just conspire against me.  Life’s like that.  Very often I’ll turn up at the bottom of a mountain, and remove my harness from my rucksack and find my belay plate, abseil sling, and remnants of my rack still clipped to my harness from my last escape.  In such circumstances, it’s best not to point out the fact you haven’t been climbing for a few months, and luckily my partners generally assume that I’m simply so hardcore that I’ve just got down from some major epic, and am about to embark on another (rather then the gears been moulding away in my cellar).

In a few months, I’m heading out to Patagonia again with Ian Parnell, and a man who really does step from one epic to another.  While Ian will probably turn up via back to back trips to the Alps, Himalayas and Yosemite, I’ll be fresh from a couple of hard months training in S8, taking my kids to school. picking them up, going to the palk etc, not ideal training.

Now obviously physically there has to be something more to this, and I follow the Mark Twight dictum and thoroughly beast myself for a month before I go away, generally running every day for an hour, and for three hours once a week.  Added to this I’ll hit the gym every day as well, doing 10-km on the rower, 1000 cals on the cross-training, etc, trying to match the kind of torture I’ll be suffering on an expedition.  In reality, I think that training is simply a way of convincing yourself that you are in fact ‘match fit’ and that in fact very little training is actually required as long as you don’t expect too much from yourself.  Instead of ‘pull up’ more often than not it’s simply a case of ‘turning up’, and most climbs, even these ED horror shows are only about Scottish 5, VS and A1 (actually it’s the A1 that keeps things at a sensible grade).  People are often tricked into believing that you have to be a bronzed Spartan in order to climb hard, were in fact more often than not it’s simply a couple of fat slow blokes doing their best while the premier league stuck in base camp with the shits.

Being fit is only a small part of being match fit, and simply puts the fire in your loins to dare turn up in the first place.  No for me the key to every climb and adventure is visualization, by far the most important tool in any climbers tool kit, whether they are climbing outcrops or greater range giants.

For those who don’t know about this technique here’s a basic outline. 

Think of an objective a few months beforehand.  Begin thinking about it, first the big picture (what does the mountain look like), then gradually build up a complete and life-sized mock-up of the climb in your head.  I will look at topos, photos, read articles, and talk to climbers who have been there.  Every scrap of info is logged.  The best way to imagine this is you’re the computer in the matrix, making a perfect model of the world, allowing people to move around in this virtual world.

Once it;s built you add the weather, night and day, sounds, the tingle of rocks on the glacier.  You make this a real place.  If you’ve been there before then your works half done, as the template is already set up, with slope angles, temperatures, and objective dangers already logged.  Your model is complete.

Now for the next few months, you play out the climb, from getting to base camp, to getting to the summit, and getting down again.  The computer model works out every possible outcome, pitfall and grey area which needs further investigation.  Where will I sleep?  Were will the fixed anchors be from other teams?  How big will the cracks be?  Do I need rock boots, or can I wear my plastics?

This separate reality plays itself in my head at least once every 10 minutes for perhaps half a year.  I die a hundred times.  I escape alive a thousand.  I stand on the summit once.  I go over every possibility while I’m cooking, running, eating, talking, listening.  I imagine stuck ropes on the way down (take a spare 5-mm rope), I see belays ripping out on the ice mushroom (takes 55-cm snow stakes), I see protection-less corners (let Ian lead them).  The climb and all the parallel worlds of possibility play out again and again until finally, I’m so sick to death with the bloody climb all I want to do is get it over with.