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Friday, December 08, 2006

Arno's Way

A few weeks ago, my wife, Chris, and a friend took a couple of classes with Arno Ilgner, who tours the country these days doing his Warrior's Way mental-training programs for climbers. I went along to the second session, at Shelf Road, as belay slave. Chris had signed up because she was frustrated with her ability to lead climbs, which did not reflect her technical ability or strength. Basically, she got scared too easily.

Arno, who was one of the stronger American climbers of the late 1970s and early ’80s, has spent years studying various martial arts philosophies and relating them to rock climbing. From his handout: "The warrior philosophy derives from the uniquely demanding situation facing a soldier or combatant, such as a samurai, in a deadly duel. She must perform with absolute mastery and calm in the face of horrendous mortal danger."

OK, so bolt-clipping at Shelf Road isn't exactly "horrendous mortal danger." And Chris and Robin aren't exactly the type to embrace others' philosophies, whether it's a warrior's way or New Age touchy-feely action. They also didn't care for Arno's teaching style, which they felt relied too much on asking questions. ("Why don't you just tell us what you want us to know?" they both demanded at one point.) Given these obstacles, I wasn't sure how much Arno's clinic would help, but the results were profound.

I think the most valuable things Chris took away were some simple practices to help her maintain focus while leading. During Chris and Robin's leads, Arno repeatedly asked them, "Are you resting or are you climbing?" That is, when they stopped at a good hold, they should maximize the rest, study the route above them, and not dick around half-heartedly trying moves. Once they were ready to go, they should commit to keep moving until they reached the next rest stance. Sounds simple, but most of us don't climb that way; we're not 100% committed to either resting or climbing. He also taught them a simple practice before beginning a sequence of moves: Look up, look down, look up. Look up, to plan your sequence. Look down, to spot key footholds. Look up and, boom, start climbing. I can't explain the theory behind it, but it works.

Chris and Robin also did some whipper therapy, which they had been dreading. (Like a lot of people, they were much more comfortable falling indoors than out; both could count the number of real falls they'd taken outdoors in the last couple of years on one hand, or maybe even a couple of fingers.) Both of them shed some tears on the first route. But Arno's falling practice was much more effective than anything I'd seen or tried before. It wasn't just flinging yourself off, with the vain hope that this would somehow make you feel better. Instead, he taught them to assess dangers and compare them with past experiences; if the danger appeared to be no greater than ones they'd experienced before and survived, then there should be no problem. They practiced falling at the third bolt of a vertical climb, and at first they didn't even climb above the bolt. They'd just assume a climbing stance, and then I (the belayer) would pay out a teeny bit of slack, so they'd drop a couple of feet. Arno taught them good techniques for falling (arms spread, looking down, feet relaxed but ready, exhaling strongly), and had them focus on this as they fell. After each fall, he'd ask them for their observations, and, as the falls got bigger and bigger, their bottom-line observation became, "Hey, that wasn't too bad."

Results? It's been about three weeks, and Chris still thinks a lot about falling while she's climbing. But she has pushed herself very hard, indoors and out, on routes where she definitely might fall, and she's climbing more decisively than I've ever seen her. For now, at least, the lessons seem to be sticking. Anyway, I don't think she expected a miracle; she's just grateful for some progress. We're headed to Spain at the end of next week, and she is psyched to climb!


Anonymous said...

My wife and I also took one of Arno's classes recently, and got a lot out of it. His approach to climbing is very insightful and has without question made a difference in our own climbing abilities. I'd highly recommend it to anyone thinking about checking out one of his classes.

Anonymous said...

You know, every douchebag, thrill seeking mountain climber aught to sign a waiver that if lost, the family NOT the government should be responsible for the rescue effort. I cannot imagine if I lost a wife or husband or friend or whatever who was out in a hellicopter trying to find one of these self apointed daredevils. Mountain climbing is a HOBBY. Mountain climbers need to take into account that they place INNOCENT people in harm's way just cuz "it was there". Just to feed some man vs. nature ego trip. Why can't ya just take up Russian Roulette as a hobby and spare the good men and women who are out trying to rescue real victims? Why is your ego so inflated that you risk rendering your families fatherless or motherless or whatever. It amazes me the number of these idiots who are married with children. This, in my opinion constitues family neglect by willingly placing your family in harm's way so you can have something to brag about. I hope those men out there died suffering, because it'll be nothing compared to the suffering they caused DOZENS of people who have regular, uninflated egos. With HDTV there is no risk. THINK ABOUT THIS PEOPLE......