Climbing in my head

Tuesday, 23 July 2019

Cobb Head climbing Cover

Mark stuck in his own head again

Climbing In My Head

I stood beneath the Cube on my first trip to Dartmoor. I had never climbed on granite before but it looked pretty easy when I watched it all on YouTube. Couple of easy warm up routes, then on to the hard stuff. Except that this was high, really high and I couldn’t see a descent route and the rock was really sharp.

Hmmmm. A rethink. Maybe this wasn’t the right route for me?

Next day, after some lovely bouldering at Honeybag Tor, we came back to Bonehill, just for a ‘quick look’. I’d seen a route, looked ok and had a relatively high grade in the guidebook.

‘I’ll just give it a couple of goes, won’t be long…’

This route, low start, hardest move was the first move, up to the nice hold, high feet, powerful mantel then up the slab. After two or three goes I had the route. To be honest, I knew I could do it so there was a sense of achievement but I knew I could do the moves before I did them. I’d have been very disappointed to have not climbed the route. Nice to have managed a nice grade though, made me feel much more like a proper boulderer, up there with my heroes, Ben, Jerry, Johnny!!!

In my head anyway...  

Later on though, I thought: so how come I couldn’t do those routes, about 6 grades easier, the day before? Weird! How had I breezed up a tough (in the guidebook, anyway) sit start V8, off tiny crystals, but couldn’t even start the easy V2s the day before.

What was going on?

Mark and his son prepare to take on the boulder!

Flash forward to Brookes, climbing the recent set. Very pleased with myself for battling up a tricky, typically brutish red tag. Deep breaths, a quick drink, dip in the chalk and now I’m unbeatable. So I get on the blue tag with some nice red holds which is just next to the scene of my triumph of a few minutes ago. After three attempts, I can’t even start it.

What’s going on?!

I then do the ‘boulderer’s rest’, sit and stare for ten or so minutes, waiting for the route to get easier.

It doesn’t.

But then I come back next session and I do it first go!

There’s something strange going on here. I’m thinking, how many times have I come to Brookes feeling, quite frankly, exhausted and pulled on and smashed route after route for ninety minutes or more. Equally, I think of the number of times I’ve felt good, had plenty of rest, made sure I’m hydrated, energy levels up and I flat out couldn’t get up anything!

Over the last few weeks I’ve enjoyed many conversations, read a lot and thought a great deal about why I can climb some routes, some of which I didn’t think I’d even get off the ground and why on others, even though they might be easier I can’t get my head around them at all. I will never climb them!

What enables me to climb some stuff but stops me from climbing other stuff. There are the obvious; age, power (or lack of it), rest, technique, height, reach, trying to be much better! But then there are the hidden reasons, many of which are going round and round inside my head.

At Dartmoor I failed on some routes because I looked at them and decided they were too high whereas on other harder routes… no problem, as the crux was at the bottom and the top outs were fine and nowhere near as high. At Brookes I know that if the route has crimps or if there’s a lot of pressing or bridging I feel really confident. But if I see slopers, steeply angled routes, suddenly I’m ‘No, can’t do that!’ Don’t even look at it again. I psych myself out of even attempting some routes, whereas others I psych myself up to doing them. Psyched out or psyched up!

I’ve come to realise that one of the biggest things for me when I’m climbing is motivation. New routes on the wall are just like Christmas, can’t wait to get on them, a voyage of discovery, an adventure. Pulling the wrapper off a new set of routes feels inspiring and I feel energised, can’t climb them quickly enough. After four or five weeks though the same routes I’ve managed all the stuff I can do and a few others that I made myself have a go at and I’m just sitting there, not even dreaming of the routes anymore, no more visualisation all a bit stale. That week before the new set of routes goes up is all about ‘right, climbing in the garage or, I know, I’ll just go and climb all the greens, or… eliminates? Or just take pictures, or…’

Climbing outside, even if I’ve climbed the route before, the motivation is so much higher. I’m with my family, the kids are on the routes, the setting is beautiful, I can almost feel the energy and sense the beauty around me, I can channel the environment, feel the flow, now I’m part of the route. Jerry Moffatt has talked about routes where it’s not just how you position your fingers on the hold but it’s how you position your whole body on the hold. Maybe also how we position our mind on the hold?

It’s all about where I am, who I’m with, the ‘feel’ of the place, the surroundings and the energy that seems to pulse from within. That elusive feeling of being ‘in the zone’. Climbing with grace and ‘form’

Bouldering isn’t just getting up the route, not for me anyway. It’s all about where I am, who I’m with, the ‘feel’ of the place, the surroundings and the energy that seems to pulse from within. That elusive feeling of being ‘in the zone’. Climbing with grace and ‘form’. When everything clicks. John Gill has called it a ‘moving meditation’. Certainly my best days are when I have that flow, when movements, even moves that the body doesn’t habitually attempt are balanced and effortless. For anyone watching I still may look like an old bloke in a hat clunking noisily up a route but inside, in my head, I’m flowing, I’m part of the route. Johnny Dawes, one of my climbing heroes, not just for his climbing but also for the way he talks about climbing; I’m sure he knows every move he made on every route he climbed and when he describes his routes it’s poetic. His climbs are a dance, choreographed by the holds, by the wind and rain. He talks about how when you’re climbing, sometimes it just feels right, it feels like you’re climbing the way the holds and the elements need you to climb.

For the past couple of years I’ve not only tried to climb as often as I can but also in as many different places as I can. Motivation feels high with new holds, new routes, new rock to feel, new moves to try. I’m constantly seeking that flow, a meditative state almost, mindfulness as we would call it today. Climbing lends itself to pure focus. If I am climbing I am totally aware, absolutely in the moment, perhaps lost in the moment. Time seems to disappear as my senses swim through the moves, seeking the feeling of balance, of grace. Bouldering is a contemplation; of the holds, the moves. A problem being solved, a focus for the 21st century brain. My proprioceptive sense firing maniacally, feet, hands, head, body, all needing to be totally in the right place. All this seems to happen without thought, without processing the information in front of me.

  • A dance
  • Flow
  • Grace

On other occasions the route is in my head but my body can’t complete the moves. Then away from the wall, or away from the route, my visualisation goes into overdrive. Overnight, in my head, I can do the moves, I can climb the route. So it’s just a matter of going to the wall, getting to the rock and physically playing out the role I’ve rehearsed in my head, over and over.

It’s this meditative state that I now crave whenever I climb inside or out. With or without friends or family.

I have decided to go climbing at times with a sore back, with blinding headaches, in a state of total fatigue. But after an hour of climbing my ‘real world’ problems begin to fade. The stiffness in my back eases, my head fires with positivity, my fatigue disappears to be replaced by a sense of power, of controlled dynamism, of feeling alive.


Does my mood affect how I climb, or does the climbing affect my mood. I know it’s the latter. It fills me with a harmony, a feeling of strength, of grace, of relaxation. The demons in my head and in my aching body are repulsed, my meditation is complete. I’ve become the best version of myself again. Climbing does that for me. Every time.

Portland, the Cuttings boulderfield. huge, overgrown, a playground filled with adventures. I’d read about a bouldering route, Anasazi Lost. It sounded intriguing and exciting. I wear Anasazi pinks, I had to climb it. We arrived at the boulder with the route jumping out at me. Now real, no longer a picture, it looked doable. My positivity flowed even though it wasn’t normally the type of route that I feel I’m good at. Overhanging, heel hooks, crimpy at first, then powerful and rather more dynamic in the middle, followed by a strenuous top out. In my head I’d already climbed it. It had been going through my thoughts for a few days and seeing it up close began to bring everything together. All I had to do now was climb it.

Low start, hanging arête, steeply up, nice handhold, left heel hook, right hand following holds on the lip, inching my heel up the rock, right knee attempting to Velcro the underside of the boulder; big move towards the apex of the route, feet flying off, then right foot heel hook above my head, match at the top, a huge pull and then pressing back and I’m there. Honestly, there was never a point when I thought I wouldn’t climb it. Positivity flooded through me, I was aware of every move, every piece of the rock. On top my arms and shoulders screamed, my fingers sore now, and then the realisation that I could relax. I’m not that powerful, I’m not that dynamic, but I’d made the decision that I was going to climb this route and my body had followed the line in my head and done what it needed to do. I’d climbed the route in my head and now I’d completed it in reality. It doesn’t always happen, but 100% focus and personal motivation together with a beautiful day, family and friends and the drive to fulfil my thoughts and there I was, at the top.

When I climb, mind and body need to be in harmony, and then seek a harmony with the holds, the route. My mind seeks that balance, and often my body responds. Sometimes, frustratingly it refuses as if it can’t find a way into my thoughts. When it happens, when everything falls into place, movement becomes easier, the movements flow, all tension gone. Life becomes easier, now and for some while after, the energy I seem to have generated, buoying me up, keeping me going, all the other worries, anxieties, problems gone! Insignificant! Non-existent! The only thing that exists is the route, either in front of me or in my head.

Holds! Routes! Climbing!

Climbing in my head! Everything else has faded away…

But the climbing is there, filling my thoughts.

Climbing in my head.


Written by Mark Cobb, Climbing Ambassador for Brookes Climbing Wall. Thanks to all the fab people who climb with Mark. Special thanks to Johnny Dawes Johnny Dawes, for his thoughts and creativity,John Gill-the Art of Bouldering,Jerry Moffatt-Mastermind. If you would like to have a go at climbing, why not visit our climbing wall at Oxford Brookes University Centre for Sport in Headington. For more information about climbing, email or visit the centre for a chat.

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