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Mental training prepares climbers for any challenge

Mountaineering requires extensive physical training, but few consider the mental training involved in climbing. Carlton Cooke, co-editor of Mountaineering: Training and Preparation (Human Kinetics, 2010), says mental training aids mountaineers' concentration and enables them to adopt an analytical system of thinking rather than become emotionally reactive when faced with risk. 

“Having the skills that allow clear thinking in the face of risk enhances the chances of making realistic predictions,” Cooke explains. “This is a core feature in ensuring safe and enjoyable sport involvement.”

Cooke, head of the Carnegie Research Centre for Performance at Leeds Metropolitan University, supports British Army expeditions in a team of sport and exercise scientists, including an expedition to Everest West Ridge in 2006. According to Cooke, four psychological skills are essential to mentally preparing for a climb.

Goal Setting

Goal setting allows climbers to set clear outcomes for judging performance and make plans to achieve those goals. Writing personal goals also helps to develop and refine individual commitment and accountability. Cooke suggests that mountaineers set specific safety goals before completing a climb. “Goals might include setting arrival times for the stages of the descent, directing attention to specific descent practices, or planning refueling stops,” Cooke says.

Imagery involves creating mental pictures relating to performance and often includes athletes' visualizing themselves negotiating difficult tasks or completing a highly technical skill. “Climbers who are preparing for big expeditions often report reading all available accounts of previous climbs and consulting extensively with others who have made those climbs, both of which enhance imagery,” Cooke explains. Aspects such as specific physical movements, environmental factors, task, timing, learning history, emotion, and perspective should be considered in developing adaptive images.

Self-talk exercises aim to control the way people talk to themselves and can be most effective when planned and repeated. “Given that there are so many occasions when mountaineers might be isolated, this may be an important skill for sustaining quality performance,” Cooke says. “For extended high-altitude expeditions where long periods of downtime can be spent in tents and where winds are so strong that they prevent conversation, self-talk may be key to maintaining morale.”

Reinforcement is central to motivation and sustained involvement. According to Cooke, anything increasing the likelihood of repeating a specific behavior is a reinforcement agent. “In high-altitude mountaineering, it may be important that climbers find value in undertaking the dog work so that others may succeed,” Cooke says. “Another intrapersonal reinforcement for international mountaineering may be the desire to interact with other cultures or with transcendental experiences of just being in the mountains.”

For more information, see Mountaineering: Training and Preparation.