The Warrior's Way: Arno Ilgner Discusses Fear in Climbing

Posted on: July 27, 2010

The front book cover of Espresso Lessons from the Rock Warrior's Way, by Arno Ilgner, a follow-up book to The Rock Warrior's Way: Mental Training for Climbers. In these books, Ilgner discusses how rock climbers can learn to manage their fears by appropriately directing their attention, recognizing when to use analytical and intuitive intelligence, being present to the process of climbing, and utilizing Ilgner's suggested steps and processes to do so. [Photo] Arno Ilgner collection

It took a midlife crisis for Arno Ilgner to realize he should pursue a career he loved.

When he hit rock bottom with industrial tool sales, Ilgner decided he would invest time in his passion for rock climbing—something he had done for 37 years—and learn why some climbers are fearful and others are less so.

In his quest to find the answers, Ilgner developed the Warrior's Way, a program to help people become more aware—a step toward becoming more powerful when facing challenges, including those involved with rock climbing. Operating his programs out of the Desiderata Institute in La Vergne, Tennessee, Ilgner compiled his ideas into a book, The Rock Warrior's Way: Mental Training for Climbers, which he followed up with a second, more practical book, Espresso Lessons from the Rock Warrior's Way.

Alpinist had the opportunity to talk with Ilgner about the Warrior's Way and how climbers can learn to manage their fears.

How did you develop the Warrior's Way?

I started by investigating the whole concept of fear. In my reading and research, I wanted to read widely, from both western and eastern philosophy, self-help, psychology and any means or discipline that would give me insight into fear. I wanted to look at many disciplines so that I could look at the connections between them. In those connecting themes, I thought I might discover some foundational processes, concepts or issues that can really shed light on fear. I ended up narrowing down the themes into my first book, The Rock Warrior's Way: Mental Training for Climbers. I didn't know that they would come together so smoothly in a three-part decision making process, but they did.

Why is the Warrior's Way so applicable to rock climbing?

First off, I always knew from the very beginning that ever since I identified the foundational processes of Warrior's Way that they would not be unique to climbing. Processes such as accepting responsibility and valuing the journey rather than the destination were not unique to climbing. From the beginning, however, I wanted to restrict my research to climbing.

I wanted to test out my theories about fear and stress management in a sport or discipline that I was familiar with—and that I had gained many years of experience with. Climbing is something very tangible. You can see what occurs with your attention and the resulting fears. As well, the consequences, like falling, are very vivid.

Sometimes in life it is not as black and white. But in climbing, it's just you and the rock up there. Getting frustrated and blaming the rock gets pretty ridiculous, really.

What led you to write a second book?

The Espresso Lessons book came out last year, and it had been six years since The Rock Warrior's Way came out. I wanted to write another book, but I wanted it to be an organic process. It really was an outgrowth of hundreds and hundreds of clinics where I helped climbers tangibly apply the material by doing very specific things with their attention.


Climbing consists of two different skill sets: thinking, where you can use the intelligence of your mind to prepare well, and doing, which is shifting your attention out of the thinking mode into your body to do the actual climbing. The core theme of this approach to climbing is really about your attention and what you are doing with it.

Throughout Espresso Lessons, you suggest there are two kinds of climbers: intuitive and analytical. What kind of a climber are you?

I tend towards intuitive. I tend to under-think and get myself in over my head. I am forced to sink or swim. I found that I have done that in my climbing and in my life. A perfect example would be my first marriage. I put almost no thought into the long term consequences of committing to this person for life. I had done that in my climbing, too, where I would get myself into dangerous situations without a lot of forethought. There are lots of benefits to that in that intuitive climbers are more action-oriented. You can often do more than your mind thought you could. But then you sometimes find yourself in a situation when you're in over your head. I know I need to balance out that intuitive side of myself, so I need to put reminders all around to make sure I do that. Stop, think it through, and then make a decision.

Analytical climbers are the opposite. They get lost in over-thinking and are slow to take action. They will likely see a similar pattern in their lives.

One of the many cartoons found throughout Espresso Lessons used to illustrate its lessons. Ilgner uses a couple in counseling to demonstrate the conflicting thoughts and emotions of climbers. [Illustration] Arno Ilgner

What is the number one lesson from The Rock Warrior's Way that you think makes the greatest difference in climbing?

The number one lesson is probably seeing that climbing is not a means to an end, but rather an end in itself. In other words, the seven processes in The Rock Warrior's Way are all about valuing the journey. As opposed to getting attached to getting to the top of a climb or a mountain, it is about focusing on what you love about the climbing, including the stresses, and allowing the joy in climbing to motivate you and drive you to be there.

Our motivation for doing something is what fuels our effort. If we're end-result motivated all the time, then our attention is constantly toward the end. When we get down from a climb, we revel in the success of that ascent and miss out on a lot of the climbing process.

I think this is the main thing that people can take away from the book. All the processes I suggest have to do with attention, and what you do with it. When you do that, you're in the present moment and you can be present for the journey.

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