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


Another cartoon from Espresso Lessons illustrates Ilgner's point about a mistake that rock climbers make. Ilgner suggests that climbers either need to be thinking or doing, but not mixing the two, in order to ensure they are focusing their attention. [Illustration] Arno Ilgner

What do you think are the primary mistakes climbers make in their climbing?

I think there are three main mistakes climbers make:

First of all, in Espresso Lessons, the biggest takeaway is separating the skill sets of thinking and doing. Climbers mix thinking and doing, stopping and moving. They are not committed to one or the other and their attention is half in thinking, half in doing. When you're split like that, your attention is split. In order to be more deliberate in your climbing, you really need to separate those two.

Think of a pole vaulter. When they are about to take that jump, they aren't thinking about it. They need to trust their body to do and apply what they have practiced. They allow their body to go through the movements.

Another mistake is not understanding and embracing the consequences, which in climbing is mainly falling. What I mean by embracing is not necessarily thinking, "I just have to accept it and take falls," but rather being familiar with falling consequences so that you understand them better.

Many climbers would rather stay on climbs where they are not going to be falling all the time. If you actually look down at your previous stance while you're climbing you don't have to resort to your mind's imaginings about it. So, climbers can practice falling a bit, even on top rope, to see what it feels like to fall. All climbers are going to fall at some point, even if they are following on top rope. Facing the consequences is much more important than ignoring them.

The third mistake is with regards to the mind. One of the biggest limitations of our minds is that we tend to validate what we currently understand instead of modifying it. This goes well beyond climbing. We have certain belief systems about what's right and wrong, and when we get into a situation where we're stressed, we tend to validate what we already know instead of modifying it. For instance, some people read and only take in ideas that support what they already think.

We could be stumped by a certain problem on a climb, but we keep doing the same sequence over and over instead of modifying it. A modifying rather than a validating approach to climbing is a way of embracing the learning process.

Are the practices in Espresso Lessons also appropriate to other forms of climbing, such as ice climbing or alpine climbing?

Absolutely. In ice climbing, you're pretty much always in no-fall situations, by which I mean you are almost always in a situation where the consequences of a fall are heightened just by the very nature of the sport. In Espresso Lessons, I describe no-fall versus yes-fall zones and the kind of preparations that go into those types of situations. The risk zone may be bigger, longer or drawn out.

In ice climbing and mountaineering, you need to prepare by understanding your decision making points, where the risks are, when the risk-zones end and what you can do to minimize the consequences, just as you would in rock climbing. From that preparation, you can make appropriate risk decisions.

You also have more objective dangers in ice climbing and mountaineering than you do in rock climbing. In addition to the other steps you have to include these other elements, like avalanches and weather conditions, so that you can make an appropriate risk decision. You have to make sure you have collected everything you need to collect in order to make a decision.


What has been the most fulfilling experience you have had with your students of the Warrior's Way program?

In the beginning, you get fulfilled by seeing the successes of students, especially students that you see make the biggest strides. I've had students that, in the matter of a day or two, climb a number of grades greater than what they had ever climbed previously.

But what I've learned over time though in teaching is that sometimes the fulfillment comes from the more difficult students that are harder to teach, more resistant and that don't take to the material as readily. In these cases, I need to stay focused on being present for that particular person. I need to talk with and observe this climber and see what I can do to help them integrate the material better. I need to modify my approach and introduce a little bit of stress, so that they can engage with it and learn from it.

Do you have anything else you would like to add?

The foundation of the Warrior's Way material and the two books is about truly valuing the learning process and understanding how the learning process works in terms of turning stress into comfort. This is critical for a student to learn. A lot of coaches and teachers introduce too much stress because they are looking at it from their perspective rather than looking at the cues from the students as to what is appropriate. They need to look at what kinds of resistances are coming up for the student instead of just going into a skill with a sense of getting it over with.

In other words, when coaches teach practicing falling, they start with lead falls rather than progressing to lead falls. What occurs when you start with this is that it takes the student a while to let go of the rock and then they tense up during the fall. They really need to learn how to relax when falling. They need to be soft and responsive on impact, not tense. This kind of coaching is causing students to learn poor habits.

The foundation of all of this is to make sure that you are creating learning situations where people can be in the present moment and turn the stress of climbing into comfort.

Arno Ilgner with a few of his students in an Espresso Clinic workshop at the Boulder Rock Club in Boulder, Colorado. Ilgner tested his material on hundreds of students before refining them down into the processes now found in his books. [Photo] Arno Ilgner collection

For more information about the Warrior's Way, visit Ilgner's website. The Rock Warrior's Way: Mental Training for Climbers and Espresso Lessons from the Rock Warrior's Way can be purchased at

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