Downclimbing - A Reflection
"Getting to the top is optional. Getting down is mandatory."
– Ed Viesturs
We're constantly reminded of the need to be safe on the mountains but this often conflicts with our aspirations to summit a certain peak or complete an alpine goal in the face of treacherous terrain and/or conditions.
The training and preparations that one does to anticipate dangers found in an alpine environment can never be fully simulated in a controlled environment such as a climbing gym, but one practice stands out clearly: the art of downclimbing. This post is not so much a how-to, but rather a personal reflection of what downclimbing means to me and what goes through my mind when downclimbing.
Downclimbing, as the name suggests, is the act of climbing down a climbing route. Outdoors, this is done (often as a last resort) when you need to backout from a long runout lead, retrace your route to your last known safe position, navigate a tricky descent, or reversing your climb because you have run out of rope to descend. You’ll never want to find yourself in any of these situations, but if there is a dire need, downclimbing safely can be an essential skill in your arsenal.
Indoors, downclimbing is translated as a discipline which is distinctly different from other forms (e.g. hangboards, HIIT, weight training, powerlifting, hypoxic training etc) in that it is as much a mental exercise (perhaps even more so) as it is physical. The process begins with first climbing on lead to the top of the route (making sure not to skip any clips), then without clipping into the anchor, reverse the process by successively unclipping your rope from the quickdraw as you downclimb to the bottom.
The process of downclimbing forces one to be calm and methodical about the entire process and it distils the singular relationship between you and the wall. What results is a mental exercise in managing the descent in a controlled manner, identifying proper rest spots, rest stance and conservation of one's mental and physical energy. More importantly, it instils in you a state where you are aware that the climb is never truly complete only until you're safely back down.
Downclimbing – An interpretation
Initially, the thought of downclimbing intimidated me for some time. It seemed counterintuitive and downright reckless that you would consciously unclip yourself from a secure protection and rely solely on your capabilities as you descend to the next protection, only to repeat that process all over again.
It was only after some time that I cosied up to the idea as I wanted to see where my fears lie and be familiar with that feeling. The first few tries of downclimbing were attempted at a grade well within my comfort zone and the experience taught me that downclimbing is very much an exercise in managing one's fears and being conscious of the whole climbing process, which often times are muddied up by the rush of wanting to finish a route or just 'hacking' it and finishing it in any way possible.
Applied to mountaineering, downclimbing can instill a deep introspection of one's capabilities, awareness of energy level and mental state, which contributes towards assessing your intrinsic potential of summiting successfully (which includes the descend). This assessment should be cultivated as a sub-conscious routine throughout your journey, beginning from the preparation stage and fostered through. Reconciliation of your id, ego and superego should then be attempted at regular intervals (e.g. approach, in-between pitches, summit push, etc). This method could act as an early warning tool to assess for mental pitfalls and/or complacency and help to cut through the fog of irrational rationalisation during critical decision points. While downclimbing may not be the be all and end all to the application of this method, it could be a key exercise to self-discovery.
I think that the best takeaway from the discipline of downclimbing is a recognition and reemphasis on you and your abilities to control and manage the risks you are exposed to, while at the same time cultivating a deep appreciation of what your style of climbing is. Knowledge of these, I feel, will be key towards enabling you to perform at an optimal level and achieve that "flow-state" which blends both mastery and awareness into a seamless form that then renders your interpretation of a particular route.
I am currently trying to identify and connect this form into alpinism; crystallising the effects of practicing downclimbing and how (or if) that translates into any practical utility in the mountains. However, if there's one thing that is for certain, it's that one must explore the limits of your capability and test those limits in a controlled setting (indoor/outdoor whatever the case may be) before setting out on any serious alpine objective.