Date: March 1st, 2018
About Roanne van Voorst
Roanne Van Voorst is a Dutch climber and researcher who recently wrote a book about overcoming fear in climbing and other “extreme sports”. In her book, aptly named Fear, she interviews athletes including Alex Honnold, Steph Davis, Jorg Verhoeven, Hazel Findlay, Cedric Dumont, and others about how they deal with and push through fear.
In this interview with Roanne, we get a sneak peek of the most poignant parts of the book – the pieces that stood out to her most in her interviews. We discuss how fear has impacted our own climbing styles, and what we might do to be braver as climbers, and how that might affect our climbing performance.
Roanne van Voorst Interview Details
- Lynn Hill’s 4-step process to de-stress while climbing
- Hazel Findlay’s “fear muscle” and how she trains it
- How highliner Alexander Schulz lets go of everything that’s not helping him
- What Alex Honnold does when he feels fear
- How Spider Dan uses visualization in the opposite way most of us do
- What Jorg Verhoeven did differently than everyone else to send the Nose
Dr. Roanne van Voorst Links
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Neely Quinn: Welcome to the TrainingBeta Podcast, where I talk with climbers and trainers about how we can all get a little bit better at our favorite sport. I’m your host, Neely Quinn, and today we are on Episode 97 of the podcast. We’re getting up there, almost a hundred. Today I’m talking about a topic that is really important to me in particular. I tend to be a cautious climber, I don’t like too much risk taking. I don’t like the idea of falling and hurting myself. None of us do, but I can sometimes take it to an extreme and let the fear get the best of me. A woman name Roanne Van Voorst, she approached me about a book that she wrote called Fear. It’s called Fear: Extreme Athletes on How to Reach Your Highest Goals and Overcome Stress and Self-Doubt. In the book, she interviewed a bunch of extreme athletes including Alex Honnold, Steph Davis, Lynn Hill, “Spiderman” Alain Robert, Hazel Findlay, Arno Ilner, Jorg Verhoeven, and a bunch of other people. She asked them about how they deal with fear and what tools they use to get through it. In this interview, I’m going to be talking with Roanne about her book and what she found in it. I got a lot out of this podcast. There is a point at which she talks about what Lynn Hill says that she does in times of fear, and I’ve found myself doing it, not even just with climbing, but in regular life when I get scared. It’s a great episode in my opinion, and I’m so happy she wrote this book. You can find the book on Amazon.
Also, I want to mention before I get into the interview- we started a Facebook group for TrainingBeta. If you go to trainingbeta.com/community, it’ll forward you over to that group and you can ask to be a member. I asked a question there recently about fear, like what do you do when you are scared and climbing? How have you overcome fear in climbing? I got like twenty five responses or something, and they’re all super valuable. That’s the kind of thing that’s been going on in the new group. There’s some really good conversations happening. So, I’ll just let Roanne take it from here. Here she is, and I’ll talk to you on the other side.
Neely Quinn: Alright, welcome to the Roanne, thanks very much for talking with me today.
Roanne Van Voorst: Thank you so much for having me.
Neely Quinn: Yeah. So, can you tell us a little bit about yourself?
Roanne Van Voorst: My name is Roanne. I’m an author and a social scientist. I did a PhD, and I’ve done a decade of research on risk and courage. I also happen to be a climber, and so I recently wrote a book called Fear, which is all about extreme athletes. Mostly climbers- but some BASE jumpers and wing suiters, and how they reach their highest goals and deal with stress and self-doubt.
Neely Quinn: That’s awesome. That’s something that is super needed in this community I think.
Roanne Van Voorst: Well that’s how I felt. Being a scared climber myself- you know, more often being a very enthusiastic climber, but nevertheless often times I do struggle with fear of lead climbing, or fear of falling. I really felt that we have way more guides and books about physical training, and not so many yet about the more mental side of the sport, while it’s so inherent to climbing, I find.
Neely Quinn: For sure. And I feel like it sometimes affects our performance just as much as training does.
Roanne Van Voorst: Yeah, and the weird thing with fear is that sometimes you’re not even aware that it’s actually fear that is holding you back. I’ve had many times where I think I really can’t make a move, but I noticed that I’m probably just afraid to commit. Once you’ve practiced or gone through that move a couple of times, suddenly you find it’s really not that hard and that it was all in the head. Fear can be very subtle, or it can be overwhelming where you really just panic below the rock, which is not a very nice feeling. It’s such a waste to not do anything about it, because it really makes the sport less fun.
Neely Quinn: Yeah, it does. When you are scared all the time, it’s just not as fun.
Roanne Van Voorst: I remember sitting next to my husband who is also a climber and driving up to the crag, and he’d be like “Wow, do you see the rock, wow it looks awesome!”. I just felt myself getting nauseous next to him, thinking “Oh my god, I have to lead, I really have to challenge myself”, and really almost physically feeling resistance towards going there. It doesn’t really have to be like that, you know? So that was my quest, I guess, a couple of years ago, and the reason why I wanted to interview the bravest and the best of the world on how on earth do these guys deal with that? That was my main obsession probably.
Neely Quinn: Do you feel like through this research that you’ve done- has it helped you?
Roanne Van Voorst: Yeah, it has. I mean, I’m not suddenly doing Alex Honnolds on the wall.
Neely Quinn: [laughs] That’s good.
Roanne Van Voorst: Yeah that’s probably a good thing, because I lack the talents and many more skills that you would need to do that. I do use a lot of the methods and it has definitely made my climbing more fun and also more successful, I’d say. I’d love to talk a little bit more about it later on.
I guess the first thing that really struck me was when I started doing the interviews with the people that I feature in my book, like Alex Honnold for example, or Lynn Hill, or Steph Davis- the big names- one thing that they all have in common is that they all have fears. It sounds super stupid, but sometimes you get this feeling where you see them climbing that they are the ones that only have fun, right? They’re the ones that never seems to be afraid. You feel really small if you are not like that, if you are the one feeling kind of overexcited in a negative way when you are driving towards the crag.
For me, just hearing them talking about all the fearful experiences they’ve had, and hearing them say things like “Oh my god, I’ve had that so often, where I stood somewhere psyched to do my project, and then this other side is saying shit, I’m just too afraid and this doesn’t feel right”. And then how do you deal with that in that moment? That for me gave a strange comfort, I’d almost say, just to know that fear is part of the sport. It’s not half of the world was born like scared cats like I was, and half of the world was born fearless, being the Steph Davis and Alex Honnolds. No, it’s more that they’ve learned to cope better with their fear than other people. But we all have fears.
Neely Quinn: Yeah, that is kind of comforting, to know that there isn’t something wrong with you for having fear.
Roanne Van Voorst: What I really wanted to do in this book was showing that they’re not crazy, reckless, fearless adrenaline junkies. To the contrary, I call them “fear experts”. I consider them experts on fear. If you are a wing suiter, you just cannot let yourself be distracted by fearful thoughts, or by self-doubt, because you are just going to collapse to your death, so you have to stay focused. It means that these people have had to find methods and strategies that really help them to stay centered, which is super fascinating. Those are skills that we can learn, I mean even you and I can learn them.
Neely Quinn: Mhm, yeah. So I want to back up just a little bit. Your book is called Fear, and you just recently published it, right?
Roanne Van Voorst: Yeah, that’s right. I published it first in the Netherlands and Belgium where I live, and then I decided to translate it for a larger English audience, which makes sense because all of the climbers I interviewed are Americans or from the UK. There is a large fan base interested in what they have to say on fear and how to overcome it.
Neely Quinn: Can you tell us who you interviewed and what kinds of interactions you had with them to get this information?
Roanne Van Voorst: With most of them, I just did Skype calls. Long conversations, like you and I are having right now. Some I was able to call, or even meet. There is Alex Honnold, like I said. There is Alain Robert, the French Spiderman, the builderer. There is Alexander Schulz, who was the world record holder in highlining, there is Catharine Destivelle, there is Edurne Pasaband, a Basque mountaineer, there is Hazel Findlay, Lynn Hill, there is Steph Davis, Jorg Verhoeven who is a fellow Dutchman. There is Martin Fickweiler, who is known for some big walls. Then there are some coaches, like Arno Ilgner of course, McGrath, oh there is Cédric Dumont who is a wingsuiter from Belgium, and there is Rebecca Williams who is a very interesting climbing coach from the Uk- she combines it with psychology.
Neely Quinn: That’s a lot of people to get information from, with pretty diverse backgrounds.
Roanne Van Voorst: What I was interested to do with them is basically each chapter, each interviewed person has their own chapter. They tell about their personal best method, something that really works for them, and they explain it in very step-by-step manners, so that you and I could practice it at home or at the crag. It’s really fun, because what I found when I was doing the interviews is that they all have different methods. Some of them will use visualization, and others have breathing techniques that really help them. Some of them use pretty rational analysis almost, and then others do meditation practices. It was really fun for me to make every chapter not just deferring on who is this person, and what is his or her relation to fear, but also what is very concretely the strategy that they actually use on the wall when they do get afraid? Sometimes when I go climbing and I feel the fear creeping up, I can just pick from my memory. Like, I do what Lynn Hill always does. Even just thinking that is kind of comforting.
Neely Quinn: That’s really funny, because that is a common motto of mine when I’m climbing. I’ll be like “What would Lynn Hill do right now?” when I can’t reach something. That’s funny that that’s what you do with fear.
Roanne Van Voorst: Oh it’s an amazing one, and it’s funny that you say that because when I was interviewing Lynn Hill, we had a Skype conversation, and we had the cameras on, and I had to stop myself- I really wanted to make photos of her. As soon as she starts talking about climbing, you can see her do climbing moves. She would kind of gesture on the famous routes and be like “Yeah and then I couldn’t reach it, and then I did this!”, and up goes her right arm, and up goes her right leg over the table.
I could see it, and I was like “This is incredible beta, I need to video this!”, but I didn’t because it kind of felt unethical [laughs]. I still remembered some of her more mental tricks, and those were very interesting as well.
Neely Quinn: Okay, I really want to know some of the standouts. What were some of the most memorable things you learned from people?
Roanne Van Voorst: For example, Lynn Hill, what she does- and it’s interesting that she does the both in her climbing but also in her daily life- she has really trained herself to, first of all, observe that she is getting stressed. She really recognizes in her body that stress is getting to her. She might recognize this because she feels pumped, or because she notices that she is getting kind of a tunnel vision, where you go “There’s nothing here! There’s nothing for my foot!”. As soon as she starts thinking about those things, she forces herself to take a break on whatever is possible. This might be kind of climbing back towards a spot where you can shake out, or making one more move so that you can stand for a little bit on a slab wall. Then she just kind of stops climbing. Literally, she will have a four step methodology where she says to stop immediately. As soon as you feel that you’re stressed, then take a mini break, but whatever you do, don’t continue on while the thoughts are raging through your head and you have all these thoughts of “Oh my god, I’m going to fall, I don’t know where to go”. You don’t want to go there, because it’s negatively going to impact your climbing. So instead, step away. Try to find a point where you can have a little rest.
Then she says to accept the fact that it’s not the route that is being so difficult, it’s you being afraid. There is something going on in your mind that is making you not see all the options you still have. Then what she does is she refreshes her mind. She breathes, she thinks positive thoughts, but most of all she tries to, from that break, think outside of the box. Literally. So she will look to the right and to the left, always, instead of just looking up to where you want to go, and thinking “Oh there is niching there”. She has trained herself to look to the right, quite far, and then to the left. She says that often times there is a pretty good hold to the right, and you just hadn’t seen it because you were so scared, and therefore you had this tunnel vision.
She goes through these steps, and it sounds like it’s a lot, but I’ve noticed that if you practice this, if you practice giving yourself a break immediately when you feel stressed, and then observing “Oh, I’m being afraid, that’s what’s going on”. Then looking to the left and to the right, it actually goes pretty fast. Only then will she try to climb further. The fun thing- or actually the interesting thing- is that she also does this in normal life. So when she is getting into a fight with her partner, for example, she will walk outside of the room, go to the toilet, whatever. Have a break, observe that she is feeling stressed, force herself to think outside of the box, and then go back into the conversation. That is another thing that I have taken from her.
Neely Quinn: That’s very zen of her- that is very mindful of her.
Roanne Van Voorst: I know, I know. Another thing that I found very interesting and very practical, is Hazel Findlay- she has a method that we came to call the “fear muscle” during our conversation. Basically what she says is that fear, or better your ability to work or cope with that fear, is really something that you can regard as a muscle in your body. You have to keep it strong. For her, that means that fear training is something that she does, always. It’s part of her training, and not after an accident, but always. Especially if she hasn’t been climbing outside for a long time, if it’s been winter in the UK and she’s been bouldering, and she just knows that she will have a bit more fear than usual. For her, the first few climbs, she will very consciously practice falling, do several exercises with her belayer which I describe in the book, to just gain confidence and increase trust that it is going to be okay even if she falls.
Of course this is not a new methodology at all, but it did make me realize that I don’t practice with my fear on a daily basis. Not even twice a week, you know? For me, practicing with my fear is something that I do when I really get afraid, but not something that’s just part of my training. And so, this whole thing, what she says about considering our ability to cope with fear, like a fear muscle, and don’t really develop it but also maintain it, make sure it keeps strong, even if you are not climbing so often, or if you’re not really focusing on a particular project, just do it every day. Do something. Make falls always during the first half hour during your warm-ups if you are climbing. To, that was very simple advice, and very good advice as well. It made me realize that often times, when I get afraid, I find it annoying. I find it distracting, and I find it to be something that I should be ashamed of. What I heard her say, was that she basically took her fear very seriously, and approached it as something that you can work on, that you should work on, because it’s part of the sport.
Neely Quinn: Hmm. So her main advice, or the main things that she does, are taking falls in the beginning of a session?
Roanne Van Voorst: Yeah, but she does it in a specific way. She says for example- and she made a very good comparison, I found. She said “If you are driving a car for the first time, or if you are a person that is afraid to be in big groups, what you don’t want to do is force yourself onto the highway and get yourself into a super stressful situation. You don’t want to go to a massive house party if you don’t like people”. That’s kind of the shock therapy that is very popular, but for most people it’s not working. What she does is she practices on a regular basis, but she practices in such a way that she doesn’t feel overwhelmed with panic. She’s not gong to climb up super high and then drop herself while she really doesn’t want to. She makes tiny falls, but she does it so often that she is pushing her boundaries, but not in a super stressful way. The adrenaline doesn’t really get that high up in her body, and the advantage is of that is that the next time she goes to the crag again, she’s not resisting going back, because it wasn’t so scary. It was a little bit scary, but not really. After that she rewards herself but just going climbing and having fun.
I thought that was a pretty good one as well, because if I look back to my own experience, I remember when I just started climbing, I did one of those lead climbing courses that they offer in gyms, where you had to make a pretty big fall from the roof. I remember the logic of that trainer, and I don’t want to bad mouth- maybe for some people it works, but the logic behind it was that once you make this really big fall and you notice that you’re being caught by the rope, then you won’t be afraid anymore. But to me, all that that did was that I got a hard catch, it wasn’t comfortable at all. The next time I was much more afraid, because my body had remembered that shock. It wasn’t fun, it didn’t feel safe, and it felt like a crazy decision where I pushed myself way too hard. I think Hazel’s approach to a more gradual way, and also a more regular way- like keep doing it the rest of your life, as just part of the sport, is a more sustainable way, I would say.
Neely Quinn: I think that taking the smaller falls, being more gentle, is helpful for a lot of people. I know for me, I say that I have a reservoir of adrenaline for the day, and once it’s up, it’s up. I can only be scared so much before I am just done for the day. So taking a bunch of falls at the beginning of my session- I don’t know that it would be a good thing for me to do.
I feel you, but then- first of all, it’s true what you say. It’s true that you have a reservoir of energy, and fear costs you a lot of energy. I have the same. After a couple of super challenging routes where I really pushed my own limits, I’m done for the day as well. I notice that my focus is getting less, I’m becoming less courageous, and I’m just like I want to have wine and dinner now [laughs]. I’m done. So I think that’s very real. But I always said the same thing- taking falls before I start is not for me because it’s taking all my energy- until I really started doing less, as in less scary falls. For me, this really felt like- seriously top rope falls in the beginning and doing something that I really thought was not scary. Even a little bit boring, and stupid. I felt like I’m not a child, I can do this. But when I started doing that for a couple of weeks, I did notice that the longer falls, or the falls where you are not planning to fall, where you are just kind of going for that one move, were starting to feel less scary. That might be one advice to take one little step back, like okay, I’m going to do actual adult whipping falls.
Neely Quinn: Yeah, even if you were to lead up something, come back down, and try parts of it on top rope and take falls like that- that’s actually really good idea. That’s something I could incorporate.
Roanne Van Voorst: Yeah, try it. For me, that really made all the difference. I started realizing that I had been trying to do too much, and taking this mini step, even though it may feel senseless, or childish, really worked for me. For some reason, my body kind of remembers the falling movement, but not the stress, because there really is no stress. It doesn’t cost me the energy, I can still work on a project afterwards, and it feels like homework. It feels like something I kind of just have to do. I don’t know how it works, but I am noticing that it works. I notice for a lot of people- I sometimes give workshops and public speeches about this as well- I have heard back from a lot of people that it also works for them. Maybe take a step back and see how it works for you.
Neely Quinn: The whole taking practice falls thing reminded me of my interview with Arno Ilner, where he talked about fear. I’m wondering what little tidbits you took from him.
Roanne Van Voorst: With him, I tried to basically focus on two things. One was becoming aware of the motivation, which basically has to do with the motivation for wanting to do a certain project. I found it really helpful, and very humbling sometimes. Let me explain- what he says is that often times, climbers know what they want to do. They want to climb this mountain, or they want to do this project, but they really don’t know why they want to do it, because they are focusing on this cool goal. It’s the end goal, you could say. But they forget about what’s wrong with staying here. He said to question yourself “Why is it so important for me to do this? What’s wrong with staying where I am?”. I’ve done this a couple of times with him, just as an exercise. It’s interesting, because often times you find weird answers to your own questions. For example- “I think I should do it because my climbing buddy was able to do it, so I should be able to do. I’ve been climbing longer than she has”. Or it’s like “I’ve seen it, and I kind of feel that I should, but I really don’t think it’s that fun”, for example.
Sometimes you have different motivations to do a certain project. He kind of encourages you to seek for that now motivation, because if the answer would be “I really want to grow in my climbing, and I think that that particular route is going to help me because it’s exactly the type of climbing that I am not very good at”. For example, it is an overhang, and I really dislike overhanging. I’m not an overhang person, I’m a crimp person. So I say I want to grow as a climber, then it would make sense for me to pick a climbing goal, or a project, that would help me in my personal climbing career. Then, if you have that very clear for yourself, the next step would be to, during that project, not so much focus on the goal but on the learning process itself. You could say “I don’t really care whether I’m going to do this project today. That will eventually come. But what I really want to do is- oh yeah, that was my now motivation- become a better climber. Which in my case means that I really need to learn my body how to behave, so to say, in overhangs”. So every move that you make, every type of progress that you make in that overhang, or where you feel like “Oh, I’m starting to get the hang of this”- that’s your progress.
What I liked about his story is that if you start working with yourself in that way, if you start working your projects in that way, you will have mini victories, where you find progress. You haven’t climbed your project yet, but you’ve certainly found progress, and there is kind of a larger story where you are more focused on “What are my weak points as a climber? Where do I not want to stay stuck? And therefore, what type of projects should I select that will serve me on my way to become a better climber?”. I really liked it, because I see that sometimes we kind of stare ourselves blind with a certain level, name, or famous route without really understanding why we want to do it and without it being exactly suitable for what we would like to reach as climbers.
Neely Quinn: Yeah, so I’m trying to relate this back to- what was the goal of this? I think that what you are talking about is super useful, and I can see doing that more with my own climbing. I think it’s really wise. Did he relate that back with fear? Or is it about overcoming stress and self-doubt, or what?
Roanne Van Voorst: Well we did both. The things I am talking about now had more to do with dealing with stress and frustration during your climbing. But we also talked about fear, and there he said something that a couple of mountaineers and alpinists also said, so that was very interesting. Basically it comes down to this: don’t stare at the top. Don’t look at the top of the mountain. Don’t look at the top of the rock. Instead, look right in front of you. I loved this so much, because Edurne Pasaband and Catharine Destivelle said similar things, where they said that often times you are working on something- you have this goal. You are starting to climb, you’re doing well. Then after ten meters or so, you look up towards the top, and it just feels so darn far away, right? Then suddenly you get tired, and you start doubting whether you will not be too tired once you get up there, and you have all these ideas. My arms are already really pumped, or oh no there is going to be this difficult section. All these thoughts flutter in. Instead of looking at the top, Arno says, please just look in front of you, or to the half a meter above you, perhaps, because that’s where your next move will be. And try to make that move as beautiful and precise as you can. If you have all of your focus on that, you won’t be overwhelmed by what you still need to do, and you will get to the top more easily.
This is something that also works for fear. Being overwhelmed is a form of fear, I would say. It can really impact your thinking and as such, it can increase the adrenaline levels, and there you go with your pumped arms, and there you go with your tunnel vision, and before you know it you are either falling or shouting out “Take!”, which is my mastery if I get scared. In such a way, it’s such a shame if you do that. Instead, if you just allow yourself to be concerned only with the first move ahead, and focus all your energy on that, and all your attention on that, you avoid getting overwhelmed. You avoid getting afraid for what is yet to come. That difficult section, really, that’s only in like five meters. You don’t have to occupy in your mind with that right now, right?
Right. Yeah. Yeah, I think that’s mostly what I remember from our conversation too. That must be what he teaches to all of his people, is to just focus on right now, and breathing, and making one move after the other.
Roanne Van Voorst: Yeah. I mean, outside of the climbing world it’s just basically called mindfulness I guess. But a lot of the wingsuiters, for example, use a similar thing- some people call it getting into the flow, others say it is a stage of hyperawareness. But for all of it, I think what it has in common is that you try to stay away from all the thoughts about the future. Instead, kind of trick your mind. It’s really hard to say “I’m not going to think about what might go wrong”. As soon as you think that, you’ve already thought about it. What works better is instead of trying really hard not to think about something, fill your mind up with something else. For some people, this can be a beautiful mantra. But for others, it can just be breathing, or making that one move perfect, and acting like you are Lynn Hill on the wall. Those are all kind of tricks to stay away from the thoughts, and to basically push the thoughts aside and focusing your attention on something that is more of service.
Neely Quinn: Right. I was just climbing with my friend Reiko, and she was saying that she’s been focusing on instead of being negative with herself when she is climbing, like “I don’t know if I can do this, I’m really pumped, blah blah blah”, she’s been focusing on cheerleading herself basically, and just saying “You can do this, you got this”. She climbed really well that day, and I think it’s been working for her.
Roanne Van Voorst: Yeah, and for example, the world record holder in highlining, Alexander Schulz, he said a similar thing, where he said “I kind of train myself to let go of everything that is not helping me on the line”. That might be negative thoughts, but it might also be feelings, like shame, when there is an audience and he feels like he has to perform. Or anger, or whatever you bring to the crag, or in his case to the line. He kind of really consciously sets those aside while he is working on his line, because he has just become aware of the fact that they are really, really distracting. It’s often that if you start training yourself on even noticing how many negative things you say to yourself, it’s incredible. I mean, just for me, myself, often times even before trying I’ll be like “Oh that looks hard”. Which is not really useful, because I also know that the closer you get, sometimes there are holds everywhere, or there is something that I hadn’t seen, or there is a solution outside of the box. Why even mention it, and emphasizing that it looks so hard? It’s almost finding an excuse for why you won’t be able to climb it.
Neely Quinn: Yeah. So going back to Alexander Schulz- he says that he lets go of everything that is not helping him at the moment. That seems easier said than done, right? That must have taken him a lot of practice. Did he go into how he cultivated that?
Roanne Van Voorst: Yeah he does. So what he says is that he has been practicing a lot with trying to not think those things. Which obviously, wasn’t working. Then, he tried something else, namely as soon as he felt that a negative thought was coming up, he exchanged that for a more positive thought, or for a focus point. What he does is instead of not thinking some things, and then kind of expecting that your mind is going to be this empty white space where you can focus, he just fills it up with positive sentences that he made for himself. The interesting thing there, that he said, was that he has been experimenting with mantras that almost make you feel like superman. Like, “I can do everything”. But they didn’t work for him at all.
Neely Quinn: Oh.
Roanne Van Voorst: Because he said “You kind of have to believe in them. They kind of have to feel realistically”. What he does now is just having mantras that he actually believes. For example, he was telling me that when he was in China walking his highline, there was a lot of void, which is obviously scary. If you are halfway on your line, you still have twenty minutes to go, you have twenty minutes behind you. There is wind, and so the line starts moving a lot. For him, at that moment, it just didn’t feel right to think “Oh, I can do this. I can do everything”, because he really doubted whether he could do it. What did help him was to think “I’ve walked over my line when it was windy before”. Just that simple mantra was fair to him, and so he could wholeheartedly believe in it. Like “Yeah, I’ve done this before, so why would it be different now?”. That was a very humble mantra, so to say, but for him it worked. I can kind of relate to it. Like if I would tell myself, “Oh I’m the best climber in the world, I’m going to do this!”, it’s just like, no you’re not. It’s a 5.14- there is no way. But if I can find a sentence that kind of feels real to me, whether that be that I’m just going to focus on my growth, or that I can always see whether I can make the first moves, or let’s just try it, just be open to whatever happens. Those are more realistic, but nevertheless positive, almost curious thoughts. I think that’s a nice advice, to kind of experiment with positive thoughts that you want to take with you onto the crag.
Neely Quinn: This is awesome. I just want to say that this is a really great conversation, and I think that you’ve taken some really useful tools from all these people.
Roanne Van Voorst: Well thank you, it was very, very interesting project I must say. Every time I had an interview, I was so psyched myself because I was learning all these new things. And it was interesting because most of the athletes, I was expecting a lot of resistance. Why would they work with me? They don’t even know me. Why would they want to sit for two or three hours and talk with me? But a lot of them were actually enthusiastic, because they said “I am interviewed so often about what do you eat, how do you train, how long is your fingerboard training?”. Which is also interesting, I can totally see it. But this was another perspective, so it was kind of fresh for them as well.
Neely Quinn: Mhm, yeah. I’m dying to know what Alex Honnold said to you.
Roanne Van Voorst: Ha. Yeah. Well he said something very beautiful, which I made the title of his chapter, because it sounded so philosophical- I’m not sure if he was aware of that. But it was “Fear is a reaction to the past, and don’t let it determine the future”. What he meant with that was that- and I find this so recognizable- so often we have these assumptions about how a climb should go in order for us to be able to top it. We have this idea that we cannot make any mistakes, it kind of has to feel good all the way, or otherwise we don’t have a chance. He was giving this example where you are climbing and halfway, your foot slips. Often times, immediately you think “Ah my foot slipped, this isn’t going well”, and almost immediately give up the project. You just lose your confidence. So he said that he always tries to remember that that slipping foot is not saying anything about the rest of the route. He can still climb it without any other mistakes, or even with three mistakes in there, you know? It doesn’t matter, because he still has a 100% chance of climbing it.
I think for me, this really works to think this. Right after that conversation with him, I remember going to the gym, training indoors, working on a project, and I noticed myself thinking exactly that thought. I made a very messy start, like I couldn’t figure out the first two moves and I was kind of frustrated with myself. Then I was nearly giving it up, like “Oh, this is not going to work today. Today is not my day”. And then I remembered him, and I was like “Well, I’m still climbing, I’m still here. I can still continue and see what happens”. It’s a very simple thing, but he’s so right. Often times we just kind of give up if we perceive that we’ve gotten a signal that today is not our day. Well, we really don’t know unless we just try.
Neely Quinn: Right, which is- it seems like the lesson that is not easily learned, but it’s learned well when you are in a life or death situation like he puts himself in so often. His feet probably slip all the time, and he’s not dead yet, so [laughs].
Roanne Van Voorst: Well exactly, and he doesn’t want to die. He has a pretty awesome life, and he’s doing well. I think another thing that he said and is much more practical and very tiny, but interesting nevertheless- he said “We went a bit into what do you feel when you get afraid? What does your body do?”. He said “I have sometimes, of course, I feel fear when I would pull a piece of rock and it lets go it’s loose. Of course I feel the adrenaline, and I will feel my breath becoming shallower and all of these things”. But he explained that he has a thing where he widens his gaze. So when he notices that he is afraid, and he will feel that his gaze will become kind of fixated, kind of stressed almost, as if you are literally in a tunnel. You can only look right in front of you, and you feel tension in your whole face. What he does is he widens his gaze by softening his gaze. He will try to look towards the very left of your sight, and towards the very right of your side, without moving your pupils. You are kind of just looking in front of you and trying to see as wide as you can. That helps him to relax his face, and relax his gaze, which is handy if you remember Lynn Hill’s advice to look to the right and to the left of you.
This is a thing that I think is easier to practice, and it’s working in the sense that I’ve been practicing with it a little bit. Of course, if you are downright panicking, it’s not easy to remember “Oh just soften your gaze”. But it is interesting to notice how stressed and hard and kind of focused and clenching your gaze in your face becomes when you feel fear. This is something that- it’s just fun to experiment with. He also did some breathing techniques, and I don’t think he needs them very often, but he needs them every now and then, which is again, kind of comforting. Even Alex is afraid. That’s another good mantra maybe. Even Alex is afraid.
Neely Quinn: Yeah, yeah. It’s so interesting how subtle his things are. You expect Alex Honnold to be like “These are my monumental things that I do to keep calm!”. But they’re just something a mindfulness coach would tell you to do.
Roanne Van Voorst: I’m sure he is going to hate how I used my own words to paraphrase him, because he has his own style of expressing it of course. But this is what I selected from his words. Also, I think one very big thing, maybe more monumental, is that of course he practices like crazy. Before he does his free solo, he has been up there on a rope, often times, and practices those moves. He comes well prepared, which is of course a crucial strategy. If you want to lesson your fear, you better come prepared. If you are going to do dangerous stuff, then you have to practice. We don’t see that in the movies, or on the photos, or even in the shorter interviews. But of course, he knows his tricks. He knows what he is doing.
Neely Quinn: Yeah. Did he talk about using those things in his every day life?
Roanne Van Voorst: Well, we talked a little bit about driving a car, where he said- when I was interviewing Hazel, she said about Alex, because of course I tried to make people gossip about each other, but they’re all so nice about each other. But she was saying about Alex, she said “It’s not like he’s doing something that is really hard for him. For him, it feels like he’s just walking over the pavement. Of course he can fall, because there could be a piece of loose rock there, or there is a hole in the ground- it can happen. It can happen to you. But it’s not likely that it will happen. We talked a little bit about this with Alex, and he said “It’s like you would step into your car, which you do daily, unless you’ve had an accident, and you would do it without even considering the danger that you are in”. For him, if he goes onto a free solo, he has done it so often that he only goes without a rope when he really feels ready for it.
That was a thing that I liked about how he explained his whole approach to fear. That he was much more intuitive in the sense that if it doesn’t feel right for him, he’ll go back. He won’t do it. It’s not that he is kind of a robot that feels ready for everything all the time- he has phases where he is not ready for it, and where he feels that he needs to practice more.
Neely Quinn: Honestly after reading that article about the MRI that he had done-
Roanne Van Voorst: Yeah.
Neely Quinn: I kind of doubted that he ever felt fear.
Roanne Van Voorst: Yeah, well I do say something in the chapter about that article, about that research. I wanted to be careful about it, because it kind of fuels where to decide about the personality of Alex. I think he knows himself best. I mean, if you read back into things that his Mom has said during interviews about him, about how he was as a child- and also about the things that he has said about his own climbing- I do not get the feeling that he’s never had fear.
Neely Quinn: Mm.
Roanne Van Voorst: He’s come back as a child, or as a youngster, where he has felt fear. Also in later phases of his life, he has backed off. He has bailed from routes where he was psyched to climb them. For me, I don’t think he is feeling no fear. I don’t think that he was born without a functioning amygdala. I think that the amygdala has seen a lot of scary shit in his life, and that the amygdala is not firing as much, as it would with you and me now, because he’s been practicing with this dangerous stuff so often.
Neely Quinn: Right.
Roanne Van Voorst: So I think he’s gotten used to it. That’s something that everybody can recognize. If you go driving in a fast car for the first time, you’re terrified. But after twenty years, it’s kind of like, well you don’t even see that you are speeding. When I was rock climbing for the very first time, I was terrified. Now, if I do something that is way beyond my level, I feel confident you know? There is- he’s just been practicing way more than most of us. He has definitely less stress responses, but I don’t think he was ever fearless, and I still think he is able to feel fear. It’s just on a way higher level, literally, than you and I would have.
Neely Quinn: Yeah it’s kind of like those studies that they’ve done with monks who meditate all the time, and their brains have actually changed.
Roanne Van Voorst: Yeah, exactly. Yeah. And so why would that not be the same with him? Where his amygdala has kind of learned like “Well, scary photos in an MRI scan? I’ve seen better”. You know?
Really? Is this what you’re bringing me? I think that’s what happened, but I feel uncomfortable to state that as a claim, because obviously I wasn’t there and I haven’t had the insight of the research. What we miss is a basic measure point. Nobody has measured the state of his amygdala when he was three, five, or eight years old, so we don’t really know.
Neely Quinn: Right, yeah. So we have a few minutes left, and I’m wondering if there are any other stand out pieces of advice from Steph Davis, or Jorg, or anybody else that you interviewed that you want to mention?
Roanne Van Voorst: What’s more standing out is Dan Goodwin, who is- I don’t know if you know him. He’s like the American version of the Spiderman- Spider Dan. He’s another builderer. He says some funny things, so maybe we can talk a little bit about him.
Neely Quinn: Yeah.
Roanne Van Voorst: Maybe that’s a good idea. What I found super interesting about Dan Goodwin, who is a builderer- he’s called the Spider Dan- like the American Spiderman. He has two methods, basically. One is visualization, but not in a nice way. Not in a nice way, like “Oh I visualize myself on the top of this building, and I’ve succeeded, and I’m so happy”. This is what most people would do, I think, who are already familiar with visualization. He does the opposite. He visualizes everything that could go wrong, but in detail. What he explained to me is that he has a problem- if you climb on buildings, that’s obviously illegal and so you can’t really practice. All you can do, and this is what he does, is sit across the street and stare at the building, and kind of imagine that you are climbing there. What he does is he will feel fear, and he will try to visualize what could go wrong. He was describing to me that he was going to climb on some glass building, and he could see the glass breaking, and then his arms going through the air, and himself falling down- horrible. What it helps him to do is that the first step is to think negatively before you go climbing, and then the second step is to kind of make agreements with yourself, what you can do on that moment to keep yourself safe, or to make it less worse, or even commitments to at what point do you want to go, what is the highest risk you want to take? For him, he gets it really, really clear. He really sits on this for an hour. He will say things like “Okay, as soon as I see cracking glass, I’ll stop climbing. It’s not going to be worth it”.
I personally connected to it, like “Okay, if I am on a route and I see that there is a plateau and I really don’t want to fall there, that might be my point of return. That might be my point where I say okay, I’m not going to do that”. Which kind of give you peace of mind, because that also means that if you are not seeing that, even if you feel afraid, you are continuing, you know? That was the rule you set up for yourself. He will also say things to himself like “If I feel my foot slipping, immediately I’ll use my arms to get myself higher up”. He will have a couple of things, like five things, that he really fears, and then he repeats the mantra of what he will do if this happens. According to him, this has actually saved his life a couple of times, where he felt that exactly that was happening, what he was fearful of, and then because he practiced, repeated that mantra in his head so often, he just kind of automatically did the right thing. It was kind of a counterintuitive thing for me, and not a very nice thing maybe to stand below a route and be like “Yeah I could fall really hard over there”
But at the same time, I kind of got what he said. He said “We often have very vague ideas about what could go wrong. There is this vague idea that I might fall, or something bad might happen, but you know really know where precisely, or if it’s really a risk, or only something that is unrealistically happening in your mind”. What he taught me was that if you are having these fears, then you better make it concrete, and set up rules for yourself in that way. Take the power back, and turn your fears into actionable things- things that you can do to keep yourself safe. It’s something that I am experimenting with, especially for outdoor or mutlipitiching, it can give a good feeling the at least you’ve set rules and you know what you are going to do if the worst case scenario comes true. I found that interesting and kind of surprising.
Neely Quinn: Can you give me an example of that for sport climbing or bouldering?
Roanne Van Voorst: Yeah, so because it’s often just common sense, right? Looking up at a route, I’ll be like “It doesn’t feel good, I don’t feel strong, the weather is not super good, and I’m ready to do a multi pitch”. Sometimes it helps to make it super, super concrete. Be like “Okay, I am afraid that the weather is not good. Fine. I am going to check each hour how the weather is changing. If I can see that everything is grey around me at 2pm, I am going to turn back”. Just making it super concrete. Or saying “I’m going to climb up until the third bolt. If I still feel that this one is way above my level, and it’s more sketchy than I want it to be, then I’m turning back. If at the third bolt I am feeling quite okay, I’ll go on”. Just breaking it down from vague ideas of what can happen and what you might do to really concrete agreements with yourself. What it does during the climbing is that it decreases your options, because you’ve said the agreements. You can kind of tick off “Is this the case? No. Okay, then I’ll go on. Is this the case? No. Okay, so then I made the agreement that I’ll stop”. It kind of lowers the stress level because you’ve made the decisions beforehand. Sometimes it works.
Neely Quinn: Yeah it’s like a blueprint.
Roanne Van Voorst: Yeah, like a blueprint. I wouldn’t recommend using this always, but I found it an interesting approach. I do recognize the worst that can happen during climbing is where you kind of cannot make any decisions anymore because you are just panicking. You’re like “Should I stop, should I go, should I go for it?”. And you’re kind of just getting pumped. Sometimes it helps to make the decisions beforehand, and help yourself in that sense, and then either to stop or to commit. When you’ve made the decision to stop or commit beforehand, it just saves you time on the wall.
Neely Quinn: Yeah.
Roanne Van Voorst: And a shitload of stress [laughs].
Neely Quinn: The anxiety comes from not knowing, or being confused- all of the unknowns. So if you have a plan, even like “I’m gonna go up there, I’m gonna give it three falls, and then I’m gonna come down”, or whatever.
Roanne Van Voorst: Exactly, that’s a perfect example. Even the way you say this now sounds much more as if you have agency, right? As if you have the power. You are deciding what you are going to do on this route, instead of “Ooh, what is this route going to do with me?”
Neely Quinn: Exactly.
Roanne Van Voorst: It’s a very different kind of perspective and I kind of like it. I think sometimes this is a really nice one, if you feel that there is this vague sense of fear and you feel that you are frozen within it.
Neely Quinn: Yeah. I think so too. It’s so funny how as a sport climber, or a boudlerer, or whatever, we can take advice from Spider Dan, you know? Somebody who is doing something pretty different from what we are doing.
Roanne Van Voorst: Yeah, absolutely. He was even saying that you can use this when you are the type of person who is afraid to go on solo hikes, or on solo adventures. Why not just write down the worst scenario, and then find solutions for it, write those down as well, and then take them with you on your first solo trip. It kind of makes sense. It’s not what we typically do. We have a lot of fears, but we really don’t want to think about them in detail. As soon as you do that, you bring yourself into power, because you decide what you can do to lessen that fear, or get yourself away from the danger. Spider Dan has a lot of interesting things to say. You should have him on your podcast.
Neely Quinn: That’s a good idea, I should. Maybe I will.
Roanne Van Voorst: Yeah, who knows!
Neely Quinn: Anybody else who you are dying to talk about? Or should we save some for people to read in your book?
Roanne Van Voorst: Well, yeah of course we should. Well, Jorg Verhoeven I think was interesting when he was talking about his experiences on the Nose. He said a very simple thing, but something that I find very recognizable as well. He studied why so many people have not been able to climb what he was going to climb, even though they were sometimes just as good of climbers, or just as strong as he was. He felt like there must be something else that is holding them back. What he found was that a lot of them gave up, because the whole thing is just exhausting, you know? It’s high, obviously, it’s a big wall. But then also some of the crux moves are towards the end, where you are already physically exhausted. Once he realized that, he started interviewing people, or reading their diaries, or whatever they had published on the web. He saw that if he were to succeed on this project, he shouldn’t take into account only physical practice, but also just make sure that he was going to stay fit mentally, and not become overly tired, or overwhelmed. What he did was he kind of anticipated that it would become horrible [laughs]. That it would become a lot of work, let’s put it that way. So he really took a lot of time, because that was not a thing- like he said, a lot of people take a relatively small window of time, thinking like “Oh, I could do it maybe in two weeks”. But then if you have any setbacks, you get disappointed with yourself. It’s getting stressful, and then you have another limitation there because you feel so stressed that you are not climbing your best.
He did something really simple. He just kind of prepared himself like “I’m not going to do a physically difficult project only, I am going to face a mental challenge that is incredibly big. I really have to take care of myself in that sense. Find comfort, take my time, anticipate that it is going to take every longer than I think it’s going to take. Remind myself that I have to be patient”. All those things. This approach I found so interesting. So simple, but so interesting. I realized that sometimes when I look at the big climbers, and I see that they’ve climbed this amazing 5.14- some impossible thing- I forget that they’ve driven up to that area, to their project, like thirty weekends in a row. Then I see myself working on a project, and I’ll try five times, and I’ll be like “Oh I’m never going to be able to do this, forget about it”. I think that’s what makes me part of the large group of people that have tried to climb the Nose and gave up halfway, because I just get overwhelmed and exhausted. He is probably among the people that anticipate that they have to drive up there thirty times, that anticipate that they are going to have many weekends where they feel like there hasn’t been any progress at all, and then you have a bigger chance of sticking in there.
For me, that was kind of an eye opener, kind of a confronting thing as well, because I realized how much of a giver-upper I was as well. But it’s good to go to the crag I think sometimes and just play with this idea of “This is going to take a long while, and if I really want to do this project, then I must be ready to drive up here thirty times- but then I’ll be able to do it”. Sometimes climbing projects isn’t about being the best climber, it’s about just hanging in there and not giving up. Eventually, your body will learn the moves and your mind will learn to stay calm. Sometimes I feel that the best climbers have that talent, even more than their talent to just climb.
Neely Quinn: Yeah it’s like a talent of humility almost. Your ego gets in the way- “I’ve tried this twenty times, I should have done it by now, I give up”.
Roanne Van Voorst: Yeah. And what would happen if you would allow yourself to just try it another twenty times? Maybe you would do it.
Neely Quinn: This is bringing me back to Arno, what you said he said. Getting your motivation clear.
Roanne Van Voorst: Exactly. Why do you really want to do it?
Neely Quinn: Why am I going back up there and exhausting myself and all of that?
Roanne Van Voorst: I think if you would have an answer to that, like I want to become a better climber, or I have selected this project because it trains me exactly in that one thing that is my weak point- then it’s really not that bad to climb it forty times. Every time, you are making progress on that particular goal, right? You’re not really thinking “I should have done this by now”, because it doesn’t matter if you ever do it, it’s about making those moves so that eventually you will become better at those types of moves.
Neely Quinn: Yeah. So full circle.
Roanne Van Voorst: I know [laughs].
Neely Quinn: This has been awesome, thank you very much. Do you do- you said that you do public speaking and some seminars?
Roanne Van Voorst: Yeah, I do.
Neely Quinn: Do you have any coming up, or how can people get in touch with you?
Roanne Van Voorst: They can get in touch with my through my website- roannevanvoorst.com. It’s a Dutch name, so its R-O-A-N-N-E V-A-N V-O-O-R-S-T. People can just shoot me an e-mail. I am currently negotiating and e-mailing with different organizations about some seminars in the US. As soon as that will be clear, I’ll of course notify on my website. I also have a Facebook page for this book- it’s facebook.com/fearthebook. Events and things like that I also post there.
Neely Quinn: Okay. Alright, great. Cool. Well I really appreciate you sharing all of this. I’m going to put some of it to use for sure, in my climbing, maybe even today. I’m excited about it!
Roanne Van Voorst: Let me know how it goes.
So thank you.
Roanne Van Voorst: Yeah, it’s such a kind approach, I think that stood out for me as well. A lot of these people have such a kind, relaxed approach towards fear, which is something we can all learn from I guess. Thanks so much for having me and allowing me to elaborate a bit on what I found.
Neely Quinn: Yeah, thank you and good luck with the book.
Roanne Van Voorst: Thank you so much, bye!
Neely Quinn: Alright, I hope you enjoyed that interview with Roanne Van Voorst. If you want her book, which I highly recommend- I have it in my hands and it’s beautiful, really well laid out, and it’s really cool to have these profiles of all these extreme athletes that we look up to. If you want to look for it on Amazon, search “Fear” and then maybe her last name, which is V-A-N V-O-O-R-S-T.
I will be doing more regular podcasting again. I kind of took a break- I just needed a little bit of a break, and I went to Vegas, and I’ve been doing a lot of work on nutrition stuff actually. I’m going to do more with nutrition this year on TrainingBeta, and I have recently put myself back on the market as a nutritionist for you guys, just for climbers. If you want to work with me, I’m open to about ten clients per month. If you was to work with me, you can go to trainingbeta.com/nutrition-coaching. Or you can just e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org, and just ask me any questions you have about how I work with people, if you are a good fit. Basically, I work a lot with climbers who want to obviously get stronger, but a lot of times want to lose weight, or have digestive issues. A lot of people have energy problems where they just lose energy throughout the day, or throughout their training days. I help them fix that, and I give people guidelines on what to eat, when to eat, how much, what to fill your plate with, and some recipes if they need it. So I hope to work with you, if you are interested. I really like this part of my job, and I’m really excited to do more with it this year.
Coming up on the podcast, I will be having Matt Pincus. I just did an interview with him today. It’s a mini episode, like twenty minutes long. We talked about fingerboarding, the differences between the different protocols. I also had an interview yesterday with Tyler Nelson, who is a chiropractor and a trainer out of Salt Lake. He is super smart, and he kind of blew my mind yet again with what he has been doing with his athletes. That will be out in a couple of weeks.
Other than that, if you need any help with your training and you want a program, we have those at TrainingBeta. If you are a route climber, we have a subscription program where you get three days a week of programming. If you are a boulderer, we have the same thing- it’s a subscription program. You get a monthly program where you get three days a week of unique workouts. You’ll never get bored, and you’ll get stronger. We also have e-books by Steve Bechtel, Kris Hampton, and Kris Peters. There is a lot of stuff on there. If you go to trainingbeta.com and go to the training programs tab, it’s all there. Every time you purchase something from us, it supports the podcast and it supports everything we do at TrainingBeta, and we really, really appreciate it. It think that’s it. I will talk to you next week, and thank you very much for listening all the way to the end.