Ladies, Are You Climbing At Your Edge?

By Madaleine Sorkin, 26 June 2014

  • DATE

    26 June 2014

  • AUTHOR

    Madaleine Sorkin

  • CATEGORY

    Rock Climbing

Madaleine Sorkin and her girlfriend Tara Eastcott, Psy.D.—who specializes in anxiety disorders and is a hobby sport climber—are teaming up to teach a women’s clinic at the Lander International Climbers Festival (July 12th at 10 am), weaving together behavioral principles and practical climbing tips. If you missed their clinic at the Red River Gorge in October, you’ll be sure to want to get in on this. Check out more info at
www.climbersfestival.org. Here are some highlights:

Psychologist says:

In order to deal with your experience, it helps to have a systematic way to observe, map and communicate your experience.

• Participants started by taking a few minutes to nonjudgmentally notice and then share with one another four categories of experience: physical sensations, thoughts, emotions, and environment (anything catching their attention outside their skin).
• There were lots of tears by the end of this, as the women began acknowledging their fears, which they'd previously been dismissed or ridiculed for by other climbing partners. Lots of emotions had been choked down to avoid embarrassment, and anger and heartbreak was finally allowed to surface. Once the group had the crying out of the way, we, you know, ate some chocolate and started climbing.

Pro climber says:

• Operating from awareness is integral to climbing performance. Our emotional state is one of the many variables vying for our attention on a climb.  When we develop our witnessing abilities (noting our thoughts, feelings, sensations and external environment), we can be more efficient in how we prioritize those variables and respond effectively.
• On some days, on some climbs, redirecting attention from uncomfortable emotions helps us to perform better. On others, attending to our internal environments before we try to send (or, honestly, instead of) is the appropriate response.

The underlying dilemma: Is having feelings (those pesky things) antithetical to strong climbing?

Psychologist says: 

The Yerkes-Dodson Law says there is an ideal range of arousal for ideal performance. (Check out: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yerkes–Dodson_law). So if you’re too ho-hum about a climb, you won’t motivate your muscles to dyno the crux. If you are overanxiously prepared, you might slip and fall on the first move. To climb well, know what your ideal range is, on that day, on that climb. And develop strategies for up- or down-regulating yourself.

Pro climber says:

• We all respond somewhat differently from one another. Learn your needs and communicate them as clearly as possible to your belayer. For example, one climber will dissociate her surroundings to focus on her intention while climbing (to the extent that she wears headphones while climbing). Another gets frazzled and can’t finish her warm-up if her belayer even says hello to a passerby. And another gets more confident when she is cheered on by a crowd. Another panics and needs to take a time-out before even starting if someone so much as whispers “you can do it.”
• And feelings in climbing? Adam Ondra clearly embraces and expresses a high emotional vibration—tantrums included—in his sends. Alex Honnold famously doesn’t even have to factor in trifling emotional variables such as fear, or even unease.
• Figuring out how to balance these is a continuing project for me. Some of my biggest climbing goals have been fueled by an urgent pressure to escape unwanted feelings and stressors outside of climbing. But actually my most fulfilling, peak climbing moments have occurred when I’ve been most able to include and welcome my entire emotional state.

Madaleine Sorkin

Boulder, CO

At 15, Madaleine Sorkin was guided up her first multi-pitch climb, the Prow, on a Colorado 14er. It was the range of experiences from the butterflies in her stomach the night before, to seeing daybreak in an undisturbed landscape, to exploring a small spire and naming it Macaroni and Cheese, to the sublime exhaustion by the end of the day that drew Madaleine into the art of climbing. Approaching her 30th birthday, Madaleine began to practice a single mantra: Own It. She ruthlessly applied this mantra to big wall free climbing, and it made 2012 a banner year for the insatiable athlete. She teamed with young guns (including fellow ambassador Nik Berry) and enjoyed career-highs in both the Black Canyon (Hallucinogen Wall VI 5.13 R) and Yosemite National Park (El Corazon VI 5.13, El Capitan). In September, Nik and Madaleine took their big wall free climbing kit to the Ak-Su valley of Kyrgyzstan. The duo’s enthusiasm for adventure—and at times cavalier attitude—was met with massive climbs, dysentery, open bivvys, an unplanned home-stay with a generous Kyrgyz shepherd family, sheep killing and general arguments about helmet wearing. Sorkin says she returned home ready for bedtime stories with a glass of warm milk. Looking back at any achievement, Sorkin notes how attainable a goal becomes once able to understand how to work with the doubts and other emotions that arise while staying committed the climb. At the heart of her climbing is an investigative interest into the partnerships, motivations, struggle and humor that make the pursuit meaningful.