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

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.

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