Not Sending: How to get better at failing as a rock climber

All climbers know the struggle of not sending a route. You know you're capable, you know the beta, but you fall off at the crux EVERY TIME! Bogong Sponsored Athlete Ashlee Hendy knows the feeling all too well. How has she managed to push through and find succes? Find out below.

Have a look at Ashlee's other Bogong Blogs here.

Ashlee on Slopin Sleazin

Ashlee on Slopin Sleazin (28) Mount Arapiles, Photos credit: Daniella Iljon

I have thought a lot about success and failure in rock climbing lately. This has mainly prompted by a particular route, which I have managed to fall off a number of times: Slopin Sleazin (28) Mount Arapiles. But with more than 20 years of climbing experience under my belt, and strong connections to a variety of climbing communities with different ideas of ‘success’ and ‘failure,’ my musings have extended well beyond the line in question.

Many of us have been witness to uncomfortable tantrums at the crag, where a grown man or woman resorts to swearing, throwing shoes or perhaps even breaking into tears after falling off their project one too many times. Confronting our inability to send a route successfully can be overwhelming, frustrating, and even embarrassing at times. And yet the biggest failures, in my mind, aren’t the times we don’t send. They are the times we never tied in, because we were afraid to fail or lack the belief that we might succeed. And most of all, the times we get completely caught up in our performance, grades, successes and failures without stopping to realise we are taking at all a bit too seriously. The times we forget to actually sit back, relax, and enjoy climbing for the experience, rather than thinking of our ascents as some sort of ‘achievement’.

With time and experience, I feel like I have become much ‘better’ at climbing than I was in years gone by. It makes sense really, and it’s how we expect it to work. But it’s not just about being stronger, having better technique, or even smarter strategies to climbing harder projects, or routes we couldn’t do before. It’s learning about how to get more out of my climbing experiences.

I think the toughest and most obvious type of failure are the times we feel we ‘should’ have sent. Whether we blow it on easy ground after the crux, slip unexpectedly, miss out on good conditions while travelling, or just sense that we have physically got what it takes, but can’t mentally string our project together, this type of failure can really hurt. Indeed, I recall throwing my shoes in a fit of rage after falling of ‘Power of the Perculator’ (28) at the Star Factory in Freycinet, Tasmania. I had fallen off, even though I was sure I should have sent the route by now. Time was running out, the conditions were terrible and not looking to get any better in the days ahead. Being a sea-cliff, this was not a particularly wise reaction on my part. Thankfully, Chris (my now husband) calmly retrieved the shoes and gave me some space to process my frustration and subsequent embarrassment. Looking back, I can’t recall if I managed to send it that day, or a few days later, but either way I remember not feeling overly happy after sending. The feeling was better described as ‘relief’. It’s a beautiful pitch, but hadn’t really enjoyed myself at all. What a…. Failure!

Less obvious but perhaps even more disappointing are the times I haven’t tied in. A few years back while sitting around a campfire in the Grampians, I was asked by a friend what my dream routes were. I was able to respond quickly, listing several routes all located within 100km of the campground I was in, and prior to the limitations of climbing bans. Casually, my good friend and regular climbing partner pointed out a disturbing trend. I had not tried any of these routes. It was like I hadn’t even considered it. I don’t think I had a fear of failure as such, but I simply couldn’t even fathom the idea that I might succeed on such lines. Despite having a fair amount of confidence in myself as a climber, the routes felt like they were ‘out of my league’. After about 10 days of attempts, spread a little thinly across an autumn and spring season, I managed to send Serpentine (29) on Taipan wall in 2018. My true dream route. During the process of working the route, I was constantly trying to evaluate and address my weaknesses: finger strength, power, flexibility, ability to rest, remain composed, etc. But all I really needed was a few more attempts. All of a sudden it hit me – my biggest weakness as a climber all along. I had just never truly believed I was good enough. If I wanted to succeed on routes, I would need to actually try them. I would need to tie in, try hard, and fall off. I had to earn them, through failure, in order to eventually succeed.

Ashlee on Slopin Sleazin

Ashlee on Slopin Sleazin (28) Mount Arapiles, friend Tzvia sitting with baby Ella.

When we moved to Natimuk 3 years ago, Chris and I laughed about how we might turn into lazy beard strokers that sit on the porch, always waiting for a day with better conditions. Our days of climbing ‘hard’ would be over, and we would occasionally dawdle our way up easy multi-pitches, talking about how we placed a bomber nut here last time, or bootied a stuck cam there after a long weekend, all without breaking a sweat. We (seriously) thought we might just become full-time leisure climbers, with the world best quality easy trad climbing on our doorstep. I wondered to myself if what was the logical next step in my climbing, the way for me to completely enjoy it, never feeling a sense of frustration or connecting my performance to my own abstract sense of self-worth? Could this possibly be the next version of ‘better’, I wondered? It seemed a bit depressing. I had heard the cliché comment “the best climber at the crag is the one who has the most fun” several times before, and while it’s got an element of truth to it… Is that really what I want to be? Why can’t we have both? Can we truly try hard in our climbing, without too much attachment to the concept of success and failure, such that we can push our performance and have the most fun too?! It’s human nature to want it all.

What was the logical next step in my climbing, the way for me to completely enjoy it, never feeling a sense of frustration or connecting my performance to my own abstract sense of self-worth?

Well, despite a few fairly serious injuries, a pandemic, and a pregnancy, I can confirm that climbing hard is still very much on the agenda. But perhaps partly due to the challenges and changes I’ve faced, I actually think my climbing is getting better, simply because I just love getting out and going climbing. Every. Single. Time. I am even climbing pretty well, if I do say so myself. Maybe not my best ever, but not far off, and with a 9 month old baby in the mix I couldn’t have imagined doing any better. There is no doubt I have found a sweet spot, climbing hard without the concept of success and failure getting under my skin.

I want to unpack a bit around grades, since that’s how many climbers measure their success. Slopin Sleazin, which I fell off again today (twice) is a 28. According to ‘The Crag’ (a website where I have been logging my climbs since 2018), I have sent close to 20 routes at the grade. I have even flashed a few routes graded 28. But I can tell you now, sending this climb is going to be much harder than the majority of my other ascents at the grade. And so, it really isn’t relevant how hard other people (namely the first ascensionist, and the consensus reached by those who make early repeats) find the line. I find it really hard. And as a result, when I do eventually scrape my way up it, I will find it really satisfying. The progress that I have made, although interrupted by a pregnancy and a few other major life events, has been really satisfying every step of the way. It’s perhaps due to the fact that as a woman under 170cm, zero ape index, slender fingers and lacking the powerful shoulders that comes with the Y chromosome, I often just don’t agree with the grade a route is given. I am anatomically quite different to the typical first ascensionist, with very different strengths and weaknesses. Thus, the grade given to a route only really serves as a rough guide, especially when dealing with cruxy, blank Victorian sandstone. Despite falling off quite close to the top several times now, not once has it crossed my mind that I have ‘failed’. I just feel like I am getting closer and closer to success. Even if I never manage to do the route, it will not feel like a failure, or a waste of time. Each time I have tied in, each experience, has been 100% worth it. It’s not even a matter of ‘learning from our failures’, it’s literally that a day spent outside, trying hard, on awesome moves and impeccable stone is simply a huge success.

I’m no philosopher, but it seems that some sort of perspective shift has placed me in this glorious position. Honestly, I really don’t know how it happened, but I sure hope I can maintain it. I’ll keep you posted if I do manage a clean ascent of Slopin, but in the meantime you can be sure that I am finding my own version of success every time I fall.

Ashlee on Slopin Sleazin

Photos credit: Daniella Iljon

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