How to Suck Less in the Mountains, Part II

Being in ideal physical Mountain Shape is only part of the puzzle for sucking less in the mountains. Being prepared mentally for my objectives can make or break my day. If I’m not focused on what I want to accomplish, or if I’ve underestimated the terrain or weather, then I will indeed suck in the mountains. I’ve done it before, and I will suck big time again.

Strong Mind

Having strong legs and strong lungs really boosts my mental game, because it’s one less thing I need to worry about. Unfortunately, I sometimes live inside my head too much. I can easily freak myself out about a route, and lose a good night’s sleep with worry. Maybe I’m concerned the scramble is too hard. Or I’m worried I’m not fast enough to keep up with the group. I can even mull over group dynamics and how to keep everyone together. Whatever the head case, I need strategies to calm myself down, and increase my chances of success in tough situations.

Know the Route

When I first started hiking, I would practically memorize the route. I needed to know exactly how far, how much elevation gain, how long it would take, and what the terrain looked like. Everything! I would bring a copy of the trail guide and followed along every step so I knew exactly where I was.

I should note that I did this with my husband, who by this time was already a 30 year mountaineering veteran. He could easily get me up and down any hike, no problem. That wasn’t the point though. I was training myself on map reading, trail finding, and good mountain judgement.

Now that I’m leading hikes, I notice others doing this exact same thing. My good friend Sue does about two hours of research for every hike. I love this, because I know she is not relying 100% on the more experienced hiking partners. If something ever happened to me on the trail, I’m confident Sue could find her way out, and get help.

Suck Less Head 1

This is Sue’s first hike up to Barrier Lookout! Unknown to me at the time, she had read every single trip report she could get her hands on prior to coming. She was mentally prepared!

Yes I Can!

I have a massive fear of heights. It’s cruel and I hate it, but I’ve worked hard to try and get it under control. At one time I thought it would develop into a full-blown phobia but 20 years of systematic exposure therapy has kept it in check.

Still, the fear will strike me at odd times and produce a full panic attack. When this happens, I literally talk myself out of it. The last time it happened was at the col going up Mount Rae. There was something about the drop offs on both sides that freaked me out. As I still had to climb the knife-edge ridge to the summit, I needed some positive self-talk, and fast!

Suck Less Head 2

This is my lunch spot at the col, before heading up the right ridge to summit Mount Rae. This drop-off caused a full-on panic attack. I was able to get it under control, but it did dampen my overall performance. Even now, looking at this picture makes me feel ill.

I try and keep this simple, mainly because I’m on the edge of a quality hyperventilate. I say helpful phrases like “Yes! I can totally do this!” I tell myself how much I love the mountains, and how much I love to climb. When I’m particularly freaked, I’ll say “Oh my goodness! This is SO much fun! I can’t believe how much fun this is.” Even if I’m scared to death, I force myself to say these things.

This works because your mind cannot hold two opposing thoughts at once: it is either afraid or it’s happy. It never fails to amaze me how ready my mind is to believe what I say. If I’m really freaking out, saying it in my head won’t be enough and I must say it out loud. I’ve been known to bellow from the mountain side what a fun day I’m having, while desperately clinging to a rock.


I’m not a yogi, so this doesn’t come naturally to me. However it saved my bacon once so now I’m a huge fan of mantras. When my girls were 13 years old, we scrambled up East End of Rundle (EEOR) for Mother’s Day. We got up the summit ridge fine, but coming back down was a different story. As we down-climbed the rocky spur, we could easily see the town of Canmore several thousand feet below. Yikes!

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This is below the rock spur, and onto the wider ridge below. Still, you can see the town of Canmore below. Sorry for the blurred photo – we had wet and foggy weather.


Looking at that empty void was beginning to cause an attack. I knew I had to keep it together, because a scared mom is a sure-fire way to terrify the kids. Instead, three words popped into my head: Calm. Steady. Strong.

The girls and I repeated these three words aloud as we made our way down the spur and back onto the main ridge. My daughter Kayla even picked up another rock and scratched the Calm Steady Strong manta into the mountain.

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Kayla scratched our mantra onto the rock above the scary rock spur. “EEOR. Clam, Steady, Strong.” I still laugh at her misspelling of Calm. I have not been up there since to see how it has weathered.

We got down that ridge safely, and that’s the important thing. I stayed calm, the kids were happy, and were more prepared than ever to tackle another big mountain.

Visualization in Advance

This is a strategy pro-athletes use to prepare for big races, games or events. If it works for them, it can totally work for us weekend warriors. Visualization is simply imagining yourself climbing a route. It works because when you imagine yourself doing something, your mind thinks you have done it physically. When done well, your muscles and senses function and fire – you sweat, breath heavy, and get tired. Basically, if the mind can think it, the body can do it.

I sometimes visualize a scramble before I start. I imagine myself moving smoothly through the tricky spots, being in control for any technical moves, and staying calm on the exposed edges. I pay particular attention to reaching the summit, as this means I have successfully completed the route.

Bonus for sucking less: I pretend I’m very happy while visualizing. I see myself gladly navigating a side slope with nothing but air below. I’m excited about scrambling a very tight ridge line. Being happy in the moment improves how my muscles function. Being scared only tenses me up, and makes graceful moves almost impossible. Being happy puts me into a flow where I can concentrate on the move instead of imagining myself crashed upon the rocks below.

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Mount Kerr was one of my most satisfying summits. We backpacked into the Little Yoho valley, set up camp, and then climbed up Mount Kerr. We had planned this route, and then climbed our plan. I wanted to sit there all day and soak up the view.

Visualization in the Moment

I first learned this trick decades ago when I played golf (don’t laugh). I heard an interview with Jack Nicklaus who said he always visualized the ball being drained into the cup when he putt. Wow. That’s interesting. I had no idea you could do that.

That weekend, I played at the challenging Silver Tip Golf Course in Canmore. The entire course is undulating, and so are the greens. It’s a real pain. I tried the Nicklaus trick, and whoa! I could ‘see’ the path my ball needed to take in order to get into the cup.

I one or two putt 16 out of the 18 holes. The visualization did not work on the other two holes. Maybe I was distracted or needed a snack? In contrast, my teammates averaged 4-5 putts per hole, which shows how tough those greeens are.

How does this help me suck less in the mountains? Before I do a tricky move, or traverse an exposed slope, I take a moment to see myself completing it safely. I visualize myself making the exact moves on the exact route to safely complete the problem.

Some people call this ‘being in the zone’. Professional athletes will tell you that when everything is going right, it’s because they have zoned out mentally, and let their subconscious do the work. They get out of their own way. If you can see yourself doing the move in advance, then you are now primed to complete that move exactly as you have already executed in your mind.

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Leap of Faith: Bruce (L), leader Chuck, and Eric right before we have to cross the gulf between the snow and the mountain. Eric went first and fell. He was on a rope and was caught by Chuck so no harm done, but I was now freaked out. I took a moment to visualize myself calming leaning over into space to bridge the gap, and then climb up.


Whoops! I saw myself falling

Yes, this does happen. It happened to me at the worst possible time. I was climbing Mount Assiniboine with my husband Mike. I had trained all year, and attended a mountaineering camp a few weeks prior in preparation for this mountain.

We needed to traverse a rock wall, but there was a huge boulder that stuck way out from the trail. I was super scared, because it was a good 1,000′ straight down if I fell. Mike had already made it across. I watched as he stretched his arms around the rock, like he was hugging it, and then reach across with his legs to connect with the other side.

I tried to calm myself down with a good visualization. Unfortunately, every time I saw myself doing the move, I slipped and fell to my death … every … single … time. No matter what I tried, the results were the same. I knew my attempt on this mountain was officially over. I could not complete the move safely. My husband and I made the hard decision to try again another day.

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Sometimes, despite your best planning and doing everything right, it is just not your day. The look on my face says it all – I was defeated. I tried so hard to make this happen, but it was not worth risking a fall.

Live to Try Again

Another way to suck less in the mountains is to survive. No one cares if I attempt a route and have to turn back. However, everyone would care if I killed myself trying. Who would look after my kids? I would miss out on their growing up, just because my ego said I had to climb this mountain today.  As a weekend warrior, I give myself permission to beg off a route. If conditions are not right, if the mountain isn’t in shape yet, or if I’m not 100% mentally or physically prepared, then I can only do my best. You too are only human – try, and know when to throw in the towel before it’s too late.

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I have never been so ‘at peace’ with turning around as I did here on Mount Victoria. This is what pure bliss looks like. For those who like numbers, look at the auspicious 2:22 on my watch.

I hope you enjoyed these ways to have a strong mind so you can suck less in the mountains. Even if you’re not afraid of heights, these techniques will improve your overall ability to get stuff done.

Please check out How to Suck Less in the Mountains, Part I for strong legs and lungs so you can achieve your mountain objectives.

If you have a mental exercise that improves your performance, I’d love to hear about it. Please leave your experience in the comments section below. Until then…

Happy Trails,



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