Onsight special part 1 – Nikki van Bergen

Nikki van Bergen in Rocaine Dura (8b/8b+)

The onsight. That one and only chance of crushing a beautiful but hard line on your first try. You cannot relax your focus nor your willpower for even a second. Should you take some rest on that just not that good hold or not? Accept that tiny ridge or search for something that could fit a little more fingertip? The difference between failure and success is determined by your decisions on such on the fly questions.

How do top climbers prepare for the mental battle called onsighting or flashing? In this mini series Siked will attempt to answer that question for you. Today we present you part one out of two, an interview with the Dutch queen of onsighting, Nikki van Bergen.

“My favourite onsight was the 45 minute fight in Fun du Chichunne”

Once we touch upon the subject, Nikki’s eyes start to shine right away: “Onsighting is just great, it is really a mental game.” A game that Nikki has mastered pretty well. From 2012 onwards, Nikki has climbed a whopping seven 8a routes onsight. Probably her most fond memories are of Fun du Chichunne, a forty meters long fight in Kalymnos. Nikki recalls: “The route crosses the entire Grande Grotta, that gives you twenty or thirty meters of the most bizarre tufas and collos. The climbing is super pumpy but you can find no-hands rests everywhere. With your legs clamped around a tufa you can take a full rest and make a plan for the next part. Then you have to commit yourself totally again and just do it. The running out is pretty sketchy. After that immense roof you find yourself on a slippery slab. A completely different climbing style… but as soon as you’ve made it past that huge overhang falling simply isn’t an option anymore. In the end it took me 45 minutes to clip the chains.”

So how does Nikki go about it? How does she prepare for the complete focus and devotion needed to onsight a hard line? In her own words: “as little as possible. I just get nervous if I prepare too much. During an onsight attempt I want to climb purely driven by intuition. In the gym it is possible to perfectly read a route, it is completely clear what you should be doing. On real rock, reading a route can contradict my intuition. That’s when I start hesitating and once that happens my attempts often fail.

Nikki van Bergen

How does Nikki play the mental game?

If preparation is not that important, then what is? It all comes down to having the right mindset. Nikki describes this mindset as follows: “I must be able to fully commit to every move; once I get tired, I just have to hold on harder to the rock; and I should not get nervous of cruxy segments.” Nikki illustrates just how powerful the right state of mind can be with the following, perhaps well-known, example: “After a long and tiring day outdoors I once onsighted a 7c+ route, only because I was completely sure it was graded as 7b+. It took every last bit of energy I still had in me to conquer that line. The only thought that kept me going was that I really could not fall out of a 7b+ route. Afterwards it turned out it was graded as 7c+ after all. If somebody could convince me that every 8a route is in fact 7b, maybe I would onsight them all.”

Fortunately, Nikki has also some more realistic strategies for forcing the right state of mind: “Firstly, I only start a route if I really feel comfortable with it. If I’m not siked for an attempt it is better to just let it rest for a couple of days until I really feel like going for it. Then, if I worry about some aspects right before the attempt, I will just complain about them to my belayer. This could be about the long distances in between bolts, or about my skin hurting. By stating my worries out loud I can empty my head and start my attempt with a blank mind. During the climb it all boils down to getting into the flow and just going for it one hundred percent. One really good stimulus is having made it through some difficult sections: after all those hard moves I simply have to top out that thing! Breathing very consciously can be of further assistance. During a rest I let my breath calm down fully and during a crux I start breathing loudly to help me focus.”

Onsighting as inspiration to crush in competitions

Committing to a route a hundred percent, not getting nervous from having to make hard moves, and holding on and never letting go… That sounds like a mindset that could come in handy for competitions. Nikki does indeed use onsighting as preparation and inspiration for competitions: “the last competition of the 2014 lead season, the world cup in Kranj, went really well. That may have been because I spent the preceding week in Terradets, Spain, onsighting 7c routes and even one 8a route. I was able to compete using the mindset I found while climbing on rock. Furthermore, just before entering a qualifier or final, I often think about my first 8a onsight, L’eau Rage in the Frankenjura. I finished that route truly desperately. For the last two bolts I felt like falling every move. I was barely able to make the final clip. The realization that you are able to give that much for topping out on a route is a tremendous motivation for competition. “

Obviously, Nikki has a passion for onsighting. Critics may wonder whether onsighting is a legitimate branch of climbing and whether redpointing some awfully hard project isn’t a greater achievement. When asked about this, Nikki answers with convinction: “I think, and this goes for all aspects of the climbing sport, that the versatility is what makes it interesting. You can redpoint a route or you can onsight it, I do not value one above the other. I think the best climber is the one that exceeds the rest in all areas. Only if you master everything you are complete as a climber.

Nikki van Bergen

Obviously, Nikki’s onsight ticklist is extremely impressive, however, some girls climb a notch harder still. In the area of onsighting, Matilda Söderlund really serves as an example for Nikki: “Matilda did some really cool stuff, she already onsighted a bunch of 8b routes and even flashed an 8b+ route in the Frankenjura! In the States we went out into the rock together and I could really learn from her.”

To conclude, we have some good news for you! We also wanted to learn from Söderlund and found her willing to answer some questions… so stay tuned for part two!


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Jorine Zandhuis