Wednesday, 15 June 2011


Since last weekend's trip, I've been thinking quite a bit about our climbing limits - how you find them, why I want to push them, and how close to them I'm actually getting.

The answer to the first part is I think quite easy - to find your limits you must go past them. It's only by getting shut down by a route, figuring out what's holding us back, and then working to over-come it, that we will find out what we're actually capable of. Of course this sort of climbing is a high risk strategy - we reward ourselves for ticks, and you're not going to get too many of these if you spend weekend after weekend projecting the same route. But with high risk comes big rewards. In Margalef this easter, I walked away from a 7b+ I'd had a couple of tries at, to get on a stunning 7c line (Antologica) instead. I thought I was sacrificing the chance to go home with a big prize (my first 7b+), but I ended up sending my first 7c instead, and to cap it off I got the 7b+ on the last climb of the trip. Too often we climb well within our capabilities, only attempting what we know we can send - if something seems just too hard to go in a few attempts, then we back off. Of course, there's nothing wrong with that - if you're just out to enjoy yourself then why the hell not stay in your comfort zone? But for me, pushing hard is where I get the most satisfaction out of climbing.

But why?

All my life I've been quite happy to be mediocre. Average. OK at things. From the age of 5, up until I went to university, I played the bagpipes - I got immense amount of pleasure from playing and competing over the years, but I rarely ever played outside of the official band practices and competitions. I was quite good, but I never showed any inclination to put the work in to become very good. Academically, I was a very bright kid, and I duly went off to university and got an engineering degree, but it was only a pass degree, way below what my parents would surely have expected of me. I took up various sports over the years, from martial arts to squash, to running and then triathlon. I got as far as completing a half ironman, and clearly enjoyed the training and the racing, but that was six months of focussed training, and then my enthusiasm started to wain. Whenever injuries forced a break from training, I found it hard to get the motivation to start again.

So why has climbing, and training for climbing, gripped me for the last three or four years, with no signs of abating? Quite the opposite in fact, I'm more psyched now than I've ever been. If I get injured, all I can think about is "how long till I can get back into training?". Obviously there's the sense of achievement in sending a hard route, but there's a huge sense of achievement in finishing an ironman, or winning a medal in a piping competition, so that can't explain it on it's own. Neither can the fact that climbing takes me to so many gorgeous parts of the world on trips - so would scuba diving, or wind-surfing, or any number of other persuits that I've had a go at.

I think the answer lies in "the zone". In order to climb at or near your limit, you have to reach a point of mental focus where the rest of the world disappears. The rope is no longer a safety device, controlled by someone on the ground who you're relying on to keep you safe, it's just something that's there by your waist, that you clip into some bolts on your way past. There's nothing to fear because the ground isn't there, the ledge you just stepped off - with it's ankle breaking potential - doesn't exist. There's no failure to fear either, because the chains at the top of the route don't exist. Your whole world has become a small circle of rock, containing yourself and the next move. And that, when you get it, is a fucking addictive experience.

So, how am I doing in my persuit of my limits? Actually, I think I'm doing OK. In the last 12 months I've gone from a best redpoint of 7a+, to my first 7c. Obviously my technique has improved over this time, and I'm fitter and stronger after a hard winter in the gym, but I think the biggest improvement has been in my head. I'm much more likely to believe there's a solution to an obstacle now, and go find it, rather than getting frustrated and thinking "that's impossible for me". I've learned to place absolute faith in my harness, the rope, and most importantly whoever's on the other end of that rope, and give everything I've got to latch that next move. And I'm getting much better at staying composed when I do get through the crux and the send is in sight.... that one still catches me out now and again though!

Having said all that, those 16 attempts to send Tide Rising was the most I've taken to send a route in two years, and I did know within a couple of attempts that it could go. Even on Antologica, by my third attempt I knew I could do all the moves. And I can't think of any route I've ever had more than a couple of goes on, and not gone on to send.

So, could I do better? Absolutely. This weekend it's time to up the ante, and get on something that will properly shut me down!

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