Climbing Back on the Horse – Reflection on Falling, Fear and Re-finding Climbing

After becoming airborne on a multi-pitch ice route earlier this year, it was time to return to outdoor leading with a trip to Stanage Edge for a spot of single pitch trad (rock climbing placing your own protection in natural cracks). By comparison this was more like getting back on a Shetland pony than a full-blown horse, nonetheless it was my first lead since and and required breaking some mental barriers.

It’s Good to Fall(?)

In conversations with climbers better than me, I’d received some wisdom regarding falling: fall practice is crucial. It’s not just about getting stronger, one needs to fall, and fall often. I take it that he wasn’t talking about the type of tumble I had in Norway, this was a conversation had in Spain where the bolts are plentiful and clip-stick use is rife (a glorified broom handle used to clip the first bolt). But maybe my mishap was good for my head-game. I survived what I did, so why be unsettled by a 15 metre grit route?

I’ve become less scared of falling on sport climbs outdoors by frightening many inattentive belayers and taking rope whips to the face whilst practicing falling indoors. Despite coming away with nothing more than severe bruising in Norway, I’ve learnt that the same transition can’t be made from ice to trad climbing.

On my first trad lead since my accident (a measly V-Diff buttress that experienced climbers could free-solo, naked and drunk, whilst eating an entire roast dinner), I felt really uncomfortable. My technique and drive to climb drifted away on the ever-present Stanage wind. Far from making things less scary by comparison, I started to notice the scars, and it felt like they were going to take some healing.

Dampened Expectations

The day before, Rob and I had travelled to the Lakes in search of some easy multi-pitches in predictably Lake District-esque weather. The big dog abandoned at the bottom of our intended route wasn’t best pleased to see us, his bark was bad and I didn’t fancy testing the well known idiom, so we left with our tails between our legs whilst his wagged violently. A rather pathetic start to a trip where I was meant to be rediscovering some nerve.

Done running away from mongrels and paying out rope in the car whilst waiting out the rain (not advisable), we traipsed through mud to the bottom of a small crag. Rob led a straightforward route with ease, and was making it look good until he yanked the rope hard to combat the horrendous drag he’d created for himself, ripping a nut from the wall and almost peeling off the route himself.

In a classic example of the inevitable faff that comes with trad climbing, and of two climbers that weren’t used to climbing with each other, I lost sight of Rob our vocal communication was lost to the wind. I stood at the bottom getting colder and more miserable as Rob struggled to assemble an anchor on scant protection (very shallow cracks not really facing the right way and half a rusted fence post). I was happy to get moving but the route left me uninspired and wet. This wasn’t how my first climbing trip back was meant to go.

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Getting to the Nitty-Gritty

The weather was more favourable in the Peak District (at least by north England’s standards), so we bailed inland, content with the familiar gritstone routes of Stanage Edge. The first routes I led were poor; overthinking everything, struggling with placements, not trusting my feet, reaching too high – all round amateurish farting about. A storm rolled in, effectively putting a stop to that day’s climbing and I was (not so) secretly relieved.

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Things didn’t get much better the following day. I was huddled underneath a roof section with my last piece of gear not too far below me. I made a small nest of protection in a crack in the roof; it could’ve held a family of six plus their pet elephant. Yet as I moved out right, my fear climbed fast as my own ascent slowed to a wobbling, panting crawl. I was on exposed ground with poor hand-holds, but the situation was far from desperate. A fall would entail a swing but nothing drastic. After what felt like an hour (probably more like 45 seconds), I found a jug and breathed a sigh of relief hard enough to rival Stanage’s persistent breeze.

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Irrationality of Fear

It is not irrational to fear falling off a route, seeing as hitting the ground from a height isn’t exactly contiguous with continued existence. But what is irrational is the relative weight we give to different risks; being terrified of flying in an aeroplane only to brazenly max out the hire car on icy roads is a textbook example of this imbalance.

Climbing is an irrational pursuit. This is aptly demonstrated by the nonsensical concept of psychological protection. I’ve placed nuts before and have been confident that they were going to fail should an inquisitive caterpillar decide to inspect my placement. But I still feel better climbing above it than having nothing. Even so, I feel reluctant to fall on trad because of my fall practice, or lack thereof.

I have fallen only twice on trad. Once was on a route called Whimper which adequately describes my climbing style on it and the feeble way I fell off it. Another was low down on the first piece of protection in the route, when I foolishly decided to tread on the one bit of green rock and ended up inverted with my helmet brushing the grass. These successful arrests notwithstanding, with no whippers to speak of, I am yet to fully trust my own gear placements on trad. And in continuing illogical style, I am happy to trust semi-rusted bolts or pitons fixed by some Spaniard I don’t know.

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Rob and I tried our hand (nay, destroyed our hands) at bouldering. This was a sobering experience – I boulder at V5 indoors, and struggle on V1s outdoors. I started climbing up a relatively easy, but high, problem. The bouldering mat was straddled over a sharp block and was angled such that it offered little to no protection, so I was committed once I was a couple of metres off the ground. I scrabbled a bit, but didn’t feel the same fear I’d felt in far less precarious positions on lead routes. I even did it again. Twice.

This is plainly counter-intuitive. A fall there would’ve been uncomfortable at best (“Ooh, this broken ankle is a bit uncomfortable!”), whereas earlier on roped routes a fall would’ve likely been inconsequential. Unsound logic aside, I felt like I’d had a micro-breakthrough and was keen to get back on the ropes the following day.

Hushing the Mental Chatter

I later found myself on a slab with rubbish hands, but decent enough feet. I’d read the description “a significant unprotected section in the middle” which, the way I was feeling the day before, may as well have said “guaranteed bear attack at the flake”, but I set on up, keen to test my supposed epiphany.

On previous easier routes, with the wealth of gear I’d had to choose from and the not too taxing moves, I had time to think, worry and get scared. Here on more difficult ground, as with bouldering high-balls, there was no such luxury. I was fixated on and immersed in the present, arguably climbing’s raison d’être.

We finished off our trip with some more bouldering (jeans, bohemian scarves and beanie hats that don’t cover the ears optional) and discovered a hint of ability, managing a few V2s and V3s. Overall I’d made some steps towards getting my climbing mojo back, and was beginning to control my leading nerves again. I had no falls, crashes or injuries to report – a rarity on my trips – so subconsciously tried to re-establish my accident-prone reputation by making a complete hash of my last problem (one I had done 15 minutes previous I am ashamed to add), slapping for the finish and ripping a pound of flesh from my hands.

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The self-preservation voice in my head is loud enough, hence I know I’m never going to climb E9, new-route blank walls or free-solo anything steeper than a flight of stairs. That voice got louder after my accident, but I feel like I’m learning how to shut it up at the right moments.


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