“What do you reckon for dinner tonight?”
I didn’t reply. Instead, I remained sat on the floor staring intently at a small blade of grass, my shoes hanging off my feet, my mind entirely focused on the task at hand. I heard the words but they passed through my mind as quickly as they were spoken. Exact dates and times weren’t important, and were simply forgotten, but I knew it had been about ten months since I had first got on this climb. It seemed fairly straightforward, no move too difficult or strenuous but all together one enormous challenge. Now I found myself here, another climber to add to the list of those who had witnessed my previous failures, eager to lay my project to rest.
It had not taken long to make most of the moves, but the final difficult one (not even the crux) had eluded me time and again. A week in Spain hadn’t even granted me the extra strength I thought would bring success so now it was time for a different approach. I watched this blade of grass with a deep and serious concentration.
I couldn’t tell you if it swayed in the breeze that chilled me to the perfect temperature, I just watched, carefully as I let all distractions flow from my conscious mind. Then it happened, I slowly and carefully went through the sequence in my mind. I had done this before, but this was different, there was something new about it this time. This was going to work, it had to, I had no other plans up my sleeve.
Start on the large juggy hold, and move up into a slopey, yet grippy side pull crimp, then move up to another jug. Good footholds were the mark of the beginning, and two more subsequent moves through jugs lead to a possible rest. Chalk up? No, this is just the beginning, don’t waste energy, and the holds are all clean.
I sensed Rich move around me with his camera, taking photographs, maybe not of me but I didn’t care. This was not about vanity and I didn’t care if anyone knew of my success or failure, this was to be about myself, looking inside to find answers to questions that no-one had asked. Ten months is a long time, longer than I had ever spent, and it was beginning to lose its appeal. At what point do you admit defeat? Not this time, I’m better and stronger. Mantras hadn’t worked either, before getting on the starting holds, this time called for a different approach.
From the large jug, drop a toe down left, and reach across for a small crimp. I could feel the hold despite not being near it, feel my fingers move into the position I would need. Drop the weight, stabilise and move left into a juggy crimp. Distraction nearly crept in, but I found myself swaying slightly and thinking of a powerful move up right to another crimp. Another big move and I’m on the ledge, not huge, but good enough.
Feet. Don’t forget to think about your feet: bounce the left across, then again, and bring the right foot in. There’s an undercut for the right hand to allow you to move the left foot well. It was a long time before I figured that out, mainly thanks to a friend long since forgotten. The list of people I had dragged up this hillside had gone out of control, too numerous to mention. It’s not important right now; think of them all later, they have all helped.
Take a tiny edge with the left hand, a smaller one with the right and pull into a small and sharp mono. Sat on the floor, I felt the rock dig into my fingers as it had done so often before, the memory of what it felt like more strong than the feeling itself. Difficult cross throughs on single fingers leads to a big ledge. Rest, chalk up, shake out, relax. That was just the warm up.
I hadn’t taken the right chalk bag and so couldn’t take it on the climb. Never mind, chalk the thighs of your trousers, you’ll be fine. Weight saving anyway, and will save time. This is the only real place to chalk up anyway, do you really need it? It’s my security, my psychological aid! Fuck it, you’re better off without, just carry on, persevere, climb through and past it.
Concentration levels go up here; this is where it gets tough. My sequence has changed today but it’s better, quicker, easier. Shuffle the hands into the right place and reach far out left for a micro edge. This is the better of the two; enjoy it, you know you can hold it. Bring the feet up, into the tiny polished pocket and complete the stretch no mortal man should be able to do. “You are fit, you are strong”. Confidence seeped through my mind and into my body. I was almost ready.
Get stable and reach through with the right. Get it right, this is the smallest hold on the route; make sure you’re in the right place. You’re stable, you’ve got time, adjust make it stick. When it’s perfect, and only when, drop the weight, release the left hand and move your weight. You’re on now, this is the move, you’ve got to here so many times, this is what it’s all about.
I closed my eyes. From here, it’s nearly over, it’s nearly done, just one or two moves and I’d be there. This reach is the vital move, the critical point between success and failure, between jubilation and a sombre mood for a couple of days. I have fallen off here so many times, how do I know I can hold it? Concentrate, spring off the left foot and reach. This is where my mind must take over.
My face screwed up and my arms began to move in space. I was still sat on the floor, by the same piece of grass, but my mind had taken control. My body now moved to the flow of the rock, with almost pinpoint accuracy, as I visualised the move I had to do. But it was crucial to visualise success, not just the move. Watch from a distance; picture yourself on the hold, gripping the rock. My fingers curled in space, it’s there, there, THERE! I’ve got the hold, I can feel it, I’ve done the move. Picture it again, and again, and AGAIN. Make sure you know you can do this, because you know you can.
Now imagine the exit moves, there’s still climbing to be done. Right hand into a good side pull, and relax. Not entirely, but enough. Its okay from here, nothing too hard, but you still need to concentrate. Picture yourself topping out, of pulling over the top, or sitting on the summit, smiling wildly. Then again, through the crux, imagine the feeling if you can, and think of yourself succeeding, that’s what it’s all about.
Without speaking, breathing or making a sound I stand; my rock boots inexplicably tightened around my feet. I’m walking to the start but I don’t know how, my mind so focused that nothing in the world can enter my brain. I clutch the starting holds, but not too tight, still entirely focused on what is about to happen. Slowly, smoothly my body seems to move along the rock.
My mind is unaware, this is second nature now and my mind remains free to wander elsewhere, to think of nothing and to be free. Noises I make are not conscious, not something I am doing to impress, but come from some deep part of my psyche. Any words of encouragement fall on deaf ears, literally, and I don’t hear them. Nothing else matters but what is happening to my body. Almost inexplicably, I find myself coming to near the first crux, but strangely, I fall back into the same pattern and again, suddenly find myself on the ledge, feeling slightly pumped, but fresh at the same time, shaking out and madly slapping my thighs.
The rest is very conscious, and I can feel every muscle in my body willing me to succeed. I feel strong, stronger than the route, and able to pull through harder than is necessary, but I don’t, remaining relaxed through something in my mind that I simply cannot understand. I’m stretched out, my feet wider than I am able to reach, and I reach with my right hand to the smallest edge I can imagine. This is it: this is the move I have been working towards. I’ve held it twice already today, once I peeled off as I had neglected to clean it and a second because I was so pleased, I lost concentration and slipped. This time will be different.
I pounce, and for a split-second lose that conscious thought again, but I come to as I catch the hold. This no longer feels unnatural, as it did that first time today and I am calmness personified. A slight movement, and I move my feet and reach into the big side pull. Suddenly my conscious mind, that so restricts my usual trad climbing antics, clicks back into place. You’ve got the good hold, you’ve done it! Success, triumph, now celebrate!
I restrain myself, there are still moves to do, and I am so conditioned on this climb that I am now becoming pumped. Oh god, please do not let me fall from here. I glance down to see a rock below me to the left, now in my direct fall line. Keep it together, this is not the time to fall, you are so close after such a long journey.
The next holds are good, but fear and tiredness mean they certainly don’t seem it, and I am now fighting. It is not fear of the fall; it is simply a fear of failure, that if I cannot succeed once getting here, will I ever? I reach for the large ledge and pull. It’s hard, and I need to work for it. One more poor foothold, get this right, then you’re topping out. Keep it together: you are the master of technique, place it silently and carefully, ignore the pain now building in your arms. It’s there, now stand and reach over the top.
Forearm friction is called into operation, and the irony dawns that such a graceful ascent should be finished so clumsily. It doesn’t matter and a feeling swells through my body. I cannot place it, but it is amazing. Unlike most climbs, where you are glad it is over with, I quietly think to myself (among all the whooping and cheering) that this is relief mixed with pride. Here is a boulder problem, not at the limit of my abilities, of V7 on the Utopia boulder that has tried my physical and mental abilities to the limit, while leaving me to know that harder things are still possible. Despite a short term frustration I have returned, oh so many times, to be spanked off the final exit moves.
Now, here I sit, atop a small piece of rock a few miles from my house, ten minutes walk from my daily commute to work and surrounded by other climbers throughout the valley, and yet I feel alone. Not lonely but alone, and at peace. I whisper to myself a quiet “Yes!” and it is not for anyone else. This is my climb, my piece of rock, my world and I have done it, I have achieved. Next month, I will achieve something else, something different, but right here and right now, I will enjoy my success. This is not just relief, not a gratitude that I no longer have to make the trudge up here to try again, this is also pride, in its most beautiful sense. Very slightly, my head turns to one side, and I think, “I could do that again now…”
Photo courtesy of R Watson
© Copyright, Pete Edwards Sunday 30th May 2010.