Big girls don’t cry

Paige Claassen once wrote an article about crying at the crag.  While climbing can certainly stir all sorts of emotions and stir them hard, I can’t remember ever crying.  When I read the article I thought perhaps I’m just not that girly or different people respond in different ways.  Paige is one of my climbing heroes so I didn’t dismiss her words. Someone who gives everything they have every time they step off the ground certainly gets a bit more cred than your local gym rat.

But I digress.  Today was probably the closest I came to letting loose on the water works while on the sharp end.

I haven’t been tradding for a while and my trad experience as a whole is limited. But my head space feels good at the moment and that environment is starting to resonate with me.  And most importantly, I need to not look like a complete noob when a bunch of hard core Americans come to SA next month for the trad exchange which I have been roped into help organise.

Likewise, Charlie also needed to dust off ye ol’ nut scratcher and get back on the mountain.  He chose Africa Lunch for our come back route.  And while it is firmly within both our grade ranges…..we ended up with multiple mepics (mini epics).

My moment came as I set confidently off on the 23 pitch.  I doddled up the crack, humming to myself, casually placing gear along the way, being careful to keep the red cam aside as apparently I would need it right at the top.  I paused on the jugs at the top of the flakes and eyed the next part.  The rail looked fairly good but it was hard to see what was happening up the arête.  I checked the gear I had placed one more time and set off.

The rail turned out to be worse than expected and went from barely accepting my fingertips to narrowing even more the further you went from your protection.  So I put this attempt into reverse gear and frantically down climbed back to the cams, burning precious forearm and shoulder juice.  I eyeballed it again and made another go, this time getting just around the corner. By now my eyes were starting to bulge.  The rail stuck true it’s nature and got progressively worse and the arête had not magically presented options.  Reverse reverse reverse!  By now I was breathing heavily and losing some of my composure.  So I did what most people do in this situation – lace the hell out of the rail in front of you.

“I don’t know if I can do this Charlie.  I’m terrified.”

“You only get one attempt at an onsight.  You can do this.  Calm yourself and go for it…..Although you’re looking pretty calm.”

I’ve been scared on trad.  It’s like expecting to get wet when you surf.  It’s inevitable.

Nearly every time we go out one of us remarks about how scared they are just as we are about to cast off into the crux.  And either we suck it up and do it or the other manages to talk us through.

I think I gave it another go before asking him to take.  Not a normal thing to do on trad.  I sat looking balefully at the rock, silently begging it to reveal it’s secrets and feeling like I had broken some sacred rule.  I pulled myself together and went for it, moving with confidence and getting further around the corner only to find no feet and no great ideas leaping into my head about how to go up.  Tearing back to my gear I flamed out.  My mind snapped.  I was severely shaken. This time I had red lined.  The holds were too bad.  The potential swing into the rock too frightening.  I was close to hyperventilating with fear.

Charlie suddenly remarked that perhaps this wasn’t the way.  I looked up to the left and could see a sequence.  I had just enough gumption left to try the new sequence.  I focused in once again and made my way up the flakes, shakily reaching for the next rail only to find a polished surface.  I was breathing like a steam train to hold it together just long enough to place some gear and yell Take.  My shattered nerves said “no further”.  

“I nearly didn’t make that!” I heard the quaver in my voice and felt the emotion burning the back of my throat.  I was close to tears.  I gulped down the emotions while Charlie apologized profusely for sending me into the great unknown.  But even knowing that was the cause and not my poor onsighting abilities didn’t make it better.  At least not until much later when reason had returned.  I ended up stancing right there and then and our mepics continued for the day. But we arrived on terra firma no worse for wear and I even got to lead one of the ultra classics – Atlantic crag.  Which restored a modicum of faith in my trad climbing ability and ended us off on a high note.

I lay awake last night dissecting the day and determined to push on.  It got me thinking, perhaps I am no braver than anyone else (in fact, the way I was feeling at the end of that day, I certainly wasn’t).  Perhaps the reason I hadn’t broken into tears before was that I hadn’t pushed myself hard enough.  I studied the route guide and I know I will be back soon.  I know I am not done.



I’ve been thinking a lot about freedom lately and the things that enable me to feel free.  In a chaotic schedule, I look for ways for freedom to be quicker and easier to access.  After a busy day there is nothing I want more than insta-freedom.
Maybe it’s not freedom, this feeling.  Maybe “escape” is a more accurate description.  I just know the feeling.  I know the smile I get on my face whenever I fasten my harness snug around my waist.  Even though there is all this gear on me, I feel released.  I feel like I am about to step off the earth and fly.  For the next few moments my body knows this is my time.   This is the space I get to move in, the dance I get to do that is all me.  Where the rest of the world disappears and my focus is on the tiny edge I can get half a fingertip on, the smear of rock that the rubber of my shoe needs to make contact with.  Or it is about letting out all that pent up raw power, built on many hours of must-do, must-have.  Breathe in, breathe out.  That is all that you have to think about now.  A form of meditation.  My body is expressing all the pain, joy, frustration and elation of my day.  I don’t need to find the words.  I don’t have to struggle to get my message across and risk being misunderstood.  It’s just me out here, living this moment.
Recently I felt that same Pavlovian response as I tied the laces tighter on my running shoes.  Even though my feet were surrounded by man-made materials, they felt a sudden joy to be free.  To go flying down paths and to know that they could just go and go and go, seeking out new trails, unbound by societal constraints for this morning, beating a soothing rhythm and feeding my craving for that burn.  Out here in the quiet hours long before most people are awake I am waging the war for my freedom.

The power of exhaustion

This past week I have exercised myself to exhaustion.  3 days in a row of bolting was more than I thought I would ever take on.  But then again, as I explained to Faye, bolting doesn’t take so much concentration so you can just drone on.  Once you’ve done all the recce work and figured out where you want the bolts you just put your nose down and do the grunt work (and keep your eye on the prize of a beautiful new route).

Not your average shopping list

Not your average shopping list

By the end of the week I was sporting very rough hands that were bleeding in random spots and a full body exhaustion.  How and why I got onto an exercise bicycle on Friday afternoon is beyond me for my legs were the most exhausted from all the jumaring.

Come Saturday morning I was in no shape to go climbing.  Not with a mere 1 day’s rest to refresh me.  But there is always more than one reason for going climbing.  Sometimes it is just the need to get out, to be social, to escape.  Sometimes you feel other people’s need to get out and that is enough to twist your rubber arm.

So I dragged myself to the base of Gypsy Queen.  Another one of those routes on my epic tick list.  I fell in love with this route a number of years back when it was first opened.  Seeing the Gypsy Queen herself make her great comeback to climbing by opening this route (and then sent another route of the same grade the same day) blew my mind.  So too did the sting in the tail at the top of the route.  I hadn’t been climbing long enough at that stage to know how to deal with it.  So the route was left alone.  Till now.

As promised, the strange and gymnastic moves had me laughing and contorting my way up the corner before tackling the meat of the route.  On this day I barely made it up the corner.  My legs were giving in, begging for mercy.  Weak as day old jelly they had no push in them – disastrous when you’re stemming up.  Yet I made it through to the glorious reach to the bucket and composed myself.  Before I knew it I found myself at the final draw, trying to get something back for that final desperate clip of the chains.

How had I made it here?  On my previous attempt I had been so pumped on those tiny little crimps that I had zero hope of having the fitness to get through that last long move.  Or was that just what I had told myself?  As I brought my breathing and heart-rate back down to normal I mused how an alarming majority of my sends had been when I thought I was too exhausted to even tug my climbing shoes on.  What was up with that?  Was it the zero expectation?  Did I stop over-gripping and start putting more weight on my feet?  Was every move a bonus when I thought I wouldn’t be able to step off the ground so I just kept moving, clocking up more and more bonus time till I’m living in stolen time? It is probably a magical mix of the above.

What ever the answer, I know one thing for sure.  I need to finish this round of bolting and take a week off to recover.  Mozambique is calling.  But that trip is too far away.  So how do you distract a climbaholic for a week?

We find meaning where we seek it.

Lately the theme of my life seems to be how challenges make us grow and re-align our identity. Life challenges and stresses push us out of our comfort zone and we quickly learn if we will sink or swim. And what are climbers other than challenge-seeking beings? We go out of our way to push ourselves out of our comfort zone so that we can grow as athletes. Our most difficult sends have often been those that we remember the most fondly once we found the way to overcome the difficult move. And those challenge-seeking molecules are bound to attach themselves to the rest of our lives.

Those faced with adversity get given the choice of seeking meaning (that feeling of “everything happens for a reason so……why is this happening?”) and forming new identities for themselves. Children born different from others are taught from a young age how happiness is internal. To ignore the taunts of less “developed” individuals as they find their own worth that does not fit in the square shaped peg society has laid out for others.

This morning, driving to work I realised that because of all the trials we have faced lately, a simple evening of sitting on the couch with my boyfriend was suddenly treated as utter bliss. Because simplicity has been so lacking. It strikes me that all the chaos of the go-go-go in our lives makes those moments more special.