Head space

Lately I have been finding myself in these situations where I’m looking at myself in a slightly detached way.  You know those times where you’re going “well what have we got here missy?  You’re run out, smearing on sketchy feet, holding on with a half pad thumb gaston and the potential fall could be the nasty ground type where Gravity has the upper hand yet you’re casually whistling your way up.  Don’t you think it would be appropriate to show a little fear right now?  Maybe even just fake it a little?  Because hot damn, shit could get real here.”

And yet, with all the ranting that little voice does, I can’t seem to muster the fear.  Oh, it’s still in there for sure.  For years my head was the biggest obstacle to my climbing progress.  And I’m certainly not the most bucking cowboy on the block but lately those moments have happened more and more.

Perhaps there is some internal auditor taking stock of the amount of friction divided by the difficulty of the move, timesed by the coefficient of how gutsy/stupid the next move might be and rounded off to the nearest level of experience.  An internal auditor that sits there with a pencil jammed into the too tight bun which sits behind the ear where their oversized glasses rest and nasally responds “honey, you got this.  You’ve been here before.  Only it was 3 years ago in the peak of summer with worn down shoes and on tired arms and ever so slightly sleep deprived but you still pulled it off.  Okay, you were younger and fitter an certainly skinnier but now you’re more experienced and wiser.  So shut up and climb.”

I don’t know what the answer is but I’m going to ride the onsight spree while I can.


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.

A new perception

The past 3 months have been crazy and at times tough.  Yesterday morning was one of those “perhaps everything happens for a reason” moments.  By being forced out of my comfort zone I have been put in situations I could not have imagined.  My life has been turned upside down, I have been enriched by my experiences and my heart has grown.

In a way, I feel like I am paying penance for a somewhat selfish life.  Use me, use my strength and my willingness to help.  If my simple struggles have lead me out here on this morning, then so be it.  On this day I learnt that what I considered pain and struggle was laughable.   My eyes were opened and I was humbled.

Yesterday morning I sat quietly crying in freshly dug up dirt, listening to a refugee of the recent xenophobic attacks tell his story and the story of the 138 people he now shared a camp with.  We were out in a massive soon-to-be garden that had been dug up over the past 4 days, cleared of all the bush and trees and levelled in the hopes that they could grow vegetables there.  They had been there for 2 months after fleeing for their lives and being separated from their children.  Here were intelligent, kind people with big hearts and honest souls who were being treated like criminals for no reason greater than being from a different country.  Here were small children taking me by the hand with all the love and trust in the world, seeking support as we walked down the sandy slopes. Here was an old lady, sharp of mind and strong of body, negotiating in any way she could to bring a better life to this community.  A community that was built by the common need to survive.  She looked at me through the cataracts in her eyes and all I could offer was a hug.

Helping the kids plant the herbs

Helping the kids plant the herbs and flowers

I cried at the unbalance of the world.  I cried in shame that people from my country had treated them like this.

And so we dug, and we planted and we explained.  We hoped that our simple herb garden would add some quality to their meals and to the life they were forging on with here.

Digging up some hard ground

Digging up some hard ground

The community learning about permaculture

The community learning about permaculture

Sport psychology

I’ve started reading a book on sport psychology.  It’s kinda funny that it’s taken me this long to read one.  For starters, I’ve always been enthralled by the mental side of climbing and for another, it would make a huge difference in reaching my goals if I can strengthen the mental side of my game.

Having only read a short way through it strikes me that, although I am aware of a lot of the psychology, I only practice bits that I have cherry picked along the way.  And to delve deeper I need to start asking and answering a lot more questions.

This morning was one of those rare occasions where I wasn’t rushing off somewhere (or so I thought) so I sat down and wrote down my ultimate climbing goal.  It quickly became a flow diagram of all the aspects that fed into it, the short and medium term goals that would lead up to it and all the things I needed to work on or factor in to reach those goals.  Wow, it is not a simple process.  

I then went for a run and had time to think.  I realized that a lot of my non-climbing (but sporty) goals were set to provoke the journey it took to reach them rather than wanting the goal itself.  Yet goals in my personal life had forgotten to enjoy the journey and only desired the end.

I thought about Mental Toughness (MT) which had been the previous chapter and asked myself many questions about different types of MT and how I handled them.  Some I thought I was exceptionally good at and others I believe I am far below average at dealing with.  I thought about my upcoming missions this year the preparation I would need for them and what I expected to get out of them.

I felt energized thinking about what I had accomplished, what I had planned and all the exciting things I had to look forward to.  I’m glad I’m working through this book and getting my thoughts more focused, if nothing else.

Be the inspiration you seek

While I’m at work I often have a particular TED Talk in my head.  It’s one that talks about how you’re not selling a product, you’re selling an image.  The speaker goes on to list many examples of how one product could be identical or even superior to another but the marketing of the image of the other product or the ideal of the company is what has secured their spot in the market place.

And for me, climbing is the very picture of Inspiration.  How many companies use the image of a climber to denote the challenges met, the adventurous gutsy overcoming of obstacles to bring you this amazing shampoo?  ;p  But jokes aside, the very essence of climbing, after all the adventure and adrenalin is out the way, is to be inspired to achieve more.

And, as part of the community, we are all stepping on each other’s shoulders to reach new heights.  So, in a way, it is nearly selfish to keep your achievements to yourself.  No, this isn’t a game of “Look at me”.  We have enough social media throwing that at us every day.  It is more a contribution to the collective thought of what is possible.  Inspiration for the majority of us is incremental.  Sure, every now and then there will be a wonder kid that comes along and blows all the limits out of the water.  But for the rest of us, we get inspired on a day to day basis and push our limits a bit further each time someone shows us that the next step or the next few steps are possible.  What was once impossible soon becomes common place.  It’s the reason we go to slideshows, read autobiographies or log on to the community websites.  We’re hungry to know what’s going on out there.

There were a few key moments early in my climbing career that will always stick out in my head.  All of them entailed seeing a local female climber doing something that was way behind my horizons and blew my preconceptions out of the ball park.  That is why I jump at the opportunity to compete, to be part of a collection of strong climbers, to be exposed to that level.

I’m not the greatest climber in South Africa, not by any stretch of the imagination.  I’m not even the greatest climber in Durban.  But I’m happy to share my story if it helps you in any way and in return, I would love you to share yours.

teaching and learning

I remember my first (informal) coaching session.  I was such a beginner climber that I practically squeaked with newness.  But Paul had a client in the gym and at the same time he had to attend to something urgently.  “Just teach him how to traverse and use his feet” he casually commented.

Me?  What do I know about anything?  I panicked.  But decided to fake it.  And somehow the instructions came naturally and I realised that I knew what I was talking about.  Not only that but by voicing the thoughts it cemented the concepts in my mind for me.  I had, in effect, just coached myself.  It was a revolution.  My footwork became an actual concept, not something abstract that other’s spoke about.  I’m pretty grateful for that random occurrence.  Paul had casually catapulted me into a whole new realm of understanding and from then on I took every opportunity I could to work with someone, to coach.  It wasn’t in the slightest bit altruistic.  I was gaining lessons along the way.

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the weight of your thoughts

When I was doing martial arts we were taught to fight with intent.  I didn’t like to picture a person while I was training because hey, deep down*, I’m a peace loving gal.  So I pictured fighting FOR something.  Whether it was fighting for the grades/job/life that you wanted or World Peace, it came easier to me than picturing a person.  And it could be pretty motivating.

In climbing you don’t fight for something.  Unless you count the fight against gravity.  So weight is the name of the game.  Some days you feel light and free.  Other days you walk in carrying the weight of the world, the weight of a brand, the weight of the problems you didn’t leave outside of your 8 foot egg shell.  Sometimes it is just the self-imposed weight of the pressure we put on ourselves.  We forget to smile and enjoy ourselves.  We forget the reason we are out there.

*  Okay, VERY deep down


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.

It has meaning

We screened the Reel Rock Tour 9 at the gym last Wednesday evening.  It is an annual event that I’ve come to look forward to.  The award winning, adrenalin-filled films are rather entertaining and crowd pleasing and I enjoy the social aspect of sharing in that experience.
However, after watching this year’s Reel Rock Tour I felt mildly disappointed.  It hadn’t had nearly as much of the edgy climbing as previous years.   This year they had chosen to dig into the history of Yosemite and make it one feature film rather than usual format of a collection of shorter stories.

But the following day and the day after that the history and the lessons from the film clung to me and seeped into my brain, swirling around, waiting for me to notice them and ponder them further.

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mental acrobatics

I was driving to the crag the other day and I was suddenly reminded of a recent conversation with someone at the crag about watching your own thoughts.  I had managed to sneak a quick weekend trip to Boven about a month ago.  One morning, while we were waiting in the queue to try some of the new routes that Gustav had bolted, I struck up a conversation with a lady there.  She was commenting on her fear factor and I casually tried to explain to her that she needed to watch her own thoughts.  She looked at me as if I was a hippy who had smoked her breakfast and politely nodded and smiled.  Perhaps I phrased it a little too Terry Pratchett-esque.  But watching your own thoughts is quite a skill.  So often we go through the beta of a route in our heads and picture ourselves falling off on the move we are afraid of or where we always fall.  And we don’t even realise we are picturing it.

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