Sunday, 17 February 2008

Before We End and Begin Again

I’ve had a rough couple of weeks. My shoulder injury is hurting again and life in general has me rather down. I’ve been questioning my motivation and self belief, in climbing and other areas.

Why do I push myself so hard? I’m not seeing much progress, the opposite actually. I keep getting ill and injured. Is it worth it? Should I just give up? I don’t feel like I want the same things that I used to want. When is it time to let just go?

Why did I ever think I could change things; what was my basis? I though a look back might remind me where my notions of climbing were born from. Maybe they will give me what I need to persevere.

I’ve had a very odd relationship with climbing. I started indoors and progressed fast. I lead a few easy climbs outdoors, but I wasn’t happy. I wanted more. I wanted to be able to do moves outside that challenged me as much as the ones indoors, but given the pre-eminence of trad in my mind, this could only ever lead to one conclusion.

Climbing was a logical progression from hiking / hillwalking / scrambling, bits of which I have been doing for most of my life. My ultimate goal was actually to get into mountaineering. I enjoyed being in the hills far away from the noisy, polluted city that is my home. Even the relatively small mountains of Wales and Scotland seemed grand and majestic to me. I enjoyed being in their company and the reassuring feeling of insignificance helped to put the difficulties of my life into perspective.

I decided that a good foundation in rock climbing would serve as a basis for bigger and better things. Since I lived in London miles away from rock I went on an indoor climbing course at the Castle in November 2003. I quickly progressed through the grades and I remember clearly my first UK 5c top-rope one month later in December 2003. Shortly after this I top-roped a UK 6b slab on the first try. Looking back at it now, I realise that this period gave me a sense of confidence and reinforcing self belief which made climbing out to be the first sport I actually enjoyed. However, this initial period of progress also had a dark side that was about to make its self very clear. I soon grew very tired of top-roping and signed up for the next available leading course at the Castle in February 2004. Shortly after the course I led indoor routes up to UK 5c.

I've won the Boulder Ladder at the Castle so many times, I've stopped counting
That Easter (2004) I went to Portland for my first taste of outdoors and managed a few low grade routes. A desire to combine my new found climbing skills with my love of being in the mountains led me to take a week long trad leading course at PYB in April 2004. Shortly after the course I went on to do a few Welsh mountain classics. In June 2004 after trad climbing for 2.5 months I decided to tack on a bit of climbing after visiting my parents in the US.

The rock at the Gunks in New York state was nothing like the Welsh rhyolite and dolerite that I had experienced before. The rounded, horizontally broken rock was much more akin to gritstone and mostly protected by cams (which I hardly ever used before) and tricams (of which I had none). However, I liked the delicate face climbing. The features suited my style well. I did a few warm-ups and shortly afterwards wanted to jump on something more challenging. I chose a 5.8 (normally about HVS, but later I was to learn that the grades are ‘traditional’ and date from when 5.10 was the hardest grade) that I liked the look of and quickly started up. I had spied from the ground a crack, where I thought I could place a nut, however I got to it and realised that it was too shallow for gear. I continued, confident in my ability and assuming that I would find some gear soon. The crux came and I only had two dodgy cams placed near to the start. I did the crux moves, but then freaked out after realising there was still no gear to be found. I made the decision at about 35ft that I was now risking serious injury and decided the best course was to down climb. I managed to reverse the crux and made it down a few more feet to where I did a rock-over on tenuous edges. I now know the move was nearly impossible to reverse and I fell about 20ft directly onto the back of my head. The last sound I heard was my cams popping. I lost all of my vision and went through the usual ‘this is it’ type moments.

Eventually I came round and managed to walk out, however back at the hotel I became violently ill and decided to go to the hospital, where I was not surprisingly diagnosed with a concussion and received various comments along the lines of ‘we hardly ever treat women with massive head traumas – it’s normally (American) football players’.

My head CT

Very soon after, I tried to do some leading and managed a few climbs indoors and some ridiculously easy stuff at Portland in attempt to say ‘look, I’m fine’. I wasn’t though. After my accident, I got stuck in a cycle of not living up to my potential and being demotivated about climbing. I spent years getting scared on VDifs and trying to force myself to do the moves when all that I wanted was to be back on the ground. It also led me to question myself; if I can’t lead a VDiff what kind of a climber am I? I thought that if I got enough mileage at an easy grade I could slowly build up my confidence. Wrong. The easier climbs didn’t inspire me in the least and they even served to make me feel worse about myself.

Almost by chance I decided to go on a bouldering trip to Font with a few friends. I was really rubbish at bouldering (I think I managed a Font 5 on my first trip). Nonetheless I had fun and I was doing much more enjoyable moves on a Font 5 problem than I was on a VDiff route. But that was just a holiday abroad, what I really wanted to do was trad – or so I thought. I went on to do some leading indoors and made a huge amount of progress culminating in redpointing a F6c+ indoors last December. I also got a lot stronger by keeping up my bouldering.

Having fun in Font

Last spring I wanted to spend some time in the US and thought it would be great to combine this with climbing, but I didn’t want to have a repeat of my last trip so I decided on a bouldering holiday and Bishop fit the bill. As with my first trip to Font, I was nowhere near stellar, but managed to struggle up a V4 and a few V3’s. However what I did find was something amazing, something that had been shut off in my mind for years. For reasons way too lengthy to recount here, my career was basically put on hold and for a long time all that I had as a means of measuring progress in my life was climbing, but even that hadn’t been going well. I never felt that I lived up to my potential and it was very dispiriting. One day at the Happy Boulders I was climbing in a dusty cave working a V3 and I soon realised that I couldn’t span all the way across the roof to the lip, but I tried it anyway. I somehow managed a backwards dyno into an iron cross and stuck it! As is the nature of bouldering, I of course fell off the next move.

First trip to Bishop

For once I thought – maybe I can do this! Back in the UK on the first bank holiday weekend as per normal I went to North Wales and tried to do some leading. As was now the norm, I again fell to pieces on a run-out VS. This time I gave up. I finally realised that I wasn’t happy at all. While I loved being in the mountains, I hated feeling scared all of the time, looking for my next piece of gear and doing moves well below my limit.

Something just clicked and I decided to say good bye to trad for the time being at least and got semi-serious about bouldering. I started to find boulder problems that were pretty near to my limit, but just possible. When I sent them this just feed that old confidence that I hadn’t felt since I started out all of those years ago. I wanted to see just how far I could go with it. How strong could I actually get – how far could I push myself – what could I achieve?

I’ve always been an all or nothing person. I’m not inspired by things that aren’t a challenge. What attracted me to bouldering was the ability to work at my very physical limit, but by its very nature this doesn’t come easily. I’m not happy bimbling around on VSs. It’s not my personality. I sometimes wish it was different. I sometimes wish that I didn’t always want (or need?) more.

I’m constantly hard on myself. I don’t really know any other way to be. Early on I thought that it was within my abilities to achieve a few things for myself with climbing. It’s proving to be more of a struggle than I could have ever anticipated, but what else am I supposed to do? Give up? No, I’ll keep fighting, because that’s the only other thing I know.

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