On a sticky day last summer I was coaching a nice lady at Millstone in the Peak District. We’d done some fall practice on to gear and a bit of flow practice and then she attempted to onsight the hardest grade she’d ever lead. She get’s to the crux and starts to get flustered (as you do). I can see from the ground that she isn’t calm enough to be placing the gear well. She wants to say ‘take’ on her badly placed piece. I ask her if she could back up the piece and try to continue instead of saying ‘take’. She does as I’ve suggested, puts a second cam in under the first, climbs higher, falls, her top piece rips and the resulting slack in the rope goes around her leg, flips her upside down and she ends up a few meters above me quite shaken-up. There is a short, awkward silence after which one or two things could happen and (unbeknownst to her) may dictate the rest of her climbing life.
Was the experience so stressful and scary that she retreats away and never pushes her comfort zone again? Or was it the most liberating moment in her climbing life? Luckily for her (and me) it was the latter. After a short break she hops back on the sharp end and leads the route, her hardest ever lead. She lowers off, sunlight and psyche dazzling from her skin, beaming ear to ear. A few months later I get a thank you-email from her telling me she’s redpointed her hardest route this summer, her head is in the best shape it’s ever been and she’s really happy.
I still remember the crux hold on my pink 7a project at Under Cover Rock Climbing Wall (gym), Bristol. It looked just like a miniature banana. With tiny 9 year-old hands this thin, techy, horror-show especially suited me and I was especially keen to do it. Bringing this banana-shaped hold to mind evokes a plethora of other memories: the smells and feelings of another day ‘down the wall’. Chalk and dirt up the nose, a Cadbury’s Freddo and a brew at break time, the years of dust lying on the architecture of the old church. I’d done the route on top rope but I wanted to lead it. I knew there would be something missing in my mind if I didn’t lead it. But I was scared.
And so the mental demons of climbing up a wall came to me early in my life.
During other times I would be brave and confident. I remember standing in the queue for the campsite toilets in Pembroke (trad climbing area in South Wales) wellies sinking in the mud I overheard two grown men talking about me. ‘She led Blue Sky, that VS!’ ‘Yeah, she’s got bigger balls than us and she’s only 10!’ I squirmed in my shoes and hoped they wouldn’t see me. I hated this kind of attention and still to this day I dislike being on the receiving end of unabashed compliments. And yet under the timidity I felt like saying ‘Yeah I climbed it because I’m better than you. Just because I’m young and small it doesn’t mean I’m inexperienced.’ I understood that rock climbing had little to do with age, gender or size.
Yet there were times when I forced myself to go to the wall. Times when I was scared of climbing and I found it stressful. I wanted to go shopping with my friends and buy dresses for the next school disco. ‘Saturday night and I like the way you move’. Yes, that was the time of cheesy 90’s music and we wanted all the dance routines dialed. In the summer holidays I got annoyed when my Dad suggested going to Avon gorge instead of the beach. I got in to field Hockey. I still loved climbing, but it didn’t come easy. Maybe my womanly hormones were kicking in and biology was telling me as plainly as it could that evolution had not invested millions of years in humanity for me to hang off cliff faces.
Like most people I thought this growing and waning of motivation, fear, and confidence was something you endured. One minute you’re confident and brave, next minute you’re not, but that’s OK because you can just sit those bad times out and wait until you’re good again.
Luckily for me a few things challenged this belief. One was my Dad. He encouraged me to do fall practice when I was scared. More important was his general attitude to climbing. Unlike a lot of old-school trad climbers of his generation, he wasn’t of the mentality ‘the leader never falls’ he was of the mentality ‘if you don’t fall you’re not trying hard enough.’ If there has been one useful thing I’ve learnt from my Dad, it’s been this.
At the age of 17 I met a handsome lad who shared this mentality and we travelled around the world together climbing. Often people would remark on how brave I was or how confident I looked. But I knew that they wouldn’t have said anything if I’d been a boy so I shrugged it off.
Unfortunately for me I was someone who did well at school and so social conditioning dragged me to University kicking and screaming. I spent three years arguing about concepts you can’t test and at the end of it someone gave me a degree in Philosophy. During that time I read Aro Ilgner’s book ‘The Rock Warrior’s Way’ and it changed my life. I was already aware that I was slowly accumulating the mental strength to be a better climber but in the pages of Arno’s book, I became aware that you could train it. Just like you can train the muscles in your arms you can train the muscles in your mind. This planted a seed that has slowly been growing and right now that seed resembles a tiny plant in the shape of a small coaching business, specializing in mental training for climbers. So far it’s reached about 500 clients and has one employee: me.