“Have you always progressed in your climbing?” I was asked by my friend, Louis, at our local climbing wall.
This time around we opted to go a touch further south but still on the coast, to the Lofoten Islands. Lofoten is another area of breathtaking beauty and is home to some amazing mountains with plenty of winter climbing potential. We didn’t have any real plans or objectives, we just wanted to do lots of climbing and have a good safe trip. On the first day, we drove around looking gathering ideas for potential routes and spoke to some of the amazingly friendly locals for updates on the current conditions. This gave us a good feel for the area and we swiftly got stuck into the action in the days that followed.
There was no easing into the climbing, and on the first day, we managed to open a pretty awesome route that was home to some intricate and very testing climbing! We weren’t particularly looking for something hard, but we also don’t like to shy away from a challenge. We called the route ‘Terrible Twos’, as it was my nephews second birthday that day and the second pitch was the one that put up the fight.
During times of injury I learned to appreciate climbing grades far below my personal best. It was all my body would let me do during those times. It was here that I rediscovered flow and grace on extremely easy ground. Prior to injury, a mind fixed on climbing harder had made me physically strong, but at the same time had disconnected me from a deeper level of body awareness. A shoulder-pain gave me the chance to reconnect and to explore movement on gentle slabs. I learned to direct my attention towards minuscule things. The essence of balance and ease, exploring my inner world during gentle movement, my body responding to the rock rather than me driving it up it. When do we really take time to do this when climbing our best, when fit and healthy and able to physically push ourselves?
Another time, when a significant life event threw me into periods of extreme emotional pain, climbing performance was the last thing I worried about. Yet it was climbing that also helped me eventually find balance and joy again: sharing gentle time on rock with close friends who endured my tears and despair. It was a cathartic time that allowed me to discover aspects of climbing I had not been in touch with before. I understood its profound impact on my well-being in completely new ways. Not by climbing hard routes but through feeling its gentle ability to reconnect my broken heart to the present moment.
During a recent eight-month period of physical inactivity I feel my climbing improved. How can that be? I had lost significant muscle mass and fitness, yet the previous months of regular meditation, gentle foot and leg awareness activities, as well as practising the Alexander Technique had allowed me to reconnect with my body in entirely new ways. Rather than feeling rusty I felt connected, at ease and was able to pick up again on rock where I had left off. It wasn’t until I started to climb again that I realised my ‘progression’ during the many months away from climbing. Not marked by a grade, but by how I experienced climbing.
As a climbing instructor and coach, I have the privilege to accompany people and see their climbing progress. I may see regression in somebody doing their hardest climb, I may see progression in somebody climbing way below their usual ‘best’. It is not the grade that tells me when somebody just had a breakthrough of somatic, emotional or cognitive understanding. The clues are instead body and facial language, the change in ease and quality of movement; HOW the climber applies herself to the rock at a particular moment.
Climbing is not just a physical game. Successfully navigating a path up our chosen piece of rock largely depends on the ability to effectively manage and regulate attention, energy, balance and emotions. It requires intimate knowledge of our body and mind and how these interact with the space we move through. It requires working with, rather than against who we are in order to use our potential to its fullest in any given moment. These things are not so much learned on a finger board or in the gym, but in everyday life.
I felt more at ease with my final answer I gave to Louis: “Yes, I feel that there has always been progression in my climbing. This progression has sometimes been reflected in grades but more often not. Today my grades may be less consistent than 10 years ago and I climb far less than I did in the past. When I do climb, I experience greater ease, efficiency and joy. Attention has long ago shifted from what I climb towards how I climb and with this shift of attention, a universe of infinite learning has opened up and with it a sensation of steady evolution.”
Words by | Jude Spancken