“Have you always progressed in your climbing?” I was asked by my friend, Louis, at our local climbing wall.
As we were talking about grades, it would have been easy to answer that my progression had been steady up to a point. To say that my personal ’best’ was now almost 10 years ago. That since then, I have not yet climbed a harder grade and therefore have not progressed.
However, this isn’t how I feel. Looking at climbing (or any other sport) purely in terms of grades, speed, volume or trophies leaves out so much. It was during times when I couldn’t push my grade that I was given the opportunity to bring my attention to aspects of climbing that I had neglected, yet which are of importance to becoming a more versatile as well as efficient climber.
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.”