Encore! Magnifique!

There are many things in climbing which can inspire you do do a particular route. Sometimes it’s just the only thing free, sometimes it’s the most striking line on a crag. Sometimes it’s even the fact that it’s not a striking line, it doesn’t follow any obvious weaknesses but somehow forces its way through unlikely terrain. Maybe it’s in a beautiful place, or has unusual moves. Perhaps it just plays to your strengths.

With Encore! Magnifique! the inspiring aspect certainly isn’t the scenery – an abandoned sandstone quarry in south Wales. The line is fairly strong, for a sport route, and the climbing is logical and challenging. What really inspired me to return to climb it was that it was something which had previously appeared impossible. When I started out we climbed at The Gap a lot, mainly because we didn’t have a guidebook and it was one place we knew with plenty of easier routes. At the time I had no concept of training or the gains that could be made through it and as such routes significantly harder than what we were already on were deemed impossible. We assumed that we just weren’t talented enough for them.

My perspective changed in the summer of 2009. I started sport climbing a lot in the Peak District. Initially it was to recover fitness after a few months of inactivity during my masters, but the fitness gains were far more than I’d expected and I was quickly ticking off routes I hadn’t imagined would be possible. I moved home after my studies and while unemployed paid a couple of visits to The Gap to have a look at the line and try the moves on an ascender. I was surprised to find that most of the route is fairly straightforward. It overhangs by a few degrees but the majority of the holds are positive and there are 3 short hard bits, each easier than the last.

I managed to climb most of the sequences but wasn’t convinced that I’d be able to handle the pump and climb the easier sections smoothly, or at all when I was tired. I couldn’t touch the first crux, barely stabbed my way through the second and the third “crux” is not really that hard in isolation, but would be a tricky powerful sequence to do after the initial climbing. The very last move is a real power sapper, a throw for the top of the crag, a big jug, but an easy move to mess up. I left feeling that it might be possible, but I didn’t expect to do it soon. I made one or two visits to work on the moves again but still couldn’t do the crux. Often this would cause me to give up, but I felt sure I would find a way.

I returned last summer and managed the crux move – twice. After an easy start you make a long move up to a jug rail at the lip of an overlap. The problem on the crux is that you have to get your feet high while using a small sidepull. There’s a lot of force going through the sidepull and I just wasn’t strong enough to use it. The other option was an all or nothing throw from the jug rail, without having to get feet quite so high. I managed the move by the skin of my teeth, but then couldn’t repeat it and the method was probably too powerful to allow me to complete the route.

So, I was surprised to return this week and find that not only could I do the move using the sidepull, I could also do it repeatedly. In three attempts (the second foiled by the rope jamming in the belay plate) I had done the route!

It shows what a bit of perseverance and belief can do, and it’s a nice indicator of how my fitness has improved over the last 12 months, and further back. In mid 2009 this was a route I wouldn’t have even bothered to attempt, by the end of that summer it had changed to being “worth a look” to then being something quite realistic and finally something well within my grasp. With some routes it’s nice to do them when they’re totally at your limit, with others the satisfaction can come from the journey from impossible to straightforward.

What made the real difference here is that I’m having a bit of a purple patch with my confidence. Head games in climbing come in many forms. There’s learning to deal with exposure and height, learning to fall on lead, learning the judgment to get you out of genuinely dangerous positions. Then there are the softer skills, learning to try really hard – really believing that you can do a move, or deal with the pump, and keeping calm as a result. There’s dealing with failure – this is probably most important. In the past I’ve found it easy to get angry with myself when making silly mistakes on routes. More recently (since an accident last year) I’ve been getting angry with myself for being scared in perfectly safe positions, and not dealing with to the point that it has created a mental block to doing a route. I’ve given myself a talking to on these points and made an effort to stay calm and to see any failure as simply part of the process – in particular that a failure means I have to do the route again, and that means I’ll be gaining more fitness. A positive mental attitude like this has had other benefits, not being afraid to fail on a move loosens you up, I use my feet better, my body positioning improves and I climb more fluidly. It’s a feedback effect too, by feeling looser and calmer and climbing fluidly that makes me calmer and more confident. Let’s hope it continues!

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