Guy's Blog

Guy frequently keeps this blog updated with thoughts, challenges, interviews and more!

Scaling new heights

I’ve taken up indoor climbing as a hobby. Nothing too serious, and no hanging off skyscrapers. Some friends of ours invited me along, and it was fun, physically and mentally demanding, and reasonably safe. 

I have a general rule not to take up new hobbies that don’t have a social component. I spend more time alone (usually writing) than is probably good for my mental health (I may be an introvert, but I’m not a misanthrope), so any new activity must include other people. Climbing fits that, because I usually go with the friends (Ross and Katie). I should also mention that the climbing centre (Avid, in Ipswich) is a relaxed and friendly place, staffed entirely by really good climbers, who are always happy to advise on climbing technique, and make beginners feel welcome. It passes the ‘would I want my kids to train here test’- and yes, I do take my kids every now and then.

As you can imagine, being an experienced martial artist I picked up a lot of the basics quite quickly, and I’ve come up with an informal training approach that you might find useful to think about as it can be applied to any discipline.

As I see it, climbing has three aspects:

  • Skill
  • Strength
  • Bravery

Or, if you prefer, mental, physical, and spiritual dimensions. 

Mental training: Skill

Being able to see the route is a skill, and I’ll sometimes have to work out how to approach a particular route. Often, I can’t do it in my head, and have to get someone who knows what they’re doing to show me. But with experience comes the ability to see the way up. It’s very rewarding.

Physical training: Strength

My agility is perfectly up to the task- so far I haven’t failed on a route because of lack of flexibility. But strength? Oh my. Compared to climbers, martial artists like me are weak as underfed kittens. No, that’s not fair. Compared to climbers, my hands are weak as kittens. But my hands are actually pretty good… 

Sometimes a route requires the ability to generate force in odd directions, and I find that even though I’m strong enough in most dimensions, I just have never needed to generate force that way before. It’s awesome.

Spiritual training: Bravery

As with all challenges, the key to growth is to get to the edge of failure. Because of my particular phobias, climbing can generate a kind of existential dread or terror that is really challenging to confront even though it’s a very safe space. It’s a lot like flying trapeze in that way (though actually less scary than that). 

As regular readers will know, I’m always on the lookout for things that generate irrational levels of fear. Some routes in the climbing centre are really quite easy, but scare the crap out of me. Others are much harder, but not scary at all. Overhangs, and not being able to see the footholds, are both good stimulators of fear. Being able to generate irrational fear allows me to practise remaining calm when frightened.

Structuring the session around the three elements:

I go about twice a week, until my hands give out (usually about an hour). I structure each session like so:

10-15 minutes warming up. This starts with normal warm-up stuff such as squats, quadripedal exercises (aka funny crawling), rolls and so on, and continues with relatively easy routes. I have no joint issues (thanks to decades of careful training, and no bad accidents), so I don’t have to be especially careful, but at the age of 45 it pays to have a cautious approach.

Then I look for technical challenges, especially routes I’ve failed on before. Figuring out how to get past the difficult bits. This is usually mostly mental. If the problem is near the end of the route, I’ll usually ‘cheat’ my way there, and just work on that one move until I’m happy with it. I try to avoid fatigue in this stage.

Then I do at least one scary bastard. One not-very-hard route gave me what felt like a panic attack. It was really unpleasant, but very useful for practising remaining in control when my amygdala is going haywire.

After the fear-practice, I go for physical exertion. At Avid they have a circuits wall, with numbered routes (you’re not supposed to skip a hold, and should go in order). They are really hard. My forearms feel like they’ve been mangled. It’s great.

If my feeling after the circuits is that I nailed it, I stop there. Otherwise, I’ll find a route I know I can do and climb that. Every session must end with a success, which is defined entirely subjectively.

On any given day, I’ll be feeling stupid, or weak, or fearful. I still challenge the weakest aspect, but more gently, spending more time on the areas where I feel up to the task.

One final thought: I don’t fall very often, and have yet to fall more than a metre or so. This is what limits my progress and, far more than technical skill, separates me from the expert climbers. They fall off the wall like apples off a tree in autumn. The place practically vibrates with really good climbers hitting the mats. But us beginners? We’re like limpets stuck to the wall.

The experts are that good because they are always pushing their boundaries. They are trying routes that are just out of their reach. And failing over and over again. I’ll never be that good because I’m not willing to risk those falls (even though the mats are deep and squishy). And that’s okay- my priorities are different, and I don’t mind how slowly I progress. I’m doing this for fun!

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