I have a shiny new harness and fresh new rock shoes. Dave suggested it might be a good idea to replace some of my aging equipment. Dave Talbot was the man hanging from a rope next to me as I made my way up a route at Wintours Leap in the Wye Valley, and buzzing in my ear with the repeated question: ‘Why are doing you doing it like that?’ I’d paid him to do that: to give me a climbing MOT- it felt more like a second driving test and I hated my mouth for its insistent excuses and justifications . Instructing ‘experienced’ climbers must be like giving driving lessons to ‘experienced’ drivers – there will be a wall of resistance to any suggestion that what they are doing is in any way incorrect. And that’s how it was – initially. My wall was well built as evidenced by the amount of pleas and protestations and ‘buts’ that came from my mouth last Friday. I wished I would shut up.
What he was telling me (‘suggesting’ to me) was everything I’d heard before (mostly) , but somehow it had become lost in the mists of time and bad habits… and it was oh so difficult to get to that place where I could listen and absorb without my wall of pride flinching. But we got there, eventually.
‘Starting routines: Have one. Know exactly where your gear is on your harness. Why do you use a bandolier? It gets in the way. Get more harness loops. Oh look your harness is so worn away the red bit that shows you should replace it has been worn away. Your shoes have no edge and holes on the toes. Get a chalk bag on a bit of tat. Don’t put it on your harness. Stop clutter and reduce weight. Be tidy. Be exact. Be ritualised. Look up at the route. Where will the first bit of the gear go? How are you going to get there? Where are the holds? Break up the route into bite sized pieces. Stop and look. Now off you go…’
So it’s not a matter of feeling scared and not looking at it and just diving in with a vague idea where gear might be on my harness?
I start with his buzzing filling my head, placing nuts, hexs and cams as I go.
‘Look for the V’s. Look for all the possibilities for placements, not just the first one you see. Where exactly will you be placing the gear? Which gear? Grade it out of 5. Outward/ upward /downward pull? Add gear until it adds to 5. When you can rest, put in 2 bits on both ropes – that will make a 10 which is the strength of a belay and that should fill you with happiness before you make the tricky move. You should get to the stage where you can put it in quickly, first time. And it’s a really bad idea not to hold on with the other hand while you put in the gear.Climb every route the same way, with the same routines.’
‘But. But. But’, I want to protest. By this time a slight melt-down is going on in my head. The wall is crumbling and I have to deal with its tumble and fall and re-construct it as a positive and beautiful thing quickly. I succeed. I listen and absorb and the light bulb goes on.
My fear as I have gone up the grades as increased because my confidence in my gear hasn’t. I haven’t been accurately appraising it and been throwing it in more and more randomly in the haste of fear that comes on steep routes with a quick thought of ‘probably good enough’ , which is a vagueness that only generates more fear. Fear on fear on fear. And less and less good gear. I really need to eat humble pie and go back to basics.
I’m shocked how some bad habits are so engrained . Dave has to repeat: ‘Hang on to the rock while you’re putting that in!’ – and I’m shocked how casual I have become. We peer intently at a sexy 3 point belay made up of 10 point graded placements – ‘ Independent and equalised’ – and I realise I’ve forgotten what the ‘independent’ bit means… please can I go home now and never go climbing again. How is it I am alive still?
Dave the bee buzzes all day. Yes I feel like an amateur again but I know I have to do this – listen and absorb. So I take this rebuilt stack of information and re-found knowledge and take it to Symonds Yat a week later, where I do a route I would usually avoid – ‘steep and polished at the beginning’. I put in lots of lots of good gear ( 9 points) deep in the crack high up above the polished rock and make the moves and enjoy it.
I have rekindled my mojo. Thanks for the magic numbers Dave.