I wanted it all, and climbing provided the perfect route to getting it.
Nowadays things are rather different. Beers and a fire are replaced by L-glutamine and an early night. Partying gets ditched in favour of good recovery and another morning at the Tor. Trad is unjustifiable – not because of the danger, but because of the lost training time. In 2008 I remember totting up where I’d been at the end of the summer – Italian cracks, Irish trad, French sport – and realising that I’d spent about 3 times as many nights in a tent as a bed. I was proud of this, a sign of time well spent. Nowadays it would be the sign of wasted potential. How am I supposed to climb at my limit with a proper night’s sleep? Where it used to give me things to say yes to, now climbing makes me say no. Somewhere along the way, it’s morphed from an experience source into an experience drain.
So what changed? I got hooked. Not on climbing –I was hooked back then, already hopelessly addicted – but on improvement, on being good. Or at least trying to be. Don’t get me wrong, improvement was always important to me, but it was never quite the focus that it seems to have become. Or perhaps it was, but it just came more easily? Harder routes came simply with lots of climbing. It didn’t come particularly quickly, I wouldn’t consider myself talented, but an unhealthy obsession combined with fortuitous progression through a generous A-level module system, a gap year, a trad partnership with a stronger climber and finally moving to Sheffield and beginning to hang out with boulderers meant that relentless climbing at every opportunity did its job, and I steadily worked my way up through the grades. I was ‘training’ more as I progressed through this period, gradually reading more literature and slowly becoming more structured, but training would never take priority over climbing. Biking out to Rivelin to go soloing was the pre-lectures session of choice, rather than my current favourite of an early session on the fingerboard with a stopwatch. That it would make my evening bouldering session less effective wasn’t the major consideration that it now would be. Today improvement means sacrifice, and it’s a sacrifice of experiences.
All is not lost, however. My difficulty obsessed, grade focused, sport climbing self is still rewarded with new, different experiences. A post-uni gap year involved a van rather than a tent, as well as more broccoli and less cake than it might have done a few years earlier, but was still almost certainly the most fun year of my life to date, and left me with a level of contentment beyond which I’d rarely experienced. Success on projects or hard-trained-for trips leaves a satisfaction which comes more rarely than in previous years, but perhaps lasts all the longer for it. Maybe the new experiences are simply less overt and more subtle than before? Or maybe I’m just kidding myself, trying to justify the route I continue to travel down, despite the occasional gnawing worry that I’m letting parts of life slip by in favour of the workaholic approach that I my former self was warning about, 10 years ago, albeit in an ironically different context to what had been envisaged.
Today I went trad climbing for the first real time in years. Headpointing too, something I’ve not done since my formative era down Avon Gorge, when experience was the only game in town. It felt unfamiliar and intimidating, but the same brain was in there somewhere, ready to do its job. Standing on top, the sun dipping below the horizon, I felt differently to how I have done for a long while. It reminded me of the mindset where climbing is an alternative to normal life, rather than just a different channel of it. I’m not saying that’s a better different, nor a worse different. But different can be good. The obsession with getting better isn’t about to go anywhere, the stopwatch won’t be gathering dust anytime soon, and there will still be sacrifices, but maybe it’s time to reopen that door to experiences just a little?
- Alex Barrows