To wish the impossible

To wish the impossible

I have mixed feelings about New Years’ Resolutions. On the one hand, I like the idea of using it as a time to think about what I’m doing, what’s working and what isn’t, and refocus on new challenges. In practice I’ve never been very successful with them. Usually I’ll come up with a bunch of things that I know I should do more often. Sometimes I even manage to keep it up for a month or two, but usually it peters out without leading to any lasting change. 

Lots has already been written about goal setting, and how goals should be SMART (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, Time-bound). But getting all this right can be like having a car with world class controls but no engine: there’s still something missing.

This year I did something different. I hadn’t planned to; the idea just appeared in my head one day in January while we were at the climbing wall. I said to Steve “this is going to be the year I climb a 7a”. 

I’d been climbing since 2014, but had plateaued somewhere around the low 6s in 2017 and hadn’t made much progress since. I wanted to get good at climbing, and I wasn’t getting any younger, but for one reason or another I kept putting it off.

Why I’d stopped improving

If I was honest with myself, there were some obvious reasons I wasn’t getting better. 

One was that I simply wasn’t putting the time in. I had lots of other things going on, and when life got busy it would fall by the wayside for a few weeks or months. A second was the lack of any kind of plan or structure to my climbing. We’d turn up at the wall, climb for a bit, go home. It was a great way to have fun, but the lack of progression was starting to feel frustrating. If I wanted to get better, I’d need to be a bit more organised about how I was doing it. And finally, perhaps the biggest reason was that I’d got stuck in my comfort zone. Climbing hard means falling off, and falling off can be scary. Even if you know, rationally, that your equipment will keep you safe, most human brains take a bit of convincing before they’re entirely cool with the idea of plummeting towards the ground from a significant height. Sometimes it’s just easier to climb things you know you can climb, without pushing your limits or having to give your brain a bit of a pep talk. Comfort zones are… comfy.  

Climbing 7a was an ambitious goal for me, but that was the point. A year seemed like long enough to make a difference, but short enough to keep me focused on the deadline. What I needed was a goal that was big enough to motivate me to commit the time, come up with a plan, and get out of my comfort zone. 

Subgoals

The obvious first step was to break the big goal down into a series of smaller subgoals. The first of those was to get in a minimum of three climbing sessions a week, plus some extra fitness work off the wall. That would mean other hobbies taking a back seat for a while. That was perhaps one of the hardest things to commit to, but as the analogy goes, you can’t keep pouring water into an already full bucket (or, more accurately, you can, but you just get wet feet). 

Getting myself back into good shape seemed like a relatively easy win. I was already doing some strength training but not as regularly as I could be, and my cardio definitely needed some work. I was also heavier than I needed to be. Not massively so, but I could definitely afford to lose a few kilos which would mean less to carry up the wall with me. Since so much of climbing depends on having a good grip strength to weight ratio, this would hopefully make things easier.

Fear of falling

The west coast of Portland. Quite often sunnier than this!

Coming up with a training plan was relatively straightforward, but more challenging was the psychological aspect. When you’re climbing near your limit, being worried about falling off can become the thing that holds you back. This is true even for more experienced climbers (some say that you never completely get over the fear of falling). Climbers often work on this by taking practice falls in training. The idea is to start with something that makes you mildly anxious but not utterly terrified – like taking a very small fall, with the rope catching you straight away. Once that starts to feel more comfortable, you take the next step – a slightly larger fall. In this way, you can build up to taking much bigger falls that you know are safe, but that would originally have felt far too scary. 

The method works well but it takes a lot of repetition. After a while you might start to feel more confident falling off, but then move to a different wall (or even a different part of the same wall), or come back on a different day, or go outside, or change one of any number of other variables and you may find that you have to do it all over again. Training your brain to feel ok about balancing on pebble sized holds twenty metres or more above the ground isn’t something you cover in an afternoon; it’s an ongoing process.

The journey

As the weather warmed up, we started doing more outdoor climbing. Free weekends and days off became all about checking the weather forecast and finding a crag that was likely to be dry. An unexpected benefit of this was that I started to really look forward to and feel the benefit of spending time outdoors. It became a way to put everything else going on in my head to one side for a few hours. Despite the physical exertion and related aches and pains, I found that I was getting back from a weekend’s climbing feeling mentally relaxed and refreshed.

My “relaxed and refreshed” face. Not to be confused with my “bloody knackered” face.

The consistency gradually started to pay off. I went from barely managing to haul myself up a 6a in January to working on – and eventually sending – my first 6c project a few weeks after my 45th birthday in July. Once I started trying the harder climbs, it turned out that I could do most of the moves; the challenge was having the confidence to go for it. Slowly that got easier. 

By the beginning of September, everything was on track. I’d bagged a couple more 6c routes up in North Wales, and had even started looking at a 7a climb on Portland called “To Wish The Impossible”. I’d tried it on a top rope, and could do most of the moves; the challenge was going to be putting it together. But I had lots of time! We’d planned a climbing trip to Kalymnos at the end of September (our belated honeymoon), and I was starting to think that I’d be able to get my 7a on that trip.

Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face

Then on 9th September (the day after the Queen died), out of the blue, I got really ill. I ended up in hospital with severe abdominal pain that turned out to be a large pelvic abscess. Intravenous antibiotics weren’t enough to sort it out, and I ended up having an emergency laparotomy. Not only was the trip to Kalymnos off the agenda but, with the surgery to recover from, it was going to be a while before I’d be back to climbing, never mind at the level I’d got to before.

This was definitely not how it was supposed to go!

I’m sure the sensible thing under the circumstances would have been to realise that I had a perfectly good reason for delaying my goal. It wasn’t even as though there was any desperate urgency. After all, the climb would still be there after Christmas, and the deadline of the end of the year that I’d set for myself was entirely arbitrary. Ultimately it wouldn’t make much difference if I climbed my 7a in January instead of November. Having a goal to work towards had pushed us to get out climbing on weekends when we might otherwise have stayed at home, and to have a go at things that I might otherwise have left until I was feeling braver. I’d made more progress than I had in the previous five years put together, and fallen in love with climbing along the way. From that point of view it had already been a success.

If the value of a goal lies in the journey rather than the destination, how desperately should you try to get over the finish line? There are definitely times where it makes sense to rethink: as the saying goes “every corpse on Mount Everest was once an extremely motivated individual”. But how do you know when to let go, and when to grit your teeth and try a bit harder? 

I didn’t want to take the chance of ending up back in hospital, and I’d had several well qualified friends tell me in no uncertain terms exactly why I shouldn’t rush things. If I was going to do this, I knew I needed to get it right. I started putting together another plan. 

Getting back on the wall

Fortunately, rehabilitation is something I know a bit about. The principles of gradually recovering from an injury or surgery are ones that I apply every day in my job: it’s largely about doing lots of small, unexciting things consistently and managing to resist the urge to do too much too soon. 

I’m not always good at following my own advice when it comes to rehab; in general, I’m a pretty terrible patient. This time, though, with my goal in mind I did it by the book. I started by going for daily walks, gradually progressed to light exercise, and eventually – in excruciatingly small steps – worked my way back to climbing. 

Finally, around the middle of November I was about ready to give it another go. We headed back to Portland. I’d decided to return to the climb I’d already worked on: To Wish The Impossible

Climbing can be tough on the skin…

The weather was glorious. I spent two days on the route. Technically I wasn’t climbing badly, but my endurance still wasn’t back to where it had been in the summer and I was getting tired quickly. The first day was mostly about trying to remember how the route went. By the end of Sunday, I’d figured out how to put it all together and managed to string together the hard section of the climb. I came frustratingly close to a clean ascent on my final attempt: my foot slipped while going for the last hard move. I wanted another go, but knew I was exhausted and had lost most of a layer of skin. 

At that time of year, though, there was no guarantee I’d get the weather for another go. I wondered whether the name of the climb might prove ironically apt.

Last chance

I watched the weather forecasts obsessively. Cold was fine, but wet would be a no go. As it happened, we did get another chance the following weekend. I’m very fortunate to have a climbing partner who doesn’t mind spending several weekends enabling my obsessiveness (although, to be clear, that’s not the only reason I married him!). 

I spent the week in between repeatedly visualising the sequence of moves for the more difficult crux section of the climb and going through it step by step in my head. It’s a habit I picked up from the sport psychology work I’d done during my MMA days, and one that transfers well to climbing. 

When we got to the base of the cliff on Saturday morning, I realized there might be a problem. Although the weather looked dry over the weekend, it had rained a lot during the week and in places there was still runoff seeping down the face of the cliff. Sections of the climb were damp, and in places actually dripping. That’s never a good sign, and when climbing near my limit it could easily be a dealbreaker. It would all depend on whether the holds on the hardest section of the climb were dry enough. 

What do you mean, “it’s a bit damp“?!

Steve went up the route first bolt by bolt to put the gear in and set up a top rope so I could take a look at it. It turned out that the crucial holds were dry-ish. The top section was very wet, but the climbing there was easier. Not perfect conditions by a long stretch but worth a shot having got that far. One of the sports psychology sayings that’s stuck with me is to “control the controllables”. In other words, there’s no point worrying about things you can’t control; but you can decide what you’re going to do in response to them. 

On the first go, I came off the ledge halfway up when my foot slipped. Dammit. Back down to the bottom. Mental note to take a slightly different route on the lower section to avoid getting my shoes wet next time.

The second go went smoothly. There’s something about the pressure of a deadline that focuses the mind. I made it through the crux section, and hit the move that I’d fallen off the previous week. A short section of easy climbing and I was there; I just needed to hold it together and not slip off any of the holds at the top. It seemed much harder and more treacherous than it had been the countless times I’d climbed it before, and I’m sure that wasn’t just down to the conditions.

Obligatory Instagram moment at the end of the trip (disclaimer: may not actually be on Instagram).

The feeling on getting to the top was equal parts relief and elation. My hands took a few minutes before they’d stop shaking. It’s odd how an entirely personal and arbitrary goal can take on such an importance. It’s not like competing in a sport where there’s an audience, and wins and losses come with prizes or carry wider consequences for an athlete’s career. Ultimately it’s just between me and a bit of rock, but it feels significant just the same. Human brains are funny things.

It feels like I’ve crammed a lot into 2022. It’s had its highs and lows, but most of all it’s felt like an adventure. Perhaps I should have titled this blog “one weird trick for having your best year yet” (your mileage may vary).

Seriously, though, give it a try. If you feel like you’re stuck in a rut, don’t waste your New Year’s Resolutions on dull things you feel you ought to do but don’t really care about. Think about what you’d really like to achieve – something you could probably manage with a year’s focused effort – and decide now that 2023 will be the year you do it. 

For those of you who want to see the ‘send’ (what climbers call a successful attempt to climb a route), here’s the YouTube clip. Forgive the shoddy audio and poor quality – shot on a smartphone! – but you can see just how wet the rock was to the right of my route, from the incessant seepage pouring off it!

Rosemary Sexton

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