Positive Mental Attitude. Or in my case, the way things had gone on my last outdoor climb, Papped Meself Again. I felt pretty down after my last bit of proper climbing. I had failed to even get off the ground on a lead climb that I knew I could pretty much walk up on second. Possibly because of this, my enthusiasm had also taken a bit of a knock, and that, combined with a really hard few weeks at work meant that I have really taken my eye off the ball as far as climbing goes over the past month. I reckon I only got out once, for a quick hour at Cambridge. Which of course was complete toilet, as it always is.
However. Something happened on Friday that changed all that. Something that has actually quite astounded me, when I look back and realise just how far down in the dumps I was a few weeks ago. I had a day of climbing coaching with Adrian Berry, which Sol had paid for by way of a birthday present. I knew that it was an extremely generous present, but I had no idea how valuable it would turn out to be. The plan was to meet up with Adrian in the cafe at Outside in Hathersage, somewhere around 10am. The weather looked kind of OK, with showers but a stiff breeze that would dry the rock out pretty quickly. We had the option to cancel if the weather looked dodgy, but as we’d both taken the day of work anyway, we decided to risk it, and if it all got a bit damp we’d just head off to a climbing centre in Sheffield to practise some climbing technique. So, we turned up at 9am in order to get some breakfast in, and promptly hit our first obstacle of the day. The place didn’t open ’til 09:30. However, a bit of wandering around soon wasted the necessary half hour, and so we sat down to a bit plate of fried brekkie and buckets of tea. Marvellous.
And, right on cue, Adrian turned up at bang on 10. We looked at the weather, and decided that it was still too damp to do anything, so we just had another cup of tea and chatted about this and that. Adrian came across as being quiet, reserved, and just the kind of chap that I’d like to trust on a day out climbing. It was obvious from the start that he wasn’t there to massage our ego with motivational talk, and this suits my way of doing things down to the ground. Working for a large American corporation I’ve seen enough insincere and false motivational bullshit to last me a lifetime. And his methods of getting to question our choices started before we even got to the crag.
“What gear do you have?”
“A couple of sets of nuts, a set of hexes, some cams…”
“What size cams?”
“Errrr… Dunno. We’ve got four of them though”
“Do you reckon that will be enough for large breaks on grit?”
Sol & I looked blankly at each other. And then we turned to the subject of shoes…
“What shoes do you have?”
“Not the blue suedey ones?”
“Um. Yup. Are they crap then?”
“That’s for you to decide. Very much a beginners shoe. Are they comfortable?”
Ah! Brilliant. I can impress him that I don’t wear my shoes too tight…
“Oh yes, I can wear them all day”
“Not ideal then. You have a beginners shoe that is the wrong size”
So, armed with a large dent in my wallet after buying new shoes and cams, we headed off up to Stanage. And oddly enough, I’d been agonising with the decision to buy a new pair of shoes for months. Worth pointing out here, that Adrian very carefully made sure to let us know that he isn’t on any kind of commission from the shop. Which is a shame, as he gave us some bloody good advice on choosing gear.
First thing to try at the crag was a spot of bouldering, padding up a steep slab. Adrian went first, showing us how easy it was. I went second, and bloody hell, if he wasn’t right as well. The new shoes made a huge difference to my confidence, and after a couple of goes, and a bit of practical advice about using my hips more to move my centre of gravity, I went up a few more times feeling more comfortable each time. Next up was a problem that from the ground, looked easier than the first. Hah! I knew I could do this with my eyes closed… Only I couldn’t. Eh? I got two moves off the ground, wobbled around, and jumped off. Eh? How could that happen!? My new found confidence was instantly deflated. Sol, meanwhile, who had been looking at the route, quietly jumped on it, moved left where the handholds went right, and walked up the rest of it.
“That’s an important lesson. Read the route, and look for foot placements first. Once you’re on the route the hand placements will come naturally, but if you don’t have good solid foot placements, you won’t be going anywhere. Well done Sol. Have another go Neil.”
And so I did. And at the first time of trying I got to the top, with a slight wobbly moment at one point when I realised that I’d never soloed anything this high before. So, after one small boulder problem I’d already learned that I could push myself outside of my previous comfort zone without anything terrible happening, and had also gained a wealth of practical knowledge in terms of how to place my feet, how to use the grip, how to keep my centre of gravity in the right place and the importance of clean shoes. Next problem was described as a ‘friction problem’ and after watching Sol fall from it three times before nailing it, I knew I would struggle. And I did. Nine times I slipped off while transferring weight from one foot to another. And on one glorious occasion I got the crux move, stepped up, and promptly slipped down on my belly again.
“That was interesting. You did the hard bit, then got carried away and moved your foot too high. Slow it down a bit, take smaller steps, and remember what I said about hip placement.”
Deep breath, touch rock, and before I know it, I’m at the top. Brilliant! I was so chuffed!
“Good. Now, try and do it with a bit more control, and without using your hands so much when you get near the top.”
What!? Use my hands less when I’m most out of my comfort zone? Is he mad? Another deep breath, and this time with a bit more thought about keeping my centre of gravity vertically above my feet, I walked up. And even I, a complete climbing novice, could feel the difference between bodging my way up previously relying on luck and finger strength, and doing it properly in control. Blimey. Not even lunchtime and I was in the middle of a radical rethink about the way I climb. It’s absolutely not about just thugging my way up to the top of a route and then moving up to the next grade. All that will teach me is how to complete one route at a particular grade. And it didn’t take Adrian to tell me that. I just needed to find it out for myself, and that’s exactly what I’d just done.
We headed off to Burbage North to try and find something drier to have a crack at, and Adrian pointed us at Knight’s Move – which I knew to be HVS 5a, and therefore completely impossible. No point in even trying it. Sol, however, was bouncing with confidence and enthusiasm, and was tied in before I had a chance to even get my belay plate on. Adrian had rigged up a fixed rope next to us, so he could get a good idea of our skills in gear selection and placement. So, off Sol went. And after a couple of moments where he wasn’t sure of the gear and Adrian made him question why he’d placed the gear where he had, he topped out without too much problem.
My turn. Oh well. In for a penny… And the first half of the route actually went reasonably easily, using my new found methods of padding up slabs trusting in friction rather than just grabbing at handholds that aren’t really there. I was constantly aware of Adrian three feet to my right, quietly encouraging when I got something right, and questioning why I’d made some more dubious decisions. And then, at about three quarters of the way up, on the last hard move, I lost it.
“I can’t do this”
“Yes you can. It’s easier than the moves you’ve been making all day.”
“Really I can’t. I’m not comfortable. F**king hell, I don’t like this.”
And I really wasn’t comfortable. Adrian, however, just made me slow myself down, take a good look around, and work out what to do next. And while I can’t pretend I found the next move that easy to make, I did it, and that was it. About three easy moves later I was at the top. I had to stop for a minute to take stock of what had just happened. I’d just climbed HVS 5a. Given that last time out I’d backed off a S 4a I was really quite astounded at what had just happened. And it wasn’t just a case of Adrian saying “OK, left foot there, handhold to your right, number 5 nut in the crack, right foot up, blah blah”. That would have just shown me the mechanics of a single route. Not shown me that I can work these problems out for myself, take myself way outside my comfort zone, and still come out on top.
And with that, we packed up, and wandered along to have a crack at Long Tall Sally, which I was by now really looking forward to. Only the weather was starting to turn against us, and the bottom of the route was already wet. To cut a long story short, Sol quite brilliantly managed it, to pull his first E1 lead out of the hat. It took 45 minutes and three falls, but he made it. And for some reason this made me feel immensely proud too, but I haven’t got a clue why. By the time it was my go, the bottom of the route was actually running with water. I slipped off the first move three times, and called it a day. But I didn’t mind. My expectations had already been blown completely away by what I’d achieved.
I’m still completely amazed with what I achieved with Adrian’s help. And when I said at the start that it was a very generous present, the value I’ve taken from it far outweighs the cost. And yes, I hope to be spending a few more days in the company of Adrian over the next few years, to build on what I’ve learned so far, and to give myself the best possible chance of being able to continue to push myself to new heights.