The deception of perception…

…or, how I should learn not to always trust my instincts.

After our first day out with Adrian Berry a few weeks ago, Sol and I had been keen to go back for another days coaching to reinforce the skills we had learned, and maybe push things on a little harder. Things hadn’t really looked too good for this for a while, as I was working all the hours under the sun, Sol was similarly tied up, and Adrian was planning to spend a few weeks in Morocco. However, at the last minute, everything came together and so a plan was hatched to drive up to the Peak District on Friday, camp over, go to Froggatt with Adrian on Saturday, then on to Horseshoe Quarry on Sunday for something entirely different. As always, various weather forecasts were looked at until we found one that looked vaguely promising, and we believed that one over the others while we made our plans. And, as we should have expected, it started raining pretty much the moment we got on the road on Friday night, and absolutely heaved it down all the way to the campsite, whereupon we pitched our tent in a swamp, and went to the local pub for a couple of pints before turning in.

Saturday morning saw us heading into Hathersage to grab some breakfast and for a quick look for a waterproof jacket for Sol as he had left his at home. We didn’t find a jacket, but we did find the biggest breakfast I’ve ever seen, at the little bakery just up the Grindleford road. Now named the ‘Hathersage Heart-attack’, it was a fry-up of biblical proportions, and utterly utterly brilliant. Grease duly consumed, we drove up to Froggatt, met Adrian, and walked to the crag through the puddles and mud. The sun was trying to come out, but it really didn’t look too promising. First thing we did when we got to the top of the crag was to find a reasonably dry boulder, and we spent about an hour there, just playing really, but always under the watchful gaze of Adrian, who would occasionally stop me, get me to question why I was doing something particular way, and get to to really *think* about what I was doing rather than just grabbing big holds and thugging my way around the place. This culminated in a great exercise for me, where I wasn’t allowed to look upwards. I could look dead ahead, but no higher. The idea was that it would make me concentrate on my feet more rather than looking for big juggy holds and then pulling myself into a position with good hands but crap feet. And it worked brilliantly. So much so that while Sol and Adrian sat and had a cup of tea and a chat, I just carried on, constantly finding new ways up the boulder without even thinking of my hands – just feeling upwards, not consciously choosing handholds. Brilliant.

Right then. First climb of the day… Adrian pointed me up Sunset Crack and off I went. What a lovely climb! Slightly tricky move to get over the bulge at the base of the crack, but with great protection, and a lovely position on the edge of the slab. I really enjoyed this one, and topped out with a big smile on my face. All those exercises on footwork obviously paid off, as although not the trickiest climb in the world, there are a couple of places where good footwork makes it a lot more pleasurable – rather than hanging onto the crack by my fingers I was relying on my feet, and using my hands more for balance than motive power. Oh, and for placing the gear of course. Sol then whizzed up the climb, pronounced it easy, and geared up for an ascent of Sunset Slab. I knew that in my head I wasn’t ready to lead this one, as it is very much a bold route – no protection on the upper half of the slab. At which point Adrian soloed up to the flake and pocket, and tested some protection comprising of two skyhooks and a cam – it certainly looked like it might hold a fall, but nobody was too keen to test it! Sol led the climb, and made it look easy. A simple start up to the slab, which gradually steepens up towards the top. I then hopped onto the slab on second to Sol’s lead, and proceeded to enjoy myself enormously as I padded up the slab, scarcely believing what I was doing. If, three months ago, someone had told me that I’d have the ability to walk up a gritstone slab with no handholds I would have just laughed. And yet, here I was doing just that, thanks entirely to Adrian’s coaching.  Again, I topped out with a big smile, and we sat down to have a cuppa. At which point I made a prize arse of myself, by looking at the blank wall next to Sunset Slab and proclaiming it impossible to climb. Adrian looked up at it, and said “actually, it’s not that bad. One of my routes goes up there”. Soul Doubt – E8 6c. I still have no idea how anyone would ever look at a piece of rock like that and think “yeah, I can do that…”

After lunch, we wandered along to Three Pebble Slab. I already knew a little of this climb, that it was very bold in the top half and graded HVS to E1, depending on who you spoke to. I told Adrian that I was happy to have a crack at it, but didn’t fancy the lead due to the boldness of the top half. Sol, however, was itching to get going. The crux move was either getting off the ground on the little polished toe hold, or the step through onto the top slab. Sol made the first one look easy, and then had a bit of fun placing the protection in the deep pocket just below the slab. Adrian was on a fixed rope next to Sol, and thankfully (as we shall shortly see…) got him to double check the cam placement. Eventually Sol proclaimed himself happy, Adrian double checked and agreed that if Sol was happy then he should carry on, and on he went. A couple of steps up to the ‘second crux’, at which point his foot popped, and down he came. It was actually a reasonable fall to catch, and I smacked both knees into the rock. ouch. Serves me right for standing a couple of feet away from the base of the route. Beginners belaying error, and a lesson learned with two bruises to show for it! Sol went up again, and this time, there were no problems. The top half of the route looked easy, but still a little too bold for my confidence level, and so I tied into the other end of the rope and went up on second. Up to the step-through, and I could see why Sol had taken a little slip there – it wasn’t an easy move, and I stood a fair chance of slipping off the same way. Adrian, however, had no doubts. “Come on Neil – you’ve been doing harder moves than this all morning on the boulder. Just put your weight on it, and see how it feels”. And without a second thought, I stepped up, through, and onto the slab. Walking up the slab felt great. No problems. Another big smile as I topped out, and another three-star route.

And then we came to Tody’s Wall.  Something very strange happened here. As I tied in to lead it, I didn’t feel right. I couldn’t put my finger on it, but really, something just didn’t feel right. Was I scared of the intimidating move over the lip onto the slab? Possibly, but even on lead this was an exceptionally safe move, with bombproof protection right there. The first couple of moves were technically quite staggeringly easy, but my head just wasn’t in the right place. I placed some gear, then proceeded to embarrass myself by not getting established on the jammed block to make the move up to the lip. And Adrian, from about 10 metres away was quite right when he said that I’d not give it my best shot. I hung my head, and lowered off from the cam, feeling angry with myself, and ashamed to have not at least given it 100%. Sol then had a crack, and while it was obviously a struggle, he made it past the lip, and up the slab and crack above to the top. I then completely lost the plot. Even on second, I couldn’t make the move onto the block, and in the end walked around the edge to start the climb from the slab. And even on seconding, I was completely paralysed with fear. I stabbed my way up the crack, panicking, cursing and swearing all the way, despite being perfectly safe. And, to add to my predicament the last mantleshelf onto the top-out was stopped by a nut on my harness betting caught in the crack.  Of course, I could have just leant back and let Sol hold me while I sorted it out, but I was so completely gripped by fear I couldn’t see that. I swore a bit more, panicked a bit more, and eventually sorted it out and slumped over the top. I crawled onto my hands and knees, put my head down, and tried to stop the retching. Why was I scared? I didn’t know. Logically, it’s obvious I was completely safe. But in a state of panic I just hadn’t allowed myself to see that. I needed to be able to separate perceived from actual risk, and I had just failed in this quite spectacularly.

Of course, Adrian had an idea. Put me on a top-rope, on a route I had no real chance of climbing, and get me to fall off a few times trying. And so, I found myself on one of the most hallowed climbs in the country, Great Slab.  I hope I don’t upset too many people by admitting to top-roping this climb, but it was all part of a learning process. And what a climb! What a stunning piece of rock. Every move felt right at my limit, and yet every time I made that move, the next one opened up for me. Of course, I fell. Lots. That was the point. But it was worth it. After half an hour, I slumped on the rope, physically drained, yet emotionally high. “You’re not done yet…” Adrian called up. “Give me a smile”. What? Had he gone mad? “Seriously. Smile. You’re enjoying this right? Smile. Laugh. Have some fun”. Of course, what was happening was positive reinforcement. Equating being out of my depth with having fun. And bloody hell it had worked. “10 more moves upwards – and I want you to smile on each one”. And so I swarmed upwards towards the top, with a big smile. Of course I fell again, but I fell a happy man, and gave Adrian the thumbs-up as I swung backwards away from the face. Sol then tied in, and something extraordinary happened. With one slip only, he got to the top. E3 5b. OK, so you can ignore the E3 bit of that on a top-rope, but it was still a remarkable achievement for someone who has been climbing for just a year.

We packed up, and cleared off to the pub for a bite to eat and a beer. Both well earned. And both heartily enjoyed. What a top day. Again, I had come face to face with my fear of feeling out of control, and had pushed through it with Adrian’s help. I’m already looking forward to the next time.