Overthinking is not a useful habit, for a mountaineer or rock climber. Thinking about all the ways you could die sometimes sharpens the mind, but mostly it just moistens the palm and stiffens the muscle.
But it’s been my curse since I first set rubber to rock, and so I’ve made of it what I could. Yesterday I almost went trad climbing in Snowdonia, after more than five years without climbing outside, and more than three without climbing at all (except for the last few months back on plastic at Oxford Brookes gym). I say almost because I got to the start, after an exposed little scramble, and noped out .
Instead I spent a delightful few hours watching others climb, getting a little lost on the Glyder mountainside, and writing these words. One of the things I’ve thought about, while overthinking mountains, is the different ways in which the interplay between fear and achievement have materialised for me.
While rock climbing, especially sport climbing, there’s a very acute cycle of fear and stoke, fear and relief, and if you’re in the zone, just focus and stoke. You’re safe, and the worst case scenario is typically a grazed knee.
On some of the few big trad routes that I’ve climbed, and some of the bigger mountains I’ve ascended, I’ve felt an enormous sense of power when I’m roped up but decide I don’t actually need any protection. On Lion’s Way (5.6) in the Bugaboos in the Canadian Rockies (both the pinnacle and the unexpected end of my trad climbing career), I was roped but cruised up the first pitch without placing any protection because I knew I was solid. Same for the top pitch. (Probably no one places any protection in those spots, but making the judgement and executing is a powerful feeling.)
A frequent pattern for me is getting psyched out beforehand, and then absolutely loving it once I’m on my feet. This is caused partly by overthinking, partly by my very conservative approach to my abilities, and partly by the impossibility of communicating difficulty and danger between two people that don’t share any context. Several years ago, climbing Aneto (highest in the Pyrenees) in the winter, we were told the night before about the sketchy rock and ice getting up to the Collado de Coronas. I spent all night tossing and turning, the next day we carried a rope up the mountain, and it turned out to be easy and delightful. Twenty minutes later, I saw the Paso de Mahoma, the exposed scramble to actually gain the summit. Exposed and narrow and covered in snow. Then I crossed it, and my feet knew what to do, my hands were free, and it was the best place in the world.
Last year while finishing the Pyrenean High Route (ARP/HRP), we had instance wind gusting over 100 km/h. And we were planning a traverse of Pic Canigou on our way to the sea. People said there was a bit of a scramble, so I spent the whole day hiking along and worrying about it, and preparing back up plans and excuses: the long way around, across the border into Spain, some other way of avoiding the scramble but still getting to the sea! And unsurprisingly, in the end it was easy and delightful, and I stopped to take pictures and revel in the view and the howling wind.
The pattern above was that once my hands actually touched rock, I felt calm and confident and happy. Once the opposite happened. Michael and I had planned to climb a multi-pitch trad route. I stressed the night before, but assumed once we got going, I’d be fine. But instead, roped up at the bottom of the cliff, I froze. All I wanted was to get down off the slightly exposed boulder we were already on, and get to the beach. The bottom of the gravity well.
I thought it was a blip, but yesterday I put my harness on, scrambled up the surprisingly hairy approach for Cemetery Gates, and just didn’t want to go any further. While sitting there and deciding not to climb, I started really feeling the potential energy of where I was sitting. Those two exposed sections were between me and the safe haven represented by a local gravitational minimum, i.e. the floor. I was thinking about “psyched then steady” and assumed it would be fine once I was on my feet, but in this case, for some reason, it wasn’t. Going over the first little ledge, I was terrified. I put my foot down, changed my mind, swapped my hands. My shoes a little wet. Not a great mental place to be, in a place that is not actually difficult but where a fall would probably mean death. I got down, heart rate much higher than warranted, and sat down next to my pack to think.
Today I went running, around 27 km up and over all seven peaks and peaklets on the Nantlle Ridge. And I just felt good, the whole way. There’s a short scramble that I didn’t even realise was graded, some fun exposure that is basically optional. The only time my happiness dipped was when we got mired in mud going through someone’s farm back down in the valley.
For some reason the mental ability to keep pushing on a long sloggy run or hike has never been a particular challenge for me, but my confidence and ability at heights is apparently a lot more brittle.