Last august I went to the Ardennes for a climbing course. The course took from friday until sunday and if all went well I’d receive my Toprope Certificate from the NKBV (Dutch climbing association). It was an amazing experience, overcoming fears both on the wall and in my head.
I often ask myself why I actually climb. I’m not particularly talented and I have a fear of heights that isn’t easily subdued. Going on this weekend brought the additional fear with it of taking my CPAP device on the road with me for the very first time. What would people think about that and would I be able to live up to my high standard of quality climbing?
Luckily I didn’t have to face this alone. One of my oldest and best friends is a true athlete and his presence always has a calming effect on me. Sure, I seem to like the weak one in this collaboration, but who really cares. We met up in the Ardennes with the rest of the crew. Three ladies and us two would be trained by Andries and Harry. Andries is a full pro, who does this as a freelancer with his company Zelan Outdoor. He’s a sports teacher too, so he has that sensitivity to peoples feelings and vibe. Harry is an old school climber with a bag full of stories. In between the two, we had an interesting mix of knowledge, expertise and passion.
We got to know each other a little and then went to practice and learn some theory about the climbing due to the heavy rains coming down all the time. When we finally did get to go out, we could try a little bit of climbing and some abseiling. After one attempted ascent the clouds broke and after having holed up in a cave for a bit, we dashed back to the Tukhut (an NKBV owned establishment for mountain bikers, hikers and climbers). I didn’t make it dry and a wet pair of shoes would be my penalty for the next two days.
Running into walls
Surprisingly the team was very nice about my device and actually complimented me on the soundlessness. This was very pleasant and bolstered my travel lust for the future. I felt quite comfortable when we headed out to hit some walls in Hotton. There are some low-level routes that can be pure fun to climb, but also some harder material. After getting our toes in the water on some easy warm-up routes, we felt ready for the big work and the group split in two. Part of the team went climbing some easier, shorter routes. Climbing levels differ and clearly the trainers knew how to deal with that.
We went climbing some more complex routes and… I choked. While climbing a steep chimney with small grips the fear took hold of me after a few slips (there’d been some downpour and water was still pooled up in some cracks). With just some slim holds and mostly using body pressure to go up I got hold of a small jug but completely lost my cool. Disappointed and angry I went down. On the next route, I successfully jammed my hand in cracks to pull myself up, pushing some new techniques, but my body had cramped up and my wrists were very painful. I let myself down. I was ashamed and I connected this to everything else raging around in my head.
While climbing I was thinking of my new job I’d start on Monday. I also thought of the choice to not pursue studies this September, what was my original plan. Thinking of the 2 months of mental turmoil I’d been suffering through since I received my CPAP therapy (more about that here) filled my head. Because of that I crashed and burned. Later I fought myself through an easier pitch, but that hardly cheered me up.
Trainer Andries took me aside when we arrived back at the hut and asked me if I was ok. I sort of muttered and stuttered my disappointment and how much I had hanging on those few climbs. On my back I carried my worries, so I was climbing with a mental pack. Not sure how, but he made me feel a bit better. We had dinner, some drinks and then it was time for a good night sleep.
I’ve climbed a lot in recent years, but some climbs matter more. We went back to the same walls the next day. It was the last day of the weekend and I needed to redeem myself. Humbled and more focused we started to climb. Halfway up the longest route, full of great grips I started to sing to myself. My head emptied out and I felt the pure bliss of hitting the rock. Every thought was followed by a movement. Every limb in harmony with the others, one by one I ascended the wall.
The next climb was a tricky start with some hidden pockets, but smooth sailing up to the top. I asked Andries to help me lose my fear of falling and he did. Falling is scary, it’s a moment of complete panic and submission to the elements. It’s toprope though and in fractions of seconds, you’re securely hanging on your harness. It’s about trust in your partner and knowing what happens.
Harder, Higher, Heavier
Then we went to the tougher stuff. I joked a bit at the start of a tricky route. It went up in a crack between the rock wall and an outstanding slab that stuck up int he sky like a monolithic tower. With trepidation, I started the climb and on my way to the top, a change came over me. I stopped being afraid, this was comfortable climbing. This was up my sleeve and within my comfort levels. I could do this one without any problem!
And then I got to the last problem, to get myself on the top of the tower, where I’d be standing with only the wind and a wall to lean against. My rope had turned three times and fearlessly I looped it around myself once, twice and thrice. As I gazed out over the tree tops and the beautiful region, I felt completely at peace. I was free, not just of my worries, but of my fear of the fall. This was my first ascent and I had just completely fallen in love with climbing. I took a deep breath and started my descent.
I climbed another hard route full of confidence after that. Hard is a relative term. I’m no Alex Honnold or Chris Sharma, nor will I ever be. But I’ve started to love climbing with a passion. I fall regularly now, usually while trying more tricky 5+ routes or 6a’s (French ranking system). I’m doing lead climbing too now, but the fear of falling returns. There’s always the next leap.
Pictures: Zelan Outdoor/Floris Teulings