My best-kept secret is my fear of heights. Yet, I am happiest hanging off 100ft-plus cliff surfaces. Whoever said love is irrational really gets my love for rock climbing. This is my story.
Three years ago I scaled my first wall in an indoor gym in London. My friend Leo, who hails from a family of Alpine mountaineers, showed me the ropes. His words of wisdom were not rocket science. ‘Start from the ground and then go up,’ he said. So, I did. The problem arose when I looked down, froze and vowed never to let go. To my embarrassment, a crowd had gathered. Eventually, Leo intervened politely, ‘Shivaun, did you know you are only 3ft off the ground? Your eyes are much further from your feet and you only feel you are far.’ And then he said, ‘Make the goddamn jump!’
And, I did! Granted, it was a tiny leap to the ground but it represented a more profound leap of faith. Shivaun-1, Fear -0.
Soon after that first experience, I took to bouldering. It is a type of climbing that is done without ropes or harnesses on indoor or outdoor routes that are typically less than 25ft. You only need shoes for securing footholds, chalk to keep hands dry and crash pads to create a soft landing for falls. Other forms like sport climbing, traditional climbing, ice climbing and aid climbing require rope skills and additional safety gear.
I graduated to sport climbing four months later. This requires climbing big walls attached to a rope that you anchor to bolts spaced 10-12 feet apart. Your partner secures the other end of the rope in a process called ‘belaying’, incase you fall. Soon, I was hanging out at the gym over Friday night drinks, working out how to twist my body and carefully place my hands and feet on limited holds. It had become my favourite social activity.
It’s The Mental Game
Early on, I failed more routes than I got up, and the urge to get better consumed me.
I particularly found the ‘sit start’ routes on higher grades tough: you have to start sitting down, pulling up on tiny negligible ‘crimps’ or ‘monofinger’ pockets whilst smearing your feet on the wall. I remember doing ‘laps’ on the wall when I achieved this.
The constant trial and error taught me the most important climbing lessons of all: patience, concentration and discipline. A move that maybe takes 10 seconds to complete, would occasionally take days to solve. Like my high school mathematics class, I began to relive overcoming fear and intimidation to finally achieve that feeling of progress.
The Physics Of It
Climbing requires a combination of core strength, agility and flexibility. It is democratic, in that every climber must develop the ideal strength-to-weight ratio for their particular body type. A short lightweight climber often climbs the same route very differently to a tall powerful one with greater reach, using more dynamic techniques or balancing action and less long pumpy moves.
Climbing can be unforgiving. Muscle memory only lasts a few months, and each time I spend time away from it, I have to push the restart buttons. I have found that many forms of fitness complement climbing, for instance: yoga for flexibility and breathing, pilates for a stronger core during overhanging sections and cardiovascular sports for endurance.
However, finger (grip) strength and forearm strength are best enhanced through climbing harder.
A(SEND)ing A Climb
When you complete a climb, you ‘send it’. Climbing has its own lingo that must be understood because safety depends on it. However, the names of holds like ‘jugs’ or ‘slopers’, moves like ‘pinch’ or ‘stem’ and even climbing commands lend themselves to a horde of inside jokes and puns that draws me to fellow climbers just by association. So whenever I hear something like ‘Jam your fist in the crack’, I feel right at home.
This past year, I have climbed outdoors in the UK, India, Taiwan, Thailand and Laos, and worked as a climbing guide in China. When the people I am guiding now ask me if I am afraid of heights, I say yeah—but fear is good. It keeps me focused on the next move and reminds me to breathe. And it leaves me humbled at the beauty of the outdoors. I’ll share on my climbing experience, this time in Hampi in the next part of this climbing series.