I tie into one end of our purple 60 metre rope, check my harness, put on my climbing shoes and walk up to the limestone wall towering 20 metres above me. I touch real rock for the first time in months, searching with my fingers for the best handhold, inspecting the rock for footholds below. And then the familiar fear comes.
For Easter this year, my climbing partner Valentina and I went to climb in Italy, in a region called Marche. Not very well known to climbers outside Italy, and not even frequented by the locals that much by the looks of it, this area has a huge selection of sport climbing crags and a wide range of routes of various levels of difficulty. We spent the first two days at a crag called Rosara, close to a town called Ascoli Piceno, which offers more than a 100 routes, ranging from an easy 4a to 8a. But as expected, my return to the outdoor climbing season wasn’t as smooth as I would have liked it to be…
I have done so much fall practice indoors over the past few months (read my post about this), but as soon as I touch real rock, the fear is still there, and it can be paralyzing. My mind begins to tell me that if I fall, I will fall further than in the gym (because the bolts tend to be further apart), that I will swing more (because the routes tend to be in less of a straight line), that I will hit a ledge (especially on easier routes, it’s a real possibility).
Then there is the fear of the unknown. In the gym, I can see all the holds of my route, since they are all the same colour. Outdoors, the only indication of where my holds are would be chalk marks left behind by other climbers, but often these are not there. I find it especially terrifying climbing overhangs where my last bolt is underneath the overhang. You can’t really see where you next hold might be, so you just have to feel around and trust that it will be there when you need it. But you also often don’t see where the next bolt is, and the thought of falling down to the bolt below the overhang is not very pleasant.
The funny thing is though, I don’t think about these things nearly this much indoors. The psyche is a complicated thing and I strongly believe that more work goes into beating this fear in climbing, than does into actually training to climb the harder grades. Ok, maybe the same amount of work.
There was one section at the first crag which was just perfect for getting used to falling outdoors, though. A vertical, almost completely smooth wall with pocket holes scattered all over it, with a range of routes around 10 metres in height, of various levels of difficulty. These are well bolted, usually with a locking carabiner on the top, so there is even no need to strip the route when it is finished – just clip the rope in and come down, bliss!
The thing is, this rock is really technical. Smearing on it is practically impossible, as the surface is pretty smooth, so the sequence of moves has to follow the pockets up the wall. Working these routes is really entertaining, and the falls aren’t scary, as there is barely any chance of hitting anything along the way – it is even smoother than an indoor climbing wall, as there are no protruding holds or volumes on the way down. It’s pretty much as smooth as glass.
My only issue with these routes was the fact that, after days of torrential rain in Italy, the pocket holes were very wet and muddy inside (see picture above from the first day). Not the best condition when you are putting your bodyweight on these holds! This was a problem we encountered on many of the routes in these Italian limestone crags, especially at the second one (San Giorgio, a little further up the winding road from Rosara), where most routes seemed to be littered with hand and finger pockets. I like these a lot, as I like relying on my hand grip when I climb (a bad tactic, I know!), but they were usually dripping with water and brown muddy goo.
I did a bunch of 6a’s, but only managed to lead one 6b, and failed on the crux move of one of them. We also did a lovely, easy 5b route called ‘Vertical Souls’ – for those of you who know about the YouTube project, also called Vertical Souls, which I put together last year with Valentina and another climbing friend, Tamsin, you will understand why this was significant!
I’m determined to go back to this Italian crag and push harder though, but for now dealing with this fear is a slow and delicate process. One day, I will be fearlessly running up the rock, and not even worrying about where my protection is. For now, it’s training, training, training!