I never thought I would get so excited about something as mundane as a crack in a rock or a well-rooted tree.
Before leading my first trad climb, this sport was mostly about pushing myself physically for me. But this time, it was all about pushing myself mentally.
Traditional climbing, or ‘trad’ for short, is a type of rock climbing that dominates the scene in the UK, where a climber must put in his or her own points of protection into a rock face while going up, and then clip the rope into these. Its European counterpart is sport climbing, where the metal bolts are already built into the wall for a climber to clip into.
Approaching the first ever route I was going to lead by myself in the heart of the Wye Valley I tried to focus on the job at hand instead of going mad with nerves and excitement. It was hard to be too serious about it all anyway, when every step I took made me sound like a herd of cattle, all the gear attached to my harness clinking away almost melodically.
Trad climbing is a mind game. Your safety hangs entirely on your own skill at placing the gear into the rock, and confidence can make the difference between going up and freezing in terror in the middle of a rock face.
Everyone has their own way of dealing with this fear. I find (and my climbing partner Valentina definitely agrees!) that singing to myself, or even out loud, often helps. Although I have often thought it would be a bit of a shame if I ever were to fall to my death off a rock face and my last thought were the lyrics to a Tailor Swift song…but that’s a little morbid!
Pure concentration tends to push out the fear as well – there simply isn’t enough space for the two in my head.
Valentina also says it helped her to think there was no other way than up (ironically). In a sport climb, you can always come down off the last bolt you clipped into if you get really freaked out. In trad, it’s much harder. Generally, the best way out of a scary trad climb tends to be up. That, or a call to Mountain Rescue.
That’s why it’s so exciting when you find the perfect fit between a crack in the rock face and a piece of metal, or when you finish your climb at the root of a large, stable tree, which can act as a nice super-safe anchor point (used to belay the climber that follows on the route from the top). The relief compares to nothing else!
On a separate note, I am 100% convinced learning to climb isn’t possible without good people around you. The climbing tradition and practices are passed on from generation to generation in a similar way good old fairy tales and family legends are transmitted by world of mouth.
A special thanks therefore goes out to our friend Paul, who helped tremendously with our first trad lead by being the calmest, but also most vigilant person to supervise us through the experience. And of course, simply by being there. I’ll never forget my first trad climb, and I’ll never forget who made it possible for me to feel confident enough to try it.
Paul is a qualified Southern Sandstone instructor and is a great person with whom to learn the basics of outdoor climbing on London’s nearby rocks. If you want to give this a try, don’t even think of calling anyone else to arrange a session!
You can contact Paul by sending him an e-mail on firstname.lastname@example.org or look him up on Facebook under the name Onwards Upwards.