Living Through Changes tells the story of a life changing climbing experience and the lessons learned. I hope you enjoy it.
Climbing has been a constant in my life for 35 years. It is a partner that, like every good relationship, enriches and guides me. It is my lifeblood. At dark times I have turned to climbing as a healing force and it has been the pivot around which my strongest friendships and memories have turned. My travels have been access points to climbing areas and, ultimately, guiding others on mountain adventures has since become my dream of a career.
But, like all partnerships, my relationship with the sport has changed over the decades. There was a time, in my earlier climbing years, where there was nothing else in my life. No career and no social life other than the one climbing dictated. No significant relationships to distract me. It was a simplicity that revolved around an obsession.
It was also a time when I took the biggest risks with, looking back, the least regard for the danger. Pushing my mental boundaries and physical limits on everything from runout gritstone test pieces to committing mountain routes. It wasn’t that I ever got to the point of pushing the boundaries of the sport as a whole, but my own limits were well explored.
Later, it got more complicated, and yet also in some ways easier. I was already experiencing living through changes. A relationship started with Caroline (Cal as some will know her). A career, mortgage and all the relative challenges these responsibilities bring. Suddenly my bubble had expanded and I had to accommodate many other factors into any decision making process. Nonetheless, this was in many ways, from a climbing perspective, my most productive time. A structure to my life and the money to travel freely without any need to think of others except Cal. Luckily, she was always up for the adventure anyhow.
This financial freedom also ensured this was a time of broadening global mobility. One season we could be lunching in the meadowy sunshine at the base of some exotic European crag. Next we’d be on the other side of the world relishing the remote beauty of the Tasmanian wilderness. Exploring the world with nothing but an open ticket and a rucksack. A joyous time of discovery and, significantly, it also developed our broader understanding of our place in the world.
I hungered for new objectives and continually sought the adrenaline rush of a new climbing challenge. We had near misses and saw close hand the suffering of others in the mountains, but this was still a time I still felt naively unbreakable. It almost needed a reality check to give some perspective and that came on a trip to Jordan. I have recounted this living through changes incident in more detail in my piece “One Life. Live It” which you can read here. Ultimately, it came down to a loose block and a long fall on a new climb in a remote canyon. It was very nearly my undoing.
I was incredibly lucky and bounced back quickly. Once the physical scars had healed I got back to training. The Jordan accident had happened at Easter and I did, after all, have an Alps trip racing up in the summer. Phill and I had our sights set on some more big faces and so it was business as usual. Except, I didn’t yet know the business would be getting a restructure.
Soon after our arrival in Chamonix Phill and I walked up to the North Face of the Droites. We set up our bivvy spot in a prime position to be away early in the morning. It is a foreboding mountain and I had the usual pre climb nerves. It was nothing I hadn’t experienced hundreds of times before. We drifted through a few hours of shivery sleep and got to work in the early hours.
By the time sunlight came we were some distance up the face and the growing light added perspective. For me things were changing in my head and I didn’t know it before. It was on that steep Alpine face that things came to a head. We’d recently found out Cal had a new human growing inside her and I thought of the two of them waiting in the valley. I thought I’d been able to partition the emotional bond I felt to Cal and the little one. I was wrong.
Looking back I am sure I was suffering post traumatic stress related to Jordan and maybe my feelings would have been different if that hadn’t recently happened. Now, too many lemons were lining up and it only took a few tumbling rocks at the side of our ascent line to rattle me. It was enough for me to know I didn’t want to be there.
I belayed Phill up to my ledge and reluctantly shared the news. Phill was very understanding and didn’t try to convince me otherwise. Maybe he knew that for me the only way was down. By early afternoon I was back in the arms of my concerned other and it was time to change direction. As I had turned my back on Les Droites it felt like a part of me was being left behind. How could I refocus when my life mission had become so blurred?
It only took a short while to realise what a broad church climbing is. I was again living through changes and climbing could adapt. I left behind these bigger objectives around which my life was currently wrapped. Soon I realised there was plenty more in the vertical world to still give my life meaning. Just like every relationship has its own fluidity, all that was needed was a re-evaluation and change of direction. For that summer we turned our Alpine trip into a cragging trip. I started the Jordan mental healing process which I’d been, consciously or unconsciously, avoiding. Acres of sunny limestone and beautiful bolted lines turned out to be quite the tonic.
Almost two decades on and my climbing relationship is still as strong as ever although it is still built on shifting sands. I’m still living through changes. I’ve enjoyed many other life enhancing adventures in the intervening years and still love climbing now easily as much, if not more, than I did back then. It is still my lifeblood, but that period definitely marked a healthy turning point.
There is nothing wrong with turning away if the time isn’t right. There is nothing wrong with choosing a branching path if it feels like the right thing to do. We all carry the baggage of other aspects of life into whatever passion drives us. Ultimately, my brush with death on the steep walls of Jordan and my moment of clarity on the flanks on an Alpine giant were positive experiences. They have given me a calmness ever since. If a climbing partner of mine turns to me to say, on some steep face, that it’s time to head down. That’s fine with me. We can come back another day, or never. Both are good options.
If you enjoyed this post please also check out Failing Is Part Of Trying which explores other hard lessons learnt from time in the mountains. Learning From Experience also shares some tips on staying safe in big mountain environments.