Engagement is probably the ultimate fantasy. To be completely immersed in something to the point that it consumes more mental tenacity than the sum of everything else going on in your neural network. It is what drives escapist pursuits and climbing is no exception.
When completely engaged we wrestle with just enough fear to keep us on edge and enough comfort to keep us wanting more. Occasionally we push ourselves to the point where the triple beam balance of fear, comfort and mental engagement are thrown off.
Sometimes we grow complacent if the familiar state of affairs becomes too convenient to leave in our wake for something greater. There are so many levels to how we can become complacent. Whether it is buying into the training ideology of those we climb with just because it seems like it is the right option, despite knowing full well we are not making progress. Or doing the same tired old warm-up routes because we know them and they make us happy. My personal favourite is sticking to a single genre of climbing because we ‘are’ this or that kind of climber without giving value to how another type (rock type, boldness factor, bolts or trad, boulder or big wall) might grow us as a climber in the broadest sense of the word.
Finally the mental engagement will often teeter over the edge of interest to the pit of obsession. Our talk, our thoughts, the way we plan every weekend, every squeezed in training session will be part of this. Creating other kinds of balance will feel necessary to those around us. But is balance possible while pursuing the ultimate engagement? Creating social networks of those just as obsessed as us is natural and we feed each other’s desire to pursue these obsessive haunts. These connections seem necessary to allow the obsession to feel healthy.
We may become scared to the point where we can no longer continue. Being scared is ok. Being irrationally scared or limiting yourself because of fear is not ok in this game. It may be ok in selecting a new brand of toothpaste (do I hear complacency knocking?). Self-preservation is important but self-limitation is uncalled for. There is real fear and there are times when we bite off more than we can chew and somehow manage to eat it anyway, swallowing it down with a heavy dose of chalk and deep breathing. We try hard because there is no other option. If there weren’t a great big ledge for you to step back down onto, would you have committed to that move on no gear? Of course, you had no option! You would have had no energy to think about it. But no, you stepped right back down onto that ledge and waited for the winds to change. Commit!
To be engaged though, fully engaged, requires enough of a step up from your realm of complacency- and I mean your current realm, not the realm of that wild-hearted dirtbagger of 5 years ago, into the glow of fear (of the unknown, of the big lead out, of the next level…) and dedication. Cue the inevitable obsession.
I touched down in Cape Town to see the city alight. It was burning not only with the vibrancy I have come to know it by but also quite literally with flames of the biggest fire the city has seen in decades. Even through the flames, Table mountain’s presence was as spectacular as I remembered it and the roaring fynbos provided a distinctive scent of something majestic. It was however a good reminder of the fallibility of the human race in the greater scheme of things. The 40+ temps were more than a bit of a warm welcome to the city and somewhat pleasant after the icy weather of the northern hemisphere.
Amidst the smoky scene I cycled up the hill and began to settle into UCTs campus at the foot of the safer side of the mountain. Returning to the world of syntax trees and measuring vowels has been the mental injection I needed. The challenge of the academic world and topics that get me excited to go to lectures and write papers is invigorating.
The real satisfaction came when I rolled into the Cederberg for my first weekend of climbing. The orange glow of the looming quartzite formations was overwhelming. As the sun kissed the hundreds of boulders in the valley I dusted off the cobwebs that had collected on my climbing gear while in Korea. In the past year I have had some memorable times in the Korean mountains: pitches of technical granite, hard overhanging limestone and short sandstone routes accessible by subway. I did however definitely make the decision to focus on other elements of my life and remained on easier lines and only went climbing irregularly.
Driving through the Niewoudt pass I saw hundreds of meters of bullet hard quartzite cresting the hills; Krakadouw, Tafelberg and Wolfberg were like pieces of fudge placed atop the surrounding mountains. They are waiting to be tasted but their sweetness is so overwhelming that only a bit at a time could possibly be had. A little further along, Truitjieskraal showed off its stone gargoyles and blocks like a giant’s toy box that had been emptied amidst the hardy foliage.
Soon, I felt the limitations and delights of starting all over again. On a Friday afternoon at Sandrift Crag, a sport crag in the shadow of the mighty Wolfberg, I squeezed my feet back into their contorted, downturned shape and enjoyed the gentle clink of metal on metal hanging from my harness. I was shakier than I should have been and my endurance wasn’t what it had been before my hiatus but the feeling of moving over rock and trusting my body on the wall was an absolute spiritual indulgence. I worked through the initial jitters and laughed at my weakened upper body and moments of unnecessary panic above protection. I relished in my ability to read sequences and enjoy movement. A week later I was able to venture up the mountain where the sweeping lines up Wolfberg got me into a very beautiful headspace of flow, internal smallness, natural high and simultaneous groundedness.
Returning to the city and the demands of scholarly life, the accessible gym within cycling distance of my new home gives me somewhere to go when the city becomes a little wet or dark. An abundance of old friends and new friends mean I haven’t struggled for climbing partners.
This year is going to be the best yet, I have no doubt.
Keeping slim and trim for climbing is something that has been a part of many a climber’s lifestyle for the past few decades. As a fairly slim person naturally, this may seem simple. It isn’t. It is hard work and requires habit driven ritual and surrounding yourself with other healthy eaters. It requires a lot of will power to not over eat and not resort to unhealthy food when it is convenient. The other issue is that there seems to be a strict sense that keeping light for our sport means being a little slimmer than most. On top of this, we are trying to get stronger and we are building muscle all the time, especially during certain phases of training. I’d often come home from a road trip with some of my best sends and notice I had put on weight. An increase in muscle mass and probably a fair amount of excess from an increased appetite from more energy expenditure, coupled with delicious campfire brews and dirtbag, carbohydrate intensive meals.
Recently, I began to try to get rid of my own obsession over what I consume. I tried, for the first time ever to eat what I wanted, when I wanted it. It came after I started working more closely with children and began catching every strain of cold and flu there was. I couldn’t afford the time off of training or work. I needed to be less unhealthy. I decided I needed to put on a bit of weight and to do this I would try to eat the food I craved and to eat when I was hungry. This seems logical but really, it is easy to ignore this sometimes. Years of eating carefully meant that was often healthy food like fruit and vegetables but it was also cravings for the occassional (or more than occassional) hamburger and my favourite, Pizza. Since I am living in a country with a different set of culinary options than home, I often looked for familiar things when the local cuisine (however delicious) became a bit too much. Unfortunately, the only familiar foods that are easily accessible in rural Korea were the fast food options and even these were limited.
So I embarked on a journey to be comfortable with my body. I knew that I would put on weight since I was well under weight and began to panic as my clothes became a little tighter. I learnt to avoid talking about how much I was feeling heavier after each meal- non-climbers don’t care for such discussion. I stopped contracting colds and flus. When my throat felt sore, it dissappeared after a few days. I watched people around me getting sick and I felt healthy and strong. I didn’t have constant stomach bugs from sources I couldn’t trace. But I felt horrible. How could I be comfortable when my clothes didn’t fit me? Evidently I was not yet comfortable with my body.
On the way to a training session at a conventional gym I was planning on a core intensive training session. I hopped on the body assessment machine. Cringing at what the results might be. It measured my weight, related it to my height and also measured my body fat percentage and skeletal muscle mass. The results astounded me. Yes my weight was up. I knew that already. For the first time in my life I fitted into a healthy BMI but this was less of a concern since I knew this is not the best measuring tool. At this point I was the heaviest I had been in my life and the machine was telling me that I was not only healthy but, considering I still had a fair amount of muscle, my body fits into the ideal category. There were two little stats lower down on the page telling me how much muscle to gain and how much fat to lose, these were the stats I was interested in. Goals that I could work towards. I blinked at them. They both said 0.
This is of course my personal story but I seriously don’t believe I am alone in this. So many climbers expect their bodies to be perfect- the pursuit of mastery is the ultimate. Sometimes though we spend so much energy worrying that our bodies are perfect for performance that we forget just how healthy we are as athletes and that we could mostly stand to put a little weight on without getting into unhealthy range or even a range that would be detrimental to our ability to hold that crimp.
Stay healthy, don’t overthink your eating too much.
There have been massive gaps in this blog that I won’t even try to fill in. For the past few months I have been climbing when it is possible but taking it easy, trying not to become too frustrated when I couldn’t get out to climb. There has been a shift in focus away from being a stubbornly determined climber who wanted nothing more than to be successful all the time and flailing hopelessly when the constants in my life were no longer there. The shift has become more about my place in society as an individual and as a contributer of energy and as a giver and receiver of goodness. I have arrived at some sense of clarity. Climbing is still my primary source of goodness.
Although, I now know that I needed to have other things on track before I could see it as such a source again. It had in a sense become my old outfit- the jeans I tried to squeeze into everyday because I didn’t know what else to wear. It was time for a wardrobe revamp.