Sunday 16 September 2007

Early Inspirations

I wrote the above post in the car on the way up the road from the lakes. Tonight I watched the Set in Stone film again since I was thinking a lot about Dave Birkett, his big trad routes and Lakes climbing in general. Looking at the interviews on the extras section and folk talking about Dave B’s history in climbing and it reminded me of reading the first ‘Climber’ magazine I ever bought as a keen but clueless kid and reading an interview with Dave which left such a big impression. There was a picture of him on Bleed in Hell looking like a real athlete you’d see on the Olympics (i.e. ripped!). It was inspiring – that’s why I still remember it 13 years later. Seeing it as a beginner, the rest of the pictures in the magazine were of chaps in macs with beards and sometimes bellies as well, and it wasn’t hard to see that Birkett was really ahead of his time (this was 1994 or 5 I think?). There was a story in there about Dave eating his tea before going out to lead If Six Was Nine and his mate coming in and asking “What’s this then, the last supper?” It all painted a picture of a life of fear and commitment beyond belief. At the time I couldn’t imagine what it must be like to dread a climb so much because you knew you might die on it, but still feel you needed to go out and make yourself do it. But I sort of like the romance of the idea too (maybe it’s a male thing??).

13 years later and I’ve followed a similar inspiration to climb scary bits of rock that are close to my limits. But the reality of actually doing it was nothing like imagined when I started out. It just shows you how hard it is to put yourself in other people’s shoes and imagine their motivations or perspectives without the benefit of their experience.

For instance, in those interviews in Set in Stone Stephen Reid commented that he wondered why I came to the Lakes for the first time to repeat Breathless (a John Dunne route) and not one of Dave Birkett’s routes. He assumed it was purely because Dunne’s route was higher profile and got more publicity. Actually I was just totally inspired by a photo of Dave Simmonite’s of Dunne on the route with a beautiful line of chalk dabbed edges running up the wall above him, and vowed it would be my first route in the Lake District. Assuming you’ve got people all sussed out is rarely a good idea.

The reality of climbing at my own limits was much more palatable (than I imagined when I first read about Dave Birkett’s experiences as a 16 year old) – unbelievably rewarding, addictive and… well… I was going to say comfortable.

Let me think about that for a second. When I say comfortable, I mean I feel happy taking risks. That doesn’t mean the risks are tiny or not important, because sometimes they are. I think it’s just that my definition of comfortable is different to what it was before or from other peoples might be. I used to imagine feeling ‘comfortable’ would mean secure and relaxed with little to worry about. I thought it would mean feeling more ‘comfortable’ with a scary lead out of the way, rather than impending.

But when I actually tried hard climbing I found I felt least comfortable in myself just after completing a hard route and most comfortable in the early stages of trying one. Why? Because to me (these days anyway), I feel bored and empty in my climbing when I have nothing there to challenge me – simple as that. When I try a really hard route, there are lots of questions, lot of unknowns and lots of hurdles I don’t know if I can get over. That’s exciting and I feel happiest then.

The thought of having no more scary leads ahead of me because I’ve become lost my inspiration to try hard is the scariest thing I can imagine.


  1. Cool posts.

    Leading on from your final point about being more scared by the prospect of having no more scary leads ahead of you .. where do you think this will take you?

    If money was no object .. would, say, alpine stylee moutaineering around the world appeal?

    What _are_ your thoughts on moutaineering? I'm very aware that money has been an issue in the past but maybe venturing off to, say, the Himalayas may now be a possibility?

    Take it easy,

  2. The arete on Ben Nevis is my dream route. It wasn't dry for a single day this summer. If I am climbing 9a and we have a dry summer next year, maybe? There are 2 routes I want to do in the alps, and many ig places I want to go, when I get the opportunity.

  3. nice to read about what inspires and motivates people to do what they do and encouraging to see the respect you are showing for other peoples ascents. quality article.