“If you think you can do a thing, or that you can’t, you are probably right.”
Confidence is a massive asset….and getting more confidence is a contact sport.
Confidence may not be everything but it’s often pivotal, a game-changer…so much hangs on it.
I became a very confident rock-climber, but I didn’t do it alone…..
Aged 19, I was 50 feet up an exposed crag, Ilkley, West Yorkshire. I was at the crux, trying a real confidence move. It’s easy to exaggerate these things, but this was finger tips on tiny studs of quartz and feet friction-smearing on a bald face…not a position I could maintain for long! I took a deep breath and stepped into the start of a precarious sequence of balancy moves to take me across a smooth-looking wall to the safety of better holds. As my fingers left the quartz studs I was totally committed, couldn’t reverse and for the next few minutes would be climbing at the very limit of my strength and technique….
I knew this because I had tried this sequence a number of times before with a safety rope from above for protection. Sometimes I overbalanced and fell off, sometimes took too long and ran out of steam and occasionally I teetered, corrected my balance and made it.
What made this time a ‘first’ was the fact that I was leading the route. Today there was no safe rope above. This time the rope was hanging below me from my harness. My protection consisted of two aluminium chocs I had stuffed into a horizontal crack 20 feet below. If I fell, the theory went that I would fall 40 feet and my partner Rob would lock the rope, the chocs would jam tight in the crack, take my weight and I would be caught 10 feet from hitting the floor!
I was prepared to take this risk because in the preceding two practice attempts that day I had been successful. I had flowed across the tricky sequence and felt the route was in my grasp. Pumped and flushed with confidence I had declared myself ready to lead it.
…..However, as I moved into the sequence, despite the buffeting wind, I heard the unnerving rattling of aluminium below. What were those chocs doing? They were all the protection I had! I couldn’t look down, my cheek was pressed to the rock and I was struggling for balance mid-move. Even if I had been able to look down I couldn’t have seen the chocs below because they were in a crack obscured from sight by overhanging rock.
“Everything alright?’ I shouted anxiously.
Rob’s reply was jovial..“Getting cold down here that’s all! Just doing a bit of a jig to keep warm!”
[Ah, Rob’s jig! With his harness festooned with hanging chocs and karabiners, that explained the rattling sound.]
“You concentrate on making a good job of that and then we can pack up and get home to a warm fire!” he continued.
Rob saw that I was totally committed on the sequence. He had also just seen my two chocs pop out of the crack below, leaving me with a 50 foot fall to the ground if I goofed the moves!
However, like a guardian angel who knew exactly what I needed, he never let on. He just transmitted confidence.
“You’re flying today Marcus! Doing that very nicely. I like it Mate!”
Encouraged and reassured by Rob’s kindly Welsh lilt, and oblivious to the danger I was in, I proceeded with a composure I had no right to posses.
I completed the route.
Only once we’d got to the pub did Rob, with a huge grin, tell me the truth about the chocs!
The lead ascent of such a bold face was big news amongst my circle of climbing friends. I was praised for my courage. Yet how different might things have been had Rob not held his nerve that day? How different, had he merely blurted out the bad news as it happened? How might such a revelation have affected my focus? How much might I have wobbled had Rob relayed the real facts to me?
Robin Downey went on to become a firefighter. I expect he made a rather fine one.
I spent the next three years climbing with another like-minded fanatical climber, Steve Rhodes.
I climbed almost every day, kept a rigorous training routine and became particularly proficient at placing chocs securely!
The confidence that grew through continuous practice gave me access to many of the finest and most celebrated rock climbs in Britain.
Yet ultimately climbing wasn’t to be my path. I left Yorkshire’s millstone grit for the flatlands of Cambridge, swapped climbing with study. A year after, in a newsagent in Bury St Edmunds, I checked out ‘Climber and Rambler’ for old times’ sake. I was glancing back at another existence, and on the front cover in high gloss, was Steve Rhodes! The photo showed him, in glamorous action, making the first ascent of the hardest route in Yorkshire and perhaps Great Britain at the time.
I was flabbergasted. Steve was good, but not that good!
I called him.
“Congratulations Steve! Astonishing! How did you do it? How did you get to leap to the very peak of the sport in such a short time?”
“I’m climbing with a great bunch of lads, we’re all pushing each other…I’m growing in confidence every day Marcus. I’m not physically stronger than I was a year ago, no stronger than you were…but something has just clicked in my head. That’s the only way I can put it. To do the really hard routes you just have to get yourself into a place where you just know you can. It’s weird, but you know when you’re there and doubt doesn’t enter your mind.”
“No fear. No surprise. No hesitation. No doubt.”