Slowly, steadily, I'm moving up a deep crack on the Organ Pipes at Mount Arapiles, the rack, weighed down with useless "big gear" that I can't place because the crack is too deep, keeps catching on my thighs, the rope, tiny horns of rock and I have to keep slinging the big cams out of the way before each move. Behind me, on a neighbouring route, a novice climber is whimpering with fear, even though she is seconding the route and so, effectively, on top rope. The sounds of fright and terror make it hard to concentrate on the climbing; the fear is contagious and I plug in yet another cam despite being only two metres above my last piece.
Technique and training authors often espouse the "naturalness" of rock climbing, claiming that all we need to be excellent climbers is to return to an earlier, childlike state where we clambered up 30 metres cliffs hanging by our toe nails fearlessly. After more than a quarter century of climbing, I consider this idealistic fantasy just that, a fantasy. Humans did not thrive to become the most populous and dominant species on the planet by partaking with abandon in activities that are frankly dangerous and even deadly. We simply did not evolve to be as skilled and strong climbers as other primates.
Looking down the Organ Pipes
Instead of long ape indexes, opposable toes, and prehensile tails we have big brains. Brains that can remember the past and conceive of the future. Brains that allow us to create ingenious solutions to novel problems and to pass accumulated knowledge through following generations. We also have brains that can imagine and, all too frequently, my brain imagines falling. Hands slipping off holds, feet sliding down slabs, balance points missed. Below me there always seems to be an endless series of ledges, bulges, and roofs. My gear is always too far away, or off to the side, slightly manky. If I fall, will I stay off the ground or bounce on a ledge? Will I break my back or merely a limb or two?
Traditional rock climbing (i.e. placing wires and cams for protection) for me, is all about quietening my chattering brain that endlessly loops through a series of events and consequences which, left unchecked, will play out to the end where I sit drooling and incontinent in a wheelchair the victim of some cataclysmic brain injury after my foot slipped, my hand gave way, the gear pulled, and I plummeted earthward.
Doug looking over the edge of Tiger Wall
But, the moves are there, in my imagination - the same one that has me slip and fall - I can see myself moving up, jamming a hand deep into the crack, bridging my feet on either side, reaching a stance, plugging in some gear, moving up and doing it all again. And so I do. One foot out to the left, the right bridged across and glued to the wall with opposition. I have a killer right hand jam, and a solid left crimp. A metre or two up is a parallel crack that will take a solid red cam. I grin happily as I plug it in, tug on the rope, clip in a long draw. I'm safe now for a while, I can move up, beating down that evolutionary voice that drones on in a monotone - "get off this wall, get off this wall."
Doug getting three dimensional on Kestrel
Below me, my belayer is chatting with the frightened novice climber, now on the ground, feeling safe, nattering happily. I'm near the end of the route. My rack is considerably lighter, the small gear all used up, the big gear still weighing me down. I stop at a stance, I have one runner left. I fiddle in one last wire, clip it to the rope with that final runner, eye up the moves ahead, and smoothly pull the final sequence over the lip and up onto the belay ledge.
All the fear, the dark imaginings, the jittery feel of adrenaline is all gone. "That's a fun route," I call down. The dark images gone replaced with that wonderful feeling of accomplishment that floods through all climbers everywhere when, despite being fearful, they pushed ahead anyway. There is no feeling like it in the world.