Last week I went to up to Dove Crag, a steep trad crag in the Lakes that I've always kind of wanted to visit, but always thought would be really scary and intimidating.
It's really steep, the easiest route on the north crag is E5, it doesn’t get climbed on all that often, and I knew I'd need to go there with someone that's happy getting on routes of that grade. I've also been focussing on bouldering for the past year or so, and so it’s a massive unknown how my fitness will be for hard trad!
Luckily I had a partner who was willing to have a go at on sighting Fast and Furious (E5, 6a/b), so I was able to relax for a bit and it was ace watching him route read so well, place lots of good gear, and try bloody hard!
Thoughts of feeling scared, struggling to commit above gear, being really pumped, and climbing on spaced gear filled my mind beforehand...and I was fairly convinced I wouldn't be ready for leading at this crag. However once I got there, the crag wasn't quite as scary looking as I thought it would be, I could see actual rests, and seeing Ted lead the route first took a lot of the unknowns out of it and made me realise I could give it a really good go.
Anticipation and suspense is often worse than doing the actual thing, and our brains are hard wired to think of all the potential bad experiences and keep us as safe as possible. It’s important to remember that climbers of all levels (yes, even the pros!) get intimidated by crags, routes or situations. As a friend of mine says, “don't let anticipation ruin your day”!
Trying harder trad routes, at whatever level you're at, can be scary and uncertain, and I certainly didn't feel like I had a stash of tough trad leads to give me enough confidence for this route right now. Seeing the moves and gear placements in advance was the perfect balance of challenge, and made that step up a bit smaller and less daunting. It made for a really positive, fun and satisfying experience. I still fell off, and it was still a bit scary, but I was SO psyched i tried hard until I fell, and I know for sure that it was better for my confidence and future climbing than jumping straight on the onsight. Trad is inherently scary and requires a lot of skill, risk management and experience ..... making steps up smaller for yourself is smart, not a cop out.
There are certainly times to just go for things, try the onsight, and take a big step up….but there are also times where making steps smaller for yourself is the best thing to do….and will reinforce a more calm and confident experience.
It's so easy to feel like we should get on that lead, climb better, be more confident. Like we shouldn't feel scared or intimidated. Like we should onsight trad all the time, and like we should be getting on harder grades.
Be careful of the ‘shoulds’.
It can weigh on us. It can make us do things just to meet others expectations, and can engrain a stressed, anxious state while climbing. Yes, we may be totally capable of that climb….it’s important to own that and be positive about your ability. But we don’t have to do anything.
Climbing is, at the end of the day, a game, an invention, and you can make it what you want it to be.
I don't climb to prove myself to anyone else, and I don't want to get on harder grades because I should....but because I want to.
So, here’s permission.
Permission to try something on a top rope sometimes. Permission to feel intimidated by a climb or venue. Permission to try a climb that seems wildly out of your league because you like the look of it. Permission to climb something with pre-placed gear if you want to. Permission to be more psyched that you fell or sat on your trad gear than if you had got to the top clean. Permission to eat cake and go for a swim rather than do another route. Permission to tell your belayer how they can best support you while you climb. Permission to have some days where you really push it and other days when you climb lots of easy stuff. Permission to be gently with yourself and with your body. Permission to do what you want to do, with people you like, in places you love.