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Humans of Climbing - 'The Fear'

Here is a piece I wrote for UKClimbing, for a feature they are doing called - Humans of Climbing. It made me reflect on what climbing means to me and what I get out of moving on rock. Hope you enjoy it.



Myself, Jono and Andy Kirkpatrick after climbing Lurking Fear, El Cap 2013

#HumansofClimbing No.35: 'I’m a climbing fraud, a has-been, probably a never was. I don’t call myself a climber anymore, although at one point in my life, that’s all I was. I look back ten, twelve, fifteen years and can still taste the hunger, still feel the tendons straining inside chalky fingers, still remember the smell of my favourite tight-fitting climbing shoes and the endless battles in my mind with the fear. I always had the fear climbing, and I never understood why I would go back - time after time - for more. I must have quit on every route that I found hard, which was most of them. But it was always that final move. That move that grants you safety on top, that feeling of 'It's all over now.'

The crag has let go of me, or so I foolishly used to think. Instead, its grip was only getting tighter around me, squeezing like a chalked-up hand clamped around a pinch. I always felt like I got away with it. Never again will I try and climb as hard. I’ll stick to the classics, punch below my weight and enjoy easier climbs, taking in everything around me. But the last move was never the same, it feels different, like I have robbed myself of an experience; an opportunity to learn about myself when the fear eats its way into my mind. Over the years I’ve learnt that without the fear, climbing means very little to me, and I still don’t fully understand why I have to suffer.

I still have a box of twisted wires racked on a karabiner. They've probably saved my life once or twice. Yet through the fear and poor placements, I’ve heard those same wires rip, ping and pop. That haunting sound of an alloy wedge exiting its seated position under load, before placing my life in the honest hands of gravity. Those wires are a part of me in a way. I hold them in my hand feeling the cool steel cables, remembering the sensation of holding them between my teeth. Looking down at the pile of scratched cams and a rubbed silver belay plate, I feel the lure of that final move. Where everything will be fine once more, after swearing I'd sell all this gear and stick to bouldering. As I look through the box, memories flood my mind. The climbs, the people. I remember the trying, the falls, the fear. What I feel now meant everything to me years ago. So keen to push and push to find the edge. Now its just a box of worthless old climbing gear, of value to no one, except to me, which is why I still hoard the box.

After looking in that box today, I rode to the local crag on my fat bike. I’ve lived here for 3 years and never shown any interest in the crag before. Its gritstone walls stretch 28 metres above me, and I think of 28 metres of fighting the fear. The steep, dark walls stir old, familiar emotions within me. I stand with a breeze on my face, close my eyes and picture a last move high up there; I feel those feelings of being free. I ride home and find a topo - there’s an E7 on that wall. I have no idea why that excites me, as I’ve never climbed E7 in my life. My mind wonders, maybe, just maybe, one day?

I will allow myself to be called a climber once more. For the last 6 years I have been racing a tandem bicycle on the world stage, after being diagnosed with a visual impairment, which ended my dream of becoming a mountain guide years earlier. It opened a new chapter in my life, a chapter which left climbing behind. Even though I feel a fraud, I know I’m still a climber, having never really untied the final knot. The last time I climbed was just after the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games. My wife Caroline and I drove to the Lakes and climbed a 3 pitch V.Diff between the September rain showers. The time before that, I rope soloed Zodiac on El Capitan in 2013.

After the Paralympics in Tokyo 2020, I will once again delve into that worthless box of twisted and scratched history, purchase a new rope, tie-in once more, and search for the freedom within the fear.' - Steve Bate