The Art of the Prolonged Siege

The year 1992.  The location Eldon square leisure centre (Newcastle, the UK), specifically the “Berghaus” bouldering wall.  The problem – the flake on the severely overhanging wall.  For the sixth or seventh time that morning I position myself in a crouched position at the base of the problem, and use both hands to grip the horizontal portion of the flake in an undercling.  Then I move my feet onto the small holds just above the rubber crumb base on the floor.  Already I can feel the pressure building up in my biceps. I move left along flake then, as the flake transfers from the horizontal to the vertical, I easily transition into a powerful layback.  Arms and legs working in tandem,  I move smoothly up for around 10 feet until the flake peters out.  At this point I stretch my left hand out wide to a small pocket.  The pocket grasped, I steel myself for the powerful move up to another pocket. I make a half hearted attempt to execute the move, but my mind has already told me I’ve failed, and I peel off the wall and land on the gym mat with an audible “poff”, just as I have a few dozen times before.

I continued over the following weeks, months, even years to attempt the same boulder problem, with exactly the same result, every time I visited the climbing wall – which was probably around twice a week for a few years in the early nineties.

For some reason there’s something in some peoples personality that draws them into to the prolonged siege in climbing, maybe in  life generally.   Choosing targets that are simply too difficult for them then doggedly pursuing them beyond the time many (most?) people would consider rational.

Yet, there are numerous examples of well-known climbers doing just that.  Tommy Caldwell spent 6 years attempting The Dawn Wall on Yosemite’s El Capitan.  Steve McClure spent 8 years trying his hardest route “Rainman” (9b) at Malham Cove in the north if England.  Both of these guys were at least rewarded with success.  But of course this isn’t guaranteed.  UK climbing legend Ben Moon spent many days over a period of a year or more working what would have been the  hardest route in the world at the time, only to be beaten and demoralised – pretty much giving up sports climbing in disgust and  taking up bouldering instead.

In my case,  almost all of what I would regard my sports climbing advancements have involved prolonged sieges.  Embarrassingly, the first 6c (5.11b) took around 18 months from the point at which I first checked out the route to finally clipping the lower off (including taking a whipper from the same point of the crux 12 times in a row).  My first 6c+ (5.11c) took around a year.  The first 7a (5.11d) about 9 months.  In case you’re thinking “at least the time to reach each milestone is going down” – I’m now  close to entering the third  year of attempting my fist 7b+ (5.12c).

Many climbers, especially those from a traditional background (from which I hail) where ground-up and onsight is king, believe that this approach is, essentially, cheating.  Bringing the problem down to the climber’s level and assuring success – and therefore negating the challenge.  I might have agreed at one point, but if you live in an area that has limited onsight options, but plenty of project opportunities then you don’t have much choice.  Besides, once you get embroiled in the whole redpointing mindset, then you discover that the whole process has its own charms.  There’s great satisfaction to be gained from starting a route where many of the moves are at, or slightly beyond (sometimes way beyond), what you can do first go, and where there are entire sections that feel simply impossible.  Then, as the time you spend on the route increases, the hard moves start to feel easy and the impossible moves possible.  You also start to build a flow on sections of the route, then start to link sections of the route together into bigger sections.  Then at some point it feels that you are ready to try and do the whole route cleanly, in one choreographed performance.  Whilst following this process your relationship with the bit of rock you’re trying  evolves into something deeper.  You become familiar with every little facet of the rock, every little wrinkle, every pocket, every flake. . You’re no longer climbing the rock, you are the rock.

Onsight attempts close to your limit are rarely elegant affairs.  Unfamiliarity  leads to stop/start climbing, feet  placements clumsy and imprecise, strenuous sections over muscled.  Redpoint attempts, however, are frequently flowing, graceful, offering the appearance of effortlessness.  The term ‘vertical dance’ is sometime used to  describe the act of climbing a rock.  This is never truer than when a climber makes a successful redpoint of a route.  Like the dancer, the climber has learned and rehearsed the moves until they can be executed in one fluid performance.   The result is that when a project is finally “sent” the climbing often looks and feels easy, even though the route may be the hardest the climber has ever attempted.

Going back to where I started this (rambling?) post – that boulder problem at Eldon Square climbing wall.  Move forward to 2002. I hadn’t tried the problem for a few  years (had only just got back into climbing after an involuntary layoff).   I certainly wasn’t any fitter than ten years ago, very much the opposite.  My waist line had increased in proportion with my age.  Still worth giving my old friend a go.   I follow my usual sequence from way back when – move up the overhanging flake, stretch out left to the pocket, steel myself for the powerful move up, make a small dyno and latch the pocket on the deadpoint.  Make the final couple of easier moves and mantelshelf the bar that runs along the top of the wall to top out.  Ten years, and probably more than a hundred attempts – most failing at the same point.  Turns out all I needed to do was actually try making the move instead of falling off.  There’s probably a life lesson there somewhere…..

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