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My climbing in 2020

    Now that 2020 is almost over, I find myself looking back and taking stock of its ups and downs.
    Somehow, this year felt both empty and eventful. The weeks and months seemed to fly and to drag along at the same time. There would be a lot to say about all aspects of life, but here I will focus on my rock climbing activity throughout the year, which is often a good reflection of my state of mind anyways.

    Me on Tyrannos on F14s (22/6c), Umgeni Valley, belayed by Isla. Picture by Iain Rennie.

    At the beginning of 2020 I was feeling mentally and emotionally drained. It’s hard to pinpoint a single reason, but my mind, my work and my relationships were all over the place. Even climbing, which usually provides me with peace, balance, and a chance for recollection, was not enjoyable anymore. As for other aspects of life, I would go through the motions of it but my heart wasn’t in it.

    In February I flew to Italy to sort out visa issues and I grabbed the chance for a climbing trip to El Chorro, Spain, with my old friend Nadja. We got to sample some of the hundreds of routes of the limestone cliffs and bask in the sun in shorts in the middle of winter. It was great, and yet my comfort zone was so eroded that I would freeze on routes that would have normally represented just a fun little challenge.

    Nadja and I enjoying the February warmth and sunshine in El Chorro, Spain.

    Soon after my return to South Africa, the COVID pandemic shook the World.

    For me, the lockdown was a welcome moment of retreat and recollection. It was not always easy, but it forced me to spend a lot of time with my thoughts without the chance of dodging them with distractions. It was dark and daunting at times, but it was a great opportunity for analysis and self-growth. It helped my climbing too: in the weeks before the lockdown I found myself climbing as if I had to, because the weather was good, because “it’s my thing”, even if I was not enjoying it. The lockdown forced me to take a break from it, and the fact that I did not have a choice about it made me feel less as I was missing out. It gave time to my body to get rid of the strains and micro-injuries that climbers often carry around in denial, and to my mental comfort zone to consolidate and expand.

    When I had the chance to climb again I was doing it out of enthusiasm and not out of habit. I did not feel as if I had to climb, but rather as if I got to climb. Every route I climbed felt like a gift. The awareness that the lockdown had lessened my fitness made me focus on pacing myself to regain it. Chasing grades and ticking routes was less important than the process of learning and exploration that came with it. In a way, the process became the goal, or at least part of it.

    In 2019 I spent three months projecting a grade-25 (7a/+) route, the hardest one I have climbed so far. It was rewarding, but at times, as I approached 30 attempts on it, it felt like a chore. Conversely, when the lockdown eased, I focused on mileage and on consolidating my climbing skills on lower grades. Working routes of grade 20-22 was still a challenge, but more fun than draining.

    I set off to climb as many routes as I could that I had never free-climbed before, which led me to look at the climbing venues I had known for years with new eyes. My quest was made easier by a new-routing spree that swept KwaZulu-Natal: since the lockdown had eased, people had climbed hard and developed many new routes and even new climbing venues. It was as if the lockdown had driven many to value their time and their surroundings more. I gave my small contribution to this wave of new routes by teaming up with Chris Kleynhans to bolt and open “The Lebowski Line”, a three-pitch route on the granite dome of Old Baldy/iSithumbe.

    Chris and I bolting and opening The Lebowski Line, iSithumbe.

    Since last year, thanks to Neil Williamson’s suggestion, I have kept an accurate logbook of my climbing activity: it started as a tick-list, then it became a detailed account of all the routes I climb on each climbing session. My spreadsheet looks like this:

    It allows me to keep track of my progress, compute some summary statistics and even model the relationship between climbing grades and effort. This year I lead 93 routes of grades 8-23 (french 3-6c+), 56 of which I had never climbed before. In total I gave 289 tries (counting leads, top-rope ascents, and bumbling while practicing moves) to 117 different routes.

    Me in the process of being engulfed and chewed by “Poetry in Motion” (19), Gerald Camp’s misunderstood masterpiece. The Resurrection Wall, Shongweni. Picture by Gerald.

    Some of the ascents that I enjoyed the most this year:

    • Vulture’s Feast (21/6b+) at the Boneyard: a great line by Grant Murray, the first route I felt comfortable with taking falls on in a while and having fun in the process;
    • Tyrannos on F14s (22/6c) at Umgeni crags, by Roger Nattrass: a rather mind-draining experience, with two cruxes half way up and a long, gripping section on the headwall;
    • When The Fear Runs Down Your Legs (21/6b+) at Shongweni dam: one of the many routes Gerald Camp put up this year, involving a fun semi-horizontal crack that prompted me to the unusual choice of taping my hands;
    • Sacrilegious (21/6b+), bolted and opened by Warwick Hastie at Shongweni dam: a crimpy slab that I kept stubbornly returning to. The day when I sent it, Chris and I saw a black mamba climb up a nearby ledge to loot an owl nest while the occupants fought it (it might not have been the actual day when I sent it, but I won’t let the truth get in the way of a good story);
    • Cherry on Top (23/6c+): a short, heinous extension to Blueberry Delight (Umgeni Crags) put up by Evan Brauteseth. It’s a route that I had tried in the past and that shut me down. It turned out that all I had to do was to contract every muscle in my body at once for a couple of moves;
    • Flintstone Kids (22/6c) at the Boneyard: another great line by Grant Murray, one of the routes that took me the most attempts (~20) to this date, and yet had me returning like a moth to the flame.

    By plotting a graph of the number of attempts required versus route grade, an exponential relationship emerges:

    Effort versus difficulty for the routes I free-climbed for the first time in 2020. I estimated effort as number of attempts on a route counting both lead attempts and top-rope practice laps.

    According to this model, it should take me about 33 attempts to climb a grade 25 route, which is close to the number of attempts I needed to lead “A day without clouds” in 2019 (I wasn’t keeping track but I reckon it took me about 30 attempts). The number of attempts I would need to lead grade 26 and 27 routes at the moment is… Too many. The good news is that the exponential curve tends to become less steep the more and harder I climb.

    There were lessons learned which will help also when applied to other aspects of life:

    • being a bit of a nerd by making detailed plans and keeping track of progress pays off and adds to the sense of reward;
    • quality and quantity can coexist. I think of them as the extremes of a gradient where one can choose the right balance for them at any stage;
    • good climbing partners are essential but once you’re on a climb you are on your own. Own it;
    • there is such a thing as thinking too much. Once you have a plan that you are happy with, don’t let thinking hinder your actions. Trust the plan and execute it;
    • sometimes it’s ok to be down or to perform less than you could or wish. Accept it and forgive yourself if it’s a once-in-a-while thing, but admit it to yourself and address it if it becomes a habit/pattern. It can mean taking a break or changing your perspective on things;
    • put as much care in training your mind as you do in training your body.
    Me on my way to The Boneyard, in a picture by Wesley Rothmann which always makes me smile.