Some years ago, I met a rock climber guy called Steve. At that time, he was probably in his mid-forties. He had climbed off and on for about 20 years. Work had left him little time or energy to be more than a weekend climber. For 16 of those 20 years, he had climbed at Severe, i.e. about 5.6. He was perfectly happy at this grade and had absolutely no desire to climb harder. Nor did he think that he could climb harder.
“But,” Steve told me, “a few years ago, through a mutual acquaintance, I met a guy called Dave. We went rock climbing together.” Steve grinned at the memory. “The first route Dave did was an E4 (5.11). He was pretty relaxed about things and he climbed it quite easily, without any fuss. Well, what was I to do? I didn’t like to say that I’d never climbed harder than Severe before.” “So what did you do?” I asked curiously. “I followed Dave up it,” Steve replied. “I didn’t find it easy but I did it without falling off. After that, we did another E4. Then we want to the pub and I told Dave that I’d jumped six grades in a single day. He burst out laughing! The beers went down well, I can tell you…”
What had happened? Obviously Steve had climbed well within his physical ability for two decades. Quite simply, he had no idea he could climb harder. More importantly, he’d never even tried to climb harder. For instance, he’d never gone out and put a top-rope on something and just played around on it.
So, all along, Steve was capable of far harder things. His breakthrough was instigated by the sheer embarrassment of not feeling able to ‘own up’ to his normal grade. I also suspect that Dave’s easy-going personality helped. A capable climber, Dave is also a very relaxed guy who does not come over as a rock-jock. Instead, he’s endlessly supportive.
Steve continued to climb to E4. He never became a bold climber but, if a route is well protected, he’ll get on it and, very often, he’ll do it. He still enjoys Severes. But he also enjoys climbing E4’s – six grades harder – and every grade in between.
There’s a lesson there – for all of us. Climbing with other people who are a lot better can help us to ‘drag our grades up’. Obviously the better climber must be supportive. And, equally, one must not be put off by the grade difference. Just let go of your ego. I used to climb with a guy called Ian Vincent, who was climbing F8b (5.13d) when I was only on about F6b+ (5.11a). We still had great days climbing together.
Seeing a better climber on routes that seem too hard for you demystifies them and makes them so much more accessible. You pick up tips, techniques and, best of all, a different mind-set. The better climber probably knows, much better than you, what you’re capable of. If they say, “You can do it,” then, chances are, you can.
I’ve a confession to make: every significant grade breakthrough I’ve ever made has been on my down. Conversely, I’ve helped dozens of climbers to make grade breakthroughs. There’s a hard way to get better (mine!) and an easy way (climbing with better people). So my advice is this: choose the easy way and climb with better people!