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  • Writer's pictureJude Spancken

The Backwards Art of Progress

A few weeks ago I was climbing with a friend at my local climbing wall. There is a 20 year age difference between us as well as a difference in experience. My friend, let’s call him Louis, started climbing 6 years ago. He has done most of his climbing on his local crag in Italy. Myself I first discovered climbing 25 years ago and have climbed all over the world on different types of rock.

Climbing at the wall we chat a lot between go’s and during one of our conversations he asks: “ Have you always progressed in your climbing? “ Since recently moving to France he had steadily improved through the grades. Easier access to walls meant that he could now climb more often.

Since we were talking about grades it would have been easy to answer that my progression had been steady up to a certain point. It would have been tempting to say that my personal ’best’ was now almost 10 years ago. That since, I have not progressed because I have not yet climbed harder. It would be a simple and straight forward answer looking at my climbing that way.

However, this is not how I feel. By giving this simple answer I would not give credit to most of what progressing means to me today. Looking at our climbing (or any other sport) purely in terms of grades, speed, volume or trophies I feel leaves out so much that cannot be expressed in grades. So much emphasis today seems to be on encouraging growth towards the next grade or higher performance but I feel within that something essential is missing. Looking at my own path, grades seemed of total unimportance in my first few years of climbing. Then followed a period where they mattered somewhat before finally loosing their power on me again with an increasing understanding of who I am and why is it I climb.

I was introduced to climbing at Swanage on a windy sunny weekend in October in 1994. I clearly remember the wind, the sound of the sea and birds. I remember my disbelief looking up thinking “IMPOSSIBLE” when being told that this is where we are going to climb up. By the end of the day I felt I had discovered THE thing. The climbing club at the school I went to for one year as an exchange student from Germany was run by the schools chemistry teacher. I feel lucky having had an incredible mentor in him. Free spirited and adventurous, accurately judging our ability, he guided us out of our comfort zone in small but safe and profound steps. My first year of climbing was marked by trips to Devon, Cornwall, Wales, Lundy and winter climbing in Scotland. During the week at school we learned how to use crampons on steep (grassy school) ground, learned how to abseil down from, and prusik back up to the bridge crossing the River Ardur. I was hooked, enchanted and upon returning to northern Germany knew that I needed to find ways to get back to climbing.

Over the years I progressed. That’s what happens when we fully engage in an activity. We change, we learn. Physically our bodys adapt, we learn how to move, technique improves and we are becoming more aware of what helps us to increasingly perform and to ‘feel at home’. An easy reference to all this is our amazing grading system we have in climbing. The more difficult a climb the more skills are required to make it up that particular climb. Especially early on, the learning curve is steep. It is tempting to judge our progress mainly or solely by the grades we climb.

But what if grades do not increase or even drop? We may spend less time on rock due to life changes, injury or shift in motivation. Us climbers easily get worried when not being able to climb. There seems to be a fear of grades dropping and losing hard earned fitness. Is all learning relevant to climbing now on hold ? Does not being able to climb or doing our usual training mean no chance to progress? I personally do not think so. I am convinced that what we learn away from climbing can often be transferred to rock. Understanding this may help to maintain performance or to become aware of skills we didn’t apply as effectively as before. Forced time away from climbing can also open up a precious window allowing attention to be directed elsewhere, providing fresh ingredients. A break from physical training can give opportunity to engage with our body in a new way. Everyday life gives plenty of opportunity to become more aware of our way of thinking, our reactions to stimulus and how we deal with discomfort. All of which can be very precious practise for when getting back to climbing.

I also believe that one can flourish and learn as well as push outside ones confort zone within the same grade, shifting attention to progression within a grade rather than always seeking out the next.

Today I live on France and work as a climbing instructor and coach. As part of my work I have the privilege to accompany people in their climbing progress. Every person is unique and hence requires a unique key of communication. This constant practise of trying to find the key is something that has helped me to understand what true moments of learning look like and that these moments are completely irrelevant to the grade of the route the climber is on.

I may see regression in somebody doing their hardest climb, I may see progression in somebody climbing way below their usual ‘best’. It is not the grade that tells me when somebody just had a breakthrough of somatic, emotional or cognitive understanding. The clues are instead body and facial language, the change in ease and quality of movement, the way HOW the climber applies herself to the rock at a particular moment. One could say a ‘light’ has suddenly been switched on…

It was during times when I couldn’t push my grade that I was given the opportunity to bring my attention to aspects of climbing that I had neglected, yet which are of importance to becoming a more versatile as well as efficient climber.

During times of injury I learned to appreciate climbing grades far below my personal best. It was all my body would let me do during those times. It was here that I rediscovered flow, grace and ease on extremely easy ground. Prior to injury, a mind overly fixed on climbing harder had made me physically strong but at the same time had disconnected me from a deeper level of body awareness. A shoulder in pain gave me the chance to reconnect and to explore movement on gentle slabs. I learned to direct my attention towards minuscule things. The essence of balance and ease, exploring my inner world during gentle movement, my body responding to the rock rather than me driving it up it. When do we really take time to do this when climbing our best, when fit and healthy and able to physically push ?

Another time, when a significant life event, one could say a blow to the soul, threw me into periods of extreme emotional pain, climbing performance was the last thing I worried about. Yet it was climbing that also helped me eventually find balance and joy again. Sharing gentle time on rock with close friends who endured my tears and despair. I learned about aspects of climbing I had not been in touch with before. My connection to climbing changed and I understood its profound impact on my well-being in completely new ways. Not by climbing hard routes but through feeling its gentle ability to reconnect my broken heart to the present moment.

During a recent eight months long period of physical inactivity I feel my climbing improved. How can that be? I had lost significant muscle mass and fitness, yet the previous months of regular meditation, study of anatomy, gentle foot and leg awareness activities, as well as practising the Alexander Technique had allowed me to reconnect with my body in entirely new ways. Rather than feeling rusty I felt connected and at ease and was able to pick up again on rock where I had left off. It wasn’t until I started to climb again that I realised my ‘progression’ during the many months away from climbing. Not marked by a grade but by how I experienced myself when climbing.

Climbing is not so much a physical matter. Successfully navigating a path up our chosen piece of rock largely depends on the ability to effectively manage and regulate attention, energy, balance and emotions. It requires intimate knowledge of our body and mind and how these interact with the space we move through. It requires working with, rather than against who we are in order to use our potential to its fullest in any given moment. These things are not so much learned on a finger board or in the gym but in every day life.

I felt more at ease with my final answer I gave to Louis: “ yes, I feel that there has always been progression in my climbing. This progression has sometimes been reflected in grades but more often not. Today my grades may be less consistent than 10 years ago and I climb far less than I did in the past. However I feel I am in a much healthier dialogue with my body and with who I am. When I do climb I experience greater ease, efficiency and joy. Attention has long ago shifted from what I climb towards how I climb and with this shift of attention a universe of infinite learning has opened up and with it a sensation of steady evolution.

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