Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 July 2019

On the move: lessons from the cliff edge

Break a problem down, reach to find the route, do it quickly and trust judiciously

Rock climbing at Smith Rock State Park in Oregon. Rosemary Behan
Rock climbing at Smith Rock State Park in Oregon. Rosemary Behan

Last week I wrote about the benefits of patience while on the road, and like many other skills one utilises while travelling, it pays to be strategic about its deployment. Another, more ephemeral ability is trust – who to trust, when, where and in what circumstances. While some degree of trust is necessary on any journey, the right decision can mean the difference between a so-so trip and a great one.

Last week, at Smith Rock State Park near Bend in central Oregon, I found myself rock-climbing for the first time in 15 years. This is not something you usually do alone, and, while I’ve previously rock-climbed in the UK and the French Alps, I had only planned on having a quick look at Smith Rock, a beautifully photogenic high desert canyon with a river and basalt cliffs.

That was before I saw teams of people rock-climbing and got talking to Geoff, a 30-something Californian with “PERSEVERENCE” tattooed across his shoulders. Geoff and his climbing partner Ross were tackling the “Morning Glory” climb, a virtually sheer vertical wall, not in the morning but in the burning midday heat. I’d watched as they methodically set up the 40-metre high climb and then scaled it, equally methodically. “Want to try?” Geoff asked, after a general discussion about my climbing history and the risks of the sport.

I’d forgotten, but rock-climbing is much safer than it looks: when you are climbing with ropes, you are “tied in” to a system whereby if you slip while climbing, your climbing partner who is belaying will “catch” you by pulling their end of the rope tight. Even if they had lost concentration and hadn’t tightened the rope since your last step up, the worst that would likely happen is that you would fall down to where the last clip was embedded into the rock, since the rope is anchored at the top of the cliff. And, as Geoff reminded me, if I fell and he didn’t react, the safety device feeding the rope through his system would jam tight. So the most important thing in climbing is to check that your partner’s system is set up correctly (ask them to show you).

Despite a lack of practice I scaled the climb without too much difficulty and remembered the following lessons. Break a problem down and tackle it piece by piece: it will seem much less daunting. Sometimes you have to reach in order to find the route. Without being reckless, do things as soon as possible. Waiting and worrying, especially in the heat, will only tire you out. See the path and go for it. Trust judiciously. Without trust we don’t get anywhere. While climbing may seem dangerous, think of driving. Every time we go out in a car, we trust other drivers not to swerve in front of us and kill us. Our safe passage through each day results from the trusting and responsible actions of countless others. Above all, trust yourself. Know your physical limits and don’t take foolish risks if you’re too weak to support yourself.

“Leap and the net will appear” is a phrase I’ve always believed in, but it’s not something I would usually recommend taking literally. Yet that virtually what I did last week, when I decided on some impromptu rock-climbing with a complete stranger. And it was awesome.


Read more:

On the move: why patience is truly a virtue

On the move: could Abu Dhabi be a place of genius?

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Updated: September 13, 2018 01:22 PM