When you’re blind and waiting for your third shoulder surgery, the obvious thing to do to while away the time is to go on a rock climbing course. Well, if you’re me anyway.
Those who know me won’t be surprised that this is what I chose to do a couple of weeks ago. It kind of happened by accident. I’d been wanting to do a climbing course for a number of years (after all, I live in Sheffield, where 90% of all able-bodied people seem to go rock climbing) but I kept getting stalled. First by the wrong dates for the course I wanted to do, and then by two frozen shoulders which have rendered me almost immobile (certainly in terms of upper body use) over the past 3 1/2 years. I’d therefore thought it prudent to wait until my arms were usable again. After the first two operations (arthroscopic capsular release, in case you’re interested, which basically means slicing scar tissue off the joint with a sharp knife and prising the two bits of it apart), I have a lot more movement and less pain (I couldn’t even get my hands in my pockets or above shoulder height for 2 years), but I still can’t put weight on my arms if they’re above shoulder height, and I can’t rotate my right shoulder more than a few degrees, so reaching behind me or up in the air is impossible. In comparison, not being able to see properly is fairly trivial in terms of climbing, though still a little challenging when trying to figure out where to put your hands and feet, or to plan a route when you can’t see any of the holds or even whether there’s a crack or overhang looming. This applies to descending as well as ascending, incidentally! But I agreed to go because two friends were planning to book a course with our good friend Will from Will4Adventure, and wanted a third person to split the cost. Plus I’d have been insanely jealous if they’d done it without me, since they were staying at my house for the duration. So I figured I’d live dangerously and give it a go.
I must admit I was very nervous, as with all things new. In addition to the medical issues, I’m also not brilliant with heights, though generally better on solid ground than things like ladders, and not so bad when roped on. However, I’ve learnt over the years a number of techniques to conquer these fears (mostly, thinking about something else!) and figured that that was probably the least of my worries!
Our first task was a spot of bouldering to get us used to trusting our feet on small holds and slippery rock close to the ground (and most importantly, to dirty my brand new climbing shoes). I was fine with going up, but found it rather more terrifying descending forwards, even if only a few feet from the ground. I had to employ a few breathing exercises to keep my calm (reciting poetry for me works well as a distraction technique – I particularly like G. K. Chesterton’s Lepanto as it has a great rhythm to it and makes me feel brave!).
We then proceeded to real rock and ropes, which was much more appealing. My first attempt was not entirely successful (actually, a complete failure in ascending more than a few feet, as I couldn’t get past a slightly tricky section which necessitated a bit of upper body weight bearing and some slippery footholds on wet rock (it had been raining earlier that morning), and I felt a complete idiot as I had to admit defeat after several attempts. Maybe I really was destined to wait until I had at least one fully working shoulder, and preferably two. My friends Matt and Lizzy, being less impaired, managed it with ease of course.
However, after a spot of lunch (a homemade Brie, spinach and caramelised carrot chutney wrap, in case you were wondering), I decided to have a go at the next route which the others had successfully climbed. None of us were very optimistic about my chances, but we thought I might make it at least to the first ledge, about a third of the way up, which would be better than nothing. Sheer determination kicked in at this point as I wanted to prove that it wasn’t a ridiculous idea trying to climb without using my upper body, and with gritted teeth I persevered and made it through both tricky sections to the top with not a little pain and no doubt some ridiculous facial expressions. The good thing about my shoulder condition is that I can’t really damage my shoulders further by forcing them through the pain barrier, as they simply stick when they get to a certain point.
After that achievement, there was no stopping me, and I successfully managed all the remaining routes with varying degrees of grimace, pain and terror at the moves Will was encouraging me to make. Sadly, I have the flexibility of an aardvark and the upper body strength of an ant, even discounting my injuries, so reaching some of the proposed holds was nigh on impossible, making for a lot of arguing on my part in response to the instructions shouted from above or below! “What do you mean put my foot in that crack? That’s ridiculous, a gnat’s toenail wouldn’t fit there.” Occasionally, Will’s instructions did turn out to be correct though, and I was left feeling silly at my initial disbelief. It’s amazing what you can do when you stop thinking and just blindly follow orders, even if your trust in your own ability is at rock bottom.
The good thing about having limitations, however, is that you’re forced to think outside the box and find alternative solutions, something I know all about from trying to do sport (and other things) with limited sight. If you can’t reach a foot- or handhold, you look for another. And if you can’t see one, you feel around until something sticks. You’re really forced to use your brain as much as your brawn (just as well, as I don’t have much brawn) and to think laterally a lot more than you would otherwise. And this for me is the absolute crux of the matter. Climbing isn’t really about getting to the top, it’s about finding solutions to problems, which luckily happens to be my favourite pastime. I couldn’t care less about physical skill. OK, that’s a lie. I care a lot about physical skill. I would love to have the ripped muscles of a world class climber, the agility of a gazelle, and the physical strength of Hercules. But I care a lot more about mental agility and overcoming the challenge of finding the best route that allows you to get from the bottom to the top without falling off. And just like doing the cryptic crossword in the Times rather than the quick one, additional physical problems mean extra mental stamina is required. It’s like a combination of chess, Jenga and Scrabble all in one.