Taking risks: it gets easier with practiceJanuary 24, 2019
I was having a silly argument with a couple of hillwalking friends a few weeks ago. I’d said I did not want to climb the “Needle” on the summit of The Cobbler, a distinctive 898m peak not far from Glasgow in Scotland.
The Needle (pictured above) is a rock chimney on the top of the mountain, known as the “true summit”. I’ve been told that it’s not too difficult to climb, but there is a massive drop below, and not much margin for error.
I’ve climbed The Cobbler four times, but I haven’t “threaded the Needle”. It’s described as “threading the Needle” because there’s a rock window that you walk through on your way to climb up the thing. I have looked through this “window”, and I decided that this was as far as I would go.
It wasn’t a long, drawn-out decision. I thought I could probably do it, but that the risk was simply not worth a photo of me standing on top.
What surprises me is how much passion my decision often provokes from people who have “threaded the Needle” (and there are many of them!). They raise their voices an octave higher, and say “You’d easily be able to do it!”.
And it seems many people do feel they have to do it. On a dry, sunny day at the summit of the Cobbler there are always people standing on the Needle, many of them relatively inexperienced climbers.
I’ve even seen a film on YouTube of a man coaxing his terrified looking teenage son up the Needle.
I also received a bit of criticism from friends when I decided not to go on a trip to An Teallach, a fantastic mountain in north west Scotland, in 2017. The reason was partly financial, as I was doing another trip the same month, but also because I didn’t feel I had enough scrambling experience to really enjoy it.
An Teallach is known for being a technically difficult, but highly rewarding mountain to climb. I’m sure I would have been able to climb it at that time, but I might have felt a bit nervous and out of my depth, and I wanted to do it once I had built up more experience and felt more confident.
I like to plan and prepare – that is my nature. It’s odd, because I’m also quite an impulsive person – I often do things on the spur of the moment. But I won’t do anything I don’t feel comfortable about.
I was interested to find out that this is also Alex Honnold’s philosophy.
Climbing without ropes
For those who don’t know, Alex Honnold climbed El Capitan, a 3,000-foot sheer rock face in Yosemite, solo, without using ropes. I watched Free Solo, the feature film about Honnold’s climb, on Christmas Eve – which was the only time I could book a seat for the film. It was so popular that most of the screenings were sold out two weeks in advance in my town.
What Honnold did seems totally crazy to me. Not surprisingly, “free soloing” – climbing without using ropes – has a very high death rate. But I find Alex Honnold’s philosophy about solo climbing very interesting. You’d expect someone who climbs vertical rock faces without ropes to have a wild, devil-may-care attitude, but Honnold is thoughtful, introspective and methodical.
He spent two years preparing to solo El Capitan, climbing it with ropes repeatedly, getting to know the rock intimately and practising every single move.
In a compelling radio interview with the BBC, Honnold compared his solo climb of El Capitan to a solo climb he did previously, of Half Dome, also in Yosemite, where he almost messed things up. He decided not to prepare for the climb, and he experienced a few moments of terror during his solo ascent.
When he was not far from the top, attempting what he describes as the last difficult move, he became uncertain about foot placement and started to panic. When you’re hundreds of feet up a vertical rock face with no rope, there’s no going back. Luckily he eventually managed to steady his nerves and complete the climb.
Honnold claims that free soloing deaths have mostly happened on mundane, easier climbs and that complacency could be a factor. After his Half Dome experience, he put in two years of intense preparation for his solo climb of El Capitan.
Building up so much experience and preparation as a climber, Honnold says, makes such feats seem less scary. He compares it to walking on a pavement, or sidewalk – everyone does it, and we are so practised at it that we know we’re not going to fall off the kerb and into the path of traffic. But there’s always the chance that it could happen.
From healthy fear to confidence
I would never dream of climbing “solo”, without ropes. Yet I love rock scrambling, and that is a kind of climbing without ropes – only not on sheer vertical rock.
When I started scrambling, it terrified me, and I see that as healthy. At the time, I didn’t have the experience or the physical strength in the relevant muscle groups to feel safe climbing over rocks.
As my experience grew, and as I built up my strength and flexibility by doing indoor climbing and bouldering, my confidence increased. Now I happily skip over rocks that other people find terrifying, and it’s easy to forget how nerve-wracking I used to find it.
I realised how far I’d come a few months ago, when I was climbing Ben More, a mountain that I’d first climbed two years earlier. At that time me and my two friends took a small detour in order to avoid a steep rock wall – because there was no way we could get over it! When I met this wall again, a few months ago, it seemed so easy to pull myself over it.
The scrambly rock wall on Ben More (when ascending from the south).
Preparation, practice and rehearsal builds confidence and reduces risk, and this is true in just about every aspect of life. I like doing things when I feel fully confident in my ability to do them. As another illustration of this, my mum tells me that when I was a tiny child, she became concerned because I was quite late in learning to speak. I would not say anything apart from the odd baby noise. Then one day, I suddenly started speaking – in sentences.
I clearly didn’t want to start speaking until I felt fully confident that I could do it properly!
The same goes for “threading the Needle” on the Cobbler. I don’t think anyone should feel compelled to do it until they feel fully confident about it – and if that never happens, fine! No one should feel embarrassed or inferior about not threading the Needle.
However, I’m starting to think I might be ready to climb it! I won’t rule it out anyway.
What’s your attitude to risk? Do you put in a lot of practice, or just go ahead and hope for the best?
All photos taken by myself unless indicated.
The main photo shows a very experienced climber who made a roped ascent of The Needle in icy conditions.