Existential Battles: Climbing in Amman

Me, climbing at Fuheis last week

Me, climbing at Fuheis last week


Over the past few months, since submitting my PhD (and then successfully defending it) I've been engaged in a number of activities that push me outside my comfort zone. From swing dancing to starting a new small business (the 99 Names Challenge) to learning how to code, I've tried to push the envelope of what I know. Like many of us, I'm a creature of habit and routine. I like my routine and my habits. But I also know that those habits and routines -- the same ones that delivered results and even a PhD in the past -- can grow stale. If I'm to grow -- professionally or personally -- I have to get more comfortable with change and with discomfort. The best way to start figuring this out, I have found, is to expose myself to newness and that discomfort as often as possible.

One of the things I've chosen to pursue is climbing. I'd done some bouldering in Holland (at the Delftsebleu centre) a few months back, and a good friend of mine here in Amman mentioned that she does top-rope climbing. The centre here happens to be the biggest climbing facility in the whole Middle East (take that, Dubai!) and there are knowledgeable staff and challenging walls etc so I started going twice a week.

I used to be a runner, but some bone/muscle issues in my foot meant that I haven't actually been running for a year or so. I know and have a strong appreciation for the way exercise and moving my body in general makes me feel better and work better, so I've been looking for a sport or activity to replace running in the meanwhile. (The running was probably a reason why I've neglected any kind of muscular strength training of my upper body. Runners like to be as lean as possible.)

Now is probably also a good time to mention that I have a fairly intense fear of heights. I'm not exactly sure when or where it started, but some key experiences in my mid-childhood certainly contributed to it becoming what it is now. I went to a boarding school in the north of England, near York, so there were lots of outside activities. During the summer, and at 'holiday camp'-type experiences, we were taken to do various adventure challenges on the weekends.

My 'adventures' included abseiling off high bridges, potholing in claustrophobia-inducing narrow passageways (and having my foot get stuck half-way), as well as various obstacle courses positioned in trees and so on. I resented the fact that we had no choice in the matter and I resented the fact that it was less about training or learning a skill than simply having an experience. I remember being pushed off the bridge by the instructor, clipped into a harness but unsure whether I'd survive the descent.

Since that time, I've avoided activities or experiences that necessitated me visiting high-up places. Confession: I even never made it all the way up Kandahar's Forty Steps (chilzina) for this reason. Halfway was my limit.

Amman's ClimbAt centre

Amman's ClimbAt centre

Cut to the present day: I'm 10 or 15 metres up a wall at Amman's Climbat centre. This seems to be the point where things shift. My existential battle begins. I use those words only partially in jest.

The first time I tried rope climbing, I only made it to that half-way point, not knowing to trust the rope, not knowing to trust the knot I'd tied or the harness or a million other things.

Now, I can make it half-way up without too much angst, but then it begins. Rivers of sweat open up all over my body. The most distracting ones are the unceasing flow on my hands. Climbers use magnesium chalk to deal with this problem, though mostly it's just everyday sweaty palms. I dip my hands into the bag, holding on to the wall with my other hand, feeling my grip slip as the waterworks go to town. I see that my palm is sufficiently white with chalk. I swap hands, repeating the process with the other, only to find that in the meanwhile my first hand has sweated through the first application of chalk.

My inner dialogue kicks up. I wonder why I'm here, on the wall, trying to climb up. I look at the rope and the knot, wondering if I would even be able to tell if there was something wrong with it, I look around me at the other climbers, each breezing up their respective paths on the wall with seeming ease. Sometimes I look below me.

I try to talk myself down. It's a different kind of anxiety from that I've experienced before public speaking, that social anxiety that makes your heart race, your stomach churn and the adrenaline pump. Up on the wall, it isn't that adrenaline rush I feel. In fact, aside from the sweating, it's more symptomatically benign, expressing itself in the form of a puzzle or a predicament that I can sometimes remain detached from.

Usually the thing that works best is to try to focus on the physical experience of the moment, on my breath and what that feels like in my body, on the sensations of my fingers on the wall, on the feeling of gravity pulling me back down towards the earth. That sometimes manages to carve enough space that I can then try to think about the problem more analytically -- the problem of which step to take next. If I'm stuck in my existential loop it's hard to make those decisions and I end up wasting energy trying and retrying the same holds and foot movements, to no avail. This tires me out on a muscular level and the problem is compounded.

A week ago, I set my mental discomfort to one side and went outdoor climbing with some friends to a wall or crag near the city of Fuheis (see the photo at the top of this post). Climbing outside felt like even more of a proposition than the indoor wall. More possibility of failure, perhaps. I'm not precisely sure. It's sometimes hard to put my finger on the precise configuration of my fear. But it ended up going well. I ascended the wall, nothing went wrong and I even enjoyed the experience. It took me an age and a half to get up, but the getting up there was all me. I'm less likely to do regular outdoor climbing, since it's more of a hassle to arrange, but it's not going to be something I say no to in the future.

Needless to say, my ongoing climbing practice is exactly that: a work in progress. I'm working on both the physical and the mental blocks simultaneously and while I'm fairly confident that I'll be in a more confident and stronger place in a month or two from now, I'm also frustrated by the slow pace of progress.

To cherry-pick signs of improvement, I'm no longer quitting half-way up the wall. Most times -- as long as the route isn't too difficult -- I generally reach the top, even if it sometimes means multiple iterations of sweaty-hand-mind and multiple recommitments to completing the route. Even though climbing isn't necessarily a sport where you use your arms much -- it's much more about your legs and how you balance and position your body -- you do need at least *some* upper body strength and this is starting to come. I get a pleasurable sense of satisfaction when I return home after half a day spent at the climbing wall, and I'm wearing my muscle soreness as a badge of achievement.

I'm pretty sure that the solution to my mid-wall fears rests in being more conscious of what's going on and what I'm feeling earlier in the climb, and there are a bunch of mental exercises and training that seem to work for many climbers. I'm keen to put some of those into practice.

When it comes down to it, everything is in your mind, especially with rope climbing where the dangers associated with falling or losing your grip on the wall are pretty minimal. Worst case, you bash up against the wall and get a bruise or two. (I have a bunch of those on my knees already.) But the rest, that's all something I can work on and improve at (I hope). Watch this space for an update in a few weeks once I've been doing battle for a bit longer.