Different Kinds of Climbing

This past week I went with my niece to a climbing hall (and trampolining centre) in Kuwait. You can see photos of the walls here and here. The whole experience was designed to encourage play and fun, naturally, rather than for some kind of skill-building. There weren’t any other adults climbing; just children with a throw-yourself-at-it mentality that was infectious.

The routes themselves weren’t particularly difficult, but it was harder trying to ascend without climbing shoes and hindered by the world’s most uncomfortable harness. The walls weren’t that high, and this seemed to reward a sprint-like style of climbing. Speed was more important than technique or form. This was climbing as challenge, as a way to enjoy scrambling up and leaping off the top, rather than anything else. (The centre uses auto-belay devices that stop you from falling all the way down to the bottom).

The experience — mine, and watching that of the children 10–20 years younger than me — reinforced the conclusion that has been steadily growing in my mind over time. Climbing is not really about strength; fear and the mental battles are the biggest things holding the beginner climbing back.

I’ll have to still bash my head against the wall for a while longer before I fully absorb and believe this lesson, but the sooner I do, the sooner I’ll be able to advance onwards to the next level of challenge.

Finishing GMB's Elements


Today marks the final day in my eight-week work on GMB’s Elements training programme. I’ve made allusions to GMB on this blog in the past, but the short story is that they’re an amazing community of trainers who put together fun, sensible and rewarding programmes that increase your ability to move your body. I’ve been working — one way or another — with them and their programmes for the past three years, and they’re consistently supportive and constructive in their approach.

My previous training with their methods was working with a one-on-one trainer to get a handstand. I was starting to get close to the point where I was able to do that when I got ill. I’ve been working my way back from that since then (the past year or so).

Elements is sort of the baseline entry point into GMB’s world. It teaches you three basic movements (and a number of variations on each) and then encourages you to find ways to self-express in a ‘flow’ in which you combine the different movements. The programme takes seven weeks to work your way through. I took an extra week since I had some shoulder pain caused by an adventurous climbing move at some point half-way through.

Elements is really perfect for working through alongside weekly climbing sessions. Climbing at the wall is much more about pulling movements, and Elements does a lot of pushing. Both work to strengthen the upper body and shoulders, but as mutually reinforcing sides of the coin. If you just do one and not the other, those imbalances will start working against you before long.

I am pleased to have made it to the end of the programme. I’m still at the beginning of what I consider to be a 2–3 year long programme of rehabilitation and reconditioning of my body. I now have a useful baseline which supports my climbing during the week, and from which I can now start doing more interesting training. I’m excited to get back to handstand work and I’m thinking I’ll start one of the other GMB programmes next up on the slate: either Vitamins or Integral Strength. Flexibility work is another pretty important part of the work with my body that I really ought to do every day. I’m getting better with this, but the more it’s integrated as part of a programme, the more likely I will be to follow through.

Climbing Fuheis: Two and a Half Ascents

This is a video from a recent climbing trip to Fuheis. (Filming courtesy of Felix Kuehn). The weather is starting to turn cold so I feel like maybe this is the last time I’ll get to go climbing outdoors in Jordan until spring comes.

I climbed three times yesterday. I don’t really have a strong sense of what the ratings were on the routes, but I think they were all in the 5s (i.e.5a–5c). You can see the ratings for the route at the wall here.

As I wrote a short while back, I’ve been dealing with things that I thought I’d sorted out weeks ago. My sense of trust of the rope and the comfort up at heights is still pretty good and I’m not too worried about how that is progressing, but yesterday I was unable to complete a route that I had ascended the last time I was there.

I had energy to spare, so it wasn’t a question of not being able to summon the strength to get up; it was more a mental block. I was unable to trust in my feet, in the grip of the shoes on the wall. As one more experienced climber said to me after I had descended, “you need to feel more stable and confident in how you place your feet on the wall”.

I can see the wisdom in what he’s saying, but I think it’s something that comes with time and experience rather than just a mental shift or a technical correction that you can make immediately.

I was also reminded yesterday of the non-linear path that learning often takes, where progression in one area can often be followed by regression a short while later. Over the long run, you’re getting better, but it’s hard to retain that sense of overall perspective.

Last time I went to Fuheis, I had a really good two or three weeks afterwards, spurred by my sense of regret and failure that I experienced while climbing outdoors. I’m more willing to seize the opportunity, to go the extra mile (or inch), so I’m looking forward to the coming few weeks to see what I get up to. I’m feeling confident in where I am and in my general strength and skill progression.

PhD Tools: Sleep and Movement to Nourish the Body

[This is part of a series on the tools I used to write my PhD. Check out the other parts here.]

Intense focus on a particular mental challenge, problem or project has the tendency -- at least in my experience -- to become an all-or-nothing proposition. Any non-PhD-related activities are considered unimportant or irrelevant, and you end up sitting in front of your chair for hours on end.

I've already written about the importance of periodic breaks in your work routine. These breaks were short breaks that I was referring to, but you also need to find a way to include -- your own situation permitting, of course -- ample opportunity for recharging your physical body and needs.

This is common sense. We all know that we should probably sleep more and move more. Most of us aren't getting enough of either, and we feel its effects on our concentration or we feel the physical aches and pains in your body that come after a few hours sitting hunched over in a chair in front of a laptop.

If you're doing intense work thinking about particular problems, getting more sleep and movement will really invigorate your ability to keep doing that. Your body will thank you and you will feel the difference in your work and attention.

Movement doesn't need to be something as structured as going to work out, or a specific activity, even. The mental and physical benefits of long walks (or multiple shorter walks over a single day) are pretty well established in the scientific record, I think, and I know that when I make sure to include lots of walking in my day I generally feel better. (I actually have a bunch of quantitative data to back that up from various tracking projects that I maintain, but that's a topic for another day).

All of this is not about being prescriptive, but I think you'll find that if you can find a way to sleep a little more and move a little more each day, your body and mind (and your PhD) will thank you. This is all about realigning your own sense of what you want for yourself with the reality of how you go about your day.