The Drive to Climb Article

© Jules McKim

Jules McKim writes about shifting gears and his evolving motivation for climbing...

OK then. I will. Jump in the car. Up to North Wales along the A5, perhaps my favourite UK journey, off to climb with the two Pauls. Leaving behind Birmingham, the urban sprawl and gridlocked motorways, over the border and into the hills and the smells of soil, sheep and the rain.

I've done it many times with family and friends, but most enjoy driving it on my own, some favourite music as a sound-track to the evolving scenery, the anticipation of mountains eventually and suddenly rewarded as Yr Wydffa appears on the northern horizon like a huge extinct and shattered volcano, 'cos that's what it is. It brings to mind all those other drives, up here and elsewhere, makes me wonder what drives me back into the hills and back up onto the rocks.

God, I love a road trip! I have a restless heart and a love of not knowing what the next day will bring. These transition times: between back there and up ahead, the mind flitting back and forth as usual, eventually slowing to the present, taking it all in, just looking at landscape and light. With my family in the US we drove through Utah and Arizona for ten days one December, in a truck borrowed from friends in Ogden.

Us in the US.  © Jules McKim
Us in the US.
© Jules McKim

This drive, back when Kai and Lilah were 10 and 8, was done on borrowed money and borrowed time, the unexpected highpoint of a 4 month round the world trip. A collaborative adventure, only possible with each other; hard work with raw beauty toughly won. Frozen morning boots in -16 degrees Bryce Canyon followed by the reward of perfect moments: snowballs in sunshine, laughter and crazy chat in amongst the huddled yellow hoodoos and the snowdrifts. The drive then to see as much as we could in those ten days; so brilliant that we shared it and still have it.

The soundtracks are important and seem to help embed the memories; the occasional perfect synchrony of view, mood and music. Over there it was Fleetwood Mac's Rumours as we drove through the Utah deserts and then Bon Iver up into Montana. Up the A5 it's usually been Bob Dylan, as in the past I was always going to see Paul, a full-on Dylan freak if there ever was one. So today I choose Desire as I first see the hills. Paul used to sing the lyrics so badly even Dylan would have been shocked, scaring the birds in the slate quarries, echoing around Australia and Serengeti. Is he still singing? I wonder how his knackered ankles are? I wonder what we'll do this weekend?

And those drives home with friends after a day at the crag together, reflecting on the routes done, one's performance and plotting the next day to look forward to. These days out help me navigate normal life, to keep going, to do all the other stuff. Are climbing days what help us get through life, or are they life? I guess a bit of both. A day in the sun with friends doing great routes I've not done before will give me a glow that lasts weeks. In fact, no, that's not true, perhaps a few days at most. Always looking at the horizon, the next day, the next goal. My Al Alvarez rat is a big one, and he's hungry: he wasn't fed enough for a while and I feel the need to make up for lost time.

Are we nearly there yet.  © Jules McKim
Are we nearly there yet.
© Jules McKim

Do any of you wish you'd climbed more? Or come across it when you were younger? I was lucky to find it young, but other interests led me away, and then my involvement was sporadic for many years. Now, since hooking up with Rob in 2016 and working through the South-West guide together, I'm back to full-on obsession, connected back with my teenage self, delighted I can climb up to the same standard now as I did back then, but with an urgency to pack as much in as possible. Is this urgency a reaction to getting older? I think I've done my mid-life crisis already, so then what's this? And yet, it's not a crisis at all – I'm just doing what I love and fitting as much in as I can in the time I have. Crisis, what crisis?

The A5 crosses the River Ceiriog and it goes all Croeso i Gymru.

I came to a high place of darkness and light.

The mountains start around Froncysyllte. Lambs are springing in the fields again. As a young man how would I have got my kicks if it weren't for climbing? I imagine in increasingly unhealthy and anti-social ways. Am I partly motivated by ego? Of course! It's a rare person who can honestly say that that isn't a part of why we do this. Perhaps only the Dalai Lama, if he climbed, could claim such evolution. Yeah, but what's he ever done on grit?

How lovely it is to pull out a good performance in front of one's mates and get the congratulations down below, or fist bumps and high fives if you insist. Awesome dude! I think an honesty towards this is crucial, along with the imperative to notice your mates doing well, whatever their grade, and to celebrate their successes too. But even if alone, that sense of achievement is there. It feels good to collect these ascents, these experiences, these golden days out, adding coloured threads to our rich living tapestry.

Isis oh Isis, you mystical child. What drives me to you is what drives me insane.

Did I really pin my sense of self-worth on grades achieved? It seems I did and some of that remains. Leaving Burbage for the Fox House bus stop, evaluating the day. Feeling good if I've equalled or surpassed my grade, finally got a route or problem I'd been trying for ages; head held a little higher. Or not: low-achieving days always ending with yet another nip up Millwheel Wall, so at least I got an Extreme and could toss that well-worn toy to my rat. Paul and I going for 100 E-points over a long slate weekend, finally getting it by three solos each of Unsexual. Kind of mad, this number-chasing. That drive can lead to a dead end.

Paul aiming for the light on G'day Arête, Australia.
© Jules McKim

There is something so wonderful in what we do, this act of climbing upwards. How many of us as kids would climb trees? How many of us still do?! Our primate ancestors are still up there; we came down, but the pleasures of hanging and swinging remain deep in our minds. Even at the wall, working a harder route until you have the sequence and clips dialled. Each time back up there feels so good!

Am I learning anything with this repeated failure? Firstly, that I can't do it yet, but secondly those delicious subtleties that make all the difference. Failure doesn't matter too much as the process is so sweet. Wasn't it Les Holliwell who said that when it comes down to it, we all just love pulling over a bulge on two good holds in the sun, that that is the essence? The sun breaks through the clouds beyond Corwen, then disappears again and the hills darken. The road bends upwards, pine trees and rocks peeping through.

Keep reaching.  © Jules McKim
Keep reaching.
© Jules McKim

Some of this pleasure is ephemeral: our goals vanish like smoke when we summit or send. So then, what's next? Part of the thrill, the addiction, is the drive itself: the chase not the catch, the working of the route not the tick. Being within the process of having something that we haven't done yet, something we still can't quite do. I note my impatience with the old man driving slowly in front and aim to settle into mountain speed, trying to drive, not be driven. The horizon ahead keeps receding as I pass Druid and the sky opens up: green fields, a scattering of horses and Cerrigdrudion. Giant cauliflower ice-cream cumuli tower over the hills ahead, dark bases and sunny toppings. I like this plateau area, the villages and farms. The mountains become visible from up ahead. So good to be back here!

The engine keeps me moving forward and upward. The mass of the mountains must exert a gravitational force on me that I feel powerless to resist. With my family I kept visiting but climbing goals reduced — with less time and less motivation, the drive diverted into other areas: bringing up children, making homes, developing a career. Life goals have felt a bit abstract at times, more locked into habits and patterns due to circumstances, family commitments, employment and income.

However, my family and I have got into the habit of doing a year plan, soon into January, following a person-centred planning tool used in learning disability services. You dream big, imagine it all, write it down and draw it, and that becomes your North Star, your direction of travel. You may not reach the dream, but you are always moving towards it, guided by its light. And within the journey all sorts of other stuff happens. It was this process that got us to take the kids out of school for a term and go round the world; I don't think we'd have done it without. The dream was the drive.

Climbing goals, if well chosen, can be motivating: tick lists that we make progress working through. But grade goals can feel trickier. Ever feel you're on a plateau? Yeah, me too. Some friends, post lockdown, have been more general: just to get out and enjoy climbing, without grade goals: Classic Rock weekends in Scotland, the Lakes and Wales; introducing others to outdoors climbing. Even if the weather is crap, there's always a summit to reach. Is this maturity, a healthy lack of expectations?

Rob on the summit of A' Chioch South top.  © Jules McKim
Rob on the summit of A' Chioch South top.
© Jules McKim

The settlements and communities thin, trees take over and I let the car free wheel down the hill and bend beside the Conwy, trying to just go with the flow, leaning into the curves. There's something here isn't there? That lovely feeling you can have at times climbing when your body and mind just work well together, you go with the flow. You can do this while driving, climbing, cooking, washing-up, anything really, it doesn't matter, but with its variety of grades, styles and rock types our game is a perfect arena to find your own personal goals in between ability and challenge, where focus and concentration are sharpened, that sweet spot where we can access flow.

I feel there are a few types: I can flow up an easy route but be very aware that it's me doing it, a physical self-conscious flow. I don't think that this is quite what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi had in mind. It is that state of timeless and mindless flow that he describes. I had it once last year — a ten second loss of self on Skyscrape up on Spacehunter Wall at Cheddar. I didn't have a sequence sorted — I had a possible way but was far from clear about it. It certainly wasn't rehearsed. I'd watched Rado glide up it half an hour before. On the redpoint my success was beyond planning and strategy. Before I knew what I was doing I was doing it, not moving so much as being moved and then I'd done it. It was so concentrated and brief yet I didn't want to do any more climbing that day, I just wanted to sit in the sun at the top of the gorge and enjoy both the outer and inner glow. My rat sat back, belly full.

Magic in a magical land

Have a look around. Just to be here is enough, isn't it?  © Jules McKim
Have a look around. Just to be here is enough, isn't it?
© Jules McKim

Daniel Pink in his book Drive outlines a model of motivation. He says we all love that which we can master, that we have autonomy over, and that gives us a sense of purpose. Firstly, we all love getting better at things. There's potential for mastery in many areas of our game, be it the climbing itself, coaching, training, rope work, safety, rescue, indoor route-setting. Secondly, our climbing path is down to us: we have autonomy over how we train and how we try, no-one's telling us to do this. But what about purpose, what's the point in what we do? It's kind of meaningless really isn't it, this climbing of rocks?

I love that: the stupidity of it all. My wife Jeannie challenges me: what's the problem with the boulder? It's not a boulder problem, you're making it into a problem! But of course! That's the point: it's not stupidity, it's mindlessness and mindlessness matters greatly. In one sense, the purpose is clear: to get to the top. At a deeper level though we can use our game to improve, not just our climbing, but all the associated skills we can work on through climbing, that are useful right across and through life: staying healthy and strong, problem solving, dealing with fear and performance anxiety, mindfulness and flexibility, drive and focus, a growing love of and connection with nature for us outdoor climbers. For me, it's been the gift that keeps on giving. I hope it is for you too.

One of the many things I cherish is at the end of the day just sitting and relaxing and catching up with peoples' days and watching others up there still on the routes, even just looking at the routes themselves, their details, with no-one on them: I really like that low left layaway and that groove above looks so good; I wonder if there is a hand-jam in that horizontal break? Isn't that pocket in just the perfect place? Isn't flowstone freaky?

It feels like I am more able to just sit, mindfully, when satisfied physically, and the natural world around contains deeper hues and a sparkle that wasn't there in the morning. It's so good just to be out here with time and a view. What a wonderful excuse to spend these moments in nature doing nothing but watching: woodlice and ants, the bottlebrush ferns and uncoiling early bracken heads, a hawk hovering motionless in the stiff clifftop breeze, the glam glitter of the sunlight on the sea from the horizon to the shore, the shadows of trees in the woods, lines of light leading me forward.

Seeing the wood for the trees.  © Jules McKim
Seeing the wood for the trees.
© Jules McKim

My brain feels unplugged, the internal monologue silenced for once. Our game is so addictive: a heady cocktail of endorphins and adrenaline! Feeling the fear and doing it anyway: this is a powerful habit to develop. I think as I go for one of my rare runs, or hear my son exhaling sharply in a cold shower, that you gain something powerful when doing things that at some level you simply don't want to do. If we can deal with this, accept with equanimity any necessary pain, be it physical or emotional, we've achieved something useful for life.

The way is long but the end is near

Road works and traffic lights. Damn it. There are two caravans in front. So how to keep our drives, to keep that keen motivation? Surely it is mainly about enjoyment? If you don't enjoy your climbing, do something different, or add something into those days out: mix it up a bit, help others, take photos, whatever. Dogged determination to get a project, and repeated failure, has threatened my enjoyment. I've chosen not to go back to Battleship for a while — I'm tempted to scratch Zinc Oxide Mountain out of the guidebook!

Blowing the last hard move (again).  © Jules McKim
Blowing the last hard move (again).
© Jules McKim

And, of course, injury is a major obstacle. I've been lucky, touch wood. Others haven't. How do you keep your drive through injury and recovery? Adjusting and adapting, I suppose. Aussie Paul has done his finger. A shame: I wanted to go and do Foil and Resurrection with him this weekend, or go up to Cloggy for a day, but plans will need to change.  

…before I go, to the valley below

Do our drives decline or diverge and detour as we age? If we all like to get better at stuff, how do we cope at getting worse at stuff? Will we get less out of climbing as the numbers reduce? It's inevitable and I know I will find it hard. Back in the day Paul and I talked of leaving the North Wales mountain classics to one side, saving them for later, as "Gentlemen's or Grandad routes." Well Paul is a grandad now, and always was a gentleman, although I'm not, so maybe those ascents of Main Wall, Grooved Arête and so on are timely. We'll check the weather later and could do Main Wall on Saturday.

Go for it, Paul.  © Jules McKim
Go for it, Paul.
© Jules McKim

But still, I have a fire and a hunger for the numbers, for pushing the grade both sport and trad and the whole projecting redpoint game, so not yet for me. Aussie Paul, with his knackered finger, wants to get me on the route that caused the injury – Beltane at Bus Stop. Maybe he wants to take me down with him, or perhaps he is curious, lured back into feeling again the strong performance he was giving then.

As with visualisation, watching others helps too. How often that once one of you gets up the problem or the route, you all do, one by one next go: the so-called send train leaves, you share the platform and the destination, but you're in your own carriage and on your own journey. How often that happened with Paul: a burst of Dylan, a ripping fart and he'd step onto the rock and blast boldly up, showing me the way. He was always just that bit better than me. But once in while, I got him! It's a kind of bonding too, the happy face of competition, though I always wished he'd fart less.

You came up behind me, I saw you go by. You were always so close, still within reach

I'm not there yet, coming through Capel, smell of pine and rain, memories all around, yet I'm looking forward and can sense the mountains through the trees. Awesome days are ahead. I know. I keep my foot lightly on the pedal through the speed restrictions and then press down hard as the mountains come into view again.

Here it comes!  © Jules McKim
Here it comes!
© Jules McKim

UKC Articles and Gear Reviews by Jules McKim

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5 Dec, 2021

Great article. We are all so unique, and so similar. How do you express those feelings of uniqueness, when so similar? By creating one's own world of beauty and meaning? Eliminating all outside that little, but huge, own globe. When you want to do something, it must be the most huge, if only for 5 minutes, a year: depending on hugeness and even greater things to surpass it.

5 Dec, 2021

What a lovely read. I really like the honesty, the contextual embracing of motivations that too often are dismissed, as though we were ever living in a binary world.

I also like the diversity; the open acceptance that we get different things from being out (or in!) on different days, climbing different things with different people in different places. Such motivations and rewards simply cannot be summed up in just a sentence or two.

Why do I climb? Well, today...

23 Dec, 2021

Wonderful ideas beautifully written.

Please write a whole book so i can read it all.

23 Dec, 2021

Sums it all up really nicely, thank you. I've still got Main Wall to do...

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