We gain strength and courage and confidence by each experience in which we really stop to look fear in the face..we must do that we think we cannot. Eleanor Roosevelt
There are no hand holds at the top of ‘Wings of Unreason’ a climb on the Gritstone crags of Staffordshire illustrated in the photo above. On this occasion, not only were there no holds, there was also no rope – as I’d decided to climb the route without any safety. The top move involves a short jump for the top, getting it wrong would mean a 40ft ground fall & the promise of serious injury. At the time I felt quite compelled to take this sort of risk, climbing close to the limits of my technical & psychological ability. Climbing like this is an intense head game primarily about the self-control to manage the impetus to panic and freak out, since only by maintaining a state of controlled calm can you complete the physical requirements of the route. With hindsight it was a great education into the benefits that accrue from being able to take risks, how to calculate and manage those risks and great preparation for serving in Special Forces where judging and managing risk are a big part of every leaders role.
Samuel Johnson, one of the great literary figures of the Eighteenth century wrote, ‘Every man thinks meanly of himself for not having been a soldier, or not having been at sea. The profession of soldiers and sailors has the dignity of danger. Mankind reverence those who have got over fear, which is so general a weakness’. Johnson was certainly right about fear. At some point fear afflicts us all, binding us with cords which cant be seen but which can be stronger than steel in their power to prevent us acting on our dreams and ambitions. The hero and the coward feel the same fear, what distinguishes them from one another is that one has learnt the self-control to manage their tumultuous emotional state and to act with resolution, even in the face of fear. Two and a half thousand years ago legend records a Spartan boy complaining to his mother that his sword was too short, she retorted; ‘Take a step forward.’ At times we will all find our swords too short, our resources and character seemingly not up to the task. At that impasse we need the courage to take the step forward to compensate for what we do not have. Like all good habits, courage is born of practice, if we acquaint ourselves with fear, familiarise ourselves with it and recognize its cold grip we can with practice, persistence and courage master ourselves even in the tempest’s fury.
‘Courage is rightly esteemed the first of human qualities because it is the quality which guarantees all the others.’ Winston Churchill
The second thing I learned from solo climbing was an ability to think and perform under pressure. When the stakes are very high and the margin for error disappears it brings with it an intense focus and concentration. In any high performance environment what distinguishes good from excellent is the ability to perform under pressure when the odds are against you. This is not a mindset that we are born with but a habit acquired by learning to cope.
In 1519, Hernán Cortés set off from the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico into the interior, intent on the conquest of the Mayan empire. Many of his small force of five hundred men thought they should return to Cuba to gather reinforcements. To end the debate Cortés scuttled his own fleet! With no way back the only route home now lay forward. What is less well know about this famous event, is that what at first glance might seem reckless foolhardiness was in fact carefully calculated. Of his 11 ships Cortez scuttled 10, he kept 1 and was careful to save the sails and ropes from the ships he destroyed. The risk he took was immense but not reckless or foolhardy, it was both calculated and calibrated. The gain too was immense, rather than proceeding with a divided and semi-mutinous force he united everyone and aligned both their desire for glory and bounty with the common instinct for self-preservation. Like the decision to embark on a climb without a rope, destroying the fleet removed the option of retreat or failure. Everything, every nerve and sinew must now be bent on the success of moving forward. Like Cortés my climbing risks have also been carefully calibrated, I’ve know before I set off that I can climb the route, I know the precise choreography of moves necessary and when it’s been close to a physical limit I will have practiced them repeatedly on a rope. Only when the sequence of moves was secure in my mind would I change the game and set off without equipment to explore if I had the nerve and self-control to perform when it mattered.
In the general ease and comfort of the 21st century fear is something we can usually avoid, adrenaline is no longer part of our daily routine. But in losing the skills and habits of dealing with fear we’ve also lost something important and necessary to finding and fulfilling our full potential. This article is certainly not a recommendation or invitation to take up high-risk sports but it is a nudge to find something that scares you, and to take it on.
‘He who is not courageous enough to take risks will accomplish nothing in life’ Muhammad Ali
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