Editor’s note to issue 20 of Vertical LifeDownload the issue here.

0.0062% chance. That is what I gave myself. Not great odds. I was trying a route that I had been trying on and off for a few years. One shot here, one there six months later, one again a year after that. I hadn’t been climbing much. I hadn’t been to a gym in months. 0.0062% chance of ticking it.

That’s about the same odds of hitting the jackpot on the pokies – one in ten million or some other such astronomical number.

Poker machines are utterly shithouse. They are a blight on humanity and, much like reality television, are indicative of how genius, guile and cunning, which could otherwise be applied to solving the world’s great problems, is instead used to make everything worse. Much worse.

But the power of the pokie lies in the ‘near miss’. The near miss is (as it says on the box) where you come tantalisingly close to winning a jackpot, say four lemons drop into the first four places while the fifth somehow stalls between a lemon and a cherry. Winning is so close, you can almost taste the sour bite of that lemon.

The thing is, though, the response inside your brain is almost identical to that which would have been induced had you won. Pretty much the same chemicals are released. Losing makes you feel like a winner, but more than that it drives you on to believe more strongly than ever that the Big Win is coming. It’s right around the corner. Even though in reality it’s a snowball’s chance in hell. 0.0062% chance.

I’d tried the route a bunch of times and every time felt like I could do it – that the fifth lemon was about to drop. That I should do it. That’s why I had tried it a bunch of times, because it was just around the corner.

The crux is a body-tensiony stand up off a left-foot smear and a right-hand-above-your-head pinch that flips into an undercling when you do the standing up bit. Willingly slip in the fingerlock then thunk into the jug. Off the rope it was pretty much a piece of piss, but the setup just cooks your guts enough that you can’t drive the left big toe onto the smear and so as you shift your weight up into the undercling and the safety of knowing you’ll then be as solid as the Solid Gold dancers – zing! – you’re having another end-of-the-rope swing. Rest for 30 seconds, pull on, stand up, get the jug, badabing-badaboom.

That day my mate Tony was at the crag and his response to my lack of confidence was, ‘You never know, mate.’ Seemed more like commiserations than a pep talk.

For me (and it seems shitloads of other people given the number of others I saw fall afoul of the same too-weak guts failure to drive the left foot) it is the sort of crux that only requires 3% more and it would go. 3% more strength or ability or tension or application or trying or screaming. Next shot for sure, tomorrow when I’m fresh, easy as.

There are some routes that are like that moment where the fifth lemon nearly drops. Where you throw yourself at the crux, which doesn’t feel that hard mate, come on, like you could totally do it the next go, for sure. But you don’t. You fall. And fall. And fail. So close, yet so far away. But, you know the Big Win is just around the corner.

In this issue Andrea Hah lays out how it’s not over when you’re over the hill. She writes with hope and pride about how the physical is only a part of climbing, and maybe not the biggest part. Because you can get better and smarter and wiser and destroy your weaknesses. I’m not sure I can lay claim to being better as a result of strategically working through my failings and fortifying my strengths. Having done no training and very little climbing I was not in good shape. I’m also not sure I’m ready to embrace Tony’s you-never-know mantra, which seems a little mystical. But against the odds I stood up into the undercling.

I don’t really know what was different other than I steeled my core and pushed the power down to my left big toe, concentrated intently on the toe for just a second, and then stood up into the undercling, let out a little yelp and thunked into the jug.

I wouldn’t say that I thought I was going to do it when I tied in, but I certainly didn’t think that I wouldn’t. The simple explanation would be one that you hear oft repeated in climbing stories, that it is the attempt liberated from expectations that turns out to be the one when you get it done. Not fit, not strong, not caring – the only positive of this triumvirate can be not caring. So maybe I just need to learn to not give a fuck and more 0.0062% chances might turn into ticks.

Perhaps, though, it’s just too easy to underestimate the accumulation of neuronal and muscle memory generated over time. It’s too easy to focus on a single moment of success because that is the easy story to tell, that’s the scratched mark in the guidebook, the strongest memory that gets encoded. And so focussing on ‘not caring’ is a furphy. There are lots of routes I don’t expect to get up and I don’t get up any of them. Maybe Andrea is right after all, maybe I’m getting better.
Simon Madden




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