On Mentors & Oedipus

Simon Madden on slaying your spirit guide

The Child’s right hand slaps again and again at the blunt ledge, hoping for a better hold, failing to see the big side-pull above, too pumped in mind and body to make good decisions, failing to throw a heel up, too afraid  to commit for the vision of pinging off and cratering into a wall that has been responsible for more than a few limps and cracked skulls. The Child’s grimace sours even more, he makes a skittering move back towards the spike jug halfway across the traverse. Then whoosh, the blur, he is off.

It was then that he, Oedipus, slayed me, his father.

The tale of Oedipus is horrifying. A tragic Greek hero who unknowingly kills his father, the king of Thebes, outwits a menacing Sphinx and unwittingly marries his mother. Patricide and incest, with some monster besting thrown in. Nasty.

There is a link that connects mentors and Oedipus.

A mentor is not family in the blood sense, but there is a lot of crossover. Your parents are your Number One mentors – whether you want them to be or not, their parenting leaves an indelible mark on you. Mentors are persons with expertise who help you develop, serving as coaches, role models and support systems, providing lessons that propel you forwards.

I didn’t have a climbing family, I didn’t even have a camping family. I blundered my own way into climbing and was mentored by two mates. There was no gap in age, only in experience, but, after all, what is age but a stock of experience? I was like a newborn in swaddling cloth. There was no Internet, few gyms, and mostly only nerds in uni clubs instructing other nerds.

My mentors taught me just enough to not to kill myself, and then they put me on things that were too hard for me as that was good craic. I was freaked out a lot of the time. By modern standards they were incredibly old school, dinosaurs even for back then, beard-stroking gear pullers rather than redpointers.

I remember the constant stomach knot from feeling like an imposter, that I was not ready, not skilled enough, not experienced enough. Good enough to get us into trouble but bad enough to be unable to get us out of it. Then there came a time when I had clearly surpassed them. When I was the ‘rope gun’, and they grizzled about the old-days before they had big bellies and trick knees. This was when I had killed them and taken their place.

(The metaphor is not a perfect one because I am yet to find a way to shoehorn the mother-marrying into it, but it still serves a purpose.)

The Child, my mentee, is orders of magnitude stronger than I am, yet climbing trad was a black box to him. The Child’s problem was that for him trad was climbing and so despite ticking off hard routes and boulders, he didn’t yet see himself as A Climber. Not really.

We’d been running around Araps for five straight days, ticking off more stars than a first year astronomy student. What he needed was to climb lots of trad routes, so we crammed as much life in the vertical into that week as possible. With routes building in grade and intensity and ooze and exposure; climbing in the rain and placing piece after piece and building anchors and finishing the day with hundred metre sunset solos. Mechanics and artistry. Solve the problem in front of you. Don’t freak out, be responsible.

My idea of a mentor is complex, partly because I am not good enough at anything to be a mentor in the strict sense. There is the passing down of knowledge and imbuing of context, but equally I think it is facilitator, something akin to the spiritual guide who takes you on a mind-expanding ayahuasca trip that collapses into the self and expands into the entire universe simultaneously, rather than the workplace guru that is normally associated with the word mentor.

And that fits as The Child was pretty much tripping for the entire week.

The spirit journey is not like a physical one. Its waypoints are not those of the mortal world. The Child learnt more than he thought he could, absorbed reams of data, but more than that he reconfigured his brain. He realised he was wrong about a lot of things as they relate to difficulty and struggle and skill and mastery and achievement and the worth of an experience. The spirit journey has its own pace and pitch and arc. And it is utterly transformative.

I saw his mind twitch in realising you can get gripped on a trad 18 when you’re easily sending bolted 28s. Then bend further realising how wrong he had been about so many other things. How satisfying it is to protect a route, to be responsible, to recognise a placement immediately and plug in the piece. To realise what is so special about climbing at Arapiles/Djurrite and how at that place one can spend a 20 year climbing career being the happiest bumbly in the world.

At the end of a huge five days of body thrashing and mind bending we stood under the cracked corner of Orestes. The route is sublime; stem and side-pull and lock and jam and, more than anything, calf pump and sore feet. All the fingerboarding in the world will not prepare you for it. Though a classic, it has a bit of a reputation and I had been coaxing him towards it all week, first delicately placing the idea before him, then subtly feeding it till it became the natural culmination of the arc.

A hard start leads to easier ground, but the weight of history and expectation make it difficult to ever quite ward off the rising pump, especially when you’re cooked before you start. Resting in the corner gives an undersea view of the final traverse, five metres of blocky holds and faltering feet, and the promise of an ankle-snapping fall if you flame out before you gain the safety of the ledge.

At the start of the traverse, before he leaves the safety of the corner, The Child manages to wiggle in a nut that not many people get, then sets off, each hand less sure than the last, failing arms and flailing legs and fear-contorted face, he encounters only disappointment at the ledge, slaps again, and again. Repelled, he turns tail towards his fate, peels off and takes the long, terrifying ride. The airtime is only half the fall, the other being the catching, and thankfully, the rope elongates through the perfect soft catch and he whizzes low into the wall.

There is something Oedipal about besting your mentor, metaphorically slaying them and taking their place. You don’t always need to shank your spirit guide, sometimes you do it with a huge, terrifying whipper, your first ever trad fall. Falling is not failing, it can be brave. The act can throw open the doors of perception, it can fill you with fire and confidence. It can reveal all the possibilities to be found in the stars.

Oedipus is going to be an absolute trad weapon. I, the Father, am dead in the dirt, squashed in a fall. As it must be.

This piece originally appeared in Issue 35 of Vertical Life, you can subscribe to the magazine here.

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