Applying sunscreen is supposed to be a protective measure and keep you safe. At the moment, though, I’m cursing all the skin-cancer information I’ve gathered in the past years. My mouth goes suddenly and unbearably dry, my legs begin to tremble uncontrollably and my fingers – slippery from sunscreen despite liberal chalk application – slide ever-so-slowly from their precarious holds on the rock wall. I was already sweating from the heat but now I feel it gushing from every pore in my body. I look up at the sky, the ledge above me blocking the view up the mountain. Hoping my guide can hear me, I shout: “Falling!!!” a millisecond before I actually do. I see the wall pass before me, the rope sliding quickly down (does he still have me on belay?), and the hard-earned vertical meters I’d just gained disappear above me. A few meters down, the rope stops sliding and I catch in my harness, slightly spinning and wondering how I’m going to re-gain all that lost ground. But I’m okay – no injury, and less rattled than I would have expected. I wiggle my fingers, shake out my arms, take a drink from my hydration system (damn fear-induced dry mouth), stretch my legs and reach out to grab the wall, pulling myself back to it.
One of the really great things about rock climbing is that it requires absolute focus. Is my equipment all assembled correctly and am I managing it properly? Where can I place my toes and fingers? How can I shift my weight to get maximum leverage with minimal holds? Which route up is going to work best? When I go jogging, the sport happens on it’s own and creates space for my mind to wander, thoughts to meander, coalesce, dismantle and then consolidate again in another way. Rock climbing’s not like that – everything else is pushed from my mind as I apply minute focus to everything I do. Which makes it a great suspension of everyday life. It also puts me into situations which don’t come naturally. Day one included an 8-pitch climb up a mountain, and from the top of the climb we could look down at the 400m vertical and around the surrounding valley. It was beautiful and just fine, with the mountain still above and behind us. Day 2, we did a shorter climb (only 5 pitches), but ended on top of a ridge with vertical drops on all sides. That was challenging, especially when we had to walk along the top of the ridge for about 20m, not secured and able to see the drop in all directions, culminating in self-abseiling 100m down the far side of the mountain. I was terrified – and glad I did it. These are exactly the types of things that build mental strength and prepare you for new experiences: pushing yourself to step way outside the comfort zone and then dealing with and mastering the challenge. (by the way, I did not manage to get any photos climbing Aiguille de l’Index on day 2 – I was too busy dealing with the head games up on the ridge. But here is a great one under © http://cosleyhouston.com/photo-info/alps-climb/info-1843.htm)
Having dinner with Chamonix was a bit of that, too. The center of Chamonix is really nice, with a great pedestrian zone filled with cafés, restaurants and shops, a river of glacier-run off cascading through town and carrying a cool breeze off the waters to the hot & sweaty tourists lining the streets (it was 40C!). After a cool shower at the end of the climbing day, I wandered through town, enjoying the liveliness. Until it became too much – so many people underway! So I wandered back to a bar/restaurant a bit down a side street which I had passed earlier and was rather quiet. Only to find it now a hopping venue for guides to meet up, locals to grab a drink and chat, and tourists looking for something off the main tourist-drag. Sigh – so much for quiet. I grab a table anyway, feeling almost guilty for occupying a complete table alone when the place is so busy, order a glass of rosé and watch the activity. I’m thrilled when the waiter asks if I would like my rosé with or without ice; it’s great to be in a place that knows it’s perfectly acceptable and even preferable to have ice cubes in wine on a hot day. Watching the various groups, seeing passing individuals recognize people they know and joining up, I feel rather ill-at-ease sitting alone. This is the part of solo travel that I don’t enjoy and is definitely outside my comfort zone. I exchange a few words with the people on my right, but they are pretty much finished and leave shortly thereafter. The next people who sit down are clearly pre-occupied with their own internal conversations. I eavesdrop on the table to my left and hear German, so shift languages to ask if they need more space (they seem crowded). They seem shocked to hear someone speak German to them – which is funny, given that Chamonix in August likely has as many German speaking as French speaking people (many guides come from Austria and Switzerland, and visitors from across the DACH region). No interest in further engagement from that table either. So I simply finish my wine, order a salad and then head back to the hotel – looks like it won’t be a very social evening. Good thing I have plenty of equipment to sort through and knots to practice!