W is for Why not?

November 10, 2008

Bill Bailey has a great line, where someone asks him if he’s an optimist, to which he replies “I hope so!”  Like Bill I’d like to believe I’m an optimist, someone who tends to see possibilities and opportunity in even the direst situations, some who tends to look up, which is a good trait in a climber I think.

A good test of your optimism is to ask yourself how you feel about the line ‘Jump and the net will appear.  Now if you said this to someone like Tim Emmet or Leo Houlding to do just such a thing, they’d probably say ‘cool’ and no doubt ask why they need a net in the first place, whereas if you ask someone with a more cautious and pessimistic view on life, they would no doubt ask a question ‘but what if it doesn’t?’  Personally I’d jump, but perhaps that’s due to the consequence gland missing from my brain than any overwhelming sense of optimism about any net appearances.

Having a positive mental attitude, being the one who dares to jump, has always been at the heart of my climbing, and without it, very often you fail before you’ve even left the ground.  Thinking you can is what sets you apart from people who think they can’t, and for some, I included, it’s often other peoples pessimism about your own chances that power you on that little bit extra, and so being a stubborn optimist is an ideal trait in a climber. 

One of the best examples of this approach was mine and Ian Parnell’s attempt to repeat the Liafailes route on the Dru.  Pretty bog standard climbers when compared to the cream on Chamonix alpinists, who would probably have waited for the route to fall down rather than repeat it, we just thought why not?  After countless carries to the base of Dru, we set off up the face, even though we didn’t really know where ‘off’ actually was.  Yet as usual it was our positive approach that overcomes a poor disintegrating topo printed off the web, bad weather, and a sense of general British ‘Fiensian’ incompetence.

A week after setting out from the Grande Monte we finally arrived at the big snow terrace a fifth of the way up the face, happy that now we knew where we were now heading. The problem was we had to traverse a hundred metres rightwards, requiring several diagonal hauls for our train of bags.  Due to the nature of the route the bags had proved a constant pain in the arse, hanging up on flakes at every opportunity, and even on the snow, they refused to come quietly.  It was my turn to haul, while Ian dismantled the last belay, and no matter how much I pulled, the bags refused to budge.  With nothing left to do, I climbed down, and coursing, began to pull and harangue the bags; one large bag, with a smaller bag and portaledge attached underneath it.  Pulling with all my might I finally felt it begin to move.  In fact, it seemed to be halved in weight.  It had. 

In horror, I watched the bottom bag, which contained our sleeping bags, stove, and £2000 video camera, and portaledge disappear over the edge and drop 300 metres to the glacier.  Then there was silence.

I looked up at Ian, who was standing near the belay.  He had tears in his eyes.  It was almost dark.  There was no way we could carry on.  We suddenly had to get off the mountain before we froze.  This was by far the worst moment of my climbing life.  What did I say? 

“Don’t worry Ian, it’s not as bad as it looks”.

Why am I so bloody optimistic?  Maybe it’s genetic.  My dad has always been incredibly positive, and believes in self-empowerment (he was one of those sadistic physical training instructors you see in Full Metal Jacket, so was used to breaking young men down and rebuilding them).  He taught his children that only they control their lives and futures, no one else, generally demonstrated by exposing us to the type of dangers that would turn a mothers hair white. My mums only advice about life was that “the world’s your oyster”, which although I never quite got, still instilled a sense of possibility in my young mind.  And that’s what it’s all about, isn’t it?

There are downsides to being so way inclined of course, and as I’ve pointed out, there is a fine line between optimism and bull-headed stubbiness.  Sometimes things don’t turn out as positively as you’d hoped; the weather doesn’t improve, the snow hasn’t had time to settle, the rope was running over that sharp edge.  It’s always a good idea to balance yours with a pinch of reality. 

Sometimes I wonder if optimism is simply self-delusion, like Prozac, drip-fed into your brain for the whole of your life, making you never fully aware just how pointless it all is, but being an optimist I’d like to think that even if that’s true, it can only be for the best.  Anyway, it’s probably best not to question why, and just jump anyway.

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