First impressions are all important. That first climb, first hike, first fell run… your first times outdoors make a lasting impression on your enjoyment, how far you’ll push, and how good you’ll ever get. You are a Weeble, centering on where you began, where you first wanted to go.
Dave MacLeod is almost certainly the UK’s best all round climber. In fact, his CV would stand up against the very best in the world: Scottish XII, M13, WI 7, trad E11, 9a sport, 8C boulder, alpine ED++, etc etc.. He’s said that the first time he ever went rock climbing, by chance he watched the first ascent of what was then Scotland’s hardest traditional rock climb. He didn’t realise that what he was watching was exceptional, that it was far from typical. As he watched he thought ‘I’d like to try that one day’. For many people there thoughts would more likely be: 1) that looks too hard; 2) that looks scary; 3) hell no. So obviously his ambition and drive were there from the start.
But from that first day out his framework for climbing was built around ‘I want to climb the hardest route in Scotland’.
That he achieved that and far more besides is only half the deal, the other half is wanting to get there, and that first impression, that first day out, was crucial.
The environment you grow up in has arguably the greatest impact of all on how far you’ll go in life, which is either tragic or empowering depending on how you look at it. With fairly specialist facets of life (e.g. sport, music, needlecraft, painting, etc.) that effect is seen in microcosm, and the more I’ve thought about Dave’s story the more I’ve realised that it is typical of so many people in various different pursuits.
I was lucky enough to be brought up by parents who are keen hillwalkers. As a result I’ve been out in the hills for as long as I can remember. Big walks in all sorts of terrain have come completely naturally to me. To me, to be a decent hill walker isn’t being capable of hiking a few miles and then going home. No, it’s big walks in rugged terrain and up plenty of peaks.
My parents are both musicians, and my dad a very good one. As a result, I see the basic standard of a musician to be much higher than what most people might consider. It might be an elitist view, maybe unrealistic, but basically unless you are Grade 8 standard on an instrument I see you as a beginner or relative beginner. For other people who had friends or parents who were less musically talented, to reach what I would regard as proficient would be seen as an almost unachievable goal, maybe an unnecessary waste of time.
Again, my early experiences defined how far I thought you had to get to be ‘proficient’, or skilled enough.
Me as a climber
I started rock climbing as a way to progress up more routes in the Alps and in Scottish winter. Along the way I started to enjoy it for its own sake, but those early impressions – this is training, I need to be just good enough – have stuck with me and influenced me greatly.
I don’t think I’ll ever be a great rock climber, primarily because I don’t want to be, but also because the standard I have always seen as being a decent rock climber is someone who can lead about VS, or about 5.7 in USA terms, or maybe 6a sport. That’s not very high in the grand scheme of things. A major factor in this reasoning is because most of my friends who I spent my early times out climbing with were in the same boat as me: hikers seeking to get better on harder scrambles.
As a result, grades like Very Difficult were interpreted literally, and Extreme grade climbs discussed only in revered and hushed tones.
I’ve since seen that Extreme grade routes aren’t necessarily all that hard, and some of the people I now climb with have plenty of E-points racked up.
But for me I still have an anchor in my head, a Weeble which pulls me back: these climbs are too hard for me.
If I were more driven, more like Dave MacLeod, this would be no obstacle, but that younger me, the hiker me, is still at my core. And those routes aren’t for a hiker.
Me as a cyclist
Over the last few years I’ve done a fair bit of cycling. I’ve always enjoyed riding a bike, but over the last three or four years I’ve put a bit of effort in, going on regular social and training rides. In this, my mate Adam was instrumental, pushing me from someone who enjoyed riding a bike occassionally to someone who wanted to get better at it and do more challenging rides.
From my first times out with Adam I thought ‘I need to keep up with him’ and ‘I would like to be among the better riders in the cycle club’. I was lucky in that I’d picked a pretty good benchmark, someone extremely good at cycling. Adam and I have both improved as riders, but I still considered (and still consider) myself pretty mediocre as a rider, average at best. However, I did have a moment of clarity a few months ago when I realised that I’d got a lot better at riding my bike, and was now better than most other riders.
Because the people I ride with are strong, I assume that is a typical level to be at.
It’s only when you ride with a more widespread group of cyclists that you realise that’s not the case, and you’re a bit better than average. It’s the polar opposite of my climbing background: I thought to be average I had to keep up with riders like Adam and the mates I ride with on training camps, whereas in reality these people are the equivalent of those leading the big Extreme climbs.
If I were to have my initial impressions as a climber again, would I change them? No, not in the slightest. They have kept me safe, grounded, and I enjoyed them immensely.
But one thing I now try to do is, when I am lucky enough to introduce someone new to a sport, I am careful not to define things as hard or easy, because those terms are meaningless.
Instead, I try to give a beginner the best supportive introduction I can, one which not put the brakes on them and will make that Weeble a little less grounded, allowing themselves to choose exactly where they want to go, how far to push it. Oh, and to tell them just how important hard work is if you want to get to be good.
I wrote a related post, more tongue-in-cheek, on the expertise of hikers and climbers a few years ago. Here it is.