I have experienced a lot of change over the last 12 months. In fact, looking back on where I was last March to today, it is hard to recognise the life I had as my own. For all the change I have embraced, it has not got any easier nor any less scary.
I have taken to quietly asking myself a short question when I find myself at a crossroads where change is inevitable; ‘Do I want to change today?’
To improve is to change; to be perfect is to change often. Winston Churchill
The last week I have had several moments where I have looked out onto a situation and had that knot in my stomach, that fear of the unknown, and asked myself this question. On my first backcountry ski tour, while standing at the top of a steep gully, weaving down into the unknown; out skiing, when I had the choice to ski the piste or try proper powder skiing; and, up in the high mountains, while looking up at the steep and sustained crux of the ice and mixed route I was climbing.
At each point, I looked at what was in front of me and, for just a moment, thought ‘not now, not today’. Pausing for a moment, I took in the surroundings, the conditions, and the challenge in front of me and weighed myself against it. Am I good enough for this? Am I experienced enough? Am I strong enough?
For all of these questions, I knew the answers was yes but it was an assumption based on the unknown. The only way to really know the answers to these questions was to actually commit, to go for it and see where I really am.
This is scary. Terrifying, in fact. Committing to the unknown, when the consequences can be so serious, is something that I am still coming to terms with, by living here in Chamonix. Every time I am faced with this situation, I know the only way to know if it is the right decision or not, is to weigh up all the information I have to hand, call on all the judgement and mountain sense that I have developed to build the most complete picture of what I am committing to and the consequences of a negative outcome. If, by the end of this analysis, I feel that I am potentially capable of the task in front of me I am left with that one question; ‘do I want to change today?’.
Committing to these challenges fundamentally changes who I am. It provides me with a crystal clear assessment of who I am and what I am able to do. Sometimes I come out the other side and feel I had overestimated a problem, that I found it easy and should have more confidence in my ability. Other times, I come through the other side and realise that what I have just gone through was at my absolute limit. Either way, my perspective has changed, my experience has changed, and I have changed because of that.
We are but a sum of our experiences, after all.
I don’t want you to think I am reckless. I am not, I very carefully choose where and when I am going to push these boundaries, and do my best to manage as much of the risk as possible. I do not have a high threshold for objective dangers and so, if there is a even a moderate avalanche risk or the conditions are on the lower end of acceptable, I am more likely to turn around and say ‘not today’.
I want to climb and be in the mountains for the rest of my life, until I’m old and grey, and have all that time to be in these beautiful hills. I have no rush to tick the routes as fast as possible by pushing the boundaries out of my control. I do, however, want to see what I am capable of and, whilst avoiding unnecessary risk, that does challenge my courage and my conviction.
These tests, however,are what give me the clarity to make other decisions in my life; knowing what the pure and perfect concentration required in mountains feels like opens up that perspective to the rest of my life.
Finding today’s limit
For the first time, while out winter climbing, I experience what I felt was my current limit. I have climbed challenging routes before but have always felt I had enough in reserve for more. This time was different. I set off with Heather, founder of the Women’s Mountain Collective, to climb the Frendo-Ravanel, on the Aiguille Carrée, and on the last pitch, I was faced with leading the steepest ice I have lead yet.
The whole pitch was nearly 40m long, starting at 80 degrees and getting gradually steeper until the last 5m where it went perfectly vertical. The route was well travelled and so there were lots of hooks for me to find, saving strength on swinging my ice axes, but regardless, by the final section I was feeling it. My grip was weakening and I knew I had a very finite amount of strength left in the bank. Controlling my breathing and digging deep, I carried on through and turning over the crest, the sense of relief I felt was like no other.
I had made it. I had succeeded. I was good enough to be here. But, wow, that was close. I have changed because of this experience. I know myself better. I know what I need to work on to keep progressing and to do better next time but change was required for me to see this. Change was required to let me truly know who and where I am.
From this position, I can make the decision of where I want to go from now. That was my limit today but, with more experience, as I have seen in the past with routes like the Chèré Couloir, this can become a stepping stone for future progress. In this case, I know that to keep progressing I need to get stronger, but that is entirely in my control.
Embracing change does not always need to be so extreme. The changes we face day-to-day can have just as big an impact on our lives, but what is important is that, if we want to keep moving forward, change is not just necessary, it is inevitable. How we face those changes is entirely up to us.
I hope I keep the courage to keep on changing and growing but, when I’m not feeling it, when I’m not ready, I know it is just as acceptable to turn around and come back another day. I have to be confident that the change I am embracing is the right one, at the right time.That today is that day.