Adventures and Reflections from Cathy O'Dowd

Adventures & Reflections
from Cathy O'Dowd

When to stop focusing forward and instead look at what is holding you back.

With snow still sadly sparse in the Pyrenees, I found myself out rock climbing with friends on New Year’s Day. We stood around at the base of the cliff, talking about New Year’s Resolutions, trading the numbers we hope to achieve in 2016. I committed publicly to a nice big number but I have to admit that privately I was already doubting myself, thinking that I’ve made that commitment before – and failed before. So what is holding me back?

I often look to mountain sports for ideas I can apply to other areas, both in my work and my personal life. That moment of private doubt got me thinking again about one of the key pieces of advice that any rock climber is given when they start out.

Use your feet!

Rock climbing – which means scaling steep rock walls, clinging on by your fingers, rather than heading up to the summits of mountains – is in its essence aspirational. We are literally reaching upwards. We walk along the base of a wall of rock looking at various options. In a developed sport climbing area each possible route will have a name, possibly some information about  the nature of the challenge and a grade of difficulty. Once you’ve selected a route, you begin, snaking your way up the wall like a lizard, eyes always looking towards the next set of moves, arms out above your head, hands running across the rock feeling for the next crack or edge that will aid your progress.

I see what appears to be the next good handhold, something I will be able to curl my fingers around securely, but it’s just out of reach. Or perhaps I can touch it, just, fingertips barely brushing the lip, but I can’t move up onto it.
The path I aspire to is stretching out ahead of me, I’m focused with relentless intensity on where I want to move to next – but it’s not happening.

My hands are beginning to sweat, making the rock feel slippery under my slick fingers. My forearms are beginning to tire, to reach that awful state we call ‘pump’, more evocative in French where they say “to have bottles for arms.” My muscles become a useless swollen lump, engorged with fatigue. My fingers are threatening to uncurl from their tenuous hold. Faced with the fear of the imminent fall, my legs begin to tremble uncontrollably.

Still I strain upwards, desperately fixated on that next hold just out of reach, the thing I’m convinced will save me, the hold I hope is a thank-god bucket. Everything in our culture tells us to look forward, reach upwards, eye on the prize, visualise the path to success, shoot for the moon. No day is more imbued with this vision that the first of the new year, when we embark on that cultural ritual of the New Year’s Resolution.

Somewhere far below me, the friend who is holding my rope is shouting upwards. Through the fear and fatigue I barely register the words: use your feet.

Sometimes we need to look away from the goal and look down at what is holding us back.

There are climbers who have the core strength and flexibility to put a foot onto a hold above their waist and then rock their weight up onto it. That will push you ahead fast, but your average climber is unlikely to have the skill or the energy to pull that off. We need to hunt for the small wins. I need to look back down at the rock I’ve already passed and remember that my feet still have to travel through that terrain. What am I missing? What did I hold onto with my hands that can now be repurposed as a foothold?

Feet lack the subtle ability of fingers, able to twist and curl, to separate and oppose. But they have their own magic. Tightly clad in the sticky rubber of a climbing shoe, aided by the solidity of well-placed body weight, a foot can smear onto the smallest sloping surface, a patch of rock just a shade less vertical than the wall around it. Or a foot can balance on a tiny ripple, no wider than the edge of coin. That can be enough to move my whole body up an inch or two, to let my questing fingers find the next handhold.

Sometimes I already have the handhold but it’s at full reach, my body elongated like a spring pulled apart to its furthest point, touching the prize but unable to use it because I have no stored energy in my body. No amount of hapless grasping with my fingers will change that. The other end of my spring needs to move up, to bring potential energy back into my system. My feet have to move.

Sometimes it doesn’t even need to be to a new foothold. It can be enough to shift from standing flat on the sole of my foot, to standing high on the tip of my toe. It can be enough to turn my foot on the hold, so that instead of turning me away from my goal, my foot pushes me towards it.

I am not a strong climber, I can barely do two pull-ups on the best of days. My arms do not perform well when swinging my entire body around. I need to be keeping as much of my weight as I can on my feet. Every time I feel stuck while trying to move upward, I try to remember to look away from my goal – the next handhold, the chain that hangs at the top of the climb – and look back down at my feet. What little gain can I make? What small ripple on the wall will win me a few more inches? How can a foot be realigned to be more efficient?

The win I gain is normally much more than just a few inches. If I am slightly higher, so my supple fingers can wrap around the next good hold, then I am suddenly free from the impasse. I can bring to bear all my strength and skill and experience, and move swiftly on upwards, finding new possibilities above me, as well as places to rest and recover from the fight I’ve now left far below.

In life as in climbing, when you find yourself stressed and stretched, straining towards a goal that seems just out of reach, what strength you have draining away in sweat and shaking – take your eye off the prize. Look away and look down. What is holding you back? Is there a trailing foot hanging too far below you? Or not helping to bear your body weight? Is there a small adjustment in where or how a foot is placed that will then let you stretch that much further above you?

In a world that puts so much focus on looking forward, it’s worth taking some time to look inward. When you can’t quite grasp what you are reaching for, try something different. Look away from the goal. Spend some time on the mundane detail. What is holding you back? What small changes can you make that will extend your reach?

Use your feet.

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