Building Route Rapport: A Non-Onsighter’s Perspective

Quite early on in my climbing life, it became apparent that I had a strong prejudice in favour of overhanging routes. Several other climbers have expressed surprise whenever I shared this, assuming that most women climbers prefer to go for vertical or slabby routes that allowed them to exercise their ‘ballerina’ skills, as opposed to engaging their shoulder and back muscles so vigorously on overhangs.

Miriam sporting the limited edition 2020 – 2021 MCC women’s vest during one of her attempts on Skyhooked Simon (7a+). Photo by Stephen Farrugia

Maybe it’s got something to do with the fact that they provide the opportunity for very cool photos – or perhaps because the more vigorous movements give me a feeling of empowerment and satisfaction that feels unparalleled. I also love to be able to push myself on overhangs without having to worry about a slab runout, knowing that I would simply fall into the air if I run out of fuel or slip on the next move.

My Winter 2021 Project

There was one overhanging climb which I’d attempted a number of times but which had always felt rather tough to me. The route is called Skyhooked Simon (7a+), in Għar il-Barbaġann / Garden of Eden, Żurrieq, and the name has an interesting story to go with it, involving Simon Alden – who helped Jeffery Camilleri bolt it. I’ll let Simon divulge the story himself…

This last winter, I decided to get back to giving it a few serious tries. The route looks beautiful, and starts with a series of moves that are not harder than a 6b+. Towards the top, there is a daunting move (maybe 6c+), which forces you to climb away from the bolt, and up onto a short but thick tufa, where you need to clip the next bolt sideways while wedging your knee firmly behind the tufa. After that, it’s a quick succession of moves across onto a slippery undercling, and a couple more powerful moves before you can clip the chain. Most climbers – me included – extend the chain to avoid a very powerful one armed pull-up that may bump up the grade to 7b or more – kudos to those that have topped out in this manner!

I am by no means an on-sight climber, and I knew that if I wanted to finish the route one day, I needed to build a good rapport with it – that meant giving it a lot of tries, and conditioning my body to move and twist specifically for that route. I find that the more I work on a route, the more I start enjoying it. It’s as if I need to built this rapport – this familiarity – in order to build the flow and self-trust needed for a send. Having a couple of falls also helps (as this reminds my brain that falling is safe!) 

Skyhooked Simon follows a series of tufas and concretions up a steep overhang to finish at the dark grey bulge at the top left of the frame. Photo by James Farrugia

As time went on, there were days when I wondered whether I should let go of Skyhooked Simon – I felt ashamed that I had already given it so many attempts (I lost count how many), and wondered if I was attempting to conquer something that was too much for my current climbing abilities. 

Clipping from the knee bar, with one knee wedged behind the tufa and the other one dangling in a rather unstable fashion never failed to give me an uncomfortable feeling. Until today, I’m not sure whether I was scared of falling or whether I was simply scared of failing on that last sequence of moves. Falling on this route was always danger-free, but I must say that whenever I felt my fingers slipping and realised that I had failed to hold on, I would feel overpowered by the route!

And yet, Garden of Eden is a beautiful winter crag, and somehow, we kept going back to it all through winter and spring. My belayers and climbing buddies also encouraged me to keep trying, because I was so close. I didn’t feel ‘close’ at all up until the very end, but somehow, a part of me still wanted to keep trying.

Practising outcome independence

One day as I was driving to the crag in June, I entertained the thought that this could be the day. I was careful not to build up too much pressure or expectation – I just wanted to allow that thought to creep in, and allow for the possibility of doing it. I’ve noticed that whenever I finished a project, it was a matter cultivating the correct state of being; on the one hand, I had to allow the idea that it was possible to exist in my mind, while on the other hand, I had to prevent myself from feeling ‘desperate’ for that outcome. In my field (mind-body coaching), we call this outcome independence – making your happiness and sense of achievement separate from the goal, to avoid indulging in feelings of lack and unhappiness because one hasn’t yet achieved something. This actually speeds up the process towards the attainment of that goal, as you can work towards it without cultivating that desperate sense of longing and self-sabotaging your progress.

Between the sky and the sea, Miriam nears the top of route – you can see the extended anchor to the left of her. Photo by Stephen Farrugia

On that particular day, the first heatwave of the summer had just kicked in. Garden of Eden no longer felt like the ideal crag. I started complaining about the weather, and even noticed that the route was not in optimal condition. As I gave it my first try, putting the quickdraws in, I didn’t feel in sync with the movements. The second try is usually my best shot – but this time, I felt the pressure building up, from knowing that we might have to abandon the crag for the summer. Naturally, I fell at the usual place.

As I belayed my buddy Michele on another route, I debated with myself whether to try again or not. Michele suggested that I should just climb up again for the fun of it, because I was so close. The heat was getting more intense, and we only had about an hour left before the sun would flood the entire cave and make the spot unbearable. I decided to give it a final try, and if I didn’t succeed, I would take a little break from it (which would most likely stretch to autumn). Before I climbed, I remember pouring half a bottle of water onto my shoulders and chest, hoping the coolness of it would give me a burst of energy.

I don’t know exactly what did the trick: whether it was that temporary lowering of my body temperature thanks to the water, knowing that it was one of my last chances for the time being, or simply the fact that I didn’t expect to finish it and therefore that took some of my pressure off. What happened was that I went up in no time, and suddenly found myself underneath the chain, engaging my core in order to clip the draw.  

Going Forward 

My love for overhangs has both advantages and disadvantages; on the one hand, being in Malta, I have access to a number of caves and overhanging routes ranging from 6b to 7a+ (my maximum grade so far). On the other hand, I find that the more familiarity I build with overhanging routes, the more estranged I’ve become to slabby or vertical, balancy routes. 

My goal moving forward is to regain some of my confidence on other types of routes, as well as to be more mindful while climbing (and less under pressure). I acknowledge that my mental struggles are bigger than my physical struggles, and that this is an aspect that I need to work on if I want to climb better and enjoy the sport to the full. It’s amazing how our lizard brain (the fear centre in our brain) tends to magnify our fears whenever we push ourselves out of our comfort zone, and I realise that this sometimes holds me back from climbing to my full potential.

That said, my main projects will more likely be other overhangs. Possibly Crazy Monkey in Mellieha, which I need to build much better rapport with! After all, you’ve got to do what you most enjoy!

About the author

Miriam is a Maltese rock climber who has been climbing on a regular basis for the past 10 years. Climbing is one of the few ‘constant’ things in her life alongside her husband (since she started climbing she’s had 6 job changes and 2 career changes). In 2016 she fell out of climbing for close to a year due to a succession of chronic pain symptoms and a scary fibromyalgia diagnosis, but her determination to get her life back led her to discover the knowledge and brain rewiring techniques required to make a full recovery.
Today, she works as a Holistic Life Coach and MindBody Practitioner, helping people to overcome stress or trauma-induced chronic pain and to resume an active, balanced life. More info can be found on www.painoutsidethebox.com 

Leave a Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s