Why do people have so much trouble ticking their first 8a? Why does an E1 seem a much more serious proposition than an HVS? I find this a fascinating subject. It’s something I’ve experienced myself, and yet grades arefairly evenly distributed along the grade scale so it must, surely, all be in the mind.
8a, for me, was a hard grade to break into. I am not alone in this. I know of friends who also struggled to tick their first 8a, but once they did the flood gates opened and many quick ticks followed shortly afterwards. On paper, however, 8a is only a notch harder than 7c+, similar to the gap between 7c and 7c+. The only difference is that suddenly there is an 8 attached and somehow this seemly innocent number plants seeds of doubt in the minds of aspirant ascensionists. “8 must mean hard”, “Am I really an 8a climber?”. Instead of taking the route at face value, you suddenly start focusing on the number. Climbers in the States struggle not with 8a but with transitioning from 5.12c to 5.13a (7c+) suggesting that it is something to do with moving up a number grade in the system. I often wonder if athletes in other sports suffer the same fate: can gymnasts nail a perfect 14.95 every time but struggle to land a 15.00? Do runners consistently place 4th, unable to make that final step up onto the podium? Last month did Andy Murray come second in the Australian Open for the 4th time for physical reasons, or mental?
My head has always been one of my weakest links in climbing, and this problem of artificially constructed grade barriers has been following me around for a while. Although I’ve climbed a number of 8as and harder now, most of them have been on home soil with the luxury of being able to take my time over them. I’ve always been in awe of people who were able to rock up at the crag and just tick one off without any fuss. I used to think it was just a physical thing, but it wasn’t until a recent trip to Chulilla that I became aware I had built up a massive mental barrier about doing 8as quickly. I only really realised the problem was there after I managed to solve it.
For the trip I had two goals in mind: onsight 7c+ and climb 8a in a day. Every day I threw myself at routes trying for one goal or the other. About half way through the trip I found myself at the crag one morning feeling totally burnt out. I just couldn’t face the effort any more. But we were on holiday and I felt I shouldn’t give in, so I had a flash attempt at a 7c+/8a called Tequila Sunrise. This is quite an unusual route for Chulilla in that it is not so much a technical wall climb, as a desperate thrutch up a steep corner. Not my bag at all. I predictably fell off and spent about 15 minutes not being able to do the moves. I wondered about stripping it, but couldn’t quite think what else I’d try so I lowered off with the draws still in.
An hour later I tied in for a redpoint and by some miracle managed to thrutch my way through the crux and into the rest at half height. From here the route is basically over, just 7a’s worth of climbing and one tricky, but not desperate, move to the chain stood between me and glory. It was at this point that I realised I was seriously stressed out. I’d managed to keep a cool head all week, but suddenly with the prospect of a long-term goal coming true I’d turned to cheese. I knew I was stressed out because instead of enjoying it, all I could think about was the fact that if I failed I couldn’t face another go. The next 20 minutes felt like torture. The top wall was easy but insecure and I was terrified I might blow it at every turn. I shook out for far too long on every rest, just to make sure. I was also so tensed up I VERY nearly blew the tricky move below the chain which panicked me and I had to shake out again in a terrible position below the belay just to give me the nerve to finally move up and clip the chains.
When I clipped the chains I felt unbelievable. So happy, and as if I had broken through some kind of invisible wall which I’d been throwing myself up against for ages without being able to break through. It didn’t matter that the route was a slash grade (7c+/8a) – there was an 8 in the title and that was enough.
It fully sunk in what a big deal this had become for me a day or two after. I felt totally drained of mental effort and it took two rest days and a day of easy multi-pitching before I could face pushing myself again on the trip. But when I did, and I got on another 8a, Los Veteranos at El Balcon, it felt totally different. It didn’t feel like a big deal any more, just a route of a suitable grade for me to be trying that day. This is how 8a’s should have felt all along.
How do you stop a new grade becoming a barrier in your mind? And once it is, how do you break that barrier down? I don’t know the answers to these questions, but if anyone does I’d be really interested to know.