Saturday was International Climbing Day. A day where climbing centres all over the world open their doors in an effort to grow grassroots participation. My climbing centre, the Castle, was opening its doors for London and North Face were partnering up so that some of the world’s best climbers like Alex Honnold, Hansjorg Auer and Jacopo Larcher could be there and run masterclasses.
Practically everyone in the climbing world knows of Alex Honnold and what he has achieved. I was really tempted to go to Castle but was hesitating as I would have been in strength training that day and, frankly, didn’t want to tire myself out too much with competitions around the corner. My friends all told me to come, worst case? I’d have a cup of tea there, enjoy the atmosphere and maybe catch a glimpse of some incredible climbers.
I signed up and then found out that the Castle was running a competition, those who won would be on a masterclass with one of the three greats. I couldn’t resist putting my name in. Come Thursday afternoon, I see my phone bleep, a message from Castle, I’ve won a spot on the masterclass. Within about 15 minutes of me frantically sending an email to say I could attend, I then found out it was with Alex Honnold. I couldn’t believe it. How did I go from not planning to attend at all to getting onto Alex Honnold’s masterclass? The guy who has scaled a 3000 foot mountain in 18ish hours with no ropes?!
I was ecstatic. I’m not a fan of Alex like most of my climbing friends are, I’m generally not into the whole celebrity thing but this was huge. The climber in me, the learner in me was excited. What could I learn from a man who is able to overcome his own mental barriers? Was there anything technical he could teach me that I could use in my climbing?
As Saturday approached, I grew increasingly nervous. Did Alex know I have one hand? Although climbing is inclusive, this is a masterclass, what if it was being done in a way I would struggle with a lot? Those nerves really stayed with me and got worse.
On Saturday, ready for the day, I went to strength training but had a lighter session to make sure I’d still be fresh for the afternoon. Had lunch with a friend and we then went off to Castle. The normality of us having lunch together kept me grounded. That and the fact that I was drinking so much tea that it was probably the main ingredient in my blood stream. We got through the queue pretty fast and met up with a few of my climbing partners. One of which had dedicated herself to being my person for the afternoon, she could see I was more frazzled than she has probably ever seen.
I got changed, was too freaked out (we only had 30 min before the masterclass) to warm up properly so I got on the wall and tried to take the excess energy out of me. It worked. I was grounded again and then it was time. We went up to the loft. Thankfully my climbing partner could come with me even though she wasn’t in the class, though she could only observe. Being my person, she could be there to help me with any of the issues I often face when climbing and make it a speedier process so I wouldn’t lose precious time from the class. I can’t thank Castle enough for letting her come up with me and her enough for being there.
After a few minutes, Alex turned up, we went to our bouldering area and all the nervousness about what we were going to do and whether I would be able to cope disappeared. We were going to boulder, Alex was there to watch us, give us tips and generally chat to us about anything we might want. On first impression, he was humble, down to earth and very likeable. Everyone got going and I started up on something to just feel a bit more settled. Once I got back down, Alex noticed I had one hand and just said “nice”. With a big smile on my face, I started looking for my next boulder. While I was considering options, I asked him how he copes on a route when he can’t reach for something. This is something I face on most of my routes and so I am always looking for ways to handle the mental and physical side of it. We talked technique and he realised I was missing one from my arsenal that he relies on, so he showed it to me. Once I have had a chance to practice it a bit and learn where to use it to make the most gains, I sense this will dramatically change my climbing style.
We all chatted and bouldered a bit more, several of us were very curious about how he overcomes his self-limiting beliefs or how he does things. He also bouldered a bit, that was a treat to watch. Before long, the session was over, I got my selfie and walked down to my other partners who were excitedly waiting to find out how it was – it was all still sinking in so I said it was great, relaxed, fun and an amazing learning opportunity.
Today, late on a Sunday as I write this, I have now processed what yesterday really was and what I have learned in the space of that hour. Alex Honnold was not a role model for me before I met him and I would still say today, that although he does perform incredibly superhuman feats, I wouldn’t classify him as a climbing role model for me.
However, having met him as a real person, I would definitely say that he is a role model. His humbleness and modesty struck me. He made sure to talk to everyone, patiently answered questions and happily admitted when he was beyond his depth. He looked for points where he could raise who he was talking to. For me, he said I must have great footwork and core strength to handle climbing the way I do. He didn’t hesitate to spot someone if they were coming off the wall in a potentially uncontrolled way – he cared.
The thing that will stick with me, hopefully forever, was when we were talking about fear, mental strength and overcoming self-limiting beliefs on a climb. He said:
“If you know you can logically do it. Then just do it.”