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View from a cliff-side: sea-cliff climbing

Updated Wednesday, 21st July 2010

What is it that drives people to climb up sheer cliff walls - and how do they prepare mentally? Mark Brandon offers a view from a cliff-side.

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Caroline: I’m Caroline Heaney. I am a sports psychologist here at the Open University and I’m speaking to another academic colleague, Mark Brandon, who has a strong interest in rock climbing. First of all, Mark, tell me a little bit about your background in to rock climbing, how you got into, how long you’ve been doing it.

Mark: Well, I’d have to reveal my age straight away, I’m in my early forties now but I first started climbing when I went to university as an undergrad at the age of eighteen, and I’m from the inner city, Inner London, and I went to what I thought was a university in the country, which was Guildford. It wasn’t enough countryside for me, so I joined the climbing club, and I thought I’d get away climbing and that might get me to see what Britain was really like. But it didn’t. Things didn’t really light up for me until I started climbing on sea cliffs. As soon as I went to the sea and sawlooked at the cliffs, started climbing those, I was hooked. So I’ve been climbing fairly regularly on the sea cliffs ever since then. So over twenty years now.

Caroline: Wow. So what is it about the sea cliffs in particular? Why is that different to other types of climbing?

Mark: Most people when they think of climbing they think of vertical rock faces and steep things, but when you go to mountains, it’s not very usual to get deadly vertical cliffs. It’s usually sort of sixty, seventy, maybe eighty degrees, unless you’re doing something very difficult. But when you go to the sea cliffs, almost all of the cliffs are kind of vertical. So you’ll go to a sea cliff, you’ll step off the side and you start at the top of a sea cliff and go down to the bottom and climb up, whereas on a mountain cliff you start at the bottom and climb up to the top.

Caroline: So that kind of gives you an added excitement to it, does it?

Mark: It makes it sharper for me because it’s much harder to rest. You’ve always got the weight on your fingertips and your arms. You know, you have to be a bit more careful about how you’re climbing.

Caroline: Would you saybecause it is a little bit on the edge you have to have your wits about you, - is that what attracts you to the sport?

Mark: Very much so. The part of climbing I particularly like is where you’re climbing very much near your physical limits. So falling is part of what you’re, you know, interested in doing. You want to be pushing yourself, so physically you’re challenged as well as mentally. Usually it’s very safe, you use ropes. So if you, you can fall off safely, the rope will stop you hitting anything or hitting the ground. And you want to make sure you don’t hit anything on the way down. So for me the challenge is very much being at the limit and the vertical sea cliffs are what really do that for me.

Caroline: You mentioned something really interesting there that rock climbing is a lot about safety, and that kind of contradicts our perceptions that rock climbing is about sensation seeking. So would you say that you’re a sensation seeking sort of person?

Mark: I think I am interested in the sensation of the freedom of being out there and also climbing at the edge of my limit, but safety is really important with all climbing. You know, we want to be really careful with the ropes and stuff like that. So I think it’s more about being in control of your own destiny. You know, when you climb and you’re using the ropes, you start at the bottom and you put the ropes, and you put the ropes where you want them to be into the rock. You use climbing equipment to insert metal wedges and clip the rope through. And you do everything. So it’s completely up to you how you’re controlling the safety aspects of it. I mean there’s a very strange part of the sport – which I’ve never done – called deep water soloing on sea cliffs. Where people will climb up without any ropework, but they’ll make sure they’ve only got the sea beneath them.

Caroline: Okay.

Mark: And then you’ll see people jumping off from fifty or sixty feet above the sea and landing in the sea.

Caroline: Wow.

Mark: Which is not something that’s ever really attracted me, but I can see the fun in it. For me, I’m not so keen on climbing solo entirely by myself. When you’re climbing with a rope you’ve always got someone else. So it’s all, it’s about really trusting someone else and working with someone else on a problem together, whereas if you’re deep water soloing you’re completely by yourself, and particularly on the sea cliffs. What you tend to find is that the - near the sea, - the sea washes away all the loose stones, so they’re very solid. But as you get higher up towards the top of the sea cliff, there are plants and things around the cliff where the roots grow in, they break up, the wind and the rain erodes things from the top down.

Mark: As you go higher up the sea cliff they tend to get looser. So what happens is things get a bit more scary, and if you’re soloing something, yeah, that’s really too far for me.

Caroline: So do you think there’s a strong element of fear in rock climbing? Is that part of the attraction?

Mark: I think there is fear in it and. I mean a great example of a particularly, not a particularly hard climb but one that’s got a tremendous fear factor is one that’s actually on The Coast programme Every route up the cliff, every particular way has got a name, and this one’s called A Dream of White Horses. The reason it’s called that is because when the sea is very rough, the waves on the sea form white caps, and they’re called White Horses. And the thing that makes this climb particularly scary is you climb vertically upwards for about a hundred and fifty feet and then you do what’s called a traverse and go across the top of a big gap beneath your feet for about fifty feet. And so if you fall off you’re not going to fall straight down, you’re going to swing a very long way, which is quite terrifying. technically not very difficult, you would probably be able to climb that within six months of starting to climb. But everyone would be scared on it. So fear is definitely present.

Caroline: So talk me through how you feel sort of before you start a climb and during a climb. What might be going through your mind?

Mark: With the sea cliff you start your climbing experience from the top - . Wwhen you’re at the top of the cliff, . so So the first thing you do is you lay out all of your equipment, check you’ve got the ropes, check you’re tied onto your harnesses and the ropes are all tied on properly, and then you set up an abseil rope, which is a climbing rope. It’s put into usually very light large stakes which are in the top of the cliff, and then before you start to go down, you - “Everyone ready?, Great,” and then you abseil down the cliff one at a time. And as soon as you step over the edge of the cliff you’ll be dangling free. So you’ll just be spinning slowly as you come down. And from that point on the only thing that matters is the climbing. You don’t think about normal life, you don’t think about where you’ve parked the car or anything like that, it’s just the climbing.

Caroline: So your attention becomes very focused at that point.

Mark: Completely focused. And when you get off of the rope, wWhen you reach the bottom of the sea cliff, you’ve got the tide. Is the tide coming in, is the tide coming out, is the sea rough, so those sorts of things are factors. But the only way you’re going to get out of the sea cliff is either a long swim to somewhere easier or you’re going to climb out. So from that point it’s quite a tense thing.

Caroline: Would you say that your kind of mental approach has changed from when you first started out to now that you’re more experienced? Were you better at focusing or were you more nervous or more anxious?

Mark: I was, wWhen I was younger I was, I won’t say reckless but not fully aware of some of the things that I did. For example, if you abseil down from a cliff, in the good old days I would quite happily tie my rope onto one stake. Now I’m a two or three stake person, I like to make sure that that side of it. Basically what I want to do is try and put all the risk into the, the things that I control when I was young I’d never wear a climbing helmet when I was climbing. But now on sea cliffs I always wear a climbing helmet because of the loose rock. Someone’s only got to knock off something the size of a ten pence piece, if that catches you in the head that can cause quite a bit of damage.

Caroline: I can imagine it would.

Mark: Yeah. And of course I’ve seen some accidents on sea cliffs. So that has made me more careful.

Caroline: Has that changed your mental approach in any way? So have you become more nervous because you’ve seen things like that?

Mark: I wouldn’t say it’s made me more careful about how I climb. And if you go to somewhere like South Pembrokeshire, St Govan’s Head, on a sunny day you can have maybe a hundred and fifty, two hundred people climbing. And everyone would be in their own little world, but it only takes one person who’s got a different view of risk and what’s safe. Someone can just trip over at the bottom of the cliff and sprain an ankle, and that can mean a helicopter lifting them out because they can’t climb or swim. And sometimes it’s a bit more serious. But it’s all about, for me, controlling the risk. I still choose the same sorts of climbs I did before. But I guess have to admit to myself that I do choose things that if I fall off I’m not going to hit anything on the way down. So they tend to be quite steep. That’s kind of a bit safer because, you know, it’s hitting things on the way down that bother me. I know the ropes going to stop me hitting the ground but hitting things that are sticking out from the cliff face.

Caroline: It sounds from that that you’re a quite confident climber. Would you say that that’s, your confidence has developed through experience or would you say you were quite confident from the beginning?

Mark: My confidence has definitely improved with the experience as, I have had to swim out on occasions from some sea cliffs, and that’s not something that you like to do on a cold day. It was very nice on a sunny day. And when it’s very hot weather you have something called a chalk bag, which has got like a white powder in, like chalk dust. And so when your hands get very, very sticky and are, sweaty, slippery, you dip your hands in the chalk bag and they stop your hands slipping off the holds. If you have to swim with the chalk bag on of course that gets filled with sea water and you end up with emulsion paint, which is not so good.

Caroline: No. So where do you think your confidence comes from other than experience?

Mark: Completely trust in the people I’m climbing with. The people I climb with today have generally got a similar level of experience that I have. So they’ve seen a lot too and are quite happy to point out if they think that I’m doing something that’s not particularly the safest course of action I do choose the areas that I want to climb in. I try to choose places where people won’t kick off a small rock on top of me. But of course birds do as well, so you still wear your climbing helmet. So yeah confidence has developed as I’ve got more experienced. I think when I was younger I was ignorant to a lot of the things that could go wrong.

Caroline: So that was a different kind of confidence was it?

Mark: Confidence based partially on naivety, although I’d never have admitted that to my mum at the time.

Caroline: Yeah.

Mark: She is much happier with me not climbing.

Caroline: I bet she was.

Mark: So I never used to tell her, and I still don’t, where I’m going or what I’m doing because otherwise they just worry don’t they if they see something has happened.

Caroline: That’s what mummies are supposed to do.

Mark: Absolutely. Yeah.

Caroline: So we’ve been talking about confidence there and if we talk to sort of sports performance performers and - more traditional sports we often hear that they use sports psychology techniques like imagery, visualisation, talking to themselves – do you use any of those sorts of techniques?

Mark: On some of the harder climbs I’ve done, absolutely. I mean I’m an experienced climber but I’m not a good climber. You know, good climbers today are like professional athletes. You know, there’s sorts of things that are being climbed now in places like Pembrokeshire and Swanage I wouldn’t get off the ground on. I mean quite literally they just look impossible. But the things that I’m climbing at the limit, I use the same tricks that they’re using. You knowYeah, visualisation, when you abseil down you can look at where the handholds are going, where you’re supposed to be putting your feet and things like that. Think about what, the moves that you’re going to have to make. Because it’s all, it’s quite a gymnastic sports; it’s quite balancey and technical. If you get that balance wrong then you can burn up a lot of strength quite quickly, a lot of energy. So yeah we, I guess we do use that, and of course our climbing magazines are full of how to visualise things because it’s coming into our sport.

Caroline: How did you learn those skills?

Mark: Reading magazines and as I’ve been in climbing for quite a while now, when I was sort of seventeen, eighteen, nineteen years old, there were guys who I was looking at who were doing outrageously difficult climbs have now of course written biographies of their fantastic climbing careers and but they’re saying how they did it. And so everyone can see it now, you know, sit at the bottom, visualisation, practise, and some of the most extreme stuff on the coast up in North Wales, some of the climbers have even, have rigged up climbing walls in their own garages to match out the holds.

Caroline: Wow.

Mark: So that they can actually get the physical gymnastic moves practised over the winter, and then in the spring go out and do the climbs.

Caroline: Amazing.

Mark: Yeah, it’s the trickle down. Another simple example of how that sort of thing has helped, the grading system in climbing when I started climbing, you had, climbs were called difficult, very difficult, severe, and very severe, hard very severe and extreme, and you would think that difficult would be a hard climb, but actually that’s the descent path, and extreme would be, you know, the hardest one. But of course nowadays the extreme grade, which is an E, is open ended, and it goes up to E9, E10, those sorts of things, and yeah, because people have got technically better.

It was unusual to have people climbing at extreme level forty years ago. Nowadays, if people, if someone started the sport at eighteen they’d be expecting to do that with the use of climbing walls, physical gyms and things like that. So don’t smoke sixty a day like the old Himalayan climbers used to do. But you know you’d expect to be climbing extreme climbs within a year. the hardest things that I’ve climbed have been E4. So I am way off the grid, way off.

Caroline: Final question then, if you were to meet a young person, who started similar age to you and wanted to get into climbing, what sort of advice would you give them to help them cope both physically and mentally with the sport?

Mark: Strength. Strength breeds confidence in everything in climbing. And then balance as well, a suppleness and balance. If you’re very supple then you can always reach for the holds and you can, you know, you can stretch into places other people can’t and maybe get rests get where people wouldn’t normally get rests. So gym work sadly, I mean its strength and balance. But the other thing as well is, I would suggest that they learned ropework as well, because it’s been neglected. How to tie knots, how to tie things up together and how to, you know, lower yourself off the cliff and that. You might think that it’s not a particularly difficult skill to learn but to be really experienced at that sort of thing, if you’ve ever got to get someone up from the bottom of a hundred and fifty foot cliff it helps.

Caroline: A useful skill.

Mark: But it is something that you can learn. And then the other thing is just don’t run to fast. Work yourself up until you’re confident, because nowadays with the mental training and going in gyms, physically you’re able to climb much higher than you are mentally quite quickly, and you can get yourself into some situations which, yeah, you might find quite exciting. A couple of years ago I had to, I won’t say ‘rescue’ - is the wrong word - but lower a rope for someone from the top of a cliff at nine o’clock at night in the dark, where he was climbing something that was far too hard for him on the sea cliff. And, yeah, he clipped into the rope I lowered and then, he still climbed it, but then I made sure that he wasn’t, he didn’t have to worry about his own ropes, and it meant that he managed to climb it in the dark.

Caroline: Brilliant. Thank you very much for your time, Mark.

Mark: Thank you very much.

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