Tag Archives: climbing

Climbing Course Weekend, Ardennes

Last august I went to the Ardennes for a climbing course. The course took from friday until sunday and if all went well I’d receive my Toprope Certificate from the NKBV (Dutch climbing association). It was an amazing experience, overcoming fears both on the wall and in my head.

I often ask myself why I actually climb. I’m not particularly talented and I have a fear of heights that isn’t easily subdued. Going on this weekend brought the additional fear with it of taking my CPAP device on the road with me for the very first time. What would people think about that and would I be able to live up to my high standard of quality climbing?

Teaming up

Luckily I didn’t have to face this alone. One of my oldest and best friends is a true athlete and his presence always has a calming effect on me. Sure, I seem to like the weak one in this collaboration, but who really cares. We met up in the Ardennes with the rest of the crew. Three ladies and us two would be trained by Andries and Harry. Andries is a full pro, who does this as a freelancer with his company Zelan Outdoor. He’s a sports teacher too, so he has that sensitivity to peoples feelings and vibe. Harry is an old school climber with a bag full of stories. In between the two, we had an interesting mix of knowledge, expertise and passion.

We got to know each other a little and then went to practice and learn some theory about the climbing due to the heavy rains coming down all the time. When we finally did get to go out, we could try a little bit of climbing and some abseiling. After one attempted ascent the clouds broke and after having holed up in a cave for a bit, we dashed back to the Tukhut (an NKBV owned establishment for mountain bikers, hikers and climbers). I didn’t make it dry and a wet pair of shoes would be my penalty for the next two days.

Running into walls

Surprisingly the team was very nice about my device and actually complimented me on the soundlessness. This was very pleasant and bolstered my travel lust for the future. I felt quite comfortable when we headed out to hit some walls in Hotton. There are some low-level routes that can be pure fun to climb, but also some harder material. After getting our toes in the water on some easy warm-up routes, we felt ready for the big work and the group split in two. Part of the team went climbing some easier, shorter routes. Climbing levels differ and clearly the trainers knew how to deal with that.

We went climbing some more complex routes and… I choked. While climbing a steep chimney with small grips the fear took hold of me after a few slips (there’d been some downpour and water was still pooled up in some cracks). With just some slim holds and mostly using body pressure to go up I got hold of a small jug but completely lost my cool. Disappointed and angry I went down. On the next route, I successfully jammed my hand in cracks to pull myself up, pushing some new techniques, but my body had cramped up and my wrists were very painful. I let myself down. I was ashamed and I connected this to everything else raging around in my head.

Mental walls

While climbing I was thinking of my new job I’d start on Monday. I also thought of the choice to not pursue studies this September, what was my original plan. Thinking of the 2 months of mental turmoil I’d been suffering through since I received my CPAP therapy (more about that here) filled my head. Because of that I crashed and burned. Later I fought myself through an easier pitch, but that hardly cheered me up.

Trainer Andries took me aside when we arrived back at the hut and asked me if I was ok. I sort of muttered and stuttered my disappointment and how much I had hanging on those few climbs. On my back I carried my worries, so I was climbing with a mental pack. Not sure how, but he made me feel a bit better. We had dinner, some drinks and then it was time for a good night sleep.

First ascent

I’ve climbed a lot in recent years, but some climbs matter more. We went back to the same walls the next day. It was the last day of the weekend and I needed to redeem myself. Humbled and more focused we started to climb. Halfway up the longest route, full of great grips I started to sing to myself. My head emptied out and I felt the pure bliss of hitting the rock. Every thought was followed by a movement. Every limb in harmony with the others, one by one I ascended the wall.

The next climb was a tricky start with some hidden pockets, but smooth sailing up to the top. I asked Andries to help me lose my fear of falling and he did. Falling is scary, it’s a moment of complete panic and submission to the elements. It’s toprope though and in fractions of seconds, you’re securely hanging on your harness. It’s about trust in your partner and knowing what happens.

Harder, Higher, Heavier

Then we went to the tougher stuff. I joked a bit at the start of a tricky route. It went up in a crack between the rock wall and an outstanding slab that stuck up int he sky like a monolithic tower. With trepidation, I started the climb and on my way to the top, a change came over me. I stopped being afraid, this was comfortable climbing. This was up my sleeve and within my comfort levels. I could do this one without any problem!

And then I got to the last problem, to get myself on the top of the tower, where I’d be standing with only the wind and a wall to lean against. My rope had turned three times and fearlessly I looped it around myself once, twice and thrice. As I gazed out over the tree tops and the beautiful region, I felt completely at peace. I was free, not just of my worries, but of my fear of the fall. This was my first ascent and I had just completely fallen in love with climbing. I took a deep breath and started my descent.


I climbed another hard route full of confidence after that. Hard is a relative term. I’m no Alex Honnold or Chris Sharma, nor will I ever be. But I’ve started to love climbing with a passion. I fall regularly now, usually while trying more tricky 5+ routes or 6a’s (French ranking system). I’m doing lead climbing too now, but the fear of falling returns. There’s always the next leap.

More stuff:
NKBV website
Zelan Outdoor Website
Climbing Ardennes info

Pictures: Zelan Outdoor/Floris Teulings

Reading of Books #30

So here we go again with a series of brief book reviews. This time we have Jack Kerouac, Herman Melville, Alex Honnold & David Roberts and Andrea Wulf on the shelves. A series of brave, bold books

Jack Kerouac – The Dharma Bums

source: goodreads.com

Though Kerouac is mostly known for his ‘On The Road’. I personally felt more attracted to ‘The Dharma Bums’. Anyone with a love for rock climbing and hiking has to read it apparently. I think it would be good for anyone to read about a cleaner, greener America where there still was hope for a rucksack revolution. Replace America with a European state and the same story makes sense. The protagonist of this story is the Kerouac alter-ego, Ray Smith. Smith is a bum most of the time, traveling around with other poet friends, spreading the word of Buddha and trying to find enlightenment in a world that is rapidly changing into convenience, commodities, and capital-driven. It’s the last attempt at finding beauty in the untarnished nature and simple pleasures that life offers.

To me, most of the book revolves around the climb of a specific mountain, named the Matterhorn Peak in Yosemite. The ascent and descent of the mountain seem to form the pinnacle of the story. Here Smith finds absolute beauty and spiritual joy in the climbing and hiking. The simplicity of it all is the message and the book travels on like the descent is everything that comes after, just as everything before was part of the ascent. It’s at the peak where we find joy, where we are closest to the gods. The original intent behind this book might have passed me by.  Regardless, I believe in the rucksack revolution. I believe that we all should pack our bags and travel into nature, into the wild now and then to find our true selves and the simple beauty that is life. That to me tells that this book can still bring that spirituality to readers far in the future.

Alex Honnold en David Roberts – Alone on the Wall

source: goodreads.com

Alex Honnold has become something of a legend in recent years for free-soloing mountainsides. Free-soloing means going up there without a rope, just with climbing shoes and a chalk bag. That’s some hardcore stuff, so reading his first book is well worth your time regardless if you love climbing, know about climbing or are just fascinated. Though hardly a biography, the book offers a glimpse into the mind of a man who climbs with the ultimate risk and still earned the nickname Alex ‘No Big Deal’ Honnold. The book follows him through a series of expeditions and extreme climbs that were undertaken during his career.

We get a glimpse into the person that is Honnold, from his own perspective and from people around him. It’s weird that Roberts manages to pull out a lot of really personal stuff out of the climber. An example is Honnold’s relationship in the past that seems to really have been an emotional rollercoaster at times, without every bearing the man’s soul to the world. The explanation is simple. Honnold, like an artist, shows his soul when he climbs the big walls. When he speaks of climbing it’s not super exciting, it’s his action that is that of a true poet and monk at the same time. The spirituality of climbing you glance from his eyes in some of the videos and interviews, but rarely from his words and that is perfectly fine.

Herman Melville – Bartleby the Scrivener

source: goodreads.com

“I prefer not to” is what Bartleby responds to his boss and benefactor when he is asked to review his work. Bartleby is a scrivener, basically a copyist in the era when duplication of documents was work by hand. The simple, though not forceful, negation holds a message for today. Melville wrote this in protest, in frustration about the lack of success of his writing, but it’s that voice of dissent that still rings true today. I read this on the airplane, coming home to a situation I was not entirely happy within the work sphere. The simple story in this book felt strangely powerful.

So Bartleby refuses to do work that doesn’t appear to him. He starts negating more and more and protests in an almost Buddhist-like non-action way. This inevitably leads to his death in the end of this strange story. The simple words keep ringing: “I prefer not to”. Melville wrote a story worth reading, even if only consisting of 50 pages. It has a power of its own, like any good short story and should be read more widely.

Andrea Wulf – The Invention of Nature

Source: goodreads.com

It is a strange thing, the way time obscures certain people. Andrea Wulf illuminates the figure of Alexander Von Humboldt in this biography, an explorer, scientist and thinker of the 18th and 19th century with a profound effect on the way we think and look at nature. Wulf names him in the title already the forgotten hero of science and nothing seems to fit better than this. The book follows the life of Von Humboldt in all its imperfections, creating storylines that sometimes overlap and revisit each other. It reads like one of those adventure novels I loved to read when I was a little boy and Von Humboldt soon becomes your hero when you’re reading these pages. Through it all, the figure takes shape and form and becomes real to the reader.

But Wulf does more than just telling the story. She also explores the how and why of Von Humboldt’s emission from our history books took place. After connecting his work and influence to some of the most pivotal thinkers of their time, from Charles Darwin to Símon Bolivar, she explains that part. Germany has lost a lot of popularity due to the two world wars in the 20th century and this simply lead to omitting the German from street signs, libraries and the like. Only in South-America, his name seems to be as revered as it was back in the day. This is a huge shame, but it is the way of things. Thanks to Andrea Wulf this great man of the sciences, arts and the inventor of nature as we know it now has the biography that brings him back to us.

Blue is the hardest colour

Do you know that it actually is true that blue is the hardest colour to see? It’s a physics thing, for real. It’s no surprise that I have a beef with the colour blue. Not like. the color itself, but the blue bouldering routes.

I’ve started bouldering almost half a year ago, after being introduced to it by a friend. I’ve always enjoyed climbing and fondly remember my experiences with the activity in the Belgian Ardennes and secondary school gym classes. Now, climbing high walls is cool, but it requires a partner at all times, so bouldering felt more fitting.

For those not familiar with bouldering, it’s a sport that focusses on the technical aspects of climbing. Short ,technical routes that go up to like max. 4 meters on a straight or overhanging wall. Difficulty is shown in different colours of the routes, to make it easier for you. You climb with just your wits, body and a pair of climbing shoes that fit so tight you feel like a ballerina. It’s funny how that colour thing works When you start, you just see the colour of that level and slowly you find, while your skill advances, your eyes shifting to the next ones…

Very close to my home is a boulder gym, named Monk, which has 3 locations in the Netherlands (Amsterdam, Rotterdam, Eindhoven). The staff is friendly and laid back, there’s usually some cool jazz, triphop, hiphop or electronic music playing while you climb. Some people come in groups and chat a lot, but I often go alone and enjoy the solitude of my efforts. There’s a moment between starting the climb and tapping of on the top grip (usuallly there’s an indicated start grip and a finish grip), where sounds fade away and there’s nothing but you and the wall. It’s your physical efforts versus nature in a way, it’s a moment of complete focus and tranquillity.

So for me the name Monk seems fitting, because it’s not about your fancy outfit or cool shoes, not about impressing others (I really think there’s little of the ‘gym flexing’  going on in general). It’s about you and that challenge, which makes it very pure for me. It’s not about succeeding, there’s no points to be handed out, it’s a very solitary, mental thing to me and that’s probably why I enjoy it so much. It cleans away my thoughts.

But still, blue is the hardest color, it’s the wall you hit when muscle and ability have gotten you as far as it can. It’s no longer easy or doable, now it becomes harder to progress. I will have to ask for help to move forward and that is also a lesson, because it breaks that solitude open again. I imagine that climbing in this form (or any form) isn’t for everyone, but I recommend it anyways. It shapes your body and mind, strengthening both. Facing your limits is not always pleasant, but it gives you the chance to break through them. That’s probably what I love most about this sport.

So I am certain I’ll start liking blue at some point.

The picture is not me, it’s a stock photo. Since I really don’t want to offend anyone by misusing their work, I use stock photos.

Contemplations while listening to Rush on Train

Getting anywhere with public transport is rather expensive. That’s unfortunate, because not only do I like to do my part for the environment, it also allows me the great liberty of listening to records.

Something about the rhythm of the train that takes me to uni is calming, soothing almost. I’m on my way, I am actually moving forward today and towards new goals. It feels similarly when I’m clmbing, that moment when you reach the top, the moment just before when you leap. A moment of clarity and security.

Though ofcourse that one with climbing is way more intense and a short burst, not even lasting for a second. It’s soon replaced by the sense of completion, but isn’t completion the lesser of the feeling that comes just before? That desperate grasp for the ultimate, the leap of faith in a Kierkegaardian (and literal) sense?

But the train just rolls on, steadily and calmly, it takes me to that goal at its own pace and unlike the leap on the wall. That leap is my own doing, the train is just helping me get from A to B. Regardless, its a moment of contemplation and introspection. In the meantime Rush is filling my ears, I listen to ‘Moving Pictures’.

Though his mind is not for rent
Don’t put him down as arrogant
His reserve a quiet defense
Riding out the day’s events

– Rush ‘Tom Sawyer’.