The Balance of Power

When I tell people I’m a rock climber they assume I must be physically strong and powerful. However, this is not reflected in my own self-perception. Rather than embracing this image, I’ve often fought against or struggled to accept it.

I’ve spent a lot of time telling people that you don’t need to be powerful to be a climber. At least not when you first start out. As I wrote about in a previous post, there is no need to be strong when you start climbing. Going climbing will simply make you stronger, especially if you start from the weedily low bar that I started from.


In the long run, I think taking up climbing when you’re already stronger than the average human can hinder your progress rather than enhance it. After all, power has a tendency to corrupt. If you start out with enough power to compensate for a lack of technique, you risk becoming dependent on that power and don’t bother to learn how to climb well. There’s no denying that pulling really hard will get you up a lot of rock but you’ll never achieve your full climbing potential with power alone.


I’ve certainly taken a more skill-focused approach to my own training, which has given me the self-image of a technical and canny climber. I’ve spent many hours reading up on decent technique and drilling it into my body on the wall. Climb with straight arms. Place your feet well. Identify efficient movement patterns. Use momentum to your advantage. Deploy creative beta. Make the most of your flexibility. I’ve endeavoured to learn as many tricks to avoid relying on strength from as many books as possible.


I have only recently started to focus on power and I’ve not taken to it like a muscular duck to water. In fact, my brain has responded by activating its own special superpower of getting in its own way. In my tangled mind, setting out to become more powerful meant admitting I was a bad climber. Resorting to getting stronger rather than improving my technique felt like cheating the game.


I saw training as a choice between two options.


Power or technique.


Brawn or brains.


Brute force or skill.


The caveman approach or the scientific method.


The dark side or the light.


Embracing strength training also forced me to question my own self-image.


Is this really who I am as a climber? A power-hungry jock?


Considering all the times I’ve refused to blame a lack of power over a lack of skill for failure on a boulder, doesn’t this make me a giant hypocrite?


If I’ve constantly preached that I simply needed better technique or more creativity to climb harder, why am I now spending time cranking out pull ups and dangling off a fingerboard?


Finally, I didn’t want to risk becoming anything even vaguely resembling the stereotypical rock climber. The type of climber that I, and many others, find so intimidating. The people who, to many inside and outside the world of climbing, represent what a ‘real’ climber looks like.


The burly shirtless men that are the faces (and nipples) of so much climbing media.


Thankfully, the training plan I’ve been following had precious little concern for my existential crisis and if there’s one thing my brain loves more than getting in its own way it’s a well organised spreadsheet. The uncaring nature of a list of boxes that needed to be ticked pushed me through my initial hesitation and I began diligently working my way through various burly training sessions. Bench presses, pull ups, press ups, core training, weighted hangs, and even the most dreaded part of any climber’s routine, leg days!

I also spent less time pushing and pressing my way up corners and teetering about on vertical walls and more time clinging on for dear life on overhangs. My local gym even did me the excellent favour of installing a new cave section just in time for my new power focused regime.


Before long, I came to the conclusion that I was, in fact, an idiot.


On two counts.


First of all, it turns out I’m already quite strong. Alice Walker, the first African-American woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for fiction (and a far wiser human being than me) once wrote that the most common way people give up their power is by thinking they don’t have any. I started to understand that it was my inaccurate perception of my own power that often held me back rather than an absence of power.


I’d been put off certain types of boulders because I didn’t think I was strong enough to climb them. When I finally started trying these boulders, in an effort to increase my power, I gained a far better understanding of how strong I was and how powerful I could actually be.


Never underestimate the power of human stupidity. It turns out my stupidity had left me blind (or at least partially sighted) to the fact that six years of climbing had made me pretty strong. Who’d have thunk it?


As I gained a more accurate (and somewhat surprising) understanding of my own power, I arrived at my second I Am, In Fact, An Idiot conclusion.


If I was already more powerful than I thought I was, I couldn’t have been depending entirely on my cherished top-notch technique all along. I’d been labouring under an entirely false dichotomy, stuck in the black and white and totally ignoring the grey.


I’d previously believed that I could either be a technical climber or a strong climber. I hadn’t considered that I could be both. I could use my well-practiced technique to channel my strength effectively. I could wield great power with great responsibility.


My well drilled footwork combined with a strong core allowed me to keep my feet attached to the holds on the steepest terrain.


My creativity allowed me to find the best body positions on the wall and my power allowed me to move between them efficiently.


My practiced use of momentum got me from one hold to another and my crushing crimpy fingers allowed me to hang on to the teeny tiny holds when I arrived at them.


These two little epiphanies, which seem rather obvious with the benefit of hindsight, have made me feel far more confident about building and using a more powerful body in the future. The measure of a person is what they do with power. As long as I continue to use my increasing power in tandem with my good technique my self-image can remain intact and my fears of becoming an intimidating brainless meathead or a hypocrite can be kept at bay.


Wanting to increase my power doesn’t mean undoing all the work I’ve done in the past and it isn’t anything to be ashamed of. My previous efforts have not been in vain but have created a sturdy foundation for me to build my newfound strength on top of. Trying to get stronger doesn’t make me a bad climber. It makes me a determined climber who wants to push their limits and open up a wider world of boulders and challenges.

While I’m slightly concerned at my ability to have so many thoughts about doing a lot of pull ups and climbing steeper boulders, it’s been extremely cathartic to get all these ideas down in reasonably coherent language and process them outside of my jumbled head. I shall leave you with a pleasingly succinct summary of the matter courtesy of Fyodor Dostoevsky, author of Crime and Punishment, among other things. While I wouldn’t say it applies in all circumstances, I think it’s fitting in this instance.


Power is given only to those who dare to lower themselves and pick it up. Only one thing matters, one thing; to be able to dare.

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