Man, I’m psyched! I’m so psyched for trad right now. He’s really psyched for climbing. She’s a really psyched climber.
Yeah, it’s a word that’s bandied about a lot, but it seems to mean different things to different people. A lot of the time, it just means someone wants to go climbing. Perhaps there’s the implication that some yelling and hard pulling is going to be done. But is that really climbing psyche? What’s actually going to happen when this mega-motivated climber actually gets to the crag, stands under a line, or gets onto the crux of a route they’ve been bigging up only to find the crimps a bit smaller than they had envisaged, a bit damp perhaps, and the gear at foot height looks quite far away?
I’m making a huge assumption here and that’s that we’re talking about trad climbing. If you’re bouldering, then I guess pulling down hard and yelling is pretty much the name of the game. To a lesser extent this might be true of sport climbing, but trad? Trad’s what needs psyche, right?
Back in the days when I had time to sit around wondering about these things and hadn’t cottoned on to sport climbing, defining psyche seemed to matter. After all, it often appeared to be the defining factor in trad success or failure, regardless of strength, fitness or even technique. An as I was living in Llanberis only a little after its heyday, there was a fascination with the achievements of the great climbers of the 80s. Yes, there had been a massive jump in standards of actual ability on rock thanks to things like training, sport climbing and bouldering, but masters like the semi-mythical John Redhead seemed to have basically relied on psyche alone. Meanwhile, me and my mates used to regularly back off things that should have been within our ability, so in an attempt to fix that from the comfort of a sofa, my mate Jez and I set out to define psyche.
What we came up with was this: “Psyche is present when a climber chooses to climb up through a set of difficulties, instead of hesitating or backing down when the going gets tough.”
That conversation from almost 20 years ago came back to me recently when I was accused of lacking psyche. It hit me because after years of being a self-acknowledged wimp, I felt like I’d been going for it a bit more this summer. I mean, I actually took a trad fall the other day… while going for it too. The thing is, I’ve developed this new concept of “Casual Psyche”, and it’s kind of transformed my game.
It came about after I read and article by Hazel Findlay – surely one of the heirs to Redhead, that girl, and a good writer to boot. In an article on Evening Sends about climbing the Golden Gate on El Cap, she wrote: “Trad climbing is intimidating in general—but it gets much worse when you let the monster grow inside your head, and become super scary way before you even tie in. A wise boy I used to spend a lot of time with would often say, ‘we’ll just take the gear for a walk’. To imagine free climbing El Cap, with all those hard pitches and all those question marks stacked on top of one another, is just too much. But to pack the bags and drag them to the bottom of the cliff … well, I can do that.”
And I can learn from the unnamed wise one too (could it have been JR? Probably not, too big an age difference…). So instead of bigging routes up in my head, I started taking the rack for a walk. I took it to Ghar Lapsi in Malta and managed to add a grade to my sport on-sighting, because I had a go at something that caught my fancy. I took it to some funky places where I just wanted to climb, like Gozo and Grazalema and the Pass of Ballater where I took my first trad lob for years trying to on-sight Demon Drink – and got back on and finished it.
The key was the casual approach. Don’t big up anything, you just want to get out climbing. No pressure, but why not try? Casual Psyche worked for me, but my mates thought I wasn’t keen. When I was accused of lacking psyche one damp Saturday, I just said I’d be up for Creag Dubh the next morning. Then I took the rack for a walk up to the Great Wall and took a look at The Furher. That turned out fine, but later on a typical Gary Latter esoteric sandbag on Little Rock, I found myself pumping out well above gear. The moves were tricky either way, but I chose to go up. I guess I was psyched after all.