The team playing at Kandersteg after the Swiss comp
‘You have a monkey mind. It jumps around too much. You have to work on keeping it still.’
So says my new friend in Hampi, India. I was 22 and had gone on an Asian adventure after University. As is customary for me, I have forgotten his name but not his face, the sound of his voice or being taught, on the bank of the river as the sun set, to meditate. He was a Russian Israeli, but kept it secret, preferring to say he was Russian instead, and that is what his accent said to me.
Three young Indian boys drift downstream in an oracle, they cannot be more than 12 years old. Bored of their unsuccessful fishing exploits they call out to us, demanding to know where we are from and our names. My friends asks them to guess. The tallest boy calls out Britain for me, then asks my friend to speak again. He yells back, laughing, “Israel, you are from Israel”. The boys laugh at the shock on my friends face and push the oracle back into the current. They float away downstream and six monkeys take to the water, deftly swimming across the river to the little rocky outcrop my friend and I are sat on.
‘Everyday, focus on the world, really focus, what you see… every detail you see. Everything you can smell and hear and feel. Pay attention to the world. It is an incredibly special place… I bet you have never seen monkeys swim! Those boys, they pay attention, they could hear what no one else could. Live in the moment. Understand that you are incredibly special too.’
It is now 6 years later. Almost to the day. This winter I am not in Asia, I’m in France. At Champagney En Vanoise for the fourth round of the UIAA Ice Climbing World Cup. It is my second international competition, coming a week after my first in Saas Fe, Switzerland.
For those who don’t know me, I have two states. Late or disorganised. For this competition I am travelling by myself, no safety net of team mates to organise me. I had an already tight schedule to make registration on time. So after boarding the plane I did not want to be told that there was a strike of Air Traffic Control and the plane was delayed. Several desperate tweets to the UIAA later and I had another understanding organisation accepting my general lateness of person. After landing, I waited forever to pick up my bag, ran for the train and make it! This is unusual, I’m organised and have a plan on how to get to registration.
Subconsciously knowing that my organisation cannot last without the help of outside forces or my credit card I nervously settle into my train journey. I make it to Chamberry to catch the last connection and find that the strike has infected trains as well as planes. One Gallic shrug later from the chap in the ticket office and I appear to be stuck. Time for plan B, the credit card. I leave the train station and make my way to the car hire office across the road. I organise a car for the weekend and drive to Champagney in time for a big bowl off pasta and to pick up my number.
After meeting up with the rest of team GB we settle into our accommodation. Again, I have been kindly organised by Ruth Taylor, British Team PA, who has found some kick ass place for us all to stay. The wall at Champagney is bigger than at Saas Fe so all the climbers can compete together and it also means we are all in isolation together. I’m up almost last and have a long wait. At Champagney the team representing GB consists of Andy Turner, Steve Johnston, Matthew Pritchard, Pete Holder, Malcolm Kent and myself. We all pile into isolation together, looking like a slightly off key unit in our matching bright down jackets.
For me, I now have a four hour wait. I use this time wisely by warming up slowly and making friends with everyone who I can, irrespective of their nationality or even if they can understand me. Slowly the team leave isolation until there is just myself, Malcolm Kent and his friend Dave, a physio from Canada who has come on an extended European road trip with Malc. He teaches Malc and I card games to pass the time. Malc and I get called together to go to isolation two, nearer the wall.
Before I leave Dave holds my shoulders and looks me in the eyes. “Be in the moment, climb in the here and now. This is your moment.” Instantly I am back on the river bank, 22 again, full of dreams and possibility. I’m psyched.
On the way to the next isolation my friend Lucie Hrozova from the Czech Republic passes me. Climb fast she calls.
I tie on, and smile. It is my moment. I start climbing. I zone out apart from hearing Stevie screaming at me, his Scottish burr drowning out any other noise, I’m following his instructions, the shouts and cajoles. I climb fast, try hard, and literally throw myself at every hold, falling only a few moves from the top. As I lower off I am all smiles. The monkey mind has been stilled for a while. I had been so focused I feel a rush of endorphins as the real world comes back into focus. Stevie meanwhile, is going nuts, knowing I have probably qualified for semi-finals. I untie and grin at the commentator who is asking me if I am proud of myself. I am so proud of myself. It was my moment and I feel special and very much part of this exciting world.
I join my team mates, team nutritionist Rebecca Dent and her partner, the talented photographer Lukasz Warzecha outside the arena. We leave the competition and go back to the chalet. I have qualified in semi-finals in 16th place. The boys have done GB proud in a really competitive field. Andy and Malc have only just missed semi-finals, getting timed out high on their routes. Stevie got timed out high up too. He has been competing for a few years and is reflecting on what he needs to do, mostly how to climb fast whilst taking enough care on the insecure holds to not fall.
That evening my team try and persuade me to calm down. I need sleep and food and not to jump around the apartment like a child at Christmas. Isolation opens early the next morning. It is far quieter with 40 competitors in it rather than the 100 the day before. We go out to route read, the route looks hard. Back in isolation and I warm up again and wait to be called out.
Route reading for the semi finals
I place both axes in the ice and test them, kick into the ice and lift my left axe and BANG. My right axe pops. First semi-final and I’m off having just left the floor. Oops! This drops me into 19th place.
Sunday morning and I have to drive back to Chambery, leave the car and catch a train. My trusty steed for the weekend hasn’t got any ‘winterisation’. No snow tyres or chains. Overnight quite a lot of snow has fallen making for an exciting drive back to Chambery, listening to the obligatory French hip hop with heavily synthesised chorus.
The car hire place is closed on Sundays. The chap had told me where to leave it but turns out he doesn’t know his right from left either and I miss the only train that can get me to the airport for my flight. There is only one thing for it. I believe it’s called the kitchen floor reset. I phone my mum and cry at her, this has been a long weekend and I have become emotionally unstable. She assures me that something will turn up. My universe supplied guardian angel turns out to be an attractive blonde French lady with perfect English who wanders up and asks if I am going to the airport because she cannot find the bus, can I help her look for it? More than a little grateful we find the correct coach and before I know it I am back at the airport and reflecting on an exciting weekend.
So what have I learnt? That competition is great, I am a competitor, not just competitive. That I want more, more camaraderie, more travel, and more friendships. More highs and lows. I want to get to the next years competitions and feel competitive. I know how much further I can go. All of the weekend made me feel alive. And for the first time in six years since my friend told me how special life is I am beginning to realise just what he means and that I want to get as much out of it as possible.