Rock-climbing: Fear is the spur

Max Wooldridge confronts his personal demons half-way up a rockface in the Pyrenees - and comes off second best

Many of us have realms of safety we cling to, whether it's walking away from relationships to prevent emotional involvement, or avoiding late-night drunken louts in the high street. I was about to confront my own nemesis on the third of what had been an action-packed few days. We'd tackled canyoning and white-water rafting over the border in Spain and trekked up the 2,738m Pic de Sauvegarde without any problems or panic attacks to report.

Many of us have realms of safety we cling to, whether it's walking away from relationships to prevent emotional involvement, or avoiding late-night drunken louts in the high street. I was about to confront my own nemesis on the third of what had been an action-packed few days. We'd tackled canyoning and white-water rafting over the border in Spain and trekked up the 2,738m Pic de Sauvegarde without any problems or panic attacks to report.

But next on the agenda was rock climbing. This was something way outside my comfort zone. Even just watching climbers on TV made my hands sweat. Admittedly, a lot of this apprehension stemmed from a rock climbing false start several years ago. Then, only a glass-fibre helmet had saved me from serious injury when I missed my footing and crashed the back of my head against the rock face. That had been in the Peak District, nowhere as exotic as the Pyrenees. I had to get back in the saddle.

Our base was nearby Luchon, a curious one-street hybrid spa town where two alien worlds collide and enjoy a peaceful co-existence. Along its single tree-lined boulevard, the Allée d'Etigny, the contrast of health and hypochondria was striking. Here, the town's café society looked on as the sporty brushed shoulders with the inactive. But like religious zealots, both these sets of movers and shakers were convinced they had the answer.

At breakfast in my hotel two elderly French ladies had asked what I was doing in Luchon. In stilted French I explained our activities. They sighed and said they were here pour les thermes - the thermal baths you could smell as far away as Toulouse. Then they pointed to various parts of their body and let out more elongated sighs. Compared with me they had it easy.

Rock climbing has always struck me as one of the most daring and audacious of activities. It seems to go against nature. Mountains demand the greatest of respect and by climbing them there's a suggestion that you are in some way equal to them.

Before I could even confront my fears I had to get to grips with some climbing shoes. Scarily, these looked like ballet shoes. Although they were the right size, it still would have been more comfortable wearing baked bean tins. It felt as though King Kong was standing on all my toes and I was keen to get going before the circulation cut off completely.

"They should be tight otherwise they're no blaady good!" said our instructor John. His company, Warthog Mountaineering, was named after a creature he called "the estate agent of the African Bush - they dig all the holes for other people".

John was ex-military with a tough exterior and seemed ageless because he was so super-fit. His personal style was drill instructor with a heart but he was someone you could trust with your life. He had a well-travelled activity leader accent that traversed half the world in every sentence: Danish, South African, Welsh Guards, you name it. He seemed to be on nodding terms with every local for 50 miles around.

We moved up to an exposed limestone crag where the road ascends the Col de Portillon, a mountain pass that straddles the French and Spanish borders. The climbs were only nursery slopes: straight up and probably no higher than 50ft in some places, but they could have been Monument Valley as far as I was concerned.

A hundred feet below, picnic lunchers looked up at us. Or they could have been peering at a couple of agile, svelte, local Spidermen who assailed the hardest of the climbs next to us. Their ankles were so thin you could have placed wedding rings around them. On went my helmet, then the harness, which was attached to John's lead rope. This felt as though I was wearing a big nappy - quite apt, really, as my life was totally in someone else's hands. Apparently, if I slipped off the rock, the harness would prevent me from going anywhere.

I put this to the test when I was just a few feet up, throwing myself off the rock backwards. Sure enough the rope caught me and I didn't fall an inch. Now I'd got it into my head that the rope would save me, I was free to manoeuvre to the top. This was good fun but the descent was nerve-rackingly awful. Back on terra firma John offered some fatherly advice. "You did okay but you spent too much time thinking about your next move. You've got to commit. If you hang around and spend too much time thinking about things, you're lost."

You'd pay a shrink hundreds of pounds to hear stuff like that. This was more than just rock climbing: it was bargain-basement psychology. His wise words also seemed a neat metaphor for life and he recalled a chat with a girlfriend whose refusal to commit meant she invariably ended up alone. But, more importantly, I owed John two beers - one for using my knees on the climb and another for stepping on his rope. This last was a capital offence so I got off lightly.

I bore all this in mind on the next climb, which was higher and harder. Things started off well. I moved quickly and progressed to 20ft without even thinking, but half-way up, a huge overhang appeared from nowhere. I froze. Tiny, cute lizards crawled out from cracks in the rocks, eager to check out all the commotion. I was keen to keep moving because the unforgiving mid-afternoon sun had started to grill the backs of my ankles. And the heat reflected from the rock was overpowering.

The trouble was, there was nowhere to go. I couldn't find anything to hold on to. I looked around at the amazing view, and recalled that somewhere, amid all that wonderful greenery, were five European brown bears reintroduced to the area after being hunted nearly to extinction. (Originally there were six but a farmer shot one that killed 43 sheep in its first month.)

I was glued to the spot and saw no way of getting any higher without the aid of a forklift truck. I simply couldn't go any further. This was more a psychological than a physical challenge; you think it's you against the mountain but the toughest opponent is always yourself. One has to confront fears head on. Unfortunately I backed off. Sure, I was disappointed but wallowed in one of the advantages of getting older; that wimping out without worrying about it becomes easier.

After me I had to watch as two middle-aged men simply sailed up the climb. Afterwards they high-fived each other. As I said, adrenalin does some funny things to the mind. Maybe I should have tried the thermal baths instead - but at least this way I had faced up to my fears.

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