“Learning lessons never ends”
A conversation with Hazel Findlay
Sorry for publishing so little content of late. I’ve got bogged down in my latest book ‘On the Line’ (the subject is top rope soloing), plus I’ve been living without any internet for a month. I will begin posting extracts from the book to paid subscribers soon, but as a stop-gap, I thought I’d repost this interview with Hazel Findlay, seeing as she just climbed a 9a.
The following is a long conversation with the UK climber Hazel Findlay, a conversation that took place over a month, via email, and so is very wide-ranging; covering topics such as truth and lies, stoicism, and making money as a full-time climber. Be warned, this is not a Q&A, where Hazel is selling you something, or directly about climbing, but a conversation; the aim of which was to draw out some real insights from one of the most reticent – and spiky – climbers around.
One reason for talking to Hazel, and others, has been to peek around the Instagram filter we all have, to talk to a real person, not the brand, and see if we can learn something valuable about them or ourselves. I must also apologise if I sometimes ramble on a little, but with Hazel – a woman who does not waste words – it’s often a game of fishing with words, even if sometimes it’s just a paragraph of chum.
Directly and indirectly (consciously and unconsciously) who would you consider as being mentors, both as a climber and a regular person?
I generally only consider people close to me as mentors. I’m not often inspired or guided by people who are distant to me who I don’t know personally. So big famous names in climbing have had little impact on me as a climber.
My Dad was my mentor, growing up and taught me a lot. He gave me the gift of adventure. But he also failed to teach me some things, and I had to make a lot up and learn a lot from others. Every climbing partner I’ve had has taught me something, some more than others.
My Mum was also a strong mentor but more indirectly. She was good at showing me how to live a good life, with resilience and determination, but she did that through demonstration not by pointing out the way. Some of my friends have made a huge impact on the way I think about things and my general life philosophy.
A Spanish friend of mine told me to do a meditation retreat, and that changed my whole perspective on life. He’s been a bit of a life mentor for me. I would say though, that I might have a personality type that is less guided by mentors or tutorage; I’m pretty self-driven, self-motivated and don’t necessarily look to others to provide energy or impetus.
My friends are there for support and a sound-board but not necessarily mentorship.
From a distance people would label you as fearless, it’s your USP, but is that driven in a way by fear: fear about the future: fear of commitment: fear of being found out as fearful?
Well, I’m definitely not even close to being fearless. I think I am no more fearless than anyone else. I’ve just practised something enough to be able to do things that other people view to be risky because they view those things through the lens of being less experienced. I have all the same fears as everyone else: fear of failure, fear of sickness, injury and death, fear of being alone, fear of being trapped, fear of the mundane, fear of things being empty or meaningless, fears of being useless. I think I might know a little more than some people about how to manage my fears, but that doesn’t mean that they go away.
I once read that your decaying atoms create 5000 separate realities every second. Can you imagine your best and worse separate reality, and how would they look (or are you living the best one now?)
I guess I would think about that concept in terms of parallel worlds. If the universe is infinitely big, then we could imagine another earth and another me with everything being exactly the same apart from maybe one thing like I was 5.4 instead of 5.2. The worst world is fairly easy to imagine: a kind of slice of hell in which you are imprisoned and tortured the whole time. The best universe weirdly is harder to imagine because there is a weird paradox where you kind of need some suffering in order to learn certain truths and therefore improve your wellbeing. And we know that because there is a truth about the human condition: our happiness isn’t dependent on externals it’s a state of mind. So even if you had a perfect universe in terms of externals, this might not necessarily guarantee happiness. I wouldn’t want to grow up in a super-rich family, for example, and had been given everything because this, of course, doesn’t entail happiness (far from it). So I guess I can imagine a better parallel universe is one where I and everyone else in this world had a stronger and smarter mind to deal with anything that might happen. One way to think about this concept of changing the internals is to think about it in terms of a software update: upgrade the human software, so happiness and compassion come easier. Maybe once we’re all merged with AI we’ll achieve this higher state of being.
That’s funny, as when they were first considering IA, how one way to tell when it had arrived, was when computers realized how stupid we were, so maybe they’d refuse to merge with us (or throw us off the bus once they were fully self-replicating). I think children are like that: they get to a point when they believe they are superior intellectually to their parents, mainly due to their parents having invested all their brainpower and self in their kids (bloodsucking leaches!).
Well, that depends on whether we’d give them autonomy or not. If we’re smart then we won’t.
Whenever I talk to you, I always get the impression you take a stoical view and things, such as you can imagine hell more than you can imagine heaven (which is the opposite of most people, as in happy people listen to depressing music and vice-versa).
Heaven/hell: well, the thing is that we’re actually pretty bad at knowing what makes us happy. We know what things give us pleasure, but pleasure is connected to craving, which causes us to suffer.
You’ve struggled with things that could have reset your life, such as your shoulder injury; something that could have knocked you off your life’s track. You could have gone from the centre to the outside (“oh hazel used to be a climber”), you must have spent a lot of time thinking about that future. How did you see it going?
How did I see the future going in hard times? Well at my worst mentally I was very fearful that I’d be injured forever and that I wasn’t supposed to climb hard. That I wasn’t ‘made for it’. But at my best, I was happy to deal with the challenge, and I felt fearless about the future.
How often do you dream that you’re climbing?
If you don’t dream about climbing, does that mean you don’t spend a lot of time thinking about climbing?
I don’t know I’m not a dream expert. I don’t actually think about climbing a lot when I’m not doing it because I do a lot of it and I’m curious about lots of other things. For instance, I’m not interested in climbing literature, film or magazine. I follow people on Instagram and stay vaguely in the loop, but all my podcasts and books are about other things.
Have you ever seen The Aviator? Howard Hughes was so many things, one of the richest men in the world, filmmaker, inventor, businessman, but when he crashed his plane, he told the man who rescued him that he was “Howard Hughes, the aviator”. What do you call yourself when you go through US immigration?
That’s a pertinent question for me at the moment because I’m trying never to lie and in doing so many situations have come to my attention where I do lie and don’t really think anything of it. One such situation could be going through US immigration. It’s easier to avoid questions about my work even though what I do is perfectly legal. It’s just nicer to get through as quickly as possible. These days I say I’m a coach, which is true, but I don’t say I’m a pro climber because lots of other questions come up on the back of that.
Why have you decided not to lie (it’s a funny question to ask, but I think lying is a very human thing while telling the truth isn’t, after all, what is the truth?
Haha, lots of misunderstanding here. To lie is to think one thing and tell a person another thing. It’s not that you need to know what the truth is, to be honest. If I truly believe the earth is flat, it’s dishonest to say that I think it is round even though I’d be ‘correct’ in what I say. I think it’s weird that you think it’s natural to lie. Why? Because it’s natural to further your own interests above others’ even if that involves lying? When you start looking at the act of lying more carefully, it’s easy to how, in the long run, it doesn’t serve your interest. We often lie to save ourselves discomfort or embarrassment at this moment, or because we’re just lazy. And if we think these lies won’t cause harm, then why not? But in reality, lying is always harmful because to lie is to communicate a false reality. It is to purposefully mislead others when they expect honesty. It might seem like the lie doesn’t cause harm if it remains undetected, but as soon as you put yourself in the shoes of the person who has been lied to, they will think the opposite, they will consider themselves harmed by this lie because they weren’t granted access to the truth. I personally don’t want to be deceived when I interact with others, I want to speak to someone and know that what they say is actually what they think. If I want this from others, I should be committed to giving it back as well.
In defence of lying:
Don’t you think people who’d judge themselves as good people, who are honest, tend to lie constantly, both consciously and subconsciously; to others, but most of all to themselves, in order to maintain their virtue and social position (virtue is often a disguise worn by people who know they are sinful). We seem to be self-censoring constantly, in ways that are both very subtle and hardwired into us, and also consciously, to conform and fit in (I must not share this tweet/video/thought, or like a comment, or even laugh at something I find funny). Yes, we’re happy to rock the boat, but only if everyone around us rocks along with us.
The amazing thing about conformity is how it adapts, that 1950’s conformity was to be passive, while the 2010s is to be rebellious (if you do not protest and march there is something wrong with you), that to be young and conservative is to be non-conformist now, just as to be an environmentalist was fringe David Icke madness in the ‘70s, but is the default position now.
Some might call this progress, but I’d say that’s just another lie. To maintain our social position, or advance, always requires constant lies and rigid self-control and self-awareness (why are we so surprised that our politicians and leaders lie?)
In Islam they have the idea of ‘Taqiya’, which is a lie used in order to maintain your faith when persecuted, that you can deny your faith while still being faithful (Islam perhaps learnt this lesson from the lack of this ‘out’ in legacy Abrahamic faiths, thousands dying rather than spit on the cross because they could not lie).
Do we do the same, lie to live?
I agree with your point that most people lie often and much of that is for the purpose of virtue signalling even so-called ‘good people’. But I think that goes for everyone, not just a particular subset you personally find to be more dishonest. I’m more interested in the implications of lying on a personal level, not a political level and these implications only become apparent when you make a commitment to not lie. I invite you to try it and see what happens. I’ve found that it’s challenged my assumption that I am a pretty good person. I’ve found myself really wanting to lie about something and asking why that is, and often it’s because the thing I did I wasn’t that proud of. It’s OK not to share everything; each of us needs the privacy of our own minds, but to be dishonest is something different.
I would view you as a non-conformist, very aware and rational, someone who is very adept at gaming life and expectations (you’re living the life you want). Did climbing create this character, or is the climbing you do a reflection of your character?
I’m not sure I agree with your portrayal of me. I conform a lot! There are many things I’d like to say but don’t for fear of rocking the boat. But that’s on more of a public level mostly because my career depends on my reputation.
On a personal level people do generally find me to be honest and direct (often to the point that they don’t enjoy!) I As far as my ability to’ game life’ as you put it, well I suppose I’ve managed to be fairly successful without having to sacrifice too much for my future self.
I would never have considered myself business orientated but somehow I managed to work the pro-climber profession pretty well and create a viable coaching business that has so many clients I don’t actually have the time to maintain it. I’m less time-rich than I am money-rich, which I guess could be the metric for a successful business. I have no idea what has shaped my character. I started climbing when I was 6, so it would be impossible to tell. I will say though that managing fears and confidence in climbing certainly does give you important life skills if you care to take the time to think about it.
Have you heard the idea that your parents actually have a small role in making you into the adult you become, that after age six, it’s the people you meet – which is often down to your parents – but also teachers, friends etc; you’re a reflection of the five people closest to you. Although you don’t feel you’ve been coached, can you pinpoint any people growing up that nudged or steered you to this point?
Haha, the wording of that question is so passive-aggressive. Yes, I’ve heard of that, I don’t live under a rock, although I’m not sure I’d call it a ‘small idea’; it seems pretty obvious to me that your parents play a huge role in shaping you. That doesn’t have to mean you’re similar to them in those ways though. I’ve tried to emulate all the good bits in each of my parents and learn from the bad bits. In my talk, I speak about how much my mother and father influenced me in different ways and shaped who I am. As for other mentors and role models: I can’t think of anyone specifically (didn’t I already answer this question?) The most inspiring people for me are those people I’ve climbed with most over the years.
I’m still not sure what being passive-aggressive is, which is ironic, but then I don’t know what irony is either (I’ve researched it, but the info gets stored in a part of my brain that holds things that just get in the way).
I know you don’t live under a rock, but a 14-year-old reading this might be digging themselves out, such is the nature of interviewing someone. But what I’m wondering as more about the tiny things that are missed. For example, someone once told me “packing in your job to do something you want to do, and you’ll always get a better job when you come back”. This was something that changed my life, even though it took me years to really understood what he was actually saying.
“Jump and the net will appear”, although being like something you see on a mug, is also nudging.
“If you’re not a socialist when you’re young you’ve got no heart, and if you’re not a capitalist when you’re old, you’ve got no brain” was told to be my an ex-miner in my late 30’s, and is maybe the moment I started to lose a very negative attitude about myself and the world, to be a more effective human.
These things help form that life people see from outside as being a climber, but that’s only how the evolving person manifests that change. Really, this change comes about because some people put themselves in the position to meet and be changed by others. Maybe someone saying “Arapiles is the best crag in the world, go live there for three months” changed your life, as you said the same thing to me, and my life is better for going.
It read as passive-aggressive because it was suggesting that I hadn’t thought of it and I should have.
Yeah, interesting these snippets of wisdom that can change your life. Let’s see… A friend told me that each of us is responsible for our own happiness. This is a life mantra for me but something I often forget. My Dad told me that if I wasn’t falling off things, I wasn’t trying hard enough. My Mum told me that you need to change things from the inside, not the outside. Other than that I absorb wisdom from books and podcasts more than from the people around me. I think about a lot of stuff (over-analyzer) so it’s sometimes hard to have someone tell me something I haven’t thought of before. Some other ones I like: ‘Life is only whatever you think it is’. Or ‘nothing is good or bad, only thinking makes it so’. I’m pretty into stoic philosophy. The problem with this kind of intellectual wisdom is that it’s just theory. Until you put it in to practice you don’t really know it. Experiential wisdom is the key to happiness.
Do you think podcasts, and youtube, are allowing access to people who can transform the way you think, and at a rapid rate? In the past, you’d probably have to wait for years to meet someone, or see some form of media that was transformative (watching Rumble Fish, One Flew over the Cuckoos Nest etc), while now you can just make a playlist. I’m not sure if you’d agree, but it almost feels that more and more people listen to ideas rather than music?
But I need to ask, what are your current go-to podcasts?
Yes, I think you’re right and I think there are positive and negative repercussions of this change. I personally love it; I love to have access to ideas that I don’t yet have or that challenge my current ideas. I’ve learnt so much through podcasts. Long-form conversation in my mind is the best way to change people’s minds and spread good (and bad) ideas. But good, more nuanced ideas have a much better chance of spreading via long-form conversation because we need to have access to the full argument, not just sound bites that grab our attention. TV is the worst thing for spreading ideas because it’s too bounded, condensed and driven by advertisements. I like the fact that I can support my favourite podcasts and as a result have them be free from the restraints and direction of sponsors. My favourite all-time podcast is Sam Harris’s Making Sense (used to be called Waking Up) I’ve listened to at least 95% of the episodes. Other good ones I like are the Knowledge Project, Dark Horse Podcast, Future Thinkers, The Portal, The NPR ones (but they are pretty politically biased). I also listen to Joe Rogan’s one quite a bit but only when he has good people on.
What ones do you listen to?
Yes, I really like the Knowledge Project, and The Portal has been great so far, a real antidote for our sound-bite age. I’ve been listening to Sean Carroll’s Mindscape recently, but there must be nothing more annoying than listening to a paradigm-shifting podcast, that no one can be bothered to listen too. Also, on the subject of sound bites, do you ever get to the end of a hundred-minute podcast and feel they’re only just getting somewhere? Maybe we’ll end up being split between long and short-form people?
Have you ever seen the film’ Margin Call’ (few have!), but there’s a line by Jeremy Irons says: “There are three ways to make a living in this business: be first, be smarter, or cheat”. And is you swap out business for life (which is business), I think podcasts are just data delivered in easily digestible human, form, by way of a story.
I met Tim Ferris a long time ago, and I remember thinking “If I just follow what this guy is saying and doing, or even understand what he’s talking about, it could transform my life”, which is about listening to people who can see around the corner, or who have a better or more informed view of both the big and small picture, which allows you to be smarter than people who lack that data, get there before other people, and all by cheating (you’re not doing the leg work, but just harvesting other people’s via their podcast!).
The most astute people I’ve met can see reality both like a world leader and a taxi driver.
Oh yes, Mindscape is on my list too. No Sam Harris for you? I would have thought you’d like him for his shared anti-woke sentiment. This is a fun one https://samharris.org/podcasts/163-ricky-gervais/ that I think you’d like.
Yes, I don’t like the podcasts that have to fit into a certain length of time. Much better to let them run without constraint. I’m thinking of starting my own podcast actually.
I kind of lost you on the middle part of what you said. Or at least I didn’t see how it all connected. I’m not a fan of cheating anything because it’s dishonest and it’s uninteresting. If you cheat, it means you only care about getting ‘there’ not all the bits leading up to ‘there’. I have no interest in making money or sending a route just for the sake of it. The challenge is the important and interesting part. I do think we can learn a lot from people who are successful in business. I like this podcast ‘Naval talks’ about how to be successful in business and mentions that you need to do something different and be the best at it and if you love something more than anyone else does then you’ll be the best at it. You need to know what people want (even before they do) and then be the one to give it to them. I feel like mental training for climbing fits into this box. Most climbers’ minds limit them; they want to change that, they don’t know what to do to make it better, so myself and just a few others around the world offer a service to help with that.
Do you pay much attention to high-performance climbers, people you’ve met along the way, or people at the very top, and try and work out what they’re doing so well, where climbing is going, or do you just do your own thing, and feel separate from it?
I follow lots of top climbers on Instagram and keep tabs on what they are up to. A lot of them are also my friends too so it’s nice to stay connected. Some of them I just follow because it’s my profession and it’s worth seeing how my counterparts do the same job that I have. Unfortunately many of our top climbers I don’t consider to be good role models for life. I don’t consider being at ‘the top’ an enviable status in most cases. It irritates me that people conflate having followers or climbing hard lines with actually doing well at life. What does all that mean if you’re not happy, not giving anything back and wasting people’s time online with nonsense? As someone with a fairly loud voice in the climbing industry, I feel pretty responsible for the job I do and don’t want to waste people’s time. I try to make what I say meaningful or interesting or informative, so I’ve not just contributed the mindless scrolling going on. Sometimes I do a good job, and other times I don’t, but I do try.
I think a lot of great climbers have some kind of borderline mental illness, as they are not just in competition (subconsciously or consciously) with everyone else, but also with themselves, that each hurdle leads to the next. Now it’s not just about climbing, but followers, what media you appear in, how much money you make. All the while you know some 10-year-old Adam Ondra or an injury could wipe out a life’s work; then what have you got? A job repping for a boot manufacturer? So how do you process it when you hear that Emma Twyford has climbed a 9a?
This is interesting because I can’t really relate to this sentiment. I’ve never really shared that obsessive goal-orientated streak I see in many climbers. I’ve only ever had one goal that I trained for and saw through to the end, and that was Mind Control (sport route in Spain) . Although I am also training for a goal as we speak. When I was a bit younger, there was a sense that I was chasing climbing objectives and none of them satisfied me. It wasn’t super obsessive or goal-driven but there was this sense that once I’d done something I’d always think I could do something harder. Although I will say though that some of the routes I freed on El Cap I know, I got up by the skin of my teeth, so they satisfied me. But there is this drive saying ‘OK now on to the next harder thing’, and this drive doesn’t ever get fulfilled. I think this drive is OK if you’re interested in the challenge for challenge-sake but not OK if you’re in it for external validation and you are only really doing it so you can say to others that you’ve done it.
I think that when I started to learn about psychology and teach others, I realized that I had no interest anymore in climbing hard just for the ends, no interest in climbing for social validation, no interest in climbing because you’re scared to be a failure. Because that is not the mindset, I want to teach others. This is not a great mindset not only because it doesn’t make you happy but also because it’s not actually good for performance. It’s true that many people have climbed hard with terrible mindsets (I’m thinking Jerry Moffat). But our very best climbers climb hard for sustainable and actually fulfilling reasons - these are the people we should look up to. I’m thinking of the Hayden Kennedys out there.
The Nico and Seans and the Babsi Zangerls. Of course, we are all human, and we will always make comparisons, but which of us are actually trying to be better people versus win the game? And what does winning the game looks like in the end? If you are only interested in external validation, you’ll never be happy because you won’t see the value in any of the struggles you’ll only see the value in the successes. A mastery-mindset is the mindset we want to adopt; a mindset whereby we throw ourselves into the self-mastery process of learning how to climb with excellence. Being non-competitive and non-egotistical isn’t about taking the easy way out. It’s about giving everything to be the best you can be because there is value in the act of mastery in and of itself. It’s about letting go of external validation because it’s only distracting. It’s about destroying the ego not building it up even more. You ask about Emma… This is a perfect example. She climbed that route when the pressure was off (no one there to watch her and bad conditions), she climbed at her best when she let go of the fear of failure. How do I personally feel about her climbing 9a? I think it’s brilliant. Women’s climbing in the UK needed an injection of psyche. I think it’s crazy admirable that she persevered that long, battling not only with conditions and body-stuff but also her own mind-demons.
I totally agree with you about climbers like Nico and Sean etc., as they’re great role models in many ways. They’re in no way perfect, but they seem more like Samurai, trying to master themselves, always testing the edge. I thought this about Chris Bonington, in that even after all these years, he just wants to get out climbing, that fire inside - to will to live at the fullest - as bright as its ever been, something you can’t fake.
On the subject of women in climbing, I’ve always held the view you should treat people as individuals, not groups, because the more you see people as what they are, the more ways you have to see, the richer the world. I find the categorising of people very dehumanising, but also regressive, and think its not for others to make allowances, or give pity, but an opportunity for the individual to overcome. Perhaps its age, but having climbed with a lot of women, I always got the impression they where climbing as an individual first, and a woman much further down the line. I’d even go so far as to say; many such women didn’t even want to be so narrowly defined, they wanted to be taken as who - not what - they were. But we’re in a really odd place, a place where Catherine Destivelle is hissed at when she said she gave up climbing to have kids, Catherine someone no one has ever really matched.
So without dragging you into too dangerous waters, how do you balance your own identity, while being looked at as a role model to women, both as a climber, and a very free individual?
Yes, I agree we should treat each other as individuals and I’m not really a fan of identity politics. However, you can’t escape the fact that men and women are different in many ways. For this reason, women don’t compete against men in the Olympics. And it’s for this reason that women in climbing can be talked about separately from men in climbing. There are women’s issues, and men’s issues that aren’t the same and each much be given consideration. Fewer women climb compared to men still, why is that and does it matter? Men tend to gravitate towards dangerous styles of climbing. Why is that, and does it matter? These are examples of questions worth asking. For many years female trad climbers in the UK lacked strong female role models. It’s very easy to say oh well what’s wrong with having male role models? Well, nothing, apart from that none of the men I know climb like me, have the same power to weight ratio, have the same flexibility. Grades don’t make as much sense to me as they do to a 6-foot male. It’s hard to see someone as an inspiration when you don’t believe you can ever be like them. I will never be as strong as Adam Ondra or even Neil Mawson but I might be able to be as strong as Emma Twyford (if I work really hard) and so this is inspiring because it’s an example of a human who’s in my ballpark of relatability.
In answer to ‘how do you balance your own identity while being looked at as a role model to women’: I don’t really see this as an issue. I obviously just see myself as an individual. A complex, temporal, changeable work in progress. I don’t mind being an inspiration to whoever sees me as one. That’s their choice; people are free to be inspired by who/what they want. As for the whole concept of identity: I think it’s overrated. I personally haven’t found much use in getting too attached to ideas around identity because they seem just to be part of my ego, which I want to dissolve not bolster. I like to have things about my identity and ego challenged. I think values are maybe something worth talking about more. What do you care about? What’s important to you? What brings you peace instead of turmoil? What don’t you think you can compromise on? But maybe that’s all ego too - I don’t know!
Do you think that the constant need for self-definition, to need to belong and speak on behalf of your group, a sign of a lack of identity, a lack of meaning, that you lack the confidence to speak for yourself?
I wanted to know how you feel about identity, as you’ve always struck me as someone who never shows any visible sign of uncertainty or insecurity, which I think people are always drawn to, the climbing stuff is just a bonus, as to be yourself, and not act, is an act of bravery. I think it would be really valuable for you to write or podcast more, as you’ve got something people need to hear, especially young people who are trying to find some path or meaning.
Talking about meaning, do you think we’ve somehow lost sight of such old fashioned ideas as spirit, the soul, faith or even morality? I ask as these things have been with us for thousands of years, but now are things we snigger at, but have not replaced them.
I’m not so sure about this. I think overall faith-based beliefs and assumptions are more negative than they are positive. We live in a world where people are giving up on truth and science without understanding properly why science, falsification and fact-based reasoning are the best tools we have for working out what is true and also what is useful and therefore what is ‘right’ from a moral perspective. Why did the autism/vaccine scare happen? Because people chose to reason with their emotions instead of the facts. Why do we have a rise in identity politics? Because people reason with emotion instead of facts. Why do we still have conflict over religious beliefs and so-called religious territory because people reason (or don’t reason at all) with emotion? Giving up on faith-based reasoning doesn’t mean we have to give up on spirituality or morality. We can enjoy all the beauty that there is in humanity and nature without dropping science without endorse faith-based claims. We can choose to be moral whilst still making sense. You can be deeply devoted to bettering yourself as a person and trying to increase the well being of those around you without adopting a religion that tells you should do those things because you’ll be rewarded in the afterlife. You can do those things because they make sense and because you’ll be happier.
I wonder though, if spirit, soul and faith are not a construction of religion at all – as soon as you talk about them, people think you’re religious, which I’m not – but the reverse, that religion came about in order to understand these feelings, which are perhaps just faulty code; brought about by an over accelerated evolution; one day you’re eating bone marrow, the next day you’re sat in Wagamamas.
I think doubt lies at the heart of it all, which is true in climbing.
I’ve never seen such religiosity in my life as I see now, but it’s been repackaged into a more palatable form, as has conformity, but still has its priests, religious texts, martyrs and saints, miracles and end of days, plus its indulgences. Some people will scoff at the idea that religion can rebrand itself, morph instead of die, but what about social forces like nationalism that just never go away, but just reform into something else? Maybe the financial crash made people begin to question if experts actually know what they’re doing, or faking it, or are simply corrupt? The Alex Jones part of my brain might say that the vaccine issue has been constructed in order to reaffirm trust in experts, and you do see that increasingly people are told not only not to speak unless they’re qualified to do so, but also not even question the experts.
People are also very selective about truth, which is also a sign of religiosity, meaning two people can see exactly the same thing, but both view it through different filters. This creates this A/B reality that we’re struggling with.
I agree with some of that. Faith-based or emotion-lead reasoning is usually a bad way to go about things, whether it’s religious, faux-religious, idealogical or some other brand of reasoning that isn’t as good logic, evidence-driven or falsification. So no, I’m not just attacking religion, it’s the type of reasoning I have a problem with. The magic of life, the ‘feels’ as you say, the majestic beauty, all that stuff; we don’t have to throw any of that away when we endorse a materialistic representation of the world. We can just say: we don’t know yet. We don’t have to adopt wacky beliefs to explain the things that feel like magic. Nature is nature, it’s complex, and in that complexity, we see beauty and magic, and that’s OK we don’t need a god or faulty reasoning to help us explain it; the best tool we have is still science, and we don’t lose any of the magic in accepting that.
Do you think climbing allows you to enter a more honest, more animal state of mind, so all this shite doesn’t kill you day by day? Does leaving the ground, ground you?
Climbing requires presence. It requires we be here now. Most of our thoughts are about the past or future and we’ve heard most of them before. Our mind is like an untamed animal regurgitating the same crap all day that bores and agitates us. Climbing provides a respite. The challenge means that we focus on that one thing and everything else becomes irrelevant. This present state of mind is intrinsically pleasurable and this is why climbing is enjoyable. Other activities can provide the same release but I think if you’ve practised something for thousands of hours it’s easier to access this state of mind compared to a beginner. That’s why I don’t start a new sport.
If you could share to the world around you, one insight you’ve discovered on your journey as a climber, what would it be?
If climbing makes your ego bigger, not smaller, then you’re doing it wrong. Doesn’t matter what grade you climb.
What about non-climbers, what can you share?
I guess it’s the same. Whatever you’re doing, if you do it without learning, then what’s the point. There is no ‘there’, no peak, no end. The lessons just keep rolling. Learning lessons never ends.
Thanks for republishing this interview with Hazel. Both the questions and responses were enlightening. I've copied it so I can reread but also share with my two sons, who are in their thirties (and don't climb). The content was so valuable about life.
I'm in my sixties and have just returned to climbing seven years ago. I am an average climber who shares a line with some really good climbers and I have to fight my frustration that I am not as good. When I can divert that frustration I am immensely happy and contented, and realise that I have some awesome friends..
Looking for ward to your new book as rope soloing brings another intense dimension to the craft of climbing.
All the best Andy and keep your podcasts coming as they make me smile.