You can have good rock climbing technique. You can have rock climbing power. You can have rock climbing stamina. But unless you have a high degree of motivation, you will fail to achieve your full potential. How many rock climbers fail on routes that they could and should have done? A lot! (And, before you ask, this applies to me too. It’s a lesson I need to endlessly relearn.)
Most British rock climbers have heard of Pete Oxley; many others may not. In the UK, Pete has made over 800 first ascents, ranging from F5/5.7 to F8b/5.13d, VS to E8. (By the way, if you don’t understand the British grading systems, then don’t worry, who does?) What’s notable about Pete’s routes is that many of them are of extremely high quality. He’s now emigrated to New Zealand, with his partner Jan. Adios amigo. Climb safely. Climb well.
In the run-up to leaving for New Zealand, Pete went back to an old rock climbing project that he’d tried (and almost succeeded on) 14 years previously. ‘Life Force’ (F8b/5.13d) takes a stunning line across the 25 metre roof of the stupendous Palace of the Brine, a huge sea cave in Dorset, Southern England.
Palace of the Brine is one of the most awe-inspiring crags in the UK. Every line is an overhanging sneer. The easiest route is F7c+/5.13a. There’s no proper warm-up. It’s tidal. No matter how careful you are, your rope keeps slipping into rock pools and getting soaked.
14 years later, Pete was working all hours running a fledgling Graphic Design business. Jan had a very demanding job as a teacher. Their house sale seemed to be taking forever. Clearly time was running out. When Pete had last tried ‘Lifeforce’ he was a carefree 25. Now he was a 39 year old with responsibilities. Despite some determined dieting, he was also about 12 kilos heavier.
One day I belayed Pete on ‘Lifeforce’. The humidity was stifling. Masses of warm, moist air trapped in the cave made a mockery of climbing. Nevertheless, with no warm-up, Pete launched straight into the 25 metre F8b roof. It was one of the most amazing displays of determination I’ve ever seen. He got about 20 metres across it before he plummeted into space.
Pete was shattered (and so was I!) so we went across to the nearby DWS (Deep Water Soloing) paradise of Conner Cove. Under Pete’s benevolent eye, I onsighted the world famous classic ‘Freeborn Man’ (F6c/5.11b), with a memorable crux 12 metres above the sea. Afterwards we talked and talked for hours about all kinds of stuff. Climbing… relationships… life. Pete had to bear yet another day of frustration. Conversely I’d just experienced the exhilaration of ‘Freeborn Man’ – a massive adrenaline rush.
A few weeks later, I got an email from Pete. He’d nailed ‘Lifeforce’ – the hardest climb in Dorset and the culmination of 25 years of effort and 800 new routes. I can’t describe the emotions I felt when I knew he’d succeeded because I had some small glimpse of what it meant to him.
Although Pete’s gone now, for me, the island of Portland – the UK’s sport climbing paradise – will forever be imbued with his spirit. The circumstances surrounding his ascent of ‘Lifeforce’ could not have been tougher. Yet he succeeded. Why? Because he had a massive Want Factor. There’s a great lesson for you, for me, for all of us. If we try just that little bit harder, in climbing, in life, who knows what we can achieve?