I just got back yesterday from two glorious days climbing at Stanage Edge in the Derbyshire Peak District. Amazing weather for October - warm, dry, even occasionally sunny - and thankfully the midges which plagued our last visit have nearly all gone.
Returning to rock climbing after a break of twelve years, something has changed. Well, obviously; I'm not getting any younger and I'm certainly less fit. But there are mental changes as well as physical. The drive to climb isn't the same; I'm less willing to force a way through the feeling of danger in order to reach the next island of relative safety; there’s no strong sense of purpose.
It’s hard to say exactly what that purpose was in the past, although I remember its effect as a burning need to go climbing, rendered all the stronger by being mostly unfulfilled. Perhaps it was a need for achievement; looking back, that was probably something missing from any other source at the time. Was I looking to prove something – as much to myself as to anyone else - about who I was? Perhaps it was about identity; I was in my mid to late 40s, family growing up fast, and for much of my adult life identity had been pretty much defined by parenthood. Personal achievements came way down the priority list. Or perhaps I just needed challenges where I was completely in control of overcoming them.
So what’s changed? Certainly, that driving need for achievement and the search for identity beyond family seem to have gone, although whether that is through fulfilment or abandonment is far from clear (and perhaps worthy of further thought another time). But I guess I don’t feel that I have anything to prove any more, least of all to myself.
I've begun to feel old. I don’t mean that in any negative sense; not as something unwelcome, to be fought against; not as a judgement. Simply that I'm passing from one stage of life to another. The outward changes are simple and obvious - children leaving home, retirement, a few more grey hairs. But there are accompanying inward changes too. One’s outlook changes; motivation changes; thought patterns themselves change. And I think a feature of that change, coming when you’re already two-thirds of the way through life, is becoming comfortable with who you are and what you've done. That’s not to say that there isn't still plenty of scope for doing more – in fact there’s a huge freedom to do more now that doing is driven by choice rather than by need. And maybe that’s what has changed – I no longer need the adrenaline rush, the escapism, the self-validation that climbing brings. If I choose climbing now, it is for different reasons than it was fifteen years ago.
We didn't do a huge number of climbs over the two days. It would be easy to default to seeing that as a disappointment. But this is how my outlook has now changed: it is enough simply to be there, spending time climbing, in good company. How many ticks you can put in the book and against what grades are barely relevant if you are content with each moment.