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What to Do When Everything Goes Wrong on Your Climbing Trip by Rachel Carr

Ambassador Rachel Carr writes on overcoming injury, fear and pretty much everything going wrong.

Rocklands, South Africa is a place loved by many. It often brings such joy and amazement to those who visit, they leave forever changed. For me, however, Rocklands seems to bring pain and disappointment. It’s as if the place itself is out to get me or constantly testing me, belligerently nagging me, do I love climbing? Are my intentions are true? And I can only hope that after everything, I have proven my worth.

When I first visited Rocklands last year, I fell in love. I spent two weeks running round like a kid at Christmas. I wrecked my skin and tired myself out completely every day but still had my most successful trip yet with a number of hard ticks and new achievements. All seemed to be going well, but that was quickly stopped by an unlucky fall resulting in a re-sprain of my least favourite ankle (third time lucky). As a result, I spent the next two weeks limping, walking incredibly slowly, reading my book and hang-boarding. It was miserable, but I tried not to lose hope. And I managed to pull it back with a send of the classic 7C+ ‘Caroline’ on our second to last day. My ankle was still swollen, I couldn’t actually fall off safely, and I definitely shouldn’t have been climbing, but I tried anyway and thankfully it paid off. It was my first of the grade and held such joy to me, given how little time I had to try and send it. So despite only being able to climb for half my trip I still left in love with Rocklands, but was incredibly eager to return and deal with all the unfinished business I’d left behind.

So I told myself, this year was going to be different. I’d set myself a goal of 8A before my first trip, and I tried a couple but never had any time to project after my injury. Naturally, I still had this goal this year. I decided to go with the intention, not of a high volume of sends, but of achieving higher quality, higher grades. After a week and a half, I seemed to be on the right path. I’d sent a new 7C, ‘Tea Time’ and had a few sessions on the ultra cool ‘Pendragon’ 8A. I felt really good on it, it was totally my style but at the same time pushed me so much to be able to work out even the easier moves. I decided to make this my climb.

The first session I had I looked at it in disbelief, there was no way I'd be able to send such a powerful and intense boulder. Yes, it has good holds, but it's extremely overhanging and has such widely stretched moves at the end where your already tired, and have already done a finicky match with terrible feet and barely enough space for 6 fingers never mind 4. Despite all this, I somehow managed to work out the end section from the big move to the tricky bat-hang finish, all on my first session. I was feeling psyched, I was totally content with the idea of spending my time focusing on ‘Pendragon’ and not much else. Until it all went wrong, again. Rocklands is known for its bad roads, and we were unlucky enough to be staying 20 minutes along an incredibly holey dirt road. Normally this would have been fine, but like I said, Rocklands likes to test me. This trip was no exception.

We found ourselves meters from the road, the car on its side, and everything was destroyed. I don't remember every detail, but I managed to protect my cameras and laptop but in the process failed to protect my own head. I received two swift thumps on my temple as the car spun throwing my head sideways. I’m not sure whether I shut my eyes or whether it was the impact that affected my memory but I remember it all the way you would see it in a movie, with snippets of sound and moving images all disconnected and missing chunks. I remember the swerving, hearing the panic from Michaela, and seeing the fence as we hurtled towards it. Then after that, all I remember is the moment as we spun and I felt weightless. I saw the shards of glass and dirt flying past our faces before the hard impact as we hit the ground. I came to my senses to the sounds of Harry shouting to see if I was okay, and him then quickly climbing out the window and helping Michaela after. I climbed out and became aware that my vision wasn’t quite right and I had a pounding feeling in my head. After carefully touching where I felt the pain I felt two large bumps and became aware of the shock I was in. As I sat in the dirt thinking about what had just happened, I wasn’t scared, I was angry. I couldn’t believe that my trip would once again be cut short because of more bad luck. We were incredibly lucky, my injuries were the worst, and a group of doctors had seen the accident from their house and came to help instantly. They checked us all out and decided that I had a minor concussion but should be okay. We were all going to be okay, and we would only need a few days off. I couldn’t help but think of things differently. I had been annoyed because I was worried this would affect my chances at sending ‘Pendragon’. But in the days after the crash I realised I didn't need to send it. I’d already impressed myself and gotten further than I’d ever thought on the boulder. I had already achieved so much, so I focused on some other climbs for a few days and only returned when Harry was resting.

I found myself less caught up in grades and more in the process; I sent some new blocs and had a few more sessions on ‘Pendragon’ when I could. I managed to link it in two overlapping halves and had made immense amounts of progress in the five sessions I’d had on it. On our second to last day, I’d hoped for a repeat of last year, I’d hoped that I could pull it out of the bag and get another last minute send. But it was not meant to be, I couldn’t fully believe in myself and therefore couldn’t give it my all. More unfinished business added to an ever-growing list.

But, we weren’t leaving yet. A couple days before, I had returned to my kryptonite. ‘The Hatchling’ is one of the most well-known and photographed 8A’s in the world. It's stunning rock and technical moves mean it has seen a lot of traffic and a lot of success, yet it continues to baffle and bemuse some of the world’s most successful climbers due to its requirements of size and mobility. To me, it wasn’t quite all that. It had been the year before, but now it was different. This year it was just the climb that ruined my 2017 trip; this was the climb I had fallen from and sprained my ankle. Even returning to this climb was a challenge in itself. I purposely left it to our last week in case I had a repeat of last year. Put simply, it terrified me.

As I approached the climb my heart pounded in my chest. I refused to touch it until we had at least three pads and a solid spotter. I forced myself to get back on with great difficulty. As more pads arrived my anxiety rose. After 5 attempts it was all getting too much. My hands were vibrating as I tried to hold the first holds, my chest felt tight and I could feel myself welling up. I had to walk away, I had to leave the crowd and just, cry. I sat on a rock so frustrated with my own emotions and thoughts, I cried for what felt like forever and then made a decision. I decided that if a car crash couldn’t stop me, then I wouldn’t let anything else. Bear in mind the fact that I have a terrible track record of controlling my emotions and thoughts in high-pressure situations, so to be able to return to the bloc and pull back on and control my emotions, was amazing to me. I don't know how I’d made it work but I had. I'd conquered my fear, I made it past the move that had hurt me before, I made it past the move after that, I made it all the way to the last move and fell from the top after my hand ripped. I fell long enough to take a full breath in and came smashing down, and then I got back on again. It didn't go that first night. So we had to go back on our last day. We woke up at 6:30, we packed up the car, we got back to the block but I continued to fall repeatedly at the lower moves. Frustration kicked in, I played some inspirational music, and I made progress again, to the last move and pop, there goes the other hand this time. Another big fall from the top, another obstacle I had to beat. It took hours of trying and the heat came with a vengeance, but I continued to get back up and back on every time until, finally, I did it.

I grasped the last hold and let out a scream of joy, of relief, and of pride. This had been one of the most trying experiences of my life. I had to fight physically and mentally to my absolute max. The trip itself had been hard enough and I just kept going. I wasn’t going to let anything bring me down and I am so thankful that my determination paid off. I’ve had a lot people ask about the crash, and follow with how amazed they were that we had managed to stay and continue to climb. To then get my first 8A on the climb that meant so much to me and send it. I didn't quite realise how big of a thing I had overcome. When you’re in it you don't really think about it, you just do it, you just keep going. Looking back, I see what I've done, and how far I've come and I am over the moon. Despite all the challenges I’ve faced, the journey of projecting and training has been so much fun and I can’t wait to keep it going and try to achieve my next goal of an 8A in Britain. Bring it on world.

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