Jules Lines talks to Outdoor Fitness about his changing philosophy to climbing as he ages, his scariest moments and about the fitness required to go vertical
“It was frightening… I thought about poking my finger through the bolt head and hanging on until my ligaments were stripped from the bone. I tried not to think about where I was – in the middle of Africa, miles from civilisation. I had absolutely no choice but to climb on.”
This quote is from the award-winning book Tears of the Dawn by Britain’s finest free-solo climber, Jules Lines. Tears of the Dawn reveals Jules Lines as a thoughtful man with deep insights into the human condition. But when he’s unroped on a sheer rock face he seems to be an anarchic extremist: not only defying gravity, but any suggestion that a particular route might be out of the question. Yet while he’s apparently driven by some inner compulsion to test his physical and mental limits all the while he’s up there − and dependent on fragile holds that separate him from oblivion – Lines is also expert at weighing up risks and knowing when to retreat.
Unsurprisingly, the extreme end of the climbing spectrum, where Lines operates, is uncrowded. But at the other end, data commissioned by Sport England show that over 250,000 people (aged 14 years or older) go climbing or hill walking at least once a month, and over 98,000 participate at least weekly. With membership of the British Mountaineering Council (BMC) at around 76,000, and with 300 or so BMC clubs throughout the country, it seems that the great outdoors extends the promise of adventure to many. So what does it take to free-climb up routes where a wrong move means certain death?
One’s psychological make-up is of crucial importance – of which more later – but so too are good hands. A recent article in the May 2015 issue of the European Journal of Applied Physiology describes a study into the “Estimation of hand and wrist muscle capacities in rock climbers”. It compared the hand muscle capacities of twelve climbers (nine males, three females) with 13 non-climbers (all male), and found that the finger flexor capacities of climbers exceeded those of non-climbers by almost 40 percent.
Lines told Outdoor Fitness: “Our hands − and feet − are all we have whilst climbing solo, so they are our lifeline every second of the way and every time we make an upward movement. I do remember soloing one time, perhaps between 20 feet and 30 feet up, where my hands and forearms were tiring rapidly on a blank wall and with the inevitability of a fall, and in a last-ditch attempt to save myself I stabbed my thumb upwards into a ripple of rock to press myself on in order to release a little lactic acid.
Somehow the thumb is stronger and works slightly independently of the fingers.” Lines recalls a waitress staring at his hands in an Internet café, shortly after he had been climbing in a sea cave at Tenby, Pembrokeshire: “Her eyes were full of horror as they looked towards the keyboard. I looked too. Slumped on the keys were my shredded and blood-stained hands that looked as though they had been fed to a tundra wolf.” Before he takes on physically demanding routes does Lines do any specific physical training, such as stretching or strengthening exercises? “In general,” he says, “I try to stay away from training.
First, because I prefer to climb, and climbing is best for climbing; and second, the fact that I might get carried away and give myself an unnecessary injury. This has happened in the past. However, in cases where I’m attempting a very hard climb, one that I’m having difficulty with, I try and work my weaknesses in a specific order. First, I train on the climb; second, I try to lose as much weight as possible by going on a diet; and third, I will do sessions on a fingerboard to build up extra finger and forearm strength. A fingerboard, he explains, “is a board either made of wood or resin that is attached to a wall. It has a selection of holes for the fingers, of different depths and sizes for doing pull-ups or dead hangs on to strengthen fingers and so on.”
We’re all familiar with the term “going with the flow”, but to many rock climbers flow means that state of optimal functioning, where one is totally immersed in the activity and accompanied by a sense of confidence and fluency in one’s movements and thoughts. But can being so immersed in the flow of a climb lead to increased risk-taking?
I asked Lines whether there are any particular strategies or ways of thinking that allow him to manage anxiety and maintain flow at the same time? “Everyone’s mind works differently. Some people are more scared than others to stand near a cliff edge, for example. This is the natural safety mechanism built into all humans − and animals, for that matter. Some will have higher fear thresholds than others, and that’s natural. So there is a base threshold in everyone to ‘manage anxiety’, but when pushing fear to the limits there are ways to curb this fear, I suppose.
Different people have different ways, but the most useful for me is to close my eyes and breathe deeply. It seems to temporarily curb the anxiety. However, if it gets too high then the mind and body will shut down and you will ‘freeze’ or lose flow.” And are there any “mental” exercises that novice climbers should be aware of to address anxious thoughts? “No, not really,” answers Lines. “If you’re a beginner and finding it difficult to climb because you’re scared, that is the mind naturally telling you that it doesn’t like it.
It would be foolhardy to continue. As I say, some people can and some can’t. Having said that, if the anxiety has risen from the newness of it or the reluctance to trust the gear such as a harness and rope then it is best to start climbing and abseiling on very short cliffs, perhaps only 10 feet high, to be able to build that trust up in your head.” It seems clear to me that for Jules Lines climbing is as much about the mind and spirit than the physical challenge involved.
So when he’s weighing up a solo climb, to what extent does he consider his physical condition before setting off, or does he pay more attention to mental attitude? “Assessing a solo is different from a roped climb,” he told me, “as it is very rare to push your physical limits in a solo climb, so top physical shape isn’t as important.
However, what I must stress is that there has to be a harmony both mentally and physically. Feeling generally fit, with no injuries, and being well rested is the key to soloing. If I have niggling injuries this really affects the mind control; it would be very difficult or foolish to go ahead and climb.”
With the country’s foremost free-solo climber now in his forties, how has his attitude to risk changed over the years?
“I am certainly not as brave as I used to be, or maybe I don’t have the urge to do things at my age now as I used to in the past. It isn’t a physical thing though, it is more mental, and a lifestyle choice. I am probably as physically fit and strong as a climber now as I was twenty years ago. But the one big downfall of being older is that the injuries can take up to five or possibly ten times as long to heal. I think there is a balance to be had here; if you over-train and get really strong as a youngster then you will probably have problems when you get older, but keeping a good all-round health and fitness level will keep you in good stead for many more years.”
Finally, on the last page of Tears of the Dawn, Jules Lines looks at his hands and mulls over the unspoken rule of soloing: “If you don’t stop, it will one day kill you.” He then reflects that today his climbing is about: “… the purity of simple existence in the beautiful places where the climbs are to be found – that is what matters more to me now.”