Cathy O’Dowd: “New Year’s Resolutions – Use your feet!”

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Stop striving forward, look instead at what’s holding you back.

Everything in our culture tells us to look forward, reach upwards, eye on the prize, visualise the path to success, shoot for the moon. No day is more imbued with this vision than the first of the new year, when we embark on the cultural ritual of the New Year’s Resolution.

I’ve been rock climbing for over thirty years. I’ve been doing it badly for all that time. More interested in enjoying it than training for it, I’ve never come close to my physical potential. That doesn’t stop me, year after year, setting a New Year’s goal….

This is the year I will lead 7a!

Year after year, I top out at 6c. I don’t even need to do that much better to make it happen. So why does it never work?

I often look to mountain sports for ideas I can apply to other areas, both in my work and my personal life. Pondering, yet again, my lack of 7a success has got me thinking again about one of the key pieces of advice that any rock climber is given when they start out.

Use your feet!

Rock climbing – which involves scaling steep rock walls while clinging on by your fingers, rather than heading up to the summits of mountains – is in its essence aspirational. We are literally reaching upwards. We walk along the base of a wall of rock looking at various options. In a developed sport climbing area each possible route will have a name, possibly some information about the nature of the challenge and a grade of difficulty. Once you’ve selected a route, you begin, snaking your way up the wall like a lizard, eyes always looking towards the next set of moves, arms out above your head, hands running across the rock feeling for a crack or edge that will aid your progress.

I see what appears to be the next good handhold, something I will be able to curl my fingers around securely, but it’s just out of reach. Or perhaps I can touch it, just, fingertips barely brushing the lip, but I can’t move up onto it. The path I desire is stretching out ahead of me, I’m focused with relentless intensity on where I want to move to next – but it’s not happening.

My hands are beginning to sweat, making the rock feel slippery under my slick fingers. My forearms are beginning to tire, to reach that awful state we call ‘pump’, more evocative in French where they say “to have bottles for arms.” My muscles become a useless swollen lump, engorged with fatigue. My fingers are threatening to uncurl from their tenuous hold. Faced with the fear of the imminent fall, my legs begin to tremble uncontrollably. Now the fear floods through my mind.

My focus is split between a desperate fixation on the hold that is just out of reach, the thing I’m hoping will pull me through, and an urgent desire to give up altogether, avoiding the coming fall by grabbing the closest quickdraw, the sling that secures my safety rope to the metal bolt in the rock.

Somewhere far below me, the friend who is holding my rope is shouting upwards. Through the fear and fatigue I barely register the words: use your feet.

Sometimes we need to look away from the goal and look down at what is holding us back. I need to remember that my feet still have to travel through that terrain below me. What am I missing? What did I hold onto with my hands that can now be repurposed as a foothold?

Feet lack the subtle ability of fingers, able to twist and curl, to separate and oppose. But they have their own magic. Tightly clad in the sticky rubber of a climbing shoe, aided by the solidity of well-placed body weight, a foot can smear onto the smallest sloping surface, a patch of rock just a shade less vertical than the wall around it. Or a foot can balance on a tiny ripple, no wider than the edge of coin. That can be enough to move my whole body up an inch or two, to let my questing fingers find the next handhold.

Sometimes I already have the handhold but it’s at full reach, my body elongated like a spring pulled apart to its furthest point, touching the prize but unable to use it because I have no stored energy in my body. No amount of hapless grasping with my fingers will change that. The other end of my spring needs to move up, to bring potential energy back into my system. My feet have to move.

Sometimes it doesn’t even need to be to a new foothold. It can be enough to shift from standing flat on the sole of my foot, to standing high on the tip of my toe. It can be enough to turn my foot on the hold, so that instead of turning me away from my goal, my foot pushes me towards it.

The win I gain is normally much more than just a few inches. If I am slightly higher, so my fingers can wrap around the next good hold, then I am suddenly free from the impasse. I can bring to bear all my strength and skill and experience, and move swiftly on upwards, finding new possibilities above me, as well as places to rest and recover from the fight I’ve now left far below.

In life as in climbing, when you find yourself stressed and stretched, straining towards a goal that seems just out of reach, what strength you have draining away in sweat and shaking – take your eye off the prize. Look away and look down. What is holding you back? Is there a trailing foot hanging too far below you? Or not helping to bear your body weight? Is there a small adjustment in where or how a foot is placed that will then let you stretch that much further above you?

I’ve taken some time recently to look back across those three decades of climbing and it’s not hard to identify what holds me back. One is the lack of upper body strength – I’m not being modest here, I can barely do a single pull-up. The other, even more important, is my crippling fear of falling, which means I give up while still next to the bolt, rather than risk any air time.

I hope to lead 7a in 2018. But that’s not my ‘resolution’. My climbing goals for 2018 are to put in 12 steady months of strength-building and deliberate falling practice. I hope those steady small gains at the foundation level will free my hands to grasp higher and future, with increasing boldness.

In a world that puts so much focus on looking forward, it’s worth taking some time to look inward. When you can’t quite grasp what you are reaching for, try something different. Look away from the goal. Spend some time on the mundane detail. What is holding you back? What small changes can you make that will extend your reach?

Use your feet.


Cathy O’Dowd is a South African climber living in Andorra. She makes a living as a motivational speaker, a career she launched thanks to her Everest ascents. She recently created a website The Business of Adventure, designed to help adventurers from all outdoor activities find funding for their projects. You can also find her on Twitter and Instagram at @CathyODowd.

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