In Trevanian’s The Eiger Sanction, Jonathan Hemlock’s climbing coach, Ben Bowman, manipulates Jonathan’s perception of the difficulty of Big Ben Needle. While Jonathan is initially unsure about the Needle, Ben encourages him and tells him that he’s “more than ready… You’re overtrained, or trained too fast. You’re getting a little skitterish.” Throughout the ascent, Ben replies to Jonathan’s questions about route choice with vague responses: “Is this the way [route] you started up, Ben?” … “It’s one way, I guess”. Upon first inspection of the towering rock needle, Jonathan is hesitant and says: “Looks hard, Ben. Especially the top flange.” Ben replies “it ain’t no bedpost… I’ve stumped up it once before.” I felt this gave Jonathan the drive to reach the summit – it was now feasible. Only once they reach the summit, Ben says: “I never thought anybody’d climb this needle”. Ben instills the confidence in Jonathan to reach the summit. Rather than tell Jonathan that a number of “fair country climbers have taken shots at the needle” and failed, the Needle is viewed as an attainable goal from the start of the ascent.
Instantly, this led me to think about student’s perception of difficulty at the Hamilton rock climbing wall and the Yosemite Decimal System (rating on routes - i.e. 5.6, 5.7, 5.8, etc). While discussing climbs with another student last week, we talked about how climbers with different skills, body types, and experience have totally different perceptions of difficulty. She was having a hard time getting up a “beginner” route set by Will Johns (one of the taller route setters) simply because she happens to be on the short side and can’t reach the same holds as Will. Once we moved to a different route (with the same rating!), she quickly made it to the top. One of the climbing wall employees joined the conversation, and now over spring break he’s going to set new routes without a rating, and let climbers assign their own rating. I’m excited to see the wide range of ratings, and I think it will encourage students to try to send something they never thought they could complete.