What it feels like to live on the edge

They get their kicks dan­gling by their fin­ger­nails, 400 me­tres up. What’s the at­trac­tion? A mys­ti­fied Mark Smith talks to ex­treme climber Caro­line Ci­aval­dini

The Herald on Sunday - Sunday Herald Life - - CONTENTS - Climb­ing Be­yond, by James Pearson and Caro­line Ci­aval­dini, is pub­lished by Au­rum at £25

FIRST con­tact can be scary, even for some­one like Caro­line Ci­aval­dini. Some­times, be­fore it all starts, the 32-year-old climber will stand at the bot­tom of a rock­face, look up and think: can I do this? But then she puts her hand on the stone and it starts to hap­pen all over again. Some­thing ex­tra­or­di­nary takes over when she’s on a climb, she says; once she’s up there, she is a new com­bi­na­tion of mus­cle and mind. It’s like she changes – men­tally and phys­i­cally.

Or to put it an­other way: it’s like she dis­ap­pears. Climb­ing, says Ci­aval­dini, is not like other sports. If you’re a run­ner, you have space in your head to think, but climb­ing is dif­fer­ent. There’s no time to fret about your wor­ries. “You have to fo­cus on so many things at the same time and the in­ten­sity of the fo­cus you need is unique,” she says. “I think that’s why peo­ple like climb­ing, ideally out­doors, but in­doors it’s the same: you dis­ap­pear.”

This ef­fect, says Ci­aval­dini – this dis­ap­pear­ing act – makes climb­ing a sort of ther­apy for those who do it, but for Ci­aval­dini it’s also some­thing that has al­ways been there. She first took up climb­ing when she was a child grow­ing up on the small is­land of Réu­nion in the In­dian Ocean and she is now one of the world’s lead­ing pro­fes­sional climbers. The rock­face is where she goes to work.

How­ever, she also wants to spread the word about what she does, and con­vert oth­ers to the life­style if she can. When I

call her, she tries to con­vince me to take up climb­ing and in some ways I can see what she’s on about. Ci­aval­dini, who’s French, has just writ­ten a book with her Bri­tish hus­band and fel­low climber James Pearson, and it’s full of pic­tures that show what hu­mans are ca­pa­ble of. There are shots of Ci­aval­dini hang­ing from her fin­gers above a 400-me­tre drop, or scal­ing what looks like sheer smooth rock; this is a wo­man who thinks noth­ing of camp­ing out on a tiny ledge, held to the side of a cliff with wires. It is flesh and stone in a seem­ingly im­pos­si­ble re­la­tion­ship.

But there are ques­tions. Ob­vi­ous ques­tions, about danger and the risk of death, and Ci­aval­dini is pre­pared to an­swer all of them hon­estly. Ev­ery­one is afraid of heights, she says, in­clud­ing her, but climb­ing is about the art of con­trol­ling the fear. She is also not afraid of death, she says, and if she and her hus­band were to die, then she hopes their friends and fam­ily wouldn’t feel sad be­cause she and Pearson have had an amaz­ing life. “In an ideal world,” she says, “if we die, we die to­gether.”

When we talk via Skype, Ci­aval­dini is at her home in France and, as well as dis­cussing the risks of what she does, she talks me through some of her most ex­tra­or­di­nary ex­pe­ri­ences, such as camp­ing overnight on small ledges no big­ger than sin­gle beds that are pegged to sheer cliff-faces. The pic­tures of climbers pitch­ing their camps in this way are among the most as­ton­ish­ing in Ci­aval­dini’s book, but she is mat­ter-of-fact when she de­scribes how it works.

“You climb un­til it’s dark and then you have to stop,” she says. “You have din­ner – de­hy­drated food, and it takes time, be­cause you are at­tached all the time. It’s cold, so you melt snow for wa­ter. And by the time you have din­ner, all you want to do is chill. You don’t sleep. The last time, I was cold, I didn’t re­ally sleep but my body still rests. You are still rest­ing.” Rest­ing – on a ledge in the air.

Ci­aval­dini has camped in this way sev­eral times, but it’s just an­other of the chal­lenges she has taken on. When she’s think­ing about what climb to do next, as she is do­ing now, the level of difficulty is one of the fac­tors that comes into play, as well as the his­tory of the route, who has done it and how they did it.

“There is a lot about the his­tory and who has opened the line,” she says. “In the UK, this is very rel­e­vant – there is a huge his­tory of climb­ing and there are big names as­so­ci­ated with routes. You think I want to do that be­cause you have a lot of re­spect for that per­son.”

But some­times, she says, it’s just a pic­ture of a rock or a moun­tain that sparks the idea of a climb – it’s beau­ti­ful and you think, I need to do it.

The plan­ning is long and metic­u­lous, but ar­riv­ing at base camp can still be in­tim­i­dat­ing. “You need to be ready to be pa­tient but in gen­eral first con­tact is quite scary,” she says. “You are at the foot of a 400m rock and you’re like, ‘Oh my god’. It looks like a big sum of things to man­age. I’m not wor­ried about height be­cause I’ve done it so much. It’s more like I’m scared: can I man­age that? It looks scary be­cause some­times the rock seems loose, some­times it’s over­hang­ing.” She says that, de­spite all her ex­pe­ri­ence, she can still be over-awed.

The tech­nique she ap­plies to a climb is one she de­vel­oped in the 10 years that she was a com­pet­i­tive climber. She fig­ured out the one way not to be stressed was to fo­cus on one thing at a time. “I re­mem­ber my lit­tle rou­tine when I was do­ing com­pe­ti­tion; my lit­tle trick was to just fo­cus on the first four or five move­ments and try to fo­cus on the happiness; the fact that the move­ments were re­ally in­ter­est­ing and I was look­ing for­ward to try­ing them.”

So does climb­ing make her happy then? “I don’t know if it makes me happy in the mo­ment be­cause I dis­ap­pear but the an­tic­i­pa­tion is happiness. I’ve got some mem­o­ries of be­ing happy while climb­ing but this is usu­ally once I have fin­ished a hard sec­tion. I can be just en­joy­ing the qual­ity of the rock but I know I am not go­ing to fall and I can just take a step back from my­self and look at my­self in my en­vi­ron­ment.”

Some­times, she says, when she looks at pic­tures of her­self, like the ones in her book, Climb­ing Be­yond, it’s like look­ing at some­one else – she was so fo­cused she can’t re­mem­ber what hap­pened. “I am not autis­tic or any­thing, but you could al­ways ask me what meth­ods I had planned, but you could not ask me what meth­ods I had ac­tu­ally used,” she says.

I ask if there tends to be an ob­ses­sive streak in climbers. Is there a par­tic­u­lar type of per­son that’s at­tracted to climb­ing? Ci­aval­dini thinks not, but she does see a pat­tern. “The one sin­gle trait I can see is you cre­ate a com­mu­nity and you start be­long­ing to it – you share a cul­ture. Climbers are a na­tion­al­ity in the sense that even if you meet climbers who do not have the same lan­guage, you have a com­mon point straight away and you in­stantly be­long and be­come friends and share things.”

This cer­tainly ap­plies to Ci­aval­dini and her hus­band James. They met in Turkey and the con­nec­tion was in­stant; they have now been mar­ried for seven years and are pretty much to­gether 24/7. They get on well, she says, but they ar­gue some­times, and there’s a com­pet­i­tive el­e­ment to their re­la­tion­ship. Ci­aval­dini thinks the climb­ing com­mu­nity is about 60/40 men/women, but women can have the com­pet­i­tive ad­van­tage: they are more flex­i­ble, have smaller fin­gers and can be lighter. “I didn’t feel like I had to fight for my own place. I’ve never felt like I need to. I’m quite tough – I would never let guys stand on my toes. Most of the time I can beat them.”

Ci­aval­dini says she and James have talked about the dan­gers in what they do, be­cause they have to, and says her own at­ti­tude to risk has evolved over time, from the rel­a­tively safe com­pet­i­tive sport climb­ing to the more dan­ger­ous form of trad climb­ing that she prac­tises now. Un­like sport or in­door routes, trad routes do not have bolts on them – in­stead, the lead climber places pro­tec­tion such as nuts in cracks as they go.

“I did not start climb­ing for the risk,” she says. “Sport climb­ing is a bit like driv­ing. It’s the same. You could make a mis­take when you’re driv­ing and you come off the high­way and you’re dead so sport climb­ing is not any more dan­ger­ous than driv­ing. James started as a trad climber so his ap­proach was al­ways about danger, it was al­ways about dar­ing and find­ing the bal­ance be­tween ‘I can do it’ and ‘I should not do that’. The big thing about trad climb­ing is to learn to take the de­ci­sion to com­mit or not com­mit.”

The way Ci­aval­dini has coped with the risk is by in­creas­ing it in small steps. “Some peo­ple are re­ally ad­ven­tur­ous and are ready to take risks right away but that was not my ap­proach. I need to de­cide where I want to stop with risk­tak­ing be­cause, right now, I find it to­tally ac­cept­able but years ago if I had looked at the per­son I am now, I would have said, ‘oh my god, she’s nuts, she’s go­ing to kill her­self’. There is no black and white. There is no an­swer.”

As for the ul­ti­mate risk – death – Ci­aval­dini is san­guine. “I have no prob­lem with dy­ing be­cause I have an amaz­ing life and re­al­is­ti­cally if I die, it is not the end of the world – the world will move on no prob­lem. The great­est difficulty is for the peo­ple who stay so if James dies with me, I think maybe that’s fine and we are quite re­lent­less about speak­ing to our fam­i­lies that we are to­tally OK with that and we ac­cept that risk. I am very close to my sis­ter and she is con­stantly wor­ried about me. I keep try­ing to ex­plain to her that a) she shouldn’t be wor­ried and b) it’s my choice and c) I have an amaz­ing life and it doesn’t mat­ter if it stops soon.”

In many ways, Ci­aval­dini also sees climb­ing as quite the op­po­site of death – as a life-force and healer. Some­times, she’ll be feel­ing sick or sore and think­ing that she is in no con­di­tion to climb, and then, when she starts climb­ing, all the symp­toms van­ish. It’s the dis­ap­pear­ing act again, the magic trick that climb­ing per­forms on her, and the higher she goes, the more it works.

Pho­tog­ra­phy: Ni­co­las Kal­isz, Ar­naud Petit

Ci­aval­dini was part of a team that climbed the 1000m Salto An­gel route be­side An­gel Falls in Venezuela. They lived on this ledge for six days while they tack­led a dif­fi­cult over­hang above them

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