Interview with Rodney Polkinghorne

Rodney Polkinghorne is a SEQ based climber who has over the last year or so done what many climbers find impossible to do: bust through the plateau and take his climbing to the next level. How you ask? Well, that's what we're going to find out.

Rodney on Screaming Insanity (26), Mt Coolum, Queensland, Australia. © E Laliberte 2009

Lee: "So Rod, congrats on a great season. Tell us what kind of climbing you were doing a year or two ago, and what you've been doing this season."

"Thanks Lee. I was stuck at grade 21 from 2002 until 2006, but since then I've progressed faster each year. At the end of 2007 I sent Brisbane Bitter, Blackheathen and Jacqueline Hyde, all 24, and Hung Like a Fruit Bat, which is a straightforward 25. The only tick that stands out from 2008 is Child in Time, the classic 22 at Frog, which was a messy send after many attempts. This year, I climbed Worrying Heights (24) at Frog, and I passed the entrance exam for Mt Coolum, Screaming Insanity (26)."

Lee: "Can you put your finger on what it was that was holding you back? Was it mental or physical?"

"My limits were mental. I was always a hesitant climber - I'd do a move, and stop to psyche myself up. Then a bunch of my friends got hurt. By early 2008, five had been seriously injured while climbing, and two had died in other outdoor pursuits. I stopped trusting myself, because I'd trusted some of those people completely. I placed quickdraws then climbed down and jumped off, because I expected to slip while clipping them. I spent minutes worrying about each piece of protection. When I couldn't see anything wrong, I expected something weird to happen. I couldn't let go of the consequences and focus on climbing, which you must do to push your limit on lead."

Lee: "The more I coach the more I see headspace and mental limitations being the primary thing holding climbers back. So were you consciously aware of this as a limiting factor at the time? What allowed you move beyond this? Was it a breakthrough moment like turning on a light switch, or a long incremental grind?"

"I was a bold and committed leader when I started, in 2001 and 2002. I climbed grade 21 at Frog and Moonarie when I'd been climbing for a year and a half. So I knew how I wanted to climb, and how far I was from it.

"One thing that turned me around was Arno Ilgner's book (The Rock Warrior’s Way). His message is that being afraid and wimping out are just habits, and so are commitment and focus, so you can train to be bold and determined. Ilgner gives some exercises for that, which are the best part of the book.

"The UQ climbing club helped a great deal, too. They kept telling me that I could climb much harder if I pushed myself, and eventually I believed it.

"I've had both long grinds and moments of enlightenment. To stop being distracted by thoughts of falling, I had to climb above gear and let go of dozens of times. My progress wasn't so much incremental as stationary - each time, I just didn't want to do it. Then one day I started up my warm-up route, didn't think about falling at all, and it stopped being a problem. The breakthroughs come in their own time, but they only came after a lot of frustrating practice."

Lee: "So if you had to give some advice to climber who was in the same position as you (held back by their fear on the sharp end), what would you say?"

"Go out with bolder climbers. The more you see people fall without hurting themselves, or pull through easy but run out climbing, the less you believe those things are impossibly dangerous. You start wondering how you can do them, not whether you can do them.

"Keep reminding yourself why you want to climb well. Often, you know that you could go for it and fall off safely, but you don't want to. It helps to remind yourself that one day you're going to pull the lip of Kachoong, you want to be relaxed enough to enjoy it, and pushing yourself now will contribute to that - or something along those lines. Once you start to push yourself, your lead head will improve."

Lee: What does the future hold for Rodney's climbing?

"Right now, I'm ready to go long and wild in Girraween and the Warrumbungles. Changes of focus keep me keen. I still have dreams of climbing real mountains, but I'm having too much fun rockclimbing to pursue them. There are so many classics to do at grades 25 and 26!"