We were standing at the base of La Chalavreu, staring up at the rock face looming over us like a castle wall. Two small insignificant ants under an insurmountable lump of rock. Past it were the towers of Aiguille de Varan and Aiguille Rouge. It looked like there’d been recent rock fall. I imagined the chaos and noise as chunks rained down from above but there was an eerie silence as we stood under its shadow, taking in the scale. I wanted to pick a line and see how far I could scramble up to take a closer look. Stupid idea but that was the little voice in the back of my head I now keep in check whenever I see something I want to explore more. I’m constantly looking for lines, angles and holds. I’m by no means an experienced or competent climber yet, but I’m curious and like to push things.
I was in the Alps with Sally and we’d spent the morning walking up to this point and joining the Tour du Pays du Mont Blanc trail. The heat of the day was at its peak and I was sweating from the walk up, my back soaked where the rucksack was sitting.
It was my first time in the Alps and I instantly got it. Lots of mountains, trails, treks and climbing routes; an outdoor playground stretching for approximately 750 miles across eight countries. This range was formed tens of millions of years ago as the plates of Africa and Eurasia collided. The rocks rose up and folded, forming mountains like the Matterhorn and Mont Blanc.
A friend of a friend died on Mont Blanc a few years ago. It was a tragic premature end but the things in life that matter, like the experience of doing new things and going to new places, is a natural human instinct. Some seem happy in their box but some like to push away the fear every now and again and challenge themselves. I think I’d like to do some serious Alpine climbing one day. Pushing my boundaries and comfort zones to another level. Telling fear to go fuck itself.
I think the fear I feel as a rational thinking adult didn’t exist when I was a kid and that probably rang true for a lot of people. We were invincible right? Stones would bounce off us. A fall on the bike meant nothing. If we hurt ourselves then a quick dust down, magic plaster and we were off again.
When I got older our gang got braver and we explored more. Jumping the walls of building sites, mooching around industrial estates and climbing the fence of a local car scrap yard. We had no qualms about getting into cars stacked three high and pretending to drive them. I remember racing up and down the sides of angled subway walls and hopping around the ledges. Scrambling onto school roofs, jumping over gaps and edging over drops. Climbing up old shipping containers and jumping off, mimicking our favourite wrestlers of the time. I was always partial to Jimmy “Superfly” Snuka.
Snuka came to my attention while watching WWF wrestling in the late 80s and early 90s. I loved wrestling when I was a kid. I used to watch the World of Sport on a Saturday afternoon with Big Daddy and Giant Haystacks but it wasn’t until I watched the WWF that it really appealed.
Snuka was one of the wrestlers we loved to imitate because of his high-flying displays, a true innovator, and he garnered a lot of fans because of this athletic ability. Its claimed that Snuka was the first to climb the top turnbuckle of the ring and vault into the air, slamming into the often prone stretched out opponent while giving the split finger salute. In 1983 he made wrestling history in a steel cage match against Don Muraco. Despite losing he dragged Muraco back into the cage and flew 15 feet off the top, landing the famous Superfly Splash. This move was one we would imitate, leaping into the air and splashing onto our opponent.
While I stopped watching wrestling a long time ago I read Snuka was arrested in September 2015 and charged with third degree murder and involuntary manslaughter. Back in 1983, after defeating Jose Estrada at a televised WWF show, Snuka made a call for an ambulance from his hotel room. Emergency personnel found his girlfriend, Nancy Argentino, injured and took her to hospital where she died shortly after. Her body covered in cuts and bruises, the coroner stated she had died of traumatic brain injuries consistent with a moving head striking a stationary object. Snuka was the only suspect but charges weren’t pressed at the time and the case went cold. In 2013 the still-open case was reviewed and turned over to a grand jury who concluded Snuka caused the injuries leading to her death.
In 2015, thirty two years after the incident, Snuka was arrested and charged. He pleaded not guilty and his legal team argued his mental competency was deteriorating because of dementia. The prosecutors countered by showing a tape of Snuka wrestling in May 2015 and said they thought he was faking it. A fair claim but the judge ruled in Snuka’s favour and a new hearing is to be held in December to further determine his competency. To compound things, Snuka had surgery in August to remove his lymph nodes and part of his stomach after he was diagnosed with stomach cancer.
He’s recovering but his attorney has reiterated Snuka’s dementia as a result from wrestling and Snuka, now a broke ageing shell, his body and brain giving up on him, is part of a class action lawsuit filed against the WWF that alleges wrestlers have incurred long term injuries and the WWF has failed to care for them. The high velocity collisions with opponents has taken its toll it would seem.
The older I got then these chances to push boundaries of where to explore and generally do stupid things receded. The realisation of the serious repercussions kicked in. Cuts and breaks take longer to heal. And they actually hurt. Much like the slow bloated demise of these early pioneers of my childhood, the need to push things died out and was seemingly locked away for good.
The next day me and Sally got on a train to Chamonix and followed a track up towards Aiguille du Midi. We weren’t planning on going up Aiguille du Midi but heading round a balcony track to look at Mer de Glace. A living glacier in France that stretches for around 12km. As we sat around the cairns, looking down at this slow moving river of ice, we could make out tiny little figures scurrying around on the ice. Picking a careful track to avoid the crevasses and seracs. They are where I want to be. Tired, dirty, hungry, laden down with kit but probably on a high with what they’d accomplished, seen and experienced. The fear they might have felt extinguished.
Fear again. If you don’t feel fear then you’re stupid right? I think it’s good to feel fear but not let it rule you. That nagging doubt at the back of your head. You question your sanity. The first rush of adrenaline and the wobble in your legs. Then you compose yourself and just go for it. Without thinking. Without worry. Without doubt. Trust in yourself.
Fear is your body’s way of preparing you for danger. Like an internal spider sense tingling, your body senses fear and sends out hormones that rush to the amygdala. You go into self-preservation mode which actually helps you sharpen your senses to survive and focuses your mind to the danger. Your brain reacts to this and perceives it as a negative, shutting down your ability fast and saving you from danger. Which is why many us back away and stop.
The brain is also smart enough to store data and use memories of the experience. Smells, sights, sounds, weather and other odd details can be stored and triggered at another time. Almost becoming a predictor of danger like PTSD.
As the early pioneers of wrestling that drove my fearlessness as a kid, I’m starting to find I can handle fear better every time I’m confronted by it. I challenge myself more. I want to explore off the beaten track. Find new angles and take new lines. Find that right side of crazy and land the perfect Superfly Splash.