High-level competitive gymnastics can be a brutal prepping ground. From age eight, Andrea Hah trained with the Victorian Institute of Sport, ultimately doing 34 hours of gymnastics a week, only 20 hours of school classes and having supervised weigh-ins twice a day. Then, at just 16, it was all over.
Young ex-gymnasts are often branded as 'burnt out'. Andrea refers instead to her “retirement” and speaks fondly about the institute’s staff who, knowing the importance of a new focus, helped her apply her skills to a new discipline. She tried many things: aerial skiing, Cirque du Soleil, hurdling, trampolining, diving, yet none seized the young girl’s attention. Until rock climbing.
In rock climbing, there is no one to answer to but yourself. There are no coaches’ frowns, no weigh-ins or skin folds.
“The best thing about climbing is that it is self-driven,” Andrea says, “I don’t have anyone to report to if I don’t perform. If I don’t want to train or participate in competitions, I don’t have to.”
Finding your place in the world is difficult and even the most cocksure feel like frauds sometimes. Andrea would take some time to make this new world her own, but when she finally did, the results were spectacular.
OZYMANDIAS, A CLASSIC CLIMB
Fast forward 10 years to 2012. In the morning December sun, Andrea stands at the base of the north wall of the gorge of Mt Buffalo in Victoria. Above her looms an imposing 300m wall of granite, cut by fissures and cracks – the features make the chaotic face look like a roiling sea frozen in time.
The climbing at Buffalo is notorious for being hard and intimidating and one line up the north wall stands above the others, Ozymandias.
There has long been a strong link between climbing and literature. The proudest routes are often immortalised with names that draw on epic poems or classic stories of heroes and hardship, and Ozymandias is a perfect example.
The title is lifted from Percy Bysshe Shelley’s 1818 poem of the same name, which foretells the inevitable decline of all leaders, however mighty they may be in their own time.
At 270m, with 10 pitches and a crux graded at 28, it is a serious undertaking, as close as Australia has to a “big wall” route. Most of those few that do tackle it choose to aid climb, which involves using artificial gear to ascend.
Andrea freed it, that is, she used only her body to ascend and gear just for protection in the event of a fall. In doing so, she became not only the first woman to free the route, but also the first person to climb it from the ground to the top in a day on their first attempt. She was the first person to flash – climb first shot, without rehearsal – the grade-28 crux second pitch.
Confoundingly, her previous hardest traditional lead was a very modest grade 21.
The achievement is remarkable for what it says about Andrea’s mind. Others with no big-wall experience, or experience with traditional climbs of comparable difficulty, would be hamstrung by self-doubt; Andrea dispelled the “why-nots”.
“If you break everything down logically,” she says, “I have climbed for 10 years. I have climbed traditional, albeit not for a long time. And I can climb grade 28.”
Rather than being overwhelmed by fear of failure, Andrea conceived a path to success.
In traditional climbing – as in Andrea’s ascent of Ozymandias – the leader places removable protection into natural weakness in the rock. In sport climbing, a route is pre-equipped with bolts that the leader clips their rope into.
Difficulty is the currency of sport climbing and the bigger the number the bigger the achievement.
In February 2013, on the Tiger Cat route at Elphinstone in the Blue Mountains, Andrea became only the second Australian woman to sport climb grade 33, and the first to do so on home soil.
PUNKS IN THE GYM
Flash forward to April 2013.
Victoria’s summer heat is tapering into a mild April, a light breeze sweeps up from the south and in a gully at the back of The Pharos at Mt Arapiles, Andrea is looking up at a blank wall amid the lengthening afternoon shadows. Shaking the excess chalk from her hands, she pulls onto the initial moves of the famous test piece, Punks in the Gym, the first route in the world to be graded 32.
In the pantheon of sport climbing, no one stands above German maestro Wolfgang Gullich. From 1980 until his death in 1992, he was at the forefront of hard climbing, being the first to climb grades 31, 32, 33 and 35.
In 1985, he put up the world’s first 32, Punks in the Gym, and Mt Arapiles became the centre of the climbing universe.
The route is diabolically technical and powerful at the same time. Despite the 30-odd years that have passed since Wolfgang’s first ascent, when Andrea clipped the chains that April day she became only the second woman in the world to do so. Both this ascent and Tiger Cat made headlines worldwide.
Andrea, though, has a strong opinion when it comes to the “first woman” title.
“It is theoretically unchartered territory. However, this title increases the perception there is a significant difference between males and females. I know men are stronger. But, I am also of the thinking that climbing is unique in that what suits one, doesn’t suit another. And all of these things should balance out. There are no height titles, like ‘first under 160cm ascents’. Or, ‘under 60kg ascents’. So, I don’t like its implied representation that things are always harder for females.”
Andrea is humble about her achievements. “I think,” she says, “it’s because climbing is just not a glamorous sport and you have to grovel in the dirt when it’s cold and windy.”
Yet she exudes a physical confidence. She is not overly tall or imposing, but she moves with an economy and precision that speaks of the years of training. An exercise physiologist, she is precise, methodical, analytical, focused and sure.
LIFE LESSONS FROM GYMNASTICS
We humans are bound to our bodies, yet few of us truly understand them, or can listen to them. Gymnastics gave Andrea these skills and climbing gave those skills their expression.
“(In gymnastics) I learnt how to tolerate fatigue and execute the full routine, despite knowing each individual movement feels harder than in isolation. It’s the same with climbing routes. Many climbers come unstuck with ‘performing’, not completing a route when they should have done, rather they spend days (or years) longer on a route than they could have. Ten years of competitive gymnastics taught me that you get one chance to ‘win’ and if you fall, you don’t win.”
Following from afar, it is easy to build a story of a climber based around their successes, but equally it is their relationship with failure that defines them.
“If you want to climb hard routes,” Andrea warns, “there is so much failing in between the ‘tick of the big number’ that it is apparent you are not superhuman. There is always room for improvement.
So, along the way you have to take what little victories you can.
“Success at the end of the day can’t be ‘did you send [complete the climb] or not?’ You have to break it down, otherwise it’s depressing. Success ranges from improving on doing a crux move from one in every 10 times to one in every three, or linking cruxes, or increasing weights when training. Doing extra moves in a day. Finding more efficient sequences. You just take what you can to keep the motivation going.”
Climbing hard routes has to be about more than just clipping the chains.
This is partly what makes climbing therapeutic – the execution of movement under physical, mental and emotional strain requires a level of engagement that strips the rest of the world away.
In the end, the spectrum between failure and success is not a straight line, it’s a circle. Maybe this realisation is ultimately what unites Andrea’s two worlds of gymnastics and climbing.