Head for Heights

I have never fully tried to put into words the reasons why I have such an obsession for climbing – it’s one of those things where I often think “If you’re not a climber, you won’t understand”. But I have been encouraged to voice my passion by Sallyjane, who has herself a fear of heights and cannot begin to imagine why anyone sane would put themselves through the perils of scaling the air with nothing but a few millimetres of rope for safety.

I suppose I must start with what got me hooked into climbing in the first place – the honest answer is I have no idea, and that is probably the fundamental part of my passion. It just evolved into what it is now. I was eleven years old and on a residential trip with a youth group that was a sort of combination Brownies and Cubs, another member happening to be one of my closest friends. One of the activities was rock climbing on a large crag that was on the centre grounds. I’d never attempted it before, but began to make my way up, another member of the group holding my rope (belaying) with a somewhat complacent instructor nearby. Half way up the face I slipped and, having an inexperienced second on the ground, fell a good few metres and managed to wedge my foot in a crack before the instructor noticed the problem. A quick shout down to take in the slack, I managed to get my leg free and finished the climb, and later did my first unnerving abseil too. From that experience, most people would be put off such an activity. But I for some reason was intrigued by this sport – as a very academic child with little to no athletic ability whatsoever due to a problem with the alignment of my knee, it was remarkable that I’d become curious about a physical activity. Once home again, my best friend and I convinced our parents to research any climbing clubs, which we managed to find nearby at a fairly reasonable rate. And so, once a week for six years, we climbed. Gradually working our way through the first level of the kid’s club awards system, but then preferring to disappear to the other side of the centre and do our own thing. We invested in shoes and harnesses (which I still wear to this day, much to many equipment officers’ disdain), and have been loyal climbing partners for eight (almost nine!) years.

So that is where it all began. A rather bizarre, irrational desire to haul myself up 12metres of fiberglass shapes had been awakened. But now on to the important question – why do I find it so gripping?

When I climb, it is not just a physical strain to reach the top of a route or crag. It is a mental puzzle, working out which hold will benefit my next move the most, how best to conserve energy, trying to remember moves so the next time I’m on that section it’ll be just a little bit easier. It is emotional – being gripped by fear but entrusting your life to just one more 1cm depression on a cliff face is an empowering feeling. A sense of triumph, satisfaction, and exhaustion when you reach the top of a particularly tricky route. Being able to see your progression as you move through grades, your strength and flexibility improving. I have only recently found myself back outdoors, where I started, climbing real rock and facing the elements. I’ve been hiking for several years, and have some hair-raising tales about a 6hour trek in the Lake District during a -20°C whiteout, or tackling Crib Goch on a route to Snowdon in 50mph winds and driving rain with no gear. I am yet to have such dramatic pursuits when harnessed and roped (though I’m sure I’ll have some eventually), but a course with the amazing Plas Y Brenin centre last summer kick started my love for real climbing.

Indoor walls are a wonderful resource as it’s a (fairly) safe environment to train either on the ropes or bouldering (see the benefits of both here), a great social hub, and where I am currently working as an instructor. But with my University’s Mountaineering society (read through ‘USMC’ tag) I now have the opportunity to climb all over the country at least once a month, and I’m hoping to do just that starting in a few weeks’ time. My love for climbing is rooted in the physical thrill and adrenaline that comes with defying physics and getting yourself up a wall, but is made even more phenomenal when you are rewarded by some of the most stunning views this planet has to offer. The wind and rain make for more risky adventures, but this makes the buzz even stronger and the determination even more paramount as you are not just testing your own abilities, but the mercy of Mother Nature.

I fear that my words may have run away from me through my enthusiasm, and I might have failed in fully articulating what my heart pumps for. Bear Grylls’ autobiography Mud, Sweat and Tears summed up a lot of my thoughts regarding this extreme activity, as for many climbers the reasons are largely the same. Climbing is not just a sport or a hobby – it is most definitely a way of life. Some of my closest friends have been found in a climbing centre; there is something so intimate and trusting about handing a rope over to another person and knowing that if you fail, they will catch you. Similarly, nothing brings people together like sharing life on a mountainside – whether it’s getting 40people into a 12man tent, or making bangers and mash for 18 in a stone bunker after a hard and cold day climbing. It is a sense of community, it is a sense of purpose, and it is a sense of personal growth that hooks me to the mountains. Standing on top of the world doesn’t make me feel small and insignificant – it makes me feel both proud and humble, seeing what man can do to make life just that little bit more thrilling.

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