Climbing Articles

Bohuslän: Science or Magic? October 2017.

http://flickread.com/edition/html/59e9d756a5c6c#48

 

Climb Like A Girl. Climb Magazine. July 2015.

Climb like a GirlThere was campaign called “Like a girl” launched last year. The video featured women and men and boys doing activities ‘like a girl’ where they were flopsy and pathetic and ineffective; this was contrasted with footage of actual girls who, when asked to do the same activities ‘like a girl’, ran and punched and threw balls in a powerful way. The video went viral.

Have you ever heard anyone (a guy?) shout out that someone’s climbing like a girl, meaning that (a guy?) isn’t trying and is faffing around and being generally useless? It’s a poor use of language. Words change the way we feel about ourselves. Let’s make “like a girl” a good thing. The way doing something “like a man” is seen as a compliment. Hell, let’s go the whole hog and make doing something “like a woman” a damned fine accolade too.

Right then. Back to girls. And why it’s amazing to Climb Like a Girl. If we’re going to make wild generalisations on gender stereotypes it’s fairly widely appreciated that women and girls climb with great technique. Better technique than guys. That’s what ‘Climb Like A Girl” should mean. That you’re showing great technique.

My friend Trevor Massiah has been teaching climbing for 30 years; he now runs the guiding-coaching-climbing holiday company Rock and Sun. He’s made it his life’s work to study how people climb. We’re sat at the foot of the crag sharing yesterday’s prawn stir-fry from a tupperware box.

Women and girls generally have better technique”, he says bluntly. “The way to get good is to start off weak! And keen! Then you have to learn good technique from day one”.

As luck would have it, women are blessed with less upper body strength than men. And so we have to work out better technique. Better technique invariably means better footwork, pushing up with both legs, using efficient movement, rather than brute force.

But quite often these skills are unsung. Climbing magazines and popular culture can slip off into the celebration of fitness regimes, campus boarding, core work, summit-bagging, mountain-conquering, protein shakes, dynos and one finger pull-ups. These are all rather masculine glories.

Have you noticed”, continues Trevor, “how focused people are on training at the moment?”;

Yes, Trev, I have! The glamorisation of strength! The pornification of power! I’m all about resting and doing less” I say smugly.

But what about technique?” puts in Trevor.

These days I mainly eat lunch”, I counter.

Look around. Look at the vocabulary and images that surround us. Take climbing films. There is often an implicit, unconscious, weighting towards power over technique. So the camera may focus on the fingers and arms, upper body, muscles bulging, fingertips crushing, and only occasionally pull back so you can see a full body view of how the climber is really being propelled, usually by their excellent footwork. Similarly, guidebook descriptions might say “move up the slab using a stiff pull”; shouldn’t it be saying “Push up nicely on your feet”? This is a slab, remember. We tell beginners to focus on their feet but thereafter every subliminal message is that power and cranking hard is where it’s at.

Clearly this is a reflection of underlying values. So a woman’s skill on slabs, say, is unlikely to attract the same attention as a man’s skill on a big overhanging wall. Look at indoor walls for instance; in terms of transferable technique for outdoor climbing, the majority of the panels should be vertical or slabs. But walls are overwhelmingly steep and overhanging. Partly that’s because off-vertical walls give a clean, safer fall. I understand that. But is the steepness also geared towards what men enjoy? And what they do well? How many women get consulted and listened to when walls are designed?

Lately, Trevor has codified a sequence of movements, which put the focus on footwork and not pulling with your arms. He’s dubbed it ‘The Secret’. It’s a world away from power screams and foot-free lock-offs. It’s quiet and steady and good technique. It’s the way, in particular, that many girls and women climb.

The climbing community is actually pretty good. It’s a lot better than many sports in terms of gender representation and equality. It’s not as advanced as tennis. But it’s better than football and snooker. But, as in many other areas of life, all the management committees of climbing bodies are heavily run by men; all the climbing magazines are run by men. There are many reasons for this. But it’s good to simply be aware that we are not seeing a true representation of our sport.

And what would our media look like if it truly reflected men and women equally? If the writers, photographers, editors, owners and distributors were 50% women? It’s so unfamiliar I can barely imagine it. Perhaps there would be more articles on the spiritual aspects of multi-pitch sea cliffs? More artwork. More poetry on the feeling of moving on rock. More attention to the tiny strawberry plants where we flake out our ropes? More shared experience of a community of climbers? Who knows. We’re still in a world where people shout “You’re climbing like a girl!” as an insult.

And why don’t girls and women object when they feel offended by a stray comment? Unfortunately, women are habituated to being shouted at in the street and trolled on the internet. Why don’t they press for more representation? Lack of representation is endemic, in business, finance, politics and the media; we’re used to it. It seems normal.

But it’s not normal. And it’s not inevitable. Let’s face it – every woman should be a feminist. And every man should be a feminist. Yes?

It’s a long time since it was okay to be a racist in the UK. Do you believe in racial equality? Of course. Then you should believe in gender equality also. Not that black people and white people are identical. Not that men and women or boys and girls are identical. But that they have equal value and should have equal opportunities. So if casual racism is no longer acceptable, why is casual sexism still tolerated?

I can get quite wound up at the entrenched inequality and small comments can set my mind spinning. Trevor is always a comfort: “Things are getting better and better, SJ. Look at the changes in the last 50 years! There has never been a better time to be black or to be a woman.” And he’s right. I’m just impatient. I’m not going to live forever and progress just isn’t happening fast enough.

Right then”, says Trevor. “This next route looks great”. We tidy the food away and get back to getting up sheer rock faces on our hands and feet. It’s Trev’s turn to lead. He touches the limestone gently and moves his foot to a small foothold, only a few inches up, level with his shin. “Sometimes the clients watch me climb”, he says, turning to me, “and they say to me You Climb Like A Girl”.

He looks thoroughly chuffed.

Rock is the Earth’s Truth. Climb Magazine. December 2014.

S-J Article

You can’t bullshit on a trad lead. There can be any amount of talk beforehand but once the leader is tracing a line over the curving sheet of rock above you, you get to see how they are. Not just as a climber but as a person. Are they bold, timid, jerky or balletic, logical or illogical, careful or reckless, loud and attention seeking or silent and gripped? You see how they are this particular day, in this moment, out in the sun-dappled afternoon.

I love this rawness. It’s the key that takes climbing from a bit of exercise into the existential sphere. We are stripped down and questions are asked.

Who are we? Why are we here? Now that religion has been discredited and meditation is so deathly dull, where can we look for guidance? The numbing cushion of comforts and convenience smothers us all; pleasantries cloud our conversations. What is the reality of life on this planet? That we can die at any second. That we breathe air. That it’s beautiful.

Rock is the earth’s truth. It is the molten heart come to light, the deepest layers scoured out. Every bit of rock has been made in pain: crushed, boiled, compressed. And millennia later it is revealed in agony: squeezed through the earth’s crust, cut through by ice, whipped by winds. What else in the landscape has suffered as much? Trees grow gently, grass photosynthesises at its own pace, water in the seas and glaciers and lakes and skies changes form but slips through its various metamorphosis without much strife and all stages are fully reversible. But rock? Rock is different. Every outcrop is a monument to pain, each gorge a terrific scar.

And the rock will stick its neck out, telling that truth. The lone pinnacles of the desert towers of Utah, the low black granite tors of Dartmoor, the sliced-open anatomy of Yosemite. Everything is laid bare.

I find a good deal of comfort in rock. It has suffered this much and still stands tall. It will shelter me like an older brother and for a time my small anxieties are put into perspective, put aside. Climbing a rock face is to connect, for a time, with the cutting edge of life, with the bones of the world. No padding. No fluff.

In everyday life, where else do we see people with so little guard? So they are crying, losing it, soiling their pants in fear? Maybe you’d see these things in a warzone. Or a funeral. Occasionally when someone’s very very drunk. When do you see people trying this hard? Grunting and hyperventilating, disco-legged and super-pumped, with no regard to prettiness, still keeping going, still trying, giving it their all? It’s an honour to share these levels of rawness with another human being. We are human beings. We are terrified. We love. The tiling of your bathroom is of no interest to me. I don’t care if my clothes aren’t stylish. No, I don’t recognise your brand of car.

Let us get down to the truth. We could die at any second. We breathe air. It is beautiful.

The Subtle Art of Anti-Ambition. Climb Magazine. September 2014.

Subtle Art of Anti Ambition

Fiddlesticks!”. Squirrel Nutkin didn’t mince his words. Same place every time! He hung, exasperated, beneath the crux of an indoor 6a+. The route was his nemesis and time was running out before it disappeared forever. It took a devious line up a groove and had been set by The Colossus in one of his distinctively curmudgeonly moods. Awkward, delicate, obscure, a distillation of decades of trad climbing matured by decades of barely going outdoors at all. Like a painting from memory, it held the soul of a multitude of climbs.

Any tips?” Squirrel Nutkin appealed. This wasn’t my forte. I tried to do what I’d heard other folks do. Called up “Okay! Right hand to the..reach over, no..the..! Um! That’s it! Now move your left foot…outside edge, outside edge!…try…um…!” Well, that speaks for itself. So then I climbed it. I thought that might be clearer. I repeated the hard section in the middle to be helpful but made a mess of it and couldn’t remember what I’d done and went up it two different ways, one attractive, one ugly. Not helpful, no.

So then, in the end, I communicated what I really meant: “Don’t try and go up it! Do less! If there’s a big handhold and you usually rush past, then pause for a moment. If you get confused and then tend to flop off, try and get in balance instead. Get comfy and relax. Look around! Don’t try to go up!”. Welcome to the reverse psychology of Anti-Ambition; the Art of the Rest.

I mentioned this approach to Cassandra a while later. Whilst new to climbing, she had instinctively grasped the concept: “You’ve got to spot the breaks” she said; “Small ones might be an espresso. A full hands-off rest is, like, a cappuccino with a slice of carrot cake”. Exactly, I say. Quite so.

On real rock the key is to take rests when you can. And, to fully clarify, by ‘rest’ I mean the technical rest, recovering whilst still on the climb, not going off-route and not weighting the rope or the gear. Opportunistic and deliberate: taking stock on an incut handhold, shaking out on a smeared bridge, a heel-hook round a block, a cheeky knee-bar.

And ‘rest’ of course is relative. On an overhanging, short, fierce route, taking it in turns to hang right hand left hand right hand left hand at a stupid steep angle is the rest. Isolation of parts is crucial, so one part of your body gets sacrificed to pain: Your calves screaming murder on a poor slate bridge whilst you chalk up slowly, at ease; Or a granite slab, stricken fingers pinched white on crystal dinks whilst you breathe softly into your stomach, your quiet feet. Or a limestone wall, lefthand fingers torced in the agony of a sharp-sided pocket whilst your right hand is dangling, floppy and loose, the roll through your shoulders and down your spine fluid and easy like rosary beads without the guilt.

But how is any progress made? you ask. Look up. It’s a puzzle! Layback or jam? And what’s that? A jug or a flattie? Best approach it static, only slap if I have to. What happens if I twist the other way? Or match? Curiosity draws me upwards. Solving the puzzle. And yes of course, in the back of my mind, that driving desire to finish the route clean. But got to keep that in check. Only let it out when the big guns are needed.

For some caveats are necessary here: Clearly there’s a place for the all-out thrutching ghastly face of effort; giving it some welly through a roof and so forth. And it goes without saying that I’m no pure exponent of Anti-Ambition. Far from it! Given half a chance I’m heaving needlessly, bent-armed on crimps or smashing my hands up on cracks with no decent excuse. I just wanted to step back and celebrate the siege tactic of peacefulness.

I suspect the concept of resting has become steadily obsolete, superseded by the surge of indoor and sports climbing and the new, cheerful, culture of grigris and redpoints. Why rest when you can forge straight up and take a big lob? Why rest when you can just hang on the rope? Resting is old-fashioned now, a traditional artform. Underwhelming, perhaps, like needlepoint or patchwork, not as glamourous as architecture or as impressive as statues in bronze but a lovely skill nonetheless.

Sometimes I wonder if I’ve taken it a bit far. Many’s the time that I’ve driven to Pembroke or the North Coast of Devon and just pulled up the van and looked out to sea; made tea on the little stove and lain with the sliding door open and the sun beaming in or, more likely, with the door ajar and the rain battering; watching small figures walking up to the surf, heads bowed; listening to the wind in the whipping grass and the far crush of the sea on the shore. It’s the idea of just being somewhere and not really doing anything.

Does that make me a massive loser? For there’s a value system here. Being somewhere is seen as less valuable than conquering something. Stillness in our culture is seen as a waste of time, lack of ambition in a career as lack of competence. Taking a little nap in the middle of the day is seen as a weakness.

Where was I? Ah, yes. Wandering back past the 6a+, Squirrel Nutkin had moved through the crux and was hanging on the rope just above it. So that was splendid; the furthest he’d ever got in one push. “Great!” I shouted. I was scanning the groove for rests. Those screw-ins were at least a plastic beaker of squash… “Bridge out!”.

 

Pick and Mix. Summit Magazine. Summer 2014.

Pick and Mix

It’s marvellous when I’ve just come back from the shops: chocolate eclairs, a box of blueberries, carrot sticks, fresh bread, Normandy brie, a carton of mango juice, kettle chips, jaffa cakes. I hate shopping with a passion, can’t stand the jostling anxiety of choosing all those items, queueing to pay. But it’s undoubtably convenient and delightful, of course, when the cupboards are full and you can assemble a proper picnic.

If only one could go to the supermarket and purchase a climbing partner. “Do you have any climbing partners?” “Naturally Madam, would that be trad, sport or bouldering?”, “Wow! Err, trad mainly, though able to turn it’s hand to most things”; ”Would Madam prefer a male or a female?”, “Whatever’s the most reasonable, thank you”; “Disposables, Madam?”,”No, I’d like one for life.”

It’s hard finding a good climbing partner. They need to desire the same kinds of route, want to visit the same places. In addition be at relatively the same grade, be competent, have compatible availability. You need to be happy spending all day with them on a car journey up to Scotland or in a pub at Land’s End when the sea fog’s taken hold. You need to trust them.

With a really fine partner your climbing can step up from a habitual pedestrian outing into something sublime where you rack up without words, spend an age on the crux without them blurting out “The tufa’s behind you!”, seconding’s a joy and the ropes run like magic. You up your grade. You share sandwiches.

So what happened? How can I climb all these years and be struggling for a partner? Well. Many things happened, some to me, some to other people. First up? I mainly climbed with boyfriends. Which is splendid when it’s going well: you share kit, transport, dreams, beds. But when it falls apart and you want solace on the rock, where is your climbing partner? You don’t have one any more.

And what happened to the other folks? They do stuff. They have lives. A top-slice of friends, for example, (Green Plastic Dinosaur! King of Kings!) began spending every winter out in Thailand. Climbing in the sunshine and being warm. I can’t blame them. Then take White Rhino: Consumed by childcare where once she would be up for a week-long trip every term or half-term. I haven’t managed even a weekend away with her for over seven years. Two fabulous offspring, yes. All worth it. But still! Most gutting of all is The Ultimate Sanction who, after years of injury, recovered only to re-invent herself as a cyclist. Not any old cyclist either: she has the lycra, the races, the regime, the team. Her house is full of Procycling magazines, there are bikes in the bedroom, bikes in the bathroom. She’s done it! She’s found another fully satisfying activity! But where is she when I’m struggling to fix a trip to Lundy?

On that point, holidays and even weekends away up the ante quite considerably. They involve overnight arrangements, they raise the gender issue. I never used to pay it any mind but a couple of things changed. Firstly I now have a non-climbing boyfriend. Strange Billy’s a musician. If he announced he was going off with one other girl to an isolated spot for an intense piano workshop, lets face it, I wouldn’t be too chuffed. So how is he going to feel about me heading off to a coastal crag with another bloke? The second thing was a recent incident at a pub in Cornwall. I’ve camped there many times and climbed with various partners at Bosigran, Sennen, Kenidjack, Gurnard’s Head, St Loy, Chair Ladder and more. Whilst ordering dinner at the bar one of the locals lurched over and asked me if I’d have sex with him as I’d obviously slept with everyone else. Awkward. Could do without it. I just want to climb.

I am, of course, my own worst enemy. The older I get and the more I see, the more paranoid I get about who belays me. I’ve also, I suspect, subliminally harboured a Disney-like fixation for The One-And-Only Prince/ess In Shining Armour trad partner and so have commonly declined invitations where I sense a chink of non-perfectness and tended to avoid the boisterous gatherings at sports crags. And thus the pool got smaller and smaller. Moody, opinionated, porcupine-like, scared, myopic and unforgiving, I hazard my character may have played a starring isolationist role. Some days I won’t muster the effort to ask someone if they’re free, lack the courage to send that text.

My New Year’s Resolution 2013 was to buck up and get out there and sort more climbing. It’s been nice. There’s little momentum as I’m not key to anyone else’s ambitions yet. But I’ve been getting out with half a dozen different people and this has got me back on the rock. And that’s what this is all about isn’t it: The relationship with the rock. When it’s all going well and you trust your belayer enough to forget about them, then you can switch your attention fully to the various skins of limestone, grit, granite; feel the warmth within; cajole the protection; slip into the bliss of ecstatic exposure; gaze into the savagery and tenderness of the rockface.

So then the climbing partner is a facilitator for a more all-encompassing relationship. The climbing partner is the dealer, the priest. It’s not an insignificant role.

I haven’t been shopping for a few days. So today’s lunch is a pick-and-mix of leftovers garnered from all corners of the kitchen: A few squares of 85% chocolate; some out-of-date salami and a frozen malt loaf.

We’ll see how we get on.

 

Better than Sex. Climb Magazine. June 2014.

S-J Climbing or Sex

Fifteen years ago, lying in bed on a Saturday morning, Mad Dog, flushed with hanky-panky, declaimed, “There’s nothing better than this!”. I recall my instant swing from pleasure to alarm. Nothing better! There was Central Groove on the Dewerstone! And we had get cracking if we wanted a decent day! From that moment, and at odd times since, I’ve posed myself the question, if I had to chose between climbing and sex, which one would it be?

Today, for example, I am once again contemplating this dilemma. I’m in a foul mood. My pencilled-in climbing day didn’t happen as it is drizzling miserably and blowing a gale; I rehearsed the guitar but played all the wrong notes; started painting some napkin rings but it only made me angry. I roamed about the house like a lost wildebeest. Then, early afternoon, Strange Billy came in and strode defiantly across the carpet in his football boots, shin-pads and shorts, showcasing an entertaining length of thigh. He made himself strong, black coffee on the stove-top. I stampeded the kitchen but he was having none of it and headed straight out, caffeine-boosted for the match.

Climbing. Sex. They hit the same buttons in many ways. The dance of them, the physicality, the risk-taking, the exploration of the unknown. Whilst other activities are time-fillers, distractions, sex and climbing are the real thing. Necessary. Addictive. And the chemicals! Those stupendous drugs we manufacture, endorphins and adrenaline cooked up in the same pharmacy of desire. But which to choose? I tramp around the house, a disgruntled gnu, weighing up the odds.

Climbing takes up a lot of time and that’s an advantage. When picking an activity for life it seems wise to select the one which starts at 10am and ends at 10.30pm on a late June day, the one which lasts day after day on a week long holiday. However tantric ones approach in bed surely things would peter out after the first 8 hour stint? Assuming you’re not John and Yoko Ono. Climbing wins.

Climbing is more reliable. Boyfriends come and go. Sex waxes and wanes. Whatever the vicissitudes of a relationship, the rock is always there. Climbing comes out on top.

On the other hand, sex isn’t as dangerous. Climbing is inherently unsafe so death, paralysis, serious injury are all possible, whatever precautions you take. By contrast, given a stable partner and mutual STD texts we are insulated from syphilis and AIDS. Clearly, a predilection for simulated strangulation or extreme S&M might tip the balance the other way but, even so, surely soloing El Capitan is more dangerous? King Of Kings wasn’t convinced and bleakly commented: “I could have my willie chopped off while I slept! Or wake up being stabbed in the heart and it’s all over”. But on the basis I know plenty of people who’ve broken their ankles climbing and none who’ve had their willies chopped off, I’ll stick with sex.

And how good’s the glow? Both pretty damn good. The warm satisfaction of an everyday coupling or an unspectacular day trip is possibly equally nice. But recollection of a really good day out climbing can, years later, trigger a body-memory of wonder: the brutal joy of topping out at the Black Canyon; the vivid thrill of onsighting Break On Through at Sharpnose. Recalling my more splendid sexual encounters will summon a happy rush from tip to toe though, being tinged with comedy/absurdity, the way sex is, in all honestly I’d have to throw my chips in with climbing.

Is there any financial weighting? Climbing I’ve always thought of as an inexpensive hobby; once you’ve bought the kit you can have days and days of amazing epics for the price of the diesel. Other adventure sports – paragliding, diving, ski-ing – are much more costly. Sex is free though. Sex wins hands down.

Interestingly I have a curio which combines the two. Significantly faded from being put in a clip-frame and hung in the path of sunlight for over a decade: a signed poster of Ben Moon which he has dedicated “To the Sex-Bomb”. I never knew Ben Moon but find it entertaining nonetheless. It occurs to me there might be a market for Ben Moon memorabilia. So. If anyone wants to hold a raffle including some Ben Moon smut just forward the postage and the item is yours.

I digress. Which to chose? After all these years I’m still not sure. I figured I might chose climbing if push came to shove. But what if I then fell in love with mountain biking instead? What if I got injured and couldn’t climb any more? What if Strange Billy wore football shorts all the time? Sex? Climbing? Climbing? Sex? Happily, of course, I don’t have to choose. Thank goodness! It’s like waking from a dream where you’ve driven your van off a cliff and then you remember, It’s just a dream! The van’s still parked outside! I don’t really have to choose! Climbing AND sex. I’m allowed both.

Just not today. Not now it’s dark and the drizzle has turned to rain. Not now that Strange Billy’s off playing football then working nights. Climbing. Sex. One of them soon please. Either will do.

The Wall by Counter-Monkey. Climb Magazine. March 2014.

Counter Monkey

 

Underneath the Arches. Climb Magazine. April 2013.

The name encapsulates it: Avenues of beech trees with inter-linking boughs; Victorian stations adorned with rows of brickwork archways; the awe-inspiring ceilings of medieval cathedrals, delicate, towering, lit with beams from stained glass windows. And this is the essence of Underneath the Arches as for pitch after horizontal pitch the cut-away cliff is sculpted into ancient and astonishing vaults, dappled with refracted light.

There was no indication the day would be heavenly. We drove over early on a Saturday morning, mid-winter, unprepossessing, the usual drizzle past Newport, with no plan of what to do, a few single-pitch classics perhaps, mileage. Then Barbary Lion had an idea, made a call or two to check the tides and before we knew it we were heading for Underneath the Arches. I’d never heard of it, didn’t know what I was getting into, was blissfully unaware of the litany of requirements necessary for this route and the fact they all came together that day was nothing short of a miracle. This is what is needed:

  • A time outside the bird ban. For pretty much half the year the route’s out of bounds. And the late summer/autumn would find you clawing through mounds of guano;

  • Low tides in the afternoon;

  • Little or no swell;

  • A dry day, as is usual with climbing. And possibly not after a stretch of heavy rain to minimise seepage through the belly of the world;

  • A full long day;

  • A team where:

    Both parties lead at least E2;

    Don’t mind doing a ten pitch route that’s utterly inescapable and appears somewhat unrescuable;

    Are willing to do the furthest walk-in in Pembroke, to Mewsfoot mid-way between the two car-parks;

    Are reconciled, despite the not insignificant effort involved, to gain merely 2 ‘E Points’ apiece for the entire day as calculated by the harsh grading system promoted by The Ultimate Sanction;

  • You’ve remembered your abseil rope.

It doesn’t sound like much, perhaps. But what with one thing and another maybe once in a lifetime all these factors come together. We got lucky that day. We were blessed. An early start in January/February I suggest would be the time to summon the Gods on your bleeding knees and make it happen.

It’s an 800 foot right-to-left traverse. Cowboy and Cowgirl know every inch of the Range and their pioneering spirit is exemplified here. For this is the Wild West of rock-climbing and every ascent of Underneath the Arches will always be an adventure. This is why: the route travels the cave systems beneath Mewsfoot. Picture this: Four rope-lengths in and you’re at a hanging stance on an exposed arete. It’s a calm day but still, just below, the gnashing of the waves echoes and licks at you. To your left the route disappears into the dark, curves back in an immense semi-circle, a hemisphere chewed out of the foot of the cliff by a hungry sea. The leader is most-ways through the pitch, a small figure going crab-wise in the preposterous damp amphitheatre. Such swell as there is is funnelling into the back of the cave, smashing over the ropes and swashing over where the second must follow, sucking back into the churning moiling ruckus where you will go, yes, if you slip up on the soaking footholds; only two pieces of gear are visible from here; you visualise leap-frogging a friend along the break, a trick of security; tip-toeing along the wet rim before timing a panic-stricken sprint between sets of waves in the din of the greedy roar. And atop of all this, oppressively seemingly brushing your helmet, is the most gob-smacking roof ever, an unbelievable roof, it stretches from the back of the cave perfectly horizontally out to the far sky, for what? Forty foot? Fifty foot? More? Which means that above your head balance innumerable tons of limestone. Right over your head. Such a weight of it. Should it go, your body would never be found.

Here you are then. Committed. Pitch after pitch in this overhanding underworld where escape is impossible and rescue seems genuinely implausible. From the stance my mind drifts, plans, I try to calculate the mechanics of a rescue. With roofs like these they wouldn’t be able to abseil in. Not anywhere. A boat sent by the coastguard maybe, a soft rib, nudged into the back of the cavern, the heaving zone at the junction of the land and the sea; someone in a wetsuit with a buoyancy aid who’ll cradle your damaged body as your shocked partner lowers you into the foam. Is there mobile reception there? I can’t remember checking. Most of the Range doesn’t seem to have a signal. So I doubt it. The improbability of rescue distracts me.

And so long! The longest route in Pembroke by a country mile and surely one of the longest in the UK. Decent-length pitches, 100 foot, 130 foot. I tend to reckon on roughly an hour a pitch which doesn’t add up at all for a ten pitch route where sundown’s at 4.30pm. We alternated leads with the second carrying half a litre of water and a small wrapper of biscuits. It’s such a trip; the further you climb in you know the further you have to climb out; nothing is visible beyond the next nose, vista after vista after vista appears but it’s impossible to say how far it goes on and when the end is; only that you have to crack on because no-one’s coming down here to get you. I recall a certain gracelessness on the crux, an English 5c belly-flopping shuffle. I was grateful that no-one could see me! But it was mainly important to get on with it quickly and do it clean.

But it’s beautiful. Oh. I forgot! There’s one other essential criterion. Choose a day with sun. As if there aren’t enough requirements already. But really: Choose sun. For it’s mid-January, the sun travels a low arc over the sea to the West; loiters at the door like a friend who’s popped by but can’t sit down because they’re actually meant to be somewhere else; it hugs the winter horizon and thereby bowls its cool bright magnificent light right into the very back of every cave for the whole route; it is your companion all day long. Without sun Underneath the Arches could be somewhat like traversing a partly-flooded road-tunnel hectic with passing HGVs. With sun it is a sparkling world, touched by the glittering hem of the sea-god’s gown, lit with glints from the golden spokes of the sun-god’s chariot.

On topping out at the walk-off gully, Cowgirl and Cowboy were waiting there, squatting on their heels, angels carved in toppling stone, smiling. It turned out that the Lion had sent them a quick text in the morning. And there they were, hours later, keeping vigil in the gloaming of the upper world where the grass grows and the ground is flat, the pub is a simple walk away and prayer doesn’t come quite as naturally.

Identity Theft. Summit Magazine. Autumn 2012.

Identity Theft

It’s marvellous when I’ve just come back from the shops: chocolate eclairs, a box of blueberries, carrot sticks, fresh bread, Normandy brie, a carton of mango juice, kettle chips, jaffa cakes. I hate shopping with a passion, can’t stand the jostling anxiety of choosing all those items, queueing to pay. But it’s undoubtably convenient and delightful, of course, when the cupboards are full and you can assemble a proper picnic.

If only one could go to the supermarket and purchase a climbing partner. “Do you have any climbing partners?” “Naturally Madam, would that be trad, sport or bouldering?”, “Wow! Err, trad mainly, though able to turn it’s hand to most things”; ”Would Madam prefer a male or a female?”, “Whatever’s the most reasonable, thank you”; “Disposables, Madam?”,”No, I’d like one for life.”

It’s hard finding a good climbing partner. They need to desire the same kinds of route, want to visit the same places. In addition be at relatively the same grade, be competent, have compatible availability. You need to be happy spending all day with them on a car journey up to Scotland or in a pub at Land’s End when the sea fog’s taken hold. You need to trust them.

With a really fine partner your climbing can step up from a habitual pedestrian outing into something sublime where you rack up without words, spend an age on the crux without them blurting out “The tufa’s behind you!”, seconding’s a joy and the ropes run like magic. You up your grade. You share sandwiches.

So what happened? How can I climb all these years and be struggling for a partner? Well. Many things happened, some to me, some to other people. First up? I mainly climbed with boyfriends. Which is splendid when it’s going well: you share kit, transport, dreams, beds. But when it falls apart and you want solace on the rock, where is your climbing partner? You don’t have one any more.

And what happened to the other folks? They do stuff. They have lives. A top-slice of friends, for example, (Green Plastic Dinosaur! King of Kings!) began spending every winter out in Thailand. Climbing in the sunshine and being warm. I can’t blame them. Then take White Rhino: Consumed by childcare where once she would be up for a week-long trip every term or half-term. I haven’t managed even a weekend away with her for over seven years. Two fabulous offspring, yes. All worth it. But still! Most gutting of all is The Ultimate Sanction who, after years of injury, recovered only to re-invent herself as a cyclist. Not any old cyclist either: she has the lycra, the races, the regime, the team. Her house is full of Procycling magazines, there are bikes in the bedroom, bikes in the bathroom. She’s done it! She’s found another fully satisfying activity! But where is she when I’m struggling to fix a trip to Lundy?

On that point, holidays and even weekends away up the ante quite considerably. They involve overnight arrangements, they raise the gender issue. I never used to pay it any mind but a couple of things changed. Firstly I now have a non-climbing boyfriend. Strange Billy’s a musician. If he announced he was going off with one other girl to an isolated spot for an intense piano workshop, lets face it, I wouldn’t be too chuffed. So how is he going to feel about me heading off to a coastal crag with another bloke? The second thing was a recent incident at a pub in Cornwall. I’ve camped there many times and climbed with various partners at Bosigran, Sennen, Kenidjack, Gurnard’s Head, St Loy, Chair Ladder and more. Whilst ordering dinner at the bar one of the locals lurched over and asked me if I’d have sex with him as I’d obviously slept with everyone else. Awkward. Could do without it. I just want to climb.

I am, of course, my own worst enemy. The older I get and the more I see, the more paranoid I get about who belays me. I’ve also, I suspect, subliminally harboured a Disney-like fixation for The One-And-Only Prince/ess In Shining Armour trad partner and so have commonly declined invitations where I sense a chink of non-perfectness and tended to avoid the boisterous gatherings at sports crags. And thus the pool got smaller and smaller. Moody, opinionated, porcupine-like, scared, myopic and unforgiving, I hazard my character may have played a starring isolationist role. Some days I won’t muster the effort to ask someone if they’re free, lack the courage to send that text.

My New Year’s Resolution 2013 was to buck up and get out there and sort more climbing. It’s been nice. There’s little momentum as I’m not key to anyone else’s ambitions yet. But I’ve been getting out with half a dozen different people and this has got me back on the rock. And that’s what this is all about isn’t it: The relationship with the rock. When it’s all going well and you trust your belayer enough to forget about them, then you can switch your attention fully to the various skins of limestone, grit, granite; feel the warmth within; cajole the protection; slip into the bliss of ecstatic exposure; gaze into the savagery and tenderness of the rockface.

So then the climbing partner is a facilitator for a more all-encompassing relationship. The climbing partner is the dealer, the priest. It’s not an insignificant role.

I haven’t been shopping for a few days. So today’s lunch is a pick-and-mix of leftovers garnered from all corners of the kitchen: A few squares of 85% chocolate; some out-of-date salami and a frozen malt loaf.

We’ll see how we get on.

Past the Peak. Climb Magazine. May 2012.

Past the Peak

Uncertainty tugged at me like a querulous dog. Chewed the slippers in the hall. Upset my peace and disturbed my sleep. What had become of that irreligious zeal? The unreasonable conviction that as long as I was climbing – sea-cliff trad, multipitch, sports, bouldering for an hour over at Bonehill on a winter’s day – I knew I was doing the right thing.

It created so much more time, not climbing. An oil-spill of hours on which to slip up. Have you noticed how a walk takes 45 minutes but climbing takes all day? Ditto a game of badminton. Ditto playing the guitar. The leftover time gained a toxic quality.

How to use it all up? I experimented with everyday pleasures. Which is how I came to be sat mildly in the Cross-Country carriage, window seat, front-facing, idly tracing the canals past Bath, marvelling at the expanse of Birmingham, leafing The Guardian, toying with pebbles of letters in my mind: Romantically naïve – on the verge of tears (4,4); All bothered and bewildered (2,3); Beekeeper (8). I purchased tea from the refreshments trolley. It was a lovely journey made slick with confusion: In the old days I’d have driven up late at night, hour after hour without stops, music loud, outside lane, coffee and bounty bars because in the old days the daytimes were precious as I knew what to do in them.

Bothered and bewildered, ending in ‘a’. The irony was that I wasn’t even injured any more. The wild goose chase of hospitals, physio, osteo, operations which had finally fixed my body had left my head floundering. Stripped of faith, I no longer understood the rituals of browsing guidebooks and belaying in the shade on a sunny day. Having been in love for many years, hopelessly, deliciously in love, my passion for the rock had abruptly stopped, my Bottom was suddenly a donkey, the thought of leading Dream Of White Horses left me numb.

But I wasn’t sure. What had been lost? The Days of Glory. The cauterising moments of sanctity when you commit to a trail of poor gear on the Culm Coast and Puss-in-Boots is miles below and the only option at all in the wide world is to ascend higher and higher and your feet are prayers on the tiny overlaps and the hole in the top of your head blasts up to heaven in a white beam of fear and the fear gobbles up everything but the minute breeze on your left temple and the poor fingerlock and the stir of the sea and there is no doubt that you are absolutely alive and each cell in your body is tingling with it.

The connecting service worked fine and it was still just early afternoon by the time I’d alighted at the tiny station at Hathersage. I walked along the little lane to wait by the main road and sat on a bin. Only climbers would sit on a bin, I thought.

A white van pulled up piled chocka with insulation offcuts. I’m going to line the cellar! Alma Mater called out. Just haven’t got round to it. Van’s been like this for weeks! Lets go to Stanage! My heart shrank involuntarily, salt in a wound, like bumping into an Ex at a social event. I squeezed in shotgun between the offcuts and the baby and we all three chattered hell for leather as Alma Mater drove into the countryside.

Bouldering in the Peak can appear awfully unappealing when you don’t climb much anymore. The sky a sweep of low grey stratus. The erosion bunkers pooling the boulders off-putting moats of tacky mud. The rock green and dark from days of rain. Surely a late lunch in the Scotsman’s Pack was a better idea; I still had form with a good steak and ale pie. I traipsed in Alma Mater’s footprints up along the winding path. Incredibly it seemed to me, given the uninspiring afternoon, the easy boulders were being assaulted on all sides, literally all sides, by teams of ambitious young people with logoed beanies; their multiple mats made the boulder resemble a Christmas Tree surrounded by large presents. I felt a tad bah-humbug-y.

We sat down. Alma Mater took Squidge out of the papoose. The hard damp outcrop sloped at a miserable angle. I had no inclination whatsoever to climb. I clutched Squidge like a hot-water bottle whilst Alma Mater waltzed up a couple of problems. Glancing to my left I clocked a highball boulder, also surrounded by people. They were working a problem that I remembered doing. I didn’t see anyone top out. Partly I felt proud of what I once did. Simultaneously I felt crushed that I couldn’t possibly do it now. Laurels or exile? It’s a tricky one.

Do this one, then that one, then that one” commanded Alma Mater; “Right to Left”. She had so little sympathy with my woe-begone condition it’s almost as if she hadn’t noticed it. She whisked away Squidge, which left me few options. I crow-barred my cold rock-boots on, one of Cinderella’s Sisters, tip-toed across the slimy stepping stones and sprang guiltily onto a stranded mat. Then I teetered onto the rock.

It was immediately beautiful. My body changed, breathing slowed. I stopped giggling and arsing about. This was non-intellectual, non-cerebral; feet anchored to the dimple of grit, giving my weight completely, like a gift; my right hand reaching up to the pocket, slopey but fine, it’s all there, the weight swimming, to the heel of my palm, my right hip, then dropping down again, soft, the outside edge moulding into the grains in the rock; left foot up and, again, that utter transfer of weight, like throwing a ball, throwing a basket of eggs, throwing your heart to the man you love, hoping he’ll catch it.

Super-hearing suddenly. Taste of the air. A monumental expanse in my brain momentarily relieved of the petty cacophony of grocery shopping, doctor’s appointments, social paranoia that I said the wrong thing to the woman in the carpark, replacing the worn front offside tyre. It’s still there. My capacity to fall head over heels. 

A shower came over and we armoured up once more in layers of fleece and waterproofs and continued on our trek up to the far end and then back along the crest of the Edge. Everything was grey and dark green again. Who’d have thought it? Of all the crags for a South-West lass! The Peak: The ugly boy at the party who astonishes you when you brush hands by accident.

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