Musings of an ex-climber…
I suppose you could say, I never, ever considered myself someone who would climb. Back in the day, I liked trips to Pizza Hut, WKD, wearing an excessive amount of makeup and long MSN Conversations. Then, at the age of 23, I visited a climbing wall at the University of Hertfordshire, in those days indoor climbing was still considered rather innovative. I suppose you could say it was somewhat basic in comparison to the gleaming, curated climbing walls that are popping up across the UK today. I remember learning to tie myself in, and slowly easing up the wall, with no real expectations from the experience.
18month later, I found myself walking into a Mountain Refuge Hut and realizing that not only was I one of only 3 women. But also that my ridiculous hair extensions, full face of make-up and hand me down Rab jacket made for what can only be described as almost comical look. It didn’t matter, I was in The Torino Hut, on the French/Italian Border and I’d just climbed a mountain. Abet, it was what could be considered an extremely modest plod with a small rocky section at the top, but through innocent eyes, I was Lara Croft and my journey was only beginning.
I suppose, if I’m honest, until that point my life had been lacking purpose and I was starting afresh. I had spare time galore and nothing to lose and everything to gain. So, I took a chance on climbing. I had no huge expectations, no social media feed to fill, just a one-woman mission to see a different side of life.
I never knew how strong I was until I found myself perched upon a piece of rock, above the clouds, with only stillness and what felt like absolute tranquillity. I never knew how vulnerable I was until I watched my Father’s body somersaulting down the mountain past me, into a crevasse and that I would re-live that experience for months after.
Like any other sport, climbing is a skill, it takes time and effort to build what could be considered a solid base. The process includes learning about knots, how to protect yourself, how to place gear, how to remove gear, reading a route, locating the venue and trusting your partner. When it comes to a partnership, a few situations will bring you closer to someone than trusting them with your life. How can you tell if someone is the right climbing partner for you? I’d say trust your judgment, test their skills inside, watch how they tackle situations and go from there. But choose carefully, because of bad judgment and the risks not worth taking, it could destroy the happiness of a lifetime.
After a few years of climbing, I found myself considering if I’d improve my skills and overall experience if I had a female climbing partner. I advertised on “UK Climbing” and found Mary, who can only be described as an eccentric, hilarious and warm-hearted individual. Throughout the years she taught me lessons not only about friendship but showed me a different way to see the world. I started to consider how I saw rock; the formations, appreciating the feel of the perfect hand/foothold and the overwhelming surge of energy once I reached the top. Climbing also gave me the chance to bond with my Dad, we’d never connected during my younger years and we formed memories I’ll cherish forever. Sometimes you need someone to push you, alongside that feeling of trust and that childlike reassurance of “My Dad won’t let me fall” and he didn’t.
That said, to be a good climber, you need to let go of the fear of falling, a huge part of this is mind/body control. Something I struggled greatly with, I would allow myself to be crippled by fear, unsure about the unknown and at times, unwilling to try. Whilst falling in an indoor climbing center or on a multi-pitch route outside, both have very different consequences and whilst letting go is hard, sometimes it’s crucial.
Eventually, I got to the point where I wanted to start setting some goals and my number one objective was to climb Mont Blanc. I believed I’d succeed, I ran mile after mile, I climbed for hours, until my hands were red raw. I spent my evenings on the cross-trainer, building up that much-needed endurance. In September 2011 I jumped on the flight to Geneva and I had only one thing on my mind. With 3 previous 4,000m peaks under my belt, a can of monster, a chocolate croissant, and sheer bloody-mindedness, I was ready.
We took the “Trois Mont’s Route” which traditionally starts at 1 am, I fondly recall reaching the shoulder of the Mont Blanc du Tacul North face and squinting into the distance. I was a few hours in and still, my journey had only just begun. Once we reached the summit (FYI – There’s a series of false summits beforehand which provide not only torture but false hope) I sobbed. I sobbed because I had been the young woman who was overweight, in debt, lost and so very lonely and there I was accomplishing my dream.
Then in 2012, it all fell apart, in February I learned that one of our friends had died climbing Ben Nevis and during September 2012 I went to the Alps and found myself in a life-changing situation. I’d met a new climbing partner via UK Climbing and she had agreed to join us in the Alps, I had a vague plan of what I was looking to accomplish in terms of tagging summits and felt excited about the trip. We decided to climb The Petite Aiguille Verte as a good starting point, to warm us up for the rest of the trip. I remember feeling far from on “top form” but putting my concerns to one side as we started our ascent. Dad took the lead and before long, it became clear that we were moving too slowly and running out of time, therefore the sensible choice was to descend before we missed the last cable car. To cut a long story short, there was a simple misunderstanding and I’d lowered myself down onto a tiny piece of rock and built a basic belay station. I waited whilst Claire abseiled down, clipped her in and prepared for Dad to follow last. Claire let go of the rope and unexpectedly my Dad fell, with no support system in place, he tumbled past us into a crevasse. For that moment the only thing on my mind was “How will I tell Mum?”.
Hearing his voice made me feel both euphoric and flustered, he’d made himself safe but was unsure if the crevasse had a false floor (this is extremely common). I was still very much in a state of shock, I managed to locate my phone and call the Chamonix rescue team, the rest of the event is what can only be described as a blur. I was battling to stay compos mentis, waiting for the helicopter to arrive felt like an eternity and I watched as Dad was expertly extracted and hoped dearly that they’d take us too. Moments later, I found myself being clipped into a pully system and lifted into the helicopter whilst it was moving back to headquarters, I belly flopped inside and promptly passed out.
In the end, everything was okay and thereafter the love for climbing slowly died, I clung on, hoping to breathe some fire into the relationship that had shaped the past few years of my life. But it wasn’t meant to be, it was an experience and a time I’ll never forget, but sometimes it’s for the best to just let go…