What is it about flat places that breed climbers? Many of the best mountaineers I know grew up in places where the nearest thing to a hill was the municipal dump, the closest thing to a climb, the stairs leading to the top of the NCP car park, with apprenticeships carried out not on crags or climbing walls but the tree branches in the local park. Is this the same in other sports? Do you get round-the-world yachtsmen from Leeds? Or bob-sleighers from Cardiff? Put it another way - how many UK climbers do you know who were born in the ‘mountains?
When you think about it this isn’t surprising as Britain is actually a pretty flat country, a fact that always seems apparent to most foreign climbers. They often ask how we manage to produce so many great climbers when our country is devoid of Alpine peaks, big walls or sky-high icefalls. Sure we’re blessed with an incredibly eclectic mix of rock types, all spaced within a long day’s drive of each other, from the granite of Cornwall to the sandstone of Orkney, but what about actual mountains - and I mean mountains with a capital M?
A French guide once asked me what was the greatest mountain in Britain, I answered Ben Nevis, of course, after all, it’s the highest and has some of the longest routes in the country. His response was to laugh at how humble our mountains were and how, in France, it wouldn’t even qualify as a hill He went on to say that they have bigger roadside crags covered in wire mesh than our mighty Ben [he subsequently got benighted on Savage Slit. (VI) Coire an Lochan, which was probably quite irksome seeing as it wouldn’t even qualify as a ‘lump’ in France no doubt).
When people ask how it is that we produce so many climbers who go out and crank some of the biggest and hardest faces I usually reply that our ‘hills’ may be small, but the climate helps to magnify their heights to Alpine proportions. While other nationalities sit and drink coffee in cafes on bad weather days beneath mind-bogglingly big mountains, we’re out in the crap doing what we can, the climate moulding us into persistent and stubborn bastards, which are two of the greatest traits in a climber.
I grew up in the city of Hull, a city as flat as a stale glass of lemonade and the last place you’d expect any climber to come from. In fact, I am in good company as John Redhead and Joe Tasker also grew up in the city, both, no doubt, learning the art of gnarl and stubbornness in a city that was more East Berlin than East Yorkshire. Although flat, Hull did have two things going for it. First off, it has got a crag of sorts, a disused and overgrown chalk quarry called Little Switzerland that offers some very Fowleresque adventures. I used to cycle to the quarry with my younger brother and scramble around, usually climbing until I got committed and finished off by pedalling up a disintegrating pile of choss. My brother, being younger and not so stupid, would stand and shout instructions, like: “Don’t fall off now you’ll definitely die, and mum will kill me” [he not only failed to follow me up those climbs but also failed to follow me into climbing - which shows he learned from his brother’s mistakes!’ Redhead also climbed at Little Switz, but I doubt my mum would have approved if he’d taken me under his crow-like wing.
The other thing going for Hull was the Humber Bridge, at the time the largest single-span suspension bridge in the world [joining Hull to Lincolnshire - two places no one wanted to visit! Although I never got to climb the bridge itself, the effect it had on me - with its towers soaring into the sky - was profound and long-lasting. When my brother and I cycled past on the way back from our climbing expeditions we’d always stop and stare up at it and wonder what it would be like to climb all the way to the top and what we’d find there. The scale and unrelenting steepness were hard for a child to grasp and when you touched the stone at its base - shooting straight out of its foundations - you felt as if you were touching something supernatural.
It was only many years later, standing below El Cap where its base soars straight out of the ground, that I made the connection between that bridge and all the climbs I’d done. Like a man who searches for a lover who looks like his childhood sweetheart, I was searching for a climb that would take me to that place I’d wanted to visit on the top of the Humber bridge.
Why do so many people travel from these flat places to the mountains and become climbers? Maybe, like me, they’re trying to feed a longing to find something exciting and new up high, to escape a flat world where there’s no room or opportunity to grow.
Or perhaps it’s nothing more complex than the need to find a view.