A-Z of a Climber
25 November 2008
Note: Many of these articles are very old, and although the technical information is still relevant the equipment mentioned may not be (for example a Stormy cooker was state of that art in 1995, but not in 2021).
I’m sat in the new climbing wall down the hill from my house. It’s not far – just a 5-minute walk, down some stairs and along a couple of steep cobbled alleyways, so good training for the mountains on the return trip. I’ve been meaning to come down here for ages, but things just seem to conspire against me. It always seems to be like that these days when it comes to training and climbing.
It’s Sunday and I’m looking after my two kids, so I thought I’d bring them here, after all, it’s better for them than playing Lego Start Wars on the computer. I’ve only brought their boots, not mine. I really need to be able to spot them, but maybe the real reason is I just didn’t want people to see how crap I am a plastic these days.
The wall’s still in its honeymoon period, having only opened a few weeks before, and so it’s full of exciting boulders, looking like kids in a new ball pool, racing around in small groups, pointing at holds and throwing themselves at the problems. I don’t visit wall very often these days, in fact, I haven’t visited a wall and actually climbed for maybe 4 years. I do love climbing indoors, well I did, in fact as I’ve said before, if you’re into climbing, then climbing down the wall is the ultimate expression of that desire, after all, that’s all it is.
The two walls I’ve visited the most in the past are Mile End (or the oddly named North London Rescue Commando as it was then) when I lived in London and the now-demolished Al Rouse Wall in Sheffield (AKA the ‘Polly wall). These were old school walls where the angle was 90 degrees and the holds small, places where you could learn to climb, even if your fingers were weak. Mile end was especially old school in that the roof leaked, meaning it had to be the only indoor wall in history that suffered from wet weather. The Polly wall was also from a past era, set in the back two walls of a gym, complete with tired school apparatus, musty ropes dangling from the ceiling and one of those dusty wooden floors you could skid on with your socks. Best of all it was free, which no doubt helped in its demise.
I used to think a well-loved climbing wall is a little like a microcosm of a climbers life in holds, traced out on its walls from awkward early juggy, to superhuman crimping and hulk-like dynos. A beginning (the first problem), and a continuing search for the only just possible or only just impossible. Maybe that’s why walls mean so much to people. Investing so much passion, desire, time and energy in something so meaningless and irrelevant, a fine definition of the truly great. Climbing walls are like churches, and the devout can talk fondly about past problems, recalling their shape and texture, the twist of the knee, the pressure of thumb and forefinger on holds long since removed. People don’t do that in table tennis.
There were also the traverses. Long, fingery, technical and frustrating; weird wide bridges from polished cobbles or dusty resin scallops, were like being on the latest X- Box realises, a slip would send you back to the beginning. Practice made perfect, and I’d cycle down to the Polly wall every day, early so it was quiet, and traverse backwards and forwards, backwards and forwards, stopping in the only corner for a rest. Only on a wall can you go so far without ever going anywhere at all.
People would pass by the window and look inside, and no doubt wonder if I was too scared to climb any higher. But these were walls with the now missing necky factor, where you had to find the courage and self-control to make a hard move far above a mat about as thick as Homer Simpson’s hair. It was a game for young men or older men who wanted to show the young they weren’t that old, and in such cases, a gaggle of novices and a big dose of bravado often made up for any lack of bravery or skill.
So I’m just sat on the mat, not climbing, watching my kids. My problem is I get obsessed too easily, and not being able to do anything by halves, I’d always overdo it and injure myself. Injuries in themselves aren’t the reason I stopped, as it wasn’t about niggling tendons, an inflamed elbow, or dull throbbing shoulder, but the fact I couldn’t feed the hunger inside me that yearned for the sweaty stink of the changing room, the chalk grimed mats, the slap of rubber on cheap plywood. I preferred in the end not to go to the wall by choice, rather not being able to go. That was a long time ago, and the problems do look inviting, the stink of sweaty boots already pervading the air. The smell makes me want to be young again. It’s only 5 minutes from my house. Maybe I can.