Back in the eighties John was a pretty hot shot rock climber who spent every weekend and most evenings of his youth, down at the local quarry, Pex Hill, honing his skills so he could venture out into the rock-filled world of the Lakes District, Snowdonia, South Wales and then further afield into France (in particular Buoux). This is a man who, when we started seeing each other, would do one finger pull-ups on the architrave over the door every time he went through it. Given half an opportunity, he’d “traverse” the lounge using the Victorian dado rail as his finger hold. There was no foot hold. Heaven knows how it didn’t fall off! He climbed with the glitterati of the British rock climbing world of the time: Joe Healey, Gerry Peel, Tony Mitchell and Phil Davidson. John stopped climbing in the 90’s. But I know he misses it and I’d love to see him get back into it. John, however, felt that he was too old now to do something like that.
I know pretty much zero about climbing. I’ve watched all these guys climb up cliffs that look completely sheer to me. I recently watch Alex Honnold free solo El Capitan in Yosemite National Park. Free solo! A 1000 metre climb with no ropes!
I say “I watched Alex Honnold climb”, I actually only saw bits of it through my fingers because they were somehow clamped over my face. I just don’t have a head for heights: I have far too much imagination. As a result, rock climbing has never really appealed to me. Physically, I’m good at climbing, John tells me, but as far as I’m concerned, I shake and tremble my way up the rock, the shaking and trembling getting harder, the further the ground retreats beneath me.
John was a little bit cross with his present… well, no, at first he was pleased because he loves me, he appreciates the things I do for him and he thought this was a really thoughtful present, but then he realised just how serious this climb was. After spending a bit of time on YouTube watching videos on the particular route he’d be climbing (Bunny Bucket Buttress), he came out of his office looking slightly wan and edgy. This wasn’t bumbling round a bit of rock and having a fun day, he’d realised, this was a serious climb: 280 metres of vertical rock at a grade that wasn’t too difficult when he was in his twenties, only these days, he’s not in his twenties. He’s in his fifties. And he hasn’t climbed in a very long time. He hasn’t even kept himself fit, really. He’s had the spurt of staying fit, but only when there’s a purpose to being fit, like when he’s about to do a big trek in the Himalayas or something like that, otherwise he doesn’t bother.
Now, you see, I thought all that was really sad, and I wasn’t having a bar of it. I was absolutely convinced that if only John had a reason to climb again, then he’d find out that he wasn’t too old, he’d enjoy himself and get a little joie de vivre back in his life.
Plus, I don’t believe you’re ever too old to do something. You may not be able to do something as well as you could in your twenties but that doesn’t mean you can’t still enjoy doing it. I blame my dad for that view: he’s in his eighties and he still runs every day, rides racing motorbikes and scuba dives. And he looks like a grey haired, balding Action Man (hi Dad!).
I have to say that I was far keener for John to go to the climbing wall than John was. He really dragged his feet about the whole thing. I ended up resorting to watching the climbing videos over his shoulder and making comments like “Ooh, there’s some finger strength needed there! Do we have one of those finger exercisers?” and “Wow, his arms look tired! Have you been doing many pull ups?” and generally nagging him about getting himself down to the climbing wall so that he could actually climb.
Eventually he caved in (yay! Go me!) and off we toddled to the climbing wall with me as his not-so-trusty belayer (the person who holds the rope while the other is climbing; I’m not very good at it). Two weeks or so before he was due to go on the climbing day, I was beginning to get really worried. It was really obvious that he still found Grade 22 difficult. Not technically, he still had all the moves, but he didn’t have the strength in his fingers to execute them. I put the suggestion out that maybe he could, you know, possibly postpone the climb for a couple of months maybe, so he could, perhaps, feel a little more confident, you know, in his strength and, erm, ability to do the, ah, more technical moves.
Despite several attempts to persuade my aging rock climbing husband to postpone the big day, he stood firm in his belief that climbing Bunny Bucket Buttress was well within his climbing ability and off he went to meet his guide on the assigned day. John had a brief chat with him outlining his previous experience – I’ve done this, I’ve climbed that, I’ve soloed, I’ve first ascented, blah blah. It was all going swimmingly until the guide asked him what he’d done lately. “Erm, ah, well, I’ve been to the climbing wall a few times,” replies John. You could see the warning bells begin to ring in the guide’s head as he handed John a helmet, a harness and a short rope to attach to the harness.
Putting on a harness is something that any rock climber can do in the dark. Climbers spend their entire lives wearing a harness. They also put a lot of effort into their ropes and knots, which is fair enough because their lives depend on them. To be fair, John had never worn a helmet before, it’s one of those health and safety rules that go with getting a guided climb.
As John kitted himself up, the guide’s concern grew. John put the harness on back to front. Then he put the helmet on backwards. Then, red in the face with embarrassment and growing more apprehensive about this whole idea by the minute, he couldn’t remember how to tie the basic climbers’ knot and had to get help with that, too. By this time, the guide was swearing under his breath about idiots who think they can climb but haven’t got a clue.
Finally, as the two men reached the edge of the cliff overlooking the valley, trepidation began to seep into John’s stomach. He listened to the guide, his anxiety growing by the second, telling him that they abseil down a much smaller wall than the one they’ll be climbing, the abseil wall is only about 130 metres high, so three ropes pitches.
As he was preparing the ropes and equipment to begin his descent, the guide cheerily told John that the only way into or out of this part of the valley was via the belay they were about to begin, and that if anything happened, they’d have to call the rescue helicopter. Oh, and if it started raining, they’d be stuck, too. Since the only way out of the gorge from here was up the rock, and since you can’t climb up wet rock, they’d have to call the rescue helicopter, ha ha.
The guide descended to the first stop point and hooked himself up to the belay point on the wall, unconcernedly hanging from a small rope (the one that John couldn’t remember how to knot) 100 metres above the forest floor and then it was John’s turn to descend.
The climb back up, all 280 metres and eight rope pitches of it, was ‘pumpy’ (hard on the arms), ‘fingery’ (it hurt your fingertips), ‘sharp’ (the rock cuts into your skin) and ‘slippery’.
Note to self: go easier on my husband next time. Or at least give him a bit more time to get himself in shape. Actually, that’s never going to work: John’s a last minute, pants-on-fire kind of person; if I’d given him 12 months’ warning, he would still have started training only a few weeks before the event.
You can watch a video that John did during the climb below…
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Funny Moments, Life, Marriage