Monday, 3 November 2014

How (and why) I started climbing

I took up rock climbing because New Zealand climber Zac Orme defied the laws of physics. I’d been taking the kids (Josiah, then 11, and Tessa, then 9) to our local climbing gym increasingly regularly, and I’d made a few attempts at climbing myself, feeling pretty smug when I could get to the top of a wall. But it wasn’t until Josiah entered his first national competition and we stayed on after his event to watch the Under 18 category that I first witnessed experts climbing. Geoff and I were captivated by the precision and control of the climbers. Their passage up the wall was a dance. And then Zac moved up a 45-degree overhang holding on only to a small pinch. It looked impossible. Hooked, we returned to the gym a couple of days later.

Progress in the early days was slow but fun. I remember doing twistlocks all the way up a strenuous, slightly overhanging route. When I returned to the ground, my belayer, a more experienced climber, suggested I might find the route easier if I tried twistlocks. Our friend Doug taught us to lead belay. Bob showed us how to grip footholds by curling our toes like fingers around the hold. We bought books on how to climb, grilled other climbers for advice, and began to develop some rudimentary technique.

The summer brought a new challenge: climbing outdoors on rock. We purchased more books, this time on the mechanics of keeping safe while climbing cliffs and getting back down off them. We purchased slings and carabiners, made cowstails and prusiks, and once again grilled more-experienced friends. All four of us practised in the gym, with the auto-belayer as back-up, leading a route, making ourselves safe at the top, and abseiling down.

Popular report said Paynes Ford was the place to go. I wasn’t sure if we were ready: in the first intimation of my evolution into New Zealand’s Scaredest Climber, I warned the family that if we had any doubts once we saw the set-up for ourselves, we would postpone climbing outdoors till we could arrange a trip with an experienced climber.

Tessa working Knicknack Paddywack, 18, Paynes Ford
Photo: friendly climber we met at the campground
A friendly guide at Paynes Ford recommended two brand new, super easy routes at Globe Wall “closely bolted for kids learning to lead”. The routes were perfect. We could see the top anchors from the ground and the climbing looked so straightforward that Geoff and I granted ten-year-old Tessa’s request to go first. Away she went, placing the draws on our family’s first ever outdoor route climb.

Tessa was my chief climbing partner at Paynes in the early years. Our second summer, she led and I seconded almost all our routes, as I was loath to lead with only a small eleven-year-old on the end of my rope. Unfazed, Tessa led us up most of Paynes Ford’s easier climbs, and conceived the exhausting challenge, “9 on the 9th” - nine routes on 9 January - which was superceded the following summer by “11 on the 11th”! I was shaky on my legs at the end of those two days and not altogether surprised a few years later when Tessa and a group of climbing friends challenged themselves at the gym to climb as many routes as they could in one evening (20!).

Lisia climbing Terror Incognita, 18, Froggatt Edge
Eight years on, I’m more hooked than ever. I love climbing’s complexity. At every level, climbing offers engrossing challenges - routes and moves that feel unattainable on the first attempt, but whose solution is brought gradually closer, sometimes by discovering subtle changes in body position or focus, other times by finding an entirely different sequence, or by unlocking hitherto unknown depths of determination, or simply by climbing faster so as to reach the top before exhausted muscles fail. Improving technique and strength can be just as rewarding for recreational climbers as for the experts who inspire us.

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