During a recent sabbatical, I spent a few months in Birmingham, walking (as the British call hiking) on weekends in the hills of Shropshire.
I had a reaction one day I wanted to describe as “falling in love with a hill.” The hill was Caer Caradoc, and the experience was great fodder for rumination the rest of the day. What could it possibly mean to fall in love with a hill?
Walking is like that—lots of time for rumination.
My sabbatical host, Angus Dawson, later told me that the Long Mynd area has a surprisingly alpine quality for hills of 300m—“Little Italy,” they call it.
More rumination: 15 years ago, I walked on top a dead volcano, face to face with a live one, and wondered that day why I didn’t spend every weekend of my life on top of mountains. At every hilltop in Shropshire, I started looking eagerly for the mountains of Wales on the horizon and learning their names.
But every time I got excited about mountains, I reminded myself that I’m not the sort of person who climbs mountains. I’m the person who was laughed at by my fellow 7-year-olds for coming in last on track and field day. I put my nose in a book and ended up with chronic arm pain from the final dissertation run 21 years ago. Most definitely not a mountain climber.
I went back to hiking the coastal barrens around Halifax just like before sabbatical, wondering how I could make my hiking more intense—without carrying a tent on my back and sleeping in it, which is how Canadians ramp up the hiking. Orienteering? Snow-shoeing? Trail running? Bush-whacking? It dawned on me that I might try editing out the thought that I’m not the sort of person who climbs mountains. But where to start?
A bouldering gym and coffee shop opened in Halifax. After a few months of watching people climb while I was drinking coffee, I asked the staff, do you have to be under 30 to boulder? (I wasn’t seeing many people my age.) They were friendly and encouraging. I did an intro morning and found to my surprise that it didn’t bother my old arm pain too much.
You can’t keep me away now. I find the bouldering gyms when travelling for work and I’m getting muscles for the first time in my life. It feels great. And it’s from a non-repetitive, highly entertaining, intellectually challenging, indoor-outdoor activity—even better. I don’t have to make myself go to the gym. I’m counting the hours until the next time I get to go.
I went back to the UK in the summer and went for those Welsh mountains. The peaks are only 1000m, but again very alpine in form. That, plus colonialism, means North Wales is important in mountaineering history. The pattern of claiming “first ascents” for people from London who speak English and write about it goes back to 1639 on Snowdon (Yr Wyddfa in Welsh). At that stage, mountaineering was about collecting alpine plant species, connecting the activity to another obsession of mine—plants of the coastal barrens. (The same plants like harsh environments at many altitudes.)
On that trip, I scrambled Crib Goch and the North Ridge of Tryfan. Easier than the easiest bouldering problem, but with 450m to fall if you let go. I didn’t find myself ruminating while scrambling Crib Goch. I knew where my hands were and where my feet were, and if calm enough, just for a moment, I took in the astonishing view. (The British skip along Crib Goch in sneakers, no hands, in their 70s.)
Back home I had some awesome climbing lessons with Heather Reynolds, a local treasure. “She’s climbed with Lynn Hill,” I say to people when I want to demonstrate that I know that name, and impress on them how lucky we are to have Heather here. (Lynn Hill was the first person of whatever gender identity to free climb the Nose on the iconic El Capitan.)
In November, I took part in a bouldering competition—competing for last, just like when I was 7. I succeeded in this ambition, with half the points of my nearest rival. Instead of laughing at me, as 7-year-olds do, some spectators formed a cheering section. A young woman told me I was an inspiration for not caring whether I made a fool of myself. She put it much more kindly than that, I’m sure—boulderers are the nicest people. All they ever do is ignore you when you want to be ignored, and then magically appear behind you and cheer you on when you need it. You’re precariously standing on a tiny chip of plastic on the wall 3m from the floor, about to give up on reaching that one last hold, and suddenly a voice behind you says, “nice,” or “you got this.” So you decide not to give up after all. But if you do give up, they say, “good call,” and “you’ll get it next time.”
I’ve set my mind on a new goal: to drop the act that I’m climbing to set up the punchline in a joke about a 52-year-old woman who takes up climbing.
A few weeks after the competition, I was back in North Wales, on my first multi-pitch trad climb at Tremadog, with an expert, enthusiastic, and thoughtful guide—Sabrina Paniccia. Freezing temperatures, snow squalls blowing through, numb fingers, aching toes—these peeled off a few layers of habitual self-doubt. When footholds in the rock of less than a centimetre were the only path to my warm wool socks at the top of the crag, I edited out the thought that it was unlikely I could ascend them.
What kinds of activities would you do if you edited out the thought that you are not the sort of person who does them? Check out #unlikelyhikers and #indigenouswomxnclimb on instagram (thanks @shortworksproduction for the tips)—a whole world of people challenging the idea that people like them don’t explore the outdoors.