There’s a particular kind of climbing spot that climbers call an “urban crag.” Close to a big city, convenient—but dirty and subject to hazards, trash, and irresponsible teenagers who think it might be fun to mess with an anchor you’ve set for top-roping.
Geneva’s urban crag–or mountain o’ crags to describe it more accurately–is pretty spectacular. Le Salève rises to 1300m above Geneva (the shores of the Lake are around 400m). 110 bolted single-pitch routes on limestone in the area called Le Canapé alone, and hundreds more multi-pitch routes in the other sectors.
Bjorn and I tried fit an after-work climb earlier in the week–but we still have to get back for the dinner the Brocher Foundation generously supplies for researchers. By public transit, it wasn’t feasible. After a long ascent and a wrong turn or two, we got to the crag with 15 minutes before we would have to turn around to make our way back to Hermance. We put on our helmets (warnings about falling scree in the topo) and fake-climbed by traversing a bit without ropes. And we worked very hard to ward off the climbers’ rock enchantment that makes all other considerations fade into the backdrop.
We had it all worked out for a weekend climb at the same place, planning to come down from the cable car instead of walking up. What we didn’t plan for was that 300 runners would be running the opposite direction—repeatedly— on our approach path. It was the Saturday of the Ultra Montée du Salève, a race in which people try to run up the mountain (elevation gain 600-odd metres) as many times as they can in 6 hours, taking the cable car down each time. Something doesn’t seem right about this activity–but since we were on our way to spend all afternoon climbing up 15 or so metres and then rappelling down, who are we to judge? But we had to step aside and get out of their way as much as possible and this slowed our approach considerably!
We had plenty of time once we got to the crag–a good 7 hours–and the entire sector to ourselves. I climbed something my grade conversion chart tells me would be the equivalent of a North American 5.9–the easiest route at this crag, the topo says, and named for a kids’ fairy tale, like everything I’m able to climb!—and got stuck at the crux of the many climbs that would count as 5.10a in North America. I’ll hold onto this bit of evidence, translation issues and all, that I can climb a 5.9 route outdoors (not just in the gym) and see if I can translate it to the much sharper Nova Scotia granite when I get home! I’d be very happy with that semi-aritrary achievement number. Bjorn snapped this photo of me belaying.
A year and a half ago (or more), Wendy Rogers, Stacy Carter, Bjørn Hofmann, and I applied to the Brocher Foundation in Geneva for a one month residency to work on conceptual and normative issues in overdiagnosis. Between application and acceptance and arriving in Geneva, I had become addicted to climbing.
Lots of time on google got me the info that the closest climbing gyms are an hour or more on public transit away from the Brocher Foundation site. I moaned a great deal about this, but my friends had no sympathy. A month in a villa on the shores of Lake Geneva, and I’m worried about finding a climbing gym?
I got excellent news just before setting out for the residency—Bjørn is an avid climber (an alpinist, even). Once at the Brocher, we found Jennifer Carr, a PhD student from Glasgow who already has a month at the Brocher under her belt. She has been climbing indoors for 6 months and was intrigued by the opportunity to climb outdoors for the first time.
Bright and early on our first Saturday morning, we set out for the cliffs overlooking Geneva — La Salève. After a long approach through the woods starting from the base of the cable car, we found ourselves almost the first climbers out. We had some pleasant conversation and advice from the climbers ahead of us, some scratching of their crag dogs behind the ears, and a scary moment watching one of them take an odd kind of fall when he wasn’t expecting it. He went on his way and we settled in for our turn at La Corne du Coin.
This massive rock formation peels off the side of the main cliff of le Coin. It has a good assortment of short climbs (by Salève standards—20m), easy enough to let us get accustomed to the limestone, which is new for Bjørn and for me. Jen did fabulous on her first outdoor climb, I enjoyed my first limestone finger pockets and fossil-crimping, and Bjørn was a most excellent and patient coach for beginning climbers.
And the limestone really is this amazing mixture of blue and gold.
I emphasized the self-confidence/failure side of it–the 7-year-old who always came in last on track and field day.
That’s by no means all of it.
I went to a “jock” high school and have a long-standing association in my mind: the world of football players and cheerleaders is a world of rape culture. There’s no particular place in my own experience where I got this. I was a nerdy kid and stayed as far as possible from normal peer activities in adolescence, apart from my very closest nerd friends. I tried youth church group once and that was certainly a very rape-culture place. I suppose that that being a dangerous places didn’t make me eager to try other peer spaces.
I’m sure this association is unfair to many individual football players and cheerleaders, but rape culture in sports is real, even if I haven’t “personally experienced” it. (Whatever that means. Like compulsory heterosexuality, women whose behaviour is controlled by fears of things they haven’t experienced are still controlled by—experiencing—those things.)
Bouldering has been accessible to me because it happens in coffee shops and other somewhat alternative spaces where I feel safe (under the train arches at Vauxwall in London!). And the people doing it are diverse and often nerdy and I feel safe with them.
Sometimes when I travel, bouldering spaces are more like normal gyms. I like the fact that that means greater class inclusiveness (good old egalitarian Finland). But not when it means less. (I’m looking at you, U.S. boulderers talking mergers and acquisitions and when you’re going to make partner. And salivating over that hot babe doing radical things (your words, not mine).)
When I go to a climbing wall that is literally part of a sportsplex, I’m surprised by the strength of my association of those spaces with a lack of safety. Just going through the front doors and into the locker room puts me on alert. It’s not the sort of thing that blatantly stops me–it just gives it a slightly aversive feeling.
I had slight PTSD from my first ridge scramble. For a week afterwards I involuntarily visualized myself falling off Crib Goch when I was falling asleep. My clever career coach suggested I remind myself that I didn’t fall off, and rehearse instead the (true) memory of being successful. This worked. I’m not discounting structural and cultural approaches to rape culture (at all), but it’s good to have tips and tricks to help control how the associations are affecting my life.
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.