fitness · Guest Post

The first women’s expedition to the North Pole (1997)

It’s a snow day in Halifax. Shame it’s a Saturday–no school or work cancelled, for most people. When you come from the prairies, the fact that 10cm of snow gives everyone out here a holiday is a hoot. I drove around this morning in the thick of it, enjoying the way that snow on the road makes driving a much more dynamic conversation with the road. No boring asphalt that lies still as you drive over it. The snow and the ice and the slush give you some sense of a conversation with the road. It reminds me of what driving felt like for the many months of the year we had snow in Saskatoon when I was growing up, even though I wasn’t the one driving.

I canceled my plans to drive up to the valley today. So I holed up inside with a book, in between bouts of shovelling. The first round was my penance for having taken the car out–I had to shovel out the driveway to get it back in. A friend had passed on to me Matty McNair’s On Thin Ice–a memoir of a women’s expedition to the North Pole (the first women to reach the North Pole on foot, as the “explorer” trope has it).

Cover of On Thin Ice by Matty McNair

It’s not a literary work–more an expansion on the journal that arctic guide Matty McNair kept as she and her assistant guide Diane Martin led 5 relay teams of four women (20 in total) to the North Pole. Travelling to the North Pole isn’t like travelling to the South Pole. It’s not just a long hard journey over snow in extreme cold with weather and navigation challenges in a blank landscape. It’s all that, and in addition, the ground you’re travelling over is dynamic. It’s ice floating on the sea, and just because it’s metres think and forms over multiple years doesn’t mean it’s stable. The most fascinating thing about the book was the description of how dynamic the ice is–the constant challenge to read the ice, cope with its movement–giant plates and blocks of ice crashing into one another, being lifted over one another, creating rubble fields and pressure ridges. And open cracks–leads–that can block your journey and be very hazardous to cross (leaping from ice float to ice float–on skis with 50kg of gear hauled behind you in a “pulk”). These leads can then freeze and on the rare occasion when they align with your direction of travel (they don’t tend to be north-south) they offer a superhighway you can make good time on. Otherwise it’s a nautical mile an hour on average, all 800 or 900 miles to the North Pole. While the ice moves under you, often taking you east (due to underlying ocean currents) and sometimes dishearteningly even south. You can wake up in the morning 3 nautical miles from where you went to sleep. I’m still getting my head around travelling over a landscape that is constantly moving and reshaping itself in real time under your feet and in front of your eyes!

It was a joy to read this in between my sessions outside of classic NS shovelling. First it was lovely, light, fluffy snow that I could toss off the driveway in record time. Then it was the same quantity again of snow but with rain coming down, the snow getting heavier as the rain continued and me getting wetter shovelling in the rain. Then a last round after it all stopped, to clear out the ridges the snow ploughs left that would prevent my car from getting out in the morning. This last round was a classic NS experience in itself–shovelling slush!

The book is also interesting for its record of the guide’s eye view of the colonial practice of being an “explorer” and running “exploration” and adventure companies. Now, I love the sense of exploration that comes with outdoor adventures (see–I just used both words) but I’m also skeptical about it all. Aren’t I lucky to get to “explore” the wilderness areas of this province, aka portions of the ancestral and unceded territory of the Mi’kmaq that were taken from people who knew it like the backs of their hands and would find the idea of my “exploring” it as funny as I would find the idea of someone from New York “exploring” the streets of Dartmouth. Does “explore” just mean a person is stumbling around lost? We hear it as exploring with a hint of discovering the unknown, but it’s unknown only to us. Which surely means it’s just that we don’t know where we are. Someone knows this place like the back of their hand.

This might not have been the case about the North Pole. Who has a reason to go there after all? The fertile hunting grounds are all further south. There’s a fascinating history of controversy about who did or didn’t reach the North Pole. The first undisputed visit to the North Pole by ground is quite recent (1968 or 1969); the first one that was not resupplied by air was 1986. (McNair and Martin’s was of course resupplied by air, with every changeover of relay team.) Peary’s claim is much older, and subject to controversy about whether his Black employee made it first–and still a footnote in many discussions are the “two Inuit” who made it there with them.

The British still describe what they do in outdoors activities as “exploring” and some describe themselves as “explorers”. I hear this on climber’s podcasts. In this North Pole case, the expedition organizers were some kind of equal opportunity colonialists–willing to treat their Canadian and American professional guide team (descendants of British colonialists themselves) with all the disrespect they would give the Sherpa people who have helped them up mountains for decades.

The expedition was planned by a British arctic adventure company just getting in the game–they recruited “ordinary” British women from various walks of life and raised funds ($600,000!) to do the trip. The guides had to haul pulks for 2 and a half months of continuous arctic travel while the relay teams rotated in for 12-14 days. The guides had to cope with constant second guessing by the expedition organizers who hired them, inadequate gear provision, poor clothing choices (to satisfy British sponsors), and awful food with inadequate calories. And at the end of the day, the expedition leader who had flown in for the last leg organized the photos of the successful team–with no question that of course the guides who in fact did the whole route and got them there would not be in the photos. McNair and Martin had to fight to be included in the last leg of the trip. The British company knew that if they did the whole trip, there would be two firsts–the first relay style trip to the North Pole, and the first women to make the trip continuously (McNair and Martin). They tried to deprive their guides of this accolade, but McNair was too aware of the industry and how to fight for her place to let that happen.

I’m in awe of the competence and responsibility that McNair and Martin showed as professional guides in this process. They were taking five groups of four women, most of whom had never done much serious outdoor travelling before and some of whom had never so much as slept in a tent before, on a ground trip to the North Pole. Travel in this environment is extremely hazardous–it doesn’t take much for things to go seriously sideways, and many teams attempting to reach the North Pole fail. The last relay team on the expedition—those with the social capital to get themselves on the leg to have their pictures taken at the North Pole–had even refused to learn to cross country ski properly. The big achievement of the trip is undoubtedly that McNair and Martin successfully guided 20 women inexperienced in Arctic travel to the North Pole. It’s an enormous achievement in the profession of guiding. She has a nice description of the approach that she thinks led to success:

I can’t help feeling proud of these women who, with no previous winer camping skills or arctic experience, are gaining on a group of expedition men! [Comparing their relative position to other teams out on the ice.] I believe that we are succeeding because we are traveling and camping with style. Traveling in style to me means that we are taking care of ourselves: eating before we are starving, drinking before we are dehydrated, stopping before we are exhausted. It means that we have the extra energy to help each other over the ice and support each other emotionally when needed. It means having a warm tent to look forward to during cold days. It means being able to dry our wet mitts, hats, neck warmers. It means keeping up our morale by taking sponge baths, brushing teeth and hair and taking time to prep items of clothing and equipment. It means not dreaming of being somewhere else. Doing it in style means celebrating the joy of living on the polar ice with love and laughter.

Matty L. McNair. On Thin Ice: A Woman’s Journey to the North Pole. p. 114

Basically the lives of all these women depended on Matty and Denise organizing things so everyone could get their clothes dried every night before they set off again the next morning. Small details like that make the difference between safety and success, or lost limbs, death and failure in such an environment.

I made three trips outside today to shovel and I haven’t got a dry mitten or glove left in the house.

I particularly loved her own gradual realization that freshly frozen “leads” with a skin of maybe 3 cm of ice–ice you can feel undulate under you as you travel over it (!!?!)–is actually safer than the much thicker ice that has been broken up and refrozen with newer ice in between old ice. Its consistency gives it greater integrity, and the fact that you can spread your weight across the skis (instead of concentrating it on one block that you stomp on with your boot).

It’s hard to find good YouTube videos showing what it’s like to travel over this arctic ice. Maybe people doing this are too busy surviving to record and post it, and the environment is too unforgiving to bring along a camera person for a small expedition. (It’s a big contrast with climbing, where no one seems to do anything these days without contrast instagram updates and a professionally-produced, sponsor-supported youtube video. Being a pro athlete in some “adventure” fields is basically agreeing to make your athletic accomplishments into commercials for the brands.) Click through to watch on youtube.

Matty still works for the guiding company she founded, now owned by one of her children. I’d love to give you photos from the site but the site is built so I can’t do that. Here’s a screen shot of the home page. Go visit it for more stunning visuals:

homepage of Northwinds Expeditions
Guest Post · snow · swimming · temperature and exercise · winter

Cold water swimming (Guest post)

Sam is contemplating cold water swimming. I’m one of the people whose facebook posts have her intrigued!

I started this spring. Swimming last year was so much fun I couldn’t wait to start this year (I live in a coastal village). I read a bit; I listened to some podcasts. I found one of my climbing friends is an experienced freshwater swimmer; I asked her lots of questions. COVID-19 was on so I was looking for excitement close to home this spring.

In late April, I started getting in and out of the water. I had a good few months of swimming through the summer and as late as October (the ocean stays warm longer than lakes do). I went back to dipping in and out of the water in November, and now (mid-December) I’ve even resorted to a wetsuit.


I remember swimming in lakes in Saskatchewan as a kid–the water was cold enough to produce blue lips in August. But here, in the North Atlantic ocean, I’ve been learning about whole new levels of cold. There’s ankle-aching cold (coldest); there’s shooting-nerve-pains-in-the-hands cold (a little less cold—that’s an existing vulnerability); and there’s a neck-cramp cold (almost swimmable). Above the neck cramp temperature, I can stay in the water and swim.

These are all November – December photos. Mind you, it’s Nova Scotia (not Saskatchewan), so November – December can still mean +9C.

That doesn’t sound like much of an advertisement, does it? The thing is, it’s a very satisfying experience. Hugely refreshing. A mood lifter. It makes an enormous difference if you tell yourself on the way to the water: ‘I’m really looking forward to an ice bath.’ (You don’t have to believe it when you say it.) It also helps to refer to swimming in lakes and the ocean the way the British do–as “wild swimming.” (Doesn’t that sound wonderful?)

There are safety concerns. I understand it’s best to walk in instead of dive or jump. Monitor your breathing. When your body wants to gasp and you halt your breath, that’s an involuntary response to the cold. If you’re going slowly, you can re-establish your breathing before you continue. If you’ve jumped in over your head and you do this, you could drown when you gasp and take in water. Make it your initial goal just to get in and out. Only gradually start to extend the amount of time you spend in the water. When you start to do that, you should do some of your own research to learn about what’s safe and what to pay attention to in your body. Your body temperature will continue to drop for some time after you get out of the water (20 minutes, I believe)–you have to plan to get somewhere warm, get the wet clothes off, maybe even take a hot shower.

(I won’t go into the sauna options, but I have to admit I first got into water this cold in April in Geneva, at the Bains des Pâquis, where there are three kinds of heat–sauna, hammam, and turkish bath–on offer when you get out.)

I have gone in one day when there was snow on the ground, but I’m nowhere near going in when there’s ice on the water, unlike Cath Pendleton.

Here’s more about Cath Pendleton:

Cath Pendleton, from the Outdoor Swimmer website.

climbing · fitness · Guest Post

On route names in climbing (guest post)

When you enter a long distance trail race, it isn’t called the Wet Dirty Crack 100k. When you enter a soccer tournament, it isn’t called the Spread ‘Em Baby Tournament.

When you take up rock climbing, you don’t have that “luxury.” You have entered a subculture where adolescent male sexual humour has had free play. By convention, the “first ascensionist” of a climbing route gets to name the route, and they name it for whatever is on their mind. Sometimes the results are delightful and witty. Names emerge from days of hanging out at the cliff, working hard, shooting the breeze with friends. There’s a rich kind of free association and play that works its alchemy.

But alchemists don’t always turn lead into gold. Sometimes they just end up with lead. Here’s a page from the recently released guidebook for the climbing in the Blue Mountains in Australia.


Jennifer Wigglesworth at Queen’s University in Ontario (Canada) is working on a PhD on women’s experiences in climbing. The Globe and Mail this year published an article on her work. My own local community figures in that article, with a gym owner and route developer defending these so-called spicy names. You gotta like that the journalist ended the piece with a classic quote from him: he says that the critics of these naming practices should grow up.

It took me some time to get my head around everything I think is wrong with this route-naming practice. There’s still lots of open discussion to have in the community–about what’s problematic and about how to bring about change.

There’s the obvious colonial history of people “finding” places and naming them as they please. The history of climbing is historically deeply entwined with the European project of “finding” places that were never lost.

I see sexualized route names as a form of sexual harassment. Consider the comparison I started with. If someone down at my university’s athletic centre wanted to name a soccer tournament “Spread ‘Em Baby”, students would have reasonable grounds to object to that as a form of sexual harassment. Making it a price of admission to the sport that you have to take part in (or exclude yourself from) activities with sexualized names is just that.

Some people don’t take the analysis that far: what they object to is derogatory names, not sexualized names. So our local community’s new guidebook (not the one pictured above) has derogatory names removed–where the authors correctly identified that a name was derogatory. Derogatory names that they didn’t think of looking up in the urban dictionary remain. And the book treats us to nice long trips down memory lane explaining the previous derogatory names.

Sigh. Like buddy down at the gym who wanted to call it the “Spread ‘Em Baby” tournament was told no, he can’t do that—so he planted himself at the registration table and told everyone who registered how he came up with this oh-so-funny name and why, with the wisdom of age, since he has a daughter himself now after all, he now sees that “Spread” alone is better. “Spread” is a tournament he would be comfortable having his daughter register in.

One perspective you don’t see in The Globe and Mail article (one a local coach mentioned to me) is that the names become a problem when you are coaching a group of kids. What kind of crag are you willing to bring other peoples’ kids to?

This has been the germ of a whole new perspective I have on this naming behaviour. Given the well-known ability of 13, 14, and 15-year-old girls to crush hard routes that virtually all grown men only dream of climbing, I suspect the whole practice is really a move to keep away the most threatening competition.

I’ve made some surprising connections in my local community with women who love my suggestions for feminist revenge names. The process of thinking up revenge names is fun. Handy tip: you can just take the first ascensionist’s name and call the route “[Insert name]’s Sad [Dick/Crack/Hole] Joke”. I’m also planning a whole crag built around lyrics from Beyoncé’s Lemonade album.

I tried making a plea for some minimal standards with the sexualized joke names. Cracks are a rock feature often climbed. You can see where this is going. You can just imagine how worked up a sexually frustrated quasi-adolescent gets when repeating the word “crack” over and over again all day while trying to perform a physically challenging act on said crack. Crack climbs are absolutely the low-hanging fruit of sexualized route names.

So I proposed that we could at least have a moratorium on “crack” double entendres, on the minimal grounds that they’re just too obvious. To my surprise, some people in our little facebook debate were genuinely surprised to learn that their crack joke was not seen by everyone to be as clever as they thought it was. I guess that’s how potty humour perpetuates itself–generation after generation failing to perceive the obvious.

There’s a local crag (Sorrow’s End) with a route called “See with Joy.” Now there’s a name that captures something about the climbing experience. May there be many more names like that in the future.



Survey on sexual harassment in climbing (Guest post)

A number of American climbing organizations & publications are running a survey on sexual harassment in climbing:

It’s worth filling out if you’re involved in climbing at all, or have been, or have thought about getting involved and been uncomfortable and left (or whatever your experience). It seems to have quite a limited lens on what harassment consists in and what its effects on you might be (it might cause you to climb more, climb less, climb the same), but there are open text fields you can use.

Climbing feels relatively egalitarian to me, but what do I know–I’m in philosophy! (Haha. Not.) I know accomplished female climbers who have to deal with a lot of questioning of their ability–e.g. people downgrading routes they have climbed. There has been a recent discussion around harassment among elite climbers.

One thing that I consider an interesting kind of sexual harassment is the way that the culture of adolescent sexual humour in climbing means that a lot of routes and peaks and problems have sexist or racist names–and in coded youth language (of whatever era) that I don’t know. I’m constantly wondering whether I’m saying something offensive in saying that I climbed x. There is a peak in Alberta with a name that would make you spit your coffee. Peakfinder says “Obviously very politically incorrect, the name will likely not be made official but is in common useage [sic].” It offers no alternative, despite its being 2018 and the name’s offensiveness having been more than apparent my entire life. (That’s 52 years and counting.)

I was very proud of the first thing I climbed on Le Salève outside Geneva—and then I figured out I was saying something pretty offensive in saying what I had climbed. I wanted to talk about that in the post I wrote, but I thought that having to write about it in my “proud I climbed this” post was part of the problem, not the solution. So I saved it for another time. (Now. The survey.)



I know Sam likes climbing pictures along with my posts ( 😉 ), so here are pictures of some great climbing partners on Sorrow’s End, a cliff in my own neighbourhood that I finally got to climb this week. I was so excited that in Europe I found I can climb things that supposedly translate into a 5.9+ in North America! I’m ready for 5.10s, I thought! But here I am back to reality, and granite, and my local scene. The people here are on two 5.7s. I climbed them, one on the first attempt but with a lot of coaching and the other on the fourth or fifth attempt. I’d be flashing the European equivalent of a 5.7, no question. (Flashing means climbing on first attempt, with no coaching and without having seen someone else climb it.) 5.7 for 12 metres of layback! Google “layback” and you’ll see it’s described as an advanced climbing technique. Sigh.


Soon I’ll be in Cambridge with nothing but railways bridges and old colleges to climb. So I’ll enjoy these 5.7s while I can.


climbing · fitness

Urban crags (Guest post)

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.

The wider band beneath the two narrow bands is Le Canapé, our destination, as seen from the last bus stop before the French-Swiss border.

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.


climbing · Guest Post

Climbing above Geneva (Guest Post)


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.



More on “the sort of person who…” (Guest post)

When I said in my guest post earlier this week that I wasn’t the sort of person who climbs mountains, that was a thought with many facets.

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.)

Consider for example this recent news story: Outrage for delayed sentence for sentence for Calgary hockey player convicted of sex crime against child

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.

fitness · hiking

The sort of person who…? (Guest post)

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?

A fine view of Caer Caradoc


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?

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.)

The Crib Goch ridge safely behind me, from the summit of Snowdon.

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.

Photo credits: Sabrina Paniccia


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.