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.

Guest Post

My first time rock climbing (Guest post)

So a little thing you may not know about me is, despite having been an Air Navigator for 12 years, I am terrified of heights. Like, I don’t like getting on the step stool kind of terrified of heights. It’s irrational, I know, but it’s a real thing. Full disclosure, I have done rappelling, zip-lining and parasailing as part of my military training in the mid 90s but I never actually propelled myself upwards, so yes this is really my first time rock climbing.

My beloved and 2 teenage boys have really enjoyed indoor rock climbing since Junction Climbing opened here in London last spring. I kept saying I would go, but honestly, I also kept putting it off. It was even one of my goals for 2014. I’ve decided that I’m letting this count.

To make it more (or less?) weird we had gathered a group of friends that do active things and organized to go on a Sunday afternoon. Mallory offered to belay alongside my partner and oldest son so us newbies could try lots of walls. I was joined by Jessica and Brent, both long distance runners and really nice humans. Brent had been to this facility once before and Jessica was brand new, like me. Bike Rally David came along to observe and he promises the next time he’s there he will climb.

We got our loaner harnesses, I cracked a joke that I’d never worn a harness in public before. I was nervous so my humour was sitting at 12 year old level. I opted to use my running shoes, mistake #1. Jessica chose to rent the climbing shoes and later reported that they made a big difference.

We got our orientation from a nice fellow who got us to try out the autobelays by climbing up the easiest wall (known as the birthday party wall) just a few feet then jumping off. Jessica went up and hesitated to jump off but then did so with lots of awesomeness. My turn I kept scrambling at the wall with my fingers, not wanting to really let go. I finally did by just throwing my hands around the rope, squealing with my eyes closed. I flopped harmlessly to the ground and asked the staff person if I would get kicked out for making too much noise. He replied that lots of people make lots of noises.

We got an intro to the bouldering sections and then went on our way. Mistake #2 was trying to get in the beginner area on a Sunday afternoon. there were lots of tiny humans, blissfully unaware of the overhead danger I posed. I stuck to a harder but less busy route, Mallory belayed for me a few times but I couldn’t get more than a few feet off the ground. I simply didn’t have the leg strength to lift up onto a hold that was mid thigh height.

Jessica tried a bunch of different walls and loved it. Mallory demonstrated her approach to a bunch of walls that had autobelay. She would push off like an aerial acrobatic, very Crique du Soleil, and glide down. Mallory’s easy going approach was a big help in me staying calm. This was way harder than I had thought it would be, psychologically and physically. I realized the months of my family climbing without me meant they were well along their way to being highly skilled. They went up seemingly impossible routes with skill and ease. David pointed out that most people climbing were lean, sinewy types like my partner and sons. He was right. I looked around and I was the doughiest person in the building. It was humbling and after a handful of tries my forearms were too tired to do more and I’d only gotten a few feet off the floor. Bummer. My expectation was that I could do at least one route so that was humbling.

I was tired when I got home and a bit embarrassed. I even had to take a nap! Will I do it again? Hheck ya I will! Sam said if I blogged about it she’d come try it too so TAG, you’re it! Let’s go climbing 🙂

(Editor’s note: Gulp. Here we go!)


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