We put up a video on our YouTube channel – Stop Being So Poor – last week about John’s recent rock climbing experience (you can check out the video here) and I wanted to tell the story in a little more detail. Actually, let me rephrase that: I want to put the story into my words
Back in the eighties John was a pretty hot shot rock climber who spent every weekend and most evenings of his youth, down at the local quarry, Pex Hill, honing his skills so he could venture out into the rock-filled world of the Lakes District, Snowdonia, South Wales and then further afield into France (in particular Buoux).
This is a man who, when we started seeing each other, would do one finger pull-ups on the architrave over the door every time he went through it.
Given half an opportunity, he’d “traverse” the lounge using the Victorian dado rail as his finger hold. There was no foot hold. Heaven knows how it didn’t fall off! He climbed with the glitterati of the British rock climbing world of the time: Joe Healey, Gerry Peel, Jerry Moffatt and Phil Davidson. Just recently, John came across a podcast featuring Joe Healey (you can listen to it here – https://itunes.apple.com/au/podcast/jam-crack-the-niall-grimes-climbing-podcast/id1065991509 – Joe’s interview is no 27 ) and Joe mentioned John as the best climber he’d ever come across. He also said John had dropped out of climbing in the 90’s. Which he did. Only he misses climbing and I’d love to see him get back into it. John, however, felt that he was too old now to do something like that.
Over the years, I’ve tried to get John back into climbing. I’ve bought him memberships to climbing clubs, I’ve got the kids to persuade him to take them climbing, I even bought him his own climbing wall (yes, actually!), but while he enjoyed all of them, none refired his interest in climbing for very long. Last Christmas, I decided to have another go and bought John a day’s guided climb in the Blue Mountains, west of Sydney.
I know pretty much zero about climbing. I’ve watched all these guys climb up cliffs that look completely sheer to me. I recently watch Alex Honnold free solo El Capitan in Yosemite National Park. Free solo! A 1000 metre climb with no ropes!
I say “I watched Alex Honnold climb”, I actually only saw bits of it through my fingers because they were somehow clamped over my face. I just don’t have a head for heights: I have far too much imagination.
As a result, rock climbing has never really appealed to me. Physically, I’m good at climbing, John tells me, but as far as I’m concerned, I shake and tremble my way up the rock, the shaking and trembling getting harder, the further the ground retreats beneath me.
John was a little bit cross with his present… well, no, at first he was pleased because he loves me, he appreciates the things I do for him and he thought this was a really thoughtful present, but then he realised just how serious this climb was. After spending a bit of time on YouTube watching videos on the particular route he’d be climbing (Bunny Bucket Buttress), he came out of his office looking slightly wan and edgy. This wasn’t bumbling round a bit of rock and having a fun day, he’d realised, this was a serious climb: 350 metres of vertical rock at a grade that wasn’t too difficult when he was in his twenties, only these days, he’s not in his twenties. He’s in his fifties. And he hasn’t climbed in a very long time. He hasn’t even kept himself fit, really. He’s had the spurt of staying fit, but only when there’s a purpose to being fit, like when he’s about to do a big trek in the Himalayas or something like that, otherwise he doesn’t bother.
When I booked the climb, it specifically asks for your experience and states that “You must be able to COMFORTABLY second a Grade 22 climb”. Sure he can, thinks I, and – rose tinted glasses firmly in place – I proceed to reassure the climbing company that John was not only easily capable of this but that he had, in actual fact, been a world class climber in his youth (well, he had!).
I kind of glossed over the fact that he hasn’t done any climbing in several decades, nor has he been to a gym in yonks (despite the fact that we possess enough equipment to fit out a gym, the little used reminders of my ongoing defeats in the battle to lure John into a fitness obsession), and that, in general, he believed he was way too old for all this “fitness s**t” and he was never going to climb again, it was a thing of the past.
Now, you see, I thought all that was really sad, and I wasn’t having a bar of it. I was absolutely convinced that if only John had a reason to climb again, then he’d find out that he wasn’t too old, he’d enjoy himself and get a little joie de vivre back in his life.
Actually, if I’m entirely honest, what I want him to get out of climbing is the adrenaline fix that otherwise he gets from living on the edge in his business and financial life by leaving everything to the last minute. I’d much rather he got his adrenaline fix from somewhere else. Just saying.
Plus, I don’t believe you’re ever too old to do something. You may not be able to do something as well as you could in your twenties but that doesn’t mean you can’t still enjoy doing it. I blame my dad for that view: he’s in his eighties and he still runs every day, rides racing motorbikes and scuba dives. And he looks like a grey haired, balding Action Man (hi Dad!).
As John realised the difficulty of the climb, he realised that he would need to train for this, as in actually do a few months’ preparation and get into good physical condition. What am I saying? This is John we’re talking about. He’s never in a million years going to do a few months preparation, he’s going to leave it to the last minute and then try to cram the whole thing into a last minute exercise (no pun intended). Which is exactly what happened. He joined the gym, got a trainer, started Pilates and kept watching the videos of the climb he would be doing in a few weeks.
I finally managed to persuade him to go to the climbing wall so that he could practise actual climbing. I know from my own experience that you can be as fit as a fiddle but when you start a new sport, you struggle; your body just isn’t used to being used for that purpose, it takes a little while to build up the stamina.
I have to say that I was far keener for John to go to the climbing wall than John was. He really dragged his feet about the whole thing. I ended up resorting to watching the climbing videos over his shoulder and making comments like “Ooh, there’s some finger strength needed there! Do we have one of those finger exercisers?” and “Wow, his arms look tired! Have you been doing many pull ups?” and generally nagging him about getting himself down to the climbing wall so that he could actually climb.
Eventually he caved in (yay! Go me!) and off we toddled to the climbing wall with me as his not-so-trusty belayer (the person who holds the rope while the other is climbing; I’m not very good at it). Two weeks or so before he was due to go on the climbing day, I was beginning to get really worried. It was really obvious that he still found Grade 22 difficult. Not technically, he still had all the moves, but he didn’t have the strength in his fingers to execute them. I put the suggestion out that maybe he could, you know, possibly postpone the climb for a couple of months maybe, so he could, perhaps, feel a little more confident, you know, in his strength and, erm, ability to do the, ah, more technical moves.
In other words, I didn’t think he was fit enough to do this climb right now and I was trying to be tactful about it. Tact isn’t something that comes naturally to me, so this was a tricky conversation. But despite my ongoing suggestions that maybe he postpone for a few months, John dismissed my concerns (observations), adamant that he’d be okay, it was only a Grade 22, for heaven’s sake! He would have done that as a warm up in the eighties, probably even done it without a rope, he asserted.
Despite several attempts to persuade my aging rock climbing husband to postpone the big day, he stood firm in his belief that climbing Bunny Bucket Buttress was well within his climbing ability and off he went to meet his guide on the assigned day. John had a brief chat with him outlining his previous experience – I’ve done this, I’ve climbed that, I’ve soloed, I’ve first ascented, blah blah. It was all going swimmingly until the guide asked him what he’d done lately. “Erm, ah, well, I’ve been to the climbing wall a few times,” replies John. You could see the warning bells begin to ring in the guide’s head as he handed John a helmet, a harness and a short rope to attach to the harness.
Putting on a harness is something that any rock climber can do in the dark. Climbers spend their entire lives wearing a harness. They also put a lot of effort into their ropes and knots, which is fair enough because their lives depend on them. To be fair, John had never worn a helmet before, it’s one of those health and safety rules that go with getting a guided climb.
As John kitted himself up, the guide’s concern grew. John put the harness on back to front. Then he put the helmet on backwards. Then, red in the face with embarrassment and growing more apprehensive about this whole idea by the minute, he couldn’t remember how to tie the basic climbers’ knot and had to get help with that, too.
By this time, the guide was swearing under his breath about idiots who think they can climb but haven’t got a clue.
They drove out to the gorge and trekked for twenty minutes or so to the cliff edge.
The Blue Mountains are only an hours’ drive from Sydney but many parts of them are still inaccessible. The gorges are huge, steep and deep, their cliffs cutting vast rifts through the densely packed eucalyptus trees. These Blue Gums give off an oily mist that makes the whole area glisten with a blue sheen and led to the name, the Blue Mountains.
Finally, as the two men reached the edge of the cliff overlooking the valley, trepidation began to seep into John’s stomach. He listened to the guide, his anxiety growing by the second, telling him that they abseil down a much smaller wall than the one they’ll be climbing, the abseil wall is only about 150 metres high, so three ropes pitches.
For all us non-climbers, 150 metres of abseil means that it takes 3 ropes to reach the bottom and you must stop twice on the way down to change ropes and start a new abseil.
In this case, down a vertical and occasionally overhanging cliff. There are no ledges, nowhere to sit; at your stop points, you’re hooked to a bolt on the wall while you unhook from one rope and attach yourself to the next rope. Most of John’s climbing has been on single pitch cliffs. He’s rarely climbed in places where you need more than one rope, and he certainly hasn’t done that since we left the UK in 1991. Now it seemed to John that possibly he’s a little bit afraid of heights these days (possibly not, mind; I suspect he was just a bit confronted).
As he was preparing the ropes and equipment to begin his descent, the guide cheerily told John that the only way into or out of this part of the valley was via the belay they were about to begin, and that if anything happened, they’d have to call the rescue helicopter.
Oh, and if it started raining, they’d be stuck, too. Since the only way out of the gorge from here was up the rock, and since you can’t climb up wet rock, they’d have to call the rescue helicopter, ha ha.
The guide descended to the first stop point and hooked himself up to the belay point on the wall, unconcernedly hanging from a small rope (the one that John couldn’t remember how to knot) 100 metres above the forest floor and then it was John’s turn to descend.
I can only describe what I suspect was going through John’s mind at this point. He’s told me that he was “scared s**tless” and seriously regretting his decision to do this climb and what the hell was I thinking getting this kind of present for him?
The cliff was overhanging in a number of places, so as John descended, his feet lost contact with the wall. As he slowly spun in 360 degrees over 120 metres in the air, he was able to fully appreciate the inaccessibility and isolation of the rugged and harsh terrain. And his own mortality.
The climb back up, all 350 metres and eight rope pitches of it, was ‘pumpy’ (hard on the arms), ‘fingery’ (it hurt your fingertips), ‘sharp’ (the rock cuts into your skin) and ‘slippery’.
It was at the extreme edge of John’s current fitness level but his technical skill meant that he did the climb easily. It was physically challenging rather than technically. He only fell off once in the whole 350 metres, the guide acknowledging both John’s ability and his own relief after the first pitch.
Note to self: go easier on my husband next time. Or at least give him a bit more time to get himself in shape.
Actually, that’s never going to work: John’s a last minute, pants-on-fire kind of person; if I’d given him 12 months’ warning, he would still have started training only a few weeks before the event.