August 18, 2022

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Climbing, I once thought, was a very manly activity. A pursuit for macho adventurers on...

Climbing, I once thought, was a very manly activity. A pursuit for macho adventurers on a mission to conquer – conquer the mountain, conquer their fear, conquer themselves. That may be the story for some climbers, but as I found my way into this activity, I came to see that something quite different happens on the rock.
Like wild swimming, rock climbing immerses you within the landscape. On the rock, I am fully present. Eyes pay close attention, scanning the details of the rock, trying to read the passage up the cliff. Ears are alert, tuned in to the sounds of the stone, my partner and the environment. Hands roam across the surface, feeling for features while the whole body works to stay within balance, coordinating itself around the various forms of the cliff. Unlike walking, where I could happily trundle absent-mindedly through the landscape, in climbing, attentive observation is essential.
I started climbing when I was an undergraduate in Liverpool. I did not come from a climbing family. We were outdoorsy in a laidback country kind of way. We swam in rivers and quarry pools, mucked around in fields and went out religiously for Sunday walks in the rolling hills and woods of home. Moving to Liverpool was quite a contrast. Suddenly, I was in a buzzing city environment, surrounded by streetwise kids. It was fun, but I felt out of place. Something was missing.
Joining the university mountaineering club, I found a way to escape the city. Every weekend, dressed in a fantastic jumble of borrowed clothing and hand-me-downs, I staggered out of my hangover and on to a minibus to discover the mountains of the UK. With the club I explored Snowdonia, the Peak District, the Lake District and Scotland for the first time. I loved the walking and soon got the hang of scrambling, where hands and feet came into play to safely journey across exposed rocky steps and ridges, such as Crib Goch on Snowdon. Rock climbing was the next step.
I began climbing inside an old church in Liverpool and instantly fell for the movement. I loved placing my body on the wall and following the lines of coloured holds up towards the ceiling. Working these sequences required balance, coordination and power. When the climbs went well, everything flowed in a delightful dance. When things went less well, I had something to work on – a problem to solve next week. Indoor climbing was safe, warm, fun and sociable.
With those same mountaineering friends, I ventured out on to the gritstone edges of the Peak District at Froggatt, Stanage and the Roaches. But climbing on real rock did not bring the same instant rush of pleasure. Fumbling up routes, following more experienced male leaders, I struggled with moves and was frequently told off for using my knees on ledges (apparently that was bad form). I fell off and dangled on the rope, shouting for help from my partner who would do his best to advise me by bellowing directions down from the top of the crag. This was not a dignified learning process.

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I was an arts student – on the crags I discovered a new type of reading

Outdoor climbing, it turned out, was significantly more complicated than climbing indoors. I had to learn about equipment, various types of knots, how to move on the rock and to read the guidebooks, which had their own coded phrasing (I now know that “exciting” means terrifying and to avoid anything described as “thrutchy”).
My climbing apprenticeship was shaped by the many home and job moves of my itinerant 20s. From Liverpool, I moved to Yorkshire, where I became better acquainted with the rock of Brontë country – gritstone. This sedimentary stone is made up of sands and pebbles that once poured off mountains into the Pennine basin. Now, some 320m years later, it is the foundation rock for many British climbers.
This interest in geology was new for me. I was an arts student, studying English literature. Climbing outdoors, I discovered a new type of reading. Venturing out on to the crags, I saw how you can learn to read the rocks and, in order to do the climbs, you have to develop a vocabulary of physical movements. Good climbers knew how to map their bodies on to the stone. Watching them, I wanted to possess that dextrous language.
From the gritstone, I moved to the volcanic rocks of the Lake District. Working at the Wordsworth Trust in Grasmere, I was immersed in a different landscape. The rocks were everywhere. The local slates and rhyolites appeared in the houses and barns, stonewalls, cairns and footpaths. They burst from the ground in outcrops and boulders and formed towering cliffs and crags. On these rocks, I found an ease of movement I had never had on the gritstone. A flow began to develop.
In Grasmere, I fell in with a crew of locals who deepened this sense of connection between body and stone. Unlike previous climbing partners, for whom the activity was a sport or leisure pursuit, climbing meant something else for these guys. They were stonemasons, path-builders and climbers who were out working with the rocks every day and in all weathers. For them, rock was a way of life.

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Climbing isn’t about pitting yourself against anything

On Greek limestone, Welsh slate and the gabbro pinnacles on the Cuillin of Skye, I built a wider climbing vocabulary and became conscious that different rock types demanded particular patterns of movement. Whereas gritstone is all about friction and maximum contact between skin and stone, slate is smooth and requires razor-sharp precision. Gabbro has impeccable grip, but where it is exposed on the crest of the youngest mountains in Britain, it can be loose and treacherous. Handling these diverse rocky places became an exercise in body/mind focus which, like yoga or meditation, dissolves away the self.
The next leap on my journey was north again, into granite country. Working for the Cairngorms National Park Authority, I became familiar with another distinctive landscape. In this huge tract of land, with its pine forests and subarctic mountain plateau, I roamed widely, initially finding my feet through walking. Guiding my explorations into this strange new landscape was the local writer Nan Shepherd. In The Living Mountain, Shepherd writes beautifully about the Cairngorms. Unlike the goal-oriented mindset of many mountaineers, she is not concerned with summits or personal bests. Shepherd sees the mountain as a total environment and she celebrates the Cairngorms as a place alive with plants, rocks, animals and elements.
The senses are key to Shepherd’s process of understanding the mountains. She writes about going out in all weathers and using her body as an instrument to comprehend the place. She walks barefoot, tastes mountain berries and even directs the reader to move their heads to look at the world through their legs, exclaiming, “How new it has become!” Through her generous spirit and my own wanderings in the upland granites of the Cairngorm plateau, I saw that rock climbing need not be a process of pitting yourself against anything. Rather, the intensity of focus could release you into another way of being.
Climbing has taught me to play with risk, understanding my own vulnerability while also developing strengths I never had before. Alongside the enhanced physical and mental dexterity, I have gained an insight into the movements between people and stone. Learning to speak the rock’s language is a movement between body and stone, muscle memory and tactile desire. Looking up at a cliff, an inexpert eye will soon glance away, for all it can see is a barren expanse of dead rocks. But to a climber this is a living face, alive with opportunities, possibilities and intrigue.
Spending so much time in high and stony places has altered my view on the world and our place in it. I have come into physical contact with processes that go way beyond the everyday. Widening my perspective to take in the place and its environment, I came to see how particular rocks shape life and landscape. The climber’s eye view is unique. Working with gravity, geology, rhythms of weather and deep time, we gain an embodied relationship with the earth. This connection lies at the heart of my passion for rock climbing. I return to the rocks, because this is where I feel in touch with our land.
Time on Rock: A Climber’s Route into the Mountains, by Anna Fleming, is published by Canongate at £16.99. Order a copy for £14.78 from guardianbookshop.com

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