I’m not technically a climbing beginner. I was taught to belay twelve years ago – caving-style, using an Italian hitch rather than climbing-style, using a belay plate, but even that came only a year or two later. I was taught all the essential knots – that is, the rethreaded figure-of-eight although my knot-tying repertoire includes a couple of other variations on the figure-of-eight, Alpine butterflies of both the false and true variety, lark’s head, clove hitch and a few more that I can’t think of right now (although, to my frustration, I have never mastered the bowline). I know how to put on harnesses of both the climbing and caving variety. I’m on my second pair of climbing shoes, I own my own belay device and chalkbag and a good handful of karabiners (mostly liberated from my SRT kit, which doesn’t see a lot of use these days).
So why did I sign up to a Beginner’s Climbing course? Because I’ve never been taught the fine art of climbing. I was a caver in a part of the country where we could get no further from the caves. We managed trips two or three times a term but in between, the best we could manage as practice was climbing and our training took the form of “go and play for an hour or two or until you’re too tired to do any more” – at least, those were the more informal trainings. The proper training was SRT and ropework and was often done out in the trees round the back of the Chemistry building. I know that climbing correctly involves techniques and style and routes and things like that. Caving-style involves using anything and everything to not fall and die, up to and including wedging your head in if necessary.
Lesson one, predictably, was putting on a harness, tying in and belaying. I was way ahead of the group – four of us to two instructors, which meant working in pairs with one instructor overseeing each pair. No mysteries in the tying of knots here but what was completely new to me was starting my first ascent and realising my rope was still dangling in front of me as my partner was so totally new to belaying that she didn’t know how to take it in. My first climb was very slow and very tentative and letting go of the wall five feet up was one of the scariest things I’ve ever done.
We spent the lesson climbing. Nothing too strenuous, nothing too challenging, letting us get used to climbing, to being on a rope, to belaying, to trusting our partners – that last one came slowest for me. We tried out various walls, with various features and various types of hold, we were shown some techniques and encouraged to try them out if we could. I got to the top of the last wall, by method of putting an elbow on the abseiling platform that happened to be next to it (it’s important to be able to do this wall; lesson three features abseiling and we have to start by climbing up to the platform). I came away with forearms that felt like they would explode if I stuck anything sharp in them and sore hands.
Our chief instructor had injured himself – possibly broken an ankle – falling over his own feet on the way to a climb and we had a new instructor who went over everything from the beginning again. We were supposed to be prusiking and I’d really been looking forward to it but the stuff was in the toybox and the key had gone missing, so we spent the evening climbing. My partner still had not mastered her knot and every climb began with “I’m going to need help”. We took it relatively easy. The instructor told us to relax, climb nice and gently, don’t try to fly up, try to mostly use your legs. I’m a terrible climber because I haul myself up with my arms. I know my legs are bigger and stronger but it’s difficult. Apparently it worked, though. By the end, I didn’t have that burning in my forearms and when I got home and tried to go upstairs, I discovered that my legs were weak and wobbly and hardly had enough left in them to get me up the stairs.
The first wall we did was tricky to start with. The instructor told us to just stand on his foot – there’s one thing about a caving background, you don’t hesitate when people tell you to stand on them. I’ve used people’s knees and backs as steps plenty of times and I’ve been a step for other people nearly as many. I’d done this particular wall the previous week (only I’d started further round where there were more holds) and made it over the irritating ridge near the top on the second attempt. This time, I had to climb up and stand on the ridge and not only smack the pulley but also the pole that supports everything and the pipe that runs around the ceiling. Very exciting!
We did an overhanging wall – I was ok with using the overhanging part for my left half but it was diagonal and as I got higher, the flat part ran out and I was left with nothing but the overhang. I’m not strong enough for that, so I gave up two-thirds of the way up. We tried climbing routes – the first wall has a grade four route on blue-and-white holds and I gave that a go but they’re spaced too far apart. I can spreadeagle across four of them but it’s a pig to get up to the next ones and by the time the instructor relented and let me do it rainbow, I was just too exhausted. Once my partner had had her last climb, the instructor belayed me for one last go at the wall. I fell off. That doesn’t bother me. I trust the instructor and I swung merrily for a moment before grabbing the wall and carrying on but now we’d been climbing hard for two hours and I didn’t have anything left in me.
I was delighted to come home and find I didn’t have the strength in my legs to get up the stairs and that my arms didn’t hurt much (the palms of my hands, yes, because I’d been sliding the rope through rather than feeding it through) which means I’ve been using my legs to push up rather than hauling myself up with my arms.
Another new instructor. I don’t mind in a way, it’s good to hear things from three different perspectives but on the other hand, none of them know how much we’ve been taught so far, so we have to keep going over the same things.
Tonight was the abseil! The instructor climbed up to the abseiling platform and one by one, we were to climb up, with him belaying from above (my climbing partner absolutely couldn’t comprehend how that worked), he helped us to put on our various bits and pieces and then over the edge we went. There were some nerves on the ground – the stepping off of the edge, the functioning of the kit, the belaying from above etc and people kept asking questions that I thought he’d just spent the last ten minutes covering, so when he said “I can either demonstrate myself or one of you can come and demonstrate and the others can watch” and I jumped at the chance. Abseiling doesn’t hold too much terror for me – it’s another activity you get to do a fair bit of with the Guides and I’ve abseiled into big holes in the ground (well, not that big. I did the first pitch in Longchurn and I got down to the penultimate pitch in Pwll Dwfn before getting completely and utterly stuck at a simple deviation and swinging from the rope for an hour – not that you can compare abseiling SRT-style with abseiling like we did today) and I also abseiled off a local water tower a couple of years ago. All I can get off the internet is that it’s “100ft +” which isn’t helpful.
But I’ve never abseiled on a belay device with a French prusik for safety. I found the prusik knot inconvenient – I felt like it would be much more comfortable to be able to let the rope out exactly as I wanted without having to force it through the knot first, I didn’t like having to leave my left hand dangling because it felt totally unnatural to only have one hand on the dead rope and as I held the rope in the brake position the entire descent and still moved at a fair speed, I wouldn’t like to release any of the friction at all ever. Other than that, all was fine. Getting tied in while standing on the platform with the sports centre tilting around below you is unnerving but once your heels go over the edge, you can’t see anything below you and I found I was concentrating so much on not touching anything with my left hand that I didn’t have any spare brain left to be scared with once I set off.
That was about it for actual action. We each did a quick tie-in and a quick belay, just so this particular instructor could see we were all competent and sign us off and the rest of the session was spent introducing us to the bouldering cave, to the fine details of the harnesses and the what-next. We’ve all been signed off as able to climb unsupervised and indeed, to bring novices and teach them (although the wall supervisor has to sign them off) and we’ve all swapped numbers so we can form our own little climbing club – real climbers apparently not liking to let strangers into their little group, we ideally need to turn up at the wall with a partner and for all of us, that’s one of the others.
So, competent climber! Yay!