I was a climbing wall virgin

Taking up climbing aged 47 may sound like a really stupid idea, but then when is a good time to think clinging to a wall of rock is a sensible pastime?

I’m sure age had a part to play in my decision to try climbing. I can’t do any of the usual mid-life crisis things. I’ve got loads of bicycles, maybe too many, I’ve been riding motorcycles for years, and the sports car is out ‘cause I haven’t got a licence. So climbing it is then.

A bit of internet searching and I’d found an indoor climbing wall relatively close to home. A quick phone call and two days later I rock up at what looks, from the outside, like a regular farmyard barn, but inside is the bouldering room of the climbing centre. The walls are lined with artificial rock faces that appear to be populated by hordes of small children. Seeing them happily scrabbling up and down the walls I’m thinking, how hard can this be? Then I remember, they’re young and have no fear.

Fortunately, the taster session I’ve booked includes time with an instructor. She points me towards one wall that has bright pink blobs scattered across it, thicker than my teenage acne ever was. First hand on the wall and I’m off. Almost without realising I’m at the top. Cool. Then I realised I’ve got to get back down again. Let’s just say it’s a good job there’s a 30cm thick crash mat below ready to caress me.

My indignity is then further amplified when the instructor tells me the hand and foot holds are colour-coded and pink is the easiest.

Sensing my unease about falling again, she suggests I try making my way horizontally along the wall using the bolt on holds and the cracks and crevices moulded into the wall. Succes, I make it across the wall without falling off. I put that done to my sheer bloody-mindedness. How stupid would I feel falling all of 10cm?
Time to try going vertically again. After a few attempts, as I realise that I can’t always get my legs to flex as much as I thought I could, I begin to get a feel for the wall. So much so that I not only manage to climb up, but also back down without falling off.

You know that saying pride comes before a fall? No, I never really understood it either, until now. I’m told to try the same climb, but just use the harder graded hand holds. I reach for a hold that’s further away than I realised - and thump. Hello again, crash mat.

I’m starting to really enjoy myself now though and beginning to realise how fit real climbers are. The sweat is pouring off me, and my arms, shoulders and fingers are all complaining. This is the excuse I’m using for being unable to scale the last section of wall with a ninety-degree overhang. In my head I can do it, but my body is having none of it. I simply can’t hold on with my fingertips while I swinging my leg out and around to try and get round the overhang. Every time I try I find myself flat out on the crash mats staring up at the wall.

Sensing my frustration, the instructor suggested we move next door and try some rope climbing. Well, it would be rude not to accept an offer like that, and that’s what I keep telling myself that as I look up at the 5.5m high walls and the ropes hanging from the ceiling.

The instructor explains that once I’ve got a harness on and the rope attached, I can’t fall as she’ll be taking up the slack as I climb using a special widget that will hold the rope in place until she releases it.

First, though, I have to get into the harness and pull it tight. I’ve never really thought about bondage before, but after negotiating the straps and buckles I do wonder what the attraction is…

Approaching the wall, I’m strangely calm. Maybe it’s because I know what to expect; my fingers will hurt, my arms will ache and I’ll get frustrated. Maybe it’s the fact I know if I do lose my grip I won’t fall. Then I’m at the top of the wall and I’m being asked, “Do you want to climb down or just let go and get used to the feeling of falling with the rope holding you safely?” A daft question really, I get it out of the way. This is easy. I’m swinging gently and then I’m putting my feet against the wall leaning back and just walking down backwards as the instructor’s letting the rope out.

Filled with confidence, I’m making my way up and down the next section. I even work my way up a reverse incline. Trouble comes when I try using just one colour of hand holds. Overconfidence strikes again, I’m stuck just an arm’s length from the top; can’t go up and can’t get myself down. Good job that rope is holding me there.

Once I’m down I’m planning the next visit as my time is up. A good thing really, ‘cause I’m not sure my body could take much more. It’s only the adrenalin rushing through me that’s keeping the pain in my muscles at bay.

I’ll be back. Well, I will once my muscles stop hurting and the bruises on my knees fade.


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