VSlimbing, I once thought, was a very manly activity. A pursuit for macho adventurers on a mission of conquest – conquer the mountain, conquer their fear, conquer themselves. This may be the story of some climbers, but upon discovering this activity, I realized that something quite different was happening on the rock.
Like wild swimming, rock climbing immerses you in the landscape. On the rock, I am fully present. The eyes pay particular attention, scrutinizing the details of the rock, trying to read the passage at the top of the cliff. The ears are alert, listening to the sounds of the stone, my partner and the environment. The hands roam the surface, searching for the features while the whole body works to stay balanced, coordinating around the different shapes of the cliff. Unlike walking, where I could happily frolic distractedly through the landscape, in climbing careful observation is essential.
I started climbing when I was a student in Liverpool. I don’t come from a climbing family. We were outdoors in a sort of laid back countryside. We swam in rivers and quarry pools, walked in fields, and religiously went out for Sunday walks in the hills and woods around the house. Moving to Liverpool was quite a contrast. Suddenly, I was in a busy urban environment, surrounded by street children. It was fun, but I felt out of place. Something was missing.
By joining the college mountaineering club, I found a way to escape the city. Every weekend, dressed in a fantastic jumble of borrowed and second-hand clothes, I staggered out of my hangover and into a minibus to experience 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 walk and quickly learned the scramble, where hands and feet came into play to safely traverse steps and exposed rock ridges, such as Crib Goch on Snowdon. Climbing was the next step.
I started to climb inside an old church in Liverpool and instantly fell in love with the movement. I loved putting my body on the wall and following the lines of colored grips to the ceiling. Working on these sequences required balance, coordination and power. When the climbs were going well, everything flowed in a delightful dance. When things were going badly, I had something to work on – a problem to solve next week. Indoor climbing was safe, warm, fun and sociable.
With these same mountaineering friends, I ventured to the sandstone edges of the Peak District at Froggatt, Stanage and the Roaches. But climbing on real rocks didn’t bring the same instant fun. Fumbling around routes, following more experienced male leaders, I struggled with movement and was often told off for using my knees on ledges (apparently it was bad form). I fell and hung on the rope, screaming for help as my partner would do his best to advise me, bellowing directions from the top of the rock. It was not a worthy learning process.
It turned out that outdoor climbing was much more complicated than indoor climbing. I had to learn about gear, different types of knots, how to get around the rock and read the guides, which had their own coded phrasing (I now know that “exciting” means terrifying and to avoid all that is described as “hoarse”).
My learning to climb has been shaped by the many domestic and professional moves of my 20 years of traveling. From Liverpool I moved to Yorkshire, where I got to know the rock of Bronte country better, the gritstone. This sedimentary stone is made up of sands and pebbles that once flowed from the mountains into the Pennine Basin. Today, some 320 meters later, it is the base rock for many British climbers.
This interest in geology was new to me. I was an arts student, I was studying English literature. While climbing in the open air, I discovered a new type of reading. As I ventured onto the rocks, I saw how you can learn to read the rocks and, to do the climbs, you have to develop a vocabulary of physical movements. Good climbers knew how to map their bodies on stone. Looking at them, I wanted to possess this skillful language.
From gritstone I moved on to volcanic rocks in the Lake District. Working at the Wordsworth Trust in Grasmere I was immersed in a different landscape. Rocks were everywhere. Local slates and rhyolites appeared in houses and barns, stone walls, cairns and pathways. They broke out of the ground into outcrops and boulders and formed towering cliffs and boulders. On these rocks, I found an ease of movement that I had never had on the sandstone. A flow began to develop.
In Grasmere, I came across a team of locals who deepened this sense of connection between body and stone. Unlike the old climbing partners, for whom the activity was a sport or a hobby, climbing meant something else to these guys. They were stonemasons, path builders and climbers who worked with the rocks every day and in all weathers. For them, rock was a way of life.
On the Greek limestone, the Welsh slate and the gabbro pinnacles on the Cuillin’s of Skye, I built up a wider climbing vocabulary and realized that different types of rock required particular movement patterns. While gritstone is all about friction and maximum contact between skin and stone, slate is smooth and requires pinpoint precision. Gabbro has impeccable grip, but when exposed on the crest of Britain’s youngest mountains it can be loose and treacherous. The manipulation of these various rocky places has become an exercise in body/mind concentration which, like yoga or meditation, dissolves the self.
The next hop of my trip was north again, into granite country. Working for the Cairngorms National Park Authority introduced me to another distinctive landscape. In this huge expanse of land, with its pine forests and subarctic mountain plateau, I wandered a lot, first finding my bearings by walking. Local writer Nan Shepherd guided my explorations into this strange new landscape. In The Living Mountain, Shepherd writes beautifully about the Cairngorms. Contrary to the goal-oriented mindset of many climbers, she is not concerned with peaks or personal bests. Shepherd sees the mountain as a total environment and she celebrates the Cairngorms as a living place with plants, rocks, animals and the elements.
The senses are key to Shepherd’s process of understanding the mountains. She writes about going out in all weathers and using your body as an instrument to apprehend the place. She walks barefoot, tastes mountain berries, and even asks the reader to move her head to look at the world through her legs, exclaiming, “How new it has become!” Thanks to his generous spirit and my own wanderings in the highland granites of the Cairngorm Plateau, I understood that climbing was not necessarily a process of measuring yourself against anything. On the contrary, the intensity of concentration could release you into another way of being.
Climbing taught me to play with risk, to understand my own vulnerability while developing strengths that I never had before. Along with improving physical and mental dexterity, I gained insight into movement between people and stone. Learning to speak the language of rock is a movement between body and stone, muscle memory and tactile desire. Looking at a cliff, an untrained eye will soon look away, for all it can see is a barren expanse of dead rock. But for a climber, it’s a living face, full of opportunities, possibilities and intrigue.
Spending so much time in high, rocky places has changed my view of the world and our place in it. I came into physical contact with processes that go far beyond everyday life. By broadening my perspective to understand the place and its environment, I came to see how particular rocks shape life and the landscape. The climber’s view is unique. By working with gravity, geology, weather rhythms and deep time, we gain an embodied relationship with the earth. This connection is at the heart of my passion for climbing. I go back to the rocks, because that’s where I feel in contact 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