Welcome to the first of a 5-part blog series about the many benefits of climbing and why you - yes, you! whoever you are - should try it. And I am talking about the kind of climbing that involves hanging from vertical walls by your fingertips, not about hiking up mountains. (Although you should try that too! It’s great for both body and soul.)
Wall climbing comes in two flavors - indoors on artificial walls, and outdoors, on natural rock faces. It’s the explosion of indoor climbing venues in the last decade that has made the sport much more accessible to everyone. Nevertheless, I imagine the idea has already triggered a set of assumptions in your mind.
It’s dangerous. It’s frightening. It’s a boy thing. It’s only for the young. It’s only for heroes who can do dozens of pull-ups. It’s expensive. It’s impossible to get started if you know nothing about it.
There is a bit of truth to the last two, but there are ways round that. None of the rest is correct. Join me as we scale this mountain together, and discover that almost anyone can and should try it.
I’ve been rock-climbing for 30 years. I’m also the first woman in the world to have climbed Everest from both sides. So people inevitably think I must have been a sporty child with adventurous parents, and a laser-like focus on Everest as my life goal.
I hated school sport. I don’t have good co-ordination with balls, my swimming is terrible and I don’t like the rah-rah culture of team sports. Also, I hate losing. I don’t like winning either, not in the sense of beating someone else. I labelled myself as academic and nerdy, and hide away behind my books. I grew up in the vast flat suburbs of Johannesburg, the most adventurous thing my parents ever did was take day walks in the forest during summer holidays. As a teenager, I was afraid of heights - in glass-fronted lifts, I always stood at the back. And even once I began rock-climbing and progressed on to mountaineering, it never occurred to me that Everest was a possibility. (For the bizarre story of how I ended up on the 1st South African Everest team, www.kandooadventures.com )
Why does rock-climbing appeal to me so strongly? Some of it is about where outdoor climbing takes place - in beautiful, wild, remote settings. But a lot is about its nature. There’s no competition - in so far as we judge ourselves, it’s about the hardest grade we can achieve on a open-ended scale of difficulty. I’m approaching 50, I may well never again reach the hardest grade I’ve climbed. That doesn’t matter to me.
Climbing is a profoundly personal challenge. At it’s heart it’s a puzzle. There is you, with your current level of mental and physical abilities. There is the wall, with holds sprinkled across it in a variety of shapes and sizes. You try and combine all these elements in creative ways to make progress upwards. Each moment and each movement is different.
It’s not about ‘conquering’ anything, nor about reaching a summit. Of course it’s satisfying to get to the top but the fascination is how you managed the journey. The challenge is building your arsenal of skills so you can take on a different journey next time.
Although you can climb alone - mostly in the form of what gets called bouldering - at its heart it is a team activity, with a friend holding the safety rope. It is mutually supportive but not directly competitive - differences in age, height, flexibility, and ingenuity means each person tackles a climb differently.
It seems paradoxical that a sport that is so obviously physically demanding should be relaxing, but it’s the need for full mental engagement that shuts down the constant background buzz of worry and stress that haunts so many of us.
For children climbing develops co-ordination and strength, while also teaching planning, risk judgment and consequences. For women, who quickly discover that flexibility and clever use of technique is much more useful than brute strength, it’s a way to discover pride in their bodies that is not about appearance. For anyone bedeviled by stress, depression, low self-esteem, it’s an engaging way to release endorphins and build confidence.
The next four blog posts will cover
- Climbing with children
- Climbing with a disability
- Climbing for women
- Climbing for mental health
Let’s climb this mountain together.
Cathy is a South African who now lives in Andorra, and works as a motivational speaker. She is best known as the first woman in the world to climb Everest from both sides, but she is equally passionate about rock-climbing, ski mountaineering, and simply being out in the hills. For more background on Cathy’s story, plus tips from her on how to get started in a world of adventure, watch a speech she gave to the Women’s Leadership and Adventure Summit.
Her book about her years on Everest www.amazon.co.uk