Where will you try out rock climbing for the first time?
Climbing doesn’t have to be an obsession, it can just be a fun sport to break up the monotony of going to a gym. Many people have asked me where I go climbing in London and are surprised to know how many different climbing gyms there are in London, so I thought I’d put together a list of all the options out there, especially considering I’ve been to most of them. If this encourages even one extra person to give this wonderful sport a go, I’ll be very happy!
Closest tube station: Manor House Single entry price: £12.50; concessions £7.50 Opening hours: Mon-Fri 12.00-22.00; Sat-Sun – 9.00-19.00 Pubs nearby: The Browswood, a nice chilled out pub with a beer garden for summer
This is one of the biggest climbing centres in London, and has top rope, bouldering and leading areas, and auto-belays in case you have no climbing partner but want to do long routes. It offers climbing courses, and you will have to do one if you are going to climb ropes without supervision. You won’t need one to just boulder, but it would be a shame to miss out on the climbing experience with ropes!
It is one of my favourite climbing gyms, and had a nice atmosphere. It also has an awesome cafe, where they serve organic veggie food sourced primarily from their own garden, at a very reasonable price. There is also quite a large climbing shop.
However, it does get extremely busy on evenings and weekends, and it is the most expensive of all the gyms unless you are a student or have some other reason to get a concession price.
Pubs nearby: A really nice pub called The Victoria 5 mins walk from the gym, does food, drinks, and even tea and cake
Primarily a bouldering gym, but his actually has a top rope area, which even includes one auto-belay. I climb here regularly because it’s a 10 mins walk from my house, but I do find the routes here a little harder than the Arch most of the time. However, there are loads of routes suitable for beginners and some are even situated in beginner areas, so you aren’t intimidated by other climbers around you. A good place to give climbing a go! It also doesn’t tend to get quite as busy as the arch, though it is smaller.
The staff here are really friendly and it had the cheapest tea and coffee I’ve seen anywhere – teas start at 60p! However, you will be asked for a 50p deposit for a locker, and you’ll feel bad asking for it back, as all the money goes to the charity that runs the gym.
Closest tube station: Bermondsey
This is purely a bouldering gym, one of the biggest ones in London. It currently has two buildings – The Biscuit and Building 1 – but the former is set to be closed eventually. It’s a good place to try out climbing as you don’t need to do a course – you can just go and give it a shot. All the levels are colour-coded, black being the easiest, and you can expect all routes of the same colour to be a similar level.
My main issue with this place is that it’s so popular it gets really busy, especially in the evenings straight after work. You can avoid the crowds by going to The Biscuit building – older, so less popular, but still very good – or coming on the weekend, when it’s a little more chilled out.
Closest tube stop:
Entry price: one off registration fee of £5; single entry £9
I wouldn’t try them
This is actually my favourite climbing gym, apart from the fact that it’s so far away from everywhere! But that does discourage many people from going, which means you don’t have to queue for routes and can enjoy your climbing.
Much of the climbing here is leading, and there is an awesome mix of routes, with a new massive overhand built recently which is very hard work!! There is also plenty of top ropes for beginners and a number of auto belays, and two bouldering areas. So a good mix. As ever, you’d have to do a course to climb on ropes or get someone experienced to show you.
Closest tube stop: Baker Street/Marble Arch
Single entry price:
Pubs nearby: The Harcourt, W1H 4HX; Duke of Wellington, Crawford St, W1H 2HQ
A much smaller climbing gym, but one that is close to my heart because it was the first place I started climbing in London. It is mostly top rope, though the routes all have clips for quickdraws, so leading with your own equipment is possible. There is also a bouldering area. The gym used to be owned by High Sports but the management has transitioned to the owner of the Seymore sports centre, inside which it’s located, so there are some glitches in the running of the place. However, it a great place to check out some very interesting routes. Many of them have been set by Mike, one of the instructors here who I famous for setting hard and well-thought out routes. You are guaranteed to sweat on these trying to figure out the next move!
This gym is nice in quiet periods, but can get very busy between 7pm and 9pm, when everyone comes from work. If you can get here early though, before the rush, you get the whole place to yourself!
Other climbing gyms
Closest tube stop: Latimer Road
Single entry price: one-off fee of £5; entry price £10
Located inside the Westway gym complex, this climbing centre offers both bouldering and roped climbing, but it is best for leading, in my opinion. Leading is where you are not attached to a rope at the top of a climb and are instead clipping your rope in every few meters as you climb up – in a similar way to what you do when you sport-climb outdoors. I find the bouldering in this gym super-hard, but the long routes are really nice. And there are enough top ropes for beginners to give this a go, but you would have to do a course or go with an experienced climber to supervise you.
The gym doesn’t have as nice a feel as a dedicated climbing centre like the Castle, as its inside a complex, but there is a cafe inside the complex and a climbing shop too. It’s also far less busy, especially on quieter nights, such as Mondays or Fridays.
Closest tube stop: Swiss Cottage
Single entry price:
Pubs nearby: Swiss Cottage
Review: I used to climb at Swiss Cottage from time to time, but haven’t been there for ages. It’s another former high sports gym that is transitioning to the
management of the sports centre it is based in. It’s also small, like west 1, and is a top-rope based gym, with a few lead routes.
One major disadvantage is that it’s party open-air, with just a mesh wire protecting it from the elements, so gets freezing on the winter! The grades on the routes are a bit of a Mish-mash as well, so you may find yourself flashing a 6b put struggling on a 5+. If you live in the area though, it is worth checking out for convenience.
There is a range of high sports climbing gyms still operating across the city, but I’ve never been to the others. You can check them out here and try the one near where you live.
Nearest pub: Royal Vauxhall Tavern; By the river: Brunswick House; bars in the St Georges development
Review: I’ve never been here, so asked my friend Ali to write a few words. Vauxhall climbing centre is small but perfectly formed and it goes out of its way to solve many bugbears with bouldering centres. Firstly, it has a system of tags on specific routes like ‘SS’ or ‘JS’ which stand for sit start or jump start. Secondly, air con is so useful in the summer! Thirdly, it has a set of permanent routes, highlighted by the fact they are wooden, which are all independently graded, so that you can judge your improvement over time against a consistent base. Finally, showers! It is amazing to have a place which allows you to clean up after a session instead of making the long trek home smelling like a dog. There is also a cafe inside for those post-climbing teas and coffees!
Closest tube stop: Swiss Cottage
Single entry price:
Again, I haven’t been here, but here are some thoughts from my friend Alec: First impressions are a little disappointing, the iPads to log in are so slow and unresponsive that I had to register as a woman to get in… There was also a queue out of the door and only two toilets in the whole place. On the plus side there are two good and varied bouldering areas with a good level of challenges, and lots of friendly people to offer advice. Returning two weeks later I discovered plenty of good routes for top rope or leading, including some impressive looking stalactite features that were beyond my abilities. The grading was a little suspect with some fiendish 4+ and 5’s (many of the 6a’s were easier). A great cafe, the centre is far less busy than the queues at the door suggest.
Since I started climbing regularly I have been reading a lot of books about climbing and mountaineering. I have found them majorly inspirational and they are now some of my favourite reads!
Below is a list of books I would recommend for anyone getting into climbing or mountaineering, or just wanting to find out a little more about it. I’m sure this list will keep growing, but for now here are seven of my favourites.
Touching the Void Joe Simpson
Touching the Void follows the story of Joe Simpson’s successful, but disastrous, ascent of Siula Grande in the Peruvian Andres with partner Simon Yates, which nearly cost him his life. There is also a film with the same name depicting the whole adventure, which will have you on the edge of your seats, even if you have read the book beforehand. It’s an absolute classic!
This is the story of the disastrous Everest expedition in 1996 which resulted in many fatalities and a huge amount of criticism of the whole idea of taking clients up the world’s highest mountain. The book is an account written by Jon Krakauer, a journalist who was present on the expedition, but many people feel it is quite a biased view. Whether that is the case or not though, it is one of the best known stories in Everest’s history.
This was actually the first ever climbing book I read, and clearly I enjoyed it if I got so hooked on them! It is a first-hand account of the first ascent of the North Face of the Eiger – one of the most deadly big wall climbs in mountaineering history.
Many strong climbers had attempted this climb at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century, only to perish before they could completed. In 1936, Harrer was part of a team that managed to make the first ascent of this route, which has since then become a classic line that many mountaineers dream of accomplishing.
Being a German, Harrer methodically lists all of the disasters that preceded his attempt in his book. Every single one…
This is probably one of the most inspirational books I have ever read, and one that will really get you out of any state of depression or self-doubt you may be suffering from, because what this man has overcome is simply astonishing.
In 1999, Jamie Andrew and his friend Jamie Fisher got caught in a bad snowstorm, having climbed the north face of Les Droites, in the Mont Blanc massif. The pair spent five days trapped at the top of the mountain, unable to escape, bitterly cold and out of supplies. Andrew got rescued in the end, but the consequences of the accident were disastrous…
Alone on the Wall: Alex Honnold and the Ultimate Limits of Adventure By Alex Honnold and David Roberts
My most recent read, this is basically an auto/biographical book about one of the greatest rock climbers of our generation, Alex Honnold. The man who solos routes that I cannot even imagine climbing on top rope. Soloing means climbing without a rope, or any other kind of safety equipment. It’s an enthralling read, and a very honest insight into what goes on in that man’s head. I used to think he was mental, but I sort of don’t anymore.
9 out of 10 climbers make the same mistakes Dave MacLeod
This book is actually only really relevant for those that climb regularly, as it covers various pieces of practical advice for climbers on how to become better at your sport. But if you are a climber, it is a must read! I “borrowed” it from my brother, and he hasn’t had it back yet…. (Sorry!!)
This book made me completely rethink my approach to training, and now I start every indoor lead climbing session with at least 10 falls on lead, for example. I can already feel it boosting my confidence massively! And that’s only one useful piece of advice. I have been annoying all my climbing friends in recent weeks by telling them “What would Dave do?” when they suggest one climbing technique or another. Evidently, this book has affected me deeply.
I have been to Morocco three times now, and I feel I’ve seen enough of it to share a few useful tips for first time travellers to this country.
Despite my previous post, where I talked about how annoying it can sometimes be to be pestered by the locals, I would like to stress that I actually love this country, and I will keep coming back. But it does help to keep these little tips in mind!
1. Bargain over everything
Yes, it’s OK to bargain over the price of a taxi. Or the amount you paid for your street breakfast. It is positively expected that you will have a lengthy ‘discussion’ over the price you are paying for anything you buy in a stall or shop, and it is just as much of a given that you will walk away having paid two or three times more than the locals.
On our latest trip to Morocco, my friends and I met an retired American man who spent six months every year in Morocco, and the other six in America. “I can get a bread for half a dirham, a tomato for another half a dirham, and I’ve got myself a tomato sandwich for a dirham,” he told us, as we were paying 100 dirham (somehow??!) for our own breakfast, which wasn’t even that lavish. One dirham is around 7p to you and me…the same taxi that we paid 50 dirham for that morning cost him 11 dirham, he added. You just have to know how to push.
The only exception, it seems, is when the price is written down. “Fixed price”, they call it. I have never been to a Moroccan supermarket, but I imagine there isn’t much bargaining to be done there. Neither can you really bargain in expensive restaurants and the like. Everywhere else, it seems to be fair game!
2. Never agree to follow men on the street for directions,
even if you are mega-lost
When you first arrive in Marrakesh, prepare to be majorly overwhelmed. The place is a maze that doesn’t even make sense to the locals, and no matter how detailed the directions you are given by your hostel or riad, if you are staying inside the old city there is no chance you will find where you are staying within the first hour.
And guess what looks like easy money to young Moroccan men who can speak a smidgen of English? Tired and lost-looking tourists! Unless you are in a very central area with millions of other tourists around, the local boys will descend upon you like vultures. Don’t even think of following one of them for directions! They will lead you around in circles for ages and then demand money when you finally get there.
Instead, try to ask women or old men, even if it means communicating with hand gestures. If you can speak French – use it! If you don’t, maybe brush up on your travel phrases before going. Some shop owners can be quite helpful as well, but try to avoid the young males. Consider ordering a good map before heading to Marrakesh, and also keep the phone number of the hostel handy. We have had to be rescued by the hostel owners once when we simply couldn’t find our way, and were being harassed left, right and centre by local boys trying to offer ‘help’.
3. Don’t buy sweets from a cart in the main square
They don’t taste as good as they look! At all. In the evening, you will see men rushing around with these carts filled with local sweets, offering boxes of 12 for 50 dirham (just over £3). But they tend to be a bit stale and stodgy, and are probably best used as a table decoration than food (although we ate all the ones we bought on the first night there anyway).
Instead, find some chebakiya if you want some proper Moroccan sweets. They are the cheapest ones by far, and the tastiest! A big box, even in the most touristy area, shouldn’t cost you more than 30 dirham. You can find it being sold inside the main markets (souks) by dedicated merchants, or in smaller portions with tea in the main square in the evening. It’s essentially a pasty rolled up in the shape of a rose, deep fried until golden and covered in a syrup made from honey and rose water. It is divine! Although also very sickly, and definitely not at all good for you.
4. Bring some Imodium
The food in Morocco varies, but it is certainly not for everyone’s stomachs, and although it is nothing as bad as I would imagine India to be, you are quite likely to get a case of the traveller’s tummy at some point during your trip. You can buy Imodium in Morocco if you forget to bring it – all pharmacies should sell it, it has the same name and it isn’t particularly expensive.
Some tips I found useful to try and avoid having to resort to drugs include asking for no ice in your drinks, watching that anything with eggs is really well cooked, even if you prefer them runny, and same goes for meat. Also, probably best to stay away from the orange juice stands in the main square. But to be honest, if you eat street food (or ever end up in a Moroccan or Berber kitchen, for that matter), you will be exposed to a much larger variety of dirt and grime than you are at home. That’s simply a fact you will have to live with, unless you would rather splash out on a five star hotel with a five star restaurant for your whole stay. But that’s not my style!
5. Brush up on your French
People do speak English in Morocco, and many of them speak far more languages than you and I are used to in our insulated UK-based lives (probably not the case for those readers based outside the UK…) When we were climbing in Todra Gorge, many Berbers surprised us by being proficient in Spanish, and some Italian, on top of French, Arabic and English. But you will be better off if you remember some basic phrases, so you can ask for directions, and not confuse your right with your left when you are given them. Or make sure the waiter knows you definitely want your umpteenth cup of tea sans sucre!
I swear I spoke more different languages (that I didn’t even know I could speak!) during my week in Morocco in December than over the course of the whole year prior to that. And that’s considering the fact that last year saw me trying to hold a conversation with my climbing partner’s Italian grandma in Italian. Which I have never learnt.
6. Don’t be afraid of staying in hostels
But maybe bring a sleeping bag liner. You can get them mega-cheap from Sports Direct and they really give that extra sense of comfort when you are not quite sure if the sheets have been washed.
Now, I have never stayed anywhere particularly posh in Morocco, as I’m the type of traveller who actually quite likes slumming it a little, plus the more money I save on accommodation, the more I can spend on other (probably unnecessary) things. But I firmly believe you will have a nicer experience staying in a hostel-style riad in the old city (the Medina), rather than a posh hotel in the new city. If you are not the hostel type, you can still find riads for a very cheap price. I wouldn’t pay more than £15/pp per night at most, but the hostels are easily a third of that price.
Just read the reviews on hostelworld.com and you should be able to pick something suitable. They usually have lots of private rooms for a low price, too. We stayed at Hostel Riad Marrakech Rouge and I thought it was really good value for money, and even included breakfast. It’s also very centrally located and easy to find from the main square, Jemaa El-Fnaa.
7. Have extra space in your luggage…
…because you will want to buy stuff! A lot of stuff. Stuff you don’t really need, or rather, never realised you needed desperately right until this moment. On my last trip, myself and my friend Valentina somehow managed to walk up to a lady selling beanie hats, just to look, and walked away with eight. Eight hats!! Three of them she just gave to us for free, because we clearly failed to haggle as hard as we should have done. (My beanie has come in useful lately though, after London plunged into subarctic conditions.)
“But hats don’t take up that much space in your luggage,” you laugh…Well, I also felt compelled to buy a framed painting for my flat, and something I can only describe as a Jedi cloak as a present for a friend. Which he loved, to be fair. Last time I went I came back with a Moroccan teapot and six tea glasses, following some epic haggling where I told the vendor I was a poor Bulgarian student. I even put on an accent, and all!
8. Travel outside Marrakesh
There is so much to explore! I have been to Morocco three times, and each time I discovered new adventures. The first time I went with two friends to try out surfing near Agadir, and then visited Marrakesh for the first time. I actually covered this in a different blog (a loooong time ago), so if you want to give this a read here is the link.
The second time a group of us went to conquer Mount Toubkal – the highest peak in North Africa at 4,167m. We succeeded, but we were comically unprepared for the adventure, having only brought a printed version of someone else’s blog to guide us up the mountain. No guides. No map. No compass. And only a couple functioning head torches between nine of us, which came in rather useful when we got lost in the dark on the trek back down, having completely mistimed the whole descent!
9. And at the end of it all…have a hammam!
But I would splash out on a private one, rather than going to a public one. I’ve never actually been to a public one, but the private ones I’ve had are sooooo good! Especially after days of climbing or trekking up and down the Atlas Mountains. Last time we actually had two in one trip!
You are best off booking one of these in advance though, especially if you are going during quite a busy season, because we struggled to find one last minute in Marrakesh on our second night. In the end we managed, and I highly recommend the one we went to: Les Bains d’Azahara. It’s very reasonably priced, and though it is a little bit away from the main touristy areas, it is easy to find. The most basic hammam costs 150 dirham (under £11), while a package with an hour-long massage is 400 dirham. It’s super relaxing and really worth it!
The only thing I would warn you of, is that however careful you are to ask for the men and women in your group to be be placed in separate rooms, that is very unlikely to happen. Every time I’ve had a hammam in Morocco I’ve ended up in the same room as at least one of my male friends, which means that you are probably going to see a number of your friends sporting very skimpy disposable pants. You could always make a fuss about it, but I chose to just enjoy the hilarity of it. If anything, it will bring you and your friends closer. Or at least give you some good blackmail material!
10. Lastly, when you head home, print your Ryanair ticket…don’t rely on your phone!
Moroccan airports are some of the few globally where you still cannot simply show a bar code on your phone instead of printing off your ticket. They don’t have the technology yet, I think. Don’t worry if you aren’t able to print the return ticket before you get to Morocco though, as there are internet cafes in most places.
So on the penultimate day of our latest trip to Morocco, over the New Year’s holiday, we went to an internet cafe to print out our tickets. Imagine our shock when the check-in page told us the flight had already flown?! We looked at the date on the desktop, and with horror realised it said 5 January, not 4 January, as we believed it to be. For a few horrible seconds we genuinely thought we had somehow missed a day?!…..then it turned out the Medieval computer system had the wrong date setting, and the lady manning the store didn’t know how to change it. The check-in page was taking the date from the desktop (for whatever reason), so it wouldn’t let us check in! Eventually though, we managed to print off our tickets using her computer, which didn’t seem to be plagued with this problem.
I hope these little pointers help you on your next trip to Morocco. What else would you like me to write about? What destinations are you planning to check out this year? I would love to hear from you!
Have you ever massaged your food during the cooking process? Well, it was certainly the first time I ever witness such a thing, but apparently that’s the traditional Berber way to cook cous cous! Something Valentina and I found out at 10pm on New Year’s Eve, in a Berber kitchen in the middle of the Moroccan mountains, hungry and tired after a day of climbing and wondering what on earth was going on…
I don’t remember whose idea it was to go to Morocco for an end-of-year climbing holiday, but I loved it straight away, having been to the country a couple of times before and loved it both times. I originally suggested going somewhere like Costa Blanca, which apparently is a great place to climb in the winter, but the price of the tickets and the difficulty getting there, considering we were all going to fly from different places, had put us off. Morocco seemed to work for everyone, and more importantly, it is warm this time of year, and cheap all year round!
So, after painstakingly working out a day when we could all arrive within not too many hours of each other – me flying from Germany, Valentina from Italy, and Gianni from London – we finally had an itinerary.
Arrive in Marrakesh on 28th December
Travel eight hours by coach to Tinghir on the 30th
Climb in Todra Gorge for three days
Head back for Marrakesh on 3rd January, 2016!
That meant New Year’s Eve in the mountains, which was exciting and unpredictable, and we all loved the idea!
There is a saying in Russia, the way you welcome in the New Year is the way you will spend it. Well, we welcomed it in with a group of Spanish climbers, in a Berber house, having finally sat down to eat a HUGE dish of cous cous after – I kid you not! – three hours of cooking it. Which involved the said massage – something that had to be performed once after the cous cous was first rinsed, and again after it was cooked the first time. While it was steaming hot.
Now, apologies to all Berber people, because I am probably insulting you here, but isn’t cous cous the quickest thing in the world to cook? Boil water, cover the grains, leave them to stand for five minutes, done! Ok, ok, so apparently there is also this special non-instant cous cous that needs cooking for longer. But I saw the packaging, and it was exactly the same as the stuff we get over here (probably imported from Morocco)! And even if it had been, three hours?!!! Really??!
Let’s backtrack for a second. New Year’s Eve, 31st December, was our first day of outdoor climbing in Todra Gorge. We did not know what to expect in the slightest and had no plans for the evening. From the previous night’s attempts to discover evening entertainment or even acceptable food in Tinghir, a village where we were staying, around 15km away from the gorge, we discovered there was none. So we hoped a plan would materialise once we arrived at the crag, met some climbers and inevitably became great friends with them within half an hour (that is, after all, the way the climbing community works, right?).
And that is kind of what happened. We met two groups of climbers that day – three boys from Ireland and four climbers from Spain, and all of them invited us to join them for celebrations in the evening. They were all staying in Todra itself, which presented a problem if we wanted to go back to our hotel at night – unfortunately, Uber does not work in the Moroccan mountains, and the walk back to our hotel from Todra would be a grueling 3 hours in the bracing cold of night (well…colder than the balmy 22 degrees of the midday sun!). But we decided we should still come and party there, instead of staying in the town where we knew no one.
We chose to stay with the Spanish lot for one main reason – they were hanging out with a Berber man called Sufjan, who was also a climber, but couldn’t climb himself due to an injury. He provided topos for the area (more on this topic in a separate blog!), and also regularly housed climbers in his family home, where the Spaniards were spending New Year’s Eve. They invited us to join them, and we thought the experience was not to be missed. Well…I guess one thing is sure, we will never forget our Spanish/Berber New Year’s Eve celebrations!
After we finished climbing, we got a lift back to our hotel from one of the Spanish guys so we could shower and change, while he and Sufjan went grocery shopping in the town for festive dinner and some Moroccan wine – a novelty in a country as dry as Morocco. Not that wine is impossible to come across here, but it has to be bought from hotels and it is expensive by local standards (though apparently a bottle of the wine we had actually only cost €7). Anyway, around 8pm we got picked up again at our hotel and drove to the Berber house.
When we arrived it was past 8.30pm and Valentina very aptly predicted that the food would not be ready until midnight. I was convinced some vegetables and cous cous could not take so long to cook. After all, Sufjan had “forgotten” (skimped out on??) the meat, so we were in for a vegetarian meal! I was wrong. It really did take three hours. And on top of that, we were made to do all the work in the kitchen – either because we were women, though there was another girl there not participation, or because we expressed an interest in the Berber cooking tradition.
The cous cous was cooked in an aluminium contraption consisting of a pot at the bottom, in which the vegetables were boiling, and the cous cous in an aluminium sieve on top, with the steam from the vegetables rising to cook it over time. Except the device didn’t really work, so Sufjan used an old torn up plastic bag to seal the gaps between the two dishes, to allow the steam to seep through to the top. That I will also never forget. Then, at the crucial moment, the gas stove ran out of gas and we had to use a portable gas cylinder, except the dish would not balance on it without spilling over, so we had to crouch on the floor, holding it up from either side with a towel, to avoid burning our hands. It was around 10.30/11pm by this point. Simply epic.
Now you would think three hours of cooking would produce stunning results, with subtle flavours and delicate aromas, but unfortunately it did not. Which makes me that little bit more amazed at how long it all took. Because it was literally a mountain of cous cous, covered in boiled vegetables and a bit of broth, flavoured with a tiny bit of salt and cheap saffron. Luckily, Sufjan had some spicy sauce, which made it all more bearable. Apart from this masterpiece, we had the usual bread, which comes with every meal in Morocco, fruit and pastries for dessert, and one bottle of wine between nine of us. This was particularly surprising, since we chipped in €10 each for the groceries, an amount that usually goes a very long way in Morocco. But that’s a lesson learnt – do your own food shopping, no matter how little time you have and how badly you need a shower instead!
But it certainly wasn’t all bad, don’t get me wrong. For one thing, I managed to start working on one of my New Year’s resolutions right there and then – to go back to learning Spanish – as we spent the entire night speaking exclusively in that language. I understood…some of it. We also met some wonderful people. One of the Spanish climbers was blind (!), but climbed harder than us and was planning to do a multi-pitch with his friend the following day. The girl in the group had been climbing just over a year, but could comfortable flash a 6c lead outdoors. They were a cool and impressive bunch, and I’m really glad we met them!
And did you know what the Spaniards do as the clock strikes 12 on New Year’s Eve? They take a small piece of fresh ginger, chew it and swallow it while making a wish. It’s supped to bring good luck and good health. That was probably the most flavoursome thing we’d eaten all night! And we washed it down with a couple of shots of Mezcal, a distilled alcoholic beverage which comes from Mexico, made from the maguey plant. The blind man brought a bottle of the stuff with him, and at 41% alcohol it kept us toasty in the late hours. Because Berber houses don’t really have heating, apart from some coal burners or an old camping stove, and it gets pretty chilly in the Moroccan desert and mountains that time of year, so we had to resort to everything we could to keep ourselves warm.
We ended up staying in that house, as there was no way to get back to our hotel room, and spent the night dreaming about a hot shower and sheets that didn’t smell of goat. But looking back, I already cherish the memory of that experience. The simple joy of waking up in the mountains and taking a walk up to the bottom of a sheer sandstone cliff, glowing orange in the morning sunshine, ready for a day of climbing, cannot be spoiled by a cold bed and a badly cooked cous cous dish. Nothing compares to starting the New Year that way, and I’m grateful that this was the way I walked into 2016.
Every step I take up the steep winding steps sends shooting pains up my knees and thighs, and the worst thing is I know it will hurt twice as much on the way down. But I can’t help laughing at the crippled predicament I’m in, that we’re all in.
Slowly we shuffle up the staircase, wincing every time we put weight on our tortured limbs, all the time wide ecstatic smiles dancing on our faces. We made it to the top of North Africa yesterday!!! What’s a few extra flights of stairs?
There is something addictive, something so appealing and irresistible about the pain and struggle we put ourselves through in our fight to get to the top, to reach the finish line, to fight until we have nothing left to give. We are all drug addicts, who, having tasted the bittersweet poison of adventure, battle through our day-to-day activities like zombies in anticipation of the life-giving elixir of the next challenge, the next fight, the next push.
It is now nearly a year since a group of us hiked to the top of Mount Toubkal, the highest peak in the Moroccan Atlas Mountains (4,167m). The altitude and long hours of hiking took their toll on us. There were illnesses, arguments, and exhaustion, but what I remember most vividly now is the exhilaration of getting to the top, and the sense of accomplishment and deserved rest the following day.
I miss that feeling terribly, and I want to experience it again. And again. And again.
I want to push myself to the top of a mountain again, suffering the headaches, the nausea, the exhaustion. I want to be forced to search for those last reserves of energy to cover the remaining few hundred metres, to stand at the top and spread my arms out to the sides, breathing in the cold, crisp air. I want to feel like I’m on top of the world again. I don’t care if it will be physically painful, because I know it’s SO worth it!
People often ask, what it is about climbing and mountaineering that’s so appealing? Adventure sports is a drug that’s so much stronger than the chemically induced highs that keep people dancing throughout the night in clubs. It’s an addiction so powerful that no amount of going “cold turkey” could ever cure it. It’s feeling bright amid a nondescript grayness.
When I’m climbing a route outdoors, or scrambling up some crumbly scree, my mind goes blank, in a way I have never managed to achieve through any amount of meditation (I usually just fall asleep!). All the everyday worries, insecurities and petty annoyances just slip away, leaving pure focus. On the rock in front of me, the pebbles under my feet, the steel pieces of equipment in my hands, and the rope tied into my harness. Beautifully simple, the uninterrupted concentration on staying safe and making it up to the top.
That’s what I climb for – that inner calm and composure, more than the adrenaline, or even the gorgeous views at the top of a mountain or a multi-pitch route.
Falling in love with mountaineering isn’t a phase, nor is it an unhealthy obsession. It’s simply the elation of finally discovering what it feels like to be alive, and holding on to that feeling with everything you have. Because nothing else compares, and nothing ever will. And it’s worth all the money in the world.
A man in his mid-seventies dressed in an immaculate pair of cream suit trousers and black loafers walks up to me with a concentrated look on his face. I’d just been speaking to his daughter, so I smile and introduce myself. He tells me his name is Chris, and we shake hands.
Then I notice he has the same pair of climbing shoes as I own, a Spanish brand called Tenaya, so I comment on that and we talk about how difficult that particular type of shoe is to break in.
We are out in the sunshine, at the Harrison’s Rock climbing crag near Eridge, in Kent. It turns out Chris has been climbing on this Southern sandstone for over 50 years, and drags his daughter Rosie along with him on sunny weekends.
Rosie is not quite as in love with the rocks as her old man. She doesn’t really have a head for heights, she tells me, but her father wants to go, so they go. They drive up from Brighton, a mere 40 minute journey, and climb until the afternoon, followed by afternoon tea or lunch in the sunshine at the car park.
Chris has been a regular at this sandstone crag since before harnesses were invented, he tells me. He and his friends had used the old-school belaying technique – one end of rope tied around the climber’s waist, the other bent around the waist of the belayer and held with both hands. In those days, there were no top rope bolts here. These pioneers had to solo the routes or use trees for anchors.
But Chris feels he has reached a peak of fitness in recent years. He says: “In the past five years, I’ve climbed some harder routes here than ever before.” That’s at the age of 75. What a man!
My friends and I were all a little gobsmacked to meet this man at the crag, dressed in his suit as he was showing us the moves of a particularly tricky start to a 5a route (British grade). A route I couldn’t complete, after trying a few times.
“Oh, I couldn’t do it myself for a while,” Chris told me nonchalantly.
Meeting Chris and his daughter Rosie gave me renewed hope that life doesn’t stop as we age, and as long as I remain young at heart, why can’t I climb harder than ever at 75?! That’s what I want to be like at his age. Dragging my daughter to the crag on a Saturday morning to lose some finger skin and sprinkle some chalk around. The afternoon tea can wait until the afternoons.