Age is no barrier

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.

Chilling out at Harrison's

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.

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‘Because it’s there’: Everest review

In 1923, renowned British mountaineer George Leigh Mallory was asked “Why did you want to climb Mount Everest?” His reply was: “Because it’s there.”

Stories of Everest climbs are no longer as scarce as they were in Mallory’s days, but few are as heartwrenching as the account written by Jon Krakauer after the expedition in 1996, which turned out to be one of the most memorable disasters in the mountain’s recent history.

Not that there have been few of those: the mountain has claimed over 250 lives since people began trying to scale its peak. But I guess the story told by the film, based on Krakauer’s famous book Into Thin Air, is the best known from that era (that’s what happens when you take a journalist on an expedition with you!).

It’s not an easy subject to translate into a film, so I really wasn’t sure what I would feel about this adaptation. I have a tendency to get very irritated with film adaptations that don’t reflect the book the way I think it needs to be represented, and that was definitely a possibility with this one. Then of course there’s the fear that the director, Baltasar Kormákur, won’t have the faintest idea about the compulsion to climb and conquer mountains, and will therefore miss the whole point of the story.

I have to say, I wasn’t disappointed the way I thought I would be, and I walked away from the cinema with a renewed yearning for high altitude – a dubious response to such a tragic story, I agree, but I’m a climber, so I knew that would happen.

Of course, I have issues with some elements of the film, that’s not to be avoided. I wasn’t convinced by the character of Scott Fischer, for example – the lack of exposure he got on screen, the way his character wasn’t allowed to develop and flourish, and even, frankly, the choice of actor. I also felt some other parts of the story were dropped after an initial mention, making them a bit redundant (the sub-story with the South African team, for example) – either commit to it, or leave it, I would say.

But that’s by the by, because despite its commercialisation and the typical Hollywood over-sentimentalising, the film nearly made me cry by the end, and that’s despite me knowing the story. I think the tragedy of the 1996 climb is so powerful, and the mistakes we see in hindsight so painful to watch, that it almost doesn’t matter how well the film is made.

That sounds like I’m belittling the efforts of the director though, but that is not at all my intention. He did a lot of things right. He stuck to Krakauer’s account of the story, which in my opinion is the key. He succeeded in creating a spectacle out of the words on the page that almost makes the viewer feel the crippling cold, headaches and lack of oxygen up above 27,000 feet, and he managed to create at least some likable characters.

The over-sentimental tone of the film, though perhaps not quite in the spirit of mountaineering, is necessary to translate the story into something accessible to the masses, and not just the relative minority of mountaineers sitting in the cinema and feeling chilled to the bone by the mere images of the cold, unwelcoming mountain terrain. The over-reliance on family stories sort of fits in. And anyway, that family connection and the painful connection to ‘real life’ was a key and memorable part of the book for me, it may just have been exaggerated somewhat in the screen adaptation.

I loved the humanity of the film, the personal heartbreak it lays bare, the sacrifices made to the mountain and the difficulty of managing inter-human relations on an expedition like this. The human error that always becomes our undoing.

When I criticise, I do so because it is in my nature to be over-critical, and because I see it from the point of the view of a climber that has often contemplated what it would be like to “do” Everest.

And I doubt I’ll ever stop wondering, but I also doubt I’ll ever let the compulsion drive me to the top of an 8,000m peak.

Everest is too expensive and commercialised anyway, but that’s not it. There are plenty of other 8,000-ers I could work towards. But the stakes are just too high.

For me, I think that’s what this story is ultimately about.

Time to think of Christmas

It’s September and I can really feel the turn in the season. There is a chill in the air and people around me are dropping like flies with stinking colds.

Yet for some reason every time I go outdoors into the crisp air I feel an overwhelming sense of excitement wash over me, mixed with a kind of wistful, aching undertone I can’t quite explain.

I’ve never been this excited about the onslaught of autumn, and it’s slightly confusing that I feel this way now, in a year when I finally discovered my favourite way to enjoy the outdoors, and have spent the entire summer doing so. I should be sad the season for frolicking around in the sunshine is over, shouldn’t I?

Perhaps it is all the climbing trips that I have been on this summer, spending virtually no time at home in London, which have made me crave a break from all that excitement and activity. Or perhaps something in me is fundamentally changing.

Read about my trip to the Wye Valley where I did my first ever trad climb here.

It is the anticipation of the festive season that is making me so excited, like a small child waiting for Christmas. Instead of mourning the dying summer, I can’t wait to wrap up in warm clothes and a hat and sit there having endless cups of tea. I can’t wait to smell the spices in the air and have my first mug of fiery mulled wine. I can’t wait to hear fireworks shaking up the quiet nights and watch them exploding on London’s skyline.

And for the first time, I don’t mind that it’s getting cold. I’m even looking forward to crisp winter mornings, and bouldering trips with thermos flasks to get us through the frosty days. I’m excited about coming home to a massive warm meal after spending hours out in the cold, or huddling up around a roaring fire in a country pub.

But how do I make sure I avoid disappointment this year? How do I make sure the season lives up to my expectations? Or will it always be a bit of an anticlimax, with the mulled wine tasting that little bit too weak, and the mince pies far too sugary?

The steady Morse code of raindrops on my window snaps me out of my fairy tale dreams.

Every year, I forget how much rain can ruin any weekend plan in England. We had enough trouble trying to book climbing weekends in the summer! The perpetual weather forecast checking, the indecision, the last minute changes of plan…

I know it’s too much to ask for, but can we please have a crisp, cold autumn and winter, like it’s supposed to be, not a wet and murky one?!

I’m going back to my fairy tale dreaming…

Climbing shoes: My review of 5.10 Anasazi

Excruciating foot pain is something I’d only ever experienced before after wearing really uncomfortable heels until 3am on a night out. But that doesn’t even compare to breaking in climbing shoes!

When I was shopping for my latest pair, after my Tenaya Ra’s unexpectedly gave in (OK, it was actually well overdue, but I was still very upset!), I was already bracing myself for the pain of breaking the new ones in, which lasted a good few weeks with the previous pair.

It didn’t help that I was forced to buy them just before a sport climbing trip to Frankenjura (Germany), and I couldn’t even wear them in beforehand as I had managed to get myself injured the week before.

Check out our YouTube channel for vlogs about this trip!

Buying climbing shoes makes you find out a lot more about your feet that you would have known otherwise, and I realised most popular brands were a massive struggled for me, because I have the flattest heels in the world. Turns out, this has always been an issue for me with shoes, and I haven’t even realised!

After trying on a bunch of La Sportivas in Ellis Bingham in Covent Garden with no success, the helpful shop assistant then suggested I make a radical change and go for 5.10 Anasazis. These seemed to be a much better fit at first try, but of course I decided to shop around before committing.

Not a shoe that’s considered to be the most technical out there, the Anasazi has a lot of reviews that describe is as an all-round solid choice for almost any kind of climbing.

5.10 Anasazi
5.10 Anasazi

For me, the flat heel and relatively narrow foot made it fit my tiny feet far better than the rounded heel of La Sportiva’s, which hangs off my heel like an empty sack. I couldn’t even dream of heel hooks in La Sportivas, or my old Tenayas, for that matter. The 5.10 was snug and fitted perfectly, for the first time in my climbing life!

The next question was the size, and that is almost as excruciatingly painful as the first wear. I was always taught to buy a smaller size than my street size as the shoe is supposed to stretch, so I forced my feel into a 3.5 (after torturing the poor girl at the Arch Climbing Wall, where I ended up buying my shoes, for about half an hour). Then I went home, tried them on again, and wanted to cry…

I took a few days to reconsider my decision, and then crawled back to the Arch to exchange my shoes for a size 4. Luckily, most climbing shops will allow you to exchange shoes even after you have had a climb on a couple of routes to test them, but it is well worth checking this policy before buying!

It turned out that the Anasazis are made of specifically non-stretching rubber and also are not leather on top, which minimises stretch. The shoe box actually suggests buying shoes that feel snug, but not too tight, as they do not stretch nearly as much as some other brands.

After the exchange malarkey was over, however, these shoes have been an absolute DREAM.

When we went to Frankenjura, I naturally worried about them being too painful on the first wear, so I brought my old, worn out shoes with me. I didn’t wear them for a second, because the 5.10’s felt perfect from the first moment I put them on. I haven’t looked back since!

They feel comfortable enough to wear on longer routes and take on long climbing trips, but are also technical enough to work on harder routes. I sent my first 7a indoors with them (on my third attempt!), and I didn’t have any trouble. Thanks, 5.10!!

What is your favourite climbing shoe? Or are you still looking? Please share your experience with me!