Category Archives: Climbing

All my climbing related posts under one roof.

Todra Gorge: The quest for the best climbing guidebook

Over the New Year’s holidays, myself, my climbing partner Valentina and our friend Gianni went to Morocco for a week to climb at Todra Gorge (and eat loads of cous cous!). You can read about our New Year’s Eve celebrations in my first blog about this, but the climbing itself, or rather our attempts to figure out the details, was a whole separate challenge!

We came to Todra Gorge with just a pocket-sized climbing guidebook that we found online, but according to reports we read online a man called Hassan sells hand-drawn topos for climbers on the spot for 250 Moroccan dirham (around £18). Our book was missing key pieces of information, such as the length of the routes, so we were open to the idea of getting another copy. We didn’t realise the search for a good quality guidebook would become such a mission and would teach us so much about the Moroccan ways…

As soon as we disembarked from the coach that took us to Todra from Marrakesh over 8 hours of windy roads, we were approached by a man asking us if we were climbers and whether we were looking for any ‘materials’. He recognised us from the safety helmet attached to the outside of Valentina’s rucksack, I guess, or maybe just the looks on our faces. We ignored him, of course, having already learned this useful tactic in Marrakesh, but he was very persistent!

After we checked in to our hotel (Hotel Restaurant Lakasbah in Tinghir, a town 15 km from the gorge itself), we went for a walk to explore the town and, surprise surprise, got approached by the same man. Yes, he had actually been hanging around waiting for us. I told you, persistent! Since online advice reassured us it was normal to acquire climbing guidebooks in such dodgy ways over here, we thought we would give this guy, who called himself Hussein, a chance. 

The first lesson we learned in the process is that nothing is quick in Morocco. It’s like they run on a clock of their own that’s out of sync with the rest of the globe. Hussein led us to a roof terrace in a cafe, where he offered us tea (one of many, MANY teas we have been offered in this country in similar situations, and which we obviously then had to pay for, including his portion). Time passed as we waited for a friend of his to turn up with, presumably, the books. However, once his friend turned up, he apparently didn’t actually realise we were looking for a topo and said we could only get the book the following day in Todra itself. Fine. We agreed to meet Hussein at 8.30am to go to Todra and pick up the guidebook.

The thing is, he didn’t leave us alone after that. First, he talked a lot. Then he offered us hashish. Then he told us he would show us around the “women’s market”. Then he suggested he would take us for food somewhere when we said we were hungry. We literally had to rush back to the hotel, saying we needed to change into warmer clothes, just to get away from him. But the Hussein saga was only just beginning.

Moroccans don’t like to leave tourists alone after they have made the initial contact and they know there may be something in it for them. And they really don’t understand the idea of privacy. That was the second lesson learnt that evening. Hussein was waiting for us by the main square and saw us as we walked back from our hotel in search of somewhere to go for dinner. He was evidently hoping for an invite so we would pay for his food too. He tried to follow us around until we literally stopped and said “thank you for your help, we’ll see you tomorrow at 8.30“. He sort of got the point then, and left us alone for the night.

Part of me felt bad for getting quite as impatient and angry at the locals for being pushy and annoying – after all, their culture is simply very different to our own. But by the next morning, I was way past being friendly to Hussein, as well as his slightly dim-witted friend, who had also been following us around. He kept telling us he normally lives in Holland and was just in Morocco on holiday, earning him the nickname “Amsterdam”.

The saga continues…

We met Hussein the next morning as agreed, after having breakfast at our hotel. However, he was convinced we were having breakfast together, despite us saying otherwise the night before. He clearly had a plan, and took us to Amsterdam’s cafe for tea, so he could have his own breakfast. Naturally, we had to have tea. We were given no choice in that. When he was finished, it was past 9am, and we were eager to go climbing. But Amsterdam told us the collective taxis to Todra weren’t heading out for another hour (a complete lie!), and we should check out the women’s market in the meantime. We tried very hard to decline, but he just said “Follow me”…and guess what? He took us to the women’s market, of course. If ever you are in Tinghir, getting ready for a day of climbing, never ever follow anyone who tells you about a women’s market!! It is an absolute waste of time and completely unnecessary.

Amsterdam led us to a house where a bunch of Moroccan women weave carpets. He kept telling us we were just here to look, and “not for money”. After a short explanation of what was going on there, he told us the women would like to offer us (more!!!) tea, and that this was Berber hospitality, which of course we couldn’t refuse. The women then, naturally, proceeded to roll out ALL the carpets they had in front of us. Definitely in search of some money. To give them credit, they were very pretty, but never in my life have I not wanted to buy a carpet more than at that point. Hussein, who had stayed with us, was of no help whatsoever and just stayed out of the way. Clearly, he had an agreement with Amsterdam to let him do his business. That was the point I decided it was OK to just be rude!

In the end, we had to literally walk out of that house and tell Hussein we needed to go climbing right now (well done Valentina!), because the shopping tour may well have continued for much longer. Miraculously, it turned out we could easily get a collective taxi to Todra whenever we wanted (surprise surprise).

Taxis TinghirIf you go to the big mini-van taxis and pay 8 dirham per person (around 70p), you just have to wait for the taxi to have six passengers and it will leave. It doesn’t seem to take too long to fill up, considering it’s the biggest town in the area, but you can always offer to cover the missing passengers by paying…another 70p per person. 

When we finally got to Todra…

Upon arrival to Todra, we had to refuse another offer of tea flat out. We were told Hassan, who makes the topos, was busy at that moment. Again, that was a lie, because he came out straight away after we made a big deal about it. 

As other bloggers have described him, Hassan is a tiny old man, with very few teeth, but at least he is clearly knowledgeable about the area. He hand draws all his books, which he sells for 250 dirham. They aren’t great quality, but they are quite a cool souvenir to bring back from the area. Also, with the limited information available from the web, we were convinced his topos were the only local ones we could get, so at (what we thought was) the end of this saga he seemed like a breath of fresh air.

But, on reflection, it turned out we shouldn’t have bought his book after all. As great as the effort he goes to is, he isn’t the only one who knows the routes and he does massively overcharge for the privilege. Besides, I hear he does more drinking than climbing nowadays…

So if you go to Todra, avoid Hassan, avoid Hussein, there are better resources on offer. Just act like you know what you’re doing, and hopefully the wrong people will leave you alone. 

How we discovered the other guidebook…

Despite the hassle of trying to get to Todra and get the topo for the area, we were extremely happy. We now had two climbing guidebooks, the weather was magical, Hussein had finally left us alone, and we had the most gorgeous limestone cliffs all around us. It was time to climb!

It took us a while to figure out where we wanted to go, but Hassan’s book was quite helpful, especially as it provides the general route lengths, which was critical for us, as we only had a 60 metre rope. Many of the routes in the area are over 30 metres long, so a 60m will often not suffice. If you are planning to go, I would strongly recommend bringing a 70m or 80m rope!

climbing TodraFor our first climb, we walked quite far into the gorge, to an area called Petit Gorge, where we found quite a few relatively easy slabby routes, loads of sunshine, and the Spanish climbers, with whom we ended up spending New Year’s Eve (read my previous post for my description of this marvelous experience!).

We also met their Berber friend (well…it actually turned out they met him for the first time that day, but they called him ‘amigo’), who had a completely different climbing guidebook…which looked more detailed than ours and had real photos, rather than hand-drawn diagrams!

Yes, did you really think the saga of the guidebook would end there?!

So we ended up buying that guidebook, too. For 150 dirham – cheaper than the first one. This latest acquisition gave us the length of the ropes needed for each route, making it far easier to figure out where we could and couldn’t go. Hassan’s book just gave the length of the longest route in any given area, but this wasn’t very helpful in places where the routes are quite different lengths.

Sufiane
Me and Valentina with Sufiane, author of the second book and star of my first Morocco blog

We now had three books. Never in my life have I had to acquire three different climbing guidebooks for an area just to try and figure out where to go and what on earth I’m climbing! But I suppose this is what makes this area that little bit more exciting, the fact that it’s only just being developed to global climbing standards now, and much still remains undiscovered and new.

Todra itself is a gorgeous place – red limestone cliffs overlook a winding road, with a small river meandering on each side of it. There is climbing on each side of the river, and taking my shoes off to cross it was my refreshing morning ritual. We could have spent far longer than three days here!

So we carried on climbing with three guidebooks, until on the last day…

…we met a local teenager, Mohammed, who took us to a climbing shop, owned by his uncle Abdul. This was after he watched us climbing for a few hours, so we offered him to climb a route. He did so, in one of our harnesses and his trainers. And he was better than any of us in our rock shoes!

The shop is situated in a small village around 15-20 mins walk from Todra back towards Tinghir, and can be seen on the left hand side if you take a taxi up from Tinghir. It has some gear hanging outside, including a life-sized doll of a climber in a helmet. It’s pretty hard to miss really, so not sure how we managed to do so for three days going up and down from Tinghir!

Abdul is unlike any other locals we met in the area. Firstly, he never tried to sell us anything. He simply waited while we took a look around the shop. He had organised a sport climbing competition that day, which we had heard about but chose not to participate this time, and he also told us he has put a lot of work into bolting up the area and renovating the existing bolts. This guy is putting a lot of effort into looking after the place and promoting climbing in the area.

And of course – yes, you guessed it! – he sells climbing guidebooks. And they really are pretty good quality ones, far better than the other three that we now own…they cost 250 dirham, same as the hand-drawn version by Hassan, but trust me when I say they are far more worth it!

So, at the end of the last day, we found the best topo…and then we had to leave! But when we go back, Abdul will definitely be the only one we go to for advice, guidebooks and anything else we may need. And if you are going, please support this guy by buying his guidebook, and refusing anything else the locals offer you. 

Summary and other useful information for climbers in Todra:

  • Guidebook:
    – Buy your guidebook from Abdul, who owns the climbing shop on the way up to Todra from Tinghir
  • Equipment:
    – Make sure you bring a 70m/80m rope if you want to be flexible in your climbing
    – Apparently some trad gear is necessary on multi-pitch routes, but they look awesome!
  • Accommodation:
    – If you want to stay somewhere with electricity and comfort, I would recommend Hotel Restaurant Lakasbah in Tinghir, but you will have to get a taxi every morning; the rooms are around £15/pp per night, pricey for Morocco.
    – Alternatively, you can stay in Todra itself. You will be closer to the climbing, it will be a third of the price, but the conditions may be pretty dire. Heating is not a given, and it gets pretty cold at night.
  • Food:
    – The food in the area is very samey and in many places it’s really not great! However, we discovered an awesome little place in Tinghir, just off the main square, next to the CTM bus stop, called Cafe Central. It looks like nothing special, but compared to the food we had everywhere else, this was genuinely incredible! I mean, it had flavour. You can’t imagine how important this becomes after a few days here!

An Italian version of this blog has been written by my climbing partner, Valentina. Even if you are not Italian, please check out her new blog here, you’ll find some cool stuff.

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Climbing, cous cous and cold beds: a very Berber New Year

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.

Don’t look down! My first via ferrata

As I look up all I can see is metal staircases, stretching up seemingly right up towards the sky. I’m in the middle of one of them, gripping so hard my knuckles are going white, as I re-clip my carabiners onto the next chain. Click one. Click two. Phew…safe.

Ferrata ladder

Via ferrata is not for the faint of heart – it’s an experience that requires a bit of a head for heights, arguably to a greater extent than “proper” climbing. Some via ferrata have a great deal of exposure, and falling off is really not the best idea, despite being protected along the way.

Via ferrata – Italian for “iron road” – is a protected climbing route, usually by a steel cable or chain that runs up the rock, which is fixed to the rock at 3-10 metre intervals. They range in difficulty from 1 to 5, the latter being the hardest, and also tend to have grades for the exposure element.

Its origins go back to World War I, when ropes and wooden bridges were scattered all over the Dolomites to help troops move around at altitude. Decades later, after World War II, these were replaced by steel cables, metal ladders and chains, a network which now covers over 1,000 routes and is maintained by the Club Alpino Italiano, the Italian Alpine Club.

Via ferrata gives you that mix between sport climbing and hiking up a mountain, and the result is exhilarating. That’s something I’ve been missing with sport climbing so far – though we go outdoors quite a lot, we haven’t transitioned on to doing lots of multi-pitch routes(yet!), so although the fear of falling is ever-present, it rarely satisfies my need for height.

As I said, vie ferrate are not for the faint of heart. At times, there’s a huge amount of exposure, and I have to confess I felt a monumental sense of relief that I didn’t dive head first, as I normally do, and organise a trip to do one of these with a group of friends. It was something I planned for a while, but on my first time doing this thing, I don’t think I would have been of any help if one of my friends panicked, and I feel that is a distinct possibility on a route like that (even though ours was pretty easy by ferrata standards).

Don’t get me wrong – the experience is incredible and I would recommend it to anyone who loves the mountains. But having done it myself, I would suggest taking an instructor to anyone who doesn’t either climb or scramble on a regular basis.

Ferrata bridgeWe did a route called Gamma 1 in the mountains around Lake Como, Italy. It’s a relatively simple route, with a 2.2 rating (out of 5), so it wasn’t necessarily hard technically, but it was very tiring! It requires stamina and upper body strength, and a bit of disregard for the skin on your hands, as well as tolerance to many accidental bruises.

In many places the route was really polished – either because it’s simple, and therefore popular, or simply by virtue of being close to the lake and getting eroded by wet air day in, day out, for years. So often we had to resort to pulling ourselves up using the chains and smearing on the wall with our feet, instead of employing any form of climbing technique!

And the equipment. The equipment deserves a whole post on its own, but there are a number of those online, so I won’t try to replicate them.

I’ll say this though: as climbers, we assumed until last minute that we can forgo the precautions used by “normal people”. Our plan was to just attach some slings to our climbing harnesses, stick a carabiner on the end, bingo! Luckily, we did a bit of reading around, and that’s not quite how it works…

It turns out that, while a sport climber is likely to encounter a fall factor of up to 2, the fall factors on a via ferrata can reach 5. Without too much technical detail, it would suffice to say that even a small fall on a sling can burst it into pieces, so using them for a via ferrata is a very, very bad idea. But it turns out that even normal dynamic rope won’t take a fall of such force, though many people use DIY equipment anyway. We decided to be better safe than sorry!

The bottom line is, if you want to go, make sure you buy a lanyard – a special via ferrata set that will keep you safe as much as possible. There are quite a few expensive sets out there, but French brand Simond do a perfectly suitable lanyard for £34.99, which you can buy in Decathlon. Then all you need is a harness and a helmet, and if your hands are particularly soft, a pair of gloves could help. We were too hardcore/cheap to buy suitable gloves, so we just went for it. I have to be honest, my hands felt really, really sore afterwards. But what’s adventure without a little bit of physical hardship?

And anyway, it was all majorly worth it for the views. Nothing can ever compare to looking down on the world from the top of a mountain, in my personal opinion. And I never ever feel quite as happy doing anything else as I feel in that moment. It’s like all the worries of the world simply slip away and all that’s left is just childish, boundless joy of being there. That what the saying “I feel on top of the world” really means!

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Addiction to adventure: in love with the pain

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.

So…….who’s up for doing a 5,000m peak with me? 😉

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.

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!