‘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.

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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!

Why trad climbing makes you a geek

“This is just a Diff, it should be really easy!” – I was furiously thinking to myself, as I scrambled around for somewhere, anywhere, to put in a piece of protection for my climb up. But apart from the wide cracks, into which I couldn’t even jam my (admittedly tiny) hands, there was nowhere that I could see with the naked eye to place my metal pieces of gear…was I supposed to solo this thing??

It amazed me how different I felt trad leading in Stanage, Derbyshire, compared to my first ever trad lead in the Wye Valley. There, I led a VDiff and moved quickly onto a Severe without any problems.

Severe is the next level up from Hard-Very-Difficult, or HVD for short. Trad climbing grades go from Moderate to escalating Extreme grades, denoted by the letter E with numbers from 1 to 11, which is explained in detail here by Rockfax.

You can read about my impressions of my first trad leading experience here.

The reason for such a difference in the way I felt this time around compared to the Wye Valley became apparent pretty quickly: the type of rock. In the Wye, we climbed on limestone, while Stanage is popular for its abrasive gritstone.

‘But surely rock is just rock?’, I hear you say.

Well, that is exactly what I thought before I really got into climbing. When friends with a bit more outdoor experience would talk passionately about the differences between limestone and grit, and complain about how hard it is to climb on sandstone, I admit I thought they were a little boring, and ever so slightly mental.

It suddenly became all-important when I finally made the proper transition to outdoor climbing, and my addiction to the sport flourished.

Watch a video of my first ever trad climbing experience here.

The UK, for its small size, is home to a very diverse range of rock types, and nowhere is this more noticeable than in Wales, which is home to everything from fairy-tale slate quarries to limestone sea cliffs, from granite to rhyolite.

The diversity of rock types in this country means one weekend I find myself slipping off polished limestone footholds in the Wye Valley, and the next I’m scraping the skin off my knuckles in the abrasive gritstone cracks in the Peak District.

It also means very different approaches to the art of trad climbing, as different rock types are best suited to different types of gear.

Which one do I go for...?
Which one do I go for…?

In general, I found my first go at trad leading on limestone in the Wye Valley far easier than our latest trip to Stanage, where the easiest route felt alarmingly unprotected.

In the Wye, I had great fun playing around on a 63 metre VDiff multi-pitch. In Stanage, I thought I was going to fall off and die on an 8 metre long Diff route. (Although I did eventually man up, and led an 18 metre HS 4b, but that took every little bit of courage I had!)

As I have previously written, trad is all about feeling safe and confident, and Stanage tested my faith in myself to a far greater extent than my first limestone leads, and more than once I wanted to just come down off the rock face and call it a day.

I think it partly comes down to the fact that I found it far easier to place protection into the limestone rocks in the Wye, with lots of useful cracks in the rock that are just perfect for nuts and hexes (you can see one of those in the picture below).

A beautifully placed hex, even if I say so myself.
A beautifully placed hex, even if I say so myself.

The gritstone in Stanage, on the other hand, is famous for its large and wide-mouthed cracks which are just perfect for cams – a much more expensive piece of gear, which we are for now lacking in out trad rack (partly due to its cost), and which is tougher to use.

Cams are popular in the US for that exact reason – the rock in many parts of the country lends itself really well to camming devices. However, it takes a bit more experience to place these pieces of gear correctly.

Cams are an active type of protection, which can move around inside the crack as it gets loaded, and therefore jam and get stuck. The advantage of nuts and hexes, traditionally preferred in the UK, is that they are cheaper and much less likely to get jammed. That’s our British style, always choose simplicity.

We really did think we could get away with not owning any cams in the lower grades, but the trip to Stanage suggests otherwise, so we will have more expenses coming our way before long. I guess me and my climbing partner Valentina have our birthday and Christmas wish list sorted for years to come!

A special thanks goes to Tamsin for the amazing photos she took of the trip – check out her portfolio here, she really is a wonderfully talented photographer.

She has also written a guest blog about her experience, so check it out too.

Thanks also to  Wild Country for our set of quickdraws and to Sterling for our super-light and super-colourful rope! (Fusion Nano 9.2mm Dry in bright purple, if you were wondering)

Making climbing memories last a lifetime

This is a guest post written by my friend Tamsin who is trying to get into climbing photography. She writes about her first experience of photographing climbers in action at our latest trad climbing trip. You can read more about that adventure here. 

I find myself hanging 30 metres up a wall, with the trees below me and the breeze in my hair.

A question I often ask myself to assess how I’m doing in life is: “Would my 13 year old self be impressed by this?” It might seem like a weird way to assess your life, but I have a strong belief that you should approach life with a childish mind-set if you want to enjoy yourself.

The answer to my question is YES. Thirteen year old me would think I was the coolest person in the world for that precise moment alone!

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Climbing became a huge part of my life back in 2011 and since then I have striven to work out a way to make a living out of it. It is hard though: when you know you will never go pro and you just don’t have the balls to train up as an instructor, your options become very limited.

I studied film production at university and in my final year I wrote my entire dissertation on extreme sports film making, but I never truly believed that I could do the kind of stuff the camera men from Sender Films were doing.

My answer to anyone now who may think that is: You are capable.

multi-pitch

I learnt that the rope work involved in suspended photography is very different to that of climbing, no matter what discipline. Though climbing is relevant still, the way in which you secure yourself to the wall is something completely new to me. And on top of that, it feels so much safer!

Anna lead

While my friends were trad climbing up towards me feeling quite uncertain of themselves and the route ahead, I was quite happy dangling over the ledge using my legs as leverage to reposition myself to get the perfect shot.

There is still a certain amount of trust you have to gain in yourself when it comes to climbing to that height with a camera on your back. I lost my lens cap on the first day, which was a lesson hard learned.

But what surprised me most of all was that once you are up there, it is really quite easy to sit and shoot like you would anywhere else. And in fact the angle options which are opened up to you make your photographs a hundred times better.

I am still yet to fully commit, and I need to take a rope access course to ensure my own safety. But I am happy after my first proper trip out and I can’t wait to work on my portfolio!

miura

 

If you are interested in Tamsin photographing your trip, send an e-mail to tamsineb@gmail.com

 

Please also check out our new YouTube project called Vertical Souls, which I have embarked on with Tamsin and my climbing partner Valentina, and LIKE our Facebook page!!!

You can read more about the project here.

 

The mind game of rock climbing British style

I never thought I would get so excited about something as mundane as a crack in a rock or a well-rooted tree.

Before leading my first trad climb, this sport was mostly about pushing myself physically for me. But this time, it was all about pushing myself mentally.

Traditional climbing, or ‘trad’ for short, is a type of rock climbing that dominates the scene in the UK, where a climber must put in his or her own points of protection into a rock face while going up, and then clip the rope into these. Its European counterpart is sport climbing, where the metal bolts are already built into the wall for a climber to clip into.

rope

Approaching the first ever route I was going to lead by myself in the heart of the Wye Valley I tried to focus on the job at hand instead of going mad with nerves and excitement. It was hard to be too serious about it all anyway, when every step I took made me sound like a herd of cattle, all the gear attached to my harness clinking away almost melodically.

Trad climbing is a mind game. Your safety hangs entirely on your own skill at placing the gear into the rock, and confidence can make the difference between going up and freezing in terror in the middle of a rock face.

Everyone has their own way of dealing with this fear. I find (and my climbing partner Valentina definitely agrees!) that singing to myself, or even out loud, often helps. Although I have often thought it would be a bit of a shame if I ever were to fall to my death off a rock face and my last thought were the lyrics to a Tailor Swift song…but that’s a little morbid!

Pure concentration tends to push out the fear as well – there simply isn’t enough space for the two in my head.

Valentina also says it helped her to think there was no other way than up (ironically). In a sport climb, you can always come down off the last bolt you clipped into if you get really freaked out. In trad, it’s much harder. Generally, the best way out of a scary trad climb tends to be up. That, or a call to Mountain Rescue.

That’s why it’s so exciting when you find the perfect fit between a crack in the rock face and a piece of metal, or when you finish your climb at the root of a large, stable tree, which can act as a nice super-safe anchor point (used to belay the climber that follows on the route from the top). The relief compares to nothing else!

On a separate note, I am 100% convinced learning to climb isn’t possible without good people around you. The climbing tradition and practices are passed on from generation to generation in a similar way good old fairy tales and family legends are transmitted by world of mouth.

A special thanks therefore goes out to our friend Paul, who helped tremendously with our first trad lead by being the calmest, but also most vigilant person to supervise us through the experience. And of course, simply by being there. I’ll never forget my first trad climb, and I’ll never forget who made it possible for me to feel confident enough to try it.

Paul is a qualified Southern Sandstone instructor and is a great person with whom to learn the basics of outdoor climbing on London’s nearby rocks. If you want to give this a try, don’t even think of calling anyone else to arrange a session!

You can contact Paul by sending him an e-mail on paul@on-up.co.uk or look him up on Facebook under the name Onwards Upwards.

Please also check out our new YouTube project called Vertical Souls, which I have embarked on with my climbing partner Valentina and wonderful friend Tamsin, and LIKE our Facebook page!!!

You can read more about the project here.

My new project: Vertical Souls

“Guys…why don’t we actually try and make something out of this climbing obsession?” – those were the words of my climbing partner Valentina and our just-as-obsessed friend Tamsin as we were having dinner one Sunday night after another weekend outdoors.

Suddenly, this seemed like the perfect idea. We live and breathe this sport right now, surely we can share all the things we’re learning with other people taking up the sport for the first time, or those deciding to commit to it with renewed vigour.

Luckily for us, Tamsin happens to be an ex film student and exceptionally skilled with the camera (though she will never admit it!). The concept for the videos was an easy one to come up with – though we’re still perfecting it, of course, and will be for a long time.

Our new project goes under the name “Vertical Souls” and will comprise a set of videos in which we will share our passion for climbing and everything we have learnt so far about our sport, taking you on our journey with us as we learn more ourselves.

You can expect videos on anything from training to food (especially food!!), from stretching to injury prevention, and everything in between. And to top it off, we are fully committed to wearing the most colourful sportswear we can get our hands on for these videos!

I will also keep updating you on our antics on this blog, so please keep reading, and subscribe to our YouTube channel to make sure you don’t miss any of our new videos.

You can subscribe to our YouTube channel here.

But please do be patient with us while we smooth out sound issues and anything else that isn’t quite perfect, yet. We know there is still work to be done and fully expect teething problems, but please do also give us your feedback and more ideas for future topics to cover.

Thanks for your support and please keep watching and share, share, share!!

Never fear quarrels, but seek hazardous adventures.