At the beginning of my climbing journey two years ago, I had eyed Malham Cove's dramatic amphitheatre from the mouth of the beck that flows from beneath the stage. I loitered at the fringes of an uninitiated audience, who spectated as a group of climbers rehearsed their lines.
The Cove appeared steep and burly. A far cry from the finesse of the delicate, balletic slab climbing that seemed to suit my composition. Probably not for me. Expressing an interest in climbing at Malham as a relative beginner was almost always met with a gentle intake of breath followed by fatalistic utterances:
"Oh, it's all very hard there."
But my fascination had begun.
It was a tentative foray at first. There was no doubt it was difficult, but the limestone - my safe space, having cut my teeth on it in Costa Blanca - was so enticing. I learned to love projecting, redpointing, working things out. My project, by no means even close to being the hardest climb on the Catwalk, and one perhaps more often deemed a warm-up route by the usual Cove clientele, proved an exercise in humility. It reminded me of my weaknesses—quite forcibly at times. This crag is humbling for even the most hardened climber. Each time I found myself hurtling in an unfavourable direction as gravity took hold, it occurred to me that neither I nor the rock was flawed, we just weren't quite working together yet.
Now, as an auditioned and inducted member of the cast (or at least the chorus), cautiously treading the 'boards' of gleaming rock that make up Malham's bolt-embellished Catwalk, I still watch. A variety of performances are on show, sometimes ceremonial, improvised, dramatic, occasionally comedic and often short-lived. I observe the dynamic between climber and crag, belayer and those at the bottom bearing witness. Redpoint attempts often garner a reverent hush from spectators. The concavity of the rock amplifies every exhalation and cry of exertion from the climber, the rest of us silent save for an occasional zealous shout.
"Stay with it!"
Into the crux sequence, methodically and with steely determination. The audience motionless, as if an ill-timed sniff or twitch might send the ascensionist arcing through the air, swooping feet-first to a (hopefully soft) stop, rope taut, below the bolt.
"Shame. It just wasn't the conditions for it."
In summer I have seen folk sat soaking in the too-hot-to-climb sun and serenity, propped up against a backdrop of searingly white, streaked stone that makes your palms perspire to even look at. Postulating about the optimal sending hour or gazing meditatively at the scant stream below. A rope sways lazily from the anchor, untethered and ready to be pulled and re-tied for the next redpoint attempt once the sun shies away. I have also sat, bone-dry beneath the imposing blockade whilst a downpour swept past, thunder crashed above and lightning illuminated the Cove and replenished rivulet.
"How conductive is limestone?", we laughed.
I approached the next attempt with a degree of trepidation as electricity hummed in the air.
"I'll just go up quickly and get the draws back."
In winter, the face has welcomed my hands with warmth on a very cold day, the curvature of the rock retaining that rare and gratifying heat of winter sun. I peel off layers of Primaloft and procure my shoes from where they were warming, ready to touch rock, just to be outside. To be here.
"T-shirts in January!", we joked.
Intimidating test-pieces trace the walls, the difficulty of which have awarded Malham a certain notoriety. Trial by limestone, testing even the strongest and most athletic climber's stoicism. Yet there's something very special about this place; Malham taught me as much about patience, passion and perseverance as it did about power. My finger strength grew and my footwork improved endlessly on the dubious and sometimes polished divots, miniscule points and almost imperceivable, long-fossilised features. An exercise in precision and trust—trust your own feet, step on the unfathomable. Trust the rock, that seemingly unchanging yet fickle substance. Trust that it won't spit you off.
Somewhere among the grunting and gritty resolve, toiling and prodigious route-ticking, there is an elementary beauty to this sedimentary structure. The minutiae of the playhouse itself and the performances that play out on the amphitheatre continue to draw me in, from nervous rehearsals to dramatic final acts.