Anna Fleming reflects on being a frustrated climber in lockdown, turning to climbing-play at home and in the trees...
'What does a climber do in lockdown?' enquires my geology teacher. 'Are you climbing the walls?'
Yes. Of course.
After a winter spent largely indoors, cooped up writing a book about climbing, I was itching to get out on the rock. Now the days are longer, the sun is out and the rock is dry. This should have been a glorious start to the climbing season. But – as people across the world are finding – things have changed. Drastically. With lockdown in place, I have to find different ways to get my climbing fix.
Online climbing videos are a valuable resource. I revisit old classics, relishing the wry masterpiece that is Don Whillans and Joe Brown re-climbing Cemetery Gates some thirty years after their first ascent. With a few more clicks, I watch modern masters pull up French, Spanish, Italian, Asian and American rock. The climbers lunge for distant pockets and pad up delicate slabs while I sip yet another brew and fight the call of the cake.
High-fives, hugs, the hand-to-hand exchange of gear – the films reveal that it is not just the climbing that I am missing during lockdown. Such unremarkable acts of physical contact make even the most recent high-definition films seem like misty-eyed visions of a bygone era.
Until further notice, my climbing partners and I hang out on Whatsapp. At this time of year, our group name was due to shift from 'Winter' to 'Summer Climbing'. Now, the group is rebranded 'Lockdown Climbing'. Instead of discussing crags and weather forecasts, we share videos, witty barbs and frustrations. Virtual pub meetings provide a vital extra dose of community. Reporting from various outposts, we raise glasses, bottles and cans, remembering that we are in this together.
Delving into classic literature, I discover Mountaineering in Scotland by W.H. Murray, which brings the mountains to life in such vivid detail that I can only stomach one chapter at a time. Any more and I lose myself in longing for Glen Coe, the Northern Corries and Skye. Reading Murray's adventures, I keep in mind the incredible circumstances in which he wrote the book. He did not write from some idyllic mountain setting. For three years, Murray was a Nazi prisoner of war: his beautiful descriptions of Scottish mountaineering were written on sheets of coarse toilet paper in camps in Italy, Germany and Czechoslovakia. When the book was almost finished, the Gestapo found and destroyed the manuscript. Devastated but not deterred, Murray rewrote the entire thing.
While my mind is thus fed by rich creative fodder, my body is painfully still. Sitting before a computer screen or peering into a book, my hands and feet grow restless. I want to climb. Holed up with my parents in their home for the foreseeable, I start to prowl, hunting for something to climb.
My eyes latch onto a wall. The retaining wall. When my dad extended the house, he excavated a huge bank of earth to make space for a kitchen. To keep the bank in place, he built some mighty retaining walls, hiding breezeblocks beneath a veneer of local stone. The pseudo dry stone walls have plenty of gaps for climbing fingers. Here I find a few short challenges: a traverse, a direct ascent and a corner with bridging onto the house.
Across the road, more challenges await in the woods. Before bouldering, cragging or climbing walls, trees were my thing. Growing up on the mid-Wales border, the stone is loose and friable: there were no local crags to discover. Climbers were mystical beings that pursued their crazy craft elsewhere. But now, here I am, a climber in lockdown, meeting the trees of my childhood with a new set of skills.
A pair of oaks becomes a green chimney. Back-and-footing off the rough bark, I shimmy up the trunks until the space between the trees becomes too wide. To climb further, I'll need to pull off a feat of horizontal gymnastics that would rival Johnny Dawes on The Quarryman. I retreat, vowing to work on my abs (right after the next slice of cake).
As well as the native broadleaves, the wood also has an amazing collection of conifers. Giant firs and sequoias were planted here in the 1860s when a wealthy family fancied having a showcase arboretum. Craning my neck to look up the immense trunks into towering crowns far overhead, I could be in Yosemite or the Rocky Mountains: these giants hail from the Pacific coast of America.
Over their long lives, the bark of the giant conifers has ruptured into intricate features. There are layers, flakes, flaps, cracks and handles. Birds and insects have hollowed out holes. Climbing fingers itch to explore such elaborate texture but ascending these 40 metre giants is out of the question. Instead, I develop a new style, a clambering traverse around the base of the tree. I christen this circumambulation the 'tree-sixty'.
Through my tree-sixties, I discover that Douglas firs have crispy bark with good crimps. My fingers come to life feeling out holds which must be pulled with attentive care. Dry chunks can flake off, sending me crashing into beds of brambles and nettles. Wellingtonias have a spongey red bark that forms long musical flakes – those with the richest notes make the best holds. It is like climbing a xylophone.
Heading back indoors, I wonder what lockdown means for the wider climbing community. I feel for those who were training for the Olympics or preparing for expeditions up distant peaks. Perhaps climbers will emerge with a new and strange set of skills developed on whatever they have to hand. (My phone pings: a friend shares a video of her historic first ascent of her banisters.) Perhaps lockdown heralds a new golden era of first ascents. Of course, there is a balance to be struck in our efforts to stay safe, healthy and sane. This is not the time to burden the NHS with broken bones sustained through ridiculous feats of domestic climbing. We must carry out our climbing-play responsibly. But I am confident that we can get the balance right. After all, climbers are used to navigating difficult terrain.