Mark Cobb explores how his relationship with climbing has changed through the years...
Endless blue sky.
Cool breeze brushing past the rock.
Shins grazed and bruised.
Fingers sandpapered and bloodied by sharp corners on topouts.
Feeling alive. Energised. Ageless!
My son and I, 12 and 57, bouldering buddies, are working a problem on the One Move Block at the Cuttings on Portland; Smoking Joe, Font 7A. Slightly overhanging. A powerful, thin move from a very poor dish!
I was convinced I'd done this before. I was also pretty sure it had felt easier than this. Pull up off the small undercut, up to the dish and pop off it straight to the lip. Spent ages sorting my feet, slowly….get them right, then up and over. Phew! Fifteen minutes later and my son had also managed it. As usual, being 12, he had to do it slightly differently and probably climbed it better than me, but he was up, over and then high fiving and sharing the moment. Forty-five years separating us, but as one on this problem, climbing like brothers, not Dad and Son. Definitely felt harder this time though... am I less strong? Getting old?
I've been bouldering seriously for about ten years, my son for about seven. No wonder he's almost as good as me! He's only going to get better though, whereas I have to work very hard just to maintain what I already have. I thought about this. Some days, everything hurts, takes ages to warm up. My head tells me 'No — not today!' But once I'm on the rock, or working on some problems, the years begin to roll back and the muscles stop screaming and decide to help me. If we're climbing outside, with the beauty of the surroundings and the exhilarating feel of the rock, things fall into place.
Where I want to be.
Doing what I love, with the people I love to be with.
I've changed though, don't quite have the power I used to have, but on the other hand, I'm more experienced and my technique is better. It's always a bit of a shock when I remember how old I am. I watch a mate climb a route I've struggled with for weeks and think, hmm, why can't I manage that move?
I'm lucky though. It's not all just about physical strength. It's such a cauldron of ingredients that makes a climber. The desire, the motivation, the confidence, the experience. The acceptance that there are good days and others that are, well… just less good! Those low gravity days, when I can flow through the problems, energy endless, body in harmony with mind and place, I need to make the most of them; every ounce of enjoyment is squeezed out of the day. Then it's easier to also enjoy the days when I climb less, take some photos, watch my kids and hope to recover.
So where am I? Older, yes, but still going strong, just in a different way. I'll leave my son to do the dynos. Every day where I can climb on rock or pull on plastic is a day to savour, maybe even more so than it ever was. I'd climb every day if I could, but four days out of five this week has left me needing some serious recovery time, maybe even (whisper it) an early night. My desire is still there, my motivation is still strong, my obsessive attempts to memorise every problem in the bouldering guides have gone into overdrive! But, there's always a but….
At my local climbing wall, Brookes Climb, the routes have been up for three to four weeks and I've been going twice or three times a week. I'm at that point where I've climbed all but a handful of the problems I'd unconsciously targeted; a few challenges in there too. Here I am at the start of another session, quick warm-up (going to have to extend this next time I think), chalk up, and watch a friend climb a route that's on my list. I watch, haven't seen it done that way...matching on the penultimate hold? Hmm, need to try it like that, I know I can do that, just not today.
This is a social day, chatting, laughing, sharing beta, ticking over, the wheels in motion to get this problem next time…patience! A few years ago, I would have been frustrated, impatient; let me on that route, I've no time to chat. But as the years have passed, I've realised that there is time to climb, to chat, to be with friends, to share thoughts, to be! That calm helps, no need to try and climb everything today. This has definitely come with age, particularly when I climb indoors. The social side of climbing is really important and those friendships and conversations can often make the difference.
They mean so much. I might grab the top hold on the V5 or complete that route with the shadowless crimp, but if I share that moment with my wife, my kids, my mates, it brings joy, excitement, something special. Shared moments are what I look for now. They seem to have more value. It's not just about the route anymore; it's a wider picture, the rock, the people, the place, the weather, the hot chocolate!
Burbage South boulders. A playground!
My wife and kids love it; The Dog, the Sheep, Pock Block, so many brilliant boulders. The grit is coarse, quick to dry. What a place.
Five years ago, I battled up Dog Sit on the Dog boulder, a 7A problem, hard top out. My shins still carry the scars, reminders of a hard-fought victory. It seemed so important, it seemed to take ages, my wife waiting… patiently… 'just one more go'… nearly there... fell off the top twice, inwardly cursing, annoyed with myself. Got to get this, come on… I'm not a proper climber if I can't get this! Wow, really gave myself a hard time... my poor wife, watching this rather soul-less battle... patience frayed, fingers frayed. I got there, eventually. 'Well done,' said my wife through gritted teeth, as I climbed down with gritted fingers!
A battlefield, not a playground!
The last time we were there, I'd grown up a bit more as a climber. My wife climbed well, my kids climbed with confidence and excitement and great footwork (thanks Johnny D). It was calmer, more relaxed, more fun, and I still climbed some hard routes, this time with less blood and more flow. I actually took the time to appreciate the area, the rock, the inspirational boulders, the scenery, our shared enjoyment, the excitement of my son also climbing that same problem. More patience, more tolerance; a greater appreciation of what we share.
Johnny Dawes (a family hero) told me that as he's got older, he has focused more on enjoying himself and having 'more thoughtful choices of routes and approach'. He also said that he climbs 'more accurately, faster and with more rhythm'. He went on to say something else that I can definitely agree with: use a good sports masseur. I'm sure my body wouldn't be where it is without the occasional good massage. Many muscles need that expert manipulation to delve back into their memory to find their old flexibility and strength.
Steve McClure was kind enough to explain to me, at some length, how age has impacted him. 'Way back at 16 years old I just wanted to climb for the sake of climbing, just loving the movement and being outside. I wanted a challenge but this was not the primary target. It was about choosing a challenge that would be interesting but I'd almost certainly succeed on. But the route was the main thing – so history and quality and adventure was what it was all about. Getting into sport climbing at about 25, it was more about the physical combined with movement; where the two combine right on the limit and you are in the 'zone' going for it. That buzz is addictive. Then into my 30s and 40s, climbing was a huge part of keeping fit. It also becomes addictive, you feel out of shape after a week off! I was so into pushing myself to the very limits and exploring what I could do with climbing. More recently I've begun to just ache to climb – like I have a need to just climb stuff like maybe I had before back at 16. For a while, I could be happy with the physical. Like in winter I could go months with no climbing outside, and sometimes not even climbing at all, but 'off-wall' training, because it was towards a longer term goal of cranking hard. But now I need the climbing maybe more than ever. It does not need to be hard!'
I'm no Johnny Dawes or Steve McClure, but I certainly feel that, partly like them, it's all about enjoyment, rather than just chasing a grade. My family go on adventures and the shared emotions, accomplishments and successes from our adventures bring us closer together. Steve McClure also said that he is now more aware of the potential for injury, and for me, as I have got older, injuries now take so much longer to recover from, or more often just lead to another injury and the possibility of missing out on further climbing.
Time passes so quickly on some days, drags on others. When I'm climbing, it flies and I never have enough. Both Johnny and Steve suggested that their climbing time is limited by the need to work, to earn a living. There are also family obligations, friendships; life just gets in the way.
Rich Cole, the Manager of Brookes Climb, described how as a young man, he climbed passionately with little regard for safety and with only basic skills. As he got older and had kids, his appreciation of risk and potential injury made him step back a great deal, more aware of his responsibility as a father, to keep himself and his kids safe. He also realised that now his kids are older, he can climb more freely, almost a return to the carefree climbing of his younger days. I think becoming a dad made me want to be a hero for my son and daughter, to try and climb the hardest problems I could. Well, I tried anyway! But when they were old enough to climb, suddenly those routes, those problems became so much more serious. When they're climbing, I'm spotting with everything I've got. My role then is as protector, guide, coach, adviser. Sometimes it's easier to do than to watch. I've had to learn to watch.
As I've aged, my own heroes have inevitably grown older. Some of them still climb: Ben Moon, Steve McClure, Dave MacLeod, J.D; some have even stopped climbing, sadly, like Jerry Moffatt. I've grown to share my son's heroes too, Ondra, Narasaki, Garnbret; again that age gap has disappeared. I have moved through obsession, the 'need' to climb, towards an appreciation of where I climb, how I climb, who I climb with and also, that I am still free to choose to climb. My body hasn't given up on me yet and hopefully I can keep it going for a few years, as my son and daughter sail past me.
In my head, and hopefully, in reality, I still climb hard. I still have problems I would like to climb, places to go to that I've never been to. But more than that, I want to climb with my family, my friends, to share the joy, the laughter, the 'buzz', the success... the whole journey.
In my head, I'm still ageless.
I hope my body continues to listen.
With thanks to Johnny Dawes for his words, guidance and inspiration.
Also to Steve McClure for his words and kind contribution to this piece.