Learning to Climb with my Son in my 50s Article

© Kate Cotton

Kate Cotton documents her experience of discovering climbing in her 50s, and how her son helped her to fall in love with it.

"You've done what?!" my friend replied after my first bouldering session. "You're crazy!"

With throbbing fingertips and racing heart – and a huge smile – I proudly detailed my first two-hours of climbing with my son. No more sitting on the side-lines for this menopausal 50-something mum.

Finishing a boulder  © Kate Cotton
Finishing a boulder
© Kate Cotton

When my son Liam started climbing at university I sat up and took notice. I've never been the sporty type, viewing exercise as more punishment than fun, but I'd always been attracted to the idea of climbing. My clumsy adolescent self wasn't built for PE. At school I wasn't just the last to be picked – I wasn't even there, preferring to bunk off and smoke fags than face double games. But I'd had a go at top roping with a friend back in the '90s and loved it. Although at the time it felt inaccessible as a hobby, I never forgot the adrenaline buzz that day on that rock.

I told Liam I'd like to join him, and he constantly reminded me. Having spectated my way through his sporting life he was more than keen for me to have a go. He introduced me to Alex Honnold, Valley Uprising, and Reel Rock. I watched those cool Californians dancing up rockfaces and my interest was piqued. During Christmas 2018 we sat on the front row watching Free Solo at my local Devon cinema.

Feeling emboldened I finally suggested the climbing gym on a visit to Liam's in Swansea. There was no going back now. On the way my knees were shaking, and back and legs twinging with sciatica from an old back injury. I was terrified I was going to hurt myself and be twice the width of the other climbers there. I was worried about embarrassing myself and my son, but his words of encouragement kept me moving towards the building.

The guy behind the counter didn't register my age or weight - instead he looked impressed, as Liam boasted how I'd top roped decades ago. My hands trembled as I crushed my feet into climbing shoes, assured they're meant to be so tight fitting.

Inside the bouldering gym I was mesmerised by the climbers and multi-coloured routes. To my horror I had to be inducted and asked to climb the first few holds – but the guy, bless him, let me go last after the kids had run off. After I got down, I couldn't help noticing a look of envy on the face of one of the dads, thinking he should be on the wall too instead of spectating.

I bounced back to my son who guided me to a beginner slab. I powdered my hands and gripped on tight – maybe a little too tight! – and pulled myself up – I know, I use my legs more now! I quickly made it to the top and looked down to see a huge grin on Liam's face. I dropped down and lay on the crash mat, heart pounding. Thinking it was beginner's luck I tried another and another and another. I bloody loved it.

And then it got harder. Sensing my disappointment Liam confirmed muscle fatigue kicking in. I lay on the mat, covered in a satisfying blend of chalk and sweat, and watched my son swing along overhangs. A fully in-the-moment mother and son bonding experience.

Kate's son Liam taking on an overhang  © Kate Cotton
Kate's son Liam taking on an overhang
© Kate Cotton

I'm a big yoga fan, so cooling off on the yoga mat afterwards added to the fun. And the joy of eating "free calories" after such an intense workout was almost worth the climb alone. I didn't stop buzzing for days, even when the DOMS – understated "delayed onset muscle soreness" - kicked in!

I was hooked. Liam and I swapped YouTube climbing videos and, each time we met up, we went climbing together. I started to build up my callouses with pride – adding "Climb On" to my daily routine. We watched Free Solo again, only this time I was more focussed on Alex's fingers and toes. His superhuman achievement on El Capitan now looked a lot scarier with my new-found knowledge of climbing techniques!

We climbed in Devon and Swansea and met halfway in Bristol to climb, followed by a cinema viewing of Reel Rock 2019. I enjoyed succumbing to Liam's instructions as he taught me how to smear and use the power in my legs as I progressed through the bouldering colour scheme. I found climbing both fantastically challenging and strangely meditative – working out routes and reaching out to holds, dancing horizontally up the wall. We went to a talk by Hazel Findlay, chatting with Hazel and her mum afterwards, and exchanged the same gift of Alex Honnold's mum's book at Christmas.

'Yay, mums who climb!' shouted one excited hard-core climber in the Swansea gym as I traversed a wall during one visit. Liam looked so proud. Whenever my confidence faltered, he assured me I was inspiring, not embarrassing.

I progressed to higher walls, finally convincing Liam I have little fear of heights. The safety of the rope more than compensated for the effort of the extra climbing. On Liam's birthday I was on routes with his mates, instead of in the café with other mums.

That Christmas Liam bought me my first climbing shoes – a pair of Tarantulas to help me move like a spider. My own sports kit! I was so excited I climbed the radiator and stair banister to try them out as soon as I got home, and my son shared the photo with his WhatsApp climbing group.

Trying out the new shoes  © Kate Cotton
Trying out the new shoes
© Kate Cotton

My weight started to drop as I could feel a purpose to getting slim again. And then the pandemic hit, and the gyms closed. I tried at first to keep practising on the banister, with cushions as crash mats. My son sent me videos of climbers with crazy home contraptions, and a scary one of him climbing into his attic which I tried not to stress over. After a freaky fall off the stair banister I sat on the sofa and comfort ate instead, like most of the middle-aged mums during lockdown.

And then my son moved to Belgium. As soon as travel restrictions lifted, I packed my Tarantulas and flew over to see him. We found a bouldering gym, but this was a different ball game. This one felt more serious. The holds were so close together I was mesmerised again. My confidence waned until Liam chalked me a route to follow. Then I was back in the swing of it, although I could feel every extra lockdown kilogram on my body.

I see less of my son now he's in Belgium and have had no success persuading friends to join me for a climbing session. I called in my local bouldering gym alone to get photos taken for this article, and wished I'd been less camera shy in 2019 when I was 10 kilograms lighter! But the manager's smiles and encouragement reminded me of the inclusivity of this sport. I instantly felt the buzz of being back on the wall. I'm now starting to lose the lockdown weight and planning to join the women's Friday night group. I need regular climbing back in my life again.

Back on the wall after lockdown  © Kate Cotton
Back on the wall after lockdown
© Kate Cotton

I'm so happy I've finally found a sport I can relax into – in a bouldering gym nobody's watching you and you're not frustrating any teammates with cack-handed ball skills. Climbing has been a gift that keeps on giving, and a fantastic thing to share with my son.

I wish climbing had been more accessible when Liam was younger. But no looking back – I've got another climbing date with my son when he comes back to visit next month. More memories - and more pandemic weight to shift too!

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27 Oct, 2022

Lovely stuff.

27 Oct, 2022

Fan-bloody-tastic! More power to your elbow! (although not enough to cause damage, obvs)

27 Oct, 2022

Full marks to you Kate, and to your son for his supportive and mature approach. Climbing with family is such a privilege and pleasure. I've enjoyed three-generation climbing trips home and abroad with my son and 15 yo grandson who are both mega supportive of my failing abilities. They also carry all the heavy rucksacks. Keep going.

27 Oct, 2022

Fantastic. I love it.

27 Oct, 2022

Great positive read…thanks Kate.

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