What gets us hooked on climbing, and who? Jessie Leong reflects on the people who first introduced her to climbing outside and the strong partnerships from those formative outdoor adventures.
Ever wondered where you'd be if you hadn't met those quirky characters who were willing to give up their time to take you out and show you, quite literally, the ropes?
Our traditions of climbing are constantly being redefined by new generations. Trad climbing can represent so many things, but ultimately what remains unchanged from generation to generation is the shared experience that spans age gaps and social standings. Some of the most memorable shared experiences are our early ones.
Once we've got the climbing bug we often swiftly move up the grades, progressing onto harder climbs, focusing on getting better, faster, stronger. Sometimes it's good to reflect and give thanks to those who helped us take our first steps in climbing; the ones we looked up to as they showed us the way.
Coops - the one who first took me climbing outdoors at Almscliff
Stew Pot, Almscliff, HVD
"Right, so I'll come by and pick you up – just bring your harness, belay device and shoes."
Emma Cooper (or 'Coops') was, like me, a member of the Leeds University Union Hiking Club. As a hillwalking club we spent most weekends packed into a minibus on club trips exploring mountainous regions, which over time then progressed to more adventurous days out scrambling. Mountaineering was a grey area between scrambling and climbing, something that appealed to many of us students and graduates as a means of combining experience in the hills along with more technical rope skills – but with not much money to attend courses, how (or from whom) were we to learn those skills in the first place?
Coops and I had enjoyed a few sessions climbing at the indoor climbing wall familiar to Leeds students at The Edge, but climbing at Almscliff was my first taste of climbing outdoors.
At the time, I wanted to apply for the Jonathan Conville Memorial courses that took place in Chamonix, which offered subsidised teaching in alpine skills for people under-30. In my naivety, trad climbing was just a stepping stone. Rock climbing was merely a means acquiring additional skills along my path to becoming a mountaineer. Doing trad routes for enjoyment alone hadn't even crossed my mind.
My eyes pressed against the window, as the roundabouts, swaying purple buses and the cluster of terrace-lined streets of Headingley passed us by. There didn't seem too much in the way of significant peaks immediately north of Leeds. We passed through the windy roads of Otley Chevin before signposts to 'Pool' signified that we were leaving the heady hum of the city. As we quickly entered the North Yorkshire countryside, I wondered: what was that prominent spike that interrupted the stretch of green horizon?
Almscliff commanded a certain majesty in its position, the way it protruded from the Wharfedale valley skyline. On its approach was a notoriously boggy, muddy path. We slogged across a farmer's field, careful to not lose our trainers in it. It wasn't until we got closer that I realised Almscliff wasn't just one piece of rock but a series of almost Henry Moore-like sculptures; protruding boulders that wouldn't look amiss on a mountain skyline, fantastical in contrast with the smooth and round and sheer imposing walls. Yet here they were, smooth yet rough, with cleaving gaps and crinkle-cut potato chip top-outs, along with some fierce-looking cracks in the shape of birds' beaks.
Coops put her harness on over her club committee hoodie and tied her hair up into a messy bun under a bright lime-green helmet. I gulped - we were nowhere near a soaring mountain landscape - yet the crag in front of us was nonetheless intimidating. The rounded, cracked wall above looked a bit like a much-loved pot that had chipped and cracked over time. Coops decided we would be talking the route known as 'Stew Pot', which was given the elusive, rather traditional grade of 'Hard Very Difficult.'
Learning about grades felt meaningless to me as a beginner. My eyes were drawn instead to the route's complexities; a deep, conical hole where no gear could sit without rattling, then a polished crack that stretched vertically up the route. Coops pottered up the route and shortly after a voice called from above. "I'm safe!" A lime-green helmet popped out of the top, and two scuffed pairs of Boreal jokers waggled from the top of the climb.
How on earth did she climb that so quickly, I thought as I tied in and began to climb, carefully prising out the worn metal chunks embedded in the route. The experience of climbing – being so focused on conserving energy and trying to balance while holding on to the route and the gear I was responsible for extracting – was totally absorbing. It was a form of meditation as I could no longer give space to any thought other than the movement of travelling from one slightly polished foothold to another horizontal break.
At the end of the afternoon, Coops turned to me and with a glint in her eye, chirped "Do you want to have a go at leading this?" Slightly shocked that I was going to be given the responsibility of leading in my first session at the crag, I tied in, the weight of the heavy gear feeling unfamiliar on my harness as I checked and triple-checked my knot.
I was concentrating – really concentrating – and looking down as I passed the stew pot features to see Coops' beaming smile. As I topped out Coops whizzed round the side to help me set up an anchor, pointing my attention to well-worn cracks and horizontal breaks matching the exact shape of the jangling climbing gear she removed from my harness.
As I belayed Coops to the top having completed my first outdoor lead, there was a moment to admire the jumble of triangles and blocks that surrounded Almscliff. When I think back now to where I first learnt to climb, it's not the alpine spires I later saw that summer from the top of the Aiguille du Midi that spring to mind, but rather Almscliff and the surrounding views of Wharfe valley – a view that I have returned to again and again, a place of historical significance, nostalgia, thuggery and romance.
Paul Waldron - the one at the wall who introduced me to Stanage
Eckhard's Chimney, High Neb, Stanage, V Diff
Paul – aka Chatty Paul – had one of those personalities that felt a bit like standing next to one of those patio heaters. You couldn't help but feel the warmth radiating from him and his shared enthusiasm for his passion: climbing. I had been working at a local climbing wall and was frustrated by the lack of creativity in the indoor routes, my hands shredded daily by pulling on the dirty, plastic holds. Paul was one of those memorable wall characters I bumped into on my shifts. He'd often walk past the counter and ask me a question or make some passing remark in his booming West Yorkshire accent - "JESSIE! Shall we go to Stanage? What about this Sunday ay?"
High Neb, Stanage, must be somewhere important, I thought, if it was worth swinging round Leeds outer ring road, dodging taxi drivers and being awake first thing on a Sunday morning. Paul, a driving instructor, chatted about the trials and tribulations of his students as he drove, with the plastic 'L' sign tucked in the boot. I couldn't drive yet, so my judgement of driving distances to crags was poor, but an hour-and-a-half-long journey to get to a location that was known for its high number of lower grade classics seemed worth it.
"Ok Jessie, keep an eye out for this road – think it's called Mortimer Road or something." Paul breezily swung the car down the sheer 20% gradient roads, as the car screeched on the brakes before pulling up an even-steeper hill. Google had found a quick way to Stanage, but this scenic route proved quite exciting.
We arrived at the parking spot with its multitude of signs, from 'Dennis Knoll car park' to 'DON'T LEAVE ANY VALUABLES.' Plodding up a gravel track, we walked steadily uphill, before we crossed a stile and landed in some boggy, saturated ground. It was rather squelchy, but as I looked behind me I saw Paul carrying an ex-army sack - loaded with what appeared to be the kitchen sink - bulging with the weight of his climbing gear. We plodded on, with an approach that felt longer than the guidebook's optimistic 15 minutes. Paul took my apprenticeship in trad climbing seriously and it felt necessary to carry plenty of gear, including two 50m ropes, plus all of Paul's gear he'd accrued in over 25 years of climbing.
My climbing apprenticeship seemed to be based on just turning up to the crag and having a go. Paul's way of showing me what he thought was good would be to study the rock in front of us, rather than peer too closely at the route descriptions in the guidebook, and just nudge me in the direction of an easy climb - "Look at THAT crack, Jessie!" Standing beneath an intimidating, gaping crack, 'Eckhard's Chimney' was one of those apparently easy climbs, first climbed by a woman. According to the guidebook, it would be 'Very Difficult,' which was evident by the lack of holds.
Paul gave me a nudge and started to mime in mid-air. With his hands facing opposite directions, he seemed to be forming a flapping butterfly. "This will be the way to get up this crack!" he enthused. Crack-climbing was not a term I was familiar with, but the concept of wiggling and using a more 3D style of climbing seemed to suit my shorter frame better than teetering on tiny footholds and smears. It would serve me well to get familiar with crack skills, since all the lower grade climbs we looked at seemed to involve squirming and wriggling in a tight chimney, or shoving hands into cracks that were deemed 'solid jams' in the guidebooks but turned out to be baggy cracks that felt more insecure.
"Wait a second — my hands are slipping out of this one!" The climbers of yesteryear must have had hands that were the size of Denby dinner plates, as my own hands seemed to slip out of the crack despite balling them into fists. As I pulled my fingers round an edge, there seemed to be a way of making progress by pulling my fingers against the widening crack in the opposite direction. Little did I know that I was laybacking — another skill ticked-off in the climbing apprenticeship. I eyed-up the ledges ahead for a much-needed rest.
"Nice work Jessie," hollered Paul in his booming Yorkshire tones, full of pride as he grinned at me. Climbing at Stanage was a stark contrast to the thuggy, intimidating bulges of Almscliff, requiring technique, balance and a bit of creativity to climb the rock. This was what I learnt from my first time at Stanage. The satisfaction of making progress on these remarkable gritstone climbs stuck with me and compelled me to return multiple times during my climbing apprenticeship.
Hilary Lawrenson - the one who introduced me to my first sea-cliff
Pendulum Chimney, Chair Ladder, Severe
I was climbing in Cornwall with Hilary, a formative figure as President of the Pinnacle Club at the time. She had already kindly offered to take me out as a relative newbie, and we'd climbed together on Bramble Buttress at Bwlch y Moch, Tremadog and Inverted Staircase on Craig y Clipiau in the Moelwyns.
This time, she had offered to give me my first taste of sea cliff climbing – a new idea involving going down as well as going up! Cornish sea cliffs were no pushover; they required commitment.
We'd gathered at the watch tower above Chair Ladder on a joint Pinnacle/Climbers' Club Cornish meet. Having already checked tide times, the climb would require efficiency to make sure the tide didn't make a sweep along the base of the climb and unexpectedly soak us all. But to begin with, there were guano-splattered ledges, fiddly placements and soapy, polished granite to navigate. It was hard not to feel overwhelmed during the committing abseil from a huge, lichen covered boulder down the ominously named 'Ash Can Gully' to arrive at the sea-washed ledge above the waves.
The first few pitches of Pendulum Chimney passed without too much drama. We were climbing outside of bird bans, yet much to our chagrin we noticed a beady-eyed guardian watching us with suspicion at the start of pitch four. I had heard of birds that vomited horrible fishy spew and was hoping that this one would just be an innocent one looking for chips and solace, not vomit practice.
Two sets of slightly suspicious eyes watched me from above as I tried desperately to sort my body positioning out. I wasn't sure if it was the seabird or Hilary who was watching me more intently as I reached down to unclip one of the noisiest culprits from my harness. It seemed that my hexes not only protected the route, but were also useful seagull deterrents thanks to their clanging. We both watched the seagulls hopping up and down on the ledges and hoped that they wouldn't be launching towards us.
Hilary wiped her hands, the smell of fishy bird poo adding to the overwhelming pungency of sea-cliff climbing. "EURGHHH, what a route!" she said. It involved a mix of exciting moves high above the sea, with dramatic sea-cliff views. It started to rain on the final pitch and water ran down Hilary's windproof, soaking the inside of her sleeves. We topped out to a Cornish cornucopia of different lichens in mustard yellow, pale mint-green alongside quartzite crystals set in the grey speckled granite.
As with any classic sea cliff, there was a bit of customary faff trying to get back to the abseil pinnacle to retrieve the rope and approach shoes. As we descended the steep, near-vertical scramble of boulders, flowers and lichen, Hilary turned to look at me, part-joking, part-serious: "Do those hexes need to be quite so loud?" she said as they clanged in a cacophony on our descent. Was it adventurous? Yes – it was indeed a route to remember, with the soundtrack of seabirds and their shrieks, the ocean waves lapping and those pesky hexes helping me to secure my way up my first sea cliff.
Climbing certainly wouldn't have taken such a strong hold on me as an adult at the age of twenty-three without these three characters in those early years. Through them, I discovered the perfect activity combining sport, adventure and meditation. I'm sure many others feel the same way as I do.
Are we doing enough to welcome people into the sport by encouraging those who don't have access to these unique spaces, or even simply taking someone who wouldn't consider themselves to be a climber, into our world? We should all try to offer an apprenticeship to someone who'd like to get into climbing and pass the goodwill on.