Climbing can be a harsh teacher, in all its forms. Whether your chosen domain is high in the upper reaches of the Himalaya, or in an indoor wall close to home, the lessons learnt through moving upwards, overcoming challenges or indeed, failing are accessible to everyone. Gravity doesn't discriminate, nor does the mountain, crag or climbing wall.
Inspired by the popular Humans of New York Facebook series by Brandon Stanton, we thought that sharing short vignettes from a cross section of the climbing community would serve as an antidote to the political polemic of today's society. People of all ages, races, nationalities, backgrounds, gender identities and climbing abilities. When you allow the human being behind the number, the label, the terminology and the grade to speak, there are parallels in emotion and experience that climbing brings to light.
We asked individuals to write about their climbing story to share on social media. The high interest in and strong emotional response to these accounts prompted us to share them in volumes of ten in a Digital Feature format to broaden their reach and encourage more people to write about their climbing lives. You don't have to climb hard; your story need not be especially inspirational, nor your writing eloquent. The variety of expression and experience only makes the unifying themes shine brighter.
Introducing the Humans...
#1: "Being born with one arm, I never considered climbing as something I could do. No one did. I was a competitive swimmer as a child and then moved over to competitive martial arts. Although I am physically different, I had never been treated differently; I was expected to do the same as everyone else.
This changed dramatically on my first regional karate competition. I turned up, an eager 11-year old, ready to perform my routine in my newly starched kimono when I was told I could not compete because of my arm. Little did I realise at the time that this was discrimination and that it was going to get worse. The referee responsible for my exclusion from competition karate was also the head instructor for my dojo. Soon I found myself being completely ignored in class, not worth even being corrected. The only reason I stuck with sport was because I loved it and it would have broken my heart further if I stopped. It was painful to do karate but unbearable to think of stopping.
Thankfully, this changed about 5 years later with a new coach finding out what had happened and speaking up for me. I was returned to competition karate and lost to the Swiss Champion in my first round. I didn't mind though, just participating made me happy. I did go on to take a podium position on my next competition but then injury took me out. Little did I know that I had Ehlers-Danlos syndrome and it was starting to impact me.
I was broken-hearted; I tried to find another sport but I couldn't find anything that would work for my body and I was starting to see my health degrade. Then cancer happened. I reached rock bottom, I went from being a competitive martial artist to not being able to walk without being in excruciating pain. I didn't even know if I had the fight left in me to get better and I didn't know that I wanted to. The cancer had impacted my left arm and knowing I needed it to remain independent, a friend of mine suggested I try climbing. At that point I had tried a lot of other sports; nothing had kept me engaged or motivated so I thought, why not?
The first session was brutal, but I felt something in climbing that would work for my health and keep me engaged. Today, I am healthier and happier than I have ever been before. I have started competing on the national paraclimbing circuit and am currently ranked 2nd in my category. I thought I would just find a sport, but I also found my love of sport again. Climbing has brought balance to my life. It is my universe, the place where stress and worry no longer exist. I forget about my health for a precious few minutes and learn how to forge a new relationship with my body. It is a sport that constantly challenges me and lets me leave my comfort zone regularly. It is my balance, my love and my life." - Anoushé Husain.
#2: "Saturday morning driving up to Kilnsey, I'm nervous with anticipation of the redpoint to come. I know I can climb True North in a oner, I just have to make it happen. All the hours of training and deadhanging coming down to one 7 minute climb. All the failed redpoints and links over the last 4 years. All the highs and lows of wet holds, broken holds, freezing fingers, midges, injuries and keeping the level required for a climb as demanding as this. I set off up the lower pitch, Full Tilt, for my second burn of the day, and the bottom part of the climb to the knee bar goes well. I hit the flattie by the belay of Full Tilt and press on up the crimps to the 'eyes', through the burly undercuts and up to the jug before the last slap. This time, I hit the sloper just right and roll over into the jug and victory. It's in the bag, what a feeling of relief and satisfaction.
I am a conveyancer by trade and really enjoy my job, helping people to move house and get their hands on the keys to their new home. It allows plenty of time to train bouldering at the wall or fingerboarding at home, after hours. I can't complain. I join the rest of the weekend warrior crew on their latest projects, eager to hear the stories at the crag, check in with friends old and new and share in the camaraderie. Conditions are not good? Oh well, better luck next time.
I have travelled a lot and visited many crags around the world climbing in different disciplines. It's funny how local projects are often somehow the most satisfying. The ones you can always try, scheming during the week and training for that extra edge to get you through to the chains. I know I am missing out on classic trad climbs and Alpine experiences and often think back to previous trips in the Dolomites and Chamonix seared deep into my memory, but I am putting that side of my climbing on hold…for now. In the meantime, there are plenty of crimps to pull down on!"- Ted Kingsnorth.
#3: "I am 73 years old and I am fortunate to still be able to climb hard routes. When I climb with my two sons, these are moments of true happiness. An Austrian friend introduced me to the rock. My children climbed from their very first steps and I quickly took them to the highest peaks. Competitions came into existence and my sons stood on many podiums! I built a climbing wall (with more than 2000 holds) for their training...and my own!
I do several sports but it's the mountains that bring me the most fun with their infinite challenges. Having goals, succeeding and also accepting failure, whether it be on a 2 metre wall or at an altitude of 6500 metres, is what makes climbing so wonderful.
In my head and my body I have not grown old and I forget that I am "the old one" when climbing at the wall in the evening (where the average age is 30!). I know, however, that time passes too quickly and that I will soon have to accept the need to be more reasonable...
I had a serious accident a few years ago at a climbing wall, I fell to the ground from nearly 15 metres up due to belayer error. Fractured feet, vertebrae, ribs...but I still had the desire to climb. However, I remain scared of falling on lead. Of course, friends from my generation stare in bemusement at the holds that cover the garage climbing wall, or when I'm hiking and I want to reach the top...my sons often keep me in line!
I enjoy the pleasure of taking friends to the wall or up a Peruvian peak; people who place trust in you by attaching to the end of your rope. I also love meeting former students (I was a maths teacher) who I introduced to climbing. They share anecdotes from adventures in the mountains, which have nothing to do with Pythagoras' Theorem!
I still have a competitive spirit, it's a shame there are not 'Master' categories in climbing competitions. I do some trail running and can easily win in the 'Master 4' category! Standing on podiums amuses me, since for 15 years my sons brought home trophies, with the most cherished being an =1st finish in a World Cup round in Paris!" - Jean Paul Petit, father of Arnaud and François Petit.
#4: "I'd been climbing for 5 years, skiing for 15, but in love with the mountains my whole life. I'd had my fair share of epics and close calls in the high places, both climbing up and riding down. Yet on Christmas Day 2016, I was fighting for my life in Geneva's intensive care unit because a weakness in one of the artery's feeding my brain had ballooned and burst. I had suffered a ruptured brain aneurysm and subsequent hemorrhagic stroke.
I was looking ahead to my second winter season in the French Alps and out for gentle ski with my friend Eoin on Christmas Eve when like the flick of switch I was hit by an intense dizziness. Struggling to stay in control I struck a steel fence post that seemingly came out of nowhere. Fearing a concussion I was taken off the mountain to the local clinic, by which time the pain had become indescribable. At another local hospital for a CT scan I had no idea what was going on, only picking up on a doctor telling a colleague "c'est grave" before being blue lighted to Geneva where I was finally told that I needed emergency brain surgery.
My recovery felt painfully slow at first, walking was the first milestone. Lying helplessly weak in bed I pondered my future, would I ever climb or ski again? What even would I be able to do? Once I was out of hospital I was still riddled with constant headaches and fatigue but over the coming weeks with a little support, patience, and a lot of drugs things got easier and I managed to get back on the skis. When spring arrived I was itching to get on the local sport crag, and that first day back on rock under the hot alpine sun is one of my fondest climbing memories.
Ten months on, back in the UK and in a 'proper' job, I'm still battling my fatigue and near daily headaches. But I've thrown myself back into climbing, acutely aware of how close I came to losing such a huge part of my life. When I'm climbing I enter a magical space where the headaches, fatigue, and all the stress that comes with it disappear. Climbing is more precious to me than ever now, not just because of how close I came to losing it, but also for the few hours a week the fog lifts and I get to be the old me." - Jamie Everitt.
#5: "Climbing brings me endless challenges and fun, but it also brought me my fiancé, who met me at a climbing wall in Aviemore and proposed to me at the top of a scramble on Kinder Scout. Climbing has been a constant for our relationship. We've sweated in indoor climbing walls together while moaning about the route setting and shivered outdoors together at crags near Edinburgh or Northumberland while complaining about the route finding.
We love each other even though we can make mistakes, such as when he directed me onto a HVS 5b when it was supposed to be a VS 4c, or when I dropped a size 3 cam right onto his eye. And we've learnt a lot about each other while doing so, about how far we can push ourselves, about our differing weights on the rope and climbing styles and life attitudes. It's an adventure, and I hope I can keep enjoying the challenge and the fun for many years to come." - Fiona Mossman.
#6: "I never thought I would fall in love with indoor climbing having come from a trekking and mountaineering background. Growing up in Iran, the lofty mountains of the country soon became a place where I would feel freedom, strength, and resilience. It is where I learnt to aspire and to dream. Here in London, I dreamed of the mountains afar, of the jagged ridges of the Alps, of the snow gullies of Scotland, and knew I needed to learn to climb and pick up the rope work to get there. That got me into indoor climbing 5 years ago, but little I did I know that I would be hooked. It would be where I would spend my evenings once I had put my children to bed. It would be where I would meet a huge network of amazing friends. When I have felt happy, when I have been depressed, when I have been stressed, I have gone to the wall, put on my harness, stared at a route, chalked up while taking a deep a breath and climbed.
The colourful plastic holds, the slabs, the walls, the chalk, the mat, all became elements of a new world, much like the mountains where I could be myself. Where I could celebrate happiness, where I could forget pain. Sometimes I loved doing an easy route, twisting hips, flowing up the wall in a trance-like dance, sometimes I would enjoy the physicality of a hard route, the ache of pumped arms, launching for that tiny crimp just a little out of reach, where your mind is shut down and you simply cannot think about anything apart from that move.
I have faced a lot of challenges, battling with a lot of a stereotypes as a woman and a mum, leading expeditions and climbing in Iran. The thing that brings me the most joy is to inspire others to dream big! To inspire those who normally wouldn't step onto certain paths, to go for it! I now teach at our local climbing wall and sometimes just watching a shy kid, full of uncertainties, going from not being able to climb up to a metre to topping out on a few routes, having the biggest grin on their face, brings tears to my eyes. Being part of that mini journey is the most satisfying aspect of my job. For me climbing is symbolic. It is dreaming and striving to climb those dreams that I value most!" - Shirin Shabestari.
#7: "Growing up in Derbyshire, I was naturally drawn to the hills. School climbing lessons at Black Rocks scared the hell out of me, but I experienced a beautiful sense of peace when I topped out.
Overlooking the quarries and fields made me feel on top of the world. The views and sunsets from the cliff tops are still special and I often sit, watching the last rays fall over the Derwent Valley. My rock days were short and sharp, driven by youth and bravado, until fate dealt a heavy hand. An Alaskan storm and severe frostbite took my fingers and toes overnight. No more could I slap and smear, crimp with nails or find tiny cracks. I was left in a land of big boots and bomber holds; fighting with protection and cumbersome with ropes. Indoor walls became my training grounds, but I bled and blistered on the sharp holds. Zinc tape saved my skin grafts, but removed what little feeling I had left. B3 boots clambered up the echoing walls, but I had to let my injuries rule.
Thankfully mountain ranges are a little more forgiving and injured or not, I can clamber up snow, swing an ice axe and face the thin air of high altitude. Here, again is where I find my peace, a strange Shangri-La where though the cold bites, I feel little pain. I dream when storms rage and find relaxation when plans change.
No more do I quest to always succeed, but to enjoy, to explore and to empty my soul…" - Nigel Vardy.
#8: "I'm 6 years old. I have recently started climbing and have been to the wall a few times now.
I really enjoy climbing and it gives you good strength. I was a little bit scared at first but I would say to anyone new to climbing not to be scared as you are in a harness and nothing will happen to you. The people who work there explain things really well and will give you help if you need it.
The walls there are really high and last time I went I tried five or six different walls. My favourite was the 'Big Cheese'- it is yellow and has lots of holes in it! I also enjoyed racing on one of the other walls with my cousin. When I reached the top of the walls I was all excited and amazed that I had managed to get to the top as I couldn't believe that I had done it!
I would definitely go back again and cannot wait for my next climb as it's good fun and also good exercise." - Tom Berry.
#9: "I started climbing at school when I was 15, we had a climbing club which went out on Wednesday and Saturday afternoons. I was hooked almost immediately and by the time I was 16 completely obsessed. I would read magazine articles endlessly about my heroes doing the hardest routes all over the world. I could recite them by memory. It wasn't just the climbing that excited me; it was the lifestyle, the danger, the exploration, the travelling to different countries and the rebellious nature of the sport.
There is no refereeing in our sport, as long as you don't harm the rock and you're honest about what you've done it's up to you what you do. I liked that. I can remember just before I left school one of the younger schoolchildren asking me what I was going to do. I proudly told him I was going to be a crag rat. This was the term at the time for a full-time climber. As there were no professionals it pretty much meant you were a scrounging, very poor full-time climber.
I climbed full time from when I left school until I was 40 and at no time did my career disappoint - being a climber is an amazing lifestyle. I rarely climb now having retired over 10 years ago, so am I still a climber? Yes, I will always be a climber. I still dream about it, and would watch top climbers perform over any other sport.
I would say this: if you've found climbing, then to my mind you've found something pretty special." - Jerry Moffatt.
#10: "When climbing found me, I was in a bad way. I was on the brink of falling into that destructive spiral you don't escape from. Climbing, simply put, saved me; it made me fitter and stronger, as you would expect, but it also helped me learn how to respect and value my life.
I was in a severe depressive spiral when I first attended a climbing centre, drinking heavily to (unwisely) cope with a long-standing mental illness, not eating and barely sleeping. I got on the wall and it was almost like tuning out static - nothing mattered apart from the movement and the challenge. From that day on, regardless of what was happening, I didn't stop climbing.
Since losing weight and gaining strength when I went medication-free, climbing has been a constant. I owe it all to this sport; a sport I used to marvel at when I visited the south of England as a child; the sport that I wound up in at the perfect time in my life.
I look back and wonder sometimes how things would have gone if I didn't find climbing, but I catch myself and stop before I wonder too much; there's no point in looking back at what could have been when it's now that really matters. I am a human of climbing and I feel human because of climbing." - Gerard West.