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.
#11:"When both your parents (and your grandad) are climbers and made climbing part of their profession, people expect you to become a climber as well. However, Amber wasn't really interested in the sport when she was very little, although she did enjoy brushing holds, obstacle courses on the wall and picnics. Now aged 7, she climbs about twice a week, occasionally does a fun competition, is in the process of making her own boulder guide and has her first proper climbing trip booked: Rocklands, South-Africa.
So why did she start enjoying the sport 'all of a sudden'? Amber: 'I don't really know, I just did. My coaches are really funny and kind, and I like climbing with my friends. When I get to the top of a problem or on top of a rock outside it makes me feel really happy’.
At the age of 3 Amber asked if she could start the ‘Rockstars’ club at her dad's wall. She really enjoyed going to the sessions and still does. Besides climbing, she also goes to theatre school, swimming and maths club, all things she chose to do. But would she be climbing if it weren’t for her parents' passion for the sport? Amber: ‘I would like to have done it, but probably not. Because I wouldn’t have known about it I think.'
Are you ever scared? Amber: ‘Sometimes. On one climb I fell off and hit my head on the floor and had to go to hospital. After three weeks of building up courage, she asked if she could go back on that same climb and did it no problem. You should have seen her proud face.
Amber’s dad was 3 times British Boulder Champion, 2nd in the European Championships and a Boulder World Cup winner, but unfortunately (due to his brain injury) Amber has never been able to see him climb or climb with him. Interestingly, she does seem to have inherited her dad's climbing style, which she is pleased about because she is very aware that he was the best climber in the family. Whether he will ever be able to climb again is uncertain. Amber: ‘I don’t think daddy will ever be able to climb again because he doesn’t believe he will be able to climb. So maybe he doesn’t really want to climb again.'
Let’s finish where we started. Can people expect you to become a climber just like your dad, grandad and mum? Amber: ‘I want to be an actress (because then I can be anything I want to be), and a doctor or vet (so I can help people and animals) and a farmer. But I‘m sure I will always be a climber as well." - Amber Earl, Newcastle, daughter of Andy Earl and Suzan Dudink
#12: "I’ve always felt a sense of freedom being high up in the mountains, away from the flurry of civilisation; climbing higher and higher and forgetting about the world below. Spending my childhood summers camping up in the Canadian mountains ignited this desire. But climbing rocks was never something that interested me – from a young age I was terrified of heights and would barely make it a third of the way up those climbing walls at kids’ activity centres before I had to virtually, sometimes literally, cry to be let down. So it came as a surprise to me that at the age of 21 I took to climbing with so much calm.
Maybe it’s something about being off the ground, away from your troubles, that draws you in. Or the fact that you are resisting gravity using your own strength that makes you feel so strong. But whatever attracts each person to the wall, I truly believe that climbing saved my life. I’ve been lucky so far in life in that I haven’t experienced anything severe, but when my half-decade long relationship ended and running, which is what I would usually turn to, left me injured, I felt lost and purposeless. Suddenly I found I relied even more on climbing than I had over the past year. The pain in my arms, and the competition against myself to climb harder, relieved other pain that I felt and switched my focus onto something tangible.
It’s hard now to even picture my life before climbing – back a mere year and a half ago when heading to the wall didn’t exist at all, let alone a few times a week. I think it’s incredible. It’s a community, and it is most certainly a way of life. I don’t think one ever truly falls in love with climbing and doesn’t make it a way of life. When your arms are pumped, but you can’t leave until you’ve finished that problem. When your hands are bleeding but you just stick a bit of tape over them and crush another boulder. It’s about persistence, and it’s also beautifully inclusive. Although largely male-dominated, I’ve never felt any kind of gender discrimination. Because climbing isn’t about how tall or fast or muscly you are. It isn’t about whether you are male or female. I have encountered a huge kind of respect amongst the climbing community. Not only for those who climb with unhuman ability, but also for those just starting out. Anyone stepping outside of their comfort zone, anyone approaching the wall for the first time and making that decision to learn, is something to be appreciated.
From those first few weeks at the bouldering centre when I was shaky and hesitant, to recently pushing myself on outdoor sport routes, climbing has brought balance and purpose to my life. When I climb, any kind of stress evaporates. I no longer worry, or think about the future or the past. I think about what I am doing right in that moment – I think about gritting my teeth for a few more seconds on that crimp. And then, when I reach the top of the wall or I tie myself in at the top of the cliff face and turn to see the sun setting over the sea behind me, I smile, because every time I climb I’m proving to myself that I’m capable of so much more than I ever realised. My hands may never be the same again – calloused, dry and battered as they are – but I wear all of it with pride, because I’m a climber." - Liana Price, Bristol.
#13: "I began climbing as a student in the mid 90s, and in studying English Literature, I found that I had plenty of free time to indulge in my new hobby. Although for me at the time it most definitely wasn’t a hobby. It was a defining pastime. I was a climber. I cringe now almost as much as I do when I recall telling people I was travelling and not simply being a tourist on a low budget. Climbing was the sort of adventure I was looking out for. The square peg in a round hole, alternative culture vibe of the community appealed to me as a young man in search of a tribe to belong to. So to a Britpop soundtrack, I escaped most weekends and drove like I’d stolen the car to bag the latest prize.
Fast forward to 2010 where I was fortunate enough to be stuck in Rio De Janeiro for two weeks on a work trip whilst the Icelandic volcano, Eyjafjallajökull, grounded most transatlantic flights. During this time I had a chance encounter with a local climbing guide who toured me around a small grass-roots climbing school he’d started for at-risk young people in a local Favela (shanty town), Rocinha. That set the ball rolling in my mind. Seeing the school really brought into focus the freedom of opportunity that for me had been readily available and that I’d more or less taken for granted. I hadn’t been involved in anything beyond the odd bit of 'fun run' type fundraising before but this really changed my outlook on and involvement with the wider world. Seeing how much the children obviously loved it had a significant effect on me. I could see that the benefits were various: confidence-building, fun, team engagement, dealing with fears and being involved in something constructive for starters.
I’d never particularly thought of climbing as something which could improve and enhance you as a person; as something to empower or help bolster confidence. It obviously can when you stop to think about it, but it’d always been just a bit of a laugh for me with my mates. It was something to do whilst chewing the cud, putting the world to rights and indulging in a bit of banter. That, and a kind of reset switch too; just engaging enough to help me turn my mind off from the business of everyday tasks, chores and concerns.
This encounter ended up snowballing into something much bigger than I first imagined and led to founding the UK charity Urban Uprising. The concept is simple and the results, I hope, profound. We take groups of young people through bouldering courses. First, a two week taster and then we follow that up with a ten week course with NIBAS certification at the end. For some of these children this is the only certificate they’ll end up with, so is a big deal. After that they can then drop into sessions if they want to continue.
Right now I feel that we could do much more to enable equal participation in climbing. I’m passionate about making it easier for all young people to be able to escape for weekend missions and find their own tribe - all humans of climbing, no matter which side of the tracks they happen to come from." – Stuart Green, Edinburgh.
#14: "My weeks are like everybody else’s - the norms of Monday to Friday, school drop-offs and pick-ups, runs to the supermarket and hectic work, emails, and phone calls. Climbing at the weekend or mid-week wall sessions are a wonderful pause to it all and something I have always adored, even more so now. We feel sometimes that our lives are infinite but all of a sudden things can get mighty serious. March 24th, 2014 was my Stroke Day. It's there in my medical record. Quite a surprise and very frightening, but I am very lucky indeed...
Folk sometimes have asked me what it is like to have one and I reply that I have small snippets of memories of the day but I recall panic and not really thinking much - just about this awful headache, and I just knew my body was not obeying commands. I couldn't understand what was going on, I couldn't think straight and I couldn't work my iPhone to get help. I recall my wife coming home hours later and thankfully she knew the FAST test and realised she had to use it. I was unable to talk properly and very slow to move. I recall the ambulance coming, being in the hospital and being told after the CT scan I had had a stroke and thinking this is very wrong they MUST have the wrong patient!
It's like getting an iPhone update in a way; you see that a new ‘update’ is available, and you tut and you reluctantly press the button, the phone goes blank and refreshes itself. In a few moments it completes, and you see your apps are all still there (thank god), but maybe in a different order with new graphics. You still have your pictures, Facebook, and Angry Birds and it seems to work ok. You realise functions are wonky though, very slow, and some don't work well at all. You also discover you have 4 new apps you never had before nor wanted. They are called "Brain Fart Days", "Forgetful", "Grumpy-dad", and "Short Fuse"...and of course the battery life is shockingly bad now!
Imagine now it’s not your phone but your own mind. The four-year journey has been tough, full of 3 steps forward and 2 back, lots of questions and learning but life is good. Going from being terrified of not getting well again to not being able to work, or drive, and not being the person I was before, to a "Pete 2.0". Some say I’m not different at all...but that's just a lot of work and practice.
Climbing is something I have always had, the one constant since I was 17 that was part of me. My Dad got me started and it was nice to have it as a focus for my recovery. From not being able to belay as I was slow and weak on my right side, my concentration being very short and exhausted after just one route at Ratho, to feeling progression and strength returning. Climbing was something that helped the process and though frustrating was a definition of life in general, figuring problems or routes out and being determined not to be beaten. Before it I had great trips away up north or to the Peak, or Malham, or Kalymnos, Thailand, Margalef, the US, and the list goes on.
Discovering in a moment that life has changed, and you potentially cannot do the things you did before is terrifying. You are a different person in a way having to learn all over again. It takes time and is a process of doing things differently. You want to be the older, unbroken version but that's not reality. The goal is finding a new way to do things and I am very grateful for all the help I got, and I still love climbing, more so actually. When I climb I feel like the old me and I never ever take it for granted. The whole process of ‘just climbing’, the scene and being with friends is something I feel grateful for. I always thought that phrase "you could be hit by a bus tomorrow" was just silly, but alas it's not. If you want to do something and are putting it off - DON'T. It could be a trip away, learning a new language or climbing a particular route or even a grade, just get started and do it...you never know what's around the corner, hopefully not that bus." - Pete Henderson, Fife.
#15: "Growing up in Scotland I was always out in the hills, but only found climbing in my late 20s, whilst living in Chamonix. How I’m still here after those first few years of being a hopeless newbie I’m not entirely sure, but I quickly knew I’d found my ‘tribe’. Climbing became a hobby, then my working life through DMM, then found me a wonderful husband and a wild and incredible group of friends across the globe. Climbing opened my eyes to a new meaning for freedom and for love.
In 2012 I became pregnant with my husband Charlie, climbing paused, and then tragically our daughter Elsie died, stillborn at 40 weeks. When your whole world has disintegrated with a single heartbeat and everything you know and understand has been turned inside out, you need something to cling to. Climbing became my escape pod, my life raft. I needed a focus that would take me away from me, and climbing served that purpose masterfully. Hanging belays by the ocean, long abseils and simply finding Flow in a sea of tufas was my medicine. I drank it up and slowly some light started to appear again in my life. I began to notice the bird song and the sunshine. I began to breathe again.
The other thing about climbing, and why it’s so incredible for healing a broken heart, is that it happens in nature – it’s perhaps really obvious, but being in nature is so nourishing. Nature doesn’t care about your story or your plight, she just asks that you sit and observe her beauty, her harshness and her majesty. So while I climbed, I also sat and did a lot of just that. I learnt a lot about me and about life.
After just 6 months though the Universe would send me another storm, and on a trip to Utah, I broke my back and ribs in a climbing accident. Lying in the red dust on the spine board, feeling quite euphoric that I could wriggle my toes but scared shitless it wasn’t going to last, I looked up at the rock face and made a vow that I would be back. Climbing had been woven into every aspect of my life and had been such a great bedfellow that I wasn’t going to say cheerio to it now.
I was stretchered out by a team of handsome climbers and a fairly large Sheriff with a big shiny badge (funny what you remember) and was flown back to the UK after a stint in a swanky spine unit in Colorado (thanks BMC!) all the while mentally framing the accident in a positive way. I could walk! Nature however, clearly wanted me to sit some more with her first. Thankfully I made a full recovery both mentally and physically. I had a lot of time to reflect on everything that had been delivered to my doorstep that year. I still feel so lucky, because of where I am now and what I have learnt and grown from.
Today I’m still very much a climber, I went back to Utah and crack climbed again and I’ve shifted my deep-rooted fear of falling. And I have been given so much more. We are human “beings” not human “doings”, and for me it’s about being in the place when I climb (or wild swim or run). In that moment, feeling and sensing the richness of that place…the good and the bad, now.
We don’t always get what we set out for in life, and sometimes that’s the most beautiful thing to receive – a choice, and a chance, to see things differently, to understand clearer, deeper, and to experience the whole world anew. I couldn’t be happier than I am today and climbing is largely to thank for that through its teachings. The other thanks is to the wild and glorious climbing friendships I’ve made. And of course, my best friend Charlie." - Gilly McArthur, Kendal.
#16: "I started climbing 5 years ago at the age of 33, when my life changed from being a married woman to a single mother with twins. This transition and having to take on the responsibility of raising two kids alone made me want to prove to myself that I was up for any challenge in life. I started getting myself into different extreme sports, and due to the fact that I am from Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, I had a lot of access to water sports since it is on the Red Sea. Climbing was a very foreign sport. However, none of the other sports I tried were fulfilling, so I put everything I had into trying climbing. All I can say is that it was love at first try. I became obsessed with the sport, started traveling on climbing-oriented trips to the States and Europe as much as I could. It made me feel good about myself. It made me proud of who I was and it made me feel that my two boys could actually look up to me and see me as a role model.
When I was younger, I was a very insecure person. I always saw myself as someone less than everyone around me. And that always made me nervous when I was around people, because I felt I could never compete with them in any way. So I started trying to be just like them hoping that I could fit in rather than embracing who I really am. But rock climbing changed me; it made me love myself and helped me become the woman that I always wanted to be. Strong, independent, a fighter, and real. When I was new to the sport, I noticed that climbing involved competing with myself and the wall. That helped to heal me. It forced me to focus on the real me rather than on others. I am very proud of what I am doing and I am extremely happy to have become an inspiration to many women and men in Saudi Arabia. Above all, my children are following my footsteps and are getting more involved in climbing. That is an indication that I am doing something right, to see my boys want to be like their mother. I am super lucky to call myself a Saudi Arabian rock climber." -Yasmin Gahtani, Jeddah.
#17: "Climbing is sometimes labelled a crazy man's sport! But with more and more media interest in it and with it being included in the next Olympic games there seems to be a growing number of people willing to give it a go!
I am an autistic 21 year-old and after a chance conversation 5 years ago I was introduced to the Glasgow Climbing Centre. The P.E. teacher told my dad that I had been with the school and I seemed to enjoy it! As my parents had been looking to try and get me into some sort of sport and out of my room, they thought "Let's give it a try!"
On arrival at the the wall we met the manager and his attitude was exceptional. When my dad mentioned the word autism the response was “now there’s a challenge” instead of the usual “Oh, autistic - that could be a problem."
Both my dad and I were put on a short training course for the basic knot tying and belaying skills needed to be safe. But after a few weeks my dad realised that what I really needed was some proper tuition. So I embarked on the N.I.C.A.S. route and am now Level 5 - something I believe only 3 other youngsters in the centre have achieved.
On these visits we got to know the staff and fellow members to the point that they are now like an extended family, with them all giving advice and pointing out techniques on how to approach certain climbs.
Climbing has given me much-improved self-confidence. I’ve overcome my fear of heights and it has helped me with problem solving in many areas of life. Also, my fitness is second to none! As anyone in climbing will tell you - climbing is as good as a work out in the gym, but more enjoyable! I also obtained my First Aid Certificate and Fundamentals 1 Coaching Certificate and now help out with the Glasgow Gorillas Youth Climbing Club, which is a lot of fun!
I have just finished a work placement at the wall and I cannot thank them enough for the help and support over the last few years. Climbing has changed my life completely." - Neil Maher, Glasgow
#18: "I have been climbing since I could walk. I think there is something exciting about being up high: the different view, the feeling of balance. If I walk along a street I will always be trying to walk on a wall instead - even on the kerb there is an edge of excitement.
My climbing isn’t restricted to any one form. I love climbing trees, fences, walls, sand dunes, rocks, sofas, bannisters, window ledges. They lost me at nursery once because I had climbed up a tree - 25ft in the air - and was looking at what was going on below. All the other children went inside but I stayed on my perch, waving at the teachers. I think they were scared. I wasn’t.
My mum likes to tell a story of when I was eighteen months old. We went to the beach and were scrambling around the rock pools and when she looked up I was half-way up the cliff and she thought, 'I better get a rope on him.'
I was three when I first went to an indoor wall with my older brother George. I enjoyed swinging around the boulders. I was about 5 when I overtook my brother.
I realised that I had to slow down if I was going to be a good climber. I needed to use my feet and to learn some techniques. Climbing became not just about how high I could go, but how difficult a route I could get up. I started to get into competition climbing. I have been to the YCS final twice now. It is so much fun to climb with lots of other kids who are really good climbers. The best bit is when the competition has ended and we run around trying all the problems. I like being with kids like me who are brave and strong and love to climb.
I want to climb all my life. My brother and I are getting a van when we are older and will travel around climbing. My mum taught us to love the outdoors, so she will be with us wherever we go. When I climb I don’t think about anything else. When my arms ache and my fingers are red I like to eat fish and chips to fill me up after climbing.
A couple of years ago we visited the Old Man of Hoy. A big tower in the sky! We read that the youngest person to climb it was 10 years old. An idea was formed, 'Wouldn’t it be brilliant to be the youngest person to climb it?' In June I became the youngest person to do so. I am 8. I raised nearly £30,000 for Climbers Against Cancer. My mum has cancer and I would love a cure to be found." - Edward Mills, Dunnet.
#19: "I'm 86 and a half. This was my first go on a wall. I didn't 'top-out', as you say, but I got off the ground! I said I would come back for the coffee after my first visit, and I did. My granddaughter is a climber. Am I a climber? No, I don't think so! But maybe I'll get the shoes and give it a proper try one day." - Celia Muraski, Liverpool.
#20: "Without climbing I'd be dead or in jail, is the thing I've written many times, and I'd stop writing it if I didn't believe it was true. Climbing helped me crawl out of a deep and dark depression when I was 20 years old, and now as I'm approaching 40 this year I still love it as much as I ever have.
Having said that, climbing also almost killed me, and like many of us, the only reason I'm alive today is because of luck and fate. Now that I'm 40 I really feel like I try to analyse every climbing situation properly, and I feel well aware that complacency is just as much of a hazard as anything dangerous we encounter on the climb.
As a publisher and editor I've found that helping other climbing writers tell their story is just as rewarding (or more so) than telling my own. Climbing is all about life, but life should not be all about climbing." - Luke Mehall, Colorado.