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.
Volume 3: Stories #21-30 features climbers from Lincoln to Sierra Leone and beyond.
No.21: "I'm 56 and for me, climbing is one element, one flavour of an active mountain life. I am not native to the mountains, I grew up in Montreal where fashion and the music I was dancing to were my life. That was until, in my early 20s, my sister moved for a season to Banff, in the Canadian Rockies. I visited, and we both stayed; the mountains have been my home for more than 35 years. Mountain life has totally shaped who I am. For me and my partner, who is 63, climbing is one way we enjoy time together. We rock climb once or twice a week – in the gym in winter, outdoors in summer. It’s like a date.
Rock climbing isn’t always easy for me though, I’ve had plenty of days when the easiest routes were too scary to lead. I stopped for a few years because other stresses in my life made the natural intensity involved in standing on small footholds high above the ground on steep cliffs impossibly draining. Happily, now that my life is calm and balanced, rock climbing has become fun and invigorating again. I love the process of figuring out the puzzle of how to shift my weight and step precisely on a tiny nubbin to gain the purchase I need to move myself up the cliff to discover the next holds.
Spending time in wilderness has taught me that every single thing in nature is connected, and that humans share an enormous responsibility to be better stewards of this beautiful little planet that supports our life. When you pull too many threads, as we humans so relentlessly do, things will eventually unravel.
My life as a mountain person extends beyond my own outdoor passions. In my two decades of writing about the people, places, science, art and outdoor culture of western Canada’s mountains, I’ve interviewed a lot of climbers, many of them at the highest levels of accomplishment and experience. And plenty who are just average climbers with inspiring stories to share. They’ve all taught me there are as many personal reasons and motivations to embrace climbing as part of one’s life as there are individuals. Climbing has helped teach me life is what you make it, facing challenges head-on, changing things you can and accepting what you can’t.
While for some climbing becomes a measuring stick of accomplishment and personal achievement, for me it’s all about exploring nature and the outdoors via self-propelled activities. Climbing allows me to use my body to experience the different smells and feelings under my fingers and feet - slabby limestone, blocky quartzite, grippy granite. I never cease to be amazed by wildflowers growing from the tiniest cracks in the rock. The discoveries are endless." - Lynn Martel, Banff, Canada.
No. 22: "I have always climbed from a young age - climbing trees is part of life when you have to collect coconuts, mangos and bananas for your family! I never considered that it might be a sport in itself.
I have really enjoyed being introduced to climbing in Sierra Leone. Before I came to climbing I didn't have another hobby because I don't enjoy competitive sport so much. I like the way climbing can make you forget about all of your stress because you have to concentrate so much. And most of all it's just fun!
I am excited to learn more about climbing as the manager of Climb Salone and I want to introduce lots more people from Sierra Leone to climbing - I really think people will like it a lot." - Matthew Fasalie Balla Turay, Sierra Leone.[Matthew has been climbing for just 3 months and is already climbing around V5. He will be the manager of the new Sierra Leone climbing facility due to be built in September]
#24: "Due to a serious traffic accident in 2013, I broke my pelvis in multiple places, and I knew I couldn’t continue Mixed Martial Arts.
A year later my husband Dan gently introduced me to climbing and it was easy for me to fall in love with it. The environment where you only compete yourself, and support each other in such a friendly manner was one thing that kept me coming back to the wall.
By mainly training on overhanging walls, I gradually built strength in my upper body as well as my hips and legs. It is not an exaggeration to claim that rock climbing aided my recovery from the accident. It has been the most fun rehab ever!
With a second blow, breast cancer hit me in 2017 at age 27, which was followed by a mastectomy and chemotherapy. I was sick, but I didn’t forget my passion for climbing!
5 months later I returned to the wall. I was weak, tired and rubbish but still extremely happy. I cannot wait to go back to Dolomites and feel alive again when I am much fitter.
The traffic accident and breast cancer have left lifelong damage to my body, but that doesn’t stop me from climbing- rather they give me an excuse to keep climbing, as lifelong rehab! “ - Hyeri Heath, Lincoln.
"It all started at school, even though I hated going there. Still, friendships developed and skills too; a couple of really motivating art teachers found a way to engage my interest. They gave me challenges as I was an obstinate young artist - you just could not tell me what to do! I would do my thing only but better than they imagined and when we (my friends who also hated football) discovered climbing...well that was it, as they say. We would sneak off from school to walk or cycle out into the Peak and camp, cave and climb with home-made gear - no wonder I took to soloing so early on.
Years went by and I became a full-time climber and a part-time artist until one day the rock broke, I fell and my life changed. Years of hospitals and therapy later, I still had problems with my body, but art did come to the rescue; I forced myself to get into the mountains on crutches in Chamonix in order to paint them, which refreshed my body and especially my mind-set. Medicine could do no more for me, so I was alone and stronger for it! Re-becoming a climber and being an artist gave me a different take on the activity. I was back in love with my first means of expression and had rediscovered another. Life might be worth living after all, it seemed.
I survived lots of epics after this, pushing my own limits as far as I could (with a blocked left hip and left elbow) with an almost careless negligence for my own life, but it didn't matter as I felt that in some ways I had nothing to lose. That had already happened - I lost everything I had held dear and then rediscovered other things too.
My love of travel and other cultures enabled me to do two things: discover new climbs and find new subject matter to paint and eventually sculpt. Soloing in Nepal in winter led me to teaching deaf children painting for Community Action Nepal. This has led on to looking after another school and helping the kids once they leave the school system; their love of pure colour helps me to rediscover that too. It's a form of exchange and a great contrast to being isolated on my own in the harsh winter conditions - from one extreme to the other, as there is no privacy in Nepal.
Climbing and art: they go together well and I spend as much time thinking about what art gear to take as I do selecting climbing hardware to use.The next winter I shall be again in Nepal, there's an unclimbed mountain you see …" Andy Parkin, Chamonix.
"My climbing journey started when I was about 10 years old or maybe younger as my dad is a keen climber. He even managed to put up a couple of routes three days before my birth in Anglezarke!
I have fond/sad(?) memories of climbing as a kid on long multi-pitch routes, holding my dad's rope as he climbed above, often going out of sight and out of ear shot. This is before I fully realised about the subtle rope movement when someone is taking in and belaying. I'd often be sat on belays with a tight rope wondering whether he had fallen off or not, being slightly upset and petrified - he'd never fallen off! Then I would set off from the belay, sometimes recovering as the moves flowed, but other times I'd still be shaking as I reached the belay.
I climbed mostly in the summer holidays with my dad. I've been fortunate to climb many multi pitch routes all over the world before I was 16 in beautiful locations. My love for the sport waned as I played rugby league from the ages of 12 to 16. I still climbed when we were on holidays, but not so much in the winter months.
My return to climbing coincided with the tragic death of a very close family friend Ian McMullan in 2002 in an accident at Harpour Hill. Ian was an inspiration both in climbing and life. He'd taken one of my close friends John under his climbing wing and had him hold his ropes on many a route - I believe his list of routes that he has seconded is second to none. He'd been a rock to me during family turmoil. Then while I was thinking about what to do with my life, he gave me the best advice - to go to university and get a degree as doing it when you are older (like he had done) was "bloody hard work."
I started training for climbing, which I'd never really done before and set a goal of climbing E5 (his regular climbing grade). I've managed this and more over the years.
I've also been fortunate to meet my wife through climbing, set up by climbing friends! I now share my climbing and love for the outdoors with our two children. At the weekends you can find our family at Kilnsey.
I still climb with my dad occasionally, although it's usually me leading and him following up. I’m pretty sure he’s not sat on the belays wondering what is going on!" - David Toon, Preston.
"I used to think that the impressive parents were the ones who were back to their weighted pull-ups and hard projects after having kids, but since becoming a parent myself I have completely redefined my idea of impressive. Yes - of course these things are impressive feats of strength, but they are also a luxury and a privilege. The really impressive stuff is the things that these parents do on a day to day basis that are never talked about, let alone celebrated.
Impressive is getting dressed after feeding the baby, making breakfast, giving the baby porridge, feeding the dog, cleaning the porridge out of baby's hair, taking the dog out so she doesn't poo in the house again, changing the nappy, brushing the teeth, feeding again while you drink your now stone cold cup of coffee and realise it's 3pm and what even is the point in getting dressed anyway? You gather 10 seconds to throw some clothes on because you don't feel like answering the door in your reindeer Christmas PJs again. Impressive is not giving a sh*t that you answered the door in your reindeer PJs yesterday.
Impressive is leaving the sink (and house) full of dishes, the overflowing washing basket and the un-hoovered floor so you can have an hour to yourself, to make it possible to keep it together for another day. I like to climb or train in this free time, although I am partial to vegetating on the sofa watching Desperate Housewives. Others like to run, knit or have a big glass of wine and do sweet nothing.
Yes, packing to go climbing with the family is hard, and it's bloody impressive that we actually manage to leave the house, but I feel so lucky to even have 5 minutes on the wall immersed in climbing instead of baby poo. What Mums do in their "me" time doesn't ever detract from all the impressive things they've done throughout the day. Whether they are running back to back marathons in their spare time whilst balancing an egg on their head, climbing 4’s, projecting 8b, or they've hired a babysitter so they can have a night out, it's all the same - really god.damn.impressive." - Rebekah Drummond, Dundee.
"I didn't understand climbing when I was young. 'Why climb something that has nothing on top?' I pondered as a child. However, in 2008 during a backpacking trip through the UK I planned to climb Ben Nevis thinking it would be a simple matter.
I made all the rookie mistakes; brought excessive kit, too little food, didn't check the weather that turned to foggy rain, and got stuck on the summit with a weak flashlight at nightfall. Completely exhausted of energy, I was forced into the shelter where I laid out my tent over the garbage strewn about inside and shivered awake all night as temperatures dropped well below the rating on my sleeping bag. Hours later and miserable beyond description, I collected my things and opened the door...
The bright sun had just crested over a blue horizon and I stood on the tallest mountain in the land. The view almost knocked me backwards, it was so spectacular. I walked around the shelter, down the steps, and over to a cliff. The fresh air on my skin and in my lungs felt as if it was showering me with pure energy. Pride. For all the hard work and every painful step that took me here, I was suddenly elevated beyond what I could have imagined and it all made sense in that one moment. I was hooked.
It had such an impact on me that it changed the direction of my life towards searching for how I could share that moment. This was the foundation for my Virtual Reality program 'World in 360'. Now, using special 360 cameras, I produce adventure experiences which I share at orphanages, hospitals, inpatient care centres, elderly facilities, and anywhere people have been convinced that they can't do something - I show them they can.
With VR/360 experiences and headsets, paralysed individuals who never believed they could sit up using their own strength, are now able to go alpine climbing, fly in a drone inside of a cave, go biking, take a subway, and most recently...join me at Mt. Everest Base Camp. Climbing has taken me closer to that impossible goal, one step at a time." - Milosz Pierwola, New York City.
"I got into climbing late in life, about 2-3 years ago. I love being in the mountains and have been hiking for a while, and just escalated to Via Ferrata and then trad and sport climbing. Now I love it and it’s a huge part of my life. Even more so since I took up a job working for the British Embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan. It’s a strange environment here with bombs and rockets and a lot of sadness but also a lot of people trying to make their lives - and the lives of their families and loved ones - better.
I can’t climb outside as much as I'd like when I am in Kabul but, with the help of some technicians out here, we built a small traverse wall in some welded together storage containers! For me, it’s the only place I can go when I’m out here where I feel truly calm and myself. I love setting the routes, training, and showing others how to climb; including some of our local female staff and children from a shelter here in Kabul. Girls and women in Afghanistan have spent their lives being told what they can’t do, so being able to show them something they can do, and have the strength and ability to do as well as their male counterparts, is really rewarding.
For me climbing is more than a hobby, it’s part of who I am and I can see how people say it’s a way of life. It’s a way of thinking. I genuinely believe climbing has a positive psychological effect through allowing you to set goals and focus on your own achievements step by step; regardless of what is going on around you. There is something very encompassing about climbing that forces you to only focus on yourself and pushing yourself beyond what you believe your limitations are. I hope in the future, to focus ever more on climbing and understanding the positive effects on people’s psychological well-being; especially where it’s most needed." - Kat Lumby, Kabul.
"To me, climbing is about both self-reliance and the ability to work well in partnership. I’ve enhanced these skills and grown in confidence when it comes to taking part in physical activity - for the first time in my life. Climbers for the most part seem to be independent-minded and tolerant people, who accept diversity. I’ve often felt welcomed.
Ten years ago I was one of 20 people who founded Not So Trad Southern LGBT Climbers, the first BMC-affiliated LGBT climbing club. This year, to mark our 10th anniversary, we decided to add a few celebratory events to our meets programme. Taking part in London Pride was one. We got a great response from the crowds.
A few years ago two of our members were interviewed by UKC. It generated a huge debate in the forums and it was encouraging to see the overwhelming majority of people come round to seeing the value of an LGBT club, both to its members and to the wider climbing community.
What pleased me most was when straight friends of members joined just because they love the club. Being a member of NotSoTrad has been hugely rewarding - not just in terms of my own climbing and the friends I’ve made, but also due to the positive impact it’s had on the lives of hundreds of other people." - Robert Dufton, London.
"What do you do when you fall? What do you do when you fall and you don’t get up again? That was me, 3.5 years ago, lowered off a climb on a rope too short with no knot tied in the end. Paralysed.
Climbing was my way of life. My way of rationalising my fears, challenging myself, adventuring in the world around me; through climbing I found my tribe. And it continues to be all those things, just viewed through a different lens. My fears of not being good enough are still being confronted: I’m challenging myself to climb the Old Man of Hoy. I’m determined to keep adventure in my life wheelchair or not and my tribe is still there backing me all the way.
What's more, my accident has given me a window into a world of disability which I want to have a positive impact upon, to enable others to adventure in the same way I do. Keep your eyes open for the first paraplegic ascent of the Old Man of Hoy in 2019. The challenge is real and so is the adventure." -Michelle Mudhar, Manchester.