A Feeling for Rock Article

© Dave Barlow

Sarah-Jane Dobner, author of the Banff Mountain Book Festival Climbing Literature Prize-winning anthology 'A Feeling for Rock' and UKC contributor, shares a selection of poems and prose from the collection.


            A Sensational Passion

Rock climbing has shaped my body, my bookshelves, my boyfriends, my community, my employment, my home, my holidays, the clothes I wear, the vehicle I drive, how I spend my money and what happens when I die. I am a product of the rock. The dynamic is visceral, spiritual, intellectual and emotional – no area untouched by this curious hobby…




Gentle, exploratory sweeps
Whorls at the tips tickling and testing
Dipping and dunking, fumbling and fingering
Gripping. Over-clinging. Stroking. Smoothing

Rock that is crozzly, knobbly, crystalline, dusty
Rasping, glass-smooth, wafer-layered, crumbling
And from time to time so soft and warm
It feels like skin


            Beauty and the Beast

It is all about the beast of fear.

Cauterising terror that strips all dross away and leaves you vivid. Where each inhalation and out-breath is a miracle. Texture of rock between left thumb and two fingers, the pinch, exquisite in its lucidity. Wire six feet below you, a so-so flared placement, shallow cam very far below that. Fifteen metres to the deck, up-pointing shards of slate. Test the crimps up and right, smooth the rock with tips. Gamble on gear at the next break, it looks like there might be a slot but you can't be sure. Poor foothold, knee-height, a coin-width overlap, raise your toes gently, a last intake of oxygen and cast your weight and now you can't reverse and you can't get off, no one can help you, no one can drop a rope, you are on lead and your mind is one hundred per cent gripped and your body is incandescent with life.

And therein lies the beauty.


            Glory of Movement

Author and ‘Deerhound Brian’ in Pembroke.  © Dave Barlow
Author and ‘Deerhound Brian’ in Pembroke.
© Dave Barlow


Sea cliffs prompt somatic
Fabulousness. A private show
Flamenco, some kind of ballet
In a theatre after-hours

Green room empty, boards bare
No audience. You take the hand
Of the rock and slide and sweep
From placement to placement


Bodyweight in a spin
Around the pinpoint of your tight
Rubber toe. The fatal dance
Where you can let yourself go



For many of us in the west, our lives are geared around comfort. Like slugs, don't we recoil from salt? This makes sense. But is not enough.

Pain is a funny thing. Pain is used in meditation to promote focus, to pull the mind away from trivia. Pain can illuminate habits and repetitions. Pain can be followed as a road map through hang-ups and deep-seated trauma. Pain is a language, a way of passing on information without words. A wide vocabulary is best – lexicon of good pain and bad pain and many pains in between like Inuit descriptions of snow. Not running away from pain is counter-intuitive, but a helpful talent. Clinics in pain management oftentimes aren't trying to rid people of pain, but to encourage open communication. Certain sports – like road cycling and cold water swimming – are famous for pain and pain thresholds and moving through and beyond pain. There are many aspects to pain. It is a skill in itself. Isolation of parts (an excruciating left forearm whilst you clip, the rest of your body determinedly relaxed), belaying in a T-shirt at the freezing apex of the cliff, legs and arms numb with cold. What to do? Nothing to be done. Sit with the pain. It will end.

This sort of pain, the right amount of pain, feels queerly good. Nourishing. A body-reboot. A re-baptism. A dip in the salty sea by moonlight.




The rock asks questions
Tests you
Makes practical jokes
Invites your rejoinder then giggles when you fluster


A game-show host
Some kind of quiz-master
With a wicked
Sense of humour

You move, gripped
Hyper-conscious of the buzzer
Use sinew and muscle to fashion your answer
With some attempt at wit


            The Big-up

Back at the hut, he gets a chopping board and one of the frying pans and lays out the vegetables and begins to peel and slice an onion. Let's call him Geoff. Another, slightly younger man is there, also beginning to cook. The younger man asks pleasantly what we did today and Geoff recounts our expedition up the three-star E2 which, despite its stars, clearly isn't done very often because the path to it over bracken and gorse was barely beaten-down and the crack was full of dust. Geoff reports that it is a top quality line and rates it as highly recommended. Geoff doesn't say he hung repeatedly, dropped a wire in the sea and used the abseil rope to dog the crux.

There is a cultural expectation on men to over-perform. This is very tiring.


     Life in Your Hands

Tangled ropes.  © Sarah-Jane Dobner
Tangled ropes.
© Sarah-Jane Dobner


Few roles are as overt as a doctor
Regarding their power over mortality

By and large, we are heedless
Of the trust put in us. Become glib


Each time we give a passenger
A lift in our car, for instance

But when a rock climber
Moves away, delicately, up a cliff

Leaving the second in charge
Of the blue rope and red rope

They pulse, as if they really might be
The leader's vena cava and aorta


            The Puzzle

Limestone puzzles.  © Sarah-Jane Dobner
Limestone puzzles.
© Sarah-Jane Dobner

Puzzles baited the line.

There I was, swimming along the mainstream, occupied with a toddler and a nascent profession, when climbing yanked me out of the river. Brain-work was the maggot, the worm! How to scale this barely textured wall? How to vault the overhang or ascend this jagged crack? I was repeatedly flummoxed. There appeared to be dozens of different ways to move. It called for shapes I had no idea my body could make. Which methods succeeded and which failed when faced with a glorious, unique, multi-faceted piece of stone? It blew my mind. I swallowed the grub and gobbled the hook.

Next came the riddle of technique. So deeply, fundamentally counter-intuitive. A drop knee, for instance surely that makes you go lower, not higher? Spin and turn your back on the target hold what? That makes no sense but my reach is now a metre further! I can make the next grip. Wild!

In the early days I was constantly outwitted when onsighting. Lacked the skill to read the holds fast enough before I pumped out. Battled my way up, surviving on strength and panic. Recall asking a veteran climber friend how he did it, how he knew. But he just shrugged and said 'Time'. Time? Surely not! I needed to know immediately! So I concentrated harder. Picked up tips, piecemeal. Kept nibbling the crumbs.

After twenty years, I remain intellectually intrigued by the shapes and texture and structure of routes. Can still get shut down on an easy-looking finger-crack, misread sequences, mess up my feet. However much I learn and know, the puzzle can still surprise me and leave me bamboozled flip-flapping on the ropes like an out-of-water mackerel.

But still I can't stop biting.


            Un-doing Dominance

Do we function by these hierarchies?

E5 over VS;
Summit over foothills;
Grades over enjoyment;
Words (speech) over silence (listening);
Doing (to) over being (with);
Human over non-human (we can drill the cliff, it doesn't mind, it doesn't have feelings).


            The Chronicles

Climber's hands.  © Sarah-Jane Dobner
Climber's hands.
© Sarah-Jane Dobner


My hands a landscape eroded
By the forces of granite and plastic

Tips smooth as tumbled pebbles
Swollen joints a chain of lakes leading

To a delta of calluses where fingers
Run into the hand-mass. Classical

Indoor-jug-formation of skin rucked up
On each pinky at the middle phalanx

The open palm a savanna where
Quartzite and gneiss trample and graze

On the backs, cuticles ragged
From nibbling by limestone mice

Knuckles grubbed-up and gouged
By wild boar grit. Blue vein

Rivers, distended from recurring
Flash-floods of de-pumping

Flow over the dorsal plains
Where, gradually, crevasses and hillocks

Crack and crumple up, a legacy
Of exposure, time and over-use of chalk

Sun-damaged liver spots
Settle and spread, a moraine of choss

Panoramic hands – weathered and worn
Becoming more like the rocks


Sarah-Jane Dobner: A Feeling for Rock.  © UKC Articles
Sarah-Jane Dobner: A Feeling for Rock.

Sarah-Jane Dobner  © Roxanna Barry
Kendal Mountain Festival 2021

You can catch Sarah-Jane in a discussion with UKC's Rob Greenwood at the 'A Feeling for Rock' session at 9 p.m. on 19th November at this year's Kendal Mountain Festival. The social event of the year for outdoor enthusiasts takes place across the town from 18th-21st November.

- Book tickets and passes on the KENDAL MOUNTAIN FESTIVAL SITE

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