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Uncoiling the Ropes - memoir of trailblazing Irish climber Clare Sheridan Review

© Clare Sheridan

Women's climbing back in the 70's and early 80's was very different to today. There were a number of women climbers of all ages around, some of whom had quite a reputation for their climbing prowess but, despite this, women pushing the grades, especially on the lead, were a novelty. Chauvinist reactions were the norm, especially when two women were climbing together, leading pitches. And women were without question massively outnumbered by men on the crags.

Uncoiling the Ropes  © Clare Sheridan

Reading Clare Sheridan's book brought much of this back to me, as I began climbing in 1979, but one big question emerges for me...why didn't I know about Clare at the time ? I know her now, having met her in the last few years on her home stomping ground, the mega cliff of Fairhead where she has many new routes to her name. But back in the day she was certainly not on my radar...she surely should have been.

Clare's book documents her life from a happy family childhood in Ireland with parents who introduced her and her sister Bairbre to the outdoors from an early age. Her happy go lucky life playing outside was somewhat curtailed by a period of schooling in covents with nuns to try to guide her on a more conventional path, but she soon escaped back to the hills, usually accompanied by her equally adventurous sister, before heading off to university where she joined the climbing club and became an avid climber. It wasn't long before her path coincided with that of her soul mate Calvin Torrans with whom she has climbed for most of her adult life.

Their adventures make for fascinating reading as their world expanded from the hills of Ireland and northern Ireland to Wales to the Alps and the Himalayas to the Andes and Yosemite. Rockclimbing was interpersed with expeditions, some of which involved some harrowing accidents and the loss of climbing friends.

Columnular adventures  © Drexciyan
A Sheridan/Torrans classic, An Bealach Rúnda (E1 5b), Photo: Drexciyan

Clearly Clare was not phased in the slightest by the almost uniquely male dominated world of Irish climbing that she found herself in and she forged ahead with her extreme leads and bold first ascents. Had I known about her I would have seen her as a role model, someone to look up to, someone who didn't give the time of day to the sexist comments that we all endured whenever we tied into the sharp end and assumed we could perform just as well as everyone else.

Clare's story gets even more impressive when she describes life with an ever growing family, which eventually encompassed three young sons. The boys accompanied Clare and Calvin on many of their trips, but did not embrace climbing like their parents. I love the story Clare describes of taking the little lads down to the base of Fairhead, a tortuous boulder field with numerous kiddie traps just waiting to ensnare an unsuspecting child. She and Calvin had their eye on a new line, so they left the kids there and headed off, promising not to be long. The route took far more time than expected and they finally got back to their little group to be greeted by rolling eyes and resigned,glum and hungry children - a role reversal of the classic parent child relationship!

Clare and Calvin, perhaps the most fruitful partnership in Irish climbing history   © Clare Sheridan
Clare and Calvin, perhaps the most fruitful partnership in Irish climbing history
© Clare Sheridan

The book is not just about Clare. She writes with passion and empathy about Calvin's childhood in Belfast, and the impact of the Troubles on his early adult life. The fact that they came together at all is a testimony to their shared love of the mountains and climbing, their connection through a natural desire to live free from convention and outside of society's imposed constraints.

Fairhead is their second home, it's where they grew together, cemented their love and have since lived so many fabulous climbing days. Their names are synonymous with this wild and forbidding cliff. Clare has an awesome legacy of new routes here on these steep crags split by strenuous cracks and blank faces.

At Fairhead alone, Clare and Calvin's list of first ascents runs to over 100 routes, put up over the last 45 years. Gems include such 3-star classics as Rusty Halo (E4), The Brasser (E2), The Sandpiper (E2), An Bealach Runda (E1), Cuchulainn (E2), Waist Deep in Alligators (E4), Mizen Star (E2), Salango (E3), among many more.

Clare's alpine résumé is equally impressive : many of these routes were fitted in around child care and waiting for Calvin to be free from his guiding, sometimes climbing together but more often rushing off with other climbing partners, always operating within a very tight time schedule. The Walker Spur, the Bonatti Pillar....these big serious routes commanded great respect and Clare recounts methodically ticking them off between caring for her family and keeping everything going whilst Calvin guided his clients.

New route-ing at Fairhead - Liv E3 6a  © Clare Sheridan
New route-ing at Fairhead - Liv E3 6a
© Clare Sheridan

She recounts her climbing with passion, but some of the most memorable moments of the book are outside of this. The visit of the priest to her house when she is a young teacher living with Calvin to whom she is not married is a jarring reminder that not so long ago life in deeply Catholic Ireland was far from the free living that someone like Clare was looking for. Her job was in peril as she was not a regular at mass and she was living with a Protestant divorced man. She and Calvin quickly resolved this, getting married just outside Yosemite on their next Stateside visit. I was impressed to read that Clare took Calvin's name only for the duration of her time bringing up a family, reverting to her own name later.....she is by all accounts her own woman.

Clare has swung from living a very conventional life in Catholic Ireland, working as a primary school teacher, to being a dirt bag climber in Yosemite then back to conventional life teaching and raising a family, to then letting loose in the Alps and collecting some really impressive lines.

The later part of the book will hit home with all of us "senior" climbers, learning to live with climbing injuries and bodies that don't work quite as well as we remember them doing. Her account of Calvin's terrible fall when he broke both ankles and her own seemingly innocuous but horribly painful trapped hand incident serve to show that those who are life long committed to the sport just take the hits and keep on going. Back to the cliffs they headed, determined to keep on climbing...in fact having no choice whatsoever as this is what they do.

What shines through in this book is the vision and passion of a true climbing spirit. The female climbers of today often bemoan the lack of role models in what they still seem to perceive as a chauvinist sport.... I don't agree with them there, things have changed so dramatically in the last 40 years on the crags both demograhically and in terms of attitudes, but if you're looking for a climbing role model look no further than Clare : this is how to do it without fanfare, without social media bragging, just climbing hard and without any complexes.

I have just one slight complaint....I would so much have liked to see more photos of Clare's adventures as she has lived through such amazing climbs and times. I am sure she has so many more shots and for me that is the only thing lacking in this inspiring and rivetting read.

  • Uncoiling the Ropes (Mweelrea Press) - available from Amazon and at No Alibis bookshop in Belfast


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6 Nov, 2020

The perfect review - by the perfect reviewer - to a book which will give so much pleasure to so many people.

Mick

7 Nov, 2020

Those photos remind me what a phenomenal set of crags Fairhead is. Imagine the picking back in late 70s/to early 80s!

9 Nov, 2020

I can't wait to read this, a fantastic inspirational story.


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