Molly Shrimpton explores her experience of rock climbing, and what it has taught her about the natural world and our place within it.
I am not a good climber. In fact, for a long time I was distinctly unwilling to lift even a tentative toe from the stability of the ground. Preferring the freedom of hiking, striding easily over hills, up mountains and across open country, I found myself thwarted, frustrated and perplexed in front of the imposing rock face, those views and panoramas it obscured limited only to those who could scale its heights. I could not understand why my partner was so determined that I should undertake, and even enjoy this pursuit. However, over time, I have learnt to enjoy it, and to be enthusiastic about the abilities it has afforded me, and the places that it takes me; I have learnt to appreciate the access to those secret and magical locations which can only gained by the ancient dialogue of hands, feet and rock.
Despite my lack of experience and skill, I have been fortunate enough to have climbed far and wide. I have stood amongst hundreds of neon-clad others at the famous gritstone crags of the Peak district. I have breathed deeply the warm, salty breeze that strokes the white cliffs of Portland. I have struggled against the splintering, chaffing schist of New Zealand’s Southern Alps, as well as the notoriously sloping limestone crags that rise alongside the cool waters of Payne’s Ford. I have been caught short up a multi-pitch gone very wrong in the crags of Northland, anxiously watching a storm breast the skies towards us over the towering Kauri trees. I have had the breath torn from my throat whilst looking down the thundering Yosemite Valley from a modest ways up one of its iconic granite faces. I have been grated, grazed and sliced by the murderous stone of the Joshua Tree Desert’s bizarre boulder piles, watched by the equally bizarre, frozen forms of the Joshua trees themselves. I have sweated and sworn in the searingly hot gulleys and dusty folds of Arizona’s astonishing Red Rocks canyon. And I have found wonder on the spectacular rock formations of Lone Pine, with the Sierra Nevada soaring on the horizon in one direction, and the dark lowlands of Death Valley stretching out in the other.
Each experience has offered unique opportunity and insight into the strange world of climbers. I have learnt about the different types of rock, and the different ways of engaging with them that each demands, all unique in ways only my fingers and palms can attest to. Slowly I have stopped feeling like an alien. I have learnt a new language, understanding the use of each of the many different pieces of equipment: slings, nuts, cams, karabiners, belay plates, gri-gris and tat, as well as adding to my repertoire phrases of the climbing vernacular, such as ‘beta’, ‘bomber’, ‘run out’, ‘pumpy’, ‘crimpy’ and ‘on-sight’. I have come to understand the rationale behind buying climbing shoes that are intentionally five sizes too small, and to expect and sympathize with the wails and groans of the wearer.
I have gained an appreciation of what rock climbing can offer, apart from pain, laughter, fury, joy, and wonder. My muscles have strengthened, my fear subsided, my back pain has alleviated, and I have learnt to trust and to know my body. It has also become very apparent to me that climbing in a gym and climbing on a rock face are two completely different pursuits. Unlike indoor climbing, where every hold is highlighted in neon paint and virtually every move mapped out and dictated for you, outdoor climbing requires much more problem solving, and offers an opportunity for exploring the ways in which our minds work. Faced with the obstacle of its verticality, climbers must tune their brain to the minute detail of the rock’s character, examining it for potential holds, analyzing it for patterns, and devising new sequences of order from its apparent chaos. It is no coincidence that many mathematicians find themselves drawn to climbing as a hobby. Jon Krakauer points to this in his account of meeting the father of bouldering, research mathematician John Gill. Gill explains to Krakauer that both pursuits require ‘quantum jumps of intuition’, and a ‘natural inclination to dig for something, a strong, completely inner motivation to be on the frontier, to discover things. The reward, in both activities, is almost continual enlightenment, and that’s a great feeling.’
Climbing has also given me a wider, more important understanding of the ways in which I experience and participate in place and environment. Each rock face, cliff and crag gives voice to the enormity of geological time. Its form inscribed with the stories of its existence. I have spoken to many climbers, and among some have noted a recurrent appreciation for being in touch with something beyond the human, for reaching a mental state achieved only through vital contact and physical closeness to something far larger and more immense than we can know. To climb is to communicate with the bones of the Earth. To journey up the reaches of rock is to read one of its many histories, and to begin to know a version of its primal story. Of course, climbers do not pretend to be geologists or archaeologists, but they have an appreciation for the diversities of rock, and the subtleties of its different architectures that many are not afforded. Climbing is a sport, but rather than providing contest between humans, it offers the opportunity to measure oneself against the immensity of the Earth.
I recently climbed at Chepstow. Perched on the border between England and Wales, it is home to a mecca of quarried limestone cliffs, which tower above the brown, muddied waters of the River Wye. It was early April, and a pair of peregrines had chosen an adjacent cliff for their nest. Our powers of attention were tested when they flew over us, one of them carrying the lumpen body of a pigeon. Lifeless in the quenching talons, its size attested to the formidable power of the falcon. After feeding, the pair circled above us, gliding on silken thermals, agitated by crows they swooped and swerved, curled round and soared across the cloudless sky. Small and inconsequential, we clung on to the cliff far below, squinting up, blinded by the sun and the heat radiating off the rock, yet unable to tear our gazes away from the luminous sky.
Climbing has put me in contact with my surroundings in a very different way. It has taken me to places that I never thought possible, and along the way it has taught me to wonder about what is beyond. It has outlined to me the limits of my strength, and the vulnerability of my body in the natural world, and in parallel has encouraged me to recognize the boundaries and borders of my understanding. Some consider climbing and mountaineering forms of conquest, they see recreation as mastery; they climb to claim. In reality, these pursuits offer an opportunity to correct what Robert Macfarlane calls our ‘amnesia’, which allows us to believe that ‘the world has been made for humans by humans.’ Climbing is an opportunity for exploration, of the world, of the self, and of the self in the world. Regardless of where I am, I never feel more mortal than when struggling up a rock face, and never smaller than when at the top.
 Jon Krakauer, Eiger Dreams: Ventures among men and mountains, (London: Pan Books, 1998), pp. 16-17.
 Robert Macfarlane, Mountains of the Mind: A history of a fascination, (London: Granta, 2003), p 274.
Molly Shrimpton is currently studying the MA Wild Writing course at Essex University, after completing a BA in English Literature at the University of Kent, and having spent five months travelling. She is happiest when under canvas or in the mountains.