Me: "I think I might fall..."
Me: "Wait, do you think I should fall?"
Nik: "If you need to fall, fall"
Me: "OK, I'm going to fall now..."
I am not an epic climber, I get scared, I worry about falling, I get nervous about the next gear placement, I bail on routes I should be able to climb. However, I love climbing, whether it is sport, trad, bouldering or deep water soloing and I am pretty sure it has changed my life.
That may seem like a bold statement, that blows the impact climbing has had on my life out of proportion, and you may be tutting at your screen, thinking I'm just trying to come up with something catchy and inspiring to write about. Over the last year I have shied away from writing this, for fear of appearing self aggrandising and also because it opens up some difficult times in my life that I haven't wanted to put down in words. But now is as good a time as any and I hope it encourages others to seek out a climbing course, club or wall to give it a try.
If Life Serves You Lemons, Go Climbing...
Or something like that.
Back in 2014 I went through a painful breakup with my partner, who I had been with for 6 years, after just having bought a house together. This was a huge bombshell. I was left with a house in a small Welsh valleys town, with only Bella (my Border Collie) for company. Almost all of our friends were mutual but mutually brought over from him and it didn't seem likely I would keep in touch with any of them. I suddenly felt very alone.
I was also in my second year of teaching and 4 months earlier had taken time off with stress-related illness. I loved teaching when I was in the classroom but I felt I was always teetering on the edge of disaster. I had just watched one of my colleagues go through a dismissal and I was finding the increased workload, targets, data and emotional strain impossible to escape from.
Of course I also had lots of happy, meaningful and rewarding experiences leading up to these events, but this was the catalyst for my life taking an unexpected swerve, down a much rockier, scenic route than I was previously heading!
When a Surprise is Not a Surprise
These events don't often happen by surprise and although at the time I wouldn't have admitted it, I knew some big changes were approaching. In the midst of it all, I joined a Ladies Night Climbing Group at Dynamic Rock, which just happened to be 10 minutes from my new house. I had tried climbing on and off throughout university, but it never seriously took off for me. But, this group, set up by Jacky Tyrie was full of welcoming, encouraging, awesome climbing women. These women not only provided a fun space that helped me to realise the potential climbing had as a sport but they also became my support network through what was a turbulent, scary and uncertain time in my life. I was gradually introduced to more and more climbers and other outdoor lovers, and now the friendships that I have made through climbing (either directly or by association) are fundamental to my life in Wales.
As well as friendships, climbing offered me an outlet. When I was on a route, I became so absorbed in the process that I was unable to think about other areas of my life. This was pretty handy at the time, as other areas of my life were not particularly fun to think about.
I have always been actively involved with one sport or another, mostly running and swimming, both of which I still love now. But running and swimming allow my mind to wander, I could overthink things at my leisure and it was like having constant repeats of the same miserable show going around in my head. They have also always been solitary sports for me. Climbing, on the other hand was social, exciting, engaging and encompassing, so, pretty perfect if you are looking for something to become absorbed in.
It's Amazing What You Can Find Under a Boulder
No, really, it is. I found my husband under one.
As my confidence grew and the climbing bug had well and truly bitten, I spent more and more time at the wall. When I didn't have a partner for routes I bouldered and loved the social, communal atmosphere I found in the bouldering room. That's where I met Zlatko, and little did I know, his Slovenian charm and lovely curly hair would result in our marriage 4 years later. We got to know each other at the wall, in fact our first conversation was sharing beta for the same problem (and for the record I'm pretty sure I solved it before him!).
Since then we have shared some epics together, some of which you can read about here. He is my number one adventure buddy (except for Bella of course!) and has promised to humour me on all of my crazy outdoor ideas. If you want to test the quality of a relationship try walking together for 42 days across the Pyrenees, or relying on each other when things have gone tits up on a multi-pitch mountain route. One of our friends wrote the following for us on our wedding day and I think it sums up our relationship pretty neatly:
"Partnership is like climbing, all the time it demands confidence, attention and caring for each other. In return it gives you the purest joy."
When a hobby is more than a hobby
It might be said that I can sometimes be a little bit stubborn. I don't know how true that is, but back in 2015 I hatched a plan. Teaching photography in a formal environment was not working out for me. I would share all these amazing, inspiring photographers and picture myself outside, having my own adventures and things didn't add up. I asked for a sabbatical first of all, which was declined and then I plagued myself about what to do, before finally and painfully taking a leap of faith and leaving my job in 2016.
I have now been freelancing as an outdoor instructor for 2 years, and I am still teaching. I hope I am teaching young people to engage with our incredible landscapes and each other and that they can be strong leaders, team players, independent, scared, excited and that failure is an essential part of learning. I have had moments, drenched through, gritting my teeth and yet still having to sing and smile that have been testing but I am excited every day I go to work and although I'll never earn as much as I did teaching, I have a more content soul.
My climbing has also progressed massively. I have sought out new adventures, learning trad, and taking my first steps into Alpinism on an excellent Conville Trust course. This April I became a Rock Climbing Instructor (formerly Single Pitch Award). Throughout this process I was privileged to have been mentored by a close friend and experienced instructor, Matt Woodfield, who not only helped me work towards my RCI but also build a new basis for work as a freelancer. I am so excited to be able to take groups out onto the rock for what is often people's first experiences of climbing. For some, just challenging themselves and enjoying a new, fun and exciting activity that one day is enough. But, for others it is amazing to see the spark that is lit in these early experiences with the sport, and I hope it can be as transformative for them as it has been for me.
A little bit about climbing that is about climbing
My personal climbing is still an extremely important part of my week, I set goals, some of which I keep and some of which I don't, and I try to get outside as often as I can, which is not as often as I would like. I also have some secret goals that I'm too shy to share publicly, but I'll let you know if I achieve them!
My article about climbing turns out to have been more about life than it has been about climbing, but I think, in a roundabout way, that proves my point. Climbing is about a lot more than what happens when you are at the crag or the wall, and I suppose that's why it has changed my life.