Originally published by Standard Issue Magazine in March 2015.
It’s not always easy to know exactly what constitutes as “a sport”, so for the purposes of this column, I’ve been consulting the handy list of sports recognised by Sport England. To my mind “a sport” will generally be fast, furious and cool, and it’ll probably wear wraparound sunglasses from the early ‘90s. Alternatively, it’ll be indoor bowls, but that’s fine, because we know it’s a sport. It won’t be arm-wrestling, though – this one smacks of a student’s joke gone way too far.
I doubt it’ll be climbing, either – an activity conjuring the image of unflattering outerwear, thermoses, geography teachers and hairy arms. In fairness to climbing, I base this on one person, who was a hairy-armed, fleece wearing, geography teacher and who I don’t actually know was a climber – just seemed the type. But I’m wrong: mountaineering REPRESENT.
There’s a climbing wall just down the road from me, and I’m expecting only a hardcore fringe of fleece wearers at 10:15 on a Saturday morning, but I’m wrong again. About everything.
The Castle Climbing Centre is a hive of activity and the clientele are nothing like I’d imagined. There are a couple of people eating flapjacks out of Tupperware, but this is the minority contingent in what appears to be a youth club for adult hipsters, shimmying up walls in leopard-print leggings – it’s like if Byker Grove had been somewhere you’d actually wanted to hang out. EVERYONE in their late 20s to 30s are here: a man I used to work with who pretends not to recognise me despite my instructor, Gordon, repeatedly shouting my name (which should’ve been a clue, alongside my face); at least half of Sussex University’s 2004/05/06’s graduating years; and almost every man I’ve ever conversed with on Guardian Soulmates.
Today I’m trying their “Taster Plus” session – 90 minutes of top-roping, bouldering and *gulps* abseiling. We start with top-roping, wearing an undignified, genital-framing harness, I’ll be scrabbling up a 12m wall, via colourful pieces of protruding plastic, while an unknown person holds on to a piece of rope I’m attached to. It’s not all on them, however, fortunately there’s a pretty reliable looking knot between me and imminent death. Getting up the wall, to my surprise, is easy. Reaching the top is a rather different matter and looking down is pant-soilingly terrifying as I’m asked to let go of the wall, and away from it to be hoisted down, which is surprisingly fun once I’m able to relinquish my clammy grip.
Next, we’re abseiling down a 20m tower. I’m not scared of heights, but I’m not keen on any activity that could end in neck-breakage, and walking up the winding staircase to the top is already on the gut-churning side. Once we arrive at the top, we’ll be attached to a safety rope that Gordon will use to stop us plummeting to our deaths, and a rope that we ourselves will control, for winching down. Take-off position is standing over a hatch in the floor, attached to a frame that doesn’t look unlike some gallows.
One member of my group is a lighting technician who’s attending the session to overcome her rather inconvenient, given her profession, fear of heights. I’m babbling away, like a bit of a bellend, about, while emphasising safety standards, how life-affirming it is to get out of your comfort zone. I think it’s for my benefit more than hers. I’m heartened that the other three inductees make it in one piece, but I’ll not be looking down. When I make it to ground level with all vertebrae intact, unsurprisingly, the imagination is worse than the reality and its fun.
Finally, we’re bouldering, which means climbing a smaller wall of multi-coloured plastic protrusions, without a harness: the distance to fall is lesser, but the likelihood increased. This one is a sort of mind-maze too, as you have to try and figure out your path in advance, lest you find yourself hanging from an unnecessarily small piece of plastic by one finger: half of Sussex University are watching me, and I don’t want to be the girl from the student union bar who broke her neck falling off the world’s smallest piece of plastic.
Instructor Gordon, who has been climbing for 30 years, muses “some people will tell you climbing is a way of life,” which is what I’d been afraid of, “and it is to some extent, but really – we’re just playing”. The appeal of climbing, he says, is learning a skill while you’re doing that. I don’t really know what practical use this skill would serve in daily life, but I can relate to it from the sense of competency I get from cycling. And I can relate to the point about playing, because it is supposed to be fun, after all.
Jen tried climbing at the Castle Climbing Centre where a taster plus session costs £30.