Last night I was lucky enough to see Sir Chris Bonington speak about his 60 plus years spent in the mountains.
For me it was a bit of a trip back in time. In 1997 I was working stupid shifts at my local supermarket over the summer between finishing my A Levels and going off to university. A team of rope access technicians were working nights up in the roof and came to the deli each night to get their tea. My little CB250RS had been clocked in the car park and a few of them had messed around on bikes so we used to chat lots.
I’d just split up with my boyfriend at the time and while sadly nothing came of anything with the particularly beautiful climber, he did leave me with some words rattling round my head. “If you like your bikes, you should try climbing, I reckon you’d love it.”
Freshers Week in Manchester saw me hunting out the climbing club, and off I went in Tom’s car up to Stanage Edge in the Peak District. The chap we picked up on the way who was still on crutches after a climbing accident around Ardnamurchan was later to become my husband although we didn’t know it at the time.
I’d lived in the flat south all my life, had never been to Guides or Scouts or anything like that and I hadn’t shown any interest in climbing or mountains at all. I knew my dad had done a lot in his misspent youth (hmm, maybe there’s a theme there as I definitely get the bike thing from him).
Soon, climbing became everything. I’d had to leave my motorbike at home and I made most of my friends through the climbing club. Weekends were spent in the Lakes, I quickly learnt to down a pint and had my first ever hangover after a long night in a remote pub with a very flexible licensing policy somewhere near Borrowdale. I wasn’t a very good climber but I enjoyed doing something so new and so exciting. My boyfriend at the time (not the husband to be) was a sport climber always chasing technical perfection indoors, and was thoroughly miserable company out on real rock as he got frustrated that his head would always get the better of him.
December 21st that year was to prove a real turning point – my friend Ed was a nurse at the local hospital and was an occasional unofficial member of the climbing club. He had a few days off work and knew I wanted to go and try something different. It was a beautifully clear but mild day, and he had chosen Tryfan as my first proper mountain. The whiny boyfriend came too but I think we would all have had a better time if he’d stayed in the car.
It involved a lot of scrambling which I loved. It didn’t matter where I put my hands and feet as long as I got up. I was a five foot very flexible slip of a thing out with two gangly six-footers, and this meant I could crawl through bits and find ways up they couldn’t.
We got to the top. Officially I can’t claim the summit as I didn’t complete the leap between Adam and Eve. But it was beautiful at the top. This was in the days before digital cameras and camera phones, and while I think Ed has a photo somewhere, I know I don’t.
We made a start up Bristly Ridge next door, but I’d been a bit slower than Ed thought and the appearance of some impressive sea fog after a little while meant we decided against it and came down.
Not long after this, I had a minor accident but suffered a major injury. A shattered ankle, several hours of orthopaedic surgery, two six inch plates and sixteen screws, almost three weeks in hospital, six months on crutches and significant pain for much longer.
The sudden realisation at the age of 19 that you are old enough to sign your own surgical consent form, but you still want your mum and your parents are three hours’ drive away. Wanting to see your x-rays but being refused for various spurious reasons – mostly to avoid the risk of the patient realising the extent of the damage and refusing to do any physio.
I climbed after the accident. I took my crutches to some extremely dubious approaches to crags, and led a harder route than the one I’d fallen from. I found a great climbing partner – Cath was tiny like me, gobby like me and great company. Turns out she’d also had some experience of the whiny boyfriend.
On the night that Manchester United won the Treble in 1999, I was living in the shadow of the Kippax Stand in the old Manchester City Stadium on Claremont Road. Unusually I wasn’t watching the football, as I’d popped round to Cath’s for my dinner and to drop off some climbing kit. I walked home down some eerily quiet streets – even in this bluest of blue areas, everyone was watching the game. No word of a lie, I turned on the telly in the 89th minute, and caught all of the action in extra time.
Life changed soon after. I started going out with the guy I’d met on my first climbing trip, who was the housemate of the whiny boyfriend. Everyone had started work, there was less time for climbing and soon we would end up heading south away from easy access to the Peak District.
Names of people and mountains, routes and camps came flooding back last night as we listened to Sir Chris. He was a brilliant speaker, warm and engaging and so careful to acknowledge all his team that you often weren’t sure which mountains he had stood on the top of and which he hadn’t. He had started his climbing life in North Wales too, and his tales of hopelessly inequipped adventuring touched everyone’s hearts – I think we’d all been there at some point, up something we had no right being up, hoping everything would be OK.
The words that will stay with me, were towards the end of the evening, where he talked of his ambitions now, having climbed everything he had wanted to and much more besides.
He described his goals as being less tangible – the sole aim being to go somewhere new, be it walking or climbing, but to go with people you enjoyed being around.
As someone who struggles with the concept of long term planning outside a work environment, I felt I could really make something of this and understand what he was saying.
Often when times are difficult and a change is called for, we hope to become a new, happier, more fulfilled version of ourselves, if only we can achieve this, or live there etc.
In my case I often wonder where I left my old self.
The same person who took me up Tryfan left me with some other things to remember, mostly some harsh words after a late night – “…you can’t make up your mind what you want to do with your life, I just can’t deal with it”
Years later, I’m just getting my head round the fact that despite expectations around me, it’s OK to change my mind, to not know, to accept I will probably never know, and to think that maybe when the dust settles on the current crazy situation, I need to build my life with a little more flexibility so that when I want to change the situation and do new things, I can. This won’t always be going somewhere no-one’s ever been, but it might be somewhere I’ve never been, and as Sir Chris said last night, hopefully it will always be with the people I enjoy being around.
The title of this post is from a book by a lady called Dorothy Pilley, who climbed with men when it was far from the done thing. I need to go back to the book as I’ve never finished it. I do remember a line though… we climbed, then we had lunch and then we had cake. Or something similar.