Sunday, 18 November 2018

Understanding the risks

Sitting low on the sofa the climbers above, now relieved of their harnesses and ropes, still seemed impossibly high, and the moves they described, the effort in their voices, too challenging for a wall without protection. And every so often, as if to confirm the point, a dull thud sounded as the mats absorbed another hard arrival.

With fifteen minutes to go I didn't want to be sitting out the final exercise of my two session climbing course. I had done everything else to date, felt the gear, tied the knots, learnt to belay and to climb, arrested a staged fall, tried falling myself, and ridden the ever so slightly scary autobelay. There had been aspects which, as a visually impaired person, had been difficult, like pausing before each move, straining to hear shouted directions from my climbing partner or trainer below, before thrashing around for the right hold. And there had been things that were easier, like the very tactile process of tying in, or of raimbowing up a wall with no care for the specific holds involved. The point was, I had done it all. 

Kerry, the trainer, had been concerned about the autobelay. Without the manual engagement of a belayer controlling my rate of descent as I returned to earth from the top of a wall, she feared that I would be at heightened risk of injury. I respected her view, but I also felt the risk was manageable. Yes, there would be no braking before I hit the ground, and yes, I would need to be very conscious of how far I had climbed, how long it would take to drop, and of when to brace for impact. I would also need a trusted partner who could watch out for me. But none of these points were insurmountable, and ultimately she was content for me to make the call.

In the event it wasn't the floor that caused me pain, but the counter-intuitive act of letting go of the wall, five meters up, with only an unthinking machine to catch me. I understood the technology from a bit of prior reading, and that the physics involved were equally as unavoidable as the gravity that would pull me down, but it still took several counts to three and a couple of deep breaths before I could give it a go.

The landing itself was uneventful, but that's not to say I couldn't see Kerry's point. The ground certainly arrived quickly and without warning, and should there be an uneven surface, some discarded gear, or if my feet were not positioned properly, I could see well how a routine trip up and bad down the wall could turn into days or weeks with my leg up.

I think it is fair to say that risks abound for the unwary visually impaired climber, and not necessarily in the places they seem most likely. Uneven floors, snaking ropes and industrial staircases all conspire to trip one up, and of course scrabbling for a hand hold to steady oneself following a fall, or attempting to avoid the large jug holds whilst walking backwards on a descending rope are much more challenging when the wall is just a blurry mass.  

Learning to fall, and catching a falling climber, proved to be a interesting experience. The slight pull upwards as the rope tightened, the sense of being only just in control as an invisible force attempted to propel one face first into the wall and into the path of the descending climber, not to mention the trust one needs in one's belayer in the first place,            provided welcome practice and demystification for the day this would inevitably happen for real. Aspects of it are certainly different for a visually impaired belayer, not least the need to be in communicative harmony with one's climber, knowing exactly what they are doing at whenever their direction of travel or intentions change. Important too  is the guiding hand, constantly checking for slack in the rope in lieue of eyes watching the climber to anticipate each new move or the start of a fall. But the basics remain the same, the need to be primed for a potential fall, to return one's hand swiftly to one's side after pulling in slack, and to never ever let go of that brake rope. As the falling climber, on this occasion deliberately so and in a space chosen for its lack of protrusions, I suspect the chief challenge will be avoiding painful collisions with the larger holds and reorientating oneself following the event. On this occasion it was all quite controlled, and actually quite a positive experience.

So, it was with a degree of surprise and a little disappointment that I received Kerry's very strong advise that I should not participate in the final part of the course, bouldering. In my naivety I had rather imagined this to be the less challenging part of the experience, remaining relatively close to the ground, able to get off the wall easily when things got more tricky. I think I also had in mind happy times as a child clambering over boulders and other rock formations at the wonderful Brimham Rocks in North Yorkshire, their amazing tactility making it simpler, not more challenging, for a visually impaired person to navigate. But, I needed to be realistic, to recognise that indoor environments and the risks they introduced, were quite different. More importantly, I had been genuinely grateful for the thought and care that had been invested in ensuring that I got the most from the course and was not excluded from anything unless absolutely necessary.        As the course trainer Kerry of course had a fair degree of responsibility for the safety off those climbing under her instruction, and I had to take seriously her concerns About my likely inability to fall safely if I couldn’t orientate visually.  Therefore, whilst I dearly wanted to complete the whole course and, frankly, to be able to boulder like anybody else, there was no question of me pushing the point.

In the event I did get to try some traversing, albeit on the lowest holds and with Kerry resting a hand on my back, lest I missed a step and stumbled back the foot or so to the matting. It was surprisingly strenuous, far more so than any of the top roping we had done to date, and the first time I had raised my breathing rate or broken into a sweat. 

Listening to the four other course members, and the countless other climbers on the bouldering wall upstairs, as I reclined on my plastic cushion, it was clear that cardio vascular workouts were par for the course, with the opportunity to attempt more challenging moves without the safety net provided by rope and belayer. I wanted to be experiencing that too, but secretly I was also relieved. Whilst I couldn't recall doing anything to prompt it, my left ankle was beginning to ache, and I suspected that, had I tried to take part, at the end of a long day at work and three hours of tuition, the risk of injuring myself may have been heightened somewhat, and what a sad way to end that would have been.

So I enjoyed the rest instead, listened to those around pushing themselves to try something new, and reflecting on the fulfilment of a long term aim. Now, all I need is to somehow keep it up.   

Friday, 9 November 2018

Learning the ropes

Leaning backwards, away from the wall, I transferred my trust from the sturdy hand and foot holds that had hitherto been supporting me to the harness about my waist, the double eight and stopper knots I had tied myself, to the ten metres or so of rope which led first up to a pulley and then down to the ground and my billayer, another novice like me, standing ready to lower me to the ground. Ten minutes earlier I had been in his position, recalling the hand movements learnt earlier in the classroom, first to control the slack in the rope whilst remaining ready at a nanosecond's notice to drop my hand down to my side and lock off movement through the device and prevent a slight slip from becoming an eight metre drop to the floor below, and then to control his descent, gradually giving him more rope as he walked his way back to earth. Upstairs, when it was just us, in relative quiet and with a very short piece of wall on which to learn the ropes, it had felt relatively simple but now, with music glaring, the calls of other climbers all around, and the potential for serious consequences if I let the rope slide and my climber plummeted,       learning to climb felt a lot more challenging.

It would not be an exaggeration to say that I had been waiting for this day for years. Ever since I had first climbed an outdoor wall in Devon whilst on an activity holiday for disabled children and, on reaching the top had been allowed to abseil back with the rope looped around my body in a manner reminiscent of those early mountaineers lacking the fancy equipment on which climbers now rely, I had been hooked. Yet, it had taken me the best part of twenty years to do anything about it. The other activity I had enjoyed so much at the Calvert Trust's base on Exmoor had been a morning's sail on the reservoir, which had started out as a boatful of children eagerly waiting for their moment to pull on a sheet or hold the tiller, and had ended with just the trainer and I careering about in a gusty breeze, the boat sat on its side as we bore close to the wind. It had taken me a mere decade to pluck up the courage to visit a club and learn to do it properly.

I'm not sure what finally made me make the booking. With the sailing it had been an item on Radio Four's In Touch programme featuring a visually impaired sailor pootling about an East London dock with the totally blind presenter,. For somebody who can't even drive a shopping trolley independently the promise of helming a dinghy for myself, of being able to learn a practical skill and apply it to different situations without a sighted companion always being in charge was attractive, and I thought that if I didn't do it now I never would. But with climbing it was different, there was no eureka moment, just a slow burning ambition to have another go, and I simply had to wait until the desire to act overtook my anxiety at entering a new and potentially uncomfortable environment.

The discomfort I feared was not the bite of the rental harness or tow pinching climbing shoes which I now know to be my real foes, but being in a sweaty sporty environment where strength and stamina rule. I've never especially liked gyms, indeed I haven't set foot in a proper one since my mid teens, and most of my exercise comes from fast paced walks with my guide dog, Gio. I don't like the shared changing rooms, the pumping music, or the frenetic atmosphere, and the thought of paying to spend hours in such a place had never filled me with excitement.

But my desire to climb, fueled by friends' tales of adventures in Cumbria or North Wales, and books following endeavours up distant mountains or Scottish sea stacks          Finally won over. In early October I promised myself that, whatever happened, The month would not end without me beginning the process of learning to climb. I immersed myself in information on the various options. Should it be bouldering or top rope, a good Centre far from home or somewhere a bit more limited but much easier to reach? I also followed a trail of Facebook groups, VI Talk, VI Talk Sport, Paraclimbing for All, and eventually Paraclimbing London where I was finally able to glean the knowledge I needed, that the place to be, the place where they would not run a mile or perhaps climb a pitch at the thought of training a visually impaired novice, was The Castle in Islington.

Pushing open the heavy door at its entrance or climbing the metal staircase to its upper levels one feels The Castle's past. It was formerly a water pumping station and still seems somewhat industrial within. Light barely reaches the ground from strips high on the ceiling,   and seemingly every inch of floorspace coursed with intent as crowds of evening climbers harnessed up and took their positions beneath the towering walls.

I must confess that it was all a little overwhelming at first and I was grateful for the friendly receptionist leading me upstairs, pausing to drop my belongings in a swimming pool style locker before handing over to our trainer for the evening, Kerry. The training room was simple, a line of plastic chairs on two sides facing a short section of slab, the technical term for a wall slanting away from the climber. Our group of five introduced itself to each other and talked a little of its climbing experience to date, ranging from a couple who had climbed at the center with a friend, to me as a total beginner. All however were there an introduction to climbing quite literally from the ground up, and we started with the very basics.

First up was the equipment, alpine and sports harnesses with their different adjustment mechanisms and potential risks noted. For each example discussed I was given one to feel, to adjust the buckles for myself and somehow to disentangle the leg loops from the waist. I never have been much good at 3D puzzles and, sure enough, on being invited to don one for the first time, managed to get in a Ness.

Next up was the belay device and its connecting caribina. I had read about belaying and think I was expecting something a little more sophisticated than a simple metal frame divided in two with a loop of wire for securing it to one's harness. This, along with the bellayer's iron grip on the brake rope could be all that stands between a climber and a potentially devastating fall. Getting the technique right, feeling the live rope with one's left hand, pulling up with the right to draw down the slack, locking down, transferring the left hand down to the brake and sliding the right hand up, seemed simple in principle but easy to Ness up. If only I had a set at home with which to practice.

And then there was the rope, and the all important tying in technique. Knots were never my thing when sailing, and when tying a bowline the hapless rabbit would all too often find himself popping out of his hole before heading the wrong way round the tree. The double eight was a little easier, indeed, even without seeing the trainer's example the instructions were simple to follow, though doing it well will take a little longer to master.


Finally it was time to swap my work shoes for something altogether more toe chrunching, and to be let loose on the four metres of wall in the corner of the room, albeit supervised by Kerry. Taking it in turns to climb and to belay, I finally got to find out what happens when my rather puny mass is pitted against the weight of somebody a little less scrawny at the other end of a rope. No sooner had my partner flown to the ceiling then he was ready to descend, leaning back in his harness, allowing the rope, and me at the end of it, to take the strain. Holding his weight wasn't difficult initially, but with every foot of rope I let through the belay device a surge of energy attempted to pull me off my feet and smash me into the lower handholds. The sensation was quite unnerving, though in time I learnt that a more balanced, braced stance, combined with smaller, faster movements of the rope minimised the jerking that was initially my undoing.

And then it was my turn, tentatively stepping forward until I could feel the wall before me, exploring with one hand and then the other to find my starting holds, and repeating with my feet, clumsily feeling left then right, up a bit, down a little until all four limbs were connected and ready to go.      I probably should have been ready for the frustration that would follow having read Red Szell's account of re-learning to climb as a visually impaired person, but my first trip to the top was about as graceless as I thought it was possible to get. With each movement I felt around for the holds, which could be anywhere about my body. With my hands it wasn't too bad, but with my legs I had the sense of thrashing wildly to find some grip, seemingly missing each hold by a matter of inches. For the others this had been the easy bit, the simplest of simple climbs to whet their appetite, a reward for all the faffing about with harnesses and belay devices, but for me it was a challenge, and I was all too glad to reach the top and take my turn at walking backwards down the wall. To be clear, it wasn't the physical process of climbing that was the issue, but rather the process of searching for holds when one cannot identify them visually. Looking straight at the wall from perhaps half a metre away the holds are invisible to me, and it is only when they are sat right in front of my nose that I am more likely to spot them. Even then it is less the hold I can see than the shadow it casts beneath, and so identifying their shape or colour is an impossibility.

Onwards and upwards. With an hour of tuition left for the evening we headed down to the main floor, and along a narrow valley separating two artificial crags. To my eyes it could have been a dimly lit outdoor site, short cliffs rising to left and right, a black night sky above, though my brain frequently fills in the picture parts my eyes don't see and to everyone else it was probably just a climbing gym. Either way, we were allocated our ropes, Gio was attached to a ground anchor, and the real climbing began. First time on the proper wall I rainbowed, scrabbling for any hold I could find regardless of colour, just thankful to reach the top. Once again the experience wasn't fluid and serene as my companions managed at times to make it appear, but an inelegant trudge skyward, kicking one leg out and then the other to find something to lodge my toes in. It didn't help that as I jammed my foot into the early holds it cramped up, reminding me of how my feet really don't like being manipulated against their will, even if only by an inanimate wall. Had I been at home I probably would have been found hopping up and down to relieve the contracting muscles., but a quarter of the way up a climbing wall I simply had to grin and bare it   until there was nowhere left to climb.

And then it was that moment. The point where I had to plant my heels against the wall, lean back and let go. I couldn't see the ground, but I could certainly hear the jumble of different voices sounding as if they were dozens of metres below rather than a paltry eight. "Keep your feet apart" Kerry called as I stepped gingerly backwards into the abyss, my weight held by my harness, that newly learnt knot, the pulley and rope, and my belayer at the bottom, nodoubt digging his own feet firmly into the ground to save himself from being dragged forwards. 

As the end of the evening approached there was time for one more climb, this time on a single grade. I had suggested to Kerry earlier in the evening that we should borrow the clockface approach described in Red Szell's Blind Man of Hoy, envisaging my spine as the hour hand on a clock, pointing straight up to twelve, the available holds taking the place of hours about the face so that, even without indicating which hand or foot should move it should be possible to identify where the next point of contact is to be found.      For the starting holds I suggested she simply show me where they were, but for each successive one she would call out, directing a hand to two o'clock, a foot to nine. Sometimes the needed hold was slightly above my left shin, or immediately above my head, and once it was the same hold I was already gripping with the other hand. Whilst I may have sacrificed autonomy I had gained in self confidence. Now I could attempt moves like anybody else, conserving valuable energy and enthusiasm by avoiding the mad scramble for each new handhold, and able to focus on where I was going and not simply where I was at any given moment. And when I reached the top I finally felt as though I had accomplished something, physically probably one of the least demanding climbs I will complete, but finally relieving the frustration I had felt earlier in the evening, and confirming that this was a sport for me.
• Red Szell, Blind man of Hoy.
• Paraclimbing London Facebook group: