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.