“I’m going to start climbing,” a friend told me last summer. My mind raced back to when I began climbing forty years ago. Learning to climb then meant you had meet up with some experienced climbers and learn the secrets of their trade. That usually meant meeting bearded young men in the back rooms of pubs. They’d give you old pieces of equipment no one used anymore, smiling, “Just to get you started.” I thought of my days in Sheffield, driving out to Gritstone edges in my clapped out Marina, I thought of sitting in Grindleford Café, drinking tea and eating bacon butties, while we watched the rain run down the steamy windows. I thought of shaking my way up easy climbs, taking the skin off my fingers on the rough rock, being shown the mysteries of rope management by a grey bearded climber.
More than anything else, of course, I thought of going…outdoors. Here I made my biggest mistake, that wasn’t what my friend was talking about at all. For an old git like me that came as a surprise.
Outdoors! Why would anyone want to climb there?
His first step in climbing involved no such uncomfortable activities as contact with rain, midges or the outside world. This is the twenty first century, the first thing he did was fill in a form. Oh god what have we become? I bet George Mallory never filled in a form. Then he had to take a training course, Norman Collie never took a course in his life.
You see my friend has been climbing for six months now but he’s never touched rock. He climbs on an indoor wall at a sports centre. All health and safety and forms, and risk assessed and graded and categorised and sanitised. To quote from Star Trek, “It’s life Jim, but not as we know it.”
I realise I’m a dinosaur. There’s no need to drive for an hour, hump your gear up to some rocky outcrop and hope it doesn’t rain. That’s just a waste of time. He can climb 365 days of the year if wants, there is no off season during the winter. In the sports centre it never rains, there are no midges, it never goes dark or gets windy and, of course, all the holds are colour coded, that’s handy, why didn’t we ever think of that?
When indoor walls began to pop up across the country I thought of them as handy training grounds for the real thing, it never occurred to me that they would become an end in themselves. There are probably many climbers who will spend their whole career and never venture out of town.
My friend is about to go on to the next level in his climbing career, he’s going to take the next course. This, apparently will teach him to lead climb or, more accurately, clip in to bolts as he passes them. He’ll need assessing to do this, of course, forms will need to be completed. I wonder what the course content is like, surely there’s a PowerPoint. Here are two of the slides.
I suppose climbing walls are not actually morally wrong, although I’m sure that addiction it possible and the delusion that they have something to do with climbing is a real danger. They do, however, have unforeseen consequences. I visited a crag recently that used to be the haunt of local climbers and was amazed how much it had changed. Where once there was bare rocks now there is only vegetation, nature has reclaimed the crag, which is I suppose no bad thing.
It occurs to me that hillwalking could get the same treatment. You could pop in to your local gym and do a virtual climb of your favourite hills. Think of the advantages, the weather would never be a problem and you could always guarantee a view. There would be no need limit yourself to UK mountains. Picture it, Simon comes staggering out of the virtual mountain room where he’s been on a treadmill for five hours encased in a virtual reality helmet. “God I’m knackered, just did K2.”
The possibilities are, I’m sure you will agree, endless