What's this all about?

A new adventure beckons, and this is once again about my personal journey to make it happen.

It might make you laugh; it might make you cry, but by 'eck lads and lasses, it will be worth a quick skeg every now and then, tha's for sure.

Sunday, 11 September 2016

'A Head for Heights' Goes Outdoors

1.   Introduction.

Let’s face it; at some time or other in your life you’ve found yourself in a psychologically uncomfortable situation and it only hit you when you realised you were ‘stuck’.

Of course that’s a little different than willingly putting yourself in a very uncomfortable situation, which is what this tale is about: feeling you’ll be … well, potentially scared stupid … but still proceeding with the plan. So let’s talk about heights.

I can confidently recall NEVER EVER climbing a tree, or even scaling a wall that was above waist-height during my younger years, whereas some of my friends would scale a 10ft tree without any apparent pause for thought … or any obvious studious reflection on the latest risk assessment article in ‘Junior Health & Safety Fanatics Monthly’.

I wonder if that was a fear that stopped me climbing, or that by not climbing I created the longer term fear? Anyway, whichever way round it was/is, I’ve somewhat foolishly thrown myself (Editor’s note – is that really the word you want to use?) into planning the 175m climb up the North Pinnacle Ridge of Tryfan, on June 21st 2017.

2.   Acrophobia; me?

It’s not so much that I hate heights; rather that I don’t like the idea of falling from them, even if I’m supposedly attached to a secure belay rope and (as my outdoor climbing instructor Tom Prestwich said) wouldn’t be going anywhere, even if I slipped. Well, maybe I’d fall a couple of feet until the safety line became taut and suspended my substantial frame in mid-air (or as my body swung into the rock face).

Easy for him to say, as he confidently leads our first outdoor climb on a 15 metre rock at Almscliffe; putting in safety clamps as he goes, but it begs the question: why would anyone put themselves into such a situation? More of that later, but here’s a photo of Tom starting to climb, to break up the monotony.

BREAKING NEWS (Editor’s note – Really; you want to use the term ‘breaking’ now?) Geoff Major, ageing Yorkshire acrophobic, completes his ‘climbing for beginners’ course at The Leeds Wall.

First step completed, insofar as I know how to tie a knot; how to belay and I can climb a Grade 4 and a Grade 4+ all the way up to 12 metres, without vomiting or uncontrollably relieving myself.

I prefer it when I know someone has the rope taut on belay (whereas on the auto-belay you have to make that leap of faith without any sense of the rope being secure. In fact it takes a couple of seconds for that comforting whirring sound of the brake to kick in). A couple of weeks ago I actually wrapped the auto-belay line around my lower forearm, to give myself the feeling of a tight rope … only to find that when it actually did tighten on the machine, it bruised my skin and hurt like crap for an hour.

Still, I’d passed the first step and soon it was time to consider climbing outdoors: something which, strangely, didn’t seem to faze me as much as the idea of my first climb indoors. It was at that point Tom P tried to explain just how different the experience was climbing outside, but that’s a bit like trying to explain to someone what coping with chickenpox is like if they’ve never had it. Before we move onto that though, here are some reflections on the whole climbing challenge.

So let’s return the theme of the video and this blog; the fear of heights versus the commitment to climb a small mountain.

3.   And so outdoors.

It’s late August and Tom P has plans for both Andy Smith and I (a new-to-rock-climbing buddy who has all the natural ability of a mountain goat and sinews like coils of steel). We agreed to meet at Almscliffe and, wanting to get a feel of the whole environment without looking scared, I arrived 30 minutes before they did.

At first sight it seemed quite moderate and not at all scary. I could see people (including children of perhaps 12 years of age) on top of the rock without any climbing gear and, apparently, enjoying the warm summer evening and the spectacular views.

My confidence didn’t exactly soar but I was pleased I’d gotten there early and was in fine fettle when Tom arrived with all his gear clanking over his shoulder. Tom is an excellent climbing coach and moderates well between enthusiastic confidence-building words of encouragement, with concerned and conscious awareness of my first-time flaws. 

Well, he does that MOST of the time but he did nickname me ‘death trap’ when I attached the carabiner incorrectly. Andy arrived a little later (albeit we knew he was coming as the manly growl of his car could be heard from several hundred yards away) and joined us at the foot of the first climb; thankfully telling Tom he thought that I had attached it as we’d been taught … but I think he was being supportive rather than totally truthful.

Tom asked me to 'tie-on' and belay him up, ensuring I was well positioned to catch his shoulders if he fell in the first 10ft of the climb (just his shoulders, rather than attempt to catch his whole 6ft 5ins frame). With his long legs he seemingly stretched up and over ridges and outcrops that I planned to use several ladders to circumnavigate.

Slowly he ascended; bending round corners and apparently grasping at hand-holds I’d need a microscope to see and a vice to hold on to. There were a couple of tricky points on the climb which, unsurprisingly, I failed to overcome when it was my turn to ascend. Andy managed to get up on his first attempt but I failed again at exactly the same point on my second attempt; so we turned our sights to a slightly easier climb.

The 'mountain goat' stretches to traverse the rock face

Tom told us the 2nd route was slightly easier than Tryfan (whereas the first route was slightly harder) … and then he struggled to get up the first few feet. Encouraging (not) but
I watched intently as firstly he and then Andy climbed the route. A few things to look out for but I was reasonably confident that I would get up this climb or die trying (Editor’s note – That’s it; I’m resigning).

As the sun started to descend on the horizon, I tied-on and began the climb. The first few feet were a bit tricky, but it was more about confidence in my leg power and hand-holds than it was about my actual ability.

A quarter of the way up; halfway up (this was going reasonably well); three-quarters of the way up and then … stuck. Not literally (despite the new and wholly inaccurate nickname I got of ‘ass wedge’ when I used my natural physical qualities to balance between two rocks) but psychologically. Not only couldn’t I see any obvious footholds or handholds within easy reach, but fear suddenly engulfed my brain and suffocated my desire (never mind my ability) to move. It felt totally unnatural!

I felt trapped: unable to ascend, but irrationally fearing I couldn’t descend and would be stuck there forever. Tom shouted down wise words of encouragement, telling me not to look for handholds or a way up, but just take a short break. Could he sense the panic inside me; could he see me freezing up … or was it the cursing and loud proclamations about being stuck that gave me away?

I took Tom’s advice and paused; not so much for thought but the very opposite: to empty my mind and forget I was apparently stuck. It was time to give myself a good talking to, as I was determined not to turn into a quivering wreck and die a painful death of exposure, humiliation and insect bites (Ex-Editor scoffs in derision).

I then re-gathered my thoughts and, rather than calmly composing myself and returning to the task in hand, I angrily shouted at myself “Come on you %&^ @£$”£$!!” (yeah, you’ve heard me mumble those words before, Becci Skelton). Much merriment from above and below me and a shout of “Steady on; that’s a bit harsh”, but (as it always does) it worked and I began to move; but with purpose and confidence this time.

Yes, it was starting to get that dark!

Within 30 seconds I was at the top and happy to belly-flop over the crest of the rock (I’m not convinced, but let’s assume that’s a technical term): happy to roll onto terra firma and even happier NOT to look back over the edge – that idea really did frighten me.

4.   So what did that teach me?

Number 1 – I can climb.

Number 2 – I can’t climb well and need to practise a lot.

Number 3 – Rubber underpants seem to be unnecessary (as vouched for by the people below me) but perhaps a technically easier but far higher climb is a logical next step.

So first step and second step completed: just another 175 000 steps to go. 


  1. I honestly don't know how you find the time to organise and take part in all this Geoff. As well as working, eating and sleeping!! Your an inspiration!

    1. Sleep? I wish ha ha. Thanks Fran: it will be great when we climb into that rowing boat again (on 27th June 2017)