I used to live in Bristol – that’s where I was from about the age of 12. I went to a further education college after school and climbing was part of the course. There’s a place called the Avon Gorge which is a very large rock face pretty much in the middle of Bristol. We got taken down there and taken climbing. I quite liked it.
I had done some abseiling when I was about 13 – I ended up crying so they had to pull me back up! I absolutely hated it so I kind of thought I had this fear of heights. But I think climbing helped that.
So I started climbing at college and then, very gradually, over 3 or 4 years, I kind of realised I wanted to do more and was seeking out ways of doing more and just trying to meet climbers so I could go climbing. Because, at that point, climbing walls didn’t exist so you had to know someone, really.
I just wanted to do more climbing because it felt like it was becoming a passion.
I decided I was going to commit myself to climbing, even though I didn’t know whether I was going to be a good climber. So… that’s what I did. I just mentally committed myself to climbing.
And obviously I still had to work, so I did bits and bobs just to earn enough money so I could go on little trips to train and climb. And it was just an evolution of that process to getting better, getting bits of sponsorship here and there to becoming good enough to be called an elite climber.
I became embraced by this climbing community, I felt like I was home. This is where I should be. It just felt completely right and I knew, ‘I’m a climber and I’ve found the right place for me.’
Competitions were definitely a motivating factor for my climbing but I was definitely pulled in two directions because I think my deeper, instinctual love of climbing is trad climbing, climbing outdoors.
My life just revolved around climbing and experiencing new things.
Every part of my being had to be totally in it, in the climbing, to make a send happen. And it’s an amazing feeling when that happens. Everything comes together, you’re so focused. It’s those kind of emotions I remember, not the achievement of sending itself.
When I was younger, maybe in my twenties, I was quite an angry climber . . . at myself for not achieving something that I thought I should have done.
You’ve got to put so much mental effort into it, as well as physical effort, that if you’re not able to or prepared to do that, it’s just not going to happen. So the flipside of the happiness and enjoyment is extreme disappointment. You can’t be anything else but completely 100% involved in it. Maybe some people are slightly more prosaic about it, but I think most are quite emotionally involved, and it seems to matter a ridiculous amount.
It’s just a piece of rock. But it matters somehow.
My most recent accident was when somebody I was belaying fell – their gear ripped out of the rock and so they landed on top of me. I broke my back. That had a really big impact on me. I’d been in that scenario literally thousands of times belaying somebody, I’d never thought, ‘this is a dangerous scenario’.
I was pulled off the ground when he fell. I couldn’t move and, when his gear came out, he just pinged down on top of me. After I recovered I tried to get back into climbing and it shocked me how mentally affected I’d been because I, now, in this supposedly safe environment of belaying someone, not climbing – I was scared and I kept thinking ‘they’re going to fall off, they’re going to land on top of me, there’s nothing I can do about it, it’s going to be horrible, It’s going to hurt.’ It was really, really difficult to get over that.
But I did. As I did with all my other injuries.
Now, my connection with the community is maybe a little fraught. I have now gone back to university, and had literally stopped climbing for at least a year. But, after a while I realised ‘I can’t not climb’. It was affecting my mental health. So I’m trying to go at least once a week. Which I’ve just about managed to do.
I still identify as a climber – having had that break and having to do a job that was just so far removed from what I feel is who I am and it was challenging to say the least. It did fundamentally make me wonder what I was doing and who I was and all those important questions.
It made me realise that I am a climber at the end of the day. That is who I am and it is important that I try and have climbing in my life in one form or another.
I’m trying to make that happen now.