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This feature by acclaimed author Niall Grimes first appeared in Rock and Ice, July 2020. We love this story and are republishing it here so you can get inspired, too. Rockandice.com has over 3,000 articles and stories you can access with an Active Pass. Click this link to begin enjoying even more Rock and Ice content today.
I climb less regularly these days. Not because I love it less, but because I love it more. When I get a Big Mac, I throw away the tomato. Why? Because I love tomato. I love tomato so I throw away that tasteless red glob of chemicals and water that McDonalds gives me and calls a tomato but isn’t. And then, because I love meat, I throw away the patty. And then, because I love bread, I toss the bun away. That leaves the Coke, which I hate, so I drink it.
I don’t want any climbing I do to be squeezed into little crannies of time and disrespected. When I do climb it is with joy and freedom. It’s probably been November since I last had a blockbuster day on rock. I bought shares in a friend, John’s, plan to put a date in on a calendar, drive out to a remote moorland outcrop miles from anywhere, long hike included, and attempt a route of some local mythological value. The day came, colder and more drizzly than expected, but John kept a straight face and we went anyway.
Last Temptation (E6 6c). I had seen first-ascent photos in the mags way back when Dave Pegg did the first ascent, and there was something about the way Dave had placed his body around the short, overhanging crack that was mesmerizing. It looked so hard and beyond me but still I knew the joy of a mission, even a failed one, so went along.
On the way we plotted where our hopes lay, where our ethics lay, and bent the ethics in the direction of our hopes. I’m not sure that’s how ethics are meant to work, but John got up the route pretty quickly, and as the last light was sighing out of the bleak winter sky I hauled myself up it. I was pleased. Despite the abseil inspection, preplaced runners, first nut pre-clipped, three previous falls and a mini slouch on the actual ascent that may or may not have weighted the runners, I had made a pretty good-style ascent of this eight-meter cracklet.
But it was definitely a cool tick, and we buzzed off it. Unusually, John had filmed me on his iPhone. I had never seen myself climb before, and was surprised to see that I didn’t look as shit on rock as everyone says I do.
In the weeks that followed I looked often at the video. For one of the few times in my life I indulged myself in narcissism. I felt I had a right to. I had done well. In the years that have passed since my regular climbing days I have lost much form, fitness and strength. But as I looked at myself on the crack on that blowy Tuesday I recognized something: that I was still managing to dredge every ounce of effort that was in me to carry on. That climbing mattered 100 percent, and in the face of everything, I kept going.
I’m a climber. It’s on my passport: “Climber.” It’s been that way ever since that first Sunday when I scratched up a small outcrop in Ireland in a pair of furry basketball boots and on a tight toprope. Climbing was an easy choice—it’s not like there was anything else I could be. So I bought the badge and sewed it onto my jumper, and within a few weeks I was saying to my non-climbing friend, “If you’re not a climber, then you just wouldn’t understand!” So I not just wore a badge that said “Climber,” but I created one for everyone else that said “Non-climber.” The distinction was seductive.
Researchers say that the body regenerates itself every seven to 10 years. In 2020, there isn’t a cell in your body that was there in 2010.
Last year I went for a walk along a gritstone quarry on the outskirts of Sheffield. The centerpiece of Millstone Edge is called the Corners area. I have a rule. If you have been living by a decision made more than 10 years ago, it’s time to throw that decision away. I don’t like shellfish. Or at least I tell myself I don’t like shellfish, so I avoid shellfish. But when I examined that, I couldn’t remember when I decided that, nor could I conjure up the flavor or taste sensation of eating shellfish. It must all have come from something I declared one time in a now long-forgotten memory. So recently, in a harborside restaurant, I ordered a dish of moules marinees and lobster thermidor. Gah, it was rank. I’m not eating that again!
I looked fondly at the big routes in the center of Millstone: Master’s Edge, Edge Lane, Green Death, and Great Arete. I recalled moments of my leads of these magical climbs, climbs as good and as legendary as gritstone gets. It was sunset and the rock glowed gold and beautiful and every ripple and pebble stood proud, and I must admit that I basked in the glory of having done these climbs, recalling everything about the days. How moves felt, how my mind had been and how easy they were once I started.
But then I dwelt on how none of my body had done these climbs and the cells that had done the deed were gone not only once but maybe twice. My memories were more like folk tales now. Had I done them? Is the person who did them long dead? I decided this was a nice thought, that it’s probably not good for the trophies on your mantelpiece to become who you are.
Lockdown is like a lens to me. The imposed gap has focused my attention onto the distance between me and climbing. What I mean when I say climbing I don’t know, so don’t ask. But I suspect it is that new route I did above the traverse on Valkyrie at the Roaches; topping out on the first ascent of the Baroness in Greenland; flashing Barriers in Time; grabbing the chain on the redpoint of Dominatrix; cruising the highball finish of West Side Story; crafting that ice pitch on Craig Ddu; summiting Lobouche East. There is a Polaroid of each of those in my mind, even if few photos exist.
I have watched us all on my phone reacting to the pandemic. Home boards, finger edges, hula hoops, making bread, burpees, more home boards. I don’t quite know what to make of it. Is everyone going mad at the same speed and in the same direction, and now all of this seems normal? What is your major malfunction? I know self-improvement is the thing these days, but I have to think that it looks like madness and ultimately emotionally damaging. What’s wrong with you? I mean, what’s wrong with you as you are?
Of course I understand. The Beastmaker that hangs above my desk has seen more use the last two months than it ever has, and I am now the proud owner of an elbow injury. What am I doing? Trying to get up to 8a? No, not really. It’s just me wearing the badge. You would think that with growing up would come a freedom from the need to define ourselves by such shackles as were decided in the dim past. I thought it was time to discard old decisions once their time was up. Hang on, I thought. I’ve been saying that for a long time now. Time to let it go. Time to soften up.
Is “Climber” my malfunction? Oh well, we all have one. It’s as good as any.
Niall Grimes (UK) is an author, guidebook writer and podcaster. He misheard government advice, and has now spent six weeks in lockoff. His elbows are killing him.