Fear and Loathing in North London: Rock climbing course part I

Friday 28 February 2014 10.37 AM

I started my official timeoutdoors rock-climbing course last week, with the objective of completing a single-pitch climb in the Peak District later this year.

I started my official timeoutdoors rock-climbing course last week, with the objective of completing a single-pitch climb in the Peak District later this year. Maybe. My employers have sent me here in the full knowledge that I’m not brilliant with heights. What they don’t know is that I also suffer from a form of spatial dyslexia sometimes known as “left-handedness” - which makes me spectacularly bad at tying knots, figuring out how to tighten straps etc. On the face of it, I am not ideal rock climbing material.

Walking into The Castle – the well-known climbing centre in north London - on a cold and damp Thursday evening, the first thoughts that entered my head were “blimey this place is huge” and “what a lot of people”. A real hive of activity in fact – everywhere I looked there were climbers scaling the walls, gripping brightly-coloured hand-holds on overhangs, gliding back down to floor level on ropes, clambering across rocks. It’s like a Tumble Tots play centre for grown-ups.

The place is a multi-level labyrinth, with lots of individual rooms for different types of climbing and degrees of difficulty. I’ve been past this place so many times, and always wondered what it was like inside: it’s a building that you can hardly fail to notice – a superbly eccentric former waterworks which was built in 1854 to resemble Stirling Castle (hence the name). Converted into a climbing centre 20 years ago, it has been described as “London’s weirdest folly”. Would this be my own ridiculous folly...?

The Castle Climbing Centre: it looks like a castle
There are five of us on the course, and I am the only complete novice – even though it is billed as an introduction to climbing. Our instructor, Mike (top climbing experience: ascending a virgin peak in Kyrgyzstan – and then being allowed to name it) talked us through the different types of climbing (bouldering, top roping etc) and some basic terminology (belaying, carabiner – all new to me). There’s lots of gear involved, and lots of different approaches.

The next 20 minutes were tricky: we strapped on our harnesses and then were required to take a length of rope, thread it through the harness and tie a figure-of-eight knot, with a complicated (and seemingly unnecessary) loop on the end of it. Let’s just say I got there in the end.

After forcing on our necessarily excruciatingly tight climbing footwear, we went to the wall. Mike put us into pairs for some belaying action. I started off as the one on the ground, while Alison scaled the wall – she had done plenty of climbing before and made it look easy (in fact it was quite easy). As she ascended, I had to take up the slack, strictly adhering to the procedure, which is all about getting your hands in the correct position – this was ok, although I did keep getting one hand looped around the rope which is a real no-no – if the climber slipped, it would really hurt (and the climber might get injured, too). Once Alison reached the top I lowered her down: a bit too slowly, then a bit fast. The next time I got it about right.
Hanging on in there...
So then it was my turn to climb – and it was really enjoyable. You need strong fingers to grip and pull your weight on the climbing holds, but the climbing boots allow good purchase. Once I got to the top, though, it was necessary to push away from the wall and let my partner lower me down. If my knot wasn’t fit for purpose, or my carabiner wasn’t fastened properly, I’d probably die. Fortunately, these were carefully checked before I went up. But still, you never know… particularly considering my knotmanship which maybe, just maybe, had contrived to produce a freak knot that looked ok but was in fact fatally flawed structurally. And even without that extra anxiety, leaping backwards into thin air when you are 30 feet above the floor is never going to feel like a sensible thing to do, at least not the first time you do it.

Obviously it was fine. Quite a thrill in fact. The only other scary moment was using the auto-bilay, a contraption that you hook yourself up to and then entrust your life to. That was horrible.

Anyway, I’m back there in a few days for part two. Some abseiling plus some tougher climbing is promised. Onwards and upwards, hopefully… And thanks to The Castle for making this possible.

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