My first outdoor climb

We weren’t born to live in concrete boxes, spend 3 hours a day commuting in metal boxes with our bodies pressed against those of strangers in suits and send 8 hours a day in front of a screen under fluorescent lights. We’re meant to be outdoors, in nature using our bodies and minds and enriching our souls. We’re meant to walk and run and dance and climb and share beautiful moments with equally beautiful people. Last weekend’s trip to Swanage took me, smiling, from the former the the later, and it was so good for my spirit.

The week before the trip, I’d been horribly ill, with swollen tonsils and glands, a chesty cough and terrible aching in my bones. I didn’t know if I’d make it to Swanage at all, but come Saturday, it had pretty much just turned into a cold and I thought the fresh air would be a positive thing.

I met with my two work colleagues, Becky and JJ, early on Saturday to drive down in a hire car. We were meeting another colleague, Astrid, and her friend Michael, in Swanage. The drive down was supposed to be around two and a half hours, but owing to the traffic, searching for a non-existent petrol station and an epic toilet stop, it took around four hours. We reconvened in the relatively rural spot called Worth Matravers, on the coast, a little way from Swanage. A walk through some cow fields took us to a man-made quarry by the sea, with a whole array of climbing routes.

The quarry was set up for sport climbing, meaning it already had bolts in place, so the lead climber just needs to clip on quick draws as they ascend, on bolts placed a few metres apart. There are anchors at the top of the route to clip into, so the other climbers can climb with the support of the belay anchor.

This was my first time climbing outdoors since I was about 16. I’ve climbed indoors a bit, mostly bouldering at The Arch in Bermondsey (so not very high and no ropes) and just a couple of times at The Castle in north London, where I learned how to top rope, belay and lead climb. But all in all, I am not very experienced with climbing.

There was a range of difficulty levels in the quarry, but I found them to be much harder than their indoor counterparts. Indoors, I can quite competently climb a 5 graded route but I didn’t make it to the top of any of those outdoors. I gave them all a go, and on most routes only made it about half way up and then got defeated by the rocks. I tried to use my legs as much as possible, as my hand strength isn’t good and I can only really properly pull myself up with my arms when I have a really comfortable hand grip. I did manage some quite challenging manoeuvres, but I couldn’t have done it without my colleagues beneath me shouting advice. So much of climbing is mental – strategising and working out where to put your hands or your feet next. The only route I got to the top of was a 3+ which would be so easy on an indoor wall but still proved a challenge for me outside.

People kept saying ‘Don’t look down’ but for me looking down wasn’t the problem. At one point, I was literally hugging the wall, standing on a tiny foothold, but looking down didn’t scare me. I knew if I fell, I’m on a rope, I’d be fine, I trust my colleagues to save me. It was looking up that made me feel scared and overwhelmed. Looking at the rock above and having no idea how I’d get there and not trusting myself. I may be a beginner, but I didn’t want to be defeated by the rock. I tried not to beat myself up for not conquering more of the routes I tried, but it was a bit disappointing. But it has given me the impetus to work harder and get better.

After a great afternoon climbing in both sunshine and drizzle, we headed down to the sea to have a paddle. We clambered across the rocks in a tiny cove and rolled our trousers up. The water was so, so cold, with my feet not quite going numb, just aching with the iciness of it. I don’t know who it was that suggested swimming. We saw two people jump in from the rocks a little ways away, and it just seemed like something we shouldn’t miss. JJ and Michael opted out, which was probable sensible, but after some encouragement of one another, Becky, Astrid and I changed into our swimsuits and plunged into the freezing sea. My body went into panic as my lungs tightened, and I splashed frantically, but we were all laughing. The tide was coming in and the water was a little rough, but it made me feel so alive. We were probably in the water for less than a minute altogether, but I was so glad we did it.

We stopped for a drink before heading off at a pub called the Square and Compass in Worth Matravers. It’s a wonderful country pub with a range of real ales and different ciders, and you order from a tiny hatch rather than an ordinary bar. We sat in the large beer garden outside and were purely delighted when a troop of Morris dancers started performing. Our group was an international mix, JJ being Dutch, Astrid being Norwegian and Michael being South African and they were in absolute hysterics at this quintessentially English spectacle. It was just the icing on the cake of a wonderful day.

We headed off to our campground, Tom’s Field Campsite, and pitched our tents. I absolutely love camping and while I have camped a lot at festivals and done some wild camping in Sweden and Norway, I have only stayed in a campsite once, as a child. It was a lovely vibe, with lots of families, and some people we’d seen out climbing earlier and their dog.

We were so hungry and found out the pub next door was stopping serving food at 9pm. It was already 9pm. So I called up, sweet talked the bar staff and convinced them to let us order over the phone. We were there soon after and we sat outside, wolfing down our meals and beers after a glorious day outdoors.

That night, squeezed into the tent with Becky and Astrid, I slept well. Sleeping in a tent is a really special experience, listening to the sounds of the world around – the cacophony of sheep and goats and someone snoring in another tent. Just having a bit of canvas between me and the stars is magical, I feel like I’m being absorbed by nature. With three of us in the tent it was quite toasty, but the rain was pouring down outside and I felt safe and wonderful tucked away in my sleeping bag.

In the morning, we made coffee on Astrid’s little stove. I am a sucker for gourmet coffee usually, but there is something about drinking coffee outdoors from a stove out of a tin mug that makes it so delicious, even when you are drinking bog standard instant coffee. The campsite had a little cafe for breakfast where I enjoyed a vegan equivalent of a fry-up while we looked out at the happy campers in the field going about their morning business. When it came time to strike our tents, it was raining, and packing away sodden canvas is never fun.

We headed back into London, to go back to living in boxes and commuting in boxes and being ordinary. But I think I am getting better and better at filling life with adventure, and looking forward to these kind of weekends away fills even the more mundane days with so much joy. My colleagues were fantastic people to share this escapade with, and I feel very lucky that I not only do a job I care about, but that I get to spend the working week with people i genuinely enjoy spending the weekend with. Until next time.