Written by Jen Offord


Let’s Get Physical: Climbing

One-time couch potato Jen Offord is now a fully fledged sportsaholic. In the spirit of #thisgirlcan she’s trying out different activities for Standard Issue. This week she’s topping out.


It’s not always easy to know exactly what constitutes a sport, so for the purposes of this column I’ve been consulting this handy list of sports recognised by Sport England.

To my mind a ‘sport’ is generally fast, furious, cool and almost probably wears wraparound sunglasses from the early ‘90s. Alternatively it’ll be indoor bowls, but that’s fine because we know it’s a officially a sport. It won’t be arm-wrestling though, which smacks of a student’s joke gone way too far.

I doubt it’ll be climbing either: an activity that, for me, conjures up the image of unflattering outerwear, thermoses, geography teachers and hairy arms. In fairness to climbing I’m basing this on one person who was a hairy-armed, fleece wearing, geography teacher and who I don’t actually know was a climber but just seemed the type.

There’s a climbing wall just down the road from me. I’m not expecting anyone other than hardcore fleece wearers at 10:15 on a Saturday morning but I’m wrong again. About everything.

climb 1The Castle Climbing Centre is a hive of activity and the clientele are nothing like I’d imagined. There are a couple of people eating flapjacks out of Tupperware but they’re in the minority. The rest of the centre appears to be a youth club for adult hipsters shimmying up walls in leopard-print leggings.

It’s as if Byker Grove had been set somewhere you actually wanted to hang out. Every single person in their late 20s to early 30s seems to be here, including a man I used to work with who pretends not to recognise me despite the fact that my instructor, Gordon, was repeatedly shouting my name (which should have been a clue – along with my face).

I also spot at least half of Sussex University’s 2004/05/06’s graduating years, as well as almost every single man I’ve ever conversed with on Guardian Soulmates.

Today I’m trying their ‘Taster Plus’ session: 90 minutes of top-roping, bouldering and *gulps* abseiling. We start with top-roping. Wearing an undignified, genital-framing harness I’ll be scrabbling up a 12m wall via colourful pieces of protruding plastic while an unknown person holds on to a piece of rope I’m attached to. It’s not all on them though: fortunately there’s a pretty reliable looking knot between me and imminent death.

Getting up the wall is easy, much to my surprise. Reaching the top is a rather different matter and looking down is pant-soilingly terrifying. I’m asked to let go of the wall and lean away from it to be hoisted down, which is surprisingly fun once I force myself to relinquish my clammy grip.

climb2Next we’re abseiling down a 20m tower. I’m not exactly scared of heights but equally I’m not keen on any activity that could end in neck-breakage, which means walking up the winding staircase to the top of the tower feels more than a little gut-churning.

Once we arrive at the top we’re attached to a safety rope that Gordon will use to stop us plummeting to our deaths and a rope we’ll use to winch ourselves back down.

To set off we stand over a hatch in the floor while attached to a frame that doesn’t look unlike some gallows.

One member of my group is a lighting technician who’s attending the session to overcome her rather inconvenient (given her profession) fear of heights. I’m babbling away like a bit of a bellend, emphasising safety standards and how life-affirming it is to get out of your comfort zone; I think it’s for my benefit more than hers. I’m heartened when the other three inductees get back in one piece but I decide I won’t be looking down. Unsurprisingly I make it to ground level with all my vertebrae intact: my fears were far worse than the reality. What’s more, it’s fun.

Finally we’re bouldering, which means climbing a smaller wall of multi-coloured plastic protrusions without a harness. The distance to fall is less, but the likelihood of falling is greater. This one’s a sort of mind-maze too: you have to try and figure out your path in advance or you may find yourself hanging from an unnecessarily small piece of plastic by one finger. Half of Sussex University are watching me and I don’t want to be the girl from the student union bar who broke her neck due to losing her grip on the world’s smallest piece of plastic.

climbInstructor Gordon, who has been climbing for 30 years, muses, “Some people will tell you climbing is a way of life.” This what I’d been afraid of. He continues: “and it is to some extent, but really – we’re just playing.”

He says that the appeal of climbing is learning a skill while you’re doing that. I don’t really know what practical use this skill would serve in daily life but I can relate to it from the sense of competency I get from cycling.

I can also relate to the point about playing, because it is supposed to be fun, after all.

Jen tried climbing at the Castle Climbing Centre where a taster plus session costs £30.

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Written by Jen Offord

Jen is a writer from Essex, which isn’t relevant because she lives in London, but she likes people to know it. As well as daft challenges, she likes cats, cheese and Beyonce. @inspireajen