By Jacquie Budd // When I was 5 years old I moved to Malham. Growing up there, the fields and rivers were my back garden. Sitting with friends on top of Malham Cove and playing rounders in the fields below the Cove was just normal life and I was totally unaware of the importance that climbing had in the area. The only time I did become aware of any climbing taking place was when the odd emergency siren went past our house and my Dad spoke the infamous words we came to know and love “that’ll be another climber fallen off then”.
Ironically, I only started climbing once I’d moved away from Malham. As I became more immersed in the sport, the history and importance of Malham became evident. For many years nobody I knew personally climbed there, owing to its fierce reputation for hard sport climbing routes on overhanging rock. At some point this changed. Malham began to see a rise in popularity once more, with climbing publications featuring articles of Steve McClure ticking hard routes there. With that came stories of ‘the catwalk’, a ledge where many of the routes start, being rammed with climbers of all nationalities. At this time, after climbing for over 16 years, I still hadn’t tied onto a rope at Malham Cove, but that was all about to change. I started hearing more from friends and people I knew at the climbing wall who were visiting Malham to tick their projects and with those conversations, the status it had gained in my mind of being a playground for only the elite climber began to finally dissipate. It was time to pay Malham a visit…and not just for rounders!
As I approached my first climb at Malham I realised that all those years of conditioning throughout my childhood had an effect. Those stories of climbers falling to a grisly end, or lowering off the end of their rope to sudden death or horrific maiming (I’m not even sure whether these things happened or, if so, with the regularity I seem to remember), combined with every person I knew who’d climbed there telling tales of exposure and super hard technical climbing on glass polished holds, had built the place into an even more intimidating prospect.
Friends talked more and more often of climbs that might suit my style of climbing and so it was, one warm sunny day, a climbing trip to Malham dawned. I was still unsure – I knew how intimidating Malham Cove could be to somebody like me who can get rigor mortis when exposure hits. I also knew that I was not climbing anywhere near the grade of the easiest climbs there and was just a little embarrassed at the thought of all those strong, competent, elite climbers being there and able to observe my pathetic scrabbling attempts to even leave the catwalk at the start of the climb (never mind the embarrassment of getting a sudden attack of exposure part way up).
As it transpired the conditions on the day of my first visit to climb at Malham Cove could not have been more perfect. It was warm and sunny (but not oppressive as can sometimes be found there in the cocoon of the rock face) and unbelievably, the four of us were the only people climbing there for the majority of the day.
When I finally tied onto a rope, the intimidation that had built up over the years started to make itself known in my unconscious. My foot slipped on the very first move (yes, it was every bit as glassy as reported!). My footwork is normally one of my strengths, so I was immediately spooked by this setback. Then there was the anticipated swing, which would happen when I unclipped and fell (as I knew I would…naturally), not to mention the very sequency nature of the climbing (strong side pulls and difficulty in finding my feet). I persevered and made it to the crux about 2/3 up before I got too tired to keep attempting the move that kept throwing me off. Not so shabby considering the build up! A few more attempts later and I’d had my fill for the day. It was time to pack up and head back for a well-earned cuppa and catch up with a friend in the next village.
So what was my verdict about the experience?
Well, firstly, you can build something up in your mind to quite unrealistic levels through years of conditioning and listening to other people, and spook yourself before even attempting it. The biggest negative anchor to Malham was the constant warnings I received about the place as a child.
Until you actually experience something for yourself, you will never know the reality of the situation, so think again about giving that project you’ve had in mind a go.
Yes, climbing at Malham Cove is hard.
Yes, it has sketchy footholds, which shine like glass.
Yes, being on the catwalk gives an added element of exposure with the dramatic drop underneath.
Yes, it is possible to seriously injure or kill yourself there if you make a mistake.
There are climbs to the side of the catwalk which are shorter and less exposed.
The situation is spectacular and climbing regularly there is bound to make you stronger.
The climbing is bound to make you more intelligent with foot placements too.
Oh, and the best yet….I survived with no sirens haring up Cove Road to scrape me out of the river at the bottom.
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