Too old to climb? Think again!
“He messaged me because one of my profile pictures showed me walking in the mountains… nothing to do with my looks, more to do with my rucksack!”
Some people imagine that rock climbing is the preserve of the young, but this is far from the case. People of all ages climb rocks. Jan Coleyshaw tells us how she started rock climbing at age 61 and led her first outdoors route at the 2016 Women’s Tradfest in the Peak District. She’s an impressive woman with an inspiring story:
My Dad used to climb a lot before I was born and into the late fifties/early sixties, so I’d like to think that climbing is in my genes but I’m not sure I believe that stuff! It would certainly never have occurred to me to begin climbing if I hadn’t met a mountaineer on the internet. He told me he messaged me because one of my profile pictures showed me walking in the mountains… nothing to do with my looks, more to do with my rucksack!
We began seeing each other, and after a few weeks when I asked him if I could go to the local climbing wall with him his eyes lit up, he was so pleased. Now I thought I was reasonably fit for my age (61 at the time) but an hour at the bouldering wall proved otherwise and for the following week I could only get the car into reverse gear by using both hands 😮 The climber later told me that he was rather worried about me that first time, as I’d gone very pale after about 10 minutes of climbing… well that would be sheer exhaustion!
A few weeks later I enjoyed my first outdoor trad climbing at Stanage in the Peak District. When we parked up I went to get my little daysack out of the car boot… “Oh no” he said, “Let’s see how you get on with this!” as he handed me a big pack containing the second rope, his old helmet and a spare harness. We climbed Martello Cracks M, Little Slab S4a and Heaven Crack VD, and I can remember feeling absolutely elated when I got to the top.
Halfway up Heaven Crack I’d really thought I was stuck and had said so… but he didn’t say anything, he just tightened the rope. I had thought that meant “Get on with it” but I realise now that he was just trying to increase my confidence and security. I didn’t know about shouting “Tight!” at that point.
Within two months of that first outing I was seconding VS4c routes, although I very often gently slid off the rock at some point because I didn’t have enough strength in my arms and fingers, but it was ok, I didn’t slide far and I just re-embraced the rock and carried on. We mostly climbed in the Peak Districton on grit and at Matlock Bath and Dovedale on limestone, but also did a few routes in North Wales and the Lake District. Because he’d been climbing for so many years he had a problem choosing routes that he wanted to climb and that I was capable of, and in the early days I also wasn’t able to cope with a long walk in as I would have been too tired to do the climbing when I got there!
We carried on going to the bouldering wall more or less every week over that summer and I gradually became stronger and more confident, and sometimes we’d visit Awesome Walls for rope practice. During the following winter we didn’t go outdoors for climbing at all, he was a fair weather climber and hated the cold, but we did do a lot of walking. We climbed together for the first part of spring/summer 2016, but then we had a major disagreement… and that was the end of our partnership, a partnership which had lasted about 14 months in total. Putting the circumstances of the breakup to one side, I will always be grateful to him for introducing me to climbing and scrambling, and although he could be very critical he never once criticised my actual climbing ability. Thank God, otherwise I may have been totally put off!
Then I was lucky enough to get a place on the Women’s Tradfest weekend in the Peak District. It was a fantastic two days with lots of women climbing together, encouraging each other and really going for it! I met two lovely women climbing partners and it came as a complete surprise to find how much fun it is to climb with just women! I did my first lead climb that weekend and really enjoyed it, even though I did slip off the beginning of Admiral’s Progress D at Birchen Edge before I’d managed to put any gear in. Since then I’ve done 16 lead climbs, and counting…
Leading is such a different ball game to seconding, it’s empowering, it’s fantastic and it’s scary… but scary is good, and exciting, although only up to a point, past which it’s just horrible and incapacitating and sometimes means a downclimb. But that is a useful skill to have even though that’s scary too!
So where am I now? Proud! Proud to be a climber, proud to be the fittest I’ve ever been in my life at the age of just turned 63, and I walk tall with just a little bit of a swagger. It would have been great to have discovered it earlier in my life, but I didn’t and there’s no reason, fingers crossed, why I can’t continue climbing for many more years. And my Dad? Well he is now 92, still reasonably active and he loves to hear what I’ve been up to!
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