Why do we always climb upwards?

Why do we always climb upwards?

UK climbing is famous for the ‘girdle traverse’. For those of you who have enough rock in your country not to be cursed by such things, a ‘girdle’ is a giant traverse, usually of the whole crag or at least a part of it and it’s usually the last ‘route’ to go after all the ‘normal’ up routes have been bagged. Interestingly if you’re wondering why ‘girdle’ and not just ‘traverse’ a quick wikipedia search will tell you that a girdle is a belt which “for men, symbolizes preparation and readiness to serve, and for women, represents chastity and protection”

angleican prest

Most of the routes in there are pretty hard and it’s likely some could be wet or slightly under water (it’s tidal) so once you’ve abseiled in and you hear the sound of the encroaching tide there is a real sense of commitment and urgency to get out. Pembroke is my favourite crag in the UK and the leap one of my favourite crags at Pembroke; suffice to say I have a small attachment to the place. I still remember being at the bottom of the leap age ten and loosing a baby tooth. It seemed like the only proper thing to do was to throw the tooth in to the sea for the seals, even if that meant relinquishing my £1 from the tooth fairy.

I can’t remember the exact reason why we decided to girdle the leap but in my mind you don’t truly love a crag unless you want to girdle it and me and Mawsons love the leap.

Surprisingly, it turned out that our girdle was not the best route out there. We weren’t good enough to do a straight traverse and so instead we had to do a lot of going down to then go up again. We were pretty psyched that it ended on James Pearson’s E9, ‘Do you know where your children are?’. Because of this I suggested that our girdle should get E9 as well but I think in the end we settled at 4 pitches of about E4/5.

I say it wasn’t very good, but actually I had a whale of a time. It was great fun trying to get across the wall without going so high that we’d top out, or too low that we’d bottom out (because that would be stupid obviously). It reminded me of the game I used to play as a kid where I would traverse around the house, moving from door frame to door frame without touching the floor, usually imagining myself in a climbing competition against Lynn Hill and Jemma Powel, or that they were alligators in the carpet.

Our ‘route’ ended up in the Pembroke guide. I thought about this a bit at the time and more so now and I’ve decided I really don’t like the fact that it’s in the guide. I would hate the idea of someone trying to copy what we did (not that anyone has or will). It seemed like the most fun part about the girdle traverse was us questing randomly across the wall. If you could follow someone else’s path the fun would be lost. This lead me to ask why I thought this way about girdles but not about normal routes. Why didn’t I want to find my own way up the leap in the same way I wanted to find my own way across it? Why didn’t I want to down climb the leap? Surely if I love the leap enough, I’d want to climb it any which way?

Even if we decide climbing upwards is the most fun direction of movement over rock why are we always so hell bent on following the lines? Why do we never just climb?

I love bouldering because I feel like it’s my chance to play climbing. When I do a problem I’ll often do it again using different beta, ignoring certain holds, sometimes I’ll see if I can do it the same way as my mate, or using the ‘tall persons’ beta, or try it with no hands. If you want to know how something would be without ego or without convention or without norms a good thing to do is to imagine what a child would do. I’m pretty sure a child wouldn’t look at the guide and work out which route best suited their capacity for power endurance; they would just quest around and do what they thought was most fun.


Playing or posing?

I asked a good friend of mine Howard what he would do if he could have the crag to himself, with no one was watching and if you fell you’d fall softly into a nest of feathers. He said ‘I’d do the routes’. I yawned and said ‘what it there was no bolts, no chalk and no guide’ He said ‘I’d probably try to pick out the most obvious lines and climb them.’ I yawned again and said ‘And then what? You wouldn’t play around?’ ‘You wouldn’t find the craziest dyno, the most exposed or hardest part of the wall, the weirdest bit of rock, the blankest section, you wouldn’t do time trails, or weird link ups, try to find a figure of 4, climb blind folded?  He looked at me blankly and told me that I didn’t want to hear what he would really do alone at the crag. And then I asked myself ‘why do climbers have no imagination’?

howard stennis

Boring Howard climbing upwards.

At the moment I’m in Spain trying to climb but also trying to rehab my shoulder. My physio told me that I should not be climbing as a climber, I should be climbing as a physiotherapist. Instead of seeing routes as goals or projects or ambitions I should see them for how nice they will treat my shoulder. For example a 7c is a nice one if it does’t have any shoulder moves. The 6c warm up isn’t a warm up if it has a right arm slap move. This shift of mentality has been interesting and required me to leave my ego on the ground. Most the time I’m successful but there have been a few moments where I know I should have said ‘take’ on a warm up but my ego wouldn’t let me. It’s so ingrained in me not to say ‘take’, to keep going, to always keep trying to the bitter end. Maybe that’s made me a good climber in the conventional sense, but it might also be why I have had a shoulder injury for 6 years. With a bit of thought it’s absurd that I would let my shoulder risk further injury because I was too hell bent on following the almost mantra-like norms of climbing ‘mustn’t fall, mustn’t fail’ (and definitely not on the warm up).

It’s good for the ego to climb ‘like a physiotherapist’ and good for the imagination to climb like a kid.


What Howard really wanted to do at the crag on his own.


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