Adventures and Reflections from Cathy O'Dowd

Adventures & Reflections
from Cathy O'Dowd

We had reached the short section of fixed rope below the Lower Saddle in the Grand Tetons when the youngster caught up with us. He had a huge rucksack and Michael joked that he was loaded like a pack mule. It turned out he was carrying gear for his father and younger brother who were far behind. “They’re slow,” he said, “Dad’s 45.” We started to laugh – both being over 45 ourselves – and he got that embarrassed look of the young having to deal with old folk. “Yeah, but my dad, he’s only 45 but he acts like he’s fifty!” Michael was one week shy of his fiftieth birthday.

We waved the youngster past. The next day we soloed the Exum ridge, racing to get to the summit of the Grand Teton between thunderstorm fronts. A week later we did the Grand Traverse of the Tetons – 10 summits, 28 kilometres, 3600 metres of height gain, over three days. It was a route we’d had in mind for years and it was deeply satisfying to dump the packs beside the hire car and declare it done.

Michael at sunset at the first bivi on the Grand Traverse - at the foot of the north face of the Grand Teton.

Michael at sunset at the first bivi on the Grand Traverse – at the foot of the north face of the Grand Teton.

I’ve known Michael since I was 18. We met through our university climbing club in South Africa and dated briefly before moving on to be adventure buddies. Thirty years later neither the adventure or the friendship has died away and there seems to be no reason why that should change. So what have I learned in thirty years on the rock-face? What has changed and what remains true through all the decades?

Looking for images for this post reminded me of some of the most obvious. That was a time when photographs required real cameras loaded the film, sent for developing afterwards, and the result is that very few pictures have survived. It was also a time of some dubious fashion choices, although I still miss my pink-and-purple leopardskin climbing tights.

One of the strongest beliefs I remember from the early years was the sense that it all had to be done now. Roger, the best climber in our clique, was convinced that by 25 his climbing career would be over. As if adult life would immediately render us old and frail, Cinderella turning into a pumpkin on the stroke of midnight. Roger is now past fifty, thoroughly adult with a demanding career as an anaesthesiologist, a happy marriage, teenage boys – and he still redpoints 8a.

Myself, leading Fallen Angel at Dome in South Africa, back when I was young and pink & green tights were all the rage.

Myself, leading Fallen Angel at Dome in South Africa, back when I was young and pink & green tights were all the rage.

It turns out that those now years last much, much longer than we thought. It’s okay not to be a blazing natural talent, you can build ability and confidence over time. Some years ago I climbed with a man who had recently retired after a career as a teacher and later an outdoor instructor. He started in the 1950s with a hawserlaid rope around his waist and Joe Brown as his hero. On bolted French rock 50 years later he managed his hardest lead ever – a treacherous 6b+ granite slab. Incidentally, one of the pleasures of climbing is the way it crosses generations. I have adventure partners ranging in age from teens to 60s, and we meet as equals in our shared enthusiasm for the sport.

I climbed Everest at 27 – quite young in those days for an 8000er, although now it’s commonplace. Sixteen years later I was a member of the team attempting the first ascent of Nanga Parbat via the Mazeno ridge. Climbing alpine style, we made our first summit bid after 11 days on the move. We failed and four of us, myself included, contemplated the lack of food, the two-day descent down a route we’d never seen and our utter exhaustion, and decided to get off the mountain while we could. An avalanche and a broken ankle later, we were safely down. Sandy Allan and Rick Allen went on to summit on day 14 and then, without food or water, took four more days to descend. They won a Piolet d’Or for the ascent. Their ages? Fifty-seven and fifty-eight.

Sandy Allan (l) and Rick Allen at the Diamir Face basecamp, after their epic 18 day ascent of Nanga Parbat by the Mazeno ridge.

Sandy Allan (l) and Rick Allen at the Diamir Face basecamp, after their epic 18 day ascent of Nanga Parbat by the Mazeno ridge. Not bad for two old men!

There are many happy years of adventure ahead of all of us, and there is a lot to be said for pacing yourself. Some of the pushiest young men of my generation are no longer with us, having died falling or abseiling in remote corners of the world. Others carry permanent injuries from over-training. It certainly becomes more difficult to stay thin and fit as I age, and my back no longer likes carrying really heavy loads. But then again I have more experience now and much more confidence. Also more money – which helps to make equipment and travel affordable!

I look at my hands and my face and see wrinkles that I wish weren’t there. I try and touch my toes in my Pilates class and wonder where my youthful flexibility went. But when I look in the mirror I essentially see a body that gets stuff done! Legs that carry me up mountainsides, arms that pull me up rock faces. There is a lot in the media these days about body image issues for the young and climbing is a great way to build confidence in your body as most than just an object to be judged on appearance.

At university, we used to get climbing videos from overseas on VHS tape. I only ever saw two involving girls. In one Catherine Destivelle and another woman did some superb alpine climbing – but the close of the video still required them to jump under a waterfall for no good reason so the film could end with no-bra wet t-shirt images.

There are now far more women climbing at the highest level, and those role models are important. Women broke through in sport climbing first, but now I see more and more female partnerships doing rad alpine routes in remote locations. I remember heading out to do a multi-pitch rock route with a girl friend in the remote Drakensberg (where frankly the tufts of grass are more reliable than the rock) and us being interrogated by older men in the hut as to whether we were capable.

Cathy on that Berg climb - the Angus Leppan route on the Sentinel.

Myself on that Drakensberg climb – the Angus Leppan route on the Sentinel. The grumpy men are in the hut far below in the mist.

As a woman, I feel free in my adult life in a way that I suspect my mother never was. Free to earn my own money, live where I want, choose not to have children, wear at 47 much the same clothes I wore at 27 (although perhaps not the hotpants from when I was 17). Free to continue to make climbing a central part of my existence and to expect that it will stay that way as long as health allows. The burgeoning opportunities to stay fit and active well into old age are a blessing for our quality of life.

I enjoy social media. I like being able to stay in touch with climbers and skiers I meet on my travels and I curate my feeds so they are a river of adventure – people I know sharing photos and plans and passions. It’s a great motivator. Nevertheless, I wonder how I’d feel as a young woman trying to get started now. Would I worry about sharing my opinions for fear of being trolled? Would I wonder whether I was attractive enough to post photos?

There have been obvious changes to the sport over the years. It’s much less of a fringe activity. Standards are higher, training is better and much more accessible. It is easier to get started and to learn techniques. There are indoor walls in most urban centres, commercial courses, coaching clinics and organised weeks away, and a wealth of information free on the internet. It’s easier to find partners by browsing through internet forums or joining social media groups, and much easier to find information about crags.

I first encountered rock-climbing (along with hiking and camping) at a summer camp in the Drakensberg, when I was 14. I loved it but there was no way to continue for a teenage girl with parents who didn’t do such things. I was lucky to attend a university with a strong climbing club and a system to train us in the art of trad leading. But in the years post-university and pre the explosion of the internet, finding climbing partners was hard.

When I moved to Andorra in 2000, I was vaguely aware I now lived in an important climbing centre but I couldn’t find the local areas. There was no Rockfax guide to the Ariege. Each little French village had a slim paper guide to their local crag sold at the tourist office. I found them by driving village to village and stopping in each one to ask with my five words of French.

Catalonia was even worse. In a dark corner in a bar in a village (no way of knowing which bar in which village) would be a A4 file containing tatty paper topos. If they didn’t have a photocopier, you copied them by hand. No camera phones back then. Spanish topos also tended to be ‘artistic’ which meant the drawing would somehow involve a semi-nude woman but bear no resemblance to the crag in question. So unless you already knew the cliff, you had no idea what they were going on about. The recent explosion of photo-driven guide-books is a huge improvement.

I do think there are drawbacks to our new world of indoor walls and commercial training courses. I’ve met novice climbers who, having started inside, declare they are ‘not yet ready’ to venture out. As if ‘outside’ is some wild dangerous upgrade to the climbing experience. My first route, done on the beginners meet of my university club, was multi-pitch trad in a beautiful gorge called Tonquani. The exposure was considerable!

Taking up a friend up the same route I had done as my first ever climb - Hawkseye in Tonquani.

Taking up a friend up the same route I had done as my first ever climb – Hawkseye in Tonquani.

Taking up a friend up the same route I had done as my first ever climb – Hawkseye in Tonquani. [/caption]Safety training is undoubtedly more rigorous than it used to be. Our informal apprenticeship system meant you learned only what your partner knew, and absorbed their bad habits alongside their skills. Some attitudes to safety are a product of age. As an eighteen-year-old I didn’t want to learn safety procedures from the 1950s! I wanted the very latest information. All these years later I don’t see why techniques I learned way back then, and have used safely for three decades, aren’t good enough to go on with.

Probably the most obvious difference we saw in our multi-pitch road trip through Idaho and Wyoming this summer was how everyone now wears helmets, ourselves included – it helps that they are a lot more comfortable these days. However, I noticed a certain rigidity around modern safety techniques. Abseiling off the Grand Teton, we shared a rope with a young American couple, young enough that they weren’t yet born when we started climbing.

He was horrified that we were abbing straight off our harness loops, rather than using an extender and a backup. We shrugged and were down the hill in a fraction of the time it took them. Newer climbers can believe there is just one way something can be done, rather than thinking about why they do it and understanding what risks it’s designed to minimise.

Many younger climbers seem to see safety as all about procedures. Slow and careful is the only way to go. We lay beside our tent at the Cirque of the Towers, and watched teams still crawling up the Northeast face of Pingora as the rain clouds drew in, on a route we’d finished hours earlier. Climbers new to the sport are losing sight of how speed is a safety tool as well.

Looking across Lonesome Lake at Pingora - the Northeast face is the righthand skyline.

Looking across Lonesome Lake at Pingora – the Northeast face is the righthand skyline.

But in the end, the joy of the sport is that we can each find our own path within it. With the passing of time I’ve stepped back from some of the more competitive aspects of climbing. When I started we had to yo-yo. Does anyone even remember that any more? Leading on trad, if you fell, you had to lower off and restart from the ground. The route was done once you got all the way through to the top. No hanging, no working moves. After thirty years of evolving style and ethics wars, I’ve reached the happy place of not giving a damn.

For me, one of the great pleasures of climbing is how deeply personal it is. It’s a puzzle to be solved. There is you, with your current level of mental and physical abilities. There is the wall, with features sprinkled across it in a variety of shapes and sizes. There is your partner, offering both security and encouragement. You try and combine all these elements in creative ways to make progress upwards. Each moment and each movement is different. But the joy that underlies them hasn’t changed in thirty years and I expect it to last another thirty.

First published on HoldBreaker.com 02/11/2016

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