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Friday, 7 November 2014

Learning to climb at High Sports Brighton

I remember it like it was yesterday. My podgy backside seeping graciously out of my harness; sweaty palms and trembling fingers unable to keep hold; my heart trying its hardest to smash its way through my chest, as the (maybe imagined) sniggers of the crowd below got louder.

I'm 10 years old and I'm half way up the climbing wall at the PGL activity school trip. I want my Dad.

I never made it to the top - I gave up. I'm not sure if that's what started my fear of heights, but it's the earliest memory I have of any real experience up high, so I guess it must be.

Punching fear in the face


Fear is a strange and wonderful thing. Since finally ditching the fags and looking after my fitness over the last few years I've learnt to embrace it and challenge myself, trying to face up to my fears and do more of what scares me.

High Sports Climbing Beginner's Course at Withdean Sports Complex, Brighton

I started with water: learning to swim, flirting with kayaking and having a go at white water rafting to get more confident in deep water (which is still a work in progress, I just need to find time to fit swimming back into my schedule).

I spent eight weeks getting punched in the face before stepping into the boxing ring for the most amazing (and utterly terrifying) experience of my life.

And earlier this year with Spogo I had a little go at climbing again for the first time since that fateful day I nearly wet my Age 9-10 Tammy Girl pants.  But it was only a taster session and not long enough to understand what we were doing to practice the basic principles.

Beginner climbing course 

So when I saw that High Sports were doing beginner climbing courses at Withdean Sports Complex in Brighton, I had to go and give it a proper go.

High Sports Climbing Beginner's Course at Withdean Sports Complex, Brighton


The three week course covers essential safety stuff like how to put a harness on properly (actually quite confusing for me the first time round!), tie safe knots, how to belay each other; how to attach ourselves to weighted bags and ground anchors; and we were also warned about the wonders of degloving (I'll spare you the YouTube videos!). Suffice to say, my wedding and engagement rings came swiftly off as soon as that was mentioned!

Each two hour lesson is led by one of their fully trained (and very patient) instructors - we had Jamie for the first week and Ian for the last two. Both were very friendly, helpful and thorough in explaining things, and didn't get annoyed at me getting my phone out every five minutes to take photos or screaming like a big girl half way up the wall when I didn't know what to do.



When I got scared they reassured me by getting me to (reluctantly) take my hands off the wall and lean back with my arms in the air - so I knew I was completely safe and not going anywhere. It's really liberating, to just let go and trust in what you're doing, especially when you're shitting yourself.

---Week One--- 
Learning the ropes 

The first session was mostly theory based, which I actually loved. We spent about an hour and a half learning the ropes (literally) and discussing safety before actually getting onto the wall. As a terrified beginner I found this really helpful.

If I understand what's happening and why I'm totally safe up there (as long as my partner on the ground knows what they're doing, of course), it's a lot easier to let go of the fear and invest a bit of trust.

High Sports Climbing Beginner's Course at Withdean Sports Complex, Brighton


Talking of trust, that's one of the biggest things that came out of the course for me - the complete trust that you have to put in each other when climbing together is amazing. You both have to work together and communicate well to make it work.

We learnt how to tie a figure of eight knot and how to tie ourselves safely onto the wall, as well as how to set up and belay correctly. We each had a go at a climb on one of the easier walls and before we knew it the session was over.

High Sports Climbing Beginner's Course at Withdean Sports Complex, Brighton
Jennie and John having a go at their first climb


High Sports Climbing Beginner's Course at Withdean Sports Complex, Brighton
Having a go at belaying for the first time - FOCUS!! 

High Sports Climbing Beginner's Course at Withdean Sports Complex, Brighton
Made it to the top of the small wall!
I got to the top without much protest - the holds were nice and big and there were plenty of options, so although I was scared it wasn't too bad. Everyone else got to the top no problem, with one of the guys (Drew) practically walking up in two steps he was so tall!


---Week Two---
Trust & fall!

The second session was as awesome as it was terrifying and included much more practical on-the-job learning to put into practice what we'd learnt the week before. Tonight's order of service: ground anchoring, auto belaying, climbing and FALLING.

That's right, kids, bloody falling. I wasn't too happy about this as you can imagine, but as we spent so long learning how everything worked and going through the safety I felt like I might be able to give it a go. Falling, that is, not climbing while using the auto belay.

After so long focusing on trusting our partners to hold the ropes properly and keep us safe we suddenly had to trust a random retracting rope belay system that stretched the length of one of the highest walls in our bay from the ceiling to the floor.

Despite it of course being absolutely fine, I wasn't convinced...



I eventually stopped moaning and got up there to have a go - making some interesting noises along the way. It really doesn't look that high in this video, and it wasn't, only about 15 feet up - but high enough for me to worry about falling with the auto belay...



Needless to say I survived to tell the tale, and also survived falling off the other walls whilst being belayed by one of the others, before having a go at catching falls from the ground using the ground anchors.

High Sports Climbing Beginner's Course at Withdean Sports Complex, Brighton

We learnt how to tie into the weighted bags and ground anchors to give us extra stability and weight on the ground. This was really reassuring for me as I was belaying Florian and John who were taller (not hard, I know) and heavier than me.

For someone as small as me, having a few kilos of extra weight behind me was great as without it I'd have ended up getting pulled up in the air as soon as one of the guys fell from the wall.

After two hours of practicing all of this I left the climbing centre excited at what we'd achieved.


---Week Three---
Demons conquered

The third and last session was my absolute favourite. We were mostly left to our own devices to practice everything we'd learnt throughout the past couple of weeks. It was also the first time we tried proper climbing shoes and had a go on the bouldering wall.

First thing's first. Those shoes! I've never worn anything so tight in all my life! I'm a size 4 normally, 5 in running shoes, but just take a look at the size 4 climbing shoes - not even Frodo Baggins could fit into these! Had to go for a 6 in the end and they were still mega tight. Guess that's the point though...

High Sports Climbing Beginner's Course at Withdean Sports Complex, Brighton

Secondly - HOW HARD IS BOULDERING?! The strength you have to have to navigate those routes is immense. 

High Sports Climbing Beginner's Course at Withdean Sports Complex, Brighton

After we'd finished having a go on the bouldering wall we moved back over to Bay One to tackle some harder and higher routes than previous weeks.

We set our sites on the right side wall as it had a few (whavever the opposite of inversions is called) and looked a bit more challenging. It was also a lot higher than the first wall we'd climbed in week One.

I set off cautiously, trying to put into practice everything I'd learnt, looked around to plan my route, and tried to use my legs more rather than reaching with my arms and pulling myself up. Climbing in proper shoes is MUCH easier than trainers isn't it?


High Sports Climbing Beginner's Course at Withdean Sports Complex, Brighton

I followed the blue route on this wall, which was one of the easier ones, but still challenging enough for me. The panic that gripped me half way up the first wall didn't really come until I was nearly at the top - I was able to be a bit more composed and think about what I needed to do. When I did get scared, Ian got me to take my hands off the wall and lean back (it took a while) to show I was completely safe.

Once I'd finished having this meltdown I got back on the wall and made it to the top - TWICE! 

High Sports Climbing Beginner's Course at Withdean Sports Complex, Brighton

It did this to my face when I got back down to the bottom: 

High Sports Climbing Beginner's Course at Withdean Sports Complex, Brighton

I'm not 'cured' of my fear of heights - this course has given me the basic skills and confidence to be able to deal with it enough to learn to climb and focus on the task in hand instead of getting into a sweaty panic like I did as a child on the PGL wall. 

The instructors are fantastic, really supportive and patient, and take the time to explain things thoroughly (several times) to people like me who need instructions repeating and constant reassurance that I'm doing it right. 

The facilities great, there are several different routes of varying difficulty, a training wall and large bouldering area. Me and the others on the course are now qualified to turn up to the wall without assistance and get on and climb - as long as we can demonstrate to the team that we can safely tie ourselves in and belay correctly. If you pass the safety test (which is basically just showing them this the next time you go, not an actual exam or anything), you're free to get on and climb! 

YAY to us! 

High Sports Climbing Beginner's Course at Withdean Sports Complex, Brighton
Jennie, John, Drew and me with our certificates.
I'll continue to climb once or twice a month to keep my hand in and not lose my skills. I'm gonna join the Rockstart Club this Monday, to climb with a group and have an instructor present to help if needed. It's a great follow on from the beginner's course as it means there's someone to support and direct if necessary. Plus, apparently there's sometimes cake! And we all know how I feel about cake... 

Rockstart Club
  • Every Monday evening 7.30pm - 9.30pm
  • Individual membership: £12.50 annually - free if attended up to 2 weeks after completion of the beginner's course. 
  • Membership allows you to enjoy cheaper entry fees as well as a cheap monthly/quarterly/yearly pre-pay option. 
  • A day entry is £13.50 for non-members whereas a member pays £8.95 peak and £8.10 off-peak. 

High Sports run regular beginner's courses and also Learn to Lead courses throughout the year. Whether you're scared of heights and fancy facing your demons or just want to learn to climb, I can totally recommend this place, it's ace.

Have you ever climbed, or are you a seasoned climber/boulderer? 
What fears have you faced to achieve something? 


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