I looked down at the great grey slab of gritstone below me, my leg quivering like a sewing machine. The scrubby moorland stretched out either side of me, speckled yellow and lilac with gorse and heather. Above me, a taut rope and around £200 worth of climbing gear, placed neatly, carefully, and confidently by my partner, who was at that moment crouched expectantly at the top of said slab. His orange helmet peeked over the brow of the rock with encouragement, but I’m afraid I was having none of it.
Fingers sunk deep into the roots of a gorse bush, toes glued to the sturdiest ledge visible, I found myself well and truly stuck.
There is a benefit to hanging from a rope halfway up a slab of rock in the heart of England’s Peak District. The height perspective widens the horizon into a long, rolling landscape. The Peak District fades seamlessly from organised farmland to jagged moor, punctuated with crags, bog and sheep. The weather rolls in dramatically in heavy grey clumps which bring, rain, sleet and snow in the same breath. Clusters of coniferous trees nestle in the valleys forming brushstrokes of every shade of green. Silhouettes of walkers stride over the hills, day packs bobbing into the distance. This wild and woody tuft of England has forever been the backdrop to my daydreams.
Unfortunately, my gaze was firmly fixed straight ahead of me, where the nimble roots of gorse had sunk their way deep into the rock. I began to concentrate more on the gritstone, less on my precarious position, and noticed the fraying edges of lichen splattered across the surface. Veins of lilac, yellow and blue ran through the gritstone in an illuminating tangle of colour. Behind me, I could hear the gentle jangling and jovial chatter of fellow climbers, setting off on their own adventure. Hot with humiliation for my incompetence, I gripped tighter to the gorse.
I strained to hear my partner Conor’s reassurance trickling over the top in broken words. Just near enough to feel reliant on his input, just far enough away for it to be absolutely no help at all.
‘Would you like to go down?’
I peeled my eyes away from the rock to the jagged earth below, and considered the gear above, which, as a second, it was my job to retrieve. The cam directly above the gorse bush was one we had purchased just months before. It had been Conor’s first trip to the Peaks, and we’d drifted up and down the high street in Hathersage – a granite village boasting a plethora of outdoor shops and squat, steaming pubs – eyes ablaze with the shiny equipment dripping lavishly from display walls like Christmas decorations.
Conor caressed the cam with a certain fatherly affection as the shop assistant demonstrated how the mechanism would scrunch up and slip into the tiniest, most intricate of cracks. We’d need it for the Peaks – fiddly rock, he’d said. We strode out of the shop, cam in hand, it felt like a homecoming.
‘Are you coming up then?’
The gorse bush, where my fingers were currently buried, jutted out from the slab with a brash confidence. It sprouted from the edge in a daring attempt at survival, and, from what I could see at the surface, was thriving. But the longer I held on, the more flaky soil was beginning to trickle down into my eyes and onto the rock. It was becoming increasingly obvious that I was gently extracting this bush from its perch, and with every passing minute it was becoming a less reliable stronghold.
I felt the rope tighten, and Conor count to three. I cannot claim to have exercised any skill in the maneuver, but I found myself clambering up and over the bush to the next dainty foothold, where I brutishly jammed my toe in. Balancing on a toe and a half, I stretched and clasped my hand around the cam. Squeezing the mechanism until I could slide it out, I surged with pride as I clipped the cam onto my belt. The comforting clang of collected gear rattled around me as I shifted my weight to reach for the next hold. All the while, the rope pulled the harness tight around my hips and waist.
Climbing has become an almost meditative experience for me. Once I sink beyond the lucid fear of being high above the ground, the permanence of the rock is so deeply striking. Concentrating as my little fleshy fingers, glowing pink from the cold, nestle into the bumps and cracks of the hard, ancient gritstone, I feel humble against the vastness of the earth. A great quiet hangs over the crag, punctuated by scuffles and scrapes of unseen wildlife bustling about their business. When climbing, I seem to stretch through time. Nothing is measurable, apart from the nearness of the sky.
With each quivering step up, I added another nut or cam to my belt. Finally, I could lay a palm flat on each side of my body and haul myself over the top only to flop onto the nearby gorse. Anchor dismantled and rope dutifully coiled, Conor tucked his arm around my waist and we shuffled towards the sheep track to begin our descent.
Reunited with our day packs at the bottom of the climb, I looked skyward at the slab of granite which I had just conquered. My muscles felt taut with effort, my sinews buzzing with adrenaline, and my confidence soaring.
The granite simply towered above us; permanent and unchanged.
Alex is a German teacher based in Leicester, England. Her happiest days are spent striding across a beautiful landscape, armed with books, boots and her border collie, Checo. She is just starting out on her writing journey, and takes inspiration mostly from her adventures in the outdoors and musings about history, languages and culture.