Middle-age, it seems, is full of surprises. Of twists and turns that befuddle attempts at prediction and sense-making. These thoughts run through my head as I fiddle with my harness at the base of the ‘Excalibur’ climbing tower in Groningen, Holland. I glance at my companions. My climbing partner, D, is, carefully, checking the 80-metre rope we have borrowed from the friendly, laid-back staff. He’s not looking very laid-back though. My teenage son has his harness on, in seconds, and is taking in his surroundings seemingly unaffected by the rising ‘why did we agree to this madness’ sensation that I am failing to ignore. Further away, a non-climbing friend readies a camera and offers vaguely encouraging gestures.
The journey to this tower began years before. In my 30s, my path seemed marked out. Work. Marriage. Two young kids. Pretty amazing. Happy. I hadn’t exercised since my teenage pushbike was stolen in the 1980s. Good living was incrementally swelling my bulk, but I barely noticed. Until I did. A predictable late 30s male turn of events – albeit somewhat startling to me. Whether it was merely shock at failed-to-avoid-mirror reflections, or an existential foreshadowing of mortality, I started my mid-life crisis slightly ahead of schedule, and traded the pleasures of sloth, booze, cake and cigarettes with the pleasures of exercise-generated endorphins, and even more cake. I even ran (if that’s the right word) a marathon in the year I turned 40. Fairly predictable in terms of demographics and mass behaviour, but, as I say, exceptionally startling to me. It was a change of direction, but one where I felt I could accurately envisage the road ahead. As usual, I was wrong.
By now, I can detect a slight quiver in my hands. The route we have chosen up the 37m tower is the easiest grade they have, and we are on the nicely reclining side. The climb is fairly small in terms of what people achieve in everyday, multi-pitch excursions in the hills. Nonetheless, the starkness of the contrast between the flatness around Groningen, the flatness we saw as the train from Amsterdam sped us here last night, and the looming tower, is remarkable. Having checked my harness seventeen times, I concentrate on tying on to the rope, and affecting a chirpy nonchalance. I decide I need to think some better thoughts. People have sponsored us – so bottling out is not an option. It is an organised climbing centre. With opening hours and a café. With cake. As I ask D to check my knot, and as I check his belaying arrangements, I can feel a settling. Not an absence of fear, but a more balanced form of it; balanced by faith in our training, and in the modesty of our ambitions here today.
When you are new to parenting, it all seems about the next day, the next decent night’s sleep, the plans for the coming weekend’s farm park trip. You know you’re in for supermarket tantrums, drinking overpriced, repulsive tea at soft-play centres, making packed lunches for school, having odd patches (either sick or yoghurt, who knows?) on your smartest clothes, and never not being slightly tired. With two kids, this part of life seemed to go on and on. Not in a bad way. Far from it. But nonetheless, the rounds of city-farms, children’s menus with broken colouring-in pencils, booster seats and school-gate small talk was firmly established as the new normal. Then it isn’t the case. In line with my tendency to have no clue what is about to happen in life, children start to get older and you start to find unexpected (if like, me you weren’t thinking ahead) fragments of free time. As this began to emerge in my own experience, it was paralleled by other unforeseen occurrences.
Like millions of idiot parents before me, I had imagined that my children would engage in the hobbies or interests that I had, or tried to cultivate in them. I learnt a lesson there. Both my daughter, and then her younger brother, J, seemed oddly obstinate about choosing their own path in life. For my son, this meant a total disinterest in competitive sports (and competition generally), and a rejection of my youth time preoccupation – cycling. Like solidly anxious parents, we cast about for something non-video-game based that he might actually like, and failed for a long time. Then we found climbing. Our local climbing wall has an atmosphere most climbers will recognise: jokey, but (other than a few topless supermen) non-competitive, and hugely supportive. The kids’ club had an ethos that seemed to suit his character. He was soon going twice a week, and I was drinking a lot of tea in their café. Given my mid-life adoption of endorphin-based recreation, it was only matter of time before I had taken their introductory course, and was scraping up F6a routes, staring at comparative harness reviews in magazines, and taking tentative steps towards sport climbing outdoors.
My harness is on properly. My knot is safe. Cameras are pointed at me. Time to stop thinking and start doing. The first clip is near to the ground, and I can clip the rope into it while barely stepping off the lovely, safe, woodchip-covered ground. The familiar action of pushing the rope into a karabiner steadies me further, as I grin and reach. The first few moves are easy. Actually, all the moves are easy. It is an easy route from a technical stance. No problems.
This lasts about three further moves. Then I begin to notice what should have been obvious from the ground. The friendly line of red holds, so many that it is almost embarrassing when I look back at the photos, is actually quite near the left-hand edge of the tower. When you look left, you see air, and your stomach does some kind of flip thing. So, I think, don’t look left. Don’t. Look. Left.
Looking mostly to my left, I decide momentum is the key here. Clip, breathe, move, look left, panic a bit, charge like a crazy person to next clip and pull the slack up. Repeat. The climb has a section in the centre where the tower sort of leans back (when climbed from this friendly side). This seems easy. It is all going fine. I’ll be at the top before you can say “middle-aged man in moderately impressive, but ultimately pointless, achievement”.
But the flatter section, of course, then kicks up for the final third. The looking left is really getting on my nerves now, as I feel my back move to an undeniably vertical alignment. The notion that I won’t actually finish the climb, the one I have been harassing colleagues to sponsor me for, that everyone is aware of via endless social media, hasn’t occurred to me till this point. Time to stop thinking again, and breathe.
If previous changes in my life’s direction had felt like changing tracks on a train journey, life a set of points taking me to a slightly unforeseen destination, through similar, but largely predictable terrain, what happened to me in later June 2012 felt like a derailment. One evening I was bouldering outdoors with my friend. By the next, I was in the Stroke ward of my local hospital. I had experienced a stroke on waking, and lost control of the right side of my body. That evening, I couldn’t walk, my arm refused to obey my brain, and my speech was slurred. I won’t drag it out, but I was lucky.
I began to hobble by the next day, pacing the ward corridor, generally getting in the way, and over the following months my control over my arm and leg improved. My speech went from what one friend called a ‘two-cocktail slur’ to a slight impediment only a few now notice. In the September I had a heart procedure to reduce the risk of further strokes. I had rehab. Lots of rehab. The NHS gave me occupational therapy, speech therapy and physiotherapy. I moved pegs in little boards (badly), I balanced on Swiss balls, and I stood on one leg a lot. I read tongue twisters from cards.
In between rehab, I looked at the internet. A lot. I don’t remember which online rabbit hole I’d fallen down, but I found myself looking something like ‘ten buildings you won’t believe are real’, or some such click-bait title, and there it was. A curving tower, a short-hop to Holland away, that seemed both doable (familiar fake climbing holds, quickdraws all in place, a café and nearby city), but also dramatic and something I would need to train for. So, after my September operation, I was allowed to resume exercise in early 2013.
I still had symptoms, and my right hand is still pretty unreliable when carrying a full mug of tea, but repetition seemed to be what the rehab therapists recommended. Bouldering helped a lot. I would stand two big holds, and just see how many holds I could use. I fell off a lot, but to be honest, I fell off a lot before my stroke too. I talked to my climbing partner D, who I’d climbed with since that first ‘intro’ course.
He was up for it, as was my now-teenage son. So we decided to raise money for the Rehab centre that I’d been so helped by. The rest is what you’d expect. An online sponsorship service, Facebook posts, plane tickets, emails to the climbing centre in Holland (http://www.bjoeks.nl/), trying to do more and more routes at the local wall, trying to lose some of the cake-weight I’d gained while not exercising. In a flash, it was October 2013, and we found ourselves at the base of the Excalibur tower, digesting a hotel breakfast, and hiding nerves under excessive photography and feigned ease.
A few more breaths and only a handful of minutes after clipping into that first quickdraw, I am clipping into the descending point at the top of the climb. I had planned to hoik myself up onto the top of the tower (apparently they will let you bivvy on top for the night if you ask), and take a good look round. That is not going to happen. I fumble my old, not-a-disaster-if-destroyed digital camera from my harness and manage to fake-smile for a selfie; though looking at the picture now – I’m fooling no one.
I am flooded with adrenaline, even though I am safe. Harness, rope, bomb-proof industrially-tested anchors; safer than crossing the road. But the adrenaline is something else. It’s the whole business. In my mind, in my intentions, this climb is a full-stop to the episode of ill-health in my life. But we are not safe. By the time I had my stroke, I lived a ridiculously healthy life. Running, cycling and a healthy diet (cake excepted) – but it still happened. I lowered down and belayed (with great care, my wife having made very clear threats about what might happen if I allowed my son to be hurt) J and D, while they fled up and down the tower with (what seemed from the outside) ease and rapidity.
The climb was memorable because it was a trip, a spectacle, a dramatic event, but I was wrong to think of it as a something I could use to close off, to bracket out, the fear and loss of control that my illness had brought me. As we sat on trains and planes back to the UK, and the adrenaline faded, I was struck that safety is only ever relative. The unpredictability of life is neither intrinsically good nor bad, but the inevitability of change, of the mutability of what we take as stable is something we’d be wise to acknowledge, before it leaves us dizzy with vertigo, while stood on solid ground. I’ve heard it said that old age is no place for wimps, but it seems middle-age can also be pretty hazardous terrain.
A short climbing story by David Webster, "Getting high in the low countries"
Name: David Webster
Location: Cheltenham, UK