I bounce on the balls of my cold feet and wave my arms limply above my head, trying to stop the lactic acid from getting a grip on them. It’s dark outside; cold; absolutely rodding it down with rain, which is blowing in sheets out of the West.
You see, it’s mid-winter and at these high latitudes that fact severely hampers even the most valiant attempts at surfing regularly. It’s 7pm and it’s been dark for about 3 hours already, and this morning I left to go to work in the dark too. The sun sees the day whilst I’m daydreaming about waves at work, then I emerge into the evening again. I get in when I can; on weekends mostly, but even that depends to a large extent on if there’s swell, how strong the winds are, and what the tides are doing. Some spots see the best time of tide when it’s too dark to surf, so not even pulling a mental health day at work can score me waves when there’s swell.
That’s why I come down to the wall.
A good friend of mine can’t indulge his pastime very easily in winter either: he’s a climber and you can’t climb very easily in the dark or the rain. We’re both hindered by the elements and the low track of the sun at this time of year. He took the initiative however, and built a bouldering wall at the back of his garage.
The wall is the full width and height of the double garage. It leans out at a twenty-degree angle, although my friend now wishes with hindsight that this were more like thirty or forty. I’m quite relieved that it’s twenty. Twenty’s plenty.
The wall has two routes set out on it, noted with scraps of masking tape or climber’s finger tape with numbers scrawled on in sharpie. The handholds are characterized by the odd dark smear of dried blood contrasting the white chalk. The footholds have semi-circular arcs of black rubber over their tops, deposited by countless scuffs from our climbing shoes. One route, the one that I battle with, has nice big, juggy, holds and the harder moves have “cop-out” holds alongside them. It weaves from the bottom left corner of the wall, across to the right hand side and back across to the start line. Side to side and up and down, with forty moves in total.
And the other route? Well that’s fifty moves, and the holds are almost all smooth little nubbins that slope off away from the wall, so small that there’s only really space for a couple of digits, be they fingers or toes. I can’t comprehend how my friend can hold himself on these, let alone move between them.
The wall is often hidden behind rows of drying wetsuits because the garage is used as the storeroom for the outdoor activity centre that some of our friends run. Pushing through the cold, damp, shapes puts me in mind of some sort of awful abattoir experience. Behind them though is the dim glow of a 40-watt light bulb in an upright office light stand (put there since the incessant flickering of the strip-light all became too much) and the grimy drive of dubstep throbbing out of an old stereo.
The wall taught me to warm-up properly. I’d taken it for granted before; a run down the beach and a few brief, token, stretches. Swaddled in hoodies and jackets with a thermal long-johns under my trousers, I soon learnt that climbers roll their trouser legs up to avoid catching their toes in them whilst transferring their feet between holds, not for any sort of misplaced sartorial statement. Soon enough though, after the first couple of laps of the wall the layers start to come off.
Bag of chalk, rub, clap: Like a weight lifter at the Olympics. I sit down on the blue gym mat at the bottom left corner of the wall, my toes on the small footholds just centimetres from the floor and my hands on the smooth chalk-caked hold with the numbers “1&2” stuck next to it.
Breathe, count down with the beat of the music, inhale, exhale, inhale again then simultaneously push legs and pull arms to get going. Less of an explosion out of the blocks and more of a considered commencement. I try really hard to move in time with the tempo of the music, to keep my movements slow and considered like those of my friends who have been climbing for as long as I’ve been surfing and who are valiantly trying to coach me through all of this. They tell me not to snatch at holds and remind me to exhale when my face turns red.
Climb to failure: I crab my way up and down and across the wall until I fall off, my forearms pumping, then rest for four minutes and try again. Four minutes takes an awfully long time when you’re clock-watching, in fact it’s a bit like being in detention in school. Four minutes of stretching and bouncing on the balls of my feet shaking my arms loosely above my head until I can have another crack. I repeat sections until I succeed and then again until muscle memory takes over. Holds one to ten, followed by holds eleven to twenty and then I try to link them all together, getting me from one side of the wall to the other. Then I do the same thing from twenty to forty, and have to learn to climb from right to left because so far I’ve only climbed the wall in one direction.
These days I manage to get from one all the way across and back to forty. A four minute rest and then another lap, and repeat until I fall. If I follow the regime of my friend then I’ll soon start to reduce my rest times from four minutes to three.
Spring rolls around, and the evening start to draw out. Soon enough we’re hanging off the wall with the garage doors open, blasting dubstep across the dirt road outside whilst the evening sunlight catches the dust drifting in the breeze. I no longer turn up to work in the mornings with red-raw fingertips; instead I now sport a row of tough yellow callouses across the pads of my fingers, often still caked in the residue of climbing chalk that’s bedded right in there. The garage is devoid of wetsuits because our friends seasonal business has started again in earnest for the summer. So why am I still on the wall?
Well, sometimes it’s flat. Sometimes I’ve surfed already and fancy a change. Often I just want a quick blast on the wall whilst dinner cooks. Heck, it still gets dark, even in summer, so sometimes I’ll head down late at night with a bottle of beer and turn the lights on.
But mostly it’s because it’s nice to learn new things and to rise to a challenge. I still get this from surfing, still have a long way to go in that respect, but it’s nice to be learning and improving out of the sea for a change. And moving. It’s good to keep moving.