The romance and the reality of life on the road
I wrote this a few years a go for the Climber’s Club Journal
I became a full time climber just over a year ago. In that year I have travelled by car to Spain and back twice, to France and back once, by plane to Newfoundland for a month, to America for 2 months, to Morocco for 3 weeks, along with a lot of detouring in between; Switzerland, Italy, Belgium, Mexico for 5 days, Frankfurt for a day, the Lake District for too long, and now I’m back off to North America. Can I illustrate the reality and romance of life on the road? Perhaps a few stories will be enough to illustrate the ‘reality’. But what of romance?
Life on the road isn’t a love of convenience it’s a love of necessity. Perpetual road-life is obligatory for any full time climber, especially if you enjoy variation; I can’t climb all the different things I want to climb from my Mum’s living room. So yes, I love the road as a means to an end – the end being climbing. But unlike many loves of convenience, there is certainly a large helping of romance. The road is a magical place because really the road is any place you want it to be; today the road is France and tomorrow, if I feel like it, it can be Spain. In this sense you can never be freer than when you are on the road. Romance is not romantic without an element of spontaneity and the road is not lacking in this department either, since you’ll never know what might pop around the next bend. A life on the road is an adventurous one, it’s a rich one and it’s one full of wonder. In the words of Bilbo Baggins ‘you set out the door and if you don’t keep your feet, there is no knowing where you might be swept off to’.
Since Bilbo’s time, they’ve invented cars and they travel a lot quicker than feet, so I bought one. The only one I could afford on the day I wanted to buy one was a white Citroen Saxo ‘Desire’. She seemed to be in good shape and didn’t have too many miles on the clock. I’d passed my test a year before and hadn’t driven since, but it was February and I wanted to go sport climbing in France and Spain and more importantly, I wanted to leave in exactly three days. In those three days of ‘preparation’, every time I got in the car it felt comparable to trying to onsight E8 in terms of fear, adrenaline levels and not just perceived but actual risk. After witnessing my attempt at parking, my friends tried to persuade me out of going; ‘spend more time in Bristol, get some more driving lessons’. But I couldn’t. I mean I could have – it’s not like I had to be in France at a certain time -I simply felt the magnetic pull of the road and I couldn’t stay in Bristol a minute longer. The night before I set off for Dover I had dreams of dying in a horrible car accident.
In Chamonix, seven months later I watched a gleeful French scrappy pluck ‘The Desire’ casually into the air and lift her onto his truck. Both the car and I had travelled a lot in those months, each of us sustaining our fair share of bruises, but luckily for me it was she, not I who ended up dying in a nasty car accident. It was a classic fan breaking, overheating, head gasket blowing incident which ended with my friend and I stood by the side of the road in Switzerland, whilst the car spewed smoke and a German road biker exclaimed ‘Scheibe’, ‘sehr heibe’ over and over.
But the car had done the job, if only for seven months. In the winter of 2012 I had spent a few months in Europe sport climbing with friends from Sheffield and then later my friend Alex. The Desire did me proud when she managed to get three of my friends plus their baggage plus my stuff and me from Barcelona airport to Terredets, even though I had failed her by driving around in circles, horribly lost on the way to collect them. When money got thin, I actually lived in her, putting a bouldering mat over the folded down seats, she was actually pretty comfortable, although I’m sure my 5”2 frame helped out somewhat. That trip was a ‘I should get fit and climb 8b+’ trip’, but each one I tried was too hard or I didn’t like it. One day I travelled to an obscure venue near Tresponts in order to try one potential 8b+. Half way up this monstrosity of a route, battling with invisible holds, gross rock and dusty foot holds I realised that I wasn’t actually having that much fun. So instead I chose to redpoint an ‘easy’ route, a mere 8a+, but a really good one at Oliana. I knew the lesson, I’d preached it many times before; ‘it’s not about the grade’, ‘you won’t have fun if you only climb for a grade’, ‘you won’t climb anything hard unless you enjoy the process’. Yet here I was, hanging on the grossest route in all of Spain, in a dusty little cave, because I wanted to climb 8b+. Just like all those girls in those cheesy films that spend all their time in bars searching for love, I was searching for something that really you can’t look for, but instead comes to you.
On my return home, boasting well-honed forearms I was eager to put holes in my long UK trad ‘to-do’ list. The Desire proudly took me up and down the country in search of dry rock. In May I found it on Pavey Ark, The Lake District and too psyched, I ended up impacting off the aptly named route ‘Impact Day’. I had wanted to be on those finishing holds sooner than they wanted me to. On my 8th day on, skin as thin as tissue paper, cold muscles and fading light I had said ‘yes’ when everything else, including my gut was saying ‘no’. With a little more patience, with a little more respect for the process I may have seen myself hanging the final holds, but instead, in an extremely bruised state The Desire took me back to Bristol to lick my wounds. A month later when I finally accepted that Pavey Ark was quickly becoming Noah’s Ark in Britain’s wettest summer since records began, my friend Maddy and I packed her up and set off for Chamonix.
Maddy and I had a great summer, climbing on the granite of the Mont Blanc massif, sport climbing at Ceuse and single pitch crack climbing in Italy. I felt like I had really experienced and enjoyed the different aspects of climbing. In Ceuse I had really grown to love the two-finger pockets, and I mean it, even thinking about them now makes me feel happy. I had found an 8b that was hard, but that suited me, covered in the most lovely of two finger pockets. But I had also tasted a little adventure. My friend Jack and myself had established a new line on the little but aesthetically pleasing Aguille de Saussure. In a week I had gone from worrying about whether my shoes had passed that critical stage of being stiff enough for the almost invisible foot holds on the crux of a 25m 8b, to bivying in the snow before climbing a new multi-pitch rock and mixed route in the Alps. You could almost say they are different sports, but I really like both of them and I really wanted to succeed in both these endeavours. But I try to remind myself all the time, not to get too attached to climbing, or at least not to the ‘ends’ in climbing, to the achievements to the ‘ticks’, to the hard ‘sends’. A hard sport climber and good friend of mine once told me that every time he clips the chains of a sport climb, even after weeks of battling with self-doubt, the first thing he thinks is ‘I can climb harder’, and so it begins again with the next project. And I know what he means, I don’t know anyone who, after putting a lot of energy into a hard route, finds contentment and doesn’t want more, doesn’t want to keep trying to climb harder. And it’s not just about climbing hard, it might be having an adventure, you have one epic and if that’s your thing, you want another one. You have one teeth-chattering adventure in the mountains, one hard push and you think ‘never again’, but of course there is always an ‘again’. In this sense it never ends and in this sense climbing, like most pursuits in life is a road to nowhere.
As summer was slowly ending and my time in Europe coming to a close, my attention turned to The Desire’s rapidly deteriorating health. The exhaust was the most immediately obvious thing. On one occasion it completely detached and fell to the ground. I remember pulling in to a bivvy spot in Chamonix, tunes blaring to cover up the noise, I looked at Maddy and burst out laughing. Yes the car had to be hot-wired to start, yes the exhaust was hanging on the ground and yes the boot failed to close and yes we were annoyed to be driving around in such a wreckage of a car, but we both realised that firstly; neither of us had enough money to do anything about it, and secondly; if this was our biggest worry in life, then really we were doing well for ourselves. It was one of those moments where I was completely aware of the fact that I am not really a real person of this world. A real person of this world has to get up every day and go to an office, they have to hang their shirts on those little hooks in their cars, they have real problems like feeding their kids, or not getting made redundant or a family member diagnosed with cancer. Sometimes I feel like I want to roll the clock on, to a time where maybe I actually have a little money and a little bit more of a real life, with a car that works and a place with a bed that I could call my own. But in moments like this, I have an inkling that someday I will look back on these years of my life and I will say ‘those were the days’ and I will wish with all my heart to be where I am now. So really if I do end up being a ‘real person’ I owe it to a later self to make the most of what I have now. For me, that means embracing the road, both literally (well not quite literally) and metaphorically. It means embracing a life of living on the road out of a suitcase, and I think it also means embracing the ‘now’. Living for the moment is an often-heard and often preached life philosophy, but nothing illustrates it quite as directly as: ‘if you have one foot in tomorrow and the other in yesterday, you shit on today.