Wednesday, 6 March 2013

Challenge 8: New Heights

Thrilled to discover a newly installed climbing wall in Swavesey, a couple of villages away from me, with an adult beginners climbing course starting imminently.  Serendipitous indeed; I signed up instantly with the joy of discovering the perfect activity for my 8th challenge.

Bottling up my anxiety and refusing to think about whether I might be afraid of heights, I arrived bright and early for the course. The side effects of my medication mean that anxiety can be an enormous issue. If I'm nervous about something, this doesn't have to be blind terror even if that is what it looks like to the casual onlooker, then the cyclosporin shakes kick in. Love those meds; keeping me alive and killing me all at the same time. Proper full on anxiety makes it really hard to control the tremor and my breathing, so inside I was worried about shaking, hyperventilating and making a general tit of myself in public, with nobody there that knew me.  

The lesson started with learning about some of the equipment climbers use. First up were the fancy expensive climbing shoes which apparently you don't need as plimsolls do the same job for less, you just don't look as cool. This appealed enormously to my super scrimper mentality; cool has never been my strong point. 

We looked at the difference between carabiners and screw-gate carabiners; essentially the screw-gate carabiner locks and is used to attach the climber via a loop on their harness called the belay loop, to the rope; the carabiner doesn't lock and is used for carrying equipment. There was a third type of locking carabiner which was used by the belayer (the person on the ground) to fasten themselves via their harness to the other end of the climber's rope.   We admired the pictures on the grigri, which is used to help the belayer manage the rope for the climber, making sure it isn't too taut, so they aren't pulled up the rock face, or too slack so if they slip, the rope stops them falling.

Each of us had the opportunity to display our untutored climbing technique by traversing the bouldering wall.  The coloured grips illustrated different routes your could choose,  red being the easiest, blue the next level up and so on.  My concern was with staying on the wall, so I navigated my route using whatever coloured grip was best placed to support this. Unfortunately I was slightly higher up than anticipated when I jumped off near the end, scraping my hands on the sandpaper texture of the grips.  Scuffed and painful hands this early on wasn't a good sign; it may have been this point that the tremor in my hands set in.   I certainly felt shaky for my second attempt at traversing the bouldering wall, after our top tips on how to do it properly from Simon, the teacher. Before my second attempt at the wall, Simon gave me some finger support tape to wrap around my fingers to cover the scrapes and protect my fragile skin. 

After this we were ready to harness up and start climbing!   We learnt how to test your harness to make sure it is safe and then get into it whilst retaining as much dignity as possible.  As we were all wearing training harnesses, there was a certain amount of adjustment to get the right  fit. This was followed by a safety briefing, what to wear and what not to wear when climbing; very amused that thongs made their way onto the "what not to wear list"! 

As there were 6 learner climbers, we split into two teams, the classic boys vs. girls combination. Initially we learnt a double belaying technique, where the belayer pulls the slack out of the climbers rope and the third person (that was me!) pulled that slack through the grigri device. 

When we swapped, I got the opportunity to belay the climber.  As a self-declared eight stone weakling, I was nervous about my responsibility for the climber's safety and had visions of being catterpulted into the wall and letting her fall.  Even when leaning right back, I was still jerked forward when I held the the climbers weight before she began her descent, although fortunately it all passed without incident and she lived to tell the tale!

Being last to have a go at climbing is great because you get to make sure that the teacher really does know what he's doing and if anyone meets an untimely end under his watch, it isn't you, BUT it also gives plenty of time for the nerves to build.  By my turn to climb, my hands were painful and the adrenaline made the tremor, that had extended from just my hands through to my arms and down my legs, difficult to control.  Once I started to climb the tremor disappeared and I could control my body but climbing is hard work for me and when I was two thirds of my way up the wall, my hands were hurting and I needed to catch my breath.  

Knowing the rope is there and will stop you falling on an academic level, is different when your at the point of needing its safety. Logically I knew that I could let go of the rope, rest my hands, catch my breath and I wouldn't fall but the part of my brain that found itself half way up a wall and in need of a break didn't quite get this.   Instead of letting go, I pulled my body close to the wall, gripping tightly and felt the pain in my hands intensify, as I tried to get my breath back.  Breathing is not one of those things I do well under pressure and as my anxiety increased, my breathing spasmed into hyperventilating at height. Focusing on trying to get my breathing under control, I couldn't hear any instructions from my belay team and needed the teacher to scale the wall, calm me with a hand on my back and clear instructions to the part of my brain that was in control

Glossing over the hard parts, pretending everything is OK, hiding the bits that hurt; these are all things I excel at.  Honesty is difficult when you have hard things to say that don't necessarily reflect well on you or make other people feel uncomfortable, so "glossing" has become a tried and tested defence mechanism. Writing this blog post has been extraordinarily painful; I've had to despatch with the gloss, to give an honest account of my experiences, showing the highs and the lows of this post-transplant life.  

There are three more climbing lessons, so I will get another go at climbing the wall and will be better placed to deal with the challenges it and my body present me with. 

8 out of 20 challenges complete:
  1. Climbed My First Mountain - Cadair Idris
  2. Learned How To Punt
  3. Learned How To Hula Hoop
  4. First Road Bike Ride
  5. Taken Up Tap Dancing
  6. First 5K Trail Run At Wimpole Hall Parkrun
  7. First Archery Session
  8. First Climbing Lesson 
Plans for challenge 9: Zumba with Kate!

A difficult decision made by one family nearly 20 years ago transformed my life when they gave me the gift of a new heart. This challenge is about acknowledging that gift, celebrating the life I've got and raising a few pounds for two fantastic charities along the way...

Please visit to make a donation to the Papworth Hospital Charity.

Please visit to make a donation to The Freeman Heart and Lung Transplant Association.

Follow me on twitter  @angie_ridley  #2020HeartChallenge 


  1. Hi Angie,
    Just a quick note to say a huge well done on completing your 8th challenge. It sounded as though it was a really demanding one that tested everything you have, and you were able to get there in the end! It sounds as though your instructor did everything the needed to as well - always reassuring that you know that they can help deal with situations like that.
    Anyway, a very big well done! You should be very proud of yourself.
    Ursula x

  2. Thank you very much Ursula. Although I've had lots of page views, not many folks have commented, possibly because it was a bit of an endurance read, and I worried that I'd perhaps been a bit too honest and not quite "inspirational" enough ;-).

    It is so lovely to get your kind comments. Glad that I'll get another chance on the wall next week. Love Angie xxx

  3. Well it may have been longer than some of your other posts, knowing very little about climbing myself meant that I found it interesting to read. I've also never really thought about the difference in operation between a 'normal' and a 'transplant' heart before, so that was another positive aspect to your post. (The only thing I remember abut your meds is the comment about the cost of them made by the nurse at the GP surgery in Goathland when we joined as new patients - seem to recall one of your tablets costing something like £65?)

  4. Thanks again Ursula. Yes, I do remember the nurse impressing upon me the extravagant cost of my medicines. Ax