From lockdown in Bray, Clare Sheridan shares the thrilling story of navigating mountains, and the male-dominated climbing community, from the ‘pre-digital’ age to the modern day
It’s January 2020 and we’re climbing a frozen waterfall in a remote Alpine valley.
There isn’t a breath of wind. In the snow-muffled silence, the only sound is the wet crunch of my axe as it cuts into the vertical ice. It’s -7°C and conditions are perfect — five degrees colder and the ice would be hard and brittle; five degrees warmer and it’ll turn sugary and begin to melt. This is winter climbing at its best.
Two weeks later, we’re rock climbing on a sun-soaked mountain in Morocco. It’s 32°C and we hide under long sleeves and sunscreen. A call to prayer echoes up from the mosque in a tiny village below, like the Angelus, reminding us of the time. As retirees, we haven’t had to be too exact about time for years now — I’m 68 and Calvin, my husband and climbing partner, is 78 — but it still pays to keep an eye on the passing hours. It wouldn’t do to get caught out in the dark on such steep terrain.
Heading home from those trips in early March, the pandemic seemed to have come a lot closer. We had masks with us — dust masks from Woodies — and kept them handy when we got to Marrakech. The airport was bustling. Then, six days later, all international flights from Morocco were suspended.
That was it — an end to the gallivanting. We’re all in lockdown now. We walk within our 5km, and we regularly set up our living room here in Bray, Co Wicklow, like a gym — training with kettlebells and resistance bands and hanging from the pull-up board above the door. For the first time ever, we can’t plan our next trip away.
Calvin and I were both mad into climbing before we first met in the French Alps almost 50 years ago. Neither of us had ever gone on a holiday that wasn’t a climbing holiday, and we never have since. Our first big trip together was in 1977, when we went to the Himalayas to climb unclimbed peaks. It was the type of adventure that has long disappeared from the world of travel — we had no phones, no radio, no internet, not even a paper map, just a little hand-drawn sketch that gave a rough idea of the location of the mountains and their estimated heights. If we were in dire straits, we might be able to get the attention of the nomads we could see in the distance, on the far side of the big river near our base camp.
And we did get into dire straits… or at least I did. I fell into a deep crack inside a glacier. Soon after, I was swept away in the raging river, only to be dragged out by Calvin and brought to safety by the nomads.
Travel felt so different back then. The only time our parents had ever gone abroad was on a pilgrimage to Lourdes. Cheap Ryanair flights and casual trips were still years away. As kids, we had hiked West Cork’s Caha Mountains. My sister Bairbre and I had joined the UCD Mountaineering Club, lunching on top of every boggy mountain in Wicklow, taking club trips to Kerry and sleeping under the stars in Connemara. But France, where the two of us went hitch-hiking on our first overseas trip in 1971, felt as exotic as Tibet. We were teenagers, but hitch-hiking was just what young people did in those days. Public transport was poor and nobody had a car. We knew it made us vulnerable, but we felt safe enough since there were two of us. We weren’t. It led to a knife being held against my throat.
Our idea was to climb the highest mountain in Andorra. It was on the border with France and Spain, so we’d see three countries in one go. We saved enough babysitting money for one-way student flights to Barcelona and then started hitching towards the mountains. We were a pair of innocents not long out of convent boarding school with a lot to learn. There were bandits as well as bears in the high mountains, we were told; we really shouldn’t be going up there on our own.
But we made it to the top, sleeping in shepherd’s huts and a cave along the way. And then, on our way back, one of the drivers who gave us a lift pulled into a lay-by and wouldn’t take no for an answer. I was sitting in the middle and he grabbed me and held that knife to my throat. At first, I thought it was his ring that was sticking into me. Our French was good enough to understand his threats, but we stayed cool. “Stop that ridiculous nonsense!” Bairbre said in her most withering Reverend Mother tone, and then she said it again, in French.
And he did. He cursed us and threw us out, and the truck took off at speed. Our rucksacks were gone, with our money and our boots and the presents for everyone at home. We hesitated, not knowing whether to run after the truck or into the bushes, but just then, it grated to a halt in a spray of gravel. We froze as the door opened, our rucksacks were flung out onto the ground, and the driver roared away. We were shocked, but didn’t discuss it. Adrift on a sea of ignorance, we had no real understanding of sexual violence in those times — bobbing uneasily, as we were, between the old prohibitions of the Catholic Church and the startling new liberties of the sexual revolution. We were back at the side of the road a few minutes later, with our thumbs out.
As I grew up, climbing became my passion. I was determined to see the world from a different perspective. But that was easier said than done.
“Girls don’t climb,” as a senior member of the Mountaineering Club said when we first started talking about rock climbing in the early 1970s. She meant that, although hillwalking was an acceptable activity for girls, climbing certainly wasn’t.
When we looked through Mountain, the magazine of record for the mountaineering world at the time, there were stunning photographs of climbers on the sun-soaked walls of Yosemite Valley in California. But there were no women. Well, there were girls, but only in the ads. They appeared wrapped in their boyfriends’ oversized duvet jackets, looking petite and feminine, and nude; or emerging coyly from the latest expedition sleeping bags, bags that were obviously not their own.
“Huh!” we thought. If the boys are climbing and it’s fun, then we’re going to climb too. I began testing my mettle on bigger mountains and rock faces. It was in the Alps that I first met Calvin Torrans — mountaineer extraordinaire, and my partner in life and on countless adventures since. I was fascinated by him, by his energy and warmth and constant good humour. He seemed so at ease with life and with climbing. Juggling home and work — I was a primary school teacher — we climbed in the Andes, the Himalayas and the Rockies. We plotted new routes up Fair Head in Northern Ireland. We have three kids, and took our first son away on a camping trip to Co Sligo when he was two weeks old. Today, they come hillwalking with us whenever they’re home.
Of course, the Alps and Himalayas feel very far away now. So how to put in the time during lockdown when the only breaks we’ve ever taken from climbing have been to recover from injuries, or when I was pregnant?
We’ve often been stuck in a small tent for days on end as bad weather howls around outside, and the only thing to do is snuggle into your sleeping bag and sleep for long hours — but months of lockdown are a bit different. You need a strategy.
For us, exercise is the key. We miss climbing and walking in wild places, and we miss the chat and the fun at the indoor climbing wall, but we have a good routine now that keeps us happy. As active rock climbers, we need to maintain our strength and stamina — hence the home-gym set-up. Hanging from the pull-up board above the door is tough, but a brilliant way of banishing those 4pm blues. On the in-between days, we do some stretching — it’s a good excuse to wear the comfy leggings, yet again, and it helps keep stiff joints in shape — or else we go for a walk.
Walking within our 5k near Bray has been a revelation — hidden gorges on the Dargle River, giant redwood trees and secret pathways where the bluebells and wild garlic were falling over each other in the spring. And then there’s Sugarloaf — a hill I’d never put much pass on, except as the gatekeeper to the Roundwood road and the real Wicklow Mountains beyond. But on its quiet east side, steep little paths give you a good workout before the reward of that great view out over Glencree and Djouce.
We can’t wait to climb again in the Alps, in Morocco, or on dramatic desert towers in America. But in the meantime, there’s always the Sugarloaf.
NB: Clare Sheridan’s ‘Uncoiling the Ropes, The Memoir of a Trailblazing Irish Climber’ is available from Mountaineering Ireland, Great Outdoors, No Alibis and online at uncoiling-the-ropes.myshopify.com