Friday 18 October 2019

Rock climbing

Amanda Phelan

IT'S a long way to the top if you want to rock and roll, the song goes – and it's even longer if you're climbing a sheer rock face.

It takes a gruelling effort, but we manage it – and finish tired and sweaty, with the sore hands and aching limbs of novices. But no matter: we've conquered a challenge nicknamed "Slave Labour".

There's a quiet sense of satisfaction in our small group of climbers, which includes some children, as we make it to the top.

Add to that the fact we're surrounded by the spectacular scenery of the Burren. But you don't have to go to the wilds of Co Clare to try climbing – there are indoor venues all around the country where you can learn and improve your techniques. And outdoors, there are maps with detailed climbs for both inland and sea-cliff challenges.

It's not just a physical effort – rock climbing is about mind over matter. And we're lucky enough to be trying it out in the Burren, a glorious amalgam of cliff faces, lunar landscapes and grey boulders scattered around like giant marbles.

Our guide is Brian Bateson, a calm and gifted teacher who quickly steers us through the safety guidelines and straps us into helmets and harness.

Then we're ready to start, using a rope Brian has set up to pull ourselves skywards up the cliff face.

Our climbing rope is attached to Brian, and it's secured at the top, which gives you the confidence you need to move upwards, securing your handholds and footholds as you go. And as you reach the top, it's wonderful to look around and take in the surrounding wilderness.

Now comes the surprise – it's harder going down than coming up. You have to lean right out, let go of the rock, and use only the rope as support as you inch your body lower.

Then, after a couple of successful climbs that leave us aching but exhilarated, Brian throws us a new challenge: "Now try it blindfolded."

"Using the blindfold means you learn to trust the rock and your instinct, rather than using your hands to haul yourself," he tells us.

And he's right. As you inch up, hugging the rock-face like a dear loved one, your steps become smaller, and you gain traction on ledges you'd never depend on if you could see them. We marvel when – with the blindfold removed – Brian reveals the tiny slice of wafer-thin rock we used to support our whole body. It's a great day out. You may have jelly limbs for days afterwards, but nothing can beat the thrill of taking on a formidable rock-face and winning.

Brian gives us plenty of opportunity to pause and enjoy the stunning views, and which our own Nobel laureate, Seamus Heaney, urges us to savour in his poem 'Postscript':

And some time make the time to drive out west,

into County Clare, along the Flaggy Shore.

Indeed we will – and we'll be the ones enjoying being stuck between a rock and a hard place.

Irish Independent

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