Claire climbing in Hong Kong (Photo: Dahlia Wong)

BREATHING SPACE

I never thought I could climb a mountain. Until I did

Claire climbing in Hong Kong (Photo: Dahlia Wong)

When she first left the indoor climbing walls for a real mountain, Claire Clifton Coles was terrified. Now preparing for her biggest challenge yet, she can't imagine her life without the sport

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By Claire Clifton Coles on

Two years ago I was clinging to a rock face, tears filling my eyes and legs shaking uncontrollably as my boyfriend shouted down to me, "just put your foot on that little grey bit, no no the left one." I mean, it’s a rock face, it’s all grey and it’s very hard to differentiate between one little nobble and another when tears blur your vision. After much swearing and cries of "I can’t", I got to the top. This was my first time climbing outdoors and I was scared shitless.

There were no brightly coloured holds to tell me exactly where to put my hands and feet like at the indoor walls and to say I didn’t love it was an understatement. Once I’d stopped shaking and wanting to punch both my boyfriend and the random woman who exclaimed "see that wasn’t so bad was it!" I did feel a huge sense of achievement. I’d managed to get up a Hard Very Severe route, harder than anything I could do indoors; I had climbed a real rock face.  I decided this was a fear I could overcome and told myself I would learn to love climbing. The idea of being in the Great Outdoors, visiting beautiful locations with incredible views and sense of achievement were too great a pull to not continue.  

In Montserrat 
 

In that moment climbing had been all that mattered. The worries of every day life dissipated. Imminent deadlines, overdue bills, friendship dramas and flat hunting woes were forgotten as I concentrated on hauling my body up a cliff face.  It was pure escapism. Over the next few months I worked on conquering my fear, it wasn’t easy. I wasn’t a natural outdoor climber and every route required sheer grit and determination to get to the top, talking to myself as I got to the crux, keeping the panic at bay.  

I looked to some of the incredible women in climbing for inspiration. Lynn Hill, the first person to free climb the nose of El Capitan and a powerhouse in climbing when the sport was heavily male dominated. Shauna Coxsey, who this year became the IFSC World Cup Champion and was awarded an MBE for services to climbing. She also co-founded the Women’s Climbing Symposium, an event held every year to encourage and raise the profile of women in climbing.

Rather than fear I felt elation, suspended high above the ground, incredible scenery stretching out behind me

But it wasn’t just the professional climbers who inspired me to push myself. I found other girls to climb with and made incredible friends. Every week my friend Gemma and I hit the wall. We push each other on, encourage each other up routes and give each other beta. We go to womens improvers classes with Xian at Arch North, a free class specifically designed to improve your technique. Classes that have made me see a huge improvement. I’ve joined London Ladies Climb, an incredibly friendly group for women of all abilities who organise events at walls over the city and beyond.

Tung Lung Island in Hong Kong (Photo: Dahlia Wong)
 

Over time as my climbing ability grew so did my confidence, the tears dried up and the legs stopped shaking. I could climb routes that would have previously left me a mess and I started to love climbing outdoors. A turning point came on a trip to Montserrat, Spain; I’d finished the second pitch of a 100-metre route and was anchored into a hanging belay 60 metres up. Rather than fear I felt elation, suspended high above the ground, incredible scenery stretching out behind me. I could hear the brass band playing in the monastery sat below, it was a surreal and incredible experience.  I’ve been extremely lucky to climb in some amazing places this year, I’ve scaled the Sugar Loaf mountain in Brazil, sent routes in crags in Central Hong Kong and neighbouring islands, bouldered in Fontainebleau and been to some of the most beautiful coast lines in the UK. 

 

Can't wait to have my climbing partner in crime back on the wall! Heal quickly @gemmalouisesuds. From rainy times in Font

A video posted by Claire Clifton Coles (@ccclifton) on


I can’t imagine my life without climbing. If I’ve had a bad day, if I’m stressed or upset I head to a wall or for a weekend climbing. It’s introduced me to life long friends, allowed me to travel, built my confidence and taught me to overcome my fears. And now I have to start training for the big one, Yosemite, the mecca of climbing. In 2017 I’ll climb the Snake Dike route up the Half Dome. To the more seasoned climber this might not seem like much, it’s the easiest route up the Half Dome but to me it’s my Everest and will take everything I have to make it to the top.

@ccclifton

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Claire climbing in Hong Kong (Photo: Dahlia Wong)
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