"You're never too old," John Salisbury tells me on the grey morning we meet at the Auckland Grammar School Rock Wall. He should know, as fit as a cricket although a few summers over 60 and with decades of climbing behind him, he's certainly someone to aspire to for a beginner such as me. "All you need is a bit of faith that you can do it, and it's astonishing what your body can achieve."
The chairman of the Auckland section of the New Zealand Alpine Club, Magnus Hammarsal, agrees, and points out that as a woman I have some advantages, even in such a physically demanding sport as climbing up nearly vertical rock walls for no other reason but for the challenge of it. "Women don't have the upper body strength men do, and so they very quickly learn better technique than men who can rely a bit more on brute strength. They work out how to get around a problem rather than going headlong at it."
To illustrate what he means, Magnus gets fellow club member and keen climber Chie Noda to harness up and demonstrate. Chie has been climbing for several years and so has all the correct shoes, mandatory helmet and a whole lot of other stuff, but it is her limber strength that instantly strikes my eye. Magnus and John have already run a belay line to fixed points in the top of the wall and Chie's safety harness is attached to this. She and Magnus double-check each other's knots, buckles and helmets, as this is correct protocol in these safety conscious years. So is the requirement for all users to pre-register their presence on the NZAC (Auckland Section) website (see below for details) as Auckland Grammar, in whose grounds these historic quarry walls lie, is rightly anxious to ensure no accidents happen.
But Chie is correctly harnessed, double clipped to the belay line, and on a medium difficulty stretch of the wall, with John acting as the belayer on the rope behind her, quickly climbs to about two metres off the ground. I can instantly see how important the job of the belayer is. Doing exactly the same job as the automated systems in place on the indoor climbing walls one finds all over the city (fully automated for beginners only), a moment's inattention could result in someone falling and possibly being seriously injured. I can see that John doesn't let his concentration waver for a moment.
Chie finds herself stymied when an overhang seems to be too bulbous and overhanging to get round by normal human means. But using what Magnus described as good technique, she wedges her feet into a tiny crevasse and seems to do the impossible, climbing like a gecko with suction pads for fingers in a way that seems to defy the laws of gravity. Her elation on reaching the top is understandable, but it is not until I give it a go on a much easier bit of wall that I realise just how well-earned it is.
I feel I've climbed Mt Everest, and when I get a clap from bystanders below I have to admit I feel as happy as a toddler in a paddling pool.
Magnus, Chie and John, along with other club members, tend to do most of their climbing on the indoor walls over the winter months. For a start it doesn't rain inside and so the grips aren't greasy, and there is also the distinct advantage that in a lit indoor gym you can keep climbing in the evening in the shorter daylight hours of winter.
And climbing, or more precisely, getting to the top, is what it's all about. If you're moderately fit, like a challenge and aren't afraid of heights, this might be the sport for you. And if you're not that fit to start with, believe me you soon will be.
Join the Club
* New Zealand Alpine Club (Auckland Section). For pre-registration at Auckland Grammar School Wall and news about club activities and Events.
* Auckland Grammar School Wall; entrance Normanby Rd, Mt Eden, alongside the hockey pitches
* Extreme Edge, 40 Morrin Rd, Panmure, Ph 574 5677. According to their website, this indoor climbing gym is the largest in Australasia and the seventh-largest in the world. It is also where rock climbing enthusiasts in Auckland like to train.