Hannah MitchellBASE Digital Writer Hannah is a Lake District-based journalist and all-round outdoor lass with a particular fondness for rock faces.
Back in March, BASE reported that the annual Arc’teryx Climbing Academy would return to Langdale in the Lake District over the 2023 May bank holiday weekend. Offering a packed roster of climbing clinics and workshops led by International School of Mountaineering (ISM) experts, as well as daytime activities at basecamp including yoga and creative drawing workshops; live music, talks and film screenings at night, the event was set to be the biggest yet.
The Climbing Academy aims to offer participants of every ability the opportunity to develop and advance their climbing skills, with clinics covering trad, multi-pitch, bouldering, scrambling and toprope climbing, as well as mountain safety and rescue skills.
BASE writer and rock enthusiast Hannah Mitchell went along to the event, intent on fine-tuning her climbing skills, checking out the latest gear and enjoying a local beer or two. Here she reports on the weekend’s goings-on, and the greater purpose served by the Climbing Academy.
I’ve been climbing around five years now. My ‘outdoor career’ began with a baptism of fire during a Spanish sport climbing trip when a very mellow Canadian climber offered me a belay if I ‘fancied a lead’ on a prominent limestone pinnacle I’d been eyeing up.
Taken aback, I told him I’d never led before. Truth be told, I’d only been climbing a matter of months. Patiently and confidently he explained the process, before guiding me as I nervously made my way up the needle-like formation. In the years since that day, I’ve become a stronger, safer, more competent climber and have myriad skills and knowledge under my belt (or harness). But with climbing – and any instructor worth their salt will attest to this – there is always room for progression.
Learning to climb is complex; it can be overwhelming and it can also be very expensive. I was lucky enough to dive into climbing surrounded by far more experienced climbers who were willing to show me the way. I borrowed kit, learned by doing, and by living in the Lake District I was able to benefit from the extensive and incredible climbing areas on my doorstep. One thing that I think is common amongst climbers like me who follow this rapid trajectory and steep learning curve, is that sometimes we can miss out on the finer details. Learning from your mates, no matter how experienced they are, isn’t always the way to learn ‘best practise’, and trying out a new technique uncontrolled on a rock face as your belayer looks on, often isn’t the safest way to do it either.
Like many outdoor activities, climbing has its inherent dangers, but they can be mitigated to a degree by knowing your stuff
I’m a big advocate for taking a step back and refining what you’ve got from time to time. Like many outdoor activities, climbing has its inherent dangers, but they can be mitigated to a degree by knowing your stuff. That’s where events like the Arc’teryx Climbing Academy come in. As climbing surges in popularity and more and more folk clamber (literally) to get their outdoor fix by hanging off rocks, so there is a greater call for proper education and guidance from professionals.
Learning to climb isn’t just about knowing how to properly ‘dress’ your figure-8 knot, how to place a cam with precision or when to use a hand-jam to best effect, there are ethics and crag stewardship to consider too – even when you think you know it all, there’s probably a pro-tip or tiny tweak out there that could seriously elevate your skills, or just make life on rock that little bit simpler.
‘I often hear the mountains don’t discriminate and everybody is welcome here, which is sort-of true, but access to mountainous environments requires knowledge and equipment that has to be gained somehow,’ says Rachael Crewesmith, a Mountaineering and Climbing Instructor who is guiding at the event.
‘It’s not just the act of climbing itself that needs to be learned, but all the other parts of a day out: how to plan, where to go, how to get there, what to wear, where to park, what bus to get, how to go to the toilet… Most climbers have been introduced to climbing by somebody already in the gang and, if not, have had the means to pay for the introduction. If you don’t have access to either of these ways in, then it’s hard to know where to start. The information is out there, but how do you even know what to google if you haven’t got the very basics yet?
‘Events like Arc’teryx academy provides the information, the clothing, kit, the formal workshops, even the camping equipment in some cases, to make climbing outside as accessible as possible. These small stepping stone events give those not in the gang a taster and also some snippets of knowledge about where to start and who to ask.
‘I’ve worked at this event over the last five years and it has been great to see the demographic change. This year there were groups from London and Bristol whose predominant experience of climbing has been indoors,’ she says.
it has been great to see the demographic change. This year there were groups from London and Bristol whose predominant experience of climbing has been indoors
As Rachael mentions, knowing what to wear is another of the many aspects of learning to climb. Outdoor gear generally is expensive – just getting out for a walk in protective outdoor clothing can cost a small fortune and the cost of technical gear can be prohibitive for many people with ambitions of scaling new heights. It isn’t just a matter of looking the part, properly-fitting kit that protects you from the elements enables us to fully enjoy our experiences outdoors, whatever the weather, and can be a literal lifesaver if everything goes to pot.
For a beginner climber, investing in the hundreds of pounds worth of clothing and safety gear necessary to take on the tempestuous Lake District weather is a really big commitment, especially if you’re only just having a go to see if climbing really is your bag. Three gear libraries at the Climbing Academy offered free-to-borrow clothing, climbing shoes and gear – from waterproofs, softshells, helmets and harnesses to shiny, sexy hardwear for testing out on the rock. These libraries enabled beginner climbers or those transitioning from indoor climbing to the outdoors to experience Lakeland climbing in comfort – plus, who doesn’t like playing with shiny things?
Events like the Arc’teryx Climbing Academy often prompt questions regarding sustainability, the role consumerism plays in our carbon footprint and our environmental impact as outdoorspeople. Of course, branded events are by their nature intended to engage participants in the sports that the brand designs gear for – it’s a no-brainer. I myself admit to having some reservations around this, but basecamp at the Climbing Academy was populated by a number of stands with a focus on repair and repurpose as opposed to retail, with workshops by Grangers and GORE-TEX respectively on up-cycling outdoor gear, and washing and re-proofing your technical garments to prolong their life. Among the evening’s film screenings, General Manager for Protect Our Winters UK, Lauren MacCallum also gave an inspiring talk, highlighting the urgent need for outdoor people to mobilise in order to protect the landscapes we love.
A space for conversation
From sessions for total beginners hungry to learn the basics, to rescue techniques for competent climbers who need to know how to retreat safely or assist their partner, the clinics on offer at the Arc’teryx Lake District Climbing Academy catered to every level of ability and were led by climbing and mountaineering professionals from the ISM. I mentioned before that I’m a big advocate for refining your skills, so with that in mind, I signed up for the Women’s Fine Tune Your Leading and Rescue Techniques clinics respectively.
I was particularly excited by the women-only offerings at the Academy. Hear me out, because I know there are folk out there who question why these sorts of sessions are still necessary in a sport that has been significantly ‘levelling up’ in terms of women and non-binary participation lately. But with centuries of historical imbalance, imposed gender norms and their aftereffects to unpick, these spaces, – along with those for other marginalised or underrepresented groups and communities – and the empowering, healing conversations they facilitate, will still be needed for many years to come.
During the fine tuning clinic, we were joined by Arc’teryx ambassador Dr. Natalie Brown, who also gave a talk that evening on understanding and managing hormonal symptoms associated with the menstrual cycle and peri-menopause in relation to performance and health – something that still isn’t widely discussed, or indeed understood amongst climbers. Aside from up-skilling and refining our technique with our incredibly knowledgeable guide, the day was full of open, honest conversation about our lived experiences as climbers who menstruate – the women-only nature of the clinic facilitating a feeling of security and a safe space to share.
‘The fine tuning clinic, attended just by women, provided an environment where everyone shared openly about the challenges and also successes of managing their menstrual cycle or related symptoms, and hormonal contraceptives in climbing,’ Natalie says. ‘What was unique about this space was the ability for individuals to reflect or immediately put into practice things we’d discussed.
‘Sometimes it’s not just the physical aspect of managing bleeding (which definitely was discussed – and how to change a tampon whilst wearing a harness on a multi-pitch), but also the psychological aspect of fear or decision making.
‘The Arc’teryx Academy was a brilliant event to hold conversations about the menstrual cycle, and the evening talk certainly helped to increase understanding and empower individuals to support their partners. Hopefully this will be the beginning of an era where events like this support and offer information to help individuals who menstruate continue climbing and getting the most out of being active outdoors!’
Despite a variable and at times rather damp forecast (welcome to the Lake District), smiling climbers set out to the crags each day, buoying one another up despite the dubious skies and returned each day to the shelter of the basecamp marquees, grinning and shaking the rain from their jackets and trad racks. Grasping well-earned beers or vegan baps, the crowd noise crescendoed over live music in the evening, while a real festival atmosphere blew through the canopies.
Reflecting on the weekend, there were elements of the Arc’teryx Climbing Academy that were as I expected: the quality of instruction and guidance, the good vibes, the smiles of folk taking their first foray onto rock, tasty food and an abundance of super cool-looking kit on show, but there were also elements that I hadn’t anticipated. The facilitation of learning and access, the spaces created for talking about difficult topics, and a real focus on encouraging repurposing and repairing over purchasing.
The mountains may not discriminate, but accessing them can be a struggle for many. Whilst there is undoubtedly a long way to go before there is truly equity in the outdoors, or indeed until mountain sports can be fully sustainable, events such as the Climbing Academy certainly go some way to addressing imbalances and opening up the outdoors to challenging conversations. At first glance (and as the event’s name might suggest) the Arc’teryx Climbing Academy seems to simply offer the opportunity to improve your climbing skills in a stunning setting, but what the event facilitates is actually far more. Kit, instruction and an inclusive, vibrant and diverse crowd; safe spaces to talk and learn, and most of all, to share in a common zest for the landscape, a desire for adventure, and a love of climbing.
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