Keep Calm and Climb On by D. Scott Borden

May 1 • Climbing Culture, Uncategorized • 231 Views • No Comments on Keep Calm and Climb On by D. Scott Borden

Squish Squash, Squish Squash, Squish, the English mud through my toes feels soothing as I perch 30 feet above a poor cam in rotten rock on this small ledge listening to intimidating ocean waves smash the cliffs below. During WWII, Nazi bombs exploded over this Island landscape spurring Winston Churchill to urge his citizens to “Keep calm and carry on.”  If only Winston was here now, I could use some encouragement. 

by D Scott Borden (this piece was published in Volume 6, but somehow is just now finding its way to the interwebs.) Banner photo by the author of David Coley scoping the line on Three Bishop’s Rib Direct.

Unfortunately, my confidence is shattered from the ledge that disintegrated under my feet a few minutes ago. I’m sweating profusely on a cold cloudy day and I’m lost like a drunken sailor in a foggy storm. This first ascent is proving to be nothing short of terrifying (the aptly named Red Queen- 3 pitch, 5.8 X- HVS 4B) and the sweat dripping down my back is giving me a bad case of swamp ass. After gently ascending crumbling rock while holding my breath in fear of snapping the brittle holds, I am now faced with 10 feet of vertical mud to escape this sea cliff imprisonment. I carefully remove my climbing shoes to get more traction and because, well, “If I die at least I’ll be happy with mud between my toes,” I think out loud. “I should have brought that nut tool for a pickaxe to drag myself out of this nightmare,” I mutter.

I stare at the cold wet shifting vertical mud with disinterest. And I assure you, this moment of enlightenment is one of the more pleasant things I have experienced since moving to England from Yosemite.

Rewind three weeks and sharp beams of light are cutting through my eyelashes, leaving me blinded and causing a piercing headache. I bring my hand up in a cup shape to create a shadow across my face. “What is that,” I jokingly ask my wife. “I didn’t know the sun rose in England.” 

She grins an expression as if to say “Suck it up buttercup.”  She offers me a cup of tea. Why is it that everyone here stops for tea? 

The weather has been wet and cold almost all the time. My climbing gear is molding, making my climbing shoes somehow smell worse than usual. The best medicine to that icky feeling…..well….it’s hot tea. Hot tea makes you forget the uncomfortableness of soggy shoes and a sticky raincoat. It brings strangers together. It builds community.       

Day ten of the big move to the UK and it is the first time I have seen the sun. “Grey is beautiful,” I keep chanting, “grey is beautiful.” At least, when I’m not chanting, “stay left, stay left, left,” so I don’t get hit by an oncoming car while biking through town. Of course that mantra didn’t work out well for me on this particular day, as I was hit by a taxi in a double round-a-bout flying over my handle bars and rolling a perfect Olympic style landing, just narrowly avoiding crushing the jar of pasta sauce in my backpack. I thought this place would be just like the good old US of A except with cute accents and poor dental hygiene.  Well, I was wrong, really wrong (except for the hygiene part, in that way I fit in well here). 

We have moved here for my wife’s job and PhD program. It is a great opportunity for us and to say no just didn’t make sense in the larger picture. But to get here we left a lot behind.

I was living the dream as a climber in Yosemite National Park. Climbing about four times per week and loving it. I had a career, not just a job, and I genuinely enjoyed waking up in the morning. The pay was fine, the day to day was fine, the mission, location, and people were excellent. I had a house, an office with a scanner and a copy machine, just a few minutes from El Capitan and Half Dome. Lunch breaks from work were my favorite. Three one hour long options existed on any given day. I could “pebble wrestle” aka go bouldering in one of the many excellent sites around the Valley, solo a classic mellow two or three pitch route at Swan Slabs or (my personal favorite) solo the splitter Jam Crack near Lower Yosemite Falls and set up a fixed line on the harder routes below to shunt/mini-traction. Returning to my desk covered in sweat and chalk I would hide my exuberance to not attract the attention of my fellow workers.

The author living the dream on Southern Man, Washington Column, Yosemite National Park. Photo: Luke Mehall

Distant friends booked climbing holidays every few months to visit, ensuring I was always surrounded by the people I love. Weekends were spent climbing walls in a day or sleeping in a port-a-ledge perched on the side of a vast sea of granite. The rock was almost always perfect quality and carrying a rain jacket was never a consideration, except in the winter. Life was good, and life was easy. 

Things here are different, I think I mentioned that. To give you some insight, here is a journal entry from my first week:

Rode the normal hills to and from town, damn my legs hurt.  Rejected from three banks for an account and unable to access funds from US.  Broke.  Wife continues to pay for everything.  Cell phone company rejected me for a plan today.  Credit check was no good.  Now using wife’s cell phone number- feeling more like a child then a partner, emasculated.  And my best friend Rasta (dog) ran off today, can’t be found anywhere.

Now, I don’t want to sound like an old country song. I’m eating, I have shelter, clean water, a loving family, an amazing and supportive partner, and I’m climbing. 

I’M CLIMBING. 

Sure, it’s just a gym in town and plastic pulling has never been my thing but I’m climbing.  Here is the rest of that journal entry:

Got to gym in sour mood. Climbed and all was well again. Thank sweet baby Jesus for this place.

When I was down, along came The Quay Climbing Centre and outdoor climbing trips with the South Devon Mountaineering Club. These two have been a community meeting place for me where like-minded folks come together to enjoy a similar passion. It’s not just the act of climbing, although the endorphins are like a junkies fix. It’s knowing over half the people in a place and being met with several hellos. These rock warriors are our tribe and we understand each other.

David Coley on Three Bishop’s Rib Direct, Chair Ladder, Corwall, United Kingdom. Photo by the author

What is it exactly? It’s sharing a vocabulary like a secret language to outsiders. It’s making plans to climb outside and seeing the lovely countryside. It’s the job pounding nails a climbing partner offered and the subsequent climbing/working trips to France and Spain.  It’s the familiarity and understanding you have during small interactions even among unusual words in an unfamiliar accent. But it’s more than all of that.

I have recently learned a new, yet very old, term: combined tactics. Some may call it cheating, while I see it as using your resources, if absolutely needed. It is a term used to describe giving a lift up to a climbing partner, perhaps by standing on a knee or a shoulders to reach a gear placement or hold. Like most things British, it is old school and has its roots in adventure mountaineering. It requires asking for help, teamwork and communication.  It describes perfectly what the climbing community here (unbeknownst to them) has done for me. On that day when I felt my lowest, when the cloudiness of life had got me down, nothing cured me like a little warm liquid dose of the climbing community.  It was, and is, the tea to my rainy afternoon. 

While I certainly miss the vast wilderness of the United States, I am starting to feel at home here. When people ask me where I’m from. I no longer respond Yosemite. That feeling is thanks to the international boundaries that are fluently crossed by the united experiences of climbing. The combined tactics of a few good English friends have lifted me to a better place.

So here I am, perched on this sliding cold mud, barefoot and talking to myself like a raving lunatic. Slipping is not an option and retreat is even worse. Clouds are moving in and threatening to make the ground more unstable. I realize it is “time to get on with it,” as the natives would say. In my mind I imagine a cup of tea and friends boosting me up on their shoulders.

Positive mindsets have power and I focus this into carefully inserting each finger and each toe into the mud like ten little crampons and ten little ice axe picks. Gingerly, I repeat the process for ten vertical feet until the mud turns to shrubs. I fall mentally exhausted onto a bush not noticing its prickly nature. Wrapping a few bushes for an anchor, I sit down and begin to raise the rope upward, enabling my partner to experience the laughable situation below.

When he gets to me he says with his typical English dry humor, “Better you then me, mate!”

D. Scott Borden has been contributing to The Climbing Zine since our second issue. He is the author of Squeak Goes Climbing in Yosemite National Park, a climbing children’s book, and he is the director of the Outdoor Industry MBA program at Western Colorado University.

Dig the words? Keep the dream alive by subscribing to The Climbing Zine. It’s $24.99 a year for three issues, and $39.99 for two years (six issues). 

We have also now have a podcast, called Dirtbag State of Mind.

About us: The Climbing Zine was started in 2010 by Al Smith III and Luke Mehall. It continues to the day with the mission of representing the true essence of climbing. Our crown jewel is our printed version, but we also do the interweb thing, and Kindle

We have also published six books: The Desert,  Graduating From College MeAmerican ClimberThe Great American Dirtbags , Climbing Out of Bed, and Squeak Goes Climbing In Yosemite National Park (a climbing children’s book) .

Check out our films, Grateful Husse, Just A Climber, For Bears Ears, and Last Thoughts on The Dirtbag at our YouTube page.

Also: listen to our curated playlist: Hip Hop and Climbing Vol. 1, now on Spotify.


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