The Rules

Cyclists have the Velominati, the keepers of the cog, upholders of the sacred rules of cycling [], but an even more secret society, the Verticati, the keepers of the cam, uphold the sacred rules of climbing. My life now hangs on a slender Perlon thread because I have dared to reveal their existence to you. Learn the Rules well, spread them far and wide so all who venture into the vertical world may benefit from this arcane wisdom.

1. There are no rules.

2. We are not the grades we climb.

3. Want to do the route, not to have done it.

4. Climbing for anyone but yourself is a recipe for misery.

5. Soloing for anyone but yourself is a terminal velocity trip.

6. Dying on a climb invalidates all your previous ascents: it shows you climbed them by luck, not skill: Don Whillans.

7. Love the rock – it is what separates us from mere gymnasts.

8. Do not buy expensive rubber and climb on sheep shit: Ron Fawcett.

9. Love the move – it is what separates us from mere steeplejacks.

10. Your life is worth more than a sling or a cam: bail safe.

11. A lid won’t save you from a TV set, but it will save you from a golf ball – think about it while your head is still intact.

12. Good climbers pack out any trash they find, along with their own.

13. If you really hate climbing at that crag then go ahead and piss-off the landowner so no one else will get to climb it either.

14. Wear sunscreen.

15. Get potty trained or leave the crag.

16. The climb is more than the rock: take time out to enjoy the scenery.

17. Top ropers give way to leaders.

18. Abseil where no one climbs.

19. Everyone’s “trade route” is someone else’s nightmare.

20. Grades are all subjective.

21. Objective dangers really are.

22. For a long, stress-free alpine career: never climb a route put up by the Japanese or Polish.

23. If you can’t see your face reflected in the holds of a three star route then you are off-route.

24. Checking your mate’s harness and knot is a sign that you respect them enough to want to climb with them again.

24a. Check your own harness and knot.

25. The only person who ever knew if that piton was any good was the person who hammered it in.

26. All styles of ascent are valid – as long as you tell the truth about the one you used….

27. All styles of leg wear are acceptable as long as the crotch and seat are in good repair.

28. If you can’t climb the route without altering the rock, then leave it for someone who can.

29. Thou shalt not bolt a climb which has been freed.

30. Crag swag and lost property are two different things: learn the difference.

31. The technical term for a helmetless winter climber is “a casualty”.

32. Thou shalt only place a piton when wearing crampons or standing in aiders.

33. Rescue is a bonus, not a right.

34. Climbing a solid 6a / 5.10 inside does not make you an E1 / 5.10a trad leader outside.

35. Trolls belong in Scandinavia, not on Internet climbing fora.

36. Light is right: Mark Twight.

37. Fun doesn’t have to be fun to be fun: Mark Twight

38. Strength is no bad thing to have in excess: Mark Twight

39. If you can’t reach the holds you’ll just have to climb up to them: Don Whillans.

40. The best climber in the world is the one having the most fun: Alex Lowe.

41. Active and inactive seracs are likely to remain so.

41a. You will never know when an inactive serac will become active.

42. For a long alpine career get moving early and keep moving.

43. Use your time in free-fall to contemplate the time you saved not tying a prusik.

44. The climb isn’t over until the first drink back in the valley.

45. The load expands to fill the pack available.

46. A metal file in the pack saves an unplanned alpine bivouac.

47. Fixed protection often isn’t.

48. It is far easier to die on a sport route than you imagine.

49. Gravity sucks.

50. Check your harness and knot -again.

51. When in doubt, think it out.

52. If you can’t find a hand hold, look at your feet.

53. Breathe, smile, relax and….CRUSH.

54. If you like climbing on chalk, go to Dover, otherwise, use it sparingly.

55. Denigrating someone who climbed that route won’t help you get up it.

56. Celebrate success, don’t disparage failure.

57. If you aren’t failing then you aren’t trying: if you don’t fail you won’t succeed.

58. Every solo is an exam: the pass mark is 100%, there are no re-sits and no appeal process.

59. Observe Frost’s 3 laws of soloing: 1. Don’t solo. 2. If you must solo, only do routes you can climb in boxing gloves and roller skates. 3. Don’t solo.

60. Climbing partners are a bit like lovers: build them up, don’t bring them down. Good  ones can take you places you never dreamed, bad ones can set you back for years.

61. Muscle pain is weakness leaving the body; joint pain is weakness moving in. Know the difference and learn how to train.

62. Hidden crevasses are predators which hunt the unroped and untrained.

63. Speed comes from slick ropework, not quick climbing.

64. Check the mountain weather forecast because a lightning strike could ruin your whole day.

65. Practice BEFORE the excrement hits the air conditioning.

66. A spare battery for your head torch weighs less than bivi gear.

67. Climbing at night is preferable to falling through snow bridges in the afternoon.

68. A kilo of body fat weighs as much as a kilo of cams: decide which you would rather carry on a route.

69. Unless you can swim with half a ton of aluminium alloy clipped to your waist: learn to read tide tables.

70. A lightweight windproof on the back of your harness can improve your performance by two full grades.

71. Never argue with a compass: it is always right – unless your hydration hose is fixed with a magnetic clip….

72. Five minutes reading up on the descent route is worth five hours thrashing around in the dark.

73. Rock shoes stick to grass like ice to Teflon.

74. Sea cliffs are steep, intimidating and unforgiving: just like their grading.

75. Fulmar puke will NEVER wash out: respect bird bans.

76. Ropes always tangle in the middle of a sketchy crux: sort them BEFORE you leave the belay.

77. Ice axes do not come pre-loaded with self arrest software: make sure your brain does.

78. Respect John Wayne: he showed us how to walk in crampons.

79. It takes five times longer untangling ropes mid-abseil than it would have taken to coil them properly beforehand.

80. Learn how to say “please” and “thank you” in the local language.

81. Pronounce place names correctly: you might actually end up where you wanted to go.

82. Shiny new gear does not make you a better climber.

83.  If a climbing partnership isn’t working, have the grace to end it before the fighting starts: you both stand to lose more than the TV or the dog.

84. Check-in your prejudices before you go out climbing.

85. Personal demons always climb one grade harder than your max.

86. Before pointing the finger of blame at your belayer, consider the climber at whom the other three fingers point.

87. If someone you loves dies climbing, do not blame climbing for taking them from you, celebrate that climbing made them the person that you loved.

88. Obesity, inactivity and kitchen accidents cost society more than rescue services ever could.

89. Sounds warn us of danger: lose the headphones.

90. To learn what a rock does when it hits a face: look up when one falls down.

91. Climbing can bring us fulfilment, but it can take everything from us including our lives: accept this without reservation, or find another sport.

92. Find out about local customs: pleading ignorance will rarely save you from a kicking.

93. The rope goes THROUGH the chain, not over it.

94. Accidents when lowering and abseiling are nature’s way of chlorinating the gene pool.

95. Sea cliffs and mountains can be noisy: learn rope signals.

96. Rocky places eat GPS and cellphone signals: take a map and compass and know how to use them.

97. Deliberately mis-grading your new route merely results in your stupidity being published to a wider audience.

98. Ropes don’t snap, they get cut: extend runners clear of edges because a broken ankle is preferable to death.

99. Winter climbing is always sweatier than you imagine, and winter belays are always colder than you imagine: invest in a belay jacket or suffer accordingly.

100. Check your harness and knot once more.


Near Death Experience

Climbing ice, rolling the dice.

Climbing ice, rolling the dice.

I was watching a TEDX talk by a guy who challenged himself to visit every country in the world ( ) and he said something that hit hard: most adventurers careers start after a near death experience. Guess what?

He’s right.

In my case I got told I had lung damage. “Sh!t” I thought, “I may never live to take that pension I’ve worked so hard for”. Then I had to have a minor operation. One moment I was talking biochemistry with the anaesthetist and the next instant I was in the recovery room.


Where did the time go? The operation must have taken over an hour. Total cessation of experience. I’d never encountered that before. “OK, so that’s what being dead is like: it’s like nothing. No, not even nothing, total absence, I wasn’t there.” Oddly, that preview of death radically helped me enjoy my life. It’s not just that there is nothing – absolutely nothing – to fear; it means there’s no sense in trying to hold on to anything, life is just a moment to enjoy.

And if the future doesn’t exist, neither does the past.

I’ll explain:

Try to remember what you had for breakfast exactly six weeks and two days ago. Unless you have a photographic memory, or someone special served you smoked salmon and scrambled eggs with a bucks-fizz to wash it down, you are now scratching your head. Ok, let’s make it easy: try to remember the best ever birthday present you had as a kid.

Got it?

Except you haven’t. You are remembering a memory. Even if you think you can smell it, feel it, see the colours; all you are remembering is the memory trace you laid down last time you remembered it. That’s why eyewitness accounts are really unreliable: just by asking leading questions, suggesting a bit of detail here and there, you can get someone to remember just about anything you want them to. Think about that next time you are on jury service.

So, if there is no future, and the past is always changing, where does that leave us?

It leaves us here and now.

This life is one constantly renewing moment of awareness. A jewel of perception. A never ending instant of joy – if you allow it to be.

Of course, as humans we have the gift of intellect, we can plan ahead, delay gratification, avoid obvious pitfalls. Except we can’t predict the future. That visit to the doctor, the beautiful stranger, the drunk driver, the unexpected job offer, the “Dear John” note, the lottery win, the investment that suddenly comes good, or the redundancy notice that falls on the doormat. The future is not fixed. It’s sensible to plan, but it isn’t sensible to expect our plans to come true. A brilliant general once said: No battle plan ever survives contact with the enemy.

So where does that leave us? Where does it leave me: a mountaineer whose life is planned a year ahead, training, learning, researching, travelling?

It leaves me here and now.

A man who climbed the north face of the Eiger in three hours (mortals take three days) said that: you can’t rely on the weather, you can’t rely on the route being climbable, you can’t even rely on getting to the foot of the mountain in the first place. So if you can’t rely on achieving, you have to love the process.

You have to love the here and now.

You have to love the training, the planning, the travelling, the sensation of climbing, the little plants you see clinging to the rock as you climb past, the sting of cold air on your face, the noise of the wind, the company of your friends, the warmth of the sun, the feel of your muscles moving strongly after so many hours, the shelter of your tent as the storm rages, the sight of the colour green after days in the black and white world of the high mountains.

You have to love the moment. It is all you have and will ever have.

If you don’t climb, especially if you don’t climb, you have to love the moment. The company of your co-workers, the touch of your partner, comforting your crying child, your commute to work. Invest meaning in these things. Find the joy. Realistically, if you want your pay you may have to do things you wouldn’t do for recreation, but find the joy in doing what you do well. It could be boring and repetitive, or it could be a meditation – the choice, and the moment is yours.