A healthy love of walking turned into a more serious passion for rock-climbing for Michael Teanby thanks to the advice of a friend and a change of girlfriend
Perched on a long narrow ledge 40 metres above the sea and about 40m below the clifftop, the pressure was growing, the pressure that had replaced the normal ‘urge’ for a bowel motion 11 years ago. The setting sun was still warming the rock and my girlfriend was about to set off on the second pitch1 of the Atlantis/True Moments/Freebird route2; the long weaving route is a bit of a sought-after classic on the Castle Helen sea cliffs of Holyhead.
As I was shifting uneasily on the belay stance3 regretting my earlier choice of downing that second cup of tar [I like to call coffee], my pouch emitted an audible grumble. Looking at my girlfriend I uttered ‘the time is nigh’, crag code for ‘I really need the toilet’.
Unfortunately, there was the problem of our current position; the only way off the ledge was another two hours of climbing. So, making a hollow under a thick section of moss, there I perched baring all on the narrow ledge, hoping to make do with the four sheets of tissue I found in my back pocket. Thankfully we had the cliff to ourselves and I have a very understanding partner.
There were however a couple of day fishers in boats who had been watching our steady progress up the cliff, and a kayaking party passing by; I just hope they weren’t using binoculars!
Burying my embarrassment and scratching a small apology onto a nearby loose rock before using it to weigh down the moss, we turned our attention back to the route’s second pitch the ‘True Moments’ traverse4. Eugenie set off steadily, calming her nerves for what was to come – before her lies a 15m traverse across slightly suspect rock. At the end of the traverse a bold vertical 8m section of climbing remains, the crux5 is 4-5m above the last good piece of protection. A fall certainly wouldn’t mean death, but you’d definitely be shaken as the ropes caught you after 10m of free fall.
Fortunately, all went well; we gained the top without further issue just as the sun was setting over the Irish Sea, the summer’s heat still radiating from the red quartzite rockface that had facilitated our passage up the cliff, and the coconut scent of the gorse flowers drifting by on the breeze. My life had never been better.
Occasions like this are surprisingly rare for me. Compared to the usual three hours, when climbing I can often go six to eight hours without needing the toilet, and despite not changing my diet in preparation, there is usually ample time to bag6 a route and remain in comfort. I don’t know why; maybe it’s just the adrenaline slowing my digestive system as blood is diverted to more critical areas, though that too is strange as I find climbing relaxing. There’s an addictive flow to it, that perfect level of clarity and stress that comes from having your entire being focused on a single task.
Mountains and cliffs haven’t always been part of my life. The Lincolnshire Wolds and salt marshes of my youth are quite devoid of rock. In 2011, two years after I’d lost my left kidney to an adhesion, a friend invited me to North Wales. Nothing special, just a walk up Snowdon, but I was hooked.
Over the next three years my bond with this friend grew stronger, walks got continuously steeper and more technical, and we’d spend a week each summer roaming across the mountains of Scotland. Technically it’s called scrambling, it blurs the line between walking and rock climbing. In 2014 I picked up my first rope. As our scrambles were getting steeper still, learning how to protect ourselves correctly seemed prudent. We were soon moving across terrain that three years before would have seemed like an insane proposition, but here we were playing in the mountains to our hearts’ content.
Climbing has added a great deal to my ‘mental toolkit’. My stress response improved, and my social skills, situational awareness, general fitness and outlook on life all shifted thanks to this wonderful pursuit and the welcoming community that surrounds it. Though not all without cost. As my love (obsession?) for rock and adventure grew, so did a rift in my relationship at the time. We’d been together for nearly 10 years but 2016 saw an end to that. She’d been with me through all my surgeries and stuck with me. There was once love but it had faded; arguments would start and end with threats like “you’ll not find anyone who’ll accept your condition”.
At times I was no kinder; looking back I realise that I was becoming ever more distant and continually more uninterested in the relationship. That’s what decided it, I wouldn’t stay in one relationship out of fear of rejection in another; it just wasn’t healthy. I’d always been completely open about my condition with friends and climbing partners and never once had someone not welcomed me or accepted my toilet habits.
Enter Eugenie, the wonderful woman who four years later would be sat at one end of a narrow ledge 40m above the sea, giggling at the ridiculousness of the situation whilst I wrestled with my harness trying to relieve myself a couple of metres away, all the while hoping another team of climbers didn’t appear. She’s sat there giggling a lot to be fair – the multiple times I’ve forgotten my toilet kit whilst heading to a crag, only to watch me gather various leaves to use as a paper substitute. For reference the best is sphagnum moss, naturally moist and quite durable, as good as a baby wipe and compostable.
Hopefully 2021 will allow me to return to the mountains I love so much, and maybe I’ll see a few of you among them? Just remember a toilet kit, not all areas offer substitutes as kind on the skin as sphagnum moss.
The climber’s glossary:
1 A pitch is a rope length (50-80m)
2 The name of a tour in climbers’ language
3 The belay stance is a climber’s position when anchored to a rock and paying the rope out to a lead climber
4 To traverse means to move horizontally across the rock instead of vertically
5 The crux is the hardest section of a route
6 To ‘bag’ a route means to finish it
This article first appeared in ISSUE 60: Christmas 2020 edition of ROAR! if you would like to read other articles like this, why not become a member of the Red Lion Pouch Support group? You will receive a printed copy of ROAR! twice a year and have online access to archive ROAR! editions going all the way back to 1994.Join Now