My sister, Clare, and Zach are both really good rock climbers. I like climbing, but I can’t say I’ve been bitten by the bug. Mostly because climbing scares me and is a frustrating activity. But what I didn’t realize until the past few weeks is how much climbing suits me. It is a good physical and mental exercise and attracts awesome, like minded people.
We spent the past week and a half at Castle Hill, a bouldering site en route to Arthur’s Pass on the South Island. Our initial plan was to stay for a few days, then head to another destination. But we found that Castle Hill provided us endless climbing projects and new friends from all over the world, so why leave?
Going into this trip, I was a little nervous. I hadn’t climbed much since last spring and wasn’t all that excited to be bad at something. I hate that part of cross training. The part where no matter how fit you are, when you switch sports, you start again at square one. My reaction to the rocks on the first day was: There are no hand holds. There are no feet holds. This is impossible. F this sport. I’m out. Most of my experience has been at Brooklyn Boulders, our beloved climbing gym in NYC, so here I was getting used to climbing outdoors and also climbing here at Castle Hill, which is itself unique and very technical. In a nutshell, day one was frustrating.
But we had found some other climbers from the US, from France, from Israel and Italy, and they had all been at Castle Hill for awhile. And they all remembered their first few days. They were great at reminding me that there is a learning curve here and to be patient with myself. A group of about eight of us climbed together for a few days, all of us climbing problems on different levels of difficulty. The beauty in that is that you get to spend quite a bit of time hanging out, spotting other climbers, and staring at the mountains between climbs. You get to see how other people approach bouldering problems and react to not being able to finish a problem. I was able to get out of my own head and shake off some of the “I can’t do this” by hanging out with other climbers.
Regardless of where they are from, climbers tend to be laid back, friendly, supportive people. They tend to be people I like. By the end of the first week, I was climbing problems that I couldn’t do at the beginning, I was trusting myself and I was able to pass on some words of encouragement to people who had just arrived.
I can’t wait to go back Mom and Dad are sending me new climbing shoes and we have rerouted our travels so that we cross through Arthur’s Pass a few times in the next few months. Like anything, it is more fun with practice and cool people.
I started rock climbing about three years ago. Since then, I only ventured outside to real rock a handful of times. I learned to climb in a gym. I took day trips or strung a few days together at the Gunks. I thought I was a climber. I was wrong.
The last ten days spent climbing at Castle Hill on New Zealand’s South Island taught me what climbing really is. It’s not a sweaty gym with dubstep blaring and colored plastic blobs marking routes. At Castle Hill, maybe the Mecca of bouldering, its a religious experience.
The two main areas at Castle Hill, Spittle Hill and Quantum Field, contain more than 3000 problems. You could walk around the perimeter of these two areas in less than an hour, but spend weeks examining its many nooks and crannies. That said, climbing there is a trial by fire. Its slabby limestone style demands intense technical climbing and superior balance. Boulderers accustomed to using power in order to overcome technical faults (like me) will have a hard time adjusting to Castle Hill. Brains are just as important as brawn here.
In the gym, foot and handholds are obvious by sight. At Castle Hill, it wasn’t uncommon for us to walk up to a climb well below our grade, drop our stuff and stare at it for a while, flabbergasted. “Huh? This is a V1? Where are the feet?! Are you sure we’re in the right place? There are no feet!” We spent a lot of time rubbing our hands on the rock and mumbling to ourselves, searching for parts of the rock that had more friction than others as a blind person would read braille. Our eyes were useless, we had to read the rock in a different way. Castle Hill makes one’s technical faults obvious.
Of course, any outdoor climbing will be vastly different than indoors. While many gyms (big ups, Brooklyn Boulders) do a great job approximating the outdoor experience with creative features and superior routesetting, nothing can replace the real thing. Footholds that seem tiny in the gym are enormous outside, and instead of being marked by giant stripes of fluorescent tape they’re camouflaged among millions of other tiny bits and blotches. Outside, falls are awkward and less protected; no amount of spotters and crash pads compensate for the huge pads at a gym. Simply topping out on a slabby climb is a skill that you can only get outside. Problems like that just aren’t set in the gym, because most gyms don’t have flat top outs. It’s more dangerous to mantle up on a horizontal slab than just jumping down from a jug, so gyms don’t build those features. Climbing inside can get you in shape physically, but it doesn’t come close to preparing you mentally for climbing outside.
After a few days, we started to trust our feet on tiny dimples and awkward smears. Movement become more efficient as we relied less on power and more on technique. As our time at Castle Hill drew to a close, we were able to send problems at grades harder than we’d ever climbed outside before. It wasn’t easy, but we left Castle Hill more complete climbers. In the end, ten days felt short, and we’re making plans to return soon.
When to go: Like nearly everywhere else, spring and fall have the most consistent temperatures for climbing. We were there in spring and it felt a bit crowded on nice weekend days, but most of the time we had the place to ourselves. It can get busy with families and sightseeing tourists during the summer.
Where to stay: Camp at Craigieburn Forest for $6 per person. Rainwater, a vault toilet, and a picnic shelter are provided. Hot showers are available at Flock Hill Lodge ($5) or a campground in Springfield ($1 for four minutes) Flock Hill Lodge also has backpacker accommodation for $31, or if you’re in a group, rent a house in Castle Hill Village.
Where to eat: The Sheffield Pie Shop has delicious sweet and savory pies. The Supreme (beef, bacon, onion, cracked pepper) and chicken/camembert/spiced apricot were both delicious for around $5. The Darfield Cafe and Bakery has awesome coffee and pastries and is a great place to kick back on a rainy day.
Note: There are no shops within 45 minutes of Castle Hill. Springfield (20 minutes) has a few cafes and gas stations, but you’ll have to go to Darfield for groceries. Load up on peanut butter and broccoli on the way. There’s also a public library in Darfield with a great staff and free wifi.
“Something isn’t working,” I said to Zach, while staring at the road ahead of us.
“I know. What is it?” he replied, as we continued driving through the fields of sheep, toward the Castle Hill climbing area.
I sat there and thought. I could feel the lump in my throat. I hate these conversations. Zach and I usually have them about once a year, but since we have been on the road, we have had to talk about what’s working and what’s not working more often.
“I don’t know,” I said, feeling stupid for not having the answer. At home, if I were in a funk, I’d go to the gym or grab a drink with a gal pal and after a day or two, things would be back to normal. But in the van, if one of us is in a funk, the other has to endure it as well.
“It doesn’t feel like we are on the same team.” It sounded totally pathetic to say it out loud.
“It’s just business, we are dealing with a lot of stuff and making a lot of decisions.”
“Maybe…. but that doesn’t work for me. I’m still your girlfriend.”
“Okay, yeah. I know that. I’m sorry. I’ll work on that. I love you.” He took his eyes off the road to glance over at me, smile and squeezed my hand.
I sat there still feeling incomplete, knowing that it takes two to tango. “So what is it that I’m doing or not doing that is making you frustrated?”
“We just have a lot of decisions to make. I need you to be clear about what you want and how you’re feeling. And to be decisive.”
“I can do that.” And like that, our team of two was back on track. There wasn’t much conversation for the rest of our drive, but we both smiled and breathed easy as we wound past lakes and through mountains back to our campsite.
Here we are, pushing thirty and we are still working on being nice, sharing, and talking about our feelings.
Before we left for our trip, I was a little nervous about spending all day, every day together. Quite simply, I was worried that I would annoy him and he might annoy me. We work great as a couple; we bring different perspectives and strengths to the table. Zach is careful, systematic, analytical. I am impulsive, creative, and light hearted. But we have never spent this much time with one another. When living in the city and working separate jobs, being greeted at the end of the day with this other personality was a great reprieve from one’s self.
Living in a van and spending most of every day together is totally different. As expected, it’s been a challenge. We work together, eat together, climb and play together. We’re constantly planning, budgeting, reworking our travels and looking at one another’s writing. It’s a lot and it is usually pretty easy. But that kind of sharing, critiquing and communicating requires an open and comfortable space so that amidst the working relationship, we can still have a romantic relationship.
When a problem does arise, there’s no avoiding it. It sits in the center seat of the van and makes it feel crowded. We have to address it. Things like being nice to one another when frustrated, creating alone time, being organized, and communicating clearly have come up as issues that wouldn’t otherwise come up if we weren’t living in a small space and spending all of our time with each other. I can’t make a pile of my stuff in the corner because the corner is the whole room.
We’ve been together for a long time and had been comfortable in a routine, but this trip is making us face new challenges. Though it isn’t always comfortable, we share an understanding that change is a good thing and there isn’t anything we can’t do. And for that, I am grateful.