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My weight-loss plan is driving me up the walls

My first rock climb proved terrifying and exhilarating in equal measure

When I think about rock climbing, images of adrenaline junkies defying gravity with no fear of dying enter my mind. Or I remember the harrowing film 127 Hours about a trapped climber who has to go to drastic measures (losing an arm) to survive.

Clearly, I tend to think dramatically about the sport, but agree to give it a go when suggested I give it a try.

Getting out of my comfort zone and pushing myself is my goal in this weight-loss plan, and climbing meets that criteria. I have never climbed, except as a child scrambling up trees thinking I was indestructible and only worrying about my fastest route down if my mother spotted me. Now, my worry about climbing is if I’ll be able to physically do it, but it’s a challenge I’m excited about at least trying.

That is until the evening to do it arrives and I’m no longer embracing the possible inner-Spiderman traits I may have hidden somewhere. Every excuse I can think of swirls around my head – I have a bit of a cold and a headache, I’m very tired, I’m about 2st overweight so how on earth will I do this and finally, it’s lashing rain, which obviously will have a big impact on an indoor activity. I manage to push them aside and head to the centre.

When I arrive, I’m given forms to read and sign as a beginner. One line stands out: “Do you understand that failure to exercise due care could result in your injury or death?”– I mark a big black X in the “yes” box and my nerves kick in as I look at the nimble and remarkable climbers scaling the walls behind the reception desk.

The centre has a very relaxed atmosphere, other climbers are friendly and welcoming and there’s a social aspect as people sit around in the cafe.

My instructor, Ambrose Flynn, who runs adventure company Hike and Climb and has been climbing for more than 12 years, is waiting beside the equipment. I bombard him with questions shortly after we meet.

“It is all extremely safe,” he reassures me. “You couldn’t fall even if you wanted to.” He explains what we’ll be doing, makes me feel comfortable about the whole process and tells me it will be a lot of fun. Flynn’s passion for climbing is infectious.

Embarrassment

My main concern is my lack of upper-body strength and if I’ll suffer the embarrassment of not being able to get more than a couple of steps off the floor. Flynn is calm, positive and knowledgeable, and soon puts me at ease. I hire climbing shoes and once my harness is on, it all feels very real – I am doing this.

But first, the knot. Flynn makes it look simple and seamless tying a figure 8 knot in the rope. When I tie mine, it looks like it’s had a few too many wild nights out on the town. I get it eventually.

The walls have multi-coloured holds, which represent different routes and grades of difficulty.

“Go whenever you are ready,” Flynn says calmly. “That may be never,” I laugh nervously as I stare at the first wall, which is about 10m tall. “Take your time. You can do this,” he says.

Flynn has morphed into my Yoda for the evening. He seems to know the right things to say when I’m second-guessing myself as I once again check my rope is attached to the belay he is controlling.

“You are much stronger than you think,” he says.

Off I go. As soon as I’m on the wall it feels great. I forget about any fears and start looking for the best hold to move to next.

My brain is being trained as much as my body. It is like being given a puzzle I need to solve through body movements. It tests balance, agility, coordination, none of which I thought I had, but with every step up – each bit of progress – I gain confidence.

When I reach about 2m off the ground I realise I can do this and it feels incredible. I feel on top of the world when I reach the summit.

But I hadn’t quite thought about how to get down. “Let go of the wall and I’ll lower you down,” Flynn calls up. He had already explained all the details before I went climbing. Getting down sounds easy but it is actually quite daunting as my instinct is to cling onto the grips that support me. When I finally let go, it is a lot of fun being lowered down.

Once down, I’m eager to get back up the wall and try the different routes and levels. I had assumed it was brute strength I needed to get to the top of the wall but I begin to get a better understanding that climbing is a whole-body movement. My mind clears each time I start out as I focus on where to shift my weight to next.

Flynn reminds me I’d underestimated my ability. He then smiles while saying, “You’re doing good, so we’ll give you more of a challenge.” He points to the row of taller walls behind us, to a section where there is an overhang on part of the way up.

I’m initially reluctant but my new-found confidence kicks in and I’m happy to go for it. This time, it’s an auto-belay I’m attached to. “Strong enough to hold the weight of a van,” Flynn says as I dangle off it to check it can hold my weight.

Intimidating

This wall feels different, it’s about 14m high and much more intimidating but thrilling as I make progress. My focus is sharper on where I move to next – there’s no room for my mind to wander. The adrenaline is pumping the higher I get and pushing me to keep going. I make some mistakes along my route, getting stuck in some places, but after going down a little I find a way up again.

When I reach the part of the wall that protrudes, my forearms start to tire. I get a little farther and almost to the top but not quite there. I stop and look down and realise how high I am and feel a sense of achievement. Then comes the realisation of how high I am from the ground and panic sets it as it is time to let go of the holds.

I have trust issues with the auto-belay. It only takes up the slack as needed, like a car seat belt, so I need to let go and “fall”, just a fraction of a second, before it catches me and slowly lowers me down. My instinct is to never let go. Then Flynn has the very difficult job of coaxing me to let go of the wall and trust the auto-belay. Once I let go I descend in a few seconds. The overall sense of achievement that I did something I thought I couldn’t is great. I can understand how this sport can become addictive. But it’s not quite over yet. Flynn offers to show me the boulder-climbing area.

These are shorter walls where people climb with no ropes and there are soft mats on the floor. In my rush of excitement about how much farther I’ve pushed myself than I thought I could, I volunteer to give it a go. I find it harder to start off but enjoyable, and I get a real sense of freedom as I move up along the wall. I’m slow but having fun. I come back down and my climbing lesson is over. Flynn reminds me that in time I will build strength with my grip, fingers and technique – there are always new goals and changing routes.

Climbing was exactly what I needed and I’ll be doing it again. I’ve lost almost 3½st. In the previous two weeks, I’d become little disheartened with not losing any weight, but climbing pushed me out of my comfort zone and I’m better for it, and ready for my next challenge.

Rachel Flaherty is writing a regular column about getting fitter and healthier.
Contact Rachel on Twitter @rachelfl or email rflaherty@irishtimes.com

Part 1: I lost three stone and I'm stronger now
Part 2: I’m stuck in the weight loss plateau
Part 3: My friend called my fitness holiday a fat camp
Part 4: My weight-loss plan is driving me up the walls