Beginnings (a surfer’s tale): Sam Salmon
Rock climbing, eh? Funny old game! What’s the point? For me, it all started many years ago in the seas off West Cornwall. Way back in 1976 I was living just up the road from Land’s End and generally having a good time. I had left the Fleet Air Arm a couple of years earlier and was by now fully engaged in a surfing lifestyle – this involved hanging out at the beach, getting in the water as much as possible and relaxing in the pub talking about waves. In order to live I was working on a local farm and my accommodation was an old caravan overlooking one of the best surfing beaches in Cornwall.
A couple of years earlier I had met an interesting bunch of guys who told me they were rock climbers. The names of Mike White, Owen Smith and Jim Cotton may sound familiar to some older members of the club (Owen, of course, is still an active member). We met through Owen, who at the time was selling surfboards in Ellis Brighams’ climbing shop in Penzance. I was fascinated by climbing, but thought it a very odd thing to do – what was the point? They spent a lot of time trying to persuade me that it was as good as surfing, but I wasn’t convinced. The fact that Owen had all but given up climbing to go surfing didn’t help their cause.
Eventually and inevitably, one rather drunken night in the Old Success Inn at Sennen, it was decided that I would give it a go. And so it was that I arrived at the crag a day or two later with Mike White, the chief instigator. He quietly explained what all the bits were for and how I wasn’t going to die and then led me round the easy way down to the bottom of the cliff. I was overawed, this was surely the daftest thing I had ever done in my entire life. Going out alone in 8 to 10 foot surf at Gwenver beach was bad enough, but this was just crazy. If I had thought I could have got back to the top on my own I would almost certainly have run away. “This one’s called Corner Climb” announced my guide, uncoiling the rope beneath an impregnable looking wall. Having repeated all of the instructions and tied me onto the rope, Mike disappeared upwards with consummate ease. Soon the rope started to be taken in, to be followed by that most dreaded of commands “Climb when you’re ready!” The fool, how can you ever be ready for this? Repeating Mike’s assurance to myself – that I wasn’t going to die – I set off.
How do you describe your very first rock climb? I can still vividly remember the very first time I stood up on a surfboard, didn’t fall off and rode the wave all the way in. It was at Porthmeor beach, St Ives, in autumn 1969, but it could have been this morning. That was sheer exhilaration. I’ve often said that it was all downhill after that, nothing could ever quite match the emotions I felt on that very first wave, and I surfed on an almost daily basis for many years afterwards. ‘Exhilaration’ is certainly not a word that I would use about my first rock climb. ‘Uncontrollable fear’ is probably closer to the mark, although I suppose in retrospect there was a certain amount of satisfaction. In fact, I don’t know how to describe it, because I remember little about it. I remember that we went on to do a couple of other routes that day, but of the actual mechanics of getting up Corner Climb my memory is vague. However, a seed was clearly sown.
Over the next few weeks, Mike gently (sometimes not so gently) introduced me to the art of rock climbing: “Just put your hand out there, it keeps you in balance – see?”; “Think about your feet”; “Just use a jam, put your hand in the crack and flex it”; “Keep your feet high when you layback, Oh! Try again”; “Stop being a wimp, of course you can do it!” etc. etc. He also schooled me in all of the important stuff that prevents you from suffering a horrible and messy death. He was a good teacher, Mike, I owe him a lot. Later that year he moved to North Wales, but before he went he flogged me his gear and handed me over to the gentle and caring embrace of the Land’s End Climbing Club. Shortly after Mike’s departure I did my first lead. I remember that quite well, a bulging little “Diff” at Trewavas. I also remember the words of my second as I launched out into another unknown: “It’s a bit steep, you can come down if you don’t…..Oh, he’s done it, well done”.
And so it went on – and goes on to this day. A continuing adventure that has led me to some amazing places, countless routes, numerous epics and introduced me to a wonderful group of friends, some of whom, regretfully, are no longer with us. And I still catch a wave every now and then, just to show that I still can.
So, to get back to my earlier question: is there a point to all this rock climbing malarkey? Depends how you look at it, I suppose. You could quote all the usual stuff: builds character, builds trust in others, gets you outdoors, keeps you fit and strong, and so on, but to me, mostly, it’s just good fun. I suspect that if and when we ultimately discover the real point of it all, the journey will be at an end, so it’s probably best if we don’t look too hard.
Sadly, Mike’s journey did come to an end and he died in 2019. RIP old buddy, you taught me well.
Sam Salmon MMXX
(This is a revised and greatly shortened version of an article first published in the Land’s End Climbing Club 25th Anniversary Journal, 1997)