Time on Rock by Anna Fleming review – vertiginous adventures

An intimate account of 10 years spent learning to climb celebrates the “electrifying charge” of risk

Climbing, says Anna Fleming, is “a form of dance”, an intensely physical ballet between self and rock. This book charts her stony path to mastering the craft of traditional climbing, from being a “terrified novice” to a “competent leader”. Unlike sport climbing, where bolts are left in the rock for others to use, traditional climbing involves a lead climber who inserts metalware into cracks in the rock, to which safety ropes are attached. These are then collected by the climber’s partner.

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Leading, Fleming admits, used to terrify her. But what she describes as the “electrifying charge” of risk is an essential part of learning to climb. Falling and being caught by the rope is a necessary experience. Climbing the Cuillin on Skye in her early 20s, she was saved by her rope from “the brink of a mortal abyss” when a large block she caught hold of came loose. “I walked away feeling deeply humbled, carrying an enhanced respect for the gravity of these heightened places,” she writes. Only when she returned four years later to complete the route did she feel that her “mountain apprenticeship” had been truly served.

As an undergraduate she began climbing indoors: “On the wall I became a network of muscles, limbs, senses, nerves, cells and neurons; an active, thinking, sensing being.” Climbing gave her “a new map of my body”. In the early 2000s, a woman could find herself alone among men on an indoor climbing wall. Now they are full of women and girls, and the climbing community feels different: “It seems like a quiet revolution has happened in the last 10 years.”

Rock climbing was a different challenge, with its changeable conditions and the need for absolute attention. It demanded an intense focus on the world at her fingertips – cracks, surface texture, flakes of rock – to find a route to the top. In this heightened state of awareness, “thousands of years vanish and I hear the acute sensitivity of my ancestors”.

But at the summit a new perspective opens up, revealing distant landscapes and wildlife. These two viewpoints – the micro and the macro – offer a transformative sense of one’s place in the scheme of things.

For Fleming, climbing is not about “reducing huge landscapes and environments to peaks that must be conquered”. It’s a more personal and profound experience, offering “a direct route into the spellbinding potency of place”. Nan Shepherd described “walking out of my body and into the mountain”. Fleming, too, finds that while climbing, the self disappears, “lost to movement and environment”.

She describes how the “physical contact and bodily perception” of climbing offers her both a “journey into the rock” and a profound connectedness to the landscape, an existential rootedness in nature that echoes the current writing of Elizabeth-Jane Burnett and Robin Wall Kimmerer.

Fleming has written a wonderfully intimate account of climbing, filled with the rough texture of rocks and the hard-won elation of reaching for the skies. This is a book about geology and place, selfhood and nature – a rich celebration of “stony matter” and our relationship to it across the ages.

• Time on Rock: A Climber’s Route into the Mountains is published by Canongate (£16.99). To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.


PD Smith

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