Addicted to heights

Willie Gorman is 72 but climbing keeps him feeling young. Writer Karin Goodwin finds out why it’s never too late to start.

How did you first start rock climbing?

I lived in Possil, a poor area in north Glasgow, and left school at 15 to work in the shipyards. To get away you went to the Campsies [a nearby range of hills]. Me and my mates went up a hill, saw people climbing and thought it looked brilliant. We went home, got washing lines, joined them together and tried it ourselves. I wouldn’t advocate it of course, but that’s what we did.

And how did you improve?

It didn’t take us long to meet other climbers who took us under their wing.  Then every Friday night we would hitchhike up to Glencoe or Arrochar and spend the weekend climbing. Myself and my friend fell in with a group of some of the top climbers in Scotland, the Creagh Dhu Mountaineering Club. They were the hard men, from the shipyards too, and our heroes. When I finished my [shipyard] apprenticeship I went to the Alps for three months and then taught at outdoor centres in the UK. Later on when I became a geography teacher I always took kids away to the hills and I continued to climb myself when I could.

Since retiring how often do you climb? How important is it in your life?
When I retired at 64 I had a lot more time for climbing, which was great. Now I climb four days a week. Indoor climbing is the main thing in winter although I do go on winter trips abroad. Last year I was in Greece. I also started doing a bit of work at the Glasgow Climbing Centre. I do some introductory courses, often with young people and with some specialist groups. I take an NHS group for those in recovery from addictions. It’s fantastically rewarding. 

What are some of the most common misconceptions about climbing?

There are perceptions about it being risky or about needing a lot of upper-body strength – neither is true. Quite a common thing I see is the young guy who has booked an introductory session for him and his girlfriend, and you can tell when they walk in that she is a bit reluctant. But when they walk back out the whole thing has flipped. She realises that there are a lot of movement skills involved in this game and he realises that it’s not all about big muscles and strength. It’s very safe too. It’s one of these sports where the danger is more apparent than it is real. Some people tell me they are afraid of heights: I say they are quite right. You can start off low to the ground and gradually work up to what you’re comfortable with. 

What is important to remember when you’re climbing?

Technique is very important. I really emphasise engaging technique to use as little energy as you can get away with, using your lower body rather than upper body. I’m just five foot four. But because I’ll twist and turn, I’ll find a way to reach the hold regardless.

What are the benefits of climbing?

Climbing is total mental and physical involvement. You are using the whole of your body – your legs, arms and core. You’re building functional strength and it helps with balance too. It’s about problem solving and it’s great for your self-esteem. There are a lot of the psychological benefits. When I climb I really feel young.  

You reckon it’s easy to get hooked. What is it that makes rock climbing so special?
One of the things I find addictive is that you keep meeting these problems but you don’t always solve them; you have to learn to live with failure. It means it never gets boring. But when you eventually do crack it, that’s the motivation to keep going. It’s exhilarating. And rock is such a beautiful medium to be climbing on.

Is climbing an accessible sport?

One of the great things about climbing is that you can do it at any age. Indoor climbing is very accessible; climbing centres changed everything. Anyone can come down here and learn how it works. Before it was a very macho sport but now you might find families climbing on the same rock as professionals. You just chose the climb you want to do.

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*Although moderate physical activity is safe for most people, health experts suggest that you consult your doctor before starting an exercise programme, especially if you have a history of heart disease, asthma, lung disease or diabetes.