My usual climbing routine was throwing on stretchy clothes with enough opacity that the colour of my pants stayed secret, shoving flapjack in my face as I rushed to the indoor centre and apologising to my friend for being late (again) whilst strapping on a pair of worryingly-warm hire shoes. This, my friend told me, had to change.
But it wasn't my tardiness or obsessive knicker hiding he was worried about. If I was going to climb more, I'd need my own equipment. Borrowing stretched-out misshapen shoes just wasn't going to cut it, especially after being invited on an outdoor bouldering adventure in the Peak District – apparently, there are no hire booths in the crags.
Faced with a wall full of shoes from laced to velcroed, flat slabbed to banana-shaped, I had no idea where to start! Luckily Tom, one of the experts at Ellis Brigham, was on hand to talk me through choosing my first pair.
Climbing shoes are pretty cosy on the toes. They need to be a snug fit, so your feet are as close to the rock as possible. At the same time, if your toes are cramped up, it'll be too painful to climb. Each pair of shoes I tried on in the Covent Garden store was tested on their mini climbing wall – edging my feet around the holds to test that every part of my foot was stable and comfortable in the shoe.
I tried on nine different pairs, some of them twice or even a third time with the very patient Tom before I finally chose the Boreal Women's Diabola, a 'do-it-all' shoe that is good both indoors and out – perfect for my first go at climbing outdoors.
We lugged mats and shoes to the first boulder, where I was introduced to a couple of pebbles. Apparently they were my foot and hand holds! Armed with Tom's advice to trust my feet, I cautiously placed one foot on the first pebble and pushed my weight onto it. Surprisingly, I stood up. More confident, I reached my hand to the second pebble. I pulled on it, my fingers awkwardly pinched and, again, somehow moved upwards.
I didn't finish the first route. It took a bit of encouragement for me to reach for the next invisible hold, at which point I slid down the granite and skinned my arms. It was really tough but being able to at least stand on a little pebble made me thankful for the perfectly-fitting shoes – it actually felt pretty secure as a hold. However, after failing to finish my first outdoor route, I was feeling really insecure. This level climb would be easy for me indoors but outdoors it felt almost impossible. I was starting to think I'd come all the way to the Peaks to sit around not being able to climb anything!
Luckily, I packed some really supportive friends who found a new route and bullied me up it. Again, there were challenges I'd not faced indoors before. For one the routes aren't marked, so there's a lot of trial and error in working out where to move next. Then there were a lot of sloped tops which could only be palmed at rather than grabbed – it was another case of trusting the little grip I did have, having confidence and just keep pushing myself upwards.
I finished my first route, using my knees and face for extra purchase on the boulder, then flopping myself over the top like a walrus. It was anything but elegant but I'd made it and finally my confidence was up again. By the end of the day, after a few hours of successful bouldering, I was being dragged away kicking and screaming by my friends whose feet were blistered and sore. Mine? Tired but perfectly intact.
For more expert tips on how to choose climbing shoes, visit Ellis Brigham's buying guide.
Thank you to Ellis Brigham for my perfectly-fitting first pair of climbing shoes.