Truth & Balance: The key to living the dream?

The following is an article I wrote for “County Climber” back in August………..

August 2010

I’m single and living the life of a sponsored climber and carefree crag rat, the main difference between me and the real sponsored athletes being about 6 E numbers (on a good day) and the fact that my sponsor (i.e. employer) has no idea they are paying me to climb every day. I wake to the sporadic pitter-patter of light, morning rain on my bivvy bag. My elbow is wet because it’s been outside my bag all night. I peel the cold, damp Gortex from my face and peer out. It’s grey and misty , a far cry from last night as the rolling hills of the county soaked up the last of the evening’s golden light. I waste no time in making a brew, the hot mug reminds me how damaged my tips are after last night’s session on the font block. I pack my gear and head home for a shower, then to my job as a building surveyor. I’m there simply to show my face as I’m already planning my escape.

Shaftoe, Northumberland at Sunset

I try to look busy , I mess with blueprints and scale rules, I answer the telephone, I flick aimlessly through emails and stare at a blank screen, I make up a story about contractors and what happened on site yesterday so that colleagues will think I was actually at work and not at Shaftoe. I laugh at people’s crap jokes and pretend I’m interested in last night’s TV, how bad their relationship has become, or how lairy their weekend was. In truth I’m being fake; I have to be as I have nothing at all in common with these people. I love life and would never end up as one of life’s negative people, ‘a settler’. To all the people that spend all day complaining about their crap job, I say, just find another job!

Mingulayan Exped 2010

An hour back in the office is all I can bear. The sun is back out and I’ve had a message asking me to go to Kyloe. I ring my office number from my mobile and pretend to have a conversation. I speak loudly so people can hear. Really?!…..the foundations?…I’m on my way” Before I know it I’m in the car and I’m gone! I’m completely free of ties and responsibility, have a mass of disposable income, I am surrounded by friends and never short of a climbing partner. It may sound idyllic; however, on reflection the balance isn’t great. I am 28 and living in a box-room at my Mam’s, with a real feeling of going nowhere. I have no hope of moving out anytime soon as I do not save, instead spending every last penny on climbing and living in the ‘now’. Deep down there’s a feeling of loneliness – I feel like a bum.

August 2011

I’m 29, still unofficially ‘sponsored’ but am now in love and engaged to be married to my soul mate. It’s come at a cost, though – I’ve acquired two children and a mortgage! My diet is much better, I climb daily and have a purpose – I feel I’m going somewhere in life. Perfect, right?…..Wrong! I’m neglecting work and every time my boss shouts “Craig can I have a word?” my heart sinks. “Oh God! He knows I climb every day… he’s caught me out!” Every day I live with the worry that if he finds out and sacks me I’ll lose everything, the house, the car and my credit score, and won’t be able to blame anyone but myself. Also I have less disposable income and climbing holidays have gone from four a year to one.

‘Attempting’ the second ascent of The Ayes Have It (E8) at Raven Crag (Kyloe)

I spend all my time climbing alone during work time so as not to neglect Vickie and the kids, soloing easy stuff, and bouldering or climbing with Vickie; very much a beginner, has resulted in me climbing only easier routes. In short I’m becoming a punter. I try to con myself that I don’t care, that climbing is about just getting out, and that grades don’t matter. However, I’m ashamed to admit that they do.

I wake in my sleeping bag, but this time I’m in a tent on a CAMPSITE! Unthinkable a year ago but now I have Vickie and kids lying beside me. I can hear stoves and radios, catch parts of conversations, kids are screaming and parents with weary voices are snapping at each other as the stress of the week’s holiday catches up. The smell of bacon filling the campsite lifts my spirits and I peer outside and look towards the Langdale Pikes. It’s a stunning view as the sun casts shadows across the mountains through the soft white fluffy clouds; the fells look inviting. A surge of excitement helps me forget I’m in a campsite. I head to the shop to get fresh bread while Vickie nearly blows the tent up with our posh stove.

August Holiday 2011 – Jack’s Rake

As we eat our bacon sandwich we notice the outdoor company is back, parked in its usual spot. They put the billboard out advertising rock climbing in the morning and ghyll scrambing after lunch. Every day they take around 10 punters both morning and afternoon. Vickie looks at me and notices I’m paying extra attention today. All I’m thinking is “Jammy bastards, what a great job” possibly taking more notice as I’m heading home tomorrow, back to office politics and pulling out my fake smiley face.

I start thinking about how increasingly hard it has become to get the balance right in my life. As it fills with more responsibilities something or someone always gets neglected. If I spend lots of time with the kids my climbing gets affected, if I climb lots my family life is affectedMy only option had been to affect the only thing I didn’t care about…… job.

I have upped my game and am now doing ALL my climbing during the working day, leaving me with ample time to spend with Vickie and kids in the evening. Every Friday on her day off we climb together so she can get her fix, and when the kids go to their dad’s we cram in as much climbing/bivvying as we possibly can.


Various Bivvy’s in Northumberland

I’m distracted from my revelry as Vickie starts to talk…….

You would love to do that wouldn’t you”?

“Massively, do you think we’ll ever end up living here one day? I know we said we would when we are old, but is it just a pipe dream?”

“Let’s just move”

“What?”  I nearly choke on my sandwich.

“Finish your qualifications and let’s move in a few years when the fixed mortgage runs out.”

“You would do that? Uproot the kids and move for me?”

“For all of us! What’s keeping us in Shields? It’s a much better life for us over here!”

I do some quick maths, “10 people in the morning, 10 in the afternoon, £25 each, so thats £500 a day, that’s £3500 a week and there are around 10 weeks of holidays, that’s £35K. Jesus that’s possible.”

I am no longer devastated about going back to work. We have an escape plan!

August 2012

I’m 30, even deeper in love and, to put it mildly, some major life-changing events have taken place. We now live in the Lake District and have our own outdoor company called Crags Adventures. Our five year plan to move to the Lakes fast-forwarded to ‘Let’s move ASAP.’ This was partly due to some differences I had with my hypocritical boss, I really couldn’t stand seeing his cocky arrogant face every day and hated that he held the strings to my life. The main reason, however, was a health scare I blew out of all proportion that ended up being absolutely nothing, but which nevertheless forced me to come face-to-face with mortality and put life into perspective.

The Second Proposal (I did a poor job of the first one)

I needed to take control. We only get one shot, I wanted to spend every day with Vickie, I wanted to spend every day climbing, to be in charge of my own life and be my own boss, to enjoy every aspect of my life. No regrets, no faking, no bullshit………. just happiness, adventure and love. I had to be true to myself. I felt privileged to have seen the light so early in life. I knew what the key to happiness was and what really mattered. Some people don’t get this ‘til it’s too late. I bet no-one sits on their death bed and wishes they had made more money or had a Gucci watch. I knew I would pray I had spent more time with Vickie, more time climbing and doing what I loved.

From the moment the house was on the market we started walking round work with a smug look on our faces. It didn’t matter how many times my boss was being a prick, you just couldn’t knock the grin off my face. I felt like I was walking on air. I was untouchable; no-one could get to me anymore. I laughed along with their crap jokes, took an interest their boring lives, even pitied them for believing they were trapped in a life they hated. In reality what separated us from the rest of the herd was the fact we didn’t care about possessions, status or what other people thought. All we wanted was to be happy even if it meant taking a risk. We are both positive people, so much so that in reality we hadn’t even considered failure – we had each other and two fantastic kids, what more could we want or need?

Crags Adventures in Action

After 5 months my smug grin was starting to fade along with the hopes of selling the house.We had dropped it by 40 grand we were so desperate to get out of the rat race and live our dreams. The fact of that matter was that the current economic state wasn’t helping. On top of that we had a never ending “to do” list; website, insurance, qualifications, research schools etc. Subdued and feeling like the dream was out of reach I headed to the wall one evening where a friend suggested renting our house. We could re-mortgage on a buy-to-let and borrow a little extra to pay for the set up of the business. I put the new plan to Vickie and without any hesitation we decided. Our haste however almost cost us our dream as we nearly ended up with the worst mortgage offer in history until fate stepped in and the computer crashed upon approval!

With a fresh head we visited the financial advisor and got approved on the new mortgage and it was on! The dream was officially a reality, I could hardly believe it. Our house was rented out within a few days and we had one month to arrange everything.

I barely slept the night before I handed in my notice. We both worked at the same place and took our bosses aside at the same time so we could deliver the news personally before it leaked. My talk wasn’t as civilised as Vickie’s – I had a few things to get off my chest.

Never once did we panic or worry, we ignored all negative comments, aware that most of the people we told only appeared to understand what we were doing; secretly they thought we were stupid or would return in time to the life we were leaving. They were so wrong. As I was leaving work for the last time lightning struck the Tyne Bridge and a monster storm took hold. Houses destroyed, cars floating in the street, everyone stranded in the city. No way in or out. We didn’t even consider this as a sign from above nor the removal van breaking down “after” we’d packed it. We took it all in our stride. Little did we know that the storm would carry on in what would turn out to be the wettest summer on record. We didn’t care; we were far too excited about our new life.

Our First Month Living as Cumbrians

We now spend every day together, are the happiest we’ve ever been, no fakeness or bullshit anymore, the kids love it, life is stress free and at our own pace. Perfect?…….. No. We are spending all of our time fixing up our new home, entertaining the kids and reccying potential venues as opposed to climbing. The holidays mean the kids are off so we can’t climb – family and babysitters are two hours away. We’ve taken clients out but they were all friends of friends etc; we only have a few weeks of the main holidays left and our buffer money is dwindling. We had naively thought that once our new fandangled website (courtesy of Mr Birtwistle) went live people would start enquiring. In reality we were on page 30-odd of Google. No-one will ever find us till it moves onto at least page 3. However we have been proactive and made contact with a caravan park I’ve been going to since I was a child.

August 2013

I’m now 31 and married. I have an unbreakable bond to Vickie, the kids are settled in the Lake District and we have a new addition to the family…….a dog. It’s been without doubt the most life changing and eventful year to date so far. The caravan park contact turned out to be the key to success in surviving the first season. I would jump out of bed every day barely believing I was living in the place I’d dreamed of living since I was a child and was working for myself doing what suits me best…… doing what I love.

A Couple of Our Wedding Day Snaps

I would sing as I drove to Greenhowe Caravan Park in Langdale. I vowed never to take the scenery or our situation for granted. I love it when I crest the hill at Elterwater and the landscape opens up to reveal the Pikes, the favourite part of the journey. I would quietly pull into the site and get my homemade billboard out, wait for the customers to stir then let them book up. I am not pushy or salesmany at all. I have left being fake behind in the North East.

I spent every day taking the customers of Greenhowe out on adventures and it filled me with pride we were the highlight of their holiday. I would occasionally envy the fact they were on holiday as I was unsure whether we’d ever be able to afford a holiday again. However, I would also remember I was on permanent holiday and how lucky I was when they left at the end of the week and I was still here. I would drive home with a pocket full of money and a smile. When I got home I would take the kids and Vickie out for a swim or a hike or wild camping. Life was so exciting. The dream was a reality.

The season drew to a close in October, by which time we’d started to get out climbing a lot more.  Money was tight but we managed to budget and be creative with meals – I pretty much lived on homemade jam and bread. The ‘idyllic’ house started to show its true colours as winter crept in and the temperature never rose above 7 degrees in any room except the living room till late May. It was definitely character building and it turned into a full time job scavenging for and chopping wood for the sole wood burning stove.

Another Shipment of Christmas Decorations

With Christmas approaching and uncertainty about how long winter would last or how much extra our wedding would cost, I decided to get creative and make wreaths and reindeers from scavenged wood. All we wanted was £100 to help us along but £200 would be great. Half jokingly and semi-embarrassed I gave a few items to my sister who has a beauty salon back in Stanley. To my disbelief there was a market for them and orders came flooding in. I spent the whole of November and December sitting in the shed making Christmas decorations in bulk.

I kick a bunch of dead leaves into the air and Bear my dog dives into the brown, rusty cloud, snapping at them. I was on my usual walk and had watched these beech leaves turn from green to a fantastic yellow before falling to the ground in autumn. It was now February and the winter felt like it had lasted years. I have never had such a rough time. We were down to our last pennies, the house hadn’t been warm since September and our usual attire for bed was two fleece tops, two pairs of pants, a hat, dressing gown and two pairs of socks. We were happy though, ridiculously so in fact. We still loved it here, we appreciated the hardship knowing that when we eventually started making money again we would really appreciate even the smallest things. Through my entire time with Vickie we have still never argued and have been through a lot of experiences that most would find taxing and stressful. Life was still great. I was finding I had other skills and had started cutting my own hair, fixing my own car and generally being as independent as I could to save. On a positive note we are climbing or hiking most days and we are the strongest and fittest we have been. Real happiness isn’t measured in monetary value. 

As I leave the wood and enter the field I feel a strange sensation, an alien one almost – the sun! I can actually feel it’s warm rays on my face and it feels magnificent. I stand with arms outstretched in worship – we’ve made it, it’s warming up. I’m not ashamed to say I felt like crying with happiness. I had taken central heating for granted all my life and never really appreciated the feeling of spring coming and the earth warming up.

Fools Paradise (VS) in February

It was short-lived and winter returned a week or so after that day and lasted till April! During that time we got our first customers but it was still cold enough to affect business. It was the coldest Easter on record to follow the wettest summer. I figured if we could survive this year we could survive any.  We approached campsites and caravan parks on the basis that it had served us so well last year. We updated our website endlessly and were now on page one of Google. We climbed every day. What’s better is I had decided at New Year to set myself a target for all the 7’s –  E7, English 7a and Font 7c – by the end of the year. I had no excuse for climbing punter routes anymore with Vickie. She was strong enough to follow me now. The hard work and effort had paid off. I no longer needed another climbing partner. I slowly upped the grades and she never failed to impress. Every day the kids were being dropped off at school and we were cramming as much as we could into 6 hours before picking them back up. 

Vickie and Bear On Route to Dollywagon

There are still slight downsides to our life, I miss out on Mingulay every year as it’s my busy period and I missed the Scottish winter scene due to having no spare cash and no partner, but we eventually got the conditions we needed in the Lakes and I found a few people to get out with. By the end of the winter season Vickie showed an interest, and who knows maybe I won’t need a winter partner one day either.

The Honeymoon Transport (and accommodation)

By March we were on our stag and hen nights, and a few weeks later had the best day of my life and married Vickie after soloing Little Chamonix a few hours before the wedding. The honeymoon in Skye sleeping in the back of the car lasted 7 hours in total; the horizontal rain helped us decide to spend it in the Lakes. My first route as a married man was to solo an E1 followed by an E2 lead. It might not sound much but it was a milestone in our climbing. Vickie was leading now and taking to it with ease. Her gear was bomber and I was no longer a bag of nerves watching her.

Honeymoon Trad – Ethelrid (HVS)

Work started to flood in again, and from May and it was clear that caravan parks were no longer required. We are booked in advance and no longer need to tout for business. The website is doing its job. This is our year, I can feel it and we are climbing hard.

Making the third(?) ascent of Meltdown (E7) 

All the winter training is paying off. For the first time in ages I’m on-sighting E3 again, climbing E5 ground up and soloing E1/2 on-sight.  I’ve even climbed my first E7. All this with Vickie who’s now leading Severe but I’m the one holding her back as I want her to serve her apprenticeship.

Vickie on Her First Ascent of Spike Island (D)

June was a busy month and our climbing is through the roof. I have put up a new E5 6a and we have decided new routes are where the action is; we have new crags lined up, the idea being that Vickie does the easier routes and I will do the harder ones. July was even busier but I managed to squeeze in a Direct start to my E5 before the kids broke up and I’m now the proud first ascentionist of an E6/7 (6b). I cannot remember the last time it rained but on a slightly negative note this has resulted in our borehole drying up requiring us to carry buckets to the stream to fill it until the landlord manages to sort it out.

Me During the First Ascent (solo) of No Nuts, Just Balls (E7)

Have I actually found a state of balance? I think so. August was also booked up in advance and the money looking healthy. We will probably never be rich but we are comfortable. Luckily we don’t crave possessions and are content. I can honestly say I’m the happiest I have ever been. The kids are settled, I am never stressed, I’ve erased anything or anyone from my life that had a negative impact on it, avoid getting caught up in politics with other outdoor companies. I don’t care if people are busier than us. We make enough and everyone seems to have fun and hopefully leaves us inspired to enjoy life and the great outdoors.

Me During the First Ascent of Wobble Block (VS)

I’m in love, never say that I’m ‘going to work’, but I am going ghyll scrambling or climbing. There is no faking or negativity in my life and I still wake feeling privileged and never take my position for granted. I swim daily with the kids and Vickie in the lake after work with a mountain backdrop. I’m climbing the hardest I have ever climbed, and already logged over 300 climbs this year.  I’ve climbed E7, Font 7b and English 6c so don’t have too much to do to reach my 2013 goal. Vickie is rapidly improving and I can climb harder with her than anyone else I’ve tied in with. We are even moving to a warm house with mains gas, electric and water! There are still downsides. I can’t afford to fly to the Alps or Kalymnos anytime soon but who knows what the future holds? We have a long term plan, so watch this space. 

I can’t recommend enough that if you have a dream then go for it. You only live once. People have said ‘I wish I could do what you have done’ – you can! Just do it. Even my sister is considering heading west in the future to expand her salon business and live in the mountains. Trust me, if a knacker like me can do it then anyone can. I’m not saying everyone should be outdoor instructors and move to the Lakes, mind – this was our dream. All I’m stating is that I believe you should do something you are passionate about and live where you want to live. If this means being an accountant and living in London then that’s great. Just be true to yourself as I believe this is just as important as balance in holding the key to your happiness.

Reach for the stars.

(Footnote: since the time of publication we have notched up a few more first ascents on our secret crags, and Crags Adventures is booked well ahead through the winter and into March. I fear the balance has been knocked slightly however, seen as though we didn’t have a day off in the whole of August and September and the season hasn’t drawn to a close this year, it has simply slowed down. I fear next year our free time (climbing) will seriously be affected by how busy the business will be. Can balance ever be maintained? We’ll see……. )


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