Middle-age, it seems, is full of surprises. Of twists and turns that befuddle attempts at prediction and sense-making. These thoughts run through my head as I fiddle with my harness at the base of the ‘Excalibur’ climbing tower in Groningen, Holland. I glance at my companions. My climbing partner, D, is, carefully, checking the 80-metre rope we have borrowed from the friendly, laid-back staff. He’s not looking very laid-back though. My teenage son has his harness on, in seconds, and is taking in his surroundings seemingly unaffected by the rising ‘why did we agree to this madness’ sensation that I am failing to ignore. Further away, a non-climbing friend readies a camera and offers vaguely encouraging gestures.
The journey to this tower began years before. In my 30s, my path seemed marked out. Work. Marriage. Two young kids. Pretty amazing. Happy. I hadn’t exercised since my teenage pushbike was stolen in the 1980s. Good living was incrementally swelling my bulk, but I barely noticed. Until I did. A predictable late 30s male turn of events – albeit somewhat startling to me. Whether it was merely shock at failed-to-avoid-mirror reflections, or an existential foreshadowing of mortality, I started my mid-life crisis slightly ahead of schedule, and traded the pleasures of sloth, booze, cake and cigarettes with the pleasures of exercise-generated endorphins, and even more cake. I even ran (if that’s the right word) a marathon in the year I turned 40. Fairly predictable in terms of demographics and mass behaviour, but, as I say, exceptionally startling to me. It was a change of direction, but one where I felt I could accurately envisage the road ahead. As usual, I was wrong.