Maggie Reenan came to the attention of millions of TV viewers in the UK through her appearance on a new reality programme aimed at uncovering 'ordinary' people's hidden talents. The prime time programme had auditioned hundreds of people at centres in London, Birmingham and Manchester and put them through their paces, testing them for skills and qualities which had remained unrealized. From the mass ranks of applicants who went through the rock climbing aptitude tests,Maggie was shortlisted for the final ten who were packed off to North Wales to go through a rigorous appraisal to select one candidate who was considered 'a natural'.
Under the intense scrutiny of Play y Brenin instructors and sports scientists, Maggie came through the selection process with flying colours. Described by her assessors as 'quietly determined', Maggie's success led to her being put through an intensive three week period of coaching-largely under the tutelage of chief Plas y Brenin instructor, Martin Chester-which culminated with an ascent of The Old Man of Stoer. A 200' sea stack of Torridonian sandstone which is usually climbed via an exposed three pitch VS-4c (US 5.8) line.
Maggie's success might be considered all the more remarkable given her background. A mother at seventeen, Maggie had gone on to have two more children whilst pursuing a career in the National Health service where she is a nurse in a rapid response team. Now in her mid 40's and living in her home town of Birmingham with partner John, she now finds herself as a grandmother to four grandchildren!
The programme's sport psychologist considered her working background in a stressful environment as an important factor in her ability to cope with challenging situations. Furthermore, Maggie admits to 'working out' which gave her a powerful strength to weight ratio compared to many other candidates.Nevertheless,by any criteria,her achievement and progress as a 'natural born rock climber should act as an inspiration to anyone who might wonder if rock climbing might be their hidden talent too.
What follows is an interview Maggie kindly gave shortly after the programme was aired.
Hi John….Thanks for that.The testing day was really fascinating for me and one of the reasons I was so excited about getting the chance to go. We had no idea what we were going to be tested for. It was all very secretive. We were shown around a large building in Birmingham in groups of 20 and weren’t allowed to discuss any of the activities with the other groups. So whatever we went into, we were unable to prepare for and had no idea in some instances what we were doing! Such as, the free-diving test…we all stood around the edge of a large room and were told to hold our noses and blow out of our ear’s, they then asked us which ear “popped” first. They kept behind the people who’s ear’s popped equally. Then they told us that it was for freediving. There was a singing test…..in which we entered a room with a camera and a fella on the piano and told to sing happy birthday! That was so funny, needless to say I didn’t get chosen.
The climbing I guess was a little simpler, as in there was an assault course as you saw on t.v, then an indoor climbing section where you were given a start point and an end point where they watched us individually make our way across as “efficiently” as possible. It was at that point after the climb when Martin and Jamie, ( my mentor and Dr Jamie the extreme sports scientist) approached me and asked if I had climbed before. Whilst I was answering them, (which was a no) I looked back at the climb and noticed an overhanging section and had no recollection as to how I had gotten past it! They said I was very good at climbing (I thought they were being polite) and off I went.
I felt I did OK at the assault course, balance and coordination. We were also told to jump onto a mushroom kind of thing and choose a square to jump into. They were numbered 1 to 13 and were further away the higher the number. Later on during the afternoon one of the producer’s came and interviewed me asking why I had applied, what I had enjoyed and did I feel I was good at anything. I said I had thoroughly enjoyed the day and no, I didn’t think I was especially good at anything, although the climbing guy’s had said I was good. He asked if it was discovered that I had an ability to climb would I be interested, i replied I would be interested in any of the tasks. If I’m honest I thought then I may be in with a chance, but knew Birmingham was the first audition and they had a long way to go before deciding.
When you were picked for the shortlist and went off to N Wales for the final assessment, was there a moment when you said to yourself..'Hey...I can do this..I can really take that final place'?
Right from the beginning of the weekend I felt really at home climbing. We did a stint at the indoor ministry of defence wall (can’t remember the name) in which they made us do a route, one barley off the ground, then the same one but much higher. I remember feeling totally absorbed in the climb much higher up, and did really well. When we scrambled up Tryfan on the last day, I fell in love with the atmosphere, the scenery the peace and tranquility of what we were doing. I guess it showed! So, the answer is, I hoped, really hoped that they would choose me, and knew I could do it, but felt there was too many obvious people to choose from. Why would they want a middle aged (I struggle with that horrible phrase ) woman?
Was all your intensive training in N Wales? The anoraks amongst us would be interested to know what climbs you did. Can you remember any or was it all just a blur!
Yes, most of my training was based at Plas y Brenin. I climbed all over…I will get the names later. I have them written down. I did a few in Anglesey too. I did some messing about with Leo Holding and Libby Peter’s in The Peak District too. I spent an amazing weekend just climbing with Libby, who is absolutely wonderful. I felt alive. I was just messing about on the rock with a mate!
What were the highlights for you ?
So so many, but sleeping on a ledge overlooking the Irish sea at South Stack feeling totally safe and at peace. Waking up to a perfectly calm sea, the sunrise and the sound of seagulls waking up….wow! Then seconding an E1 on the way up, an E bloody 1!!….bliss. Then a feast at the top with lots of tea to warm us up. Martin is my hero!
How did you fit your intensive training session in with your work and family life?
Well it was over a 2 month period, so I had a few weekends in Wales, a 5 day course and a 3 day course. I was so lucky to get the time off work. My manager Emma was so delighted for me and did everything she could to give me the time I needed. I’m so grateful for that. It was really hard though, but such a privilege. The moment I pulled off my drive I was in climber mode and the moment I hit the M6 on the way home I was mum, nan, daughter…etc etc. I couldn’t blend the two.
Your friends and family must be really proud of you. What's been the reaction back home. Have you become a bit of a local celebrity!
I think because I underplayed the extent of what I was doing, -partly because I felt no one would understand and partly because they just needed me to be mum and had no exposure to the ‘climbing thing’ - they really were blown away by seeing me on screen climbing. The boy’s were really emotional about it and I think they look at me in a different light now. Not sure for how long! My brother, sister and mum were really really proud and amazed. One or two of the neighbours have grabbed me for a congratulatory hug on my way out.
When you got up to Scotland to climb The Old Man of Stoer, did you ever think when you stood on the cliffs looking over at what is after all, an awesome piece of rock architecture..'God...I can't do that!' ?
On the climb itself, you were tackling an extremely exposed and intimidating route in less than perfect conditions it seemed. Was there any time when you thought it wouldn't go or did the demands of the filming schedule make completion of the route necessary whatever the conditions?
Obviously I was aware of the effort and cost of putting this whole thing together and did feel that pressure on the day of the climb They had hoped for a dry day and mentioned if it was too wet we might have to try again the next day. But everything went to plan really. I was totally unaware of the rain but did feel the cold as the day wore on and it became more cloudy and really windy. I hate being cold, but as usual at the end of every day climbing, the sun came out and shone down on us as if to order…spectacular!
You said after completing the Old Man that you definitely want to continue rock climbing. Have you had the opportunity to keep your hand in ?
I am a member of my local indoor wall in Birmingham so have climbed there when I can. I was also really lucky to be invited to Cyprus in November by a lovely couple I met at PyB and did a week of sport’s climbing which I had never done before and loved. Really different to trad but I was really able to push myself and do lot’s more lead climbing.
My partner John finally get’s it! I think having heard everyone say how amazing it was he is encouraging me to get outdoors again. They all say I must continue to do it as I clearly love it.
Thanks a bunch Maggie. Good luck with the climbing and let's hope you find some time in your hectic life to get back up to north Wales and perhaps share a rope some time!
Interviewer-John ApplebyPhotographs: Maggie Reenan Collection/C4