Monday, 19 March 2012

A whole new headgame.

I went home from my first proper weekend of trad wondering to myself how I wanted to progress. Should I stick with HVS to E2 leads (where I could be reasonably sure of success) and try and get a whole lot of mileage under my belt... or should I try to push my boundaries a bit right from the start.

Obviously the former would be the sensible option, but the challenge of pushing on whilst staying safe was alluring, and leading under Ramon's watchful gaze had given me some measure of confidence that I was capable of protecting myself. So I spent a great deal of time over the next few days thinking about how exactly I could do that.

One thing was clear in my mind from the start - to push hard safely you need to be making the right decisions, and to do that you need to be relaxed. If I wanted to see what I was capable of, I was going to have to become comfortable doing hard moves above gear. And if there's one thing that sport climbing had taught me it's that there's only one way to become comfortable above your protection - and that's to test it out.

But falling on bolts is one thing - you just have to push through an irrational fear... there's nothing irrational about worrying that you may have placed some pro that wasn't as good as you thought, or missed something important in your calculations. Falling on gear was going to be a whole new headgame. Nevertheless, by the time the weekend came round and we made our way to Swanage, I'd set myself some rules as to what would constitute a safe falling scenario, and resolved to collect my first trad airmiles.

Standing at the bottom of Ocean Boulevard, I knew what I had to do - stitch up the bottom with some good gear, and then go for the onsight - there was to be no backing down unless I could reason a ground fall might be on the cards... or found myself so scared I could no longer reason.

I started out fine, and got my first few solid bits of gear in, but then I realised I was in the 'OK to fall' zone, and I was committed to not backing down. My heart started racing, and my forearms were instantly pumped. I fought to get it back under control. There was a large crack above me to get my next pro into, and I had two good hand holds to work from. I tried to focus on resting and getting the gear in, but that was no easy task. The first cam I selected seemed too big. I went two sizes down... that was way too small. Back up a size... still too small. Shit. Try the first one again. Ah, the crack's a bit wider further up. Bingo! Oh fuck... that cam is bomber... I have to carry on.

I made a strenuous move right, then a couple of moves up the next crack, and came to what felt like a dead end. I was fairly comfortable where I was, and could probably reverse back to the pro, but the next obvious hand-hold seemed a long way away. Last chance to back down. I ran through the pro below me. Nope, no reason to believe any of them should come out, so I went for it... and off. To my relief, that first cam held. I hung on the rope and considered my next move - I was so pumped I didn't know if I could get back on and dog it to the top, so I just came down and let Ramon lead it. I'd failed the onsight, but that didn't really matter - I'd achieved my first and most important objective of the weekend.

On the Sunday I tried Ocean Boulevard again, and after my fall was much more relaxed resulting in a reasonably comfortable send. But by the time four days had passed and I found myself back in Pembroke for a long weekend, I was feeling very apprehensive at the idea of falling again. Friday and Saturday I stuck within my comfort zone when leading - I had an amazing time on some fantastic HVS and E1 lines, but Sunday morning I woke up feeling I wanted a bit more from myself.

So I picked Tangerine Dream - an intimidating but stunning line weighing in at a hefty E4 6a. The problem with this route was the climbing starts off hard, and eases off higher up, and I was having a real difficulties arranging my first few pieces of protection - about 4m above a very unpleasant looking rocky landing. I couldn't understand it: there seemed so many good placements, but nothing I set in there really seemed bomber. Maybe I was just too psyched out by the challenge in front of me. I down-climbed for a rest, then went up for another go, with similar results. Another down-climb and one final attempt, and I collected what little gear I'd placed and retreated with my tail between my legs - but at least those legs were intact to try another day. I wasn't disheartened by this - if I'm going to play this headgame safely I need to know when to stay and fight and when to run, and running was definitely the correct decision in this case.

Besides, I wasn't quite finished for the weekend.

Test Case (E3 5c) was a much better proposition for pushing the boat out. After a few meters of relatively easy climbing, you get a couple of threads to secure the bottom end of the rope from nasty zippers up the line in a fall. This is followed by a well protected crack climb, that gets progressively harder, with the crux at the end. From there, you traverse round a bulge onto easier (but poorly protected) ground up to the top.

I made it to the crux, steeled myself to go for it, and fell off at the first attempt. Looking down, one intermediate runner which hadn't been extended enough had popped out, but that left more than enough gear in place. Note to self - unless you're going straight up, extend, extend, extend. I arranged another piece directly under the fall line, and had a second go - this time going through the crux (it's not a hard move when you're rested) and onto the bulge.

It was a long way to the top, and I couldn't see any decent placements at all. Although I'd taken one fall already on the pro in the crack, I was now round the corner out of sight of it, and I felt in a very precarious position. I was gripped, and I couldn't bring myself to go for it - so I retraced my steps, and took another short fall.

As I hung there, I was aware that the sun was getting low, so it was time to commit and finish this route or back off and clean it on abseil. Logically, there was no reason I shouldn't be prepared to take a huge whipper on so much good gear - so I knew I'd be annoyed with myself if I backed down. It was time to man up.

I got established back onto the slab, and realised there was one good wire placement just a little further round, which made me feel a bit better once that was in. I climbed above it and spotted a flake up to my right. Good. I just need to make that flake. Wrong - the flake moved at my first tentative tug. Now I was really scared - I felt completely off balance and my "thank fuck" hold was nothing of the sort. There was only one piece of gear between me and that huge pendulum. A little voice somewhere inside said "you're on a slab with loads of footholds, you shouldn't be off balance, sort your fucking feet and get a grip". As soon as I'd done that, a wire placement became apparent another couple of moves away - and from there it was easy to the top.


It had been hot on the sheltered face when I set out, and I'd climbed shirtless. Now I was sat belaying in the fierce wind at the top of the crag, with the sun going down - it was really, really cold, but I could not have cared less. I'd faced my fears head on, and won, and I was truly elated... I burst into song, into the wind at the top of my voice. No substance I took in my youth ever came close to the high I felt right there, and I shall remember it for a long time to come.

Wednesday, 14 March 2012

The Trad Fast Track

After my little trad taster weekend, the next step clearly was to get out there with someone who knew what they were doing - find out what I was doing right, and more importantly what I was doing wrong.

Fortunately, I already had such a gentleman (I use the term loosely) in my quiver of sport climbing partners - and a super psyched one at that - in the form of Ramon. A quick e-mail on Monday morning enquiring of his plans for the next weekend gained a swift reply of "Trad climbing with you of course!". This was followed up a little later with a question: "You don't mind if I lead some harder routes do you?"... what sort of a stupid question was that? I didn't ask him out for his good looks!

The weather was looking a bit dicey for the weekend, with the forecast changing by the hour, but we came up with a plan - head to Bristol on Saturday morning for some climbing in Avon Gorge, then as the rain was coming in from the West overnight, drive up to Pembroke in the evening and camp - the weather front should clear us by early morning.

We arrived in Avon, and headed for the Suspension Bridge Buttress. Ramon lead an HVS called Suspense to warm up, then we moved onto a three pitch HVS called Hell Gates. Ramon strung the first two pitches together, and I lead the traverse at the top. There's a metal belay anchor for the four routes that end at this point, but that was already in use so I was going to have to build one. But off what? There was one thread on the back wall behind the belay stance so I clipped into that, but other than that nothing obvious stuck out. This was the one bit I was nervous of - doing myself in with dodgy gear placements would be one thing, but building an anchor you have your partners life in your hands as well. After standing around pondering for a while, suddenly with this (presumably competent) stranger belaying behind me, I started to feel a little foolish. I must look like a complete idiot standing there gawping at the rock. I felt compelled to point out to him that this was only my second weekend tradding, by way of explaining my behaviour. Then I found the stub of a cut tree trunk up above, and another thread, and eventually had a bomber equalised three way anchor in place. The stranger kindly made comment on the solidity of my anchor to ease my discomfort, as did Ramon when I finally woke him from his slumber in the afternoon sunshine to come on up the last pitch.

We finished the day with a two pitch E1 called The Earl of Perth - Ramon took the first (5b) pitch and I took the second (5a). My first E1 lead on my second day trad climbing - I was pretty stoked!

So off we went to Pembroke, and arrived in time for a nice pub dinner and a couple of ales. As it turned out we'd got the weather spot on - the rain stopped around 7am, and by the time we'd got up and fed ourselves the sun was shining and the rock was in perfect condition. Not only that - the place was deserted. We looked at each other in amazement - we'd rolled the dice and come up double sixes again!

We went to St Govans Head, and warmed up with a couple of goes on the classic HVS Army Dreamers (Ramon leading the first time, then I lead the second). By this point, Ramon was after something a bit more challenging, so he lead The Butcher (E3). I seconded it clean, and it's a great line with an amazing move out onto the arrete that's well protected, so I had half a mind to go for the lead, but common sense prevailed.

Next up was a sensational E1 called The Arrow. Again Ramon lead, so I was able to enjoy the surroundings and awesome climbing on second. Half way up, I realised that even on second I hadn't been feeling too relaxed up till this point - I guess because I was trusting an anchor I hadn't seen and knew nothing about, unlike a nice shiny pair of staple bolts - but suddenly I was climbing freely. The sun was getting low and casting a lovely light, the waves were pounding at the foot of the cliff, and I was climbing with a stupid grin on my face. This was what I came all the way from London for, and it was worth every minute of the drive.

Relaxed and full of confidence, when Ramon said "OK, your turn to lead the last climb of the day, there's an HVS there...or an E2 there called Vice is Nice" I barely hesitated. The first two thirds of the climb went pretty well, but it was the end of a long day's climbing and I was pretty tired. I was spending a lot of time faffing to get good gear placements, and even on good holds, I was struggling to get anything back. There was a crack in front of my nose, that I just couldn't seem to get anything to seat into properly, and one to the right that took a small offset that would probably stay in place as I climbed, but not necessarily hold a fall. I looked down at the gear below me - I had four good pieces stitched within a short distance of each other. I looked up at the top - it was still pretty far away. I had another go to get something to seat into the first crack, but nothing seemed to grip. I wanted this onsight badly, so I looked again at my gear and the runout - I was high enough up that even if these two bits of pro didn't hold I wouldn't hit the deck. The next ones were bomber. I had one of my most trusted belay partners on the other end of the rope. I made my decision - run it out. The first bit of gear pulled out as soon as I went past it - I knew that was likely anyway, but watching it slide down the rope got the adrenaline pumping even harder. No time for second thoughts - keep moving. Another few meters on easier ground and I topped out. My first E2 onsight!

I didn't stop smiling for the rest of the week.

Friday, 9 March 2012

Pivotal moments

A few weeks ago, myself and Nic went to see Dave MacLeod, Andy Turner and Paul Diffley give a lecture on the climb and filming of The Long Hope, followed by a screening of the film itself. It's an awesome film and we left there feeling totally inspired, particularly by the story of the first aid ascent. The epic journey Ed Drummond and Oliver Hill undertook up that huge slab of rock, over many days, with no real knowledge of what was ahead of them, put the triviality of bolt clipping on Spanish limestone into stark perspective. So I resolved to get out there and learn to climb trad.

Thing is, it's not the first time I've said that by a long way - I even had half a rack that's been lying in the cupboard for two years. But this time something else happened: a long weekend in Bleau the next week left me with a pain in my hand every time I pulled on small holds... no more hard sport climbing for a while then - that sealed the deal.

So after a quick chat with Nic, we decided "fuck it, let's just get down to Swanage next weekend and give it a go". As the weekend approached, I revised the Mountain Leader Training Handbook I'd bought on a previous trad notion, and Friday evening I found myself building anchors in my bedroom.

We got down to an overcast Swanage on Saturday morning, and after some breakfast and a bit of faffing around, decided on a 3* 2 pitch VS at Guillemot Ledge called Tensor II. This meant abseiling in, so we spent quite a bit of time at the back wall of the quarry above first, practicing placements and deciding how we'd anchor the top of the climb. There was already an abseil rope in place, with a pair of climbers half way up a climb on the West Face, but there was still a definite sense of adventure getting on it, knowing that the only way out without an embarrassing call for help would be a self-protected 35m climb.

Nic lead the first pitch - easy climbing up a crack followed by a traverse under a roof and up to a friendly ledge and a large flake belay. Even though the climbing was pretty straightforward, I remember on the traverse thinking to myself that it must have been a little stressful doing this on lead... funny how the lack of bolts changes your perspective! Leaving the belay, there was a large peg to protect one slightly tricky move and then it was very easy climbing to the top, so I was able to relax and enjoy the fact that the sun had just come out. I set up the anchor, and as I sat down on the edge of the cliff to bring Nic up, a grin spread across my face that I couldn't have got rid of even if I wanted to. It may have been technically easy, but there was something of a journey involved in getting up that cliff and topping out. As I sat there in the late afternoon sun I had my pivotal moment. I was hooked.