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.


  1. Nice one Ciaran!
    Loved the bit about a Scotsman bursting out into song, haha classic ;)

    1. :-) it's a good job there were only seagulls around to witness, or I may have found myself carted off to the loony bin... A few minutes later I was running along the cliff top doing aeroplane wings with my arms like a 5 year old! :-D