Starting out from the rest, I pull up on one axe and lock off, searching with the other for purchase in a cleft in the roof. The pick catches, and the head cams against the rock - a solid stein pull. Hauling up again, I reach around the lip, tracing the tip of the tool up a crack until it slips into something positive. It feels good so I match on it and swing out, getting a left heel hook up by my hands. I cam the toe in to take a bit more weight off my fading arms, wrestle the axe from the rock below me, and reach for a small edge. It doesn't feel great, but I don't have time to reconsider. I clip the draw by my waist, and pull again for another edge – even more marginal. I weight it, and try to bring my right foot up. The tool in my left hand pops off, then the right, and all of a sudden I'm upside down, hanging by the cammed foot. Panting and cursing, I struggle to sit up, get a pick back into the slot in front of me, and shake out. I can barely hold the axe to rest, and I'm close to vomiting from sheer exertion.
Welcome to the world of dry tooling.
After sport climbing the first two weekends of the year we were keen to keep the run going, but with snow forecast all over the country, Ramon suggested I get my first taste of tools. The conditions were good for some Welsh traditional mixed climbing, but my instructor for the day didn't want to put me on it without an induction, so we headed up to an old quarry in Clywd County known as the White Goods dry tooling crag.
Arriving on Saturday morning, it did look like a proper winter venue – a short walk through snow laden trees let to a steep curving amphitheatre of blocky limestone, icicles hanging from the roofs and verglas coating the slabs, so I was quite excited to get going as I geared up.
|The main wall|
I've done a lot of sport climbing with Ramon, and he got me on the trad fast-track last year, so he knows I like to get stuck in – for starters he picked a line called Left Wall (M5+). Before going up to put the draws in, he explained that with tooling, clipping at waist height is more important than in sport climbing, because you never know when an axe might pop off a hold. As if to illustrate this, halfway between the second and third bolts and looking comfortable, he came flying off without warning. As he swung towards me with metal spikes protruding from all corners I realised this game was a bit more serious than the usual bolted cragging, so it was with some trepidation that I tied in and pulled on to the rock.
I was over-gripping the axes, so although on easy terrain I was pumped before long. The fourth draw was run out which stressed me a bit, but once I'd clipped that I began to relax and think about how to recover. Loosening the grip to hang by the fingertips, straightening the arms, dropping the heels and adjusting body position to get more weight on the feet were all things that should come naturally to an experienced climber, yet in this alien environment they had to be conscious decisions. After regaining my strength, some delicate climbing on small edges led me to the chains – a satisfying onsight on my first mixed climb.
Next up, Ramon took me to the steeper, and allegedly M6 (I was later to discover M7+) line of The Bold Start. Suitably sandbagged, I fought my way up the initial section to the rest where this story began, and proceeded out round the roof to that first fall. Although the heel-toe cam had stuck securely, quick reactions from my belayer ensured a tight rope halted my swing, so the onsight was off. Not that I would have got it anyway – even after resting I couldn't bear down on the axes hard enough to establish myself on the head wall; if my arms were shot before, the adrenaline dump from the unexpected inversion had finished them off. I took several more falls before I dogged my way to the chains, but that was valuable as despite being on bolts, subconsciously I wasn't happy about falling in the unusual situation of trusting to metal picks on blind holds.
We stopped for some food, and it took me a while to recover, but eventually I was ready to go again. As the purpose of the trip was to learn technique, I decided to try another line rather than going back for a redpoint – following Ramon up Jaz (M8).
Steeper again, this line consisted of some thuggy moves to a rest, more of the same to a second rest, then a huge pull to the lip of the cave. That move took many attempts, and by the time I made it I had nothing left to get through the head wall. Darkness was approaching as I lowered off, so Ramon repeated it by head-torch to put up some tick marks to aid me the next day.
|Ramon on firelighting duties|
The first section seemed easy this time, but I redlined and almost blew it between the two rest positions - just managing to avoid the flash pump and recoup enough energy to carry on. Better footwork allowed me to probe for the good part of the crux hold instead of lunging, and two moves later I was looking at the tick marks Ramon had left. A little more composure meant I could rest on the axe to sort out good feet, before moving out onto the face and up to clip the chains. An M8 second go on my first weekend was a satisfying outcome, and my back was feeling pretty stiff, so after a bit of internal debate I decided to leave it at that.
It was interesting to see how I adjusted to this style of climbing. Despite the familiarity of the movements (albeit exaggerated due to the extra reach), to begin with my autopilot wasn't firing. Footwork fell by the wayside as I concentrated on the axes. Although you have the mechanical advantage to pull hard on small holds, it still helps to have a solid base from which to reach, so as my feet improved the long moves became easier.
Perhaps a lot of the early problems were down to tension, as once I'd taken a few falls things felt more natural, but choice of footwear made a big difference as well. Initially I used my alpine boots with Grivel G12 crampons, which were fine for front-pointing but the plastic binding made heel hooking difficult. Trying out Ramon's comp boots allowed more instinctive footwork, although I'm not sure how much help that would be if your main goal is to train for alpinism.
Stamina, and lock-off strength seem to be key attributes for this discipline. In sport climbing, when you leave a rest you tend to move quickly, whereas here you might weight one hand, reach for a tool hanging from your shoulder, adjust the grip, pull up, lock off, and begin searching for a hold. It also involves a lot of big rolling moves utilising the back muscles, and my lats and abs are still feeling the workout three days later.
An alternative to hooking the spare tool over a body part when matching is to hold it in your teeth (a wrap of rubberised tape round the shaft helps prevent expensive dental bills). The advantage of doing so is that you can retrieve the axe and make the next move faster – the trade-off is it can restrict the movement of your head, for example to look at your feet. I'm not sure which technique I prefer yet, I guess it pays to practice both and see what works for you.
A couple of other tips I picked up over the weekend. Firstly, you have to wear thin gloves, and your hands will mainly be up where gravity helps drain the blood, so they will get cold. Over-gripping will speed up that process, so the only way to combat it is to relax and shake out often. Plastic handles on the tools does help over metal grips as well though. Secondly, always wear a helmet – even if there's no loose rock around, you'll be glad of it when you pull a tool off a hold just above your head.
Sport dry tooling may not be a common practice in the UK yet, but my first impressions were of a great way to learn to use axes, get strong, and begin to relax on holds you can't see or feel, without the complications of traditional protection. The fundamentals learned here should stand me in good stead when I venture out into the Scottish/Welsh winter scene, or go on to more technical alpinism, and I'd certainly recommend it as an introduction for anyone looking to take up these disciplines. Do make sure you head for a recognised tooling venue though, it does trash the rock.