Fight the Moonlight
Updated: Nov 12, 2018
The raven bounces on the air overhead, folds its wings as it rides a weightless arc, inverts and drops like a dart, spirals upright and glides into a speck, all one mesmeric movement. Winter sun glances off a fleece of clouds on the Irish Sea and makes the peatbogs copper, the rimed grass tinsel. A frost-heaved hag crumbles under my boot in a shower of ice needles. If it was always wet ground, drizzle, impenetrable greyness, it would be easy. This country is an abusive lover, always lifting my face to kiss it when I feel most bruised. When I go to other parts of the world, I question why I choose to spend my short life allowance on these damp, overcrowded islands. Friends and family, of course, and a sense of belonging that would take a long time to replace. Or laziness, a lack of imagination? Shortly before we went to America in the autumn, Ferdia was chatting to someone at the Tor. I am recounting this second hand, because I wasn't there. (The Tor, I should clarify, is Raven Tor, which like 'the Ben' needs no qualifier among the initiated. In the same way that the moons of other planets are mostly insignificant to us and have their own little-known names, so it is with Britain's many tors. The Moon is the Moon. The Tor is the Tor.) Although I wasn't there, I can set the scene with confidence. Skinny, sincere people in puffy jackets and coloured hats are pinned by ropes to the steep face, voicing nuanced observations on atmospheric conditions as they grasp and contort between tiny chalkmarks and blackened nubs. Ferdia was engaged in routine Tor chat, which is a lexicon unintelligible outside of the tribe: beta and connies, rotator cuffs and pulleys, gastons and sprags, waddage and lattice, the crimp on Chimes and the pocket on Mecca. The topic of discussion was an area of rock in the central cave known as the Weedkiller Traverse, one of those special pieces of Peak limestone on which every conceivable combination of features that fingers and toes can conceivably grip has been climbed, named and graded. Conversation turns to upcoming trips. Ferdia says she's about to go climbing sandstone cracks in America. The Tor human laughs, in the same way one might laugh if small talk about the weather was diverted abruptly into a defence of chemtrails. Out of the bracket. Quite eccentric. Why would you do that, when you could focus your powers on traversing Weedkiller there-and-back-again with three of the holds eliminated and no kneebars? Now, there are plenty of good reasons not to fly half way around the world, for leisure or anything else. I'm on board with the view that long-haul flights are ethically indefensible, and avoiding them less of an individual sacrifice than other consumer atrocities like beef or cocaine, though evidently when it comes to travel I am too selfish to allow this to stop me. I also recognise that regardless of personal ethos, not everyone's life matrix makes it easy for them to swan off to another continent for six weeks. And I am no stranger to getting sucked in to the lure of some local project; when I spent a year living near Dumby, I knew the feel of every hold. There is a lot to be said for loving your local. So I can't reasonably join the prosecution against the parochial, even if it means eating only cabbage from the garden when there is an international supermarket next door. But the clash of perspective hints at an interesting story, of how the Venn circles of the climbing tribe are birthing new bubbles and floating apart. In the first week we climbed at Red Rocks, the spiritual oasis of Las Vegas. Halfway up The Original Route, an incredible corner that splits the giant concave north face of Rainbow Mountain like six Fair Head (Best Crag in the World™) routes stacked on top of each other, I looked out across the peaks and canyons of raspberry ripple sandstone and shook my head. "I wish I was at the Tor." We had a giggle. Smug bastards.
Our first trip to America two years ago gave a shakeup to my climbing worldview. A peeling back of the eyelids to the bigness of the world and the shortness of a lifetime, and a call to rethink my approach to the cryptic currency of 'style'. This trip was inevitably less seismic, but still caused some subtle reshaping of the landscape. This time we approached with different tactics, a little more maturity maybe, or for me at least equipped with a realism about what I actually like, what really gives me satisfaction, and what is worth suffering for. I have spent so many days confused, liking the idea of climbing something for one reason or another, but lacking real commitment when it mattered. I see people at the crag in this headspace all the time, and recognise it clearly as a mirror to myselves.
This meant being selective, and taking lots of rest. I used to have an obsessive streak in my climbing, which is undoubtedly still there, a fallow field ready to be resown with some trainspotty quest to tick every bit of climbable dirt on some grotty wee local crag. Climb as much as possible, tick everything. While some people seem to get along fine just going climbing incessantly, clocking high mileage day after day, Ferdia and I have learned that our psyche needs love and care, and that means lots of slow mornings with coffee and a book. We focused on a fairly small number of quite hard, quite long routes, and nurtured our ambitions for these. The exception was Indian Creek, which we treated as a gym for awkward crack widths, with an occasional jaunt up a layback or handcrack just for fun.
It took a longer time than I would once have admitted for longer, more exposed and committing routes to be what I really deepdown wanted to climb. I remember doing Torro on the Ben circa 2008 with Burton, and never feeling relaxed, even on second. Damn Burton, the fearless talented bastard, who can get off the sofa and climb E5 on a scary sea-cliff without checking which side he's racked his nuts. I remember the fear on the islands, that drove me off to small crags while others abseiled for the second time of the day into Dun Mingulay. My rational brain has always taken more convincing than I would like, to drown out the ape screaming that the ground is far away and I could die. Like an arranged marriage, it took years of persistent persuasion to love what I was sworn to love from the start. It feels like a victory to have reached the point now, after years of the Hebrides, California, Morocco, the Alps, where getting on big stuff really is the dream. Though I still shit myself top-roping in the Verdon. When it comes to style, I blame UKC Logbooks as much as anything, for promoting the discrete classification of ascents. Even knowing that it is more like a field than it is a spectrum, never mind a set of boxes, that sort of thinking is persuasive to the obsessed young brain. It generates neat data, and a puritan zeal. I heard some hipster kids in the Creek half-joking about getting a tattoo that read "Onsight or Death!", so it clearly isn't just the Brits, but all I have seen so far suggests to me that we are unusually concerned with style, sometimes neurotically so. I am not saying that style doesn't matter - however you choose to play the game, you have to start with some rules - but when its importance is blown up so much that it starts to choke enjoyment, and I see this happening all the time, it's time to forget it and pull on a cam. Maybe we need the style police, the tantrum-throwers and the trad zealots, to save us from going full Euro and french-freeing everything. In America and in Europe, you do see a lot more of that caper. At first I was quite inspired by this, seeing people pull on bolts through cruxes of long classic routes, not fussed and clearly having a good time, where your average Brit would put the route off until they were good enough, and possibly never do it. I have since moderated this feeling, having been stuck behind people who are clearly out of their depth. There is still something to be said for the sanctity of a route's natural challenge. And if you're too accustomed to frenching it when the going gets tough, you probably won't dig as deep, and you won't hit those transcendent highs that come with all-out commitment. The crucial realisation was that over time, when I looked back on a route and how I felt about it, the style of an ascent mattered far less than how hard I had tried on it, and the other qualities of the experience. Sure I felt pleased if I had managed something onsight, but things that spat me off or forced a couple of rests, like The Rostrum or Pichenibule, were no less golden in my memory. So when it came to squaring up objectives for the desert, it came to me with excitement that we should try Moonlight Buttress in Zion. There are few routes I have seen in the world more inspiring or beautiful. Ferdia had sown the seed a while ago as a long-term ambition, but I don't deal as well with distant goals as ones I can put in the crosshairs right now. It was clearly too hard for us, but why not? It has bolted anchors and can be easily aided, so there was no harm in having a go, though Ferdia slapped me down for even suggesting we might have to accept such tactical compromise, as though I was admitting defeat before we had even started. She is a fearsome woman so I tried not to mention it, and promised I would make myself fit and good. Most of the time, Moonlight seemed an unlikely ambition. We said we would do more sport climbing to get fit, to be able to dispatch more than one 7b+ pitch in a day. This never really happened for me, but I assured myself that cracks were more my scene than crimp-tech Peak lime. When we reached the Creek and started being shut down by all the routes we had identified as suitable training for Moonlight, I was left clinging by a frayed thread to below-the-line comments on Mountain Project that suggested Moonlight had become significantly easier than its grade suggests, thanks to years of cam placements widening the thinner cracks. It still seemed a long way off. 1" splitters, which reading between the lines seemed likely to be the crux for us, were kicking our ass. Power Line, Middle Crack, even routes a whole YDS grade easier like Johnny Cat, were delivering wrecked toes and knuckles but not much success. Redpointing more than one in a day seemed extremely unlikely.
However, we had a tried and tested formula to fall back on. It goes like this: Pick a big route that is too hard. Try some short practice routes. Fail on these. Get on the big route anyway. Contrary to conventional wisdom, of the sort I impart to beginner climbers, this seems to work really well, though further research will be needed to provide statistical relevance. In the Creek we met up with Rory, Emma, Pete and Murdo, who make up around 40% of the entire Highland climbing scene. The crags up there must have been really quiet this autumn. Pete had mentioned to me at some point in the summer that he and Murdo also hoped to try Moonlight, but despite being 8th grade wads they didn't appear to be getting on much better than we were on the 1" testpieces of the Creek. Only so much use for all that raw pulling power when there are nae grips. They headed to Zion a few days before us, and just when we had more or less abandoned hope that Moonlight was feasible, and were resigned to abseiling it just to satisfy our curiosity, I got a message through from Pete saying that they had team freed it. Although this possibly meant only that they had found a way to utilise extreme strength and fitness and laybacked the whole thing, it was still a massive boost. A hiccup with an infected toe and some antibiotics later, we were on our way to Zion.
The crowding in National Parks like Zion takes some getting used to, but it does have perks. Hiking up a busy Angels' Landing trail with a 40kg haul bag to rappel the route and deposit our portaledge and supplies, we were treated like heroes. "You guys are awesome!" "Wow, that is so cool, what you got in there?" Ferdia's sense of humor can be a little sideways even for a British audience, but if her increasingly dry responses caused confusion it didn't show. God bless America.
This year I have run over some rocky patches in my psyche for climbing. More than usual? I'm not sure. When I say I know better these days what I really like, that doesn't stop me getting confused sometimes about what I want right then. Part of it might be about raising the bar for what gets me inspired. On Moonlight there was never a shred of doubt. There is a lot I could write about the route itself, but in the same way when I used to make little videos of climbing I left the editing of the actual climbing until last, this is sort of the least attractive part. Maybe because the gulf between the doing of the thing and the telling is at its widest, such a poor relation. So, we will make it snappy, a montage of the crucial moments: Day 1, Pitch 0. Ford the Virgin River at first light. Cold COLD COLD feet.
Day 1, Pitch 3. Drop climbing shoes off the crag. Shit, never done this before, why now? Got my tight shoes, hope my toes survive. Day 1, Pitch 5. The sideways leap off the Rocker Block. Come on brain. Jumping on a rope is weird, shades of meltdown on Wings of Unreason. It goes second attempt, and we're into the Grand Dihedral (sounds better than Big Corner). Day 1, Pitch 6. The enduro crux. I sprint for the halfway flare hoping for a rest, discover it is a poor one and I'm pumped, the cams are awkward to place, I'm pumped, aaaaaaaaaaaagh, the last good cam is miles away, finally I get a good one and slump onto the rope, then have a horrendous coughing fit, from sand or chalk I don't know, but I can taste blood. This marks the end of day one going well, and we aid to the bivi ledge. Night 1. The route is probably a write-off, but we're doing that thing where you, you know, sleep on a vertical cliff. Life tick. Day 2, Pitch 6. Rapping back down to hanging belays is not cool. I put yesterday's gear back in on abseil (cheeky) and lead back to the flare. Climbing it is bastard awkward and my head is brittle, so with relief I clip into the fully hanging aid belay on the left and we split the pitch. Naughty, but there is a good rest immediately above, so we forgive ourselves. Day 2, Pitch 7. I knew this would be evil. Back-and-footing, tenuous kneebars, awkward 1" jams in the back of a narrowing flare - I end up straight in, knees in, jamming and scraping furiously, unable to stop to place gear and pumping silly, until I fall off. Grazed and all-body tired, I lower down to rest for a second attempt. This time I get a higher cam in before I fall off again, and I'm too tired, we have taken forever, defeat is admitted and I rest on the rope before finishing the pitch. Ferdia seconds the pitch clean with nothing to spare.
Day 2, Pitch 8. Ah, ledge. Coffee. If we can do the pitch above and leave a rope in place, it will be a bonus and we might just have enough in the tank to finish the route tomorrow. It's getting late, and it goes to the wire. As Ferdia leads the final few feet, I can see a star winking above her head.
Night 2. A pair of Californian aid climbers join us and set up their ledge next to ours. Aid climbing appears to be more an exercise in moving heavy objects up a wall than it is about climbing, but we don't hold it against them. Roll on the intimate poo times.
Day 3, Pitch 9. The splitteriest of the 1" splitter sections. Ferdia finds a devious deviation on the left, but still has to put all that Creek suffering to full use. I just climb really fast.
Day 3, Pitch 11. A sandy 10+ pitch to finish, you forget this still means E3 and isn't very easy, but we're up it on momentum and fumes. Topping out, I feel a bit emotional. A slightly flawed ascent, but this won't matter for long - we did better than we ever really believed.
American climbers ask what climbing in the UK is like. If they know anything about it already, it is usually two things: 1. The weather is bad. 2. Scary grit routes. You guys are crazy.
I try to put myself in their shoes, and tell it as honestly as I can. Yes, the weather is quite bad. It rarely rains too many days in a row, but it's rarely settled for long either. If you are willing to drive a few hours, which is no big deal in the US, you can usually find something worthwhile that's dry. But let's face it, most visiting climbers don't want to sit in traffic jams and end up slithering around in Parisella's Cave. The grit, well yes there is plenty of it and it's very convenient, and that is the main attraction. I wonder if other countries have anything that compares, in that by far their most famous crags are also so far from being their best. And no, we are not very bold. Even though our routes don't follow continuous crack lines, the majority of the popular ones are pretty safe. I say that although Ireland and Britain don't have a lot that you would call 'world-class', what we do have is an amazing variety within a relatively small geographical area, which makes it a great place to be an all-rounder. I think our strongest attraction, in comparison with what is on offer elsewhere, is probably the sea-cliffs.
But I know my perspective is out of kilter with current tastes. Horseshoe Quarry is ten times busier than High Tor. You can hardly move for climbers on the Ben in winter, but in summer the mountain crags are deserted. I could count on one hand the times I've climbed for myself indoors this year. There is still an overlap in the Venn circles, but it's strenny hanging out here.
I might always have said it was more about the adventure and the magic than it was about ticking numbers. Increasingly, that might actually be true. When I think back on the last year, some of the best memories are not even the climbing itself, but the interludes: watching the Atlantic smash spray the height of the crag at Ailladie, running miles on a shimmering beach in Donegal, wandering aimlessly by moonlight along a dry riverbed in the Creek. The privilege to dance to inappropriate music with other eejits who understand this nonsense.