Updated: Nov 12, 2018
...is it on?
It's been a while, last year in fact, since I wrote on this blog. I posted a couple of stories from our two months in America, started a third and never finished it. It felt like I'd come to a natural conclusion, so the story of the desert went untold. Things diffused in the wide spaces of Utah and Nevada, including a sort of pattern of corralled ambition that had shaped us as climbers. We were shown something we had known but never with such acuity, that the world is very big and full of rock. Perhaps in analogue, the typing of a blog that had settled too much into part of a pattern, felt like its time was done. I thought about deleting it completely, but took the middle road of setting it aside instead, to see if I missed it. I don't especially, but I do miss having some channel for words to be put together and pushed off, and this was sitting waiting for me like a patient but expectant dog. Please throw the ball again, please...
So here we are, and it will be the same but different.
Once upon a lifetime, I've feared failure in itself as much as any consequence. Often more. As a climber I've known for a long time that this is unhelpful, that it's inhibitive, and I've become sporadically better at overcoming it. Or at never allowing it to flourish in the first place. That skill was won through years of experience, hundreds of days at the crag and thousands of climbs. I must be a slow learner.
This is a small, busy island. I feel it enough when I've been spending time in the wilder parts of the Highlands, which makes the Lake District feel like an overgrazed garden and the Peak like a pedestrian precinct, never mind in the wake of a passage across Nevada by Route 50. Austin, Eureka, Ely...for hours those are the only words on signs, three small towns separated by nothing but a strip of tarmac laid out across the empty miles. People have been here, but they've barely made a dent. Another mountain range, another plain. Most of the time driving around in Britain, I'd swing a cat just to bleed rage at the traffic. But, this small busy island is home, and it has a decent dose of parochial character. Our climbing culture is a neat expression of that. It is, in macro, the abseil anchor on top of the Old Man of Hoy: an unfathomable mass of unequalised strands and metalware flaking with rust, with an occasional fresh loop death-triangled through the lot, atop a big sandy phallus that is the totem of British climbing. We have only small rocks, so we have to play by some rules to keep the game interesting, even if we break them all when it suits. I got into climbing the traditional way, as a craning-of-the-neck-upward from hillwalking, and it's taken a while to shake off some of the handdown little dogmas of the traddy's mindset. Most insidious of all, the sacred On Sight...how much less fun I've had on so many routes than I should over the years, because I was crippled by the pressure not to blow it.
In the cacophony of headgames that play out in my head while leading a route, those harsh frequencies have been pushed down in the mix of late. The world sounds a little sweeter for it. America can take some credit. The superabundance of rock, and of a less conflicted attitude to top-roping, turn a spotlight on the absurdity of preciousness about ascent style on every scrap of rock with a name. Somewhere nearby was a realisation that failure to climb a route cleanly does not by necessity diminish the value of the experience. Eventful failure can be a lot more memorable than a simple success, and memories are what you keep...
The ropes hang from my harness, down and down to a blindly-placed cam way below and a wire off right under a roof at the same height. About the same distance below that, Ferdia's hooded face peers up cautiously from a small ledge, reprieved temporarily from the bombardment of snow ice fragments that I've displaced with every upward poke. The pitch is steep, more continuously steep than anything I've climbed in winter before. It should be a rocky mixed pitch, but it's completely plastered in ice, ice of varying integrity. Pulling out from the wire placement onto the headwall felt like serious commitment, with no gear visible for a long way, and no chance of reversal. The standard utterance of doubt, "What am I doing here?" has already come out. And now, perched on good footholds but gearless for at least another two moves, a sobering "If I fall off here, am I going to hit you?"
What a hit that would be, an accelerating cartwheel of crampon-points and tools boomeranging on their leashes. Hell, no. Two moves above me, an old solid-stem cam entombed in perspex ice teases me with a strand of rethreaded tat, dangling free and clippable. Next door to it is a honeymoon-suite of a nut slot, if only it's not verglassed. Only a move, and a move...I have a perfect hook for my left axe, but it's too low to be of any use for the next move. Above it the placements are reasonable, but they are only snow, and I don't dare to excavate in case there's nothing underneath. There are no obvious footholds until thigh level. There is only one real option, but as usual it still takes a while to accept it. I need to lean back to get my foot high enough. I lean out just a little, prospecting for some kind of dink or nubbin on the ice, something to use as an intermediate foothold, assessing...
and both axes rip -
and it's happening, shitshitshit, I'm off, centre of gravity pinballs through my navel and into the sickening space behind my back -
When you walk into the main bay at Millstone, your eyes drift right to the crooked scar of London Wall. Everyone wants to climb this route, and I wonder if it would score more highly than any other in a desired : never attempted index. I said when I moved to Sheffield that I would attempt London Wall this year, with no expectation of immediate success. I had never tried something ground-up before that I was sure I wouldn't on-sight, and a route so iconic and so obviously safe seemed the ideal candidate for the challenge. Screw saving it for when I was good enough - that might never happen, or I might just blow it anyway. You have to try these things. I'd recenty tried and failed on Strapadictomy and Moon Crack - systematically blowing my safe local E5s, but this is the new me and I don't care. Ben had climbed London Wall before. Just as well I was climbing with Ben, whose prodding of encouragement had some authority to it, or I might have found an excuse. It's safe, I don't expect to succeed anyway - why not have a go? The only thing to be scared of is the stress of trying hard, and you like that really, you do...
Up to first nut and down. Up to second nut and down. The next go is full commitment, locking desperately through the crux to the horizontal crack before trying to place any more gear. A small cam goes in sweetly enough, but I'm too close to the ground to trust that alone, so I waste myself working in a solid wire. Desperate monkeying left leads to the sanctuary of the route's only surviving peg. My quickdraw swings awkwardly on the peg tat and I struggle to clip it. Teetering on the brink of terminal arm failure, I submit and grab the draw. At exactly the same moment, the heavens open and we're drenched in seconds. It wasn't meant to be. A few days later we're back in the quarry, and there's no good reason not to have another go. Knowing exactly what gear to place, I get through the crux and the traverse a little faster. "Keep breathing," says Ben. I do some aggressive breathing. Hffffffff! Hwwwww! I keep moving, placing nuts, getting a little further, and before long I'm at the good rest. Suddenly the pressure to succeed that wasn't there before has arrived. I'm invested now. If I fall off the top, I'll have to do it all again. So I spend a long time resting. I expend most of my rack building a baby bouncer in the parts of the crack I can reach from the rest, because I know that when I go, any stopping before the top will mean failure. It's reasonable first-knuckle locks but hard to read, hard not to get wrong-handed, and is almost footless for a few moves. It spits rain. "No! Don't you dare!" It threatens frustration, but it's also a bit funny.
Heel on, hips in, arms relaxed. Breathing. The rain comes to nothing.
Eventually, it's time to go. Once committed, there will be no anticipation, only movement. This - I love this.
That damn sloping ledge at the base of the Cromlech corner, I had forgotten how precarious it feels. You don't just want a belay in, you want to clip all your stuff to it, especially with four or five teams shuffling about. Ferdia hasn't done the Corner, and grudgingly accepts it as her lot, with most of the other classic routes occupied or climbed before. I assure her it's quite hard for E1 and essential, so she might as well get it done. I watch her from the corner of my eye, trying not to pay attention to Calum Muskett and partners whizzing up Right Wall next door. It's not that I'm precious about the on-sight for its own sake, more that I want full-value experience of a route that's been near the top of an unwritten wishlist for years. For some reason I was quite confident I could do Right Wall long before I'd thought about trying any other E5s - bold wall climbing with good rests, and it seemed like nearly everyone thought it was easy. I'd set the first part of a trap for myself years ago.
I couldn't really avoid chatting a little bit about the route with Calum's partners while I geared up. I'd noticed in glances they'd gone quite far left, further left than I'd imagined the line went. From below, it's hard to see exactly where it goes, and I wondered how hard it would be to read. "It's pretty well chalked," they told me. I felt assured. It would be fine...it would be fine. If I had been looking for excuses, I was quite tired from seven routes on the Grochan the previous day, including a wholesome fight with Stroll On, and my fingertips felt thin. But they always do. I wasn't looking for excuses. You can always find an excuse if you want one. I didn't like the feeling of so many people so close on the crag, of the interest people would inevitably take in an attempt on Right Wall, but what sort of excuse is that? You have to try these things...
All goes well to the first ledge and gear. An excuse to fiddle around and rest. Calum throws me nuggets of advice as he swings around checking moves on the upper wall of Nightmayer. I shush him, too unaccustomed to external involvement when I'm in leading. I haven't spent much time as a climber in the convivial cauldron of North Wales, but rather a lot on lonely Scottish hillsides and coasts. This particular leading headspace is an odd one. I'm a little self-conscious but quite relaxed, almost daydreaming when I set off from the ledge, following the chalk up and left.
Sharp pockets. A good nut. A shallow spike. More sharp pockets. Left and left again. Shit. Suddenly I am pumped, short on footholds. The next hold is poor. It's a little lichenous, and fingers scribble feverishly to clean it. It shouldn't be. I'm in the black streak, though this hardly registers - I'm too far left, this is Lord of the Flies. I have to go now, before my arms give up...but no, I can't pull through on the hold. I shake out desperately. I'm getting nothing back, quickly going terminal. I'm run-out on that shallow spike. God, I'm run out a long way. Getting desperate. It must be obvious - I sense the crag gone silent, and I'm sure all eyes are on me. Too tired now to think of reversal, I take the easy way out.
And the grand tour of the Cromlech's right wall goes bigdipper...
The dream is still in the North. I feel lucky for this, if a little unsure that either I or most of the rest of the climbing population must be missing something. It rains a bit more in Scotland, but if its climate was like Spain then its coastal towns would look like Spain. So celebrate the rain. The climbing is equal to anywhere, but the places are special. There is a charm to 'historical' routes, the ones everyone has climbed, but it is like taking your turn on a rollercoaster. There isn't so much space for the experience to be wholly personal. The in-jokey style of guidebooks in the Peak, that seems to want to channel your imagination rather than stoke it, irritates me. I get much more excited about the peripheral stuff, crags that aren't worked out yet and routes that haven't been written to death. Witness, Yesnaby...
Around the bay, a jungle of fat kelp burns copper in the afternoon sun as it Mexican waves the slack tide. Barnacle ledges hiss and pop. Playful humans scuttle around on the cliffs. Down ropes, up ropes, over ledges in and out of sea caves. One moves rightwards quickly across a crack, pauses, fiddles, crabs back again. Again, and this time goes further, further, and stops.
"There's no gear!"
"Can you come back?"
"No!" Suddenly, this one is high and dry. Claws desperately for an escape. Mind tries six different directions at once, frozen stupid by the body's impending failure. Recovery is impossible. Retreat impossible. Advance impossible. Every way means pain, every way but one.
"Pay me out loads of rope!"
"Are you sure?"
Other humans watch surprised as this one jumps, skirt of metal flying...
Answers at the back:
Gravity pinballs through my navel...and my right axe catches, by pure luck, in hard snow a foot below its blown placement. I balance. I pull myself together. We finish the route.
Committed to the footless finger-locks, I'm as good as off, but try anyway...and somehow stay on, a flurry of twisting and pulling, reach desperately past my head and find a positive edge. Yes, yes...!
And the Cromlech's right wall goes past too fast, foot catches some protuberance and a flash of pain registers as I pendulum to a stop. Sprained ankle, a humbled hobble back to the road, the rest of the week on ice. I have to cancel the following weekend's work.
The coppery kelp hides a rock, and pain registers in the other foot as I come up spluttering and dog-paddle back to the ledge. Ferdia treats me like I'm silly with shock, and I probably am, but I insist on her retrieving the gear from the route, before she's belayed out on the abseil rope by Hertha. I don't think I can climb out in this state, so I jump back in and swim out instead. They dispatch me quickly to the van for dry clothes and a hot drink. Hobbling again. You have to laugh.
What have I learned? Probably nothing I can distil into a pithy closing platitude, because in my experience of life there aren't many quotable eureka moments. It's more the bubbling up of threads or patterns with enough frequency that eventually they can't be ignored.
Relaxing my notion of what success means has had mixed results, both for my confidence and for my ankles. I've done some getting away with it, but with a little luck I could have got away with more. As much as you have to try these things, you also have to call it smart when the body and brain are together and ready. Getting all the plates spinning is tricky, and on the basis of about four sessions that you could call 'training' this year, I've been more attentive to some than others. We're all learning.
As I get older the realisation slaps me now and then that there are a lot of cool things I will never do. Infinite summers keep on ending. That's fine - I'd rather sink in and absorb the experiences I do have than snap a photo of the information board and move on. But still, it is a factor when I find myself somewhere I might never visit again, and at least a few of the stars seem to be lined up. It's like being offered some rare dish, and the host won't take offence if you refuse it, but you'll never know what it tasted like. You do just have to try these things.