Wry musings of a middle grade sport climber
There is no good reason that 7a, or 8a, or 9a, should be bigger deals than any other climbing grade. The step from 7c+ to 8a is no bigger than the step from 7c to 7c+, or from 8a to 8a+. Yet it's hard not to feel like it's a bit of a thing to break into a new number grade. A new integer! If you took the Norwegian or American grade instead, the integer change would be in a different place, or for the Australian grade, every place. In the same way that no one would have got excited about the 4 minute mile if the rest of the world had kept up with the French Revolution and adopted metric, the fact that it's clearly an arbitrary thing doesn't seem to matter. I guess this says something about our brains. Maybe it says more than one thing.
It seems to say that we're a bit confused about the significance of numbers. Breaking into a new decade for your birthday - well, that does signify completing a certain number of laps of the sun without dying, which has more intrinsic significance than a loosely calibrated scale measuring the difficulty of climbing up a section of bolted rock face, but it's only a bigger deal than the interim years if you're from a culture that counts in base 10.
Numbers are a handy abstract value system, but things get a bit weird when we start to think that numbers themselves actually mean something - witness that aeroplanes, actual aeroplanes that carry humans through the sky like a showpiece of humankind's mathematical genius, still do not have a row of seats numbered 13. The case of climbing grades is at an added remove of weirdness, because the value doesn't have any intrinsic relation to what it measures - it isn't 8 moves long, or 8 metres tall, or overhanging by 8° - and yet we're hooked on the neatness of whole numbers, so it feels like a milestone.
Up until two or three years ago, it was a small but persistent thorn in my side that I hadn't done any harder practised sport climbs. For various reasons, redpointing did not appeal to me, but at the same time I would read the columns of successful climbers who extolled the rewards of commitment to a hard project, of building a close relationship to a route, and the learning and personal growth made possible by taking on something you genuinely didn't know if you could do, etcetera. It seemed like a gap in my experience.
Eventually, when I was living in Sheffield circa 2017, I started to poke at it. I had on-sighted or flashed up to about 7a+, or 7b if you were willing to take joke grades from recently bolted venues in Spain, so I climbed a 7b+ in Cheedale. It was obvious that I could climb 7b+, but I thought I might as well build up in a progressive order. Mostly I still just went climbing.
Two winters ago in St. Leger, I made a mental commitment not to default to 'just going climbing'. I tried a 7c, on which I learned, more slowly than I would have liked, a few things about redpointing, such as not underestimating the easier moves at the top, when you'll be pumped. Being naturally better at bouldering than endurance, I had skipped the last clip and taken several huge lobs from the final dynamic move, before reviewing my sequence. I found a crimp immediately above the pocket I'd been struggling to hit accurately when tiring, and sent the route next go. By then I'd had enough of redpointing for one trip, particularly the aspect of making your partner belay yet again in the same bit. It probably works better if you both have the same or a neighbouring project.
One year later, I jumped the shark on a trip to the Ariege and stepped it up to 7c+, while Ferdia tried an 8a variation on the same line. I succeeded, in about the same number of attempts as it had taken me to climb 7c. I was proceeding along the path to 8a in a steady and logical fashion.
It might seem to make more sense to find a project closer to home, instead of during winter trips abroad, but I've always struggled to find the will to make this happen. For the semi-motivated, British sport climbing doesn't make it easy. The better crags spend a lot of time seeping or bird-banned or sea-smegged or underwater, and those that aren't are polished or loose or sharp or weird or miles away. When I lived in Sheffield, there was a slice of the scene that would drive, often twice in the same weekend, the 2.5 hours of congested hell to Malham, which always seemed to me insane. Then again, I do a fair bit of Scottish mixed climbing, so I'm not in a position to tell anyone else their pastime is perverse.
For some reason, I've never found it hard to return to boulder projects, provided I like them, but the season of better bouldering conditions does not overlap as much as UK sport climbing does with the opportunity to be in places I'd consider more inspiring. Sometime in 2019 I did have a couple of sessions getting moves sussed on Over the Moon Direct (8a) at Lower Pen Trwyn, and liked it because it had less in the way of razors and coral than many routes at LPT, but the autumn seeps descended and I tweaked my knee in a heel-toe cam, and that was postponed. I might get back to it.
This year, unexpectedly in Tenerife, I decided it was time to make 8a happen. Of the handful of candidates one route stood out, the others seeming a bit unbalanced or looking less inspiring. Jala por el resuello, in Arico lower gorge, is evidently by far the most popular 8a in that part of Tenerife, to judge by its luminously chalky appearance. It climbs an undercut wall that gradually lessens in steepness from about 25° to only gently overhanging. A positive lower section leads to two hard sequences separated by a good shakeout, and a peculiar but not particularly hard balance move onto a slab to finish. Basically it was quite bouldery but not excessively so, and probably low in the grade, so suited me perfectly. The only downsides were that other people were also trying it, and it spent the middle 5 hours of the day in the sun. I put the name into Google translate: it means pull for the wheeze. Strong title.
In 2020 I'd had a couple of good runs of bouldering, managing a couple of 7Cs, so bolt-to-bolt the moves weren't too much of a problem. Falling from the last hard move in only my second session, I got excited. For various reasons I hadn't actually got around to trying the route until we had only a week left in Tenerife, but it seemed that would be time enough. The crucial move, a step up in a small toe pocket to catch a high sidepull, worked nearly every time I pulled on from the bolt, with a bit of power grunt, but reaching it with a little bit of fatigue in my locking arm, I couldn't do it. More than once on the redpoint my fingers hit the hold but I couldn't maintain the tension to stick it.
With two days remaining I had a bit of a mishap getting too close to a blowhole and being knocked into a spiky rock pool by a big wave, which resulted in a bruised and bloodied foot with a complementary pinch of sea urchin spines. Surprisingly, on the last day, I did manage to mangle my foot into a climbing shoe and have a few more goes, getting about as close as I could have got without finishing the thing, but by mid-afternoon I had had enough. Enough of obliging Ferdia to hang around that part of the gorge to belay. Enough of hanging around the same place waiting to feel ready for another go myself. I limped away. 8a would have to wait.
The ill-judged moment...at least it resulted in an entertaining sequence of photos
Perhaps I don't deserve it, because in truth my motivation to climb 8a is dubious. I want to climb an 8a because it seems like a standard I can climb without having to resort to training. It marks a level of accomplishment that I feel I ought to have achieved, however meaningless that might be. More than I want to do one, I want to have done one, so that I don't have to do another one.
Having now given it a reasonable go over the course of three trips, I can say with some basis in experience that in comparison to other styles of climbing, I don't really like redpointing - at least, not once it becomes a siege. If it's a good line with pleasing holds and satisfying moves, I do enjoy trying it up to a point, feeling the moves become increasingly flowing, but after a while, when it's clear that given enough attempts and tactical refinement I could do it, repeated attempts begin to feel too much like a chore. I recognise that pushing beyond what is enjoyable can often bring deeper and longer term benefits, but in this case I'm not convinced that it does. There's plenty to take from the experience without having to run the hamster wheel until the chains are clipped.
This doesn't sit very well with the motivational narrative we're supposed to adopt (usually pushed by people who get listened to because they have accomplished quite a lot, in the conventional sense, just sayin') that it's all about the process, and from it the transferrable gains of learning and personal growth. I don't disagree with those things, yet feel surprisingly comfortable with the idea that I want to climb an 8a to a large extent for the result. I wouldn't once have felt confident to admit that. I'd have preferred to emphasise other aspects of my motivation, which are also still true - the satisfaction of executing sequences close to my limit, the confidence gained from pushing to a new level, the aesthetics of climbing an attractive piece of rock, even the benefits as an instructor of being better able to coach the mind game, tactics and psychology. It's generally good practice to downplay the importance of grades. Maybe it's easier to be honest in this instance because I don't actually care too much - it has a lot less impact on my wellbeing and self esteem whether or not I achieve this arbitrary thing, than it would have done in my 20s. I'd just quite like to do it.
A throwaway remark by a friend years ago - motivation is motivation - stuck with me for its simplicity. It could be interpreted as either completely banal or quite profound. To recognise that a goal is meaningless, and not to tether your happiness to it, but to want to do it anyway, is actually a privileged position to play from, and should be enjoyed. At some point, maybe, I'll climb an 8a. Maybe, by the lifelong attritional gains of 'just going climbing' I'll get better, and be able to climb the grade more easily, without having to summon the siege weapons. I'm prepared for the possibility that maybe then I'll feel differently, and want to do an 8b.