OFF THE WALL
‘The harder you are to kill, the longer you will last in the mountains’ – Extreme Alpinism. M F Twight and J Martin
A small idea has morphed into a towering monolith that’s keeping me awake at nights. This week I’m going to the Alps to be Gear Woman and Ice Maiden again.
A friend in Geneva suggested I visit; that we climb; that we go to Chamonix for a weekend. Another recommended the expertise and availability of a Chamonix resident, someone he’d done a few classic alpine routes with. ‘Why not? Make a week of it,’ I thought.
I fixed a date with the known and unknown participants, booked the flights and THEN listened to what the experienced had to say: ‘Have you crossed a glacier before?’ ‘How do you cope with altitude?’ ‘The Frendo Spur- hmm…a bit ambitious for a first alpine route’. I heard about the need to bivy out in the cold and the 3am starts to make sure you’re off the mountain before the sun hits the snow.
I’ve never been to the Alps; never seen a glacier; never done more than a short pitch of mixed grade 4 climbing and grade 2 ice climbing; I don’t know how I cope at altitude; and the day on ‘Grooved Arête’ at Tryfan was exhausting enough. I hate camping, so bivying would be my idea of hell.
Panic has set in. A voice is telling me: ‘you’re going to struggle. It’s going to hurt and be very, very scary. You will suffer.’ Another, smaller, voice says: ‘It’s going to be a great adventure.’
Clutching at anything that will move me away from the black hole of panic, I’ve been preparing. In a vain attempt to increase my stamina and fitness, for the first time in my life, I’m taking exercise for exercise sake. It’s not much fun is it? I’ve chosen to cycle up the hills of Bristol- and there are a lot of them and they are steep. My knees hurt.
I’ve also borrowed and bought gear I never knew existed before – an ‘Alpine’ rucksack, an orange survival bag, and Compeeds. My bank account hurts after buying a Paramo waterproof smock to replace my less-than-water-resistant old sailing smock that has seen me through many an adventure. And I’ve learnt useful tips to avoid crevasses and sunburn on the ear lobes, nostrils and chin. But it hasn’t helped and I don’t feel I’ll be hard to kill, thank you Mr Twight: I feel very vulnerable. (Insurance was sorted out promptly after the first inkling of the monolith’s size)
And this anxiety is impacting on my everyday climbing. At Wintour’s Leap yesterday I went all emotional when I couldn’t work out how to use and equalize slings to set up a belay. ‘You should know by now’ said the voice. It was a classic 4 Pitch V Diff (Ordinary Route) that I led throughout - a first for me, but instead of feeling pleased I came away feeling I knew nothing, and how could I possibly be arrogant or stupid enough to think I could cope with anything the Alps could throw at me?
But I look at the photos in the Alpinism book of the magnificent landscape, snow and blue skies and know that I’m going to have a memorable adventure… and probably one of the biggest learning curves.
Posted by fishinwater
‘There are BLACK clouds out here. I’m just passing through town and they’re BLACK. What’s it like with you?’ The plan is for him to lead Limbo, an E1 5b under the Bristol Suspension Bridge. He’s entitled to ask for a showerless ascent. ‘Let’s meet at 2 and see how it looks.’
By 2pm the offending clouds have dissipated leaving a perfect May day – warm with a few cloudy bits and a light breeze.
We’ve been trying to do this route for a few weeks, but time and weather haven’t been in synchronicity so far. I’ve wanted to second more E numbers since my Portishead Quarry triumph, but know it’s his call. My climbing partner, with a good few years experience under his bandolier, has done nearly all of the climbs on the buttress that holds up the city side of the bridge – and some more than a few times. It’s still a serious afternoon’s work though.
We walk along the noisy Portway and scramble up the grassy canopy that protects the traffic from falling rock and worse. The Gorge is beautiful but local climbers wait in anticipation for the few days of the year when the road is closed – the only time they can hear climbing calls. Here, above the road, it’s quiet and the routes are, unusually, not as polished as marble. And today we have it all to ourselves – well, it is Monday afternoon.
Our bags are emptied out and while I boss the ropes into some sort of order, Barry gets the tools of the trade ready – he already knows he’ll need cams and something for the ‘awkward thread’.
The sun is warm on my back as he ties in. ‘Climb when ready’. He fumbles around on a shoulder height grassy ledge to get the first hold. He’s soon up and away, muttering about ‘gardening’ under his breath.
A route always looks different from below; nearly always possible. This seems to start with ledges and then a move to the left to a series of useful round holes and then left again to a worryingly blank wall before reaching a more comforting groove. I decide not to think of the wall and think what I’ll have for tea, and is that parsley growing there?
Thankfully I’m totally distracted from the task ahead by the appearance of a cross Jackdaw that circles and threatens the human near its nest. The human calmly stays on the wall and ignores it. He delicately makes his way up: carefully and confidently, stopping to consider, taking a rest, pulling out plants, putting in gear. In time I hear the expected ‘Safe’, and I put on shoes as the ropes slide away from me.
I’m anxious. I’ve thought about this for too long. I don’t know what to expect. Will I get stuck? Will I get too scared to climb? Will I be unable to take out the gear? Will I get too tired and pumped? All stupid thoughts – I’ll have the luxury of being tied to a rope.
So it starts – up the little ledges easily; finding the helpful finger or two -finger sized holes…and then I see the blank wall is indeed blank. I make the move across, otherwise I know I’ll be there until sunset, and find myself poised like a squished up frog – with nowhere to go and no method of propulsion. I fall off. Shame. I breathe and slow my heartbeat that has become loud and quick. Suddenly the slab reveals its hidden crimps and minute ledges and I’m off again. Strenuous and sustained climbing– until I arrive at the groove, where I can shake out the tension and relax a little. The rest is less demanding but still needs a grunt to get me up it. And then it’s all over.
And I realise I’ve enjoyed it. It wasn’t as difficult as I thought it might be. Yes, I fell off, but that doesn’t bother me. It’s my first E1 5b. The next time it will bother me. It makes me appreciate how fluid my climbing has become. I don’t stop and stare, freeze. I am starting to read the rock quickly and efficiently. Even when there’s nothing visible I know there has to be something useful – it’s just matter of a small movement up or down – and all becomes clear. ‘Clan Union’ next: 3 pitches and more pumpy. I’m thinking about what colour to paint my toenails this summer...
Posted by fishinwater
I need a long lie-down after a weekend of making up for lost time. The Welsh weather gods smiled on me. It was a delicious irony that England soaked while Wales basked: this is the 6th time I’ve visited Snowdonia and each time it’s been a deluge, reducing climbing ambitions to Lockwoods Chimney( which I don’t know if I want to describe as a climb), and half a buttress somewhere in the Llanberis Pass.
The tone of the weekend was set when Saturday‘s climbing at Little Tryfan started at 8.30am. Not my usual style. The crag is certainly what it’s made out to be – great for beginners - and for once I couldn’t argue with the grading. I like slab climbing. By lunchtime we’d had enough and went on to scramble up Tryfan and Bristly Ridge in increasing amounts of sunshine.
Then to Tremadog – that mythical place of classic routes, dry rock and warm sunshine. It wasn’t a myth but it wasn’t a good day, with my head in the wrong place perhaps. ‘I think I’ve forgotten something’ I said as I started the lead of Boo Boo, a HVD that surely was well within my ability. I had all my gear… but I’d forgotten how to climb and backed off on the first pitch. Or was it the grading? I’ve invented a new concept – grading grief: being the distress and frustration felt at routes that even my granny can see are under-graded. The seemingly impossible move up a slab was only made possible by using the dead tree nearby to bridge off. That just can’t be right. I can’t re-grade the route but I’ve renamed it Poo Poo.
The Classics were like London underground escalators from early morning so my partner’s ambition to lead Grim Wall Direct was thwarted and he made do with a warm up on Grim Wall (VS 4c) instead. It warmed me up in not an entirely pleasant way. G-String (HVS 5a) also had this effect. ‘Why am I doing this when I could be sitting in the sunshine with a cup of tea?’ was a question I asked myself a few times that day.
Sunday evening in the pub I formed a masochistic plot to counter the downward spiral of confidence. Grooved Arête: a classic 8 pitch HVD route up the East face of Tryfan - and I found a willing accomplice. Despite the fact this was to be my first long mountain route where I would be sharing the lead, I slept well.
We rose early, ignored the overnight snowfall on the summits, had a skirmish about what gear and food to take, and then struggled through heather and boulders to the foot of the route (I’m still not sure why we weren’t allowed to use the path), leaving me with just enough energy to lead the first pitch with some style. We aspired to quick and efficient turnover at the belays, but as most of them were the size of a 3-seater sofa it was too easy to stop for a chat and admire the clear view to Cumbria.
The lower pitches of the route are quite soft and fluffy, then it gets a bit sweaty – particularly as I wasn’t used to climbing with a rucksack (the second’s designated role). I felt what remained of my energy wicking away with the sweat in my base layer when I got to lead the fourth pitch. Route finding had been a matter of following the polish up until then – but I managed to loose it and found a much more interesting way with much more interesting exposure.
My partner inadvertently ran the 5th and 6th pitches together and sat at the belay lamenting:’ I suppose you should do the crux pitch’. Acutely feeling the strain of the last three days, I selflessly let him carry on. The Knights Slab is a lovely delicate scary climb – and I will return to lead it one day. I did the final pitch with poise and finesse, and finished the day feeling a sense of achievement.
It was an excellent plot: I regained confidence and was reminded me how hard mountain routes are – from the walk in, route finding, rucksack climbing, to the walk off. I need to get fitter if the Puig plot is to be as excellent.
Posted by fishinwater
The climbing novice and steep learning curves
Want to read my old blog entries? Browse through an achive of all my posts below:
- April 2013 (1 post)
- March 2013 (2 posts)
- February 2013 (1 post)
- January 2013 (1 post)
- December 2012 (1 post)
- November 2012 (1 post)
- October 2012 (1 post)
- July 2012 (1 post)
- April 2012 (1 post)
- March 2012 (1 post)
- February 2012 (1 post)
- January 2012 (1 post)
- December 2011 (1 post)
- November 2011 (1 post)
- October 2011 (2 posts)
- September 2011 (1 post)
- August 2011 (2 posts)
- July 2011 (1 post)
- June 2011 (1 post)
- May 2011 (2 posts)
- April 2011 (1 post)
- March 2011 (2 posts)
- February 2011 (2 posts)
- January 2011 (1 post)
- December 2010 (2 posts)
- November 2010 (1 post)
- October 2010 (2 posts)
- September 2010 (2 posts)
- August 2010 (2 posts)
- July 2010 (1 post)
- June 2010 (2 posts)
- May 2010 (3 posts)
- April 2010 (1 post)
- March 2010 (2 posts)
- February 2010 (2 posts)
- January 2010 (3 posts)
- December 2009 (1 post)
- November 2009 (3 posts)
- October 2009 (2 posts)
- September 2009 (1 post)
- August 2009 (1 post)
- July 2009 (1 post)
- June 2009 (1 post)
- May 2009 (1 post)