Lead Climbing

Okay, so it feels like I’m hanging on by my finger tips (probably because I am) with a toe hook out to my left… with both feet. My last piece of gear consists of two very poorly placed Wild Country Tech Friends, about eight feet away. Split seconds ago, I felt absolutely fantastic; the feeling of doing a brilliantly difficult move far up in the air was a terrific feeling.

Until I realised that that was indeed the situation. Then I went to pieces. A nice break in front of me was begging to have my nice size 3 cam placed into it so I quickly unclipped it from my harness. Unfortunately, as I hang there from one hand, almost horizontal with my toes still clinging onto the toe hook, I realised that a size 3 cam can increase in size rapidly when being shaken like a tin of paint in a 1980’s paint mixer! My breathing was quicker than a steam train going full tilt and if you looked at the panic in my eyes, you would swear I was about to be attacked from behind by a large group of angry prison inmates. Twice.

In the end I strangely decided to give up with this whole climbing malarkey, realising that there is not a hold in the world big enough to get my shaking hand around, and that I would accept my imminent rapid descent to terra firma. In hindsight, it could have been a remarkably stupid decision, as they really were terribly placed cams and the ground was not all that far away, but all logical thinking had gone from me and I decided I’d prefer to know when the fall was coming.

You see I’ve always been a terrible lead climber. Everyone I have climbed with will testify that on a boulder, I am at least a talented rock acrobat, but on lead, it’s like trying to watch two men with Parkinson’s disease shake hands. I remember once trying to lead Coral Sea (VS 4c) at Trowbarrow in South Cumbria, when my friends decided to offer some relaxing friendly banter, involving quite a lot of piss taking. Trying to concentrate was far too much like hard work, and I found myself listening to their baiting. In the end (just after I had shaken another nut into place) I turned and very politely explained, “Guys, I am not against a little friendly banter, but at the moment, I am hanging onto a rock face for dear life and would really appreciate it if you would kindly FUCK OFF.” Needless to say they did.

There are leagues of these stories, mainly involving swearing, shaking, jittering and all in all being pretty bloody mean to those around, be it belayer, spotter or passing walker who just happened to be in the firing line. (Incidentally, sorry to those who have managed to feel the unfortunate effects of my attempts at climbing on the wrong end of the rope.) I’ve had feelings of “I don’t want to die” to just acceptance that I am going to die, and that it probably won’t make that much difference anyway! And yet, I still seem to tie into that wrong end of the rope to have another bite at the cherry. Yes, I have succeeded in many a lead climb, often feeling surprisingly good, but that doesn’t distract from the eight different climbs I’ve backed off.

So on this sunny weekday afternoon at Stanage, beneath a glorious overhang I let go of the rock. I’d released the toe hook before I did, bent my knees slightly in anticipation of the fall and somewhat unbelievably stopped shaking. I looked down to see where the ground actually was and was delighted to see it was quite far away.

Now, there is one thing I have neglected to mention. I said I’d climbed eight feet from my last piece of gear but I didn’t say I hadn’t gone above it. In case you know it the climb is Overhanging Climb (HVS 5a) at Stanage Plantation, with a quick vertical section, followed by a traverse under an intimidating roof then a final top out up an arête. I was half way along the traverse when I let go. It was one of those times when I was quite glad I didn’t get that t-shirt “If my shorts change colour, take in the slack” as my belayer would’ve pulled me off the wall. I worked out my actual fall distance was fourteen-feet (even though I failed my Physics degree, I’m still a bit of a maths geek) and as I fell, I’m sure the whole of Stanage hear me shout “Woo!” (Again, apologies if I disturbed you that day). When I stopped, I was horizontal again, with my feet hitting a prow of rock on the left of me. I was four inches from hitting the deck.

I would love to say i’ve come a long way from that day in the subsequent years but it just blatantly isn’t true, as you would have noticed if you’d spoken to me in the few days after my attempt on Rib and Slab at a mere VDiff on Craig Ddu. I suppose I’m just not much of a lead climber, but I’m still somewhat determined to crack it one day, hopefully without cracking myself in the process!

February 2010

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