28 July 2011

First lead

I recently met a guy from Wales who struggled to comprehend the idea that I had been climbing at Almscliff for 4 years but only done a handful of routes. As I explained, my climbing career started with a pair of 2nd hand shoes, and a photocopy of the Yorkshire Grit Bouldering guide (I copied Almscliff and Brimham). Since then I have bought several new pairs of shoes, and a couple of guide books, but only worn a harness (outdoors) on 3 occasions. I've been pretty happy bouldering, even soloing, rather than get tied down so to speak. I guess one of the reasons for this is the reason why I didn't start climbing until my late 30s- climbing always struck me as a specialist sport, even elitist, and therefore wasn't on my radar. Having a bad head for heights, and a poor-to-middling state of fitness didn't help, but whenever I saw climbers laden down with ropes, straps, bits of metal, and the like it looked like an alien and inaccessible activity. Then bouldering introduced me to the simplicity and beauty of climbing- change your shoes, and off you go. £20 and the photocopier at work were all it took to set me off on a love affair with crags.

But that detachment from roped climbing remained with me. It seemed to have its own language, routines, culture that seemed distinct from bouldering. Men who looked like they had stepped out of a Rambler catalogue from 1975 would shout mysterious commands at each other from the top of the crag, whilst their partners would spend 30 minutes climbing something that took me 5, whilst carrying an entire hardware shop on their belts. Words like 'cams', 'friends', 'pro', 'gear' and 'racks' would be used to talk about something that essentially seemed to be the same thing- was I stupid for not knowing the difference? I tried to educate myself- bought a DVD, talked to other climbers- but it was really hard to know where to start, and much easier to carry on bouldering. However, I did second a route (Zig Zag), and was amazed at how much more pumped I got from it. Afterwards, though, I couldn't help thinking that a couple of mats under the crux could have worked, and without having to hang around for ages pulling gear out I would have had a lot more strength for it as well.

So, come 2011 and our tick list for the year, I felt I really needed to get a lead climb under my belt. Somehow this would unlock the mysteries of 'trad'. With Dave the Teacher to show me how (albeit an I.T. teacher, but one who has studied at the University of Grit for many years), we set off to get me up Fluted Columns. After a brief lesson in sticking in cams, we concluded it would be probably easier to get up on the route and work it out as I went along. Dave selected a pile of metal to hand off me like he was liberally decorating a Christmas tree- 'take that one as well, just in case'.

Fluted Columns seemed to be a good route to start this next stage of my career, as it had plenty of stable points where I could stand and fiddle around with things- either trying to get stuff off my gear loops, or trying to stick them in the rock. Although my placements seemed pretty solid, Dave retrospectively gave them a 50:50 chance of staying in if I fell. But with the route well within my grade, there was little chance of that happening, and by the time I was really high up I had a 'bomber' cam in the side of the columns (see, getting the lingo now as well!). It felt strange having to swap between 'climbing' mode, and 'placement' mode- one seems instinctive and meditative, the other more intellectual and mechanic. However, topping out onto a rather busy Low Man, I felt a reasonable sense of acheivement, and a growing appreciation for this whole trad business. Dave then popped up and worked out some weird bondage set-up to fix me to the top of the crag, and I happily sat there belaying away whilst the clouds cleared on another fine Almscliff sunset.
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