Saturday 26 September 2015

The Clearences

The wind whips the ropes hanging beneath me, almost unhindered by protection for ten metres to the safe hands of Iain at the belay. My hands are freezing, the rock is damp in places and I'm searching for better protection below the steeping headwall on the first pitch of The Clearances.
Originally given E3 by its first ascentionist Ed and Cynthia Grindley in 1976, it had progressed upwards to E4 in the intervening years and remains rarely climbed. Since then a crucial peg has fallen out at the bold crux – a five meter, plumb vertical shield of rock with only fingertip edges and no obvious places to secure protection where the peg once was.

I plug in a good no.3 camalot at the change in angle between the lower slab and the crux wall. I know with this in place I can climb above with little chance of hitting the ground, but the fall will still be an unpleasant smash into the lower slab. My hands are freezing. Iain offers me some advice –
“Why don’t you climb back to that foot ledge and warm your hands”.
The winds tears at my winter-weight soft shell, sucking the heat from me, but I feel some pressure not to back off. I can deal with the cold. I'm used to climbing in the Alps, this is Scotland, man up. I don’t often use reverse gear and this didn’t feel like the place to start.
I clip a peg so old and rusty it flexes wildly when I tug on the quickdraw. I back it up with a microwire in a thin parallel crack, more suited to a peg than a nut. The guidebook mentions the possibility of a sling draped over an anvil shaped rock further up. I look down and see Cubby setting up his tripod and in my mind we feel connected - it is his written words, his description that is guiding me upwards. I make some technical moves up to the anvil. I silently curse Dave – not because the camera is off-putting – he is yet to start capturing my frozen, stiff climbing movements, but because I cannot see any way of securing a sling round this block. Damn him and his words.

I push on, moving further upwards, away from my protection, every move raising the stakes. I see a poor, flared slot and pull a yellow totem from my harness; anyone who has climbed with me recently will know I’m a firm believer in these wonderful, technical marvels. If I could write poetry I would have probably constructed an ode to them. It goes in but it’s poor – two lobes are in a constriction but the other too only prevent the cam from twisting. I hope this is enough. I work hard to get more blood into my hands, pressing them into the arch of my neck only provides fleeting warmth. I am not yet overly concerned about the boldness as the climbing is manageable. I spot another flared, vertical crack – possibly where the peg used to be. Using the tips of my fingers I can tell a blue totem will fit. I align it as best I can. I know from the Yosemite walls that these cams can hold in flares like this, but only bodyweight – will it hold a fall? I know for sure that if it fails the yellow cam below will not hold – I’m too far above, too much momentum will be gained.

Grasping the edge of the crack in my right hand I work my feet up onto small nubbins, the next few moves are not as clearly defined – I must search out the intricacies that show the way. I reach high and right to a flat hold which I can match with both hands, a hold I would normally consider “good”; now, however, my hands are numb, like wooden toy versions of my normal hands. The wind whips. Iain is dancing around on the ground trying to keep warm, wearing his winter belay jacket.
I spend too long trying to warm my hands, trying in vain to gain some feeling and confidence. When one hand gains feeling, the other is left perilously cold and pumped -  a zero sum game. I am worried. I cannot reverse those moves and there is no more protection. I try to work in a tiny micro nut but all that I gain for my efforts is a deepening pump in my forearms and yet colder hands. I see a better hold up and right – tooth shaped and positive. I press and stretch until I can painfully bend my fingers round its sharp form, my back and shoulders tensed to hold the position.

I am in real in trouble now. I rearrange my feet and grasp a large, flat hold on the left. It’s useless, I have no feeling and no strength – I’ve messed up and I’m in a serious position. I dare to look downwards, to assess my options. It is more than five meters to the last reliable piece of protection – if I fall now and the marginal cams, rusty peg and poor micro wire don’t hold – it doesn’t bear thinking about. The ground is fifteen meters below me but the slab will break my bones before I even get close.

Upwards is just as unthinkable. I cannot see any more protection, or any obvious holds. If I slip making the moves I will fall uncontrollably. In this predicament I have no choice but cut my losses and minimise the fall. I reverse as far as I can and just let go, I relinquish myself to fate – I have no control of the future. I’m finished.

The blue cam holds. I stop with my feet on the sloping slab. Lady luck and some clever Spanish engineers have been on my side.

I return to my high point, noting on the way that the microwire has pulled out and the yellow cam had rotated and inverted, but somehow stayed in. I glance at the blue cam and shake my head. I look back down to Dave and see that he has yet to set up his camera so I am saved the ignominy of having my worst moments captured on film.

When my hands are warm I resume. Once again on the tooth shaped hold I realise I should have rested longer while hanging on the rope; residual pump and surging adrenaline make me climb poorly. I find a hidden hold, it annoys me as I now know the secret. I work over towards the hanging crack-line, not strenuous but balancy and now very run-out. The crack offers the notion of protection. I hope for an obvious constriction where I can slot a nut, or a bomber cam slot. Instead I am faced with an awkward position, and small, damp and mossy cracks in which I must fiddle some wires. Finally I tug one down and it holds tight, I am safe, at long last I am safe. 

The crack stretches for another twenty meters to the belay ledge. In drier, warmer conditions I would have made light work of it but I am weakened by what has gone before.  Am slow, hesitant. I place protection whenever it is available, too much, wasting my energy and conscious that I am wasting Iain’s day – he has desires to climb a new route on the mouth of Ossian’s cave.

A long time later I crawl over the final bulge onto the midway ledge. I am exhausted. I build a belay and lay down. Iain is chatting to Dave so I get some respite before I have to haul our heavy pack. I feel light headed, nauseated and weak. For a brief moment I think that my poor performance heralds the start of cold or some other ailment. I quickly dismiss this, it is merely the after effects of the adrenalin circulating my system.

I had planned to lead both of these E4 pitches but I am not sure I can manage the second. Iain’s words revitalise my inner momentum –
 “ the crux is harder, but short. Plenty of easy climbing”.
I have to reaffirm that I can climb this route. I re-rack the gear and work my way up the steep wall to the mossy bulging overhang that I have to work round. I place some good protection under the bulge, walk my feet rightwards on smears, grasp a good side pull, and extend up leftwards to a good hold. I feel good again, I step right and that is it, the crux is done. Everything is possible once again.

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