Exquisite agony

Well, as mentioned a couple of days back, Sol and I set off to Stanage yesterday to begin this years quest. The weather looked promising, with cold clear conditions forecast. Mind you, it was difficult to tell as we set off, as it was still dark. One of the downsides of living near Cambridge is the three hour drive. As is customary we stopped off for brekkie on the M1 services, and got to the crag at about 09:00, just in time for the first snow flurries. Only one thing for it. We fired up the trangia, and got a cuppa on the go. Despite it being somewhere around freezing I was actually feeling pretty warm and toasty – thanks mainly to my down jacket (praise be to Alpkit for that) I suspect, but the five layers underneath probably helped somewhat. While drinking tea we had a quick flick through the guidebook, and decided that Hollybush Crack would be an ideal candidate for the first lead of the year. The short walk into the crag would have been uneventful were it not for the ground conditions. One part in particular was frozen bog which cracked as soon as we walked across it. No problem for me in my thumping great boots, but Sol ended up with rather soggy socks. Before we geared up for the lead a spot of bouldering seemed like a good idea to get warmed up. At least it did until I remembered just how unpleasant it is to put on a pair of cold stiff climbing shoes for the first climb of the day.

Right then. Let’s get on with it. Hollybush Crack. My turn to lead this one, so I got my harness on, and couldn’t really decide what gear to take, so I just grabbed the lot. Two sets of nuts, one set of hexes, six cams, and three slings. For a VDiff. I pondered on this as I set off. The climb was, apart from a rather polished bit at the bottom, wonderful. I felt confident, and the past couple of weeks inactivity and overeating didn’t seem to be slowing me down at all. In fact, in a couple of places I was deliberately taking a bit longer over moving upwards just so I could savour the moment more. All too soon I goto the top with a rather inelegant belly flop, set up a belay, and brought Sol up on second. I hadn’t noticed how cold it was up there, but as Sol topped out he was complaining bitterly of the cold on his hands. Which was odd, I thought, as he’s from Durham, and they’re ‘ard up there.

Next up was Sol’s choice of lead, and we headed over to Christmas Crack. Sol geared up, leaving the hexes behind, while I got my jacket and wooly hat on ready for a chilly belay. Sol fairly zipped up this one, pausing only with a move to step right of the top flake. So, I got my shoes on, jacket off, and got ready to second it. It was about this point that I realised that my hands were already frozen after holding onto the ropes for the belay, and as soon as I touched the rock, I could feel the remaining warmth being sucked straight out of them. Within about three moves I couldn’t actually feel anything any more, and stopping to blow on them seemed to make no difference at all, so I just pressed on. This was all going well, until I reached the same flake at the top that had slowed Sol down. The thing is, there’s a beautiful juggy hold there, but my hand was by now devoid of all feeling, and I couldn’t actually tell if I had hold of it or not. Sol was peering over the top, and said “Just pull on it. You’ve got it.” but I honestly couldn’t feel a thing. In the end I realised that I couldn’t do anything about it, so just pulled and stepped up, and wandered over the top without even a belly flop this time. What a fantastic route! Brilliant. I was just thinking how much I’d enjoyed it, when a tingling in my fingers turned into a full-on attack of the hot aches. I put my gloves on quick, and stood there for five minutes cursing and pulling faces while Sol fell about laughing.

After an E12 7b downclimb we headed back to the car for tea and pot noodles to try and warm up a bit, and decide what to do next. The sun was just starting to peek through the clouds now, and though it was still bloody cold, it was a beautiful afternoon. A suitable candidate was soon found – Robin Hood’s Right-Hand Buttress Direct, which goes down as the longest route name I’ve ever had to type up I think. As we walked back up to the crag the sun vanished behind a cloud, and the wind picked up ever so slightly – best get on with it… I geared up, tied in, faffed around on the appallingly polished starting steps, and found myself under the overhang. And, try as I might, I just didn’t have the bottle to make the traverse out unprotected, or the necessary gear to put any meaningful protection in place. So I jumped down, and let Sol have a go. He managed to get a couple of nuts in under the overhang, but like me, didn’t fancy the traverse out without something a bit more meaningful in place. So we packed up, walked back to the car, and started off home.

What a great days climbing. I don’t mind backing off from the last climb of the day, as I know I can go back and have another go whenever I want. And the climbs that I did manage were both fantastic. A great start to the year.


Taking stock

Well, that’s 2008 over and done with, and I guess it’s fair to say that it was really my first year of learning to climb. Sure, I’d done a bit of indoor climbing back in 2007, but this time last year I had yet to lead anything, indoors or out, and had my ambition set to lead something graded Severe before the year was out. As it happens, I did this on my first venture up to Birchen, but a lot of other stuff has also happened this year.

High points? My first lead at Birchen, the fantastic weekend away in Montserrat, climbing in the company of Adrian Berry, climbing the stunning cliffs at Baggy Point, watching Sol get to the top of his first E1 lead, and I know the purists will shoot me for this, but also top-roping Great Slab, and realising just how good a climb can be. The perfect solitude when I turned up early to the crag at Birchen and had the whole place to myself for 30 minutes. The walk-in to Dovestone Tor. But I think the moment that will stay with me the longest was standing alone on top of La Momieta in Montserrat.

Low points? Giving up on Tody’s Wall sticks in my mind. And forgetting to take a fork to Stanage so I had to eat my pot noodle with matchsticks was also pretty crap.

Plans for 2009? I’m deliberately not setting a grade I’d like to achieve, as grade-chasing isn’t really what motivates my climbing. So, instead, I’ve taken the Top 50 list from the Eastern Grit guidebook, and I’m going to see how many of them I can get done in a year, starting this weekend – the weather looks set fair, so Sol and I are heading up to Stanage to get cracking. I know this is rather a restrictive ambition, given the wealth of climbing available in this country, but it just happens that the Eastern Peak is the closest domestic climbing to my home in The Fens. And of course, as with everything else, I completely reserve the right to change my mind if I suddenly discover that I have a penchant for climbing sea cliffs and a lot of time on my hands to travel to them.

Oh, and another weekend in Montserrat also beckons.

Looks like being a busy year. Let’s hope we get some half-decent summer weather.