Wednesday, 13 July 2011

Sweet Sixteen

I’ve just been on holiday and I feel half my age – the only trouble is, it’s not that great being 16 again.
With no car, I had to carry all my stuff in a rucksack and walk to the campsite, and when I got on the rock I found I had no stamina and no head for leading. Plus I was living off cold pies and bacon butties from the cafe, making rookie errors and wondering why I failed.
In fact, it’s not the holiday that made me shed the years, it’s the working. It’s stealing my soul, strength and personality so that soon I’ll be a baby again. It just took a holiday in the Peak District to highlight the fact to me.
Going back to old haunts, I should have known that the grit commands respect at the best of times; that until you’ve really run yourself in, picked up the knack again, you have to drop your grade by a fair bit. But over-enthusiasm and a desperate need to achieve something on rock this year saw me hurl myself at one of the ambitious target routes I’d set myself, without so much as a warm up, let alone a build up through the grades.
Rock gods can do that. I can’t. Soon I was slumped on the peg in the middle of the imposing wall of High Plains Drifter at Lawrencefield, trying to work out if I really had to cut loose on a finger edge. It wasn’t especially hard, but it took me about four attempts before I was able to commit to the move, and even after that I found the top section terrifying.
And what happened to my stamina, the product of many days training on the Black Wall traverse at Salisbury Crags? It went the way of all bouldering-based gains when faced with a proper route: burnt away with excessive grip in the first five minutes, it skulked for the rest of the holiday, waiting for a nice little traverse it knew well to show off on.
It wasn’t so much “come on arms, do your stuff”, as “where the hell are you, you bastards”, as I thrashed myself against classic lines in the baking hot gritstone quarries like a demented salmon trying to ascend a dry waterfall.
By the end of the second day I was crushed, psychologically and physically. Never mind 16, I felt like a helpless child, until an unlikely ally came to my aid.
I have never been one to enjoy the rain before, but this time it gave me the break I needed, the chance to step down a few grades and recover some of my mojo.
I couldn’t have asked for a better setting for a showdown than Dovedale – why is it not more celebrated as a climbing venue? It hadn’t rained for an hour so I chucked myself on George, an E1 up one of the Tissington Spires, magnificent fingers of rock in an otherwise quintessentially English valley.
Forty feet up, the heavens opened, but determined to succeed I held on, taking the full force of the downpour while hoping for a break. After twenty minutes or so, it became clear it was no passing shower and I lowered off. Almost immediately, the rain stopped, and after a few false starts, the rock was dry enough for me to get back on. This time I made it to the top, but as Matt tied in we heard the first rumbles of thunder.
He raced up as best he could, as the storm approached, and made it to easy ground as it engulfed us. We abseiled off in a hailstorm, feeling we’d beaten the gods for once, my spirits recovered.
For the next three days we climbed almost constantly, dodging the rain, defying it, claiming classic lines with a good excuse not to get on anything too desperate. We got wet countless times but dried off in the sun just as often. I slept like a log in my tent, and started to feel weather beaten and lean, the moves coming naturally at last.
And then, of course, it was time to go home. I wonder when I’ll next be allowed out to play?

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