Tuesday, 18 October 2011

Choss Monkeys and Champions

The MC’s excited commentary made it hard to get psyched for a trad climb up the steep and notoriously unstable walls of the quarry. Neither did the cheers of the crowd spur me on, even though a good few dozen people seemed to have gathered to watch the climbing.
They hadn’t travelled out to this god-forsaken place to watch me, of course. They were watching the British Climbing Championships in the indoor wall 50 yards away, while I was in Ratho Quarry contemplating an E2 as my stomach dealt with the after-effects of a Saturday morning fry up.
I ought to have felt virtuous for being on rock when others were pulling on plastic, especially on a marginal weather day. Instead it just felt bizarre.
While the young athletes cavorted to more cheers inside, my stomach grumbled further as I bridged around a ledge. It was basically a heap of rubble so I didn’t fancy treading on it much. I climbed some nice flakes, ruined by an anticipation of difficulty that never arrived, taking an age to arrange gear only to find a better slot above, then another.
I cursed trad climbing, making one of my regular promises to cast off my rack. Deep water soloing, that’s where it’s at. If I lived in Devon, I’d sling my trad gear into the sea and never burden myself with such artifice again, climbing only pure and naked on the fused limestone of the Rainbow Bridge.
Mind you, you’d want to keep your bollocks clear of the sharp stuff near the high water mark.
Back to reality and I scramble to the top, half expecting to belay on a tied-off Ford Escort on bricks. Instead, some gorse and a fence post oblige. The view is of the hangar that occupies the other half of the quarry, though not through into the hall where the British champions are cavorting. I can’t even make out the commentary, not that such things interest me.
Later we look around the quarry for another route to do, but nothing fits the bill. In one dank corner a cracked 40 foot wall of slippery black rock provides some temptation based on the ever uninspiring Lowland Outcrops guide.
This Bible of central Scottish quarry dwellers has to be the worse guide book I’ve ever used, its dull descriptions coordinated only loosely with the rudimentary crag diagrams. Admittedly, the authors didn’t have the best raw materials to work from, and by their own admission they didn’t revisit the routes at Ratho after the indoor arena was built and blasting for a motorway extension de-stabilised some of the walls (I kid you not).
The grades and stars are therefore guesses, and looking up at the black wall of Wally 1, E2 5c ***, I get the impression they might have been a tad optimistic. Either that or the route really is every bit as good as Left Wall or Regent Street. I wouldn’t know, because we decided to pass on it.
At that stage, we probably should have just gone home, slinging our wires and the Lowland Outcrops guide into the canal on the way past, but instead my mate decided to get a lead in and picked a tottering pile of choss. To be fair to him, that wasn’t immediately apparent.
It became a bit apparent when we had to put one of the footholds back so he could use it, and then a bit more as he arranged an early array of gear before committing to a shaky spike, but I had still to grasp the full magnitude of this route’s deficiencies as he scrabbled to enter a dirty groove at 20 feet. I kind of got the idea when he fell, unzipped the gear like a stripper’s pop-away pants and landed on his back at my feet.
But even as I looked down at him on the awkward series of jagged ledges were he lay, crumpled wires and twisted cams at his waist, I still underestimated the sheer crapness of the route, and offered to have a go myself. I know, I should have known better by then. I barely dared to tiptoe up to the start of the climbing proper, such was the danger of starting an avalanche, before backing off and heading for the pub. At least we got there before the champions.

Wednesday, 12 October 2011

The best route in the world

Thirty feet above the crystal sea, my feet skitter on the steep, smooth rock and I cut loose, but I don’t care because my hands are in the most beautiful sinker finger pockets I’ve ever felt.
Even so, it doesn’t do to linger, and I force myself onwards through smaller crimps to an edge on the lip of the overhang. I’m powered out and the next move is a slap. I glance down, but I’m committed now, a decision was made 45 seconds earlier and now there’s no way back to the safety of the groove. I set my feet and lunge upwards.
I reach the pocket with the tip of three fingers. It’s slopey. My hand peels off backwards and my body follows. Splash. My attempt at Rainbow Bridge ends like all the others, this time with the added spice of a really low tide.
Rainbow Bridge at Berry Head is the best route in Britain. Most of the people who doubt this simply haven’t done it. But I’ve never done it either because every time I get to the end of pitch six (in old skool terms), the siren call of the Barrel Traverse lures me onto harder territory. It’s lucky that the Barrel has such a soft landing because I’m simply incapable of turning away from it. This gorgeous sweep of wave-worn limestone teases me along its perfect line of pockets, then demands that I throw myself into a baffling crux sequence with all my vigour. If the penalty for failure were certain death, I doubt I could exercise the control to turn away from it – just to feel those pockets once would be enough.
Even when I lived in Devon, I only got to Rainbow Bridge occasionally. It’s kind of a special occasion route, to be done when the planets align in a particular combination of no bird ban, the right tide and a hot sunny day. This was therefore my third attempt at the Barrel in as many years, and now that I live 500 miles away I don’t suppose they’re set to become any more common. That is also part of what makes it my favourite route in the world.
Back in Edinburgh, I had an inspiring afternoon at the city’s Mountain Film Festival. I watched The Prophet, a well told tale of rock star Leo Houlding’s ten-year quest to climb a new line on El Cap. Again, this reinforced for me the potential of failure on a route to create a longer, deeper relationship with it. We’re talking about a really good route here, and not a redpoint but one that’s just that bit too hard but well worth going back for, training for even. A route like that stimulates mind and body and inspires more climbing in anticipation of the day we can go back and try it again.
It could be said that the themes of The Prophet are obsession, failure and eventual success, of which I’ve only known two on the Barrel Traverse. Interestingly though, the slightly forced Holywood ending is a weakness in The Prophet, and probably cost it the prize of best climbing film at the festival. The film appears to end following a tainted ascent in which Houlding tops out after a three day push, but fails to climb the A1 Beauty pitch clean. That was clearly not in the script because tacked on at the end is his return two months later for a clean ascent. I don’t resent the guy his success, but somehow it’s a bit tedious, whereas the earlier “ending” captured much more of the man and the great spirit of climbing that propels him. I’m reliably told that the postscript, plus Houlding’s “silly hat”, cost the film the prize. Leo, if you’re reading, I liked the hat.

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Cheers, Dom.