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.

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