Diary of a climbNovember 15, 2019
My first experience of “trad” climbing, last week, was utterly exhilarating.
I had climbed outdoors a few times before, but maybe I hadn’t stepped outside my comfort zone in quite the same way as I did last Saturday.
I was acting as “seconder” for Neil, a member of a climbing club I recently joined, called the Silverbacks. We were climbing at Auchinstarry, a reclaimed quarry just north of Glasgow.
Me removing “gear” on a different climb earlier that day.
We had done two enjoyable but just slightly challenging climbs rated Severe earlier that morning, and after lunch, Neil wanted to try a more advanced climb, “Spirogyra”, rated Very Severe. That’s two grades higher than our previous two climbs.
I optimistically agreed to “give it a go”, without thinking of the difference between indoor climbing and climbing on rock. When climbing indoors, I often try climbs that I know are beyond me, knowing that if I give up or fall off, I just get belayed back down. Climbing outdoors, things feel a bit different. You’re more exposed to the elements, and to the more abrasive texture of real rock.
The rock, with the “Spirogyra” route at the right hand side. The route starts by heading up the crevice of the partially-severed rock section, and then traverses up round the other side of the big crag.
I started belaying for Neil, aware that my responsibility as a belayer was heightened, as he precariously positioned himself to place “gear” to secure the rope in the rock. The first half of the climb included a tricky “crack climb” where you have to jam your hands and feet into a narrow rock crevice.
The alternative is to “smear” the sheer rock on either side of the crevice – in other words, to place your toes firmly on the rock face. This was the option that Neil chose to take, and he is very good at it – though he did slip at one point, but managed to steady himself by grabbing at the edge of the rock with his hands.
My heart was in my mouth watching this, and I made a mental note:
“I will NOT be doing this climb!”
One of the more advanced climbers could take over as seconder.
Once Neil had completed the first half of the climb, the route traversed round to the right. I could barely see him as he moved round – though I could hear occasional cries of astonishment and dismay. Robert, the club organiser, who was looking down from the top of the climb, yelled back encouragement:
“You can do it Neil! Once you’ve got past this tricky bit, there’s a great juggy hold just above your head,” and “It gets much easier as you get closer to the top.”
It didn’t look as if it was getting easier. Neil seemed to be climbing really well, but it was clearly a struggle.
Then suddenly he was up and over the top. A shout of triumph and relief followed.
My hands, grasping the rope until I got the call that Neil was “safe”, were getting colder and colder. As soon as I got the call, I put on my gloves.
And then it was my turn to climb!
“I can’t do this!” I said. The reply was a chorus of “Yes you can!” and “Give it a try!”
With Neil belaying me from the top, Robert, the club organiser, standing next to him, and other club members looking on, I decided to at least start the climb, knowing that I wouldn’t get far. I tried to have a bit of positivity though.
Even the first few steps were tricky, and when I reached the “crack”, I stopped and looked about. I’m an indoor climber, and I’m used to handholds and footholds!
The others yelled up at me to jam my right foot into the crack. It seemed easier with the left foot, and it kind of worked. I then tried jamming my right foot in and pulling with my hand. If I could pull myself up far enough, there was a tiny ledge on the left, about a centimetre wide, to support my left toes. I tried with all my might to pull myself up, but it seemed impossible to gain enough height to reach the miniscule ledge.
“OK, I’m done – let me down!” I cried.
“NO!” came a chorus in reply. “Try again! You can do it!”
I tried to reach out with my right arm for a hole in the rock that I’d seen Neil using, but my arms weren’t long enough. And he’d had his right foot pushing against the sheer rock face at the time, something which I definitely couldn’t do!
I struggled to get my left toes up onto this little ledge.
I tried jamming my hand into the crack, as one of the more experienced climbers had described. It seemed to work, but the rock was scraping against the face of my wrist watch.
“I’m just going to take off my watch!” I yelled.
My heart was pounding as I removed my watch and stuffed it into my pocket. I felt precariously balanced, and although I knew I was safely attached to a top rope, my subconscious mind refused to accept that message.
Then I jammed my hand and right foot back into the crack and tried to pull myself up. Neil helped by pulling me up on the rope, but it still felt like a monumental effort. It must also have been extremely inelegant!
With my right foot still wedged into the crack, I looked down at my left foot, and finally managed to edge it up to rest the tip on the little ledge – to resounding cheers!
“You’ve done it! Well done Natalie!”
But what had I done? I was still partially wedged into a crevice, now in a higher and even more precarious position. Where was there to go now? My heart was pounding harder and I was breathing in gasps.
I removed some gear from the rock and said, “OK! I need to get down now.”
“You just need to grab a hold of that rock pointing up above your head,” Robert shouted. I looked up. The rock pinnacle he was referring to was at least a meter above me!
“Just get yourself higher in that crack!”
Neil pulled on the rope, and I wedged a hand and foot in, shouting “Urgh… urgh…” and flailing about.
It was so ungainly!
There was a small ledge made up of rock debris wedged into the crack, and I lifted my left foot as high as possible, trying to lever myself upwards with my hands in what seemed like a very unbalanced position. Neil helped me by pulling on the rope from above. The others yelled encouragement.
I managed to stand up unsteadily on the piece of debris, puffing and panting. I removed some more gear.
“Now go for the rock!” Robert yelled. “Grab it with your hands!”
Perfect tea spot
I had no energy left, but the rock did look inviting, because there was a small platform next to it. I pushed my right foot against the rock face, grabbed the rock pinnacle with both hands, and with all my might, pulled myself up (with help from Neil on the belay rope) to cheers of encouragement.
“You’re nearly there! Go for it Natalie! Come on!”
I managed to get my knee up, and with an ungraceful lunge, I heaved my exhausted body up onto the platform.
“Sit down and have a rest,” Robert shouted. “The next bit is much easier.”
It didn’t look easier! But I was glad to rest. I should have attached a flask of tea to my harness.
The halfway platform, seen from above. Nice place for a tea break!
My heart was pounding, and it wasn’t just with exhaustion. I was trembling all over due to adrenaline. I dropped one of the hex nuts, partly because the tips of my fingers were numb with cold. The rest of me felt very warm, but I always have a problem with cold fingers and toes.
The next half…
Then I stood up to look at the next bit of the climb. There was a gap of about fourteen inches, and then a small ledge that I could step on with my left foot, if I lifted my leg quite high. That would put me in a really unbalanced position, embracing a large chunk of rock while pulling up on one leg.
The next step…
I reached out to try it and realised that I would quite likely fall back and be left swinging in mid air on the end of the rope.
“You can do it Natalie!” I heard.
I retreated back onto the platform, waited for my heart to stop pounding, and then stood up for another try. I reached round the rock, and found a reasonably good fissure to grip onto with my left hand.
“That’s it Natalie!” Robert shouted.
I felt about with my right hand, and suddenly found a juggy ledge embedded in soft foliage to grasp onto.
“Yesss! That’s it! Go for it!” I heard.
I thought it through, nervously. It felt like I was embracing an enormous moss-edged ball with my left hand out wide and my right hand above my head. Then I would have to step up onto that little ledge, pushing with my left leg and pulling with all my might…
I had no more reserves in the tank, and my fingertips were so numb with cold that I could barely feel the rock.
“I just don’t have the strength any more,” I whimpered. “I really am done in. I need to come down.”
I was trembling all over, partly with fear and adrenaline, and partly with sheer exhaustion.
Robert relented. “Just be careful to come down on the far side of the rock platform, he warned.” Otherwise I would have been trapped in a bushy enclosure next to the old quarry pool!
Back to earth
Once back on the ground, I unclipped, feeling a bit of a failure for having been afraid to risk falling and swinging out. But everyone was saying “Well done!” Robert came down and gave me a high-five. Neil congratulated me. They told me it was my new project, and that I’d probably complete it next spring!
The second half of “Spyrogyra”. I’ll be back for you next year!
Although I felt that I hadn’t properly climbed even the first half of it, because I’d been greatly advantaged by Neil kindly pulling me up on the rope, it did give me a feel of how crack climbing is done, which made me feel in my mind that this could be achieveable one day. There is definitely a kind of muscle imprint memory that your body can learn from rehearsing physical moves, and even from watching other people do them.
Despite my nerves, I found the experience exciting and very inspiring. And I felt truly grateful for all the encouragement from these more experienced climbers, literally pushing me out of my comfort zone.
I need to do more outdoor rock climbing, to get more comfortable on the rock, take a few falls and try out different moves. Then I’ll be back to give Spyrogyra another go!
All photos author’s own.