“Multi-pitch Virgins” published in High. UK climbing has a lot to offer and if you are looking for your first multi-pitch experience then Grooved Arête on Tryfan in Wales is a wonderful route.
Old Boys Tell It How It Is
. . . We scrambled a short distance to the next pitch where I promptly tangled the rope. Two older, obviously considerably more experienced, climbers rapidly caught up. My spaghetti tossing technique exacerbated matters. We blustered an excuse about waiting for the family ahead to clear the rock. The thought of tossing a hand grenade into the middle of the tangle crossed my mind.
The older guys sat down and opened their lunch boxes. Amongst the greenery of the ledge I wondered if there were thinking about golf. Surprisingly, in many respects golf and climbing are similar; there’s a lot of swinging around, avoiding flying objects and hellish weights behind gaggles of idiots.
However, they were extremely courteous and assured us, “The times of fighting to pass people are gone”. Under the soothing influence of the warm sun they showed us knots and told stories about the old days of UK climbing; a time of negotiating access deals with local farmers. For their part, the climbers rescued stranded sheep. Fit animals would commit suicide before being caught, so rescuers waited until the sheep half-starved on the ledges. Even then the good Samaritans endured projectile bladder flushing.
UK Climbing Is No Walk In The Park
We’d waited a long time for the family to clear the next pitch. As Pete led on, the face fell into shade. Temperatures cooled rapidly. Then from 60ft up, the words, “I’m in trouble tumbled down”. Rob instinctively tightened the belay. “I’m coming down”, Pete shouted while struggling to place protection.
“Will it hold for an abseil?” Rob shouted.
“We’ll bloody find out”, a cracked tone came back.
It held, and Pete set a mid-pitch belay. I followed Stefi up and found her, face stuck to the rock, legs trembling. Fear or fatigue? It didn’t matter providing she controlled it.
She did, by not looking down. Rob climbed over us. Watching him reveal the invisible route up was reassuring. Intently we memorized how he bridged an awkward crack. Pete chastised himself, “Why didn’t I see that?” At this point I really appreciated the difference between seconding and leading. Up front, focus and fear multiplies by ten.
The climbing was becoming more technical and exposure expanding exponentially. Rob and Pete spent a long time shouting tactics for the next series of pitches; every word functional and clearly enunciated. They had a plan. Pete set a belay a few feet up, then Rob disappeared around an overhang.
The sheep-catchers arrived. “That’s the crux move round there then”, they realized my twisted smile was a little forced, “Or wasn’t I supposed to say that”.
We had climbed way past the point of no return. Stefi and I had to assume complete confidence in Rob and Pete’s ability, the protection they placed, and the ropes. I was enjoying myself. Kind of.
Stefi rocketed across the pitch and out of sight. I envied her dexterity. While I ratcheted up, Pete smoke-screened my survival instinct by talking camera angles.
The conversation stopped abruptly with my opening move on the ‘Chessboard’, a slab which appeared to hover on air. I slid onto the slab, froze for a few seconds to reassure myself all was well and then my foot detached from a polished hole. The other foothold was polished too. Naively I’d never thought of UK climbing as being hugely risky. I did now. I began to panic. Rob took the pilot seat. His instructions were the only influence cutting through a suffocating veil of concentration which kept my senses on the rocks textures and how to match my body to them.
“Come towards the edge”, Rob said. Everything inside me screamed keep away from the edge. “Yes, keep coming,” he said. So this is what trust feels like. I didn’t like it. What the hell was I heading towards the edge for, it looked as supportive as melting ice-cream. I put my hand round it – and found a bounty of holes.