Wednesday, 13 October 2010

Peace of Mind

 The Roaches, Staffordshire

In 1996 I was nineteen and, like most people, at a pivotal time in my life. In the previous twelve months I'd left school, got a driving licence, got stuck into what remains one of only two periods of full-time employment in my life, and then spent my earnings on a rack and a plane ticket. I spent more than a few days that winter at The Roaches, often alone, and it was during those magical days that my feelings on ethics began to slowly coalesce. Like many youths, I was keen to test myself, and got straight on with shunting a few of the areas classic testpieces. It felt wrong, but I wasn't really sure why. This was how the top guys worked wasn't it?

Some months later, I finished up in Yosemite. It was early August, and the heat was debilitating. I marvelled at how anyone could contemplate spending days on the shadeless walls. Arriving alone, in Camp 4 I hooked up with a loose bunch of Californians and got a tour of the valley. In the heat of midday we followed the Merced downstream, and swam in deep pools of frigid water where great boulders had tumbled from the valley sides to dam the river. Later, as the shadows grew and the air cooled, we toured the boulders behind camp, chalk and voices hanging in the thick still air. At dusk, we'd eat, settle onto the picnic benches, and share stories. It was a meeting of religions. For them, they were at their Mecca. Nothing could top it. Climbers packed for El Cap with typical American enthusiasm; “Tomorrow we'll be a thousand feet high on the biggest stone in the world!” For me, it was incredible... but not perfect. The rock a little lacking in friction, a bit harsh in its shapes, the moves a bit obvious. Size isn't everything. (I'm not alone here. A few years later a friend from down the road in Cheshire landed in Camp 4, met Ron Kauk, and immediately asked him if “he knew The Roaches at all?” Somewhat disappointingly, he didn't.)

El Capitan, Yosemite

One evening, over dinner, I made the mistake of bringing up gritstone. The superior friction. The magical moves. The pure style in which we climbed. At first the lads seemed impressed - “No bolts? No pins? At all? But what do you do on the face climbs?” “Well, if there's no gear, we just solo them” I told them. “Wow. Even the new routes?” “Yeah, sure, after a bit of top-rope practice.” The bombshell dropped, and they laughed, shook their heads, turned away. As the ridiculousness of dropping a top-rope down a giant Valley cliff dawned on me, someone started on another story “... its plumb-vertical dude! 5.11C, maybe D... so bold! Bachar goes way out, sixty feet man, just on these shitty knobs. Finally he puts a skyhook on a crystal, and drills a bolt. Each time he lowers back to the belay, and starts again, so he's not usin' the bolts to rest. Radical, man!”

I stuck to listening for the rest of the evening. I'd formed my views of right and wrong on the Pennine Edges, not realising they were being shaped by the landscape itself. Headpointing was no more suited to Yosemite than ground-up bolting was to gritstone. My perfectionist mind had followed simplicity as a sign of purity; now I realised all is compromise. But I could see a beauty there too, in those concessions - they fitted to their environment with a rightness apparent in all things that evolve in response to natural forces. For me, that rightness is something that is felt in the gut first and only later intellectualised. Perhaps nowadays the over-analysis of methods and tactics gives us a clearer view of the hierarchy of styles, but the visceral reaction remains, and I trust it.

So sat that evening in Camp 4, I struggled a little with this idea that bolts might be justifiable, but what resonated with me most strongly was something else. What is more natural in this sport than a ground-up approach? The gut feeling I'd had back in February swam into focus. Top-rope inspection suddenly seemed contrived and deeply unadventurous. Headpointing, for me, was a compromise too far. I never top-roped again.

This month's Climb magazine - out later this week - has a piece of mine on Grit on-sighting - partly my own story, partly the bigger picture. The above was part of the original draft of the article, but didn't make the final edit - word counts can be a struggle! I thought it worth sharing anyway -  hope you enjoy it.


Jack said...

Hmm. Well, I have to say that for me, it is totally the other way around.

Gritstone was made to toprope - it is so easy to walk 30 seconds around the cliff. A toprope can be rigged in seconds. The rocks are so small, that any commitment is rather arbitrary.

But I guess, on the flip side, all those points can mean tat toproping is 'the easy option'.

But for me, gritstone has always felt like bouldering, or big bouldering, and only big routes, mainly bigger than we have in the UK have held my imagination and drawn me to climb them onsight.

But then I also think about Mescalito on El Cap - it's huge, but it is being redpointed. And that seems a bit arbitrary too.

I guess climbing is just arbitrary, and differentiating between styles is, well, basically a first world problem!

Nice suit by the way.


Keeg said...

Adam great post and I've just read the article in Climb which is also good. Nice one.