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Diary of a Gritstone Dabbler

I'd been on it before, quite a few years ago. The seemingly blank, gently overhanging wall between the striking vertical lines of Left Eliminate and Peapod, on close inspection turns out to offer a smattering of small edges and ripples. At the time I'd been unable to find a way through the top section, so I hadn't thought any more of it.

Then I watched Hard Grit, saw how easy the stars made gritstone climbing look, and how thrilling it all was. Thus it was that with renewed enthusiasm for gritstone new routing, I found myself heading for Curbar again with a top-rope, a willing belayer and an open mind.

Day One  What I don't have with me though is a brush, which as any gritstone enthusiast will tell you is essential equipment. Nevertheless it's still worth a look.

Photo: Carl Ryan

"... impossible to reverse, so I'll have to come down as far as I can and then jump"

It's taken a small cheat-stone and a 6c bouldering session just to get six feet off the ground. I'm glad the top-rope I'm using is a static one or I'd be back on the floor again.

A covering of industrial-strength lichen is making it difficult to find the holds and even harder to hang them. They're all either tiny and sharp or horribly slopey, and cleaning them with fingertips is wearing my skin out fast.

Moving up I find myself struggling to stay out of Peapod, which feels a bit eliminate, so I make a mental note to try and find a more direct way later. At the moment I'm keen to get onto the top wall to find out if I'm completely wasting my time. Airlie is here trying Right Eliminate, and she tells me that gritstone aficionado Allen Williams also played on this in the past and sacked it off because of the blank top section. This doesn't augur well.

Half way up the wall I'm able to work back leftwards to some good fingerholds which, were they to be accompanied by footholds, would almost constitute a rest.

I scour the wall above in vain, hang around scratching my head for a while, then follow diminishing possibilities back out to the right arÍte. Still blank-looking above, I pull up the rope to search for a way, and I find a tantalising possibility in the combination of a sloping ripple and the blunt arÍte. I can't do it, but I'm close enough to want to give it another shot after a rest.

Back on the ground after a second try and my tips are worn and painful - I need to build up better calluses. I'm quite pleased though because I feel like I've done all the moves in isolation, though I suspect a tight rope helped.

The big problem is whether the route will ever be leadable, since the last of the many moves I can only just do is thirty feet up, and quite clearly there is no pro to be had anywhere. We're talking big E numbers here and it seems to me a solo ascent would be harder than anything around, and definitely well out of my league.

Day Two  Kiwi Dave (Sheepy) is with me again to belay. Conveniently he wants to lead Peapod so it wasn't hard convincing him to come here. We've been thinking about protection, and it looks like we'll need a side runner, which is a shame but if it's a choice between that and nothing.

Looking at the gently overhanging wall the distances are deceptive. I've decided I'll only persist with the route if I can place runners on lead, albeit in an adjacent climb, which means traversing left from the good holds at the midpoint and putting a large cam in Left Eliminate. The problem is that the crux is all the way back over on the right side of the wall so you might need Linford Christie on the other end of the rope to stop you decking out anyway!

Neil Gresham's here today (you meet all the stars on gritstone nowadays) intent on emulating Airlie's performance, which he duly does with grunts to spare.

Brushing away the armoured lichen proved a challenge, but the route's going well. By the end of the second try I've worked out an intricate and tenuous sequence which sometimes gets me up the top section, and I've found an excellent direct way to reach the mid-point. Things are looking up.

Bad skin stops play again, but not before I notice a skyhook possibility behind one of the midpoint holds. That might be just what's needed to prevent a crunch, slowing down the fall and giving a belayer more time to sprint before it fails and the weight comes onto the cam.

Photo: Carl Ryan

"... possible leader falls onto hooks, which causes jellywobbles at the mere suggestion"

Day Three  A cold, blustery afternoon. Others are bailing out just as we arrive, and I understand why when I'm physically blown off the crux moves. But the friction is great and soon after I get virtually the whole route in one go on a top-rope. I've binned the 6c problem start as there's an easier alternative just right.

It's too cold to hang around today, but before we call it a day I take up an old kitchen knife, rake some bits of sand out from the back of the midpoint holds and see how well skyhooks fit. I'm pretty impressed with two hook placements and I admit to hoping the route will go without the side runner. But that means possible leader falls onto hooks, which causes jellywobbles at the mere suggestion.

Dave Thomas is with us today, and he helps Sheepy and I to haul a bag full of rocks up on the top-rope to the route's crux. A lead rope is clipped through the equalised hooks and we look at each other nervously. I don't like the idea of bits of crag landing on my head, so I put in a bottom anchor and belay well back.

We hold our breaths as the bag plummets over twenty feet groundward, and as the strain comes onto the lead rope we gasp as the hooks hold. Damn - there goes my excuse for using a side runner.

Day Four  Trusting to the holding power of skyhooks is scary, but even before that I have to be able to get them in, which means climbing hard 6b moves without protection up to the midpoint at 20ft. I don't want to have to do this more than once, so I'll have to find a way to reverse to the ground after they're in place and clipped.

I'm here with my sister to check out the downclimb, and it isn't going well. I can get down the higher section, but then there's an out-of-balance move that feels impossible to reverse, so I'll have to come down as far as I can and then jump to the ground. This is adding more complications as there is a natural fear of jumping off to overcome and a threatening boulder to avoid. This headpointing game is a complicated business.

All in all a pretty poor day; I haven't been able to get the route in one go again, and the whole thing is going to take longer than I'd hoped. A fantastic sunset cheers me up though, which is even worth delaying the onset of beer for.

Day Five  Much warmer today. Too warm. Here with Adrian Berry and struggling even to do the crux moves never mind link them. I'm beginning to appreciate the vagaries of gritstone climbing, and the frustrations too.

Thankfully Adrian also struggles on the crux, which reassures me that it might be quite hard after all. I'd half expected him just to romp up it and make me feel pathetic but he's far too much of a gentleman for that.

Day Six  Wet weather has meant I haven't been here for a couple of weeks, but it's dry today and it was nice and cold in Sheffield. The problem is that here at Curbar the sun's out, there's hardly a breath of wind, and we're sitting around wishing we'd brought our shorts. The thought of pulling on small edges in these conditions makes my skin wince. Thankfully there's a large area of cloud coming over, so it may cool down soon.

The more it cools, the better we fare, and by the end of the afternoon we're belaying in duvets and cruising. Dave T sorted the bottom half but with diminishing finger skin he tried one time too many to solve the crux and he's split his tip. I've linked the whole route three times today, which makes me feel pretty confident I'm ready. All I need now is a low temperature, low wind, low gravity day and a few large people to land on spot.

Day Seven  I've hardly slept all night, worrying.

I wanted to give it a go yesterday but it was blowing a gale even before the rain came in, so I contented myself with abseiling down to make sure the new slings I've put on the skyhooks are the right length to weight them equally from one screwgate.

Photo: Carl Ryan

"Something's not right. It's the diagonal crimp. My fingers aren't seated properly..."

I'm feeling the nervous pressure pretty badly. Carl Ryan has made the journey up from Swansea to take some photos and a lot of friends have given up their day to come out and help. I know this shouldn't influence my decisions but it's still hard to ignore.

The forecast has been changing by the hour. A very cold night was a good thing, a very clear day not so since the sun will hit the wall before the morning's out, and the promised breeze isn't happening.

I want to get the hooks in before the sun comes round, so I abseil down brushing, chalking and marking invisible holds. I top-rope the bottom half - the friction's fantastic - then fall off trying the down-climb. This isn't part of the plan.

I have to re-work the down-climb until I'm happy with it, then look down and scope out the jump. SCARY! I don't have any crash pads so I rolled up a mat from my cellar and brought that out instead, but I'm not looking forward to hitting it from this height. If I hurt myself on the jump would I ever return to finish the route?

Sheepy and Carl are with me but I really need a few spotters as well, and right on cue Anne arrives with Adrian and Sarah. A brief explanation, then it's down with the top-rope, take a deep breath, and go.

I'm struck by how similar the moves are even when you're soloing - I don't know why but I'd expected it to feel different. The big difference is that my heart is pounding and by the time I get to the hook placements I'm puffing like a steam train. I try to relax while I sort the hooks but I'm gibbering badly. I put the first one on any old how and clip it, then I fumble with the second and manage to knock the first off again. This isn't going well.

It seems to take an age but a few nervous moments later the hooks are finally in place and I manage to struggle down the moves to the jumping spot. No time to hesitate, just let go - ........ - thud. Yes! Brilliant! What a buzz! Wow! I jump around with an absurd smile and feel very, very relieved.

I'm puffing so hard with the adrenaline and exertion it'll take me ages to calm down and recover. Dave Thomas arrives with Richard Heap and the party grows. It's turning into a beautiful sunny day and I hope it isn't about to get too warm; for now there's just enough of a breeze to keep the grease away.

Various climbers pass by and look up at the suspended rope. It's quite clear there's no crack for gear and we chuckle as one team conclude it must be clipped to a bolt. We don't let on, hoping the rumour might spread. It does look absurd though - more like an Indian Rope Trick than meaningful protection.

With the top-rope back in place I try a complete link. From the hooks I move up right, use microscopic holds to get my feet into position, slap out for the arÍte, struggle to hold the barn door, reach up for the sloping ripple, step through with my left foot and . fall off. Damn. I can't afford for this to happen when I try it for real. I swing over to see how well the hooks are seated and find that my fumbling has caused the edge of one of the placements to chip off a little. I really don't want to test them out when my limbs are at stake.

I try the top half a few more times, making extremely subtle sequence changes, until I'm more confident again, then I brush and chalk the holds for the headpoint attempt and try not to get too nervous.

I force myself to rest, though I'm so hyper I doubt I'm recovering much. I've been extremely nervous before major competitions in the past, but this is something else. This is like betting with your own money and staking more than you can afford to lose.

Rounding up the troops for the big push the tension becomes palpable. I talk with Sheepy about how belaying in a certain way might help prevent the hooks from coming off. Everything is ready. No more distractions. No more excuses.

With the rope above me I feel less pressure and the first half goes pretty quickly. Reaching the hooks is more difficult because they're on the best holds and because the last thing I want to do is to dislodge them. Then I stop, trying to rest, trying to compose myself, and trying not to think about falling off, skyhooks, broken limbs or other unhelpful distractions. OK, best not to stay here too long, here goes.

I move smoothly out to the arÍte and take care to arrange fingers precisely on the micro-holds. The move goes well - I feel strong. The barn door move seems to climb itself and I'm relieved when I feel good on the sloping ripple move too. Step through, ease up gently, place your other foot carefully or you'll regret it later. Inside my head I'm talking myself through the moves. Hand round the arÍte - good - foot back left for balance, fingers up to diagonal crimp - get it well - shift the balance and other hand up to intermediate. Something's not right. It's the diagonal crimp. My fingers aren't seated properly. Try to adjust. Work at it. Can't take the weight off to adjust. Think quickly, is it on well enough? It'll have to be. Step up on tiny edge. Can't risk trying to lock the crimp. Make sure the balance is right. Focus on the hold above. Snatch up for it. Got it - not perfectly but it'll work. Keep concentrating. Feet high, reach up, and start breathing again as good holds finally come into reach.

I once more become aware of where I am, who's around and what this is all about. The level of concentration and focus is impossible to describe. The sensation is very different from what I felt earlier after the jump-off. That was relief and elation, but this is quite different - a kind of serenity, a knowing feeling, a feeling I'd like to be able to remember for a long time to come.

I lower down calmly and thank everyone for helping. Anne tells me she wasn't as scared watching as she expected to be, and Richard says he's inspired after watching. Given the number of top gritstone ascents he's witnessed through a camera lens, I'm flattered.

"The Zone" is a term used in Sports Psychology to describe a rarely-achieved heightened state of awareness experienced by some athletes during major events. This sensation is often accompanied by an extraordinary level of personal performance.

This article, by John Arran, first appeared in the January 1999 issue of High magazine.