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The Confines of Safety

A bright, clear day. The cool breeze from the stream provides welcome respite from the sun's powerful rays. Rocks in the canyon are pimpled with climbers, bound together with trails of multicoloured equipment. The pace is slow. Less energetic groups are relaxing in the shade, relating tales of routes past and present, apparently oblivious to the plight of nearby leaders grappling with fear and frustration, perched uncomfortably on the steep, grey walls.

Tourists and sightseers pause by the dirt road, wide eyed and open mouthed, gazing upward in amazement. Others in cars pass slowly by, with looks of disbelief, on the way to their picnic sites. Boulderers curse, teetering precariously above passing vehicles. Others test their limits with the safety of a good landing not far below.

the rock flows effortlessly past

Scattered throughout the scene are friends and acquaintances, and I casually make inquiries about a route I have in mind, but to little avail. It seems that only the guidebook knows. I decline an offer to climb as third man on a familiar route; the morning has been spent following a friend on an enjoyably easy pitch – this afternoon requires the kind of solitude only experienced leading a long runout, or climbing alone. Strolling down to restock with water, I contemplate again the route of my enquiries, and consider climbing solo. Should I go up on it? Do I know enough about it? I remind myself the guidebook is usually accurate, and besides, the thought has been growing in my mind for some time, waiting for the right moment to become reality. I decide to continue and let the decisions make themselves.

"Hi. How's it going?" A familiar voice snaps me out of my thoughts.
"Okay. What're you up to?"
"Thought I'd do some bouldering 'til it cools down. You going soloing?"
"Yeah, to get away from the crowds. It's like a zoo down here today."
"It is kinda crowded, but it's okay for bouldering."
"Maybe. Well I've got to get some more water. I'll probably see you later. Have fun."
"Sure will. See you."

As I wander back along the trail, I know that the decision has been made, at least to start the route and see how it feels. The first pitch I've led before, so I should get a good idea of how well I'm going. After that it'll be a case of taking each move as it comes and not getting committed.

Deep in concentration I make my way to the foot of the climb. Thoughts are processed with alarming speed: 'Must check the book for possible escape points on the crux pitch'; 'If the first pitch feels hard I'll traverse off there or finish up some easier route instead'; 'It doesn't feel too hot now, but if I start sweating much I'll not try the hard pitch'. I try to remain calm and composed while mechanically putting on shoes and chalkbag.

Pulling onto the rock at last, it feels good to clear my mind of these worries and, to concentrate purely on the moves ahead. The rock flows effortlessly past my limbs. No reason to think about backing off yet. The climb relaxes and I start to enjoy the unique state of mind induced by the isolation. The fluency of movement becomes a joy, and I feel a wonderful concentration, without the stress of a tense situation. Climbing is fun.

enjoyment is enhanced by the uncertainty of the pitch above

As the technical difficulties diminish my mind wanders. I recall soloing routes in formation with Derek [Hersey], laughing and joking past the crux; finding a huge, hidden hold on a climb in England, when strength was fading and falling seemed inevitable; learning to climb an eternity ago, finding easy routes desperate, but experiencing no less of a thrill in finally succeeding. If only this easy section were longer ...Yet I know that my enjoyment is enhanced by the uncertainty of the pitch above, drawing ever closer, looming above like a high prison wall, guarding access to the mind's own freedom.

I pause for several minutes on the belay stance, thinking, searching for clues to help solve the mystery of the crux section; a mystery until now just imagined, but destined very soon to become the sole reality. The clues are not obvious. Is that a resting place? Will that crack be wide enough for fingers? The crux should be after the fixed protection, where the crack disappears, still too far away to learn anything. But the climbing looks hard just above me, not easing until after the crux. To escape from here would be simple, so any retreat from above would need only to downclimb this far.

'One move at a time', 'don't do anything you can't reverse', 'check for rest places above'. I give myself orders while cleaning my shoes. The climbing feels insecure, hard. Reversible? – probably. A good rest after this move – got it. Stepping down left onto large holds I can relax and survey the situation. A couple of climbers are visible finishing a route further left, my only contact with safety other than through my own actions. Another move will bring me to the fixed piece, after which the wall looks blank, but presumably must have holds.

the fixed piece seems strangely decorative

A couple of minutes later the rock has not revealed to me how this move can be climbed securely. Should I lean left or right off this hold? Will that edge above be good? Eventually confident enough, I commit to the move. The edge isn't great, but it's good enough and I pull on through. A half rest is possible if I trust my feet. That was harder than expected. Reversible? – maybe. Hopefully it won’t be necessary.

The rest becomes better as I adjust my feet. The fixed piece looks good, but having neither rope nor equipment it seems strangely decorative. I am struck by the absurdity of the situation: a temporary stopping point between moves which look hard above and moves which felt hard below.

A glance across reveals the other climbers to have gone. The isolation is acute. For now, I am the only person worthy of my mind's attention. The climb which has defeated my rational sensibility could now be challenging my very existence. I have no option but to accept the challenge.

A chalked hold above is reached using friction footholds. It is not good. The rest regained, I examine the footholds carefully, memorising the usefulness of each since the shadows play tricks on my eyes from above. There's another hold to reach for but it’s a long way. I work out a foot sequence and try again. Almost within reach, I will need to tip toe on a smear hold. Is it good enough? I’m, not sure. Back to the rest. I am surprised to find another foothold slightly higher I must have missed before. I mentally reprimand myself for not being sufficiently observant – a dangerous thing.

A new foot sequence brings me to the elusive fingerhold. It is sloping. Must think quickly. Up or down? Reach through. Another foot smear. Tense. Too tense. I tell myself to relax. Complete the move. Stop on thin holds. Adrenalin flows freely. Small, sharp holds above; at least they aren't more smears. I think I see how to continue. I linger deliberately, making certain, resting each arm alternately, calming down. Stepping onto holds, tiny but positive. Reaching. Pulling. The moves flow, hard but obvious. Then easing, easing off until I reach the sanctuary of a large, welcome horizontal break. I stop, resting, relaxing my mind and releasing the tension. A shiver flows through me like a wave, the effect of a huge dose of natural drugs, the feeding of an addiction.

I close my eyes and hide in a world of contemplation, questioning, trying to justify. How great was the real danger? Was I always in total control? What if I'd needed to retreat? The questions are left unanswered, as they will no doubt remain.

Continuing up easy rock, a different person takes over. No longer tense and apprehensive, I am a transformed character, more serene, more content. Living in the present rather than the future, my appetite for ambition is sated, having feasted on a gluttony of personal achievement and self motivation. I enjoy having eaten well. Now is the time to relax and savour the feeling.

it was a crazy thing to do

The serenity lingers on after a long and delightful downclimb. The canyon is less crowded now and I am glad to be still alone, changing shoes, reflecting on the memory of the crux, already blurred, almost unreal.

Bands of climbers litter the canyon floor. After a long and – I'd almost forgotten – hot day a mood of weariness prevails. Even those still on the rocks seem to be lacking much of the eagerness displayed earlier, and beer drinking appears to have become a more popular pursuit.

I stroll slowly by, still pondering, trying to come to terms with my earlier emotions. My attention is distracted by a young climber I know only vaguely. His loud, enthusiastic tone startles me.

"Hey, man. Way to go."

News evidently travels quickly.

"That's a hell of a solo. Never been done before, I don't think. How was it?"

I wonder how he could possibly know whether it was indeed a good solo, or whether it was an act of complete stupidity. I’m not even sure myself. I think I'd feel better if he’d said it was a crazy thing to do and that I'm lucky I didn't kill myself. At least that couldn't give me false incentive in future.

I pause briefly, deciding whether or not to tell him so. I glance up at him, say quietly "Thanks, it was hard," and continue on my way.

'Jules Verne' 5.11 is a six-pitch route in Colorado's Eldorado Canyon. The route is a classic frightener to lead due to the potential for taking long (but safe) falls from the crux. The solo ascent described above has recently been described by Climbing Magazine as one of the three top solo climbs of all time in the US.

This article, by John Arran, first appeared in the American 'Rock & Ice' magazine in 1985.