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
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
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
the fixed piece seems strangely
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
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
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
This article, by John Arran,
first appeared in the American 'Rock & Ice' magazine