RRCPC Newsletter
Volume 45 Number 4 Article 2

October 2008

Fear of Heights

Peter Devlin

July 12 to 15

Another long weekend saw me out and about, but sadly my ongoing compulsion with going up rather than down kept me from getting underground. Saturday/Sunday saw me back on Peak District grit. I find this climbing tenuous and miss the positive holds of the Ogwen Valley rock I first climbed on, but just as I eat vegetables because I am told it’s good for me, so too I feel grit is good for my climbing: it forces me to be more in balance and definitely ups the head-game.

We had agreed to do the Roaches so on Saturday I led 4 routes close to Chalkstorm, mostly VD’s but with a HVD to add a frison. Somebody had the bright idea of toproping Chalkstorm itself. This E4/5c route looks terrifying to lead, but we reckoned was worth a go on a toprope. The top 2/3s of the route is tenuous in the extreme: there is a bulge with marginal footholds, a vestigial crack and 3 little holes the size of a finger, probably half a finger nail deep. Above this the slab is just at the angle where you think you have a chance of getting up it by smearing, until you try.

The next feature vaguely suggestive of a hand hold is about a meter above you. This meter feels a long way away. In the end, my technique was to smear up a few inches then get my belayer to take in. Eventually I got to the crack: the only way to use this was to pull my hands in opposition which just allowed me to step up the crack. Once a meter up the crack it disappeared, but here there were slight undulations in the slab giving just enough friction to allow progress. We all made it to the top, including Mary who was on her first day on rock: 5c is not a bad grade for a first outing.

We then had a slight problem with time keeping: I claimed it was 3.30, but after a while someone figured out I was reading my altimeter. At this point Therese and Ed dashed off to get food from the supermarket in Buxton while the rest of us did another route. I tried to do a VD up a chimney, but soon noticed that the first opportunity to get in some gear was 8m up, so decided I didn’t have the bottle. Clive and Mary were cold by now and had lost interest, so I top-roped a VD Paul had led: a nice way to end the day.

That night it was party time in Buxton. There was a festival going on, so there was a fair in the main market square. After the pub closed we wandered up and ended up in a club. Being sober I didn’t enter into the spirit of the night as much as the others, so after a time of people watching, (or was it ejit-watching?), I took my leave and headed back to the tent. The rest of the gang straggled back between 3 and 5am: one pair got into a cab in the small hours and asked to be taken to “the camp site”. Remarkably they made it back.

Sore heads saw us on Castle Naze crag before morning was over. For a warm upI led a VD which I had led before: not having a hangover I saw no reason why I should be any less lethargic than the rest of them. Following that I lead my first severe which scared the bejasus out of me. I knew I was climbing badly, probably because it was my first severe, but this knowledge didn’t seem to help me climb any better. Close to the top, 2m above my last gear I tried to climb a flake that would see me off the climb. I wanted to climb it with my left leg inside the flake as this felt more secure.

Two or three failed attempts at doing it this way saw me looking for alternate ways off the climb. However, nothing looked any easier, so in the end I got both hands on bombproof handholds and scrabbled up the outside of the flake. The knowledge that failing to make the moves could really, really hurt didn’t add anything to the style (or lack thereof) in which I got up the flake. I’m thinking I maybe need to do some more climbing on a toprope and improve my technique!

Hangovers and long drives back to Oxford/London saw an early departure from the crag. I was heading for Snowdonia to spend Monday/Tuesday with Bryn, a climbing instructor I have done some stuff with. This time the focus was on scrambling, with a view to better managing my fear of exposure for doing bigger stuff in the Alps.

On Monday we hiked up to the bottom of Parson’s Nose Ridge, leading up to the peak of Carnedd Ugain. A solid 500 or 600m height gain saw us to the start of the climb. Bryn explained some of the principles of ropework when scrambling and moving together versus the difficultly of the terrain along with the heavy use of slings for belays. Bryn lead the first 2 or 3 pitches, which suited me: scrambling alpine style is less formal than when pitching when rock climbing.

It all felt a little different which made me less comfortable: route finding is more relaxed, belays are less frequent, calls between climbers are less regimented if they occur at all. Fortunately the climbing itself was dead easy with the exception of a handful of moves which would have been easier in rock shoes rather than mountain boots. Soon I got into the rhythm and as the angle of the ridge eased off Bryn put me in front and we tried moving together.

We were going along the ridge with respectable drops (30 to 40m at least I would say) so my fear of heights was getting a good stretching. At one point in particular, there was a flat rock right across the edge. I knew I could avoid it by going to the left, but decided to check it out for handholds. On inspection I decided I was safe doing the move, but I had to quell my rising fear of exposure. Knowing the last belay was 5m behind exacerbated the exposure, but I got the courage up to just do the move. It was over in a second and I continued on, a part of me asking what all the fuss was about.

All through this we were in and out of cloud: this gave us the odd glimpse down into Llanberis Pass, but on a clear day the views would have been stunning. Still the forecast had been for rain and since it was dry I was not complaining. Soon we were at the top of the ridge so a sandwich stop was called. A sort dander up to the summit of Carnedd Ugain and a gentle walk down the hill saw us back at the car before 4pm. Coming down the cloud cleared over Parson’s Nose Ridge. In the 30 seconds it took me to get the camera out the view had already started to disappear back in cloud.

The next day the plan was to tackle Cneifion Arete, fortunately an easier walk-in that the previous day. Bryn led the first two pitches again as the start is steeper. After that I took over and led the rest of the climb. There were two moves that felt very exposed. At the first one, I started to belay a stance at the bottom of the difficult bit although I had only gone about 15m from the last stance. Bryn suggested it was a daft place to stop: he put it much less insultingly than that, but the subtext was “don’t be such a pathetic coward!”. Bryn’s gentle nudge helped me climb the difficult bit, but he later pointed out that by just slinging the rope over a flake I could have protected myself from a fall: sometimes we only learn in hindsight.

There was another move that gave me the heebeejeebees (editor - is that a word?), but I managed to screw my courage to the sticking place and make the move. Overcoming the exposure felt good. As we neared the top, Bryn suggested I think about how to belay him from the top: I found a rock I could wedge myself in and belay him directly rather than the indirect belaying we had been using. He pointed out the difference between the kind of falls likely to occur when scrambling versus a shock loaded fall more likely when rock climbing. As we coiled the rope it started to drizzle. Rain had been promised both days, so a bit of rain on the descent seemed fair.

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