So there I was, perched precariously 100ft above the rocky ground, cold, tired, fed up, and really, really not wanting to take the next step; yet not having any choice. The trees below me, sentinels swaying in the breeze as if nudging one another, pointing their branches up at me as they whisper and rustle to each other that here’s one that’s not going to make it; this’ll be a laugh as he falls...
The first I knew of Jez’s new found sport was when the local paper published a pic of him dangling from an extremely thin climbing rope, a too large a helmet perched on his head; the angle of the photo made it look as if he was, well, any height off the ground. Could have been 2ft or 20ft; as it happens Cox Green wall was only 15ft high anyway, not by any stretch high, until you’re on it.
The deal with Johann was that as I’d taken him sailing, he should take us climbing for a weekend, as that was his love. So one Friday evening saw us bundle into the car, trundle up the M6 to one of my most favourite places on the planet, the Lake District.
Saturday saw us at Shepherd’s Crag which is on the East side of the Borrowdale Valley and which has a couple of great attributes. One is that it’s a short walk from the car to the climbing area; but the other more important consideration is the cafe, full of sticky buns and coffee, at the start of the winding rocky path.
Johann and Mark decided that we rock virgins should pop our climbing cherries on Brown Slab, so called because it’s a big slab of brown rock. We seconded, naturally, helmeted and safely tied onto the rope which our more experienced leaders belayed from the top; they having led the expedition up the steeply pitched slope.
I don’t recall us doing a great deal more climbing that first day; just a taster to break us in. That evening we had a humongous and hearty meal and entertained ourselves by trying to circumnavigate the living room without touching the floor. This involved a slightly scary upside down traverse of a large oak beam, whilst hanging from what appeared to be rusty old meat hooks that were dubiously screwed into the ancient wood.
Having completed that trial, we were introduced to another variant of climbing: table climbing. This involves a very stout wooden table; all you have to do is get on top of it, traverse around the table by sliding off the edge, then underneath it, then get back on top the other side. Of course you can’t touch the floor with any part of your body and I have to say this was the funniest thing to take part in, especially as we were all a bit pissed at the time (for then I did used to drink).
We also played the telephone-directory-and-string-game, the climb-through-a-coat-hanger game, the pick-up-with-your-mouth-a-diminishing-in-size-cereal-box game, and the use-your-mouth-to-pick-up-matchbox-from-the-back-of-a-chair-without-touching-the-floor game; all of which have been enjoyed many times since.
The next day saw us back at Shepherds Crag for some rather more serious “multi-pitch” routes. Climbing ropes are naturally only so long, otherwise, like spaghetti, they become hard to harvest, apparently. So if your climb is longer than the length of rope you have to climb in stages, or pitches. I partnered with Johann and Jez with Mark.
Now, Johann was a very debonair German, always immaculately turned out, even when in jeans and T-shirt. His hair was rarely out of place and if it was, it wasn’t for long. He was more pretty, than handsome, but a splendid fellow nonetheless and a great climber and even better climbing instructor. He clipped a dazzling array of jiggling and jingling gear to his harness, as we would be using a style of climbing called trad(itional), as opposed to free or sports climbing. Warring tribes.
Johann sorted his hair, and bounded off, up a route called Ardus, my first multi-pitch climb, about which I was exceedingly nervous. At least I was seconding, a slightly safer option than leading. Leading is where the climber, in this case Johann, places the right piece of gear into a slot, crevice, nook or cranny then attaches the rope via a caribiner (or crab) to it. The theory, and practice (most of the time), being that should the leader slip off the rock, the fall will be stopped by the combined actions of the piece of gear digging into it’s placement and the belayer (in this case me) locking off the rope in another piece of gear attached to a harness.
All well and good; for the novice climber to believe that this system works is a leap of faith, one that I really didn’t seek or want absolute proof of as I tentatively followed Johann up the first pitch, he having made himself secure from the first belay point. We met, rested, then Johann sorted his hair then bounced up the second pitch. I duly followed and we got to the third pitch.
Climbing usually involves going up. Just occasionally you might have to climb down, while going up. Often you have to go sideways, or traverse, from one route or line of rock to another. And it was a traverse followed by a bit more up that made the third pitch. Johann fixed his hair, bounced across the rock, got half way and placed a pea sized bit of gear into a suitably small nook, fixed his hair, then more nimbly than a mountain goat he bounced to the top and made himself secure.
And there I was, nerves having got hold of me, strapped to a lump of rock 100ft or so above more lumps of rock, with the trees taking the piss, unable to go down, and most reluctant to step out into the void.
The traverse crossed a convex boulder, roughly the size of an average house, with no visible means by which to hold on; the bulge inconveniently pushing your centre of gravity further away from the rock. But I had to go, so I unclipped from the belay, and made my first tentative steps, toes seeking even the tiniest ripple, nipple, pimple on which to tread, cataleptic hands gripping equally small holds with such force as to ping rock particles off.
Slow nervous progress which came to a complete halt as I reached the gear Johann had placed. I had to extract the gear and clip it to my harness; it’s bad form to leave such things behind, not to say expensive. I had to let go the rock with one hand to remove the the gear, which meant I was left hanging on with the one hand, being equipped with just the usual compliment of two. My first feeble attempt failed and I called up to Johann that it was stuck, wouldn’t come out and I’d have to leave it.
“No no”, says he, “you must take it out! Use the nut extractor!” So I unclipped this tool and uselessly prodded the stuck nut, my hands trembling so much that I dropped the nut extractor and it fell, spinning in that dread slow motion, clanking as it bounced off those really hard surfaces. By now my legs were performing an involuntary “disco” shake, and I was beginning to run out of strength, becoming “pumped”. With some desperation, I grabbed this bloody bit of gear, and ripped it out of its temporary home. Out it popped, cork from a gun style, and physics being physics, this force started to “barn door” me off the damn rock!
Wild desperate flailing of my right arm, right hand still clutching the gear as it waved around in midair as if this “sky hook” would stop me from falling. One by one the fingers of my left hand started to let go, my entire weight was on my big left toe and when my right foot parted company from the rock I wildly and desperately flailed that leg too, not caring how ridiculous I looked.
My 100ft high dance somehow - maybe aided by a fortuitous gust - worked. I managed to get myself back on the rock, up over the top and I didn’t stop crawling until I was yards away from the edge, heart pounding as if it was going to burst, with Johann laughing at my predicament, and me just grateful to still be alive.
Overall that first weekend of real rock climbing was utterly brilliant, the bad bits soon became the most fun bits in the retelling and I was soon ready to do more.
By way of an epitaph, a year or two later I revisited Ardus, again seconding, again with Johann leading, and I thoroughly enjoyed the climb, especially the dread third pitch. Being “out there” with such exposure, so high, on such fine holds was a real buzz, totally compelling and addictive. 2008 New Year’s resolution #1; start climbing again.