When I was in my teens I was like many a young climber: totally and completely obsessed.
I spent every waking hour thinking about climbing, every conversation talking about climbing and when I wasn’t doing either I was reading guidebooks.
I was keen on ‘ticking’ and seemed to spend most of my youth working through the graded lists in the back of my tatty guide books. Climbing was simply about placing your mark and filling in the blanks.
Of all the guide books I had, by far the most thumbed was the legendary Extreme Rock, Ken Wilson’s UK climbing masterpiece. There was nothing more satisfying than coming home from a week in Wales or the Lakes, pulling down Hard Rock and scribbling my name, partner and date in one corner. Then, even though I’d read it countless times, I would sit down and read the description once more, only this time I could see myself, not Ed Drummond, Paul Williams or Pete Livesey, doing the moves.
Most of the climbs I’d done had been close to home in the Peak, with High Tor being the biggest crag I’d climbed on. Then, one summer, my partner Aaron and I saved up, hired a car and drove around Wales ticking off a bunch of classics. We were so keen that on our first day we did The Moon and True Moments/Free Bird on Gogarth in the morning, Comes the Dervish in Vivian Quarry in the afternoon and finished chasing the last rays of the sun up Diagonal on the Mot.
Coming down to bivvy in the car I looked up at the Cromlech and decided that tomorrow we’d go up and tick all the classics. My mind flicked through the images in the guidebook, coming to rest at Left Wall. It was also one of the most fallen off routes in the Pass - or so the book said. Tomorrow I’ll do it, I thought, and I’ll do it in style.
Getting up early we scrambled and weaved our way up through a misty morning to the crag, quickly climbing Cemetery Gates followed by Ivy Sepulcher, both great climbs - but not as well burnt into my mind as the lightning crack that streaked up the Left Wall.
As we ate lunch I felt intimidated but I stuck on my tightest new blue rock boots, clipped every piece of gear we had to my harness and set off up. Someone had told me that the start was easy and that I shouldn’t place too much gear, but even though the flake was surprisingly juggy I still sewed it up.
The drop off was astounding and gave me one of those “Wow, I’m really climbing here!” moments as I seemed to be clinging to the edge of the world.
I’d been told that Twid’ Turner regularly did the route in Scarpa Mantas, in the rain and with only three runners, but the higher I climbed the more the route, and its weight of personality and history, swallowed me up. Like a scene from Vertigo the higher I went further I seemed to be from the top, the ground stretching and distorting when I looked down. The gear continued to go in and I made slow progress. Every move, I imagined, would be the crux and so I stuffed the crack with gear. But each time it led only to another good hold ...
Finally, the crux arrived: the holds dried up and so did I, scrabbling around until I peeled off.
With three pieces of gear next to me I didn’t go far.
The next time I got it, moving out left rather than head-on. The top still seemed miles away, but now the problem was that my toes felt like they were being pushed and twisted into pencil sharpeners. The pain grew until I couldn’t stand it any more and so had to face the shame of hanging on the rope to take my boots off for ten minutes. While hanging I also took the opportunity to place a load more gear, as it looked thinner towards the top.
With my boots back on I began climbing, finding yet more gear placements until I arrived at the finishing crack - which I climbed on fingertip-toes. At the crack’s end, in front of my nose, was a perfect slot for a nut and I looked down at my harness to find it completely devoid of gear save for my belay krab, ATC ... and an RP4, which slotted in perfectly. The moves left were just juggy enough for my bloated forearms to hold and led me gasping to the belay.
I sat there for several minutes composing myself, sweat stinging my eyes, looking out at one of the best views in Wales. Finally, I brought Aaron up.
When we abseiled back to the ledge I felt utterly dejected, having blown a route I’d been looking forward to doing for so many years. Looking up at it was like looking at a line of muddy footprints you’ve just made through the Sistine Chapel.
I knew I should have waited.
But I remember so many things about that day, so many emotions and sensations, that I realise it was one of my best climbs. And so, when I sit sometimes and turn the yellowing pages of Extreme Rock, it’s those routes, the ones often left unmarked because I didn’t live up to my own expectations, that stay with me. ”