It’s my first week back after my annual month off climbing. As luck would have it, this seems to have coincided with some unbelievable weather. Last weekend we decided to make the most of the sunshine, dust off the trad rack and do some routes. On Saturday we headed to Curbar in the Peak District and ticked off some of the classics. I was feeling a bit rusty after so much time off (and even more time without placing any gear) and so I spent some of the day taking fall practice onto friends to build up my confidence. Conditions were perfect, the routes were great and a good day was had by all.
On Sunday we decided we fancied something a little bit different, and so we found ourselves getting up bright and early to drive up to Malham in the Yorkshire Dales. This is a crag I have visited more times than I care to remember, but always to clip bolts. This time, however, we were heading up to sample the trad routes on the upper right hand wing. I had heard great things about these routes, but had always found it hard to escape the pull of the catwalk and the bolted routes below.
Being more of a sport climber as well as something of a wuss, there are two things that scare me more than anything: exposure, and multi-pitch routes. Malham is exposed. It is also multi-pitch. What was I thinking?
When I first started climbing many years ago I only trad climbed, and I loved it. However, as the years went by, I became more aware of the possible dangers involved. A number of my friends had serious accidents whilst trad climbing and this frightened me. As my ability improved in tandem with this, I also became less happy pushing myself in dangerous situations and so I gravitated towards sport climbing which was safe but allowed me to push my physical limits. The more I sport climbed, the more frightened I became whilst trad climbing. Finally I reached a point where I was basically too scared to do it at all. However deep down inside I missed it. I missed the adventure, the enjoyment, the skill involved in placing gear and the beautiful places you can only ever access if you don a rack. So, over the past couple of years I have been working slowly to improve my head and bring myself back into the world of trad climbing which I love.
So, on this beautiful sunny weekend I suddenly had the urge to go multi-pitch trad climbing. On Saturday night I felt as excited as a kid in a sweet shop. However, when we approached the crag on Sunday morning all my old fears threatened to overwhelm me. The routes begin high up on the right hand side of Malham cove over a massive drop. The rock looked totally blank and scary and there was no-one else up there which added to the sense of seriousness. I really wanted to do this though, so I pushed my fears to the back of my mind and tried to pretend I was fine. My partner, Stu, must have seen the worry on my face because he reassured me that I’d feel better once we got going and offered to rope me over to the start of the route, an offer which I gratefully accepted.
The first route we picked was Crossbones/East Wall HVS 5a. Stu led the first pitch, and I was glad he did. The crux was leaving the ground and involved totally unprotected hard pulls on slightly suspect rock. Watching Stu climb did nothing to dispel my nerves. However, he reached the first belay in no time and so I was up. To my surprise as soon as I started climbing it was like a switch flicked in my head and all nerves and anxiousness drifted away. I quickly joined Stu, and then switched leads and climbed a magnificent top pitch which was well deserving of three stars. It was a fantastic route.
Keen for more, we quickly decided on Carnage Left-Hand E1 5b. Looking up at it from the ground I felt quite intimidated as the line traversed right out towards the centre of the cove before heading upwards to the top. Anything with an E grade also sounded scary to me. But despite being nervous I also really wanted to try it, and so Stu ran the first 2 pitches together so that I could lead the main event – the final pitch to the top. I set off nervously excited, but things didn’t quite go according to plan. I found seconding the traverse pitch harder and more scary than I had imagined. I was constantly looking out over the drop below and worrying about the possibility of a pendulum swing if I fell off. I arrived at the belay a little frazzled and had to sit for a few minutes to calm myself down. One thing that helped me recover my composure was that I noticed the little belay cave was full of feathers and the odd bone. I realised it must be the peregrines’ nest that the tourists stare at through binoculars from the river below. Suddenly it seemed very, very cool that it was us, not the birds, who were perched so high up in this tiny hole in the rock.
With my confidence returning, I set off on the final pitch. This begins with a point of aid to take you over the initial roof. Having never aided anything before this gave me quite a lot of trouble and at one point I wondered if I was going to have to retreat, unable to haul myself up and over on the single peg in the rock. Whilst resting on this old, rusty peg between attempts I began to contemplate what it must have been like for the first ascensionists back in the day. If this felt adventurous for me, what must it have been like for them finding their way up as yet unclimbed terrain? With a final effort I managed to haul myself over the roof and the climbing proper began. All was going swimmingly until I forgot the guidebook description and headed off left too soon. I was just trying to stem the rising panic I was feeling whilst psyching up to commit to a run-out sequence that looked every bit like E5, when Stu popped his head round the roof and pointed out the error of my route-reading ways. Relieved, but still feeling somewhat strung out and I traversed back on line and attempted to calm myself back down. This was starting to feel epic, but in a good way.
Back, not quite in the zone, but heading in the right direction, I set off up the route again and was delighted to find that the climbing was fantastic: delicate, balancy, interesting moves on perfect rock. The higher I got, the more confident I became and by the time I pulled over the top of the crag I was feeling fully relaxed. The perfect end to the perfect route was sitting on the top of Malham cove belaying in the last of the evening light looking out down the valley. I felt like I had had my own mini adventure, and it was one of the best climbing days of my life.