Sunday, 16 September 2007

If Six Was Nine

Leading If Six Was Nine, E9 6c, Iron Crag. Photo: copyright Claire MacLeod

When we returned from our wee roadtrip, Autumn had hit Lochaber with a vengeance. With the rain stoting off the ground and wind howling, I was getting jumpy at the idea of returning to the Lakes to finish what I started last week. With Claire now self employed (partly at taking climbing photos too!) and with no barriers, we donned the Gore-texes (just to get from the front door to the car) and went for it.

With no car, the Lakes has been somewhere I not had the chance to visit until recently. Obviously, the brace of E9s all authored by Dave Birkett have been really high on my climbing wishlist, especially due to the huge reputation and aura they have developed from the lack of repeats and suggestions of undergrading. It’s been really frustrating not to be able to get on them until now.

I wondered which of Dave’s routes to go at first? I decided I might as well get on the one he placed as his hardest lead ever; If Six Was Nine E9 6c. Last year I got a chance to have a brief play on it. On the way home from climbing Breathless on Great Gable, my friend Steve said we could spare an hour to have a look. I pegged it up to the crag, panting, and had time for 20 minutes rushed play before we had to leave. But I nearly managed to link it, so vowed to make it my first priority next chance I had to be in the lakes.

If Six Was Nine, E9 6c, Iron Crag. Photo: copyright Claire MacLeod

After two days on it last week, I was ready for a lead as soon as a crucial hold dried off, and on our drive back south from the highlands the clouds parted and a fresh autumnal wind was blowing. No excuses.

The route climbs a big overhanging face, broken by a rather evilly placed ledge at 10 metres – finely placed to kill you if you fall from the redpoint crux another 15 metres above that. The climbing is high standard – F8a+ but positive at least, so sport climbing fitness of 8c+ or 9a means at least you can just apply more power to get out of trouble, or reverse out of the death zone near the top if something goes wrong – the only way to justify an ascent so dangerous, for me at least. The gear can be more simply be described; crap.

There are three pegs - the first two look reasonable – I’d lower off on them. It’s irrelevant anyway. If you are good enough to actually lead the route, the only place you’d fall is the second last move, and onto the third and last peg. Naturally this is the worst one – a poor peg in crumbly rock. I tied into the ropes and briefed Claire “If I come off from the top move, the third peg will slow me down and I’ll swing in. Then it will rip and I’ll land on the ledge. Hopefully it’ll slow me down enough so it won’t hurt…erm… too much…?”

If Six Was Nine, E9 6c, Iron Crag. Photo: copyright Claire MacLeod

I’m happy to say I cruised the route. Anyone who leads If Six Was Nine without cruising it is really gambling with their own life. I would certainly have been disgusted with myself if I’d fooled myself that it would have been OK to sketch it and that the top peg ‘might just hold’. Afterwards, comparisons of sport climbing and trad climbing difficulty came to mind, perhaps because the climbing on this route is really like many sport climbs – steep, physical and pumpy, but positive. Sure you could climb this thing if your limit grade was 8a+, but not without having complete disregard for the value of your own life. To climb it with anything like a safety margin requires at least 8c+ fitness, hence the high regard we give routes like this here in the UK.

The route has lain unrepeated since Dave’s first ascent in 1992 – an ascent a good few years ahead of it’s time. The great thing about climbing is that repeats of these routes always serve as a reminder of the calibre of the first ascentionists. Dave Birkett is indeed a fine athlete, and this combined with his raw enthusiasm for being outside and on rock is inspiration enough on it’s own to repeat his climbs. If Six Was Nine definitely is ‘Nine’ – solid E9 6c and a great benchmark for any climber looking to make a solid entry to the E9 standard. I reckon it’s pretty similar difficulty and character to The Fugue, from 2001.

After filming the climbing, the Hot Aches guys wanted to shoot some talking stuff and we ended the day sitting in the cool evening sunshine among the fields and gentle rolling mountains. I was impressed by the tranquillity of the Lake District, once you get far enough away from the busy roads. The howling wind and rain met us at the Scottish border on the way back north. It’s Anvil time…

Hot Aches emailed me some screen grabs from the footage of If 6 Was 9 below. Some writing from them about the day is here

It wasn't all scary stuff... Claire and me giggling about something or other while looking very 'his n' hers' in the hats there

Dave Brown titled this jpeg file "who nicked my Scarpa shoe?" Can't think why...


  1. Great stuff Dave. I love the post too - inspiring stuff for me to go off with in my head since I'm not sure when I'll next get to read about your adventures. Hope I'll have some stories of my own soon!


  2. HOLY CRAP! Well done, I was wondering how soon the repeat was going to happen. Great post- how is Birkett taking the news that one of his unrepeated routes has been tackled? He too is a huge inspiration to me. Keep up the good work and stay alive.

  3. This ascent seems to have been a welcome respite from the drama of your last. According to this post as well as the comments from the guys at Hot Aches, this particular route was dangerous for you without being hugely risky. Does that sense of "assurance" (slightly tongue-in-cheek usage) change how you feel before and after? That is, how much is nerve, doubt--the unknown--a part of what draws you to this style of climbing? You've mentioned in other posts that the ability to feel comfortable where others would not is important to you, but what about the ability to overcome the natural impulse to turn away?

    I hope you don't feel like you addressed this in "Early Inspirations" . . .

  4. I’m not sure I clearly understand your first question, but sure, exploring unknowns – and turning them into ‘knowns’ - is important for me in climbing. Remember that doubt and unknowns do not only relate to danger and falling! They relate to everything that goes into preparing for a climb, from logistics to training to the moves themselves. If Six Was Nine is mortally dangerous if you fall off from a certain place. But that danger is only real if you risk falling off. I didn’t significantly risk falling off because I was able to create enough barriers of safety in my fitness and tactics before climbing it. So I climbed a dangerous route safely.

    There is a crucial difference between a dangerous route and a dangerous ascent. I try to make safe ascents of dangerous routes. Occasionally, if the reasons are right, I push it a little further so I allow more danger than normal to get up a route I really want, but is so close to my limit. I’ll only do this if it’s really the right time and place. This is what happened on Cairngorm recently.

    On your second question I think you haven’t understood what I’ve said about comfort (not a criticism btw – it’s a weird thing to get your head round). I haven’t said I want to be comfortable where others are not. Actually I said I want to be comfortable where I am comfortable. Others have nothing to do with it. The ‘natural impulse to turn away’ is something I almost never feel in climbing, unless it’s a crap route not worth dying on. My natural impulse is almost always to do it! If there is a natural impulse to turn away, something is seriously wrong

  5. Despite not clearly understanding my first question, you answered it. Impressive. Thanks for taking the time to answer.

    Dangerous climb vs dangerous ascent--wow, never thought about it that way, but it makes sense, especially if you relate it to other sports like, say snowboarding. When we talk about teaching SB, there are 3 zones of learning: Zone1: rider is performing skills and is on terrain that are familiar, therefore, comfortable. While this may reinforce good technique, no new skills are being learned. Zone 2:Rider is attempting new skills/movements or is riding terrain that is challenging. Rider is stressed but has the skills needed to stay in control. Zone 3: Rider is trying skills and/or riding terrain that is beyond his/her abilities and will avoid injury only if dumb luck intervenes.

    Obviously, these zones are relative to training, fitness, etc. So, you like to go from a high zone 2 down to, say, a high Zone 1/low Zone 2.

    Does that make sense?