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.
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…?”
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