The other night I got one of those texts that you can tell was written by someone so excited they could hardly hold a mobile phone in their hand. It was Kevin Shields enthusing to me that he had just soloed Fast & Furious in Birnam Quarry.
It was the most impressive piece of climbing news I’ve heard about in quite a while. In fact it made me blurt out “bloody hell!” out loud with Claire anxiously asking if everything was OK. Why the surprise? Two reasons – firstly, the route is hard enough clipping the bolts and secondly, Kev has a slight disadvantage when it comes to climbing, having only one hand.
Kevin soloing Fast & Furious M10+, Birnam Quarry
If you haven’t heard of it, Fast & Furious is a dry tooling route in Birnam Quarry, climbing a huge slate cave, normally with the aid of about 10 bolts for protection! At M10+ it’s still tough piece of climbing in the field of dry tooling/sport mixed climbing. I climbed the route myself not long after it was opened and have since done it several times for training. Each time its difficulty never seems to diminish and still feels like the equivalent of around 8a rock climbing to me. But to solo a tooling route of this difficulty is quite remarkable.
A few years ago I also soloed a route close to my limit in the same cave, so I could see the draw of soloing something there. I talked at length about my motivation for it here. When I got to the belay at least I could grab the lowering rope with both hands and didn’t have to trail it pointlessly up the route.
Tooling at that level is an insecure experience. It feels scary enough just figure-fouring when your leg goes over the rope when it’s clipped to a bolt right beside you. How it would feel to know that if your tool levers a centimetre too high on that hook you are dead, sends shivers down my spine. It implies a degree of physical awareness, mental control and inspired motivation that you don’t see every day, even among the most accomplished climbers.
So even more impressive that Kevin has achieved this level with the disability he has. Having done the route, I would estimate that soloing it would certainly feel like an E9 lead, and I have two hands! Kev’s prosthetic Reactor tool looks like an excellent piece of engineering to be able to even approach the effectiveness of functioning hand for holding onto an ice tool and resisting fatigue.
Hearing Kev’s news got me more excited that any other piece of climbing news coming out of Scotland for ages. It was the first time for a while I felt someone had produced a performance that really demanded that they redefine their own boundaries and climb out of their skin. Talent in sport is nothing but potential unrealised. But when people match their talent pound for pound with raw effort and inspiration they surprise you by managing thing you wouldn’t have expected them to manage. I’ve always felt that is the best feeling in performance sport – when you reach a level you wouldn’t have given yourself the chance of reaching, through sheer determination.
Good effort Kev