Friday, 8 July 2011
On Rats Stole my Toothbrush E5/6, Mucklehouse Wall
I wrote this on the way home from our trip to Orkney, having had a great time. The final days were mostly spent gathering some really cool footage for our film about the Longhope route which we’ll prepare for the autumn.
Ed Drummond revisiting St John’s Head. Photo Lukasz Warzecha
For the last few days we also had a nice visit from Ed Drummond who stayed with us and walked back in to St John’s head to see his route again, 41 years after his original ascent. We filmed his return to the climb, his perspectives on it and it’s place in his life, which were very interesting. He felt the reports of my ascent were a little unfair in describing his ascent in 1970 as an old aid route, given that apart from the complete aid pitch on the top headwall, they only used around 10-15 points of aid up to the A2 crack. Of course this was a remarkable climbing feat and in what sounds like the ethic of the day for big wall routes. It’s hard for people to imagine how hardcore it was to venture onto the world’s big walls before anyone else and without cams etc.
Nowdays, I guess things are a categorised a little more cut and dry. There is less room for caveats and details in sport. In my opinion this has it’s good and bad points. Simplicity raises the game. For example - a point of aid makes it an ‘aid route’? Yes or no? It sounds like in 1970 the answer would maybe be no but now maybe yes as the climbing game has evolved. Oliver Hill referred to my ascent of the Longhope as a rehearsed ascent. I’m totally happy with that even though I climbed 4/5 of it onsight. If I rehearsed only one move it’s still a redpoint. It has to be. There is no room to make compromise look like success with redpointing - it has to be in one push with no falls. A side effect is it makes it easier for others to quantify it later when they are not familiar with the details. More importantly, on a personal level it’s good when the finish line between success and failure is absolute, binary. You either succeeded or failed to redpoint.
Simplicity can be a bad influence when it obscures or distorts the real picture or just dumbs everything down. Even words so central to sport like “winner” and “loser” must be applied carefully. If you have been watching tennis recently they keep talking about “great champions”. But there seems to be so many great champions they need a new definition already to stand out from them. It’s not enough even to refer to them as just “champions”, never mind “players” or even “people”. Edi Stark didn’t seem to want to accept my response to her question about how it felt to have done some climbs that are out of reach of some or most others. I said it was ‘nice’ to have found such a good connection with an activity like climbing. “Nice?” she repeated back to me with a mocking sarcasm. ‘Nice’ didn’t seem to cut it. Either that or it cut me out as an awkward personality? With the exception of an overflow of enthusiasm which is a fine excuse to dispense with caution, I feel there is no need to always attach larger than life language, deeper meanings or metaphors to my experiences in climbing or elsewhere. A climb is the expression of the climber through vision for the line, preparation of the skills and movement. And it is an appreciation inherent beauty of the rock and the place as well. These things are already special in their own right. They do not need sweetening or plumping up.
Having succeeded on my own climbing vision on the Longhope route with Andy, my feeling is not of me, the climber, being at the centre of the story and I do not feel any bigger or more worthy as a result of it. Rather completing my climbing involvement on this particular cliff leaves me with a greater appreciation of the scale, permanence and impermanence of different things in nature and this has been what is awe inspiring about it. I think that climbing and mountains have a great effect on peoples lives when it helps them to appreciate their true insignificance in the world both in scale and time. Paradoxically though this actually adds to the sense of meaning in life because you simply see more clearly how you fit into the world. In the process of appreciating your insignificance, you also get closer to a true sense of your significance.
How then, do you deal with another great paradox of a major effort on a big climb; that of the feeling of invincibility that climbing can give when you are performing well and at your limit. Of course if you step back it’s obvious that the feeling cannot really be invincibility or anything approaching it. So if it’s a misinterpretation, what is the correct one? I have felt happiest in climbing when I’ve seen this feeling not as wielding personal strength or power over my climbing environment, but as aligning to it, understanding it well enough to work in harmony with it. This idea of harmony with the medium, in this case rock, is so well known that it’s a cliche. Where does the difference lie between these two subtly different interpretations of the same raw feeling. The most frustrated, isolated or bored climbers I’ve met have been those who appear to chase after brief flashes of invincibility in themselves over nature instead of seeing brief flashes of the invincibility of nature in themselves.