Saturday, 13 June 2009

In the footsteps of…

One of the cool things about climbing is that when you read or hear good stories about climbs that inspire you, those climbs are there for you to go and actually experience. Whether it’s a nice boulder problem your mate raved about, or a big mountain epic shrouded in legend from it’s first ascent stories. Many other sports don’t have this. You hear about football fans standing on the pitch and using their imagination to feel the intensity of big games played out by the stars on the same spot over the years. Not much to go on really, is it?

But if you are a climber, you can have more than this. You can go and repeat the very same routes, pull on the same holds, make the same movements on the rock and feel the same fear, just as in the story you read about as a youngster. With every move you make up the route, the 

first ascent story takes on a new illumination. This is pretty lucky I think.

I just had this experience tonight, onsighting the second ascent (??) of Chairoscuro E7 6b in Glen Nevis. This climb was put up with great determination by Kevin Howett and Andy Nelson in 1988, with Kev’s lead being his hardest ever.

left: Kevin Howett

I read Kev’s account of his first ascent just after I’d started climbing, and just after I’d had a bit of a defining moment in my life visiting Glen Nevis for the first time with Claire when I was 17 and being totally inspired by the place and the multitude of climbs there. Kev’s lead sounded unbelievably bold, taking a huge fall from near the top of the blunt arete of Chairoscuro onto an RP1, and breaking his ribs on the swing in. But he returned soon after, taking more falls from the same spot until he nailed it.

This sounds crazy enough just reading about it, but it’s something completely different to actually be there yourself, wobbling and gibbering through off-balance rockover onto a sloping rail after 35 metres of E7 climbing, when that RP1 is so far below you can’t even see it.

This would have been a great climbing experience for me if I knew nothing about the route. But to be there knowing Kev had fallen from that move and come back for more added a whole other dimension to it. You don’t get this when you turn up at a crag in Spain and look at a bunch of lines on a topo with a number attached. This is the depth that trad climbing has, that other types cannot match. Of course their qualities lie elsewhere - thats fine.

This route was also a personal score settled. I had previously gone to have a try at the route onsight with Niall McNair about seven years ago. At the time we were both onsighting stacks of E6s and I had a couple of E7 onsights under my belt. We tied in and started up Chairoscuro feeling confident. Too confident it seemed. After 4 metres (count them!) we went off route and immediately ran out of holds or any gear and reversed down, confused.

It was strange coming back several years later. It really hit home how different the rock looks with experience behind you. It took me five minutes to spot a sequence through some unobvious quartz knobbles we had completely failed to spot last time.

With that in mind, when I finally committed to the section where Kev fell, I reminded myself as I rocked over, wobbling that I had a lot to throw at the next few moves - experience, experience, experience, and a bit of raw crimp strength too I guess.

I hope it’s nice for Kevin to know that his creation back in 1988 was something that bubbled away in my head for some years and imagined many times what it would be like to be alone up on that arete, onsight and scared. It was just as good as I hoped.


  1. Anonymous13 June, 2009

    Nice to see that you're still cranking out the hard ascents and loving them too. Chairoscuro sounds like a hell of an enjoyable route. You got any picturesque lines in the pipline?

  2. Masa Sakano13 June, 2009

    Great writing! It well sums up a special aspect of trad climbing (and mountaineering, I think). I have copied it to my computer. And, congratulations for your hard onsight ascent of the route of your memory! Masa

  3. i remember reading a write-up of an ascent (in an SMC journal anthology, i think) called, i think "the wall" finishing with a pull on some heather to the top. that was years ago, but it stuck in my mind. i wonder if that's the climb/account you're talking of? (the article didn't give the name or grade of the climb)