Tuesday 29 June 2010

The Indian Face

“It’s just a bit of rock”. Tying in to lead The Indian Face
Yesterday, I climbed the Indian Face. After a couple of sessions on it last week on a flying visit with Claire, I was eager to go back and get it led. So this weekend Claire and I started the long drive south again, gathering Diff and Tom on the way to film the deed for a wee film we’re thinking of making together.
On the way, the forecast got worse, the crag was covered in clouds and the rain started as I was abseiling down the wall to chalk the holds. I took this as a negative sign. However, the burst of rain eased back to spits and spots and this teasing as I uncoiled ropes and briefed Claire of the flight plan saved me from the nerves of anticipation.
A hurried tie in and go was much better that a drawn out moment of commitment. I stopped briefly at the top of the arch 10 metres up to guess if the leaden sky would give me another 20 minutes and then started into the groove, talking to myself (inwardly) about why I was there. The distraction resulted in a left foot that wouldn’t stop rolling off a smear while I fiddled with tiny RPs on big screamers. I stopped, spreadeagled and rested my toes alternately. That was nice; After 10 minutes on the wall I finally stopped reminding myself to be scared, and accepted that I wasn’t scared and should start thinking about the climbing instead.
The next bit up to the good hold before the crux went much better. Stood there I tried to feel the aura of the route to tell myself I shouldn’t be there. But after a few minutes I still wasn’t scared and felt I ought to be getting moving on sore feet. I looked down. Claire was yawning. I felt thirsty, and noticed a fly buzz past. Time to go.
I was tight, aggressive and ready for trouble moving through the crux bulge, but it didn’t come and I woke up three moves from the jug with lost concentration and a misplaced foot on a smear. On a move left I felt both ropes swinging below, unhindered by runners. Get the jug!
I only had time to let Claire know I was holding the jug when the announcement came back that the rain had arrived. A speed climb up the final corners landed me in the wet grass ledge just in time to avoid a rescue epic. A miserable wet trudge down the hill for everyone was a reminder of how lucky and privileged I was to have the opportunity to be here.
This morning we spent a nice morning chatting to Johnny Dawes in Pete’s Eats about our feelings about the climb, and bold rock climbing in general. I can’t wait to read Johnny’s book when he finishes it. What a talented and creative guy!

Doing the business. Diff on the rope filming.

Claire MacLeod - not fussed by belaying Indian Face whatsoever, apart from that it meant getting soaked to the skin and freezing cold.

Coming Back

I had previously had a play on the Indian Face in 2007 but in the end decided to do something else on that trip. It was quite interesting for me to do that, and also afterwards to experience a lot of questions from people at lectures and comments etc.
I decided not to lead Indian Face on that visit for a few separate reasons. First of all, a hold snapped on me while toproping it which made me acutely aware of an objective danger issue not under my control. As routes go, it’s really quite solid and lovely rock to climb. But the small crimpy flakes do occasionally snap. In one way maybe I was unlucky that one snapped on me but I was certainly happy it happened while not leading! So I worried about this at the time. One particular foothold in particular worried me. But it turned out I had gone slightly too far right near the crux and after watching Alun Hughes’ Indian Face film realised I didn’t need to go to that hold.
The other reason was that my feet are, in general, very weak and I seem to suffer more than most from foot cramp and always have a painful first month of the trad season. That spring I’d been working on the first ascents of Metalcore 8c+ at the Anvil until late May so had been doing nothing but dangling from roofs. My feet were bloody killing me on Indian Face. So I figured a trip later in the trad season would be a better idea (which I never got round to). 
The third reason was a bit more subconscious and not necessarily about the Indian Face. I’d just had a year in which things had changed a lot for me, I’d just opened the first E11, repeated two E10 graded routes, done my first 8c+ and gone from beavering away by myself on these projects to talking about them to hundreds of people on lecture tours. I got a bit worried about all this. I worried that I might not be able to keep in tune with the inner voice that keeps you safe and making good decisions on cliffs and routes without much gear. Whether I had anything real to worry about or not is irrelevant, the point is it’s a healthy thing to think if you spend your life sketching about a long way above gear. 
I thought it would be a good idea to see if I could be a bit more relaxed about climbing routes and be able to just walk away and leave them. My concern was that I might slip into an unthinking routine of doing one after another, without taking time to reflect, and in so doing, walk blindly into a climbing accident. So my decision was to leave Indian Face alone until further notice. 
Further notice arrived last week after some dry weather and a month of doing a lot of trad on my weak old toes. So I went back down and did it. All of this is no big deal, is it?
But my surprise was that folk didn’t seem to quite get the difference between trying a route like Indian Face and project at the limit of today’s standard. Even though Indian Face was at the time 2 grades below the maximum level of trad climbing (and now even more), it still kills you if you break a hold, or just make a mistake and fall off it. To climb very poorly protected trad, whether it’s VS or E12, you have to respect the fact that you might get killed doing it. I mean, properly respect it.
The harder the route, the smaller the margin for error, and the more important it is to be completely full of inspiration, focus and love for that route. To be worth it, it’s got to be damn important to you. On a route like Echo Wall, it had a high level of personal meaning for me in lots of ways. So I was willing to increase my level of acceptable risk. Indian Face is a lovely route, but it doesn’t hold that level of meaning for me. So it just didn’t make sense to do it with unfit toes and not enough time to work a sequence around the worrying looking foothold. I spent the last day of the trip doing Trauma instead.
I’d totally recommend this process of deliberately breaking your routine of doing anything that’s risky once in a while, so you can step back and be sure you’re having a clear conversation with yourself about that risk. If people taunt you for ‘bottling it’ in a macho and idiotic manner, all the more reason to hold off until the absolutely correct moment comes around.

Tom and Diff, ready to head back to Pete’s
This spring has been good for injecting some sanity into the comparison between the hardest trad routes. I know I didn’t help much by not bothering to grade Echo Wall, but then it was hard for me to find a good comparison, and still is. I’d concur with Johnny’s original grade (in the scan from the new routes book in the Cloggy guide) of soft E9. In it’s time (the 80s) it was I’m certain the hardest trad route in the world until Dave Birkett put up If Six Was Nine in 1992, which is probably half an E grade harder, just as serious and much more demanding of fitness. ISWN is the benchmark E9 in my opinion. Holdfast is nearly a full grade harder than Indian Face. And it was great to see Dave B repeat The Walk of Life, confirming it at E9 and that there is actually some method in the grading system.
Things have come quite a long way since Indian Face in trad. The hardest route I’ve done, Echo Wall, is either two, or three E grades harder, I can’t really decide. But a direct comparison between them is kind of silly; Echo Wall is about 8c (IF is 7b+) and has poorer protection than Indian Face and is considerably harder to spend any time trying. The experience of climbing both routes could not be more different. After about 15 climbing sessions and I only ever linked Echo Wall on a toprope twice. I think the only time I ever actually fell while working Indian Face was when the hold snapped. Predicting the chances of survival in a fall from poorly protected routes is a highly dubious game. Let me tell you that falling off either route is a seriously bad idea. But if I had to choose I’d rate my chances a lot higher falling off Indian Face onto those RPs than onto the nuts in that wobbly tooth under the Echo Wall roof.
It might seem laboured reading all these details about the grades - it feels like that writing about it too. But the myth about the difficulty of Indian Face has built up to an embarrassing level. As Dawes said to me this morning - “There is so much bullshit written about that route, you would think a Welsh dragon is going to swoop in and get you at the crux”.

Great Wall after the rain came. Thank god I didn’t hang about any longer before leading...
When I’m back in Lochaber, I’ll post up some video stills from the ascent. If you are psyched to see the footage, I’m sure you will later in the year. Thanks to Claire for suffering another singleminded mission to the other end of the UK, a minging sodden trudge down Snowdon in the rain and for saying “It’s just a bit of rock, get it led”.

Johnny and Nick describing Indian Face and where your head needs to be to climb it!


  1. Anonymous30 June, 2010

    Fascinating. You are far and away the most interesting writer there is on climbing. Anyone, no matter what the level they climb at, able to learn a lot, Thank you.

  2. Good effort Dave & Claire! As you said, it's important to climb for yourself, for your own reasons, and without the interference that you must attract from being a well-known climber.

    Interesting to hear about the grade/risk comparison with Echo Wall. I'd suspect that it will take a couple of serious attempts/ascents of Echo Wall before people will realise what you've created with that route.

    The video of JD is great, it's the first time I've seen him "interviewed" and he had me in stitches! He's like a climber's Alan Partridge!! No disrespect intended, what he had to say was great!

  3. I KNEW you'd have something interesting to say after doing Indian Face. I found this comment very interesting:

    To climb very poorly protected trad, whether it’s VS or E12, you have to respect the fact that you might get killed doing it. I mean, properly respect it.

    I've been scaring myself a wee bit recently on run-out trad stuff by not even considering the possibilities of a fall. Sure, I'm not yet climbing trad at my technical limit, but you should still engage the fall (to use Arno Ilger's term).

    Well done for the lead anyway. I'm looking forward to seeing the footage of you half-asleep on this legendary climb!

  4. Fantastic post as always dave. Nice one.

  5. Well done on Indian Face and for a really interesting write-up.

  6. Anonymous30 June, 2010

    'It's like meeting a beautiful woman who's a psychpath.'

  7. gregor russell30 June, 2010

    as anonymous said, you're the most interesting writer on climbing around; your posts are always insightful and fascinating to read. looking forward to seeing the video of this later in the year.

  8. Anonymous30 June, 2010

    Brilliant effort and brilliant insight.
    Thanks Dave.

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  10. Nice one Dave, I think its important to do things on your own terms. My worry is that we all get pushed into things due to expectation/rolling cameras making it difficult to weigh up the elements in taking the risk like you say. Thats what 2007 seemed about. More important to return and slay that dragon!

  11. Agreed - awesome effort. Interesting as ever to hear your thoughts. I wonder to what extent To Hell and Back shaped your thinking for IF. To Hell and Back (with cameras rolling) seemed to push you into a mental space where you weren't entirely comfortable...


  12. Well done Dave. Great effort.

  13. Anonymous01 July, 2010

    Congratualtions Dave!

    Interesting reading too. Reading between the lines from your account, it seems as if this was just another day in the office for you and that you thought the route was nothing exceptional? Did you enjoy the experience and the climbing?

    If you were climbing for 'work', and not for the climb, I find it hard to believe that someone with such a calculated approach to hard, bold climbing would let their 'job' put them in such a potentially dangerous position.

    Full respect, and thanks for your honest blogging.

  14. Anonymous01 July, 2010

    Congrats on the ascent. I have one question. You place Indian Face as low E9 and lower than other E9s that you have climbed, however, you had problems with route finding even on top rope. So my question is, have you really taken into account the onsight when grading IF as low E9 and easier than climbs such as If 6 were 9?


  15. I thinking "bloody brilliant" when I click post comment but everyone else has said the same thing. Regardless, bloody brilliant ascent, considerations, and writing.

  16. "laboured reading"? Not at all. To an expanding climbing community regularly confused by the myths, ethics and general baggage dumped on every climber, your words cut through all the crap out there and become clearer every time I read them. I feel very lucky to have begun climbing with your enspiring blog and videos for guidance. Thanks Dave!