Thursday, 27 June 2013

Three Men and a Little Trad Day!

I am under no illusions ... climbing can be dangerous, even fatal. People often ask me why I've started to climb at 40 years old? I usually just smile and say "mid-life crisis." This isn't the truth but it's easier for people to digest. To put it bluntly if you need to ask "why?" you probably won't understand. I don't mean to be arrogant or obnoxious, it's just hard to explain, there are so many reasons. Climbing also means different things to different people. Some love the social aspect, some love the isolation of the outdoors, some love the athleticism, some love to tick lists of their climbs, (yes, most climbers are closet train spotters). What most climbers do have in common and what most people can't comprehend is that we take risks every time we climb. This throws up the question of what is an acceptable risk and what is not ... I'm not sure of the answer but I am sure we all take risks in our everyday lives?

Roller coasters can be the ultimate adrenaline rush while giving the rider the comfort of an acceptable, low risk activity. Why does being hurled around at 60mph in a box feel low risk? Maybe it's because the whole thought process involved is eliminated. Imagine having to decide when to brake? How fast is too fast? Have the hydraulics been checked? What if the fail safes actually fail? Did the deadline to produce the coaster on time cause cut backs on human safety? This may sound ridiculous but is actually utterly plausible, think NASA ... think coal miners ... think soldiers with faulty equipment ... only recently Nissan  recalled cars due to steering wheels falling off!

This begs the question; how safe is it to travel by Car? Last week while driving to work the car in front  swerved from the outside lane across traffic and hit the barriers on the other side of the road. The air bag blew, the drivers door flew open and the driver stumbled out of the car. For a second I worried he would unknowingly wander into oncoming traffic. I slammed my breaks on and was pretty close to being involved in the accident too. Was this an acceptable risk? I was driving 100s of miles and rushing to get to a place I didn't really care to be ... work! A good slice of my earnings would be spent on various taxes and generally paying for my right to live on this planet. I started to wonder if this guy's journey was worth risking his life over? Was he on his way to cash in a winning lottery ticket? Was he driving to meet the love of his life?. These reasons would have been an acceptable risk to me but maybe he was driving to work to pay off a credit card company or a loan shark (I'm not sure there is a difference between the two). The accident makes you think ... is the need to earn money worth risking your life for?

When I was younger I spent over 10 years working at heights as a demolition man. There was very little health and safety in those days and if we did something dangerous we just did it on the weekends when we knew no one would be watching. I once walked across and removed old and cracked asbestos sheets on the roof of an aircraft hanger. I had no harness or safety equipment and  an accident would have been certain death. I've had walls toppled on to me by over enthusiastic idiots who didn't respect  the buildings they were dealing with. I've fought strong winds on the edges of 4 storey cotton mills while taking the bricks from under my feet with a sledge hammer, this really is an acquired taste and not to be recommended! I eventually retired myself from the job and decided  the odds were no longer in my favour after having too many close calls. Was any of this acceptable? I'm not sure, the money wasn't worth my life but I loved the adrenaline rush and the love/hate relationship with fear and risk could be addictive.

So we can assume everyday life can be full of risks but what about climbing?

A few weeks ago my regular climbing buddies Henry, Robbie and I went Trad climbing and one by one our own lead climbs made us think about what is acceptable and what is not.

Robbie was up first ...  The last few months he'd been training hard, he was getting fitter and climbing harder grades than before. He'd just returned from a climbing trip to Norway full of confidence but for some reason climbing back in the U.K. just wasn't working out at the minute. As a consequence his performance had dropped and along with it his confidence and ability. Regardless of these new found insecurities he started to lead the first route of the day, Robbie had only placed 1 piece of gear when his feet left the rock and he hit the deck. He fell backwards and his head was too close to a rock for comfort, there were instantly comments about buying helmets, which none of us actually own. He got back up and tried again and completed the route but he wasn't happy, the fall had only compounded this false sense of inability. Robbie then began to second an E3 which his brother Henry had just puzzled over. Robbie had lost all patience and confidence by this time and his climbing looked pretty shaky. His nervousness made it awkward to watch.Was he thinking clearly? Would his anger at himself cause him to make stupid mistakes? Would he hurt himself if he fell? I'm sure Robbie was over-thinking and fighting with the thoughts of acceptable risk while climbing. All credit to him he completed the route and hopefully banished a few demons along the way.

I was up next to attempt my first ever Trad lead which is quite a scary prospect as any climber will tell you. The route was called Sphinx Nose Traverse, it didn't inspire me in the slightest and I was pretty shocked when Henry suggested this should be my virgin voyage. He did comment that left to my own devices I would choose some nasty, green, dark crack which would be much more dangerous. I knew he was right on all counts so after a little chuckle I agreed to give it a try. Almost instantly doubt started to set in. I hadn't climbed at this crag before, I hadn't stretched, I hadn't even done a warm up climb. The route mainly consisted of two elements ... a traverse followed by an exposed arête, neither of which I had any experience or inclination to climb. Not really ideal circumstances to attempt my first Trad lead! As usual I questioned my ability, mental strength and sanity for considering this. I tried to breathe deep and stay relaxed as I set foot on the rock, it didn't work. I  fumbled about trying to place gear as I climbed, none of it with much success. I told Henry I was scared and he advised me I could easily top out before I hit the traverse, I then realised having an escape route for my first lead was a good idea (lucky I didn't choose that nasty crack). I didn't want to give up but I didn't want to climb on, I told myself I had no reason to climb this route, I didn't feel safe. I had a look about and placed a wire in the safest pocket you could ever ask for, it took a figure of 8 movement to get it in. Knowing the gear was as bomb proof as you can get I traversed a little to find more gear placements. I fumbled and faffed, tried a wire, tried a cam, it was no use my untrained eye just couldn't see a way out. Standing stationary for a while with my tip toes on a crimp I started to get cramp in my calf's, this triggered more fear. I looked down and realised there was a large ledge an inch away from my right foot, problem solved. After composing myself and taking a few steps left the arête appeared  in front of me, I searched again for somewhere to place protection and failed again. My last piece of gear was a couple of metres to the right of me, my brain told me that a fall didn't look much fun by the time I had swung out and down. The fear was taking over again, my heart and head were racing,what was I doing here? I had a look at the view out in front of me and tried to slow everything down. Another look at the arête revealed lots of positive holds. I could easily finish the route without placing more protection, paradoxically the decision not to place any more protection felt safer. My brain had suffered information overload trying to decide if my last runner would hold, or how far and what angle I would fall, it had shut down. I told my self this was now a solo ... you can't fall ... your almost 10 metres up ... it will hurt ... simple! The freedom and simplicity felt natural, the arête was exposed but easy climbing, I  felt awesome. Yes a fall would have been nasty but I had decided  the climbing was well within my ability. Was this an acceptable risk? I'm not sure, it just felt the right thing to do at the time.  

Henry now had his eye on an E4 called Terrorist, this was the 3rd route on the Sphinx Rock to be climbed. It looked hard but he wanted to climb it so there was no more said.  Henry often climbs bold routes and scares the pants off me, his brother and no doubt himself. The first time I saw him climb he scared me but I admired his ability and composure. I watched him climb an E5 called Edge Lane last month and I didn't enjoy that till he topped out, I suspect neither did Henry. We all live in a stagnated health and safety culture and it's refreshing to know you can take risks without someone blowing a whistle and waving a red card. Henry geared up and started to climb, Robbie and I began shuffling  the boulder mat as Henry changed positions. There's usually silence as  Robbie gives me a nudge or a nod of the head to tell me where to be in case of a fall. I hate the responsibility of other people's safety and always feel completely useless. While watching him place his first piece of gear I wished I knew how to spot better. The rocks around my feet worried me as Robbie had almost christened one in a similar place earlier. Robbie moved the mat once more, as Henry placed a second piece of gear he commented "any protection's protection right?" This felt like a nasty rhetorical question we all knew the answer to. There was now a roof to overcome, he looked, fumbled, felt round and repositioned his body looking for holds. As usual, watching him and concentrating on being an adequate spotter worries me too much to recall the actual climbing details. What I do remember is the horrible sound of both pieces of protection ripping out of the rock. He must have been 4 or 5  metres up when he fell past me hitting me arm and my foot on his way to the ground. I would like to think I was of some use and stopped Henry from head butting one of the rocks near me feet. I do know for certain that Robbie had just moved the boulder mat and definitely made a huge difference to his brother's landing. Immediately Henry sat up and started laughing, this may have been shock at decking out or just adrenaline.To be honest if he'd lost an arm on the way down he probably would have still laughed and smiled, it's just Henry, it's in is nature.

Henry could have had a serious injury that day and I think the Sphinx Rock almost took all 3 of us out in a row. Did any of us feel this was an acceptable risk? I don't think so, Robbie didn't care to climb after his lead, I took my harness off after mine and Henry's fall completed the trio, 3 routes had demoralised 3 climbers sufficiently enough to call it a day. We all agreed sport climbing on bolts anchored into the rock would be a better idea for our next outing. We walked down from the crag now laughing and telling stories of falls and injuries along the way. Henry grimaced at every bump he stepped foot on, much to mine and Robbie's amusement. We passed a herd of sheep and Robbie decided to make noises to them, from nowhere a lamb sprinted at Henry, jumped up and kicked out at his genitals. Henry screamed like a girl who owned a Homer Simpson voice, he bent  forwards to protect himself, then realised his back hurt and bent back again. The lamb turned around as if to attack again and Henry went white. We almost died laughing, this guy had taken a big hit of an E4 named Terrorist, now here was this tiny lamb terrorising him.

The day ended in smiles and will probably be a day none of us will forget in a hurry. Was it worth the risk? I would say so. Would we go back to the crag in a hurry? I very much doubt it.

When I initially wrote this blog Henry had been to the hospital for X Rays and was told he'd just bruised his back muscles. A week later he was re-called into hospital only to find out he had broken his back! He will spend the next 12 weeks in a brace, it could have been much worse but for Robbie and the boulder mat.      

Do I still  feel that the risks involved with climbing are acceptable? I'm really not sure, I don't presume to have any answers to an infinite number of possibilities. I'm not attempting to give any answers, I'm merely telling a story, tomorrow I may change my mind! You can make your own assumptions and choices and you should do ... it's your life ... live it how you want to.

And what of us 3? Robbie is still training hard and wants to go Trad climbing in the Lake District as soon as possible. Henry  foolishly asked his doctors if he could still do pull ups, he will be climbing again in 12 weeks and I will be there when he does. And me? Well I've started jogging, I realised if I'd taken the fall Henry did there would have been a large crater and a bundle of bones where I had landed.

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