Tuesday, 3 February 2015

Feart oan the Giants Wall

In the words of  environmentalist and legendary climber Yvon Chouinard "I like to throw myself passionately into a sport or activity until I reach about an 80 percent proficiency level. To go beyond that requires an obsession and degree of specialization that doesn’t appeal to me. Once I reach that 80 percent level I like to go off and do something totally different”. Over the past few months I had been feeling a bit unmotivated for climbing and was beginning to wonder if I’d had enough and needed to go try something new. The other day on the 'Godfather' made me have a bit of a re-think.

                                                          The Giants wall
I had just been blown off my feet for the second time when another volley of graupel and wind came howling down the corrie. I made a tactical decision to stay slumped in the snow until the wind abated. Neil was cowering behind a boulder trying to gear up away from the worst of the weather and the giant’s wall of Beinn Bann loomed above us. Even as someone who probably enjoys the nihilism associated with suffering more than actual climbing, our chances of success in weather that bad seemed so small that it was beginning to feel a bit pointless. Nonetheless we pressed on to the foot of the crag which surprisingly seemed sheltered enough to at least give it a shot.
The Giants wall: steeper than it looks!

I had casually mentioned to Neil back in October that the Godfather was at the top of my dream route list, but I actually thought that it was way beyond me. It is one of those routes that has all the right ingredients to make it attractive and terrifying in equal measures: It’s on a big, serious, winter only cliff that’s rarely in condition, and has enough stories surrounding it to create a fairly unique aura. The first ascensionists in 2002 didn’t make it off the hill until after sunrise on their second day, and an early repeat attempt by a team of modern day Scottish climbing legends ended with injury high on the wall. Their subsequent retreat and touching the void like crawl through the night to reach the car sounded grim, even by Scottish winter climbing standards.
Neil starting up pitch 1.

Neil set off up the first pitch in his typical safe and methodical style, hesitating near the top while he unlocked the puzzle barring the entrance to the ledge system above. A while later I followed in my somewhat faster, but rather less technique based style.
yours truly, thinking "shiiit, I hope it doesn't go up there"

We had arrived at the base later than we had hoped and the complexities of the route finding on the face had confused us somewhat at the start, so it wasn’t a total surprise to see it was already 11am by the time I reached Neil’s belay. Based on previous reports of the route it looked like we wouldn’t be finishing before nightfall, and with the knowledge that the crux pitch was right at the top of the route I battled off into the steep ground above with a definite sense of urgency.

We made it the central terrace at about 1pm. It was Neil’s lead again and he started the long traverse left to reach the big corner at the top of the face. It’s so unique for a route of this grade to literally be following the line of least resistance on a cliff of this size, and the result is that it feels almost alpine in character. Watching Neil run the rope out 50 meters away I had to remind myself that he was actually climbing frozen turf on a Scottish cliff, not tapping his way across an ice encrusted alpine face.

Scottish winter routes may be small in stature, but in a single day they provide an intensity that’s pretty hard to match, and the godfather day was no different. The climbing was steep and bold, and the weather was properly wild: alternating between hammering Graupel and biting wind. It was also interspersed with stunning views out across my favourite part of Scotland; every time I visit the North West I leave with a lasting impression. It seems like you can actually feel the age of the landscape and it is totally unlike anywhere else I’ve ever been.
Neil on the big traverse while I worry about the head wall above!
I followed Neil across the moderate but wildly exposed traverse and up a brutal groove that he made a fine effort on.  My arms were already feeling knackered, and the headwall above was ominously steep. Neil’s belay was being hammered directly by the wind but I was more preoccupied about what lay above. I’d herd that the next two pitches could be climbed together, so as I was worried about the fast encroaching darkness, and frankly terrified of the crux pitch I somewhat selfishly decided to climb them as one.
Neil about to make battle with the Groove above
About an hour later I was looking at the ropes which arched and spun sickeningly in the wind, my last runner was at least 10 meters below me and I didn’t have any gear left that I could protect the pitch with. Cursing myself for not being more conservative with my gear lower down I continued further from safety towards a small roof. Contriving a knee bar rest and the relative safety of two reasonable wires I made the final pull over to the belay ledge with barely anything left in the tank- both psychologically and physically.

Neil arrived at my belay in the gathering gloom and it soon became apparent that he wasn’t in a good way. After regaining the power of speech it turned out that he had been shouting for me to stop at the end of the first pitch as he was borderline hypothermic. Above the howling wind I hadn’t heard him and had taken at least 45 minutes to finish my lead, thereby subjecting Neil to what I can only imagine was a pretty horrific belay stint. Sorry man!!
Neil seconding nearly hypothermic
We stopped briefly to eat and drink but Neil had just got too cold on the previous belay for it to make a difference. This left me to face my karmic retribution in the gathering gloom, the crux corner reared above our heads and at it's top I could see the ‘Benson Fringe’ guarding the exit from the final overhang.

“I’m not a grade VIII climber, what the hell have I got myself in to?”

The main source of my fear about the crux was the story of Pete Benson taking an ankle smashing fall from the very top.  He is a total legend with string of very hard routes to his name, so what chance did I have as some fat ginger punter?

Martin Moran (the first ascensionist) jokingly came up with the ‘Benson Fringe’ tagline, as it is where Pete’s axes remained firmly planted after he ran out of strength and took the fall. The axes were abandoned while the guys beat a hasty retreat straight down the overhanging ground below the corner.

I cleared the first bulge just as the blackness arrived. Turning my head torch on I continued into the night. The wind had swung round and was now blowing straight up the corner: blasting my face with spindrift, making the small foot holds near impossible to spot and wrapping the ropes into a twisted mess.

Facing karmic retribution as the night falls.

There’s nothing quite like climbing right at your limit, in the dark, in the middle of a wild storm to really focus the mind; before I knew it I had pulled through most of the pitch and had arrived at the lip of the final overhang. Blood pounded in my head, lactic acid was surging to my forearms and my brain was boiling. The clock was ticking, and the time of reckoning was nigh.

Searching fruitlessly for another foothold underneath the rime ice I could feel my hands beginning to open. The ticking was getting louder and my last runner seemed farther away than ever. Realising that this was going to be my last chance I threw a heel up level with my axes and put everything I had left into one final haul onto the ledge above.

 I don’t think I've ever been that ‘in the zone’ in my life, and I think it may be some time before I reach that place again. I’d gone from been mentally drained in the most complete way to pulling out the lead of my life in the space of five minutes and I’m still not quite sure how.

 Still riding high on a mixture of fear and endorphins I found myself constructing a belay just below the summit plateau. With heart pounding and head buzzing I began to belay Neil up. In similar circumstances to the first ascent Neil’s head torch had failed meaning that he had to climb the pitch in the darkness, but at least the effort seemed to warm him up! Thankfully the moon was now providing some useful light and Neil did the honours; taking us up over the small cornice and out into the eerily lit plateau above.

With the wind now to our backs we began our zombie like stumble back to the car. After picking up our packs and stumbling out of the corrie Neil stopped briefly to drink from a river. I couldn't be bothered so just sat down with my head in my hands.When I mentioned that I thought I had hit the wall Neil replied that the wall had in fact fallen on top of him quite some time ago.

Just as the return walk was beginning to reach proportions worthy of the Bataan death march a welcome sight greeted my eyes; and 16 hours after leaving it, we crawled back into the car. Agreeing to have a quick nap before attempting to drive anywhere we set an alarm for 11pm, but before either of us knew what had happened it was 5.30am the next morning!

 The day after the Giants wall I burst in my front door red faced from wind burn, body aching, and sporting the thousand yard stare. As usual my non-climbing friends didn't really understand what I’d been up to, and probably couldn't care less for the most part.  I think that contrast is one of my favourite things about Scottish climbing, and in keeping with Chouinard’s 80% theory, a life split between contrasting aspects seems like a pretty good aim. 

Now where did I put my bike?

                           “A passion based framework for leading a pretty good life”

I haven’t updated this blog in a very long time for a variety of reasons, but mostly it was because I had been getting fed up of all the recycled motivational quotes and half-finished pseudo- philosophical bullshit that seems to be increasingly prevalent in the climbing media, and was more than slightly aware that this blog may just be another unnecessary addition (be it unread addition) to that insular world.

Damo from UKC summed it up brilliantly: “To try and confer worth and meaning onto a pointless and self-indulgent leisure activity, practiced almost entirely by relatively affluent white men insufficiently tested by modern life. We need to make it sound serious and deep or we'd all look a bit silly, grown men monkeying around in bright fancy clothes and plodding up big snowy hills on expensive holidays. Spiritual solutions sell well in the mainstream market, in all fields, so climbing latches on to this to seem less pointless.”

The cynic in me thought that Damo had totally hit the piton on the head as it were (and probably still does to some extent), but not so long after that, I came across another bit of writing that is quite simply one of the best descriptions of climbing I’ve ever seen and it really reminded me about what makes climbing, and other similar past times so special.

“Climbing is a context in which personal meaning can be derived from the utterly meaningless—the sheer absurdity that is climbing rocks for fun. Really, that is the story of climbing today: it’s a passion-based framework for leading a pretty good life. No more, no less”

Seriously, what a perfect summary!

It’s always so completely refreshing when you meet that person who is genuinely passionate about what they do. Seeing that mad little twinkle of inspiration - irrespective of what it is they do - always leaves me feeling inordinately better about society.

Alas I digress wildly, the point I’m getting to is that the other day on the Godfather was definitely one of those days when this contrived little game just makes the world make sense, and I hope it’s that passion that shines through.

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