Tuesday, 6 January 2009
On the Walk of Life, Devon
I must admit at Christmas I wasn’t feeling my best. Various things were lowering the morale level, one of which was the progression of an elbow injury I picked up in Spain, ripping off a wet hold. It’s quite amazing how big a part of my life feeling strong and fit is. When something compromises it and leaves you worrying about grabbing a hold to aggressively or lifting a heavy bag, it can really put quite a big dent in your confidence.
I needed some therapy.
Dealing with an injury is as much about the psychological aspects of adjusting to the new reality as implementing a course of physical rehabilitation work for the tendon. The fact is, tendon injuries, if you get them, are probably going to be with you for a bit. So like it or not, you’re gonna have to get used to it. I’ve tried the other two options (burying head in sand and making the tendon worse, or going cold turkey, and making the tendon worse as well as going completely crazy), they don’t work. The only way to turn an injury woe into a positive is to think up a plan of action that will allow you to keep challenging yourself at the same time as giving the injured strip of collagen some gentle stimulus to reform some steely tensile strength. The best thing is to go somewhere/try something completely different and new.
First off I cleared up all my work (well, almost all, as always) for the rest of the year and headed to Glasgow for an excellent Christmas. My old ten mile circuit run from my mums before Christmas dinner instantly helped and got the ball rolling. Just before new year, Claire and I left our families in Glasgow heading south...
Physically I felt unfit, creaky and worried that I’d forgotten how to move well on the rock altogether. In hindsight I was just super tentative with my elbow. But it was actually nice to try climbing using very little aggression. Of course it wasn’t very effective for climbing hard, but it still taught me new things about my own climbing technique.
As ever, the good old British weather dictated the obvious rehabilitation climb to do. A massive high pressure due to sit over the UK for at least two weeks was going to be crap for winter climbing (no snow) but kinda cold for rock climbing in Scotland. Why not head for a big slab climb in the warmest corner of our isles; Devon.
Last Autumn James Pearson made an inspired first ascent of The Walk of Life on the North Devon coast, a well known line I’d been told about by a few people over the years but never got round to doing myself. By giving his new route the gobsmackingly high grade of E12 7a, James made a strong statement that he felt he had broken into an entirely new level of world class rock climbing. I couldn’t wait to try the climb and find out just how impossibly difficult an E12 would be.
But although the grade indicated it was the hardest climb in the world, it was still a slab, and even if I could just do a few moves on it, it would be inspiring and good learning for me, but not too stressful on my elbow.
By Hogmanay I was abseiling down the huge blank sweep of Dyer’s Lookout, seeing the size of the holds on ‘The Walk’ close up. They looked better than I thought! The atmosphere of the cliff makes a big difference to how you feel too and It felt very chilled to be out in nice winter sunshine, with lots of dog walkers and families out walking past the crag for a new years stroll. But as soon as I put my rockshoes on and climbed a bit on the route, my focus changed from having a non-committal play on a sick hard route, to psyched up and planning my lead. How easily I slipped back into normal mode! I was pretty shocked to find I could do all the moves on my first try and didn’t actually fall off any moves, just rested on the rope to scan the rock for the next tiny dinks for my feet. On new years day I hung on the rope and fiddled with gear, finding I could get 25 runners in the route’s 50 metres - not bad. On the third day I linked the entire route first try for my warm-up, and it was on.
Warming cold hands before the lead
I needed more gear, I had been so sure the route would be too hard I hadn’t brought my full rack of small gear from home, so a quick visit to Bristol to get a couple of bits was in order. “It’s a long way to go for a small pecker” Claire said. Quite. Especially when it was probably too cold to consider a lead anyway. But visiting Bristol made me think of Tim Emmett (a local there). What would he say about all this? I found I had started to fill my head with reasons why I couldn't just do it; It’s too cold, I’ll get numb fingers and toes. The wall’s too damp this time of year, It’s probably much harder on the lead etc...
I knew fine well what Tim would say if I were climbing with him - ‘Get it led mate!!!’ So i headed back to Devon for the fifth day with that statement in my mind. It was simple really, I knew I could do it, I just needed to forget about all the hype that it was so hard and trust my own experience.
Midday the next day brought the heady heights of +2.5 degrees. Balmy. A slight change in the breeze had dried more of the winter dampness off the route than before and I was repeating ‘get it led mate!’ in my head and imagining Tim laughing his head off at my lack of confidence.
So I warmed up with a few pull ups off a boulder, tied in and led it.
Leading the Walk of Life E9 6c
After the first crux I spent twenty minutes standing on my heel on a good hold frantically rubbing numb hands and wiggling chilly toes. But this farcical situation of standing on one leg in the middle of a huge blank wall waving limbs about broke the tension nicely for the upper crux. I was placing more gear than James, but very nearly blew it right where James took his fall by clipping a runner with the wrong rope and only realising it when the rope drag suddenly became rather terminal and I had to reverse a move and wobble around fumbling to get the right rope clipped.
As we started the long drive north again, I felt really happy to have shored up my confidence and to have enjoyed a great climb (thanks to James) that I would otherwise have missed out on. Injury rehab is always a right rollercoaster of emotions.
Now, as far as the climbing and personal experience is concerned, thats enough about that for now. But I know that the first question that I’d get asked about this climb by many climbers is “What grade did you think it was?”. regular readers will know that I’ve pleaded before that this needn’t be the such an important part of the story. However, for many, it is. So the best way to deal with the lingering question is head on and with some detail to help you understand where these thoughts come from.
So if grades are your thing, sit down with your favourite tipple and follow me on some E-number crunching.
Lets start with the bottom line; In my opinion The Walk of Life is solid E9 6c.
Why is it not harder? Well basically it’s just nowhere near hard enough to be E10, never mind E12. In the current climate of big e-grades flying about E9 might sound a tad undeserving of a fat headline and magazine splash. But this is not true. A solid E9 ascent is still an incredible feat of rock climbing skill and, yes, it’s still world class. In my opinion it’s still waaaaay harder to live in Britain and climb E9 regularly than to hang out in Spain and knock off 8c+s back to back (thats why no-one has achieved it yet).
And another thing is that a first ascent of a trad route at this level deserves extra respect over and above repeats. For James to come to this blank canvas of a wall and have the courage to see past all the uncertainties and unknowns to make a route is a brilliant achievement. But although trad climbs truly deserving of E9 and above are still very few and far between in the world, there are some, and they’ve been around for a while. The Walk of Life stands among these routes, not above them.
The first reason the walk isn’t harder than E9 is there is no requirement to be fit. It’s possible to take both hands off on almost every move (not that you actually would, but the point is it’s not at all strenuous). Apart from the start which is rather sparsely protected, the remainder is pretty safe with many pretty good bits of gear, right where you need them. It’s also on a very non serious outcrop which is easily accessible with no logistical hassles. It’s kind of hard to give it a french grade but I would say about 8a/8a+ but I’m pretty sure there are harder granite slab routes in Switzerland and the US which are given lower numbers than this.
Slabs are a weird one. On rock, I’m no slab expert to say the least, but I’m used to three or four hour leads on winter pitches of a similar angle and character. It’s a particular type of progressive climbing you get used to and eventually good at. Certainly the walk felt about the same as leading VIII or IX onsight and was an easier and much shorter battle than Yo Bro a few weeks ago. When I did the walk, I had Julian Lines and James McCaffie in my mind. They are the masters of this genre. I’m thinking now that Andy Nisbet might well be right when he commented in the Cairngorms guide that Britian’s hardest slab climb might be Icon of Lust.
So what about comparisons to other routes? Well, The Walk is definitely not as hard as the benchmark E9 from way back in 1992, If Six Was Nine. It’s about the same difficulty and character to my own route Holdfast in Glen Nevis, but much easier than To Hell and Back and a couple of grades easier than Rhapsody to lead. Please understand that these comparisons are for me only. They fit with my skill set, my background, my strengths and weaknesses. There are so many ingredients to hard trad, hence these climbs feel pretty different to different climbers.
The only way these grades will settle is with consensus, and that only comes when climbers make the effort to repeat each-others climbs and contribute to the refining. That takes a bit of commitment. Sonnie showed it by coming back and finishing Rhapsody, The American team showed it by cleaning up gritstone.
It might seem as if I am a harsh grader, having downgraded a few trad routes now. But the fact is it’s my opinion some of them have been overhyped when they are not as hard as others hard routes that have been there for a good while such as if6was9 or Widdop Wall. At the end of his blog post on the first ascent of The Walk of Life, James Pearson said “do the walk”. Walk the walk before talking. I know my picture of which routes are the hardest and where the current limit lies is different from some others, but at least it comes from direct experience of going out there and repeating all these climbs before comparing them.
I don’t think it’s such a surprise that some that have been given the highest grades aren’t actually the hardest. There are too many aspects of human nature at play, never mind the fact that no-one has gone round and repeated them all. Climbers used to do this. Maybe they should do it again. It would be a shame if our hard E grade climbs, which really are great masterpieces of rock climbs and stories, implode into a black hole of sensationalist rubbish headlines and witch-hunts on ukclimbing.com.
At the end of the day, the grades are just numbers and keep climbers in idle chat between real experiences. What’s left are the climbs and the stories. A huge thanks and congratulations to James Pearson for his brilliant effort of climbing The Walk of Life. To climb this route as a first ascent is among the finest ever trad climbing feats. And I, and everyone else who cares to click in his direction owe him a huge debt for sharing the story of it’s first ascent in real time on his blog, through failures and the grinding effort of making something like this happen. I read, and was inspired. And for every one who tells you they were James, there will be another hundred who don’t. But they are there. I enjoyed doing the walk tremendously, and I wouldn’t have had that were it not for James’ effort.