It’s a strange feeling, when in a modern world of share and share alike you become comfortable with being yourself and being inside yourself and feeling like you don’t need to share that self which given I’m writing about myself is a little confusing. It’s quite a revelation to at last feel almost free of constriction, but are any of us free? No, not really.
Talk of late has been much about ego and happiness and drive and ambition. What fuels what? It’s quite a topic when thrown into the mix of a climbing life.
A few days ago Tim Neill, Kris McCoey and I decided to take on the challenge of a Tremadog extreme V Day, which in itself is a total load of waffle, because, in fact, we didn’t take on a true V Day. This was pointed out bluntly by Mick Lovatt before setting out from the Hippies house in Waunfawr that morning. “What about Valerian.” The Perfect Man said in perfect, not a hair out of place, dulcet Prestonian Lancashire.
“What about Valerian?” I replied.
“Well, it’s not an extreme V Day without Valerian is it?” He brushed at his perfect thin, denim covered, thigh, and steeled me with his perfect eyes.
I could hardly remember the name of the six routes we were hoping to climb never mind some obscure E1 on Pant Ifan and brushed it aside, but later, as Tim, Kris and I stood on the grass verge next to the road beneath Vector Buttress, I mentioned the conversation from earlier to Tim, although of course, by then, I had forgotten the name of the climb. Tim looked somewhat aghast.
“Yes, that’s the badger.”
“We don’t need to do that.”
“Really, so in this OCD exercise of ticking a list, we are not actually ticking the list.”
“It’s not on the list.”
“But it starts with V and its E1.”
Tim was looking uncomfortable. Tim is more OCD than me, although he frequently argues against this, but when it comes to lists and ticking, he is. But in my new found state of attempting to be humble and less ego driven and a better more understanding person, I consoled myself that I was out for a fun day of climbing, so no matter, we would still have a good day, even if the six, or is it seven routes were not completed.
Kris, the youngster in this party, and like Tim, from Northern Ireland, looked on with a total lack of concern, he was out for a day of climbing with two old codgers and saw it as a service to the community.
The sun was shining as we began. The rock sparkled with fine grains of dolerite. Void was the first climb. Tim had decided this one was his, which I didn’t mind, as I find the climbing into and out of the pod desperate and Kris didn’t mind because he was used to climbing at Fair Head so it would all feel easy. Unfortunately, as we stepped from the loamy ground, the first ‘easy’ section was feeling quite difficult and I mused, if this was the first pitch of around ten, or was it twelve, I didn’t have a hope in hell, which as I’ve already said, didn’t matter in the slightest, no, no it didn’t. Not. At. All!
Sometime later, I pulled the last moves of Void with swelling finger joints and sat beside my big friend on top of the crag.
“Is it too early for the pub?”
Kris topped out all smiles and fresh and young and in a deep Northern Irish asked what next.
“Vulcan.” I spat before either of the others could say a word.
I had climbed Vulcan for the first time only yesterday, having been spat from it a few years ago and to say I was confident, would have been a lie. Vulcan scared me and it scared me more than ever because I had led it clean just a few hours before and I didn’t want to mess that up. Crazy? Ego? Hubris? Yes. I was obviously failing on my new found head state of nirvana, but I just wanted to hold the memory of success for a little longer, and I knew I could fall off this climb almost every time I attempted it.
I attacked the first hard fingerlocking section of Vulcan and immediately fell off. My mind and mouth were on the cusp of blurting “It’s too warm, it’s much more difficult in this sun, I fell off because of the heat,” but, but, I held it in and said nothing apart from “let me down, I’m going to give it another go.” Maybe my new found state of becoming humble was in there somewhere, maybe, maybe it just needed prizing out? Maybe…
The second attempt went much better and if I was twenty five years younger and writing on social media this would be the part of the spray I wrote something along the lines, ‘I cruised to the top, the climb was a warm up, it’s easy for the grade, but I’m not twenty five years old and I am attempting to be less ego, so I’ll be honest and say this climb, a climb that was once given the grade of E3, was, and is, bloody hard, or at least bloody hard for me, but, on this occasion … on this occasion, I made it to the top without falling.
As the three of us abseiled it began hailing, which made me think of the story the Perfect Man had told me earlier in the morning about the time he was climbing with Paul Pritchard on Heading the Shot. Heading the Shot is a difficult slab climb in the slate quarries. Half way up and a reasonable distance above the last bolt, the Perfect Man teetered, when the sky opened and delivered its icy present in the form of a thousand ball bearings which built on the Perfect Man’s perfect and strong fingers in icy pyramids. Not wanting to fall and unable to move his fingers, as the hail piled high would then wet the tiny slate edges and make them impossible to grip, he shouted to Paul to tie him off and run around to the top and drop a rope. Eventually Pritch made it to the top and dropped the rope in the wrong place and without a loop. He pulled it up, tied a loop and dropped it once more. The rope was still to the side, but the Perfect Man could wait no longer and jumped. He caught the rope and swung but the tied-off leading rope held him, and pulled him down, and he swung across the slab and down and couldn’t move. Paul, still peaking over the top of the slab looked down howling with laughter.
After a bit of blathering with friends, the three of us headed back to Bwlch y Moch and Vulture. Tim told me I had to let Kris to lead this one as it was his turn and he had not climbed it before. I would like to say I was happy with this… no, I was happy with this, but secretly, or not so secretly, I really wanted to lead Vulture, because I had led it a few days before, and I had it wired, and then I would have climbed my quota and I could relax. What was happening to the ‘I’m just out for a pleasant day of climbing and I’m not bothered how many of the six, or is it seven we do’, I’m not sure!
The weather was as twisted as our ethics. So far it had been warm and sunny, cold and cloudy. Raining. Sleeting. Snowing. Warm and sunny…
Kris did a great job and on-sighted Vulture and as Tim and I topped out, my mind started to become a little obsessed. ‘We can do this, we can climb these six, or is it seven climbs.’ Oh no, it’s begun, but in a moment of lucid, I had another thought, ‘Fuckit, if we do five out of the six, or is it six out of the seven, I’ll just say I’ve done enough, numbers and lists don’t mean anything, and to prove my point, I’ll go and sit in the van and wait, happy not to have done the final climb to make the set.’
We walked the path a few metres and up the hill until stood beneath a perfect v-groove. It looked desperate. Neither Kris nor I had climbed Venom, but I had heard of it, and on the occasion I remembered something about a climb, it was generally for a bad reason, and in this case, the reason I surmised was arse-kicking. So, quietly I contemplated and hoped my new found lack of ego came good, but I had serious doubts.
Tim led Venom clean. He led in great style, until he belayed beneath the final pitch of a climb called Pretzl Logic.
Both Kris and I had been impressed watching Tim, a giant, who appeared to span his way left with a reach longer than the wings of an Albatross and in doing so, this stupid list ticking was starting to weigh heavy around my neck. Looking up, looking into this groove, I could feel the definite yearning of wanting to complete the six, or is it seven climbs and not only did I want to complete them, I wanted to climb the six, or is it seven, clean, and looking into the yawn of dolerite, I suspected I was about to fall and my mood darkened along with the sky. Ego was once again taking control. ‘Get out Nick, get out now, walk away…’ But I couldn’t, I didn’t want to, I was hooked, and I was being reeled-in on some pitiful, pointless excursion. I had become a collector, a collector of six, or is it seven, but we still had two, or was it three to stick the pin.
Kris being young and talented showed me the way to climb the groove without an Albatross span and now, the three of us stood on a large belay ledge looking at bright green abseil tat wrapped around a tree.
“Are we abseiling then?”
“No, we have to climb this pitch as its now included in the new guide as the finish to Venom.”
I pointed out to Tim the error of his logic, as we were not intending to climb the seventh V which was Valerian, so it made no sense if we climbed this pitch or not, it didn’t matter, none of it mattered, and as I voiced this Tim set off, jamming and smearing and pulling out squishy trumpet plants while ignoring my analysis of what OCD really was and to what level Tim ranked.
The sky decided to dump hail and rain on the three of us as we abseiled back to the ground, and as we sat sheltering in the dark cave beneath the climb, it was obvious, so bloody obvious, this was it, this was the end of our V Day with two, or is it three routes left to climb.
We ran to the van and sheltered beneath the rear door. Climbing parties were abseiling and running and shouting. The sky was black. The rock was wet.
“The first pitch of Vector will remain dry no matter what happens, we could climb that and if it’s still pouring we can abseil from there?”
I belayed Kris who did a fine job of climbing wet rock and by the time Tim and I joined him in the little belay cave, the sky had once again cleared, along with everyone else on the crag, but out on the horizon, the night and the dark and the cold were fast approaching.
Kris took us to the top of Vector and serendipity now played its part. Yesterday, along with Vulcan, we had also climbed Valour, something of an obscure, but very good E2 with quite a difficult and bold top pitch. This was the last of the climbs in the six, or was it the second-to-last in the seven? While Tim and I had hung on the Vector belay, we had decided we didn’t need to do the first pitch of Valour. It would be wet. It was a builder’s yard. It wasn’t the crux, and as I geared up in the gloom on top of the crag, Tim and Kris ran to the top of Valour and constructed an abseil and a belay point.
We set-off down the rope, down into the dark, down in our quest to complete all of the Tremadog V’s. Well, almost all, because with the night fast approaching, we had at last declared that Valerian didn’t count along with the first pitch of Valour, but we had climbed all of the others!
I hit the belay tree running and set off in the last of the light trying not to think of all the smears in the shiny black rock I had confidently stood yesterday. I was fine, I was fine, I was fine, fine … fine until I reached the final 4c v-groove which required smearing and I couldn’t see a single ripple, not a pocket or an edge. What had I done, what had I done, I had allowed myself to be caught on this quest for some arbitrary list, that wasn’t even the full list because really it’s seven not six, and here I was, here I was slithering around a v-groove in the dark and about to fall, and all of my new found peace, I know, will fall in with me and I’ll discover I’ve been a pretender.
But at last I committed, and by the lights of the Porthmadog rugby ground, I eventually slithered from the top of the groove and sat.
Kris and Tim joined me, both were laughing. We had finished the Tremadog V’s, well, all but the one that doesn’t appear to count because no-one wanted to do it. It was half past nine, a fine time to finish something completely pointless, well pointless I suppose apart from the memory and the comradery and the friendship and the laugh and all of the great climbing, yes, totally pointless…