“Are you setting a rappel rope?”
I turned and looked into a familiar face. Alex Honnold stood looking at me with those large dark eyes that were set in a tanned complexion. Of course I knew he was at Fair Head, Alex Honnold coming to Ireland has been the talk of the climbing scene for months and he looked exactly the same as he does in the pictures and films he stars.
I was stood at the top of the crag at Fair Head having just returned from the nearly deserted and adventurous climbing on Owey Island off the Donegal coast in the South. Wrapping my white static rope around a large dolerite boulder, while looking over the calm Atlantic toward Rathlin Island, I answered that yes, I was setting up an abseil line.
“Would you mind if we use your rope.”
Chris Weidner was climbing with Honnold. Chris approached me, smiled, introduced himself and immediately I warmed. On first meeting, Chris appeared somewhat less intense than Alex, more approachable, happy to chew the cud, take in the surroundings.
“Of course you can use the rope.”
The Atlantic was relaxed. The sun was bright. Seagulls cruised on wings set. I lowered my rope the length of the wall, almost down the line of a climb called The Complete Scream, the climb that was top of my to do list for this week. The Complete Scream was a climb I had become interested in the previous year when John Orr and I threw down a top rope and climbed it twice. This wall was close to being unlike anything I had encountered in the British Isles, an almost unbroken sixty, just off vertical, metres of positive edges and technical climbing. The bottom half of the wall was sparsely protected, in-fact, once on your way, from about the ten metre mark, the only protection, apart from one difficult to place wire, are skyhooks over edges. The wall had only seen one on-sight from Pete Whittaker last year even though the first ascent by Ricky Bell had been in 2005. Both Pete and Ricky’s ascents had included placing skyhooks secured in place with gaffer tape and, or blue tack. Even on my first visit to Fair Head four years earlier, this wall, in its complete form, shouted to be climbed, it was such a draw to me, but on that first visit with arms not yet fit for the summer, I was content and happy to climb Primal Scream, the top half of this wall.
Chris and Alex abseiled down my rope heading toward the E4, Promised Land, while Sarah, Zylo, Zylinski and I headed toward Blind Pew, an E2 running the length of the corner to the right of the wall where the abseil rope ran.
After completing our respective climbs, the four of us once again stood on top of the crag. The sun warmed and for almost my first time at Fair Head there was hardly a breeze.
Alex came over,
“Does anything come up the wall where the abseil rope runs?”
“Yes, the top of the wall is an E5 called Primal Scream, but you can climb the whole of the wall, that’s called The Complete Scream, it’s an E7 with great technical climbing and very little protection in the bottom half apart from skyhooks over the edge of flakes.”
“My partner is a bit bummed, he says he needs a rest; do you mind if I micro traction the route on your rope for something to do while waiting?”
“Feel free.” I said while getting the idea to climb with Honnold, as reasonable and polite and interesting a person as he appeared, would possibly my idea of a nightmare. I would certainly struggle with what appeared to be an almost incessant drive to be constantly moving and climbing, especially if the climbs meant little to him other than something to do to fill time.
Maybe I was also once like this, maybe at one time it didn’t matter what the climb was or where it was, maybe … and maybe I would also be his worst nightmare to climb alongside, an old, slow punter who had reached a point where absolute quality over quantity and being aware of the environment in which the climbing I became involved took place mattered more?
Alex abseiled and as he did I shouted directions of which features the line followed, finding it amusing that my dream route for this year’s visit to Fair Head was being reduced to a filler in, something to do while Chris rested and relaxed.
I will admit to not being sure about the whole climbing superstar celebrity thing and the following it receives, especially where Fair Head and this meet is concerned.
My first visit to Fair Head had been four years before when I was invited by Paul Swail to come over and give a talk. On that occasion my travel expenses were covered by Mountaineering Ireland and I was very grateful with that arrangement because with the expensive ferry covered, after my talk, I could stay and climb for the week.
Fair Head lived up to all of my expectations. The climbing, the place, the atmosphere. Sean McBride, the farmer who owns the crag and his family were welcoming and friendly, the whole meet was down to earth and grass roots and full of people enjoying the climbing. It was a welcome relief to find that this iconic, big bad cliff, a cliff I had heard so much about was being treated with respect and the people who climbed on it obviously loved the place and because of this I have returned every year since, staying for the meet and the week after.
When Paul contacted me this year asking if I wanted a ticket, explaining that Alex Honnold was coming and the event was to be ticketed to keep control of the number of people attending, I replied, a little tongue in cheek, but also with a small amount of seriousness, that he should give my ticket to someone who really wanted to see Alex talk, I would be there to enjoy the place and climb. I continued, saying I was a little concerned by how this down to earth celebration of climbing, at this very special place, was being turned into some form of media climbing circus. I felt sad in a way that a person and his celebrity status appeared to be taking over from the real star which of course is Fair Head.
Paul replied that the BMC were paying Alex’s costs to bring him over to the UK and make a film and his coming to Fair Head was something that appeared to good an opportunity to miss, which of course he is correct, who can blame him, not me, but a big part of me wanted to say, the Fair Head meet does not need this, it does not need superstars, the climbing at The Head does not need hundreds of people, it does not need multiple film crews and climbing reporters and photographers, it doesn’t need people coming purely to watch a slide show, it doesn’t need some kind of climbing celebrity hysteria.
Zylo and I returned from climbing Hell’s Kitchen and once again Alex was standing on top of the crag. I asked him what he thought of the Complete Scream and he replied it was enjoyable and easy, before dragging Chris away to climb Above and Beyond, another absolutely classic route first climbed by Pat Littlejohn that I feared would be quaffed like some vin rouge that comes in a brown plastic hexagonal five litre demijohn, but who am I to say how people should experience their climbs and what they should take from them, or what in-fact they are taking from them?
Alex said he may solo The Complete Scream and continued by saying soloing it with such poor gear in the lower half made sense. I really didn’t understand this thought process because actually it didn’t make sense at all. He had a willing partner, the gear on the very start of the climb was good, protecting the first quarter of the route where some of the flakes moved, and the gear higher on the wall, in Primal Scream, was actually very good where the climbing was still UK 6b and a little balancy.
For a man who has soloed all of the things we have seen him solo and being filmed soloing them, I know 6b is not very difficult, but I could not understand why… why did he need to solo this route, a route he didn’t know existed until an hour earlier in the day, it meant nothing to him, he hadn’t dreamed of soloing this climb, he had no real connection or desire and why solo it at this time, in front of a load of people and film crews and photographers?
I am a great supporter of the BMC and I have been an individual member for years and I have very gratefully received much in the way of grant funding from them for my expeditions. I think they really do a valuable job for climbers and they should support all aspects of climbing and walking, which they do, and in this day and age, climbers really do need a body that has a voice, but I thought it amusing that Alex Honnold, a person who has hit the celebrity big time by climbing stuff without a rope, was in the UK on an expenses paid trip from the BMC, The BMC, our governing body who frequently published articles and films about wearing helmets and being able to navigate in winter and being safe, it was almost belly achingly funny and really appealed to my dark humour. Frankie Boyle could not have thought up a better punch line that this one.
Later in the day, Zylo and myself sat leaning against the big boulder that the abseil rope was still wrapped around and down the line of the Complete Scream. A large crowd of people stood on the piece of land jutting from the cliff edge where a view of the wall below could be seen. Calvin Torrans walked past in the opposite direction to the crowd and turned to me, “Don’t pull your rope Nick, your man is soloing the Complete Scream and for a second I imagined the scenario of me tugging up the rope, causing Alex to fall to his death, and all of the cameras turning in my direction and snapping away at me standing, giving the double thumbs unaware.
“What’s all that about then Calvin?” I asked to someone who in my mind really was climbing history and inspiration and someone I would pay money to watch give a talk about his development and routes at Fair Head.
“I’ve no idea Nick,” meaning Calvin didn’t understand the motivation either, “I’d rather not watch it.”
I explained to Calvin I was of the same opinion. Afterwards I spoke to people who had watched the ‘performance,’ they said they had been drawn to witness something that was of course an incredible example of strength of mind and confidence and something they will no-doubt never see again (?) but they also admitted to feeling voyeuristic although voyeurism implies the person being watched is uncomfortable and their privacy is being invaded (!)
I wonder how people would have felt if he had fallen and died and I wondered if in some way they would have felt a little responsible? I also wonder about all of the comments I have read since this solo of The Complete Scream, the comments calling this feat inspirational. I’m really not sure I find soloing the likes of what Alex does as inspirational, it certainly doesn’t inspire me to do the same. The Fitz Traverse he completed with Tommy Caldwell, now that in my mind was truly inspirational.
Personally I’m convinced I don’t need to watch this kind of show. I truly believe the individual should have choice, choice to climb what and however and in whatever style they prefer. I am a great believer in not introducing rules and regulations and for years I have spoken out against how climbing appears to be becoming more regulated, main-stream and dumbed down, so I had no problem with Alex soloing The Complete Scream, why should I? But I find it difficult to understand why he needed to climb this climb and at this exact time and why people felt drawn to watch, but maybe this is my problem and I’m the odd one in this ever increasing world of show and tell?
As he pulled over the top of the climb he looked up toward me.
“Good to see you are still alive. How was that?”
He replied it was OK. Outwardly Alex appeared to be showing very little emotion about this quite extraordinary thing he had just done. I know people show emotions in different ways and inside he may possibly have been buzzing, but it didn’t look that way and I still did not understand why he had felt the need to solo this climb in front of all those people unless he was climbing to perform because this is how his life has moved and this is what on occasion he has to do?
“You certainly had a crowd.” I said gesturing toward the dissipating throng.
“Yeah, I looked up once and saw all the people and had to have a word with myself to try and forget about them.”
Alex’s admission to being affected by the number of people watching confused me even more. If this was the case, if he really didn’t like being watched, it really made no sense at all, especially as he was staying around next week and could easily have chosen a quiet time, was this really just a performance.
In the past I have soloed, both in summer and winter. My winter soloing was brought about more from the need to be out and climbing and not having a partner, so I would get up very early and go out climbing by myself. More often than not there would be no one else around and this was how I preferred it. There is also something really fulfilling about winter soloing with the lack of faff and heavy gear and being able to keep moving and not get wet and cold and be in the mountains, moving competently about by yourself.
My rock solos have generally been the same – on deserted crags – not all the time, but more often than not. The first time I soloed Left Wall on Dinas Cromlech was on a Sunday evening after it had rained for most of the day and I was waiting for my friend, Bruce French to arrive in Wales. I arrived at the base of Left Wall as the evening sun broke from between the clouds. There wasn’t another person in the Pass, or that was how it felt and after I had climbed Left Wall, a climb with history which meant so much personally, the feeling of lightness and fulfilment that I had soloed a climb, a climb that at one time I could not imagine myself lead, was an exceptional leap which gave me tremendous confidence and happiness.
Several years later, again I walked to the foot of the Cromlech walls and once again the Pass was almost deserted. This time it was in the middle of the day and sunny and the route I intended to solo was Right Wall. I had climbed Right Wall about seven times already that summer, I had it dialled, and with each ascent earlier in the summer I knew at some point I would walk to these walls to do what I was now about to do. The internal build-up was what it was about as much as the actual climb and the personal pleasure I would receive having completed the climb.
Right Wall had been the second E5 I ever climbed, I think the first time I climbed it was in 1995 by default when my partner backed off leaving some of my gear in the route. Right Wall is about as iconic as it gets for a British climber and years down the line, the experience of climbing it solo is still an intense and fulfilling feeling.
On that day, in the Pass, I sat beneath the route for a while squeeking my shoes and relaxing while looking down at my green Berlingo parked by the boulders until the time felt correct and then I set off. I knew each hold intimately. I climbed, passing familiar edges, making familiar moves and with those moves my mind settled and the climbing became less mechanical, more fluent, enjoyable.
I reached the large ledge beneath the crux and sat down carefully removing my climbing shoes. Two people appeared beneath me on the large ledge and timidly looked up. I waved and said hello. They said hello back and quickly moved around the corner to climb Cemetery Gates.
Once again I was by myself and after a while I replaced my shoes, being careful not to drop them, and entered into the crux section of the climb. To this day I still don’t remember much about climbing this section of the route, except how it flowed and how confident I felt moving over the rock and for these brief seconds in my life, I suppose, in some way, I felt on a higher level of appreciation.
Seeing and speaking to Alex after he soloed The Complete Scream I’m not sure he shared this type of relationship with the climb, but like I say, we all show emotions differently so what do I know and my God, can that bloke climb rock!
Not that I ever really needed any more conformation, but what I do know now, what I am more convinced than ever before, especially with some of the hyped and factually incorrect reporting I have read about this performance is this, climbing has definitely become more Dan Brown than Cormac McCarthy, more Daily Mail than Guardian, more circus than majestic animals on the plain.
As ever, and I know I speak for everyone when I say a huge and massive thanks to Sean and The McBride Family. Fair Head and its climbing is made so much better because of this family who own the crag and the land and their hospitality and generosity.
Finally thanks to Paul Swail who has worked so very hard to organise this meet and highlight the great climbing that is Fair Head.