I walked the undulating track that weaved beneath the cliff. The sun-baked clay, pounded by a million feet, orange glaze. Below, to my right, was the slow-moving river. The river, wide and clear, formed the lowest point of the gorge. On the opposite bank was another cliff, a cliff almost as overhanging and as high as the one above me, and at the far end of the gorge a large dam with a smooth fan of grey concrete.
Chulilla, Spain. My third visit, although this was the first time I had driven, and what a drive. The journey began in Llanberis and had taken two days with a five-hour ferry crossing from Portsmouth to Caen. Two hours of sleep beneath the bright lights of the ferry restaurant, two hours of sleep in a dark aire on the outskirts of Bordeaux. Chulilla was a long way from Llanberis. The weather was also a long way from Llanberis, although the snow storm near Zaragoza had reminded me it was still March.
Half a mile from the crag, almost the end of the journey, I had met Rich Kirby on the road leading from the dam. Rich was attired in black lycra shorts and sat astride his black racing bike. A true to life, Northern Milk Tray Man. “Hey up mate, how’s it going.” Rich had said with all drawn out and elongated e’s and tha like… while surveying my new white van. “It’s going good. I’m knackered. I’ll meet you up the track above the dam.” I really didn’t want to be seen talking to a stick thin (Rich would prefer me to say slim and athletic but this just isn’t true!) bloke dressed in skin tight clothes a long way from town, this was something I remember mum warning me about when I were a nipper.
The first climb was called Top of the Rock and it was not a warm up even if Rich called it as much. The undercut start was heinously strenuous and my shoulders complained. “Warm up, warm up, this is no warm up, I told you it wasn’t a warm up.” “But Nick, I said pull through the starting moves and warm up like…” But there is something deeply engrained within my wood, that once on my way, stops me from taking a rest on a climb I have not done before or is not hard enough to stop me attempting to climb it on-sight, even if it is!
The crag was quiet, as quiet as I had ever seen, which was a surprise given how dry and warm the weather, a lot dryer and warmer than my last trip in December where I wanted to attempt the climbs Tequila sunrise and El Bufa, but in December both had remained wet. A trio of Peregrine Falcons screamed above. I tilted my head towards the blue sky. The hen landed on an outcrop. The males, mid-flight locked claws and spiralled from the sky, spinning and twisting like a maple leaf.
“Right then, Tequila or El Bufa, which is the easiest?” Rich had climbed both and I was on the hunt for another of the worlds easiest 8a’s!
It was decided Tequila was the best to begin, the crux is low and once passed, the rest of the climb is OK. We stood beneath the climb, a very overhanging wall with a slithering tufa looking like a trunk of ivy. No one was on the climb and there were no clips in place. Perfect.
Over the last fourteen years I have done a reasonable amount of sport climbing, but I’m still a little old fashioned, (or is it just old) because I don’t like getting on a climb that has clips already in-place, a climb that someone is working. It could be a Brit thing, similar to the way we wait our turn and stand in line at a train station or at the newsagent. It could be an ego thing knowing I’m pretty poor at this sport climbing lark and it’s going to take me ages with someone else watching and waiting and drawing conclusions. I really don’t like making folk wait – I feel their pain and in turn I feel pressurised to be quick, but being quick is just not me. I don’t successfully climb, what for me are difficult routes, I go from rest to rest and when I get to that rest I milk it for all its worth. I take a long time. And because of this, I would rather not have the self-imposed pressure, of people waiting. But this is not the case for others, often it appears once the clips are in a climb, people, like Peregrines, swoop from the sky to try and snaffle that prime piece of flesh, even though an hour before, this very same morsel appeared to stink like a rotting carcass.
I climbed to the top of Tequila sunrise, hanging the clips from the numerous bolts, loving the air and the length of the climb and the shape of the holds and the way the edges, tufas, ripples, corners, pockets forced me to move in a certain way to maintain upward momentum. And when I reached the chains, I shouted to Rich, who lowered me. Even before I reached the ground someone walked across. “Are you getting straight back on the climb?” I would like to say my tone of voice was light and cheerful, but my reply resembled an owl coughing up a pellet full of mouse bones.
The second day on Tequila I worked a sequence for the crux and the crowd of would be suitors grew. Rich and I had a rest the following day, and as I sat drinking my morning coffee, I imagined the line of people beneath the route growing. I knew it was my problem, my idiosyncrasy, my crazy attitude, but I didn’t understand why people wanted to jump on a climb that someone else was working. Yes, I knew Tequila was a three star climb and had a reputation as an easy touch, so of course it was popular, our egos as climbers just snaffle up that 8 grade even if it isn’t, but I couldn’t get over the lack of imagination or the want to experiment or try something else. I really found it difficult to understand why other folk didn’t think the same as me and leave a person to spend their time alone without the pressure of others waiting?’ El Bufa to the left was also a three star 8a and not one person showed the slightest interest. I wondered if this would change should I move my clips over, I suspected it would and a part of me wanted to put my theory to the test.
I returned on day three, and warmed up on the start of Tequila before belaying Rich on another route called El agente naranja, which was across the way on Balcόn and as I belayed I watched in horror as the queue beneath MY route formed into a ruckus of Vultures. At a distance, everyone appeared to be having a nice time and getting on with each other and this made me wonder if I was weird thinking this way, maybe I should try to be more chilled, yes, that was it, definitely more chilled…
Rich sent his route like a wad, (he told me to write this) and as he packed up, I returned to join in the party beneath MY climb. A German guy was being lowered by a young woman whom I recognised from pictures of the junior GB squad members from a few years ago. I chatted to Matt Pascoe an Australian climber I knew and his wife Lucy and to their friends who were also from Australia, Matt and Annie. When the time was right, I called across and asked the British woman if she intended to climb Tequila, which she said she did. My gear and rope were still at the foot of the climb, it was obvious I had been on the climb. “OK, cool, how long are you going to take? If you’re going to take two hours working it, I would prefer to get on it first as they are my clips and if I fall I’ll come down.” I said this in a voice that anyone who knows me would have understood was mostly tongue in cheek, especially as I knew she was possibly going to run up MY climb, but I suppose there was an undercurrent of my being disgruntled and being a tad deaf I do tent to shout!
It is my understanding of sport climbing etiquette, but I’m possibly wrong, to get on a climb with clips already in place is fine, but it is good manners to allow the person who is already on the route, to have precedence, especially if they are at a stage of red pointing, which I was. “I’m hoping to be reasonably quick.” She answered, which I was almost certain was correct given her history and I really wasn’t too worried or put out. Team Australia appeared to find my direct approach very amusing. Rich, who had now appeared also commented on the force of my delivery. The woman from New Zealand who was belaying on the climb to the right laughed as did Elliot, whom I recognised from his time of being a student at Bangor University in North Wales. “What!?” I asked, looking at the crowd who were guffawing. “Was that too blunt, was I rude?” “Well mate, you don’t hold back do you, may as well put it out there, say it like it is,” said Matt 2, which, coming from an Australian made me wonder if I had gone completely over the top. Again, I turned to the crowd, “Was I too blunt, did I come across as aggressive?” No, you were fine, Elliot said, who being young made me feel better as sometimes feel the world has moved on without me. The Kiwi woman turned to me and said, “That was fine, don’t worry about it, there are hundreds of climbs here without someone already on, they could have chosen one of them.” Which made me feel much better as someone was obviously on the same wavelength.
In the time taken to have this conversation, the woman on Tequila had pulled through the difficult crux section and was shaking out. I shouted encouragement as did the rest of the crowd. Matt 2 turned to me and shouted, “Ha mate, how you feeling now, your climb is going to be flashed by a girl.” Which didn’t concern me at all, my ego is relatively under control nowadays and there are thousands of women, men, girls and boys climbing much better than me. In fact, as I sat watching the fine display of climbing going on above, I thought it said more about Matt 2’s opinion than my own? The next day Matt 2’s joshing continued, “Ha, mate, we were all laughing about how a girl almost flashed your route after you said don’t take two hours working it.” I explained to Matt my understanding of sport climbing etiquette about clips already in climb. Matt 2 replied, “If you had said that to me mate, your clips or not, I would have told you to go fuck yourself, I’ll take two hours if I want!”
I looked down, an insect the size of a large honey bee had buzzed onto my index finger. It had a white and furry back end, where if it had been a bee, there would have been black and yellow stripes. I lifted it and looked at its eyes, the bottom half were black and shiny, the top, a million white dots and from what I presumed was its face, a long spike that looked threatening, almost terrifying if used for attack or defence, but as I lifted and looked at this fascinating creature I didn’t feel scared or intimidated, it meant no harm it just looked a little fierce.
The woman on Tequila put in a great show falling from the final hard move just before the chains, it was a superb and inspiring effort and I really liked her attitude, which was one of disappointment, but most of all joy at having almost flashed the climb by putting up a marvellous fight.
When she returned to the ground I complimented her, she possibly thought ‘That showed you.’ But I suspect she was far too nice for that.