In October 2003, at the age of 37, I resigned from my job as a PE Instructor in the Prison Service. I walked out of the gates of HMP Welford Rd and began a life of climbing and writing. No direction, other than towards the cliffs or sitting behind the keyboard of a computer. In the following 16 years one of the most rewarding aspects of this choice has been the time to pursue all genres of climbing: Alpine, expedition, ice, sport, bouldering, Scottish winter, traditional. I’m fortunate, and I recognise that I live a privileged lifestyle – a lifestyle that enables me to spend a chunk of time pursuing one aspect of climbing, and when the time comes for change, I can dedicate my time elsewhere.
I hardly sport climbed before I left full time employment; I preferred to trad climb, winter climb in Scotland, Alpine climb and expedition climb, but since 2003, since gaining more control of how my time is spent, I go on sport climbing trips most years. Recently, my sport trips have grown in frequency and length, visiting new areas and new crags, but when I return to Llanberis in North Wales, I’m generally keen to take my fitness to the traditional cliffs, and on occasion, this ‘sport’ fitness even helps, although it never appears to help as much as I think it may.
One of my first sport climbing trips was in in the spring of 2005 to Gorges du Tarn. I think I hit the heights of 7a+, maybe 7b. When I returned to Llanberis, Dougal Tavener and I headed up the steep hillside to the Cromlech, I wanted to ‘throw a lap’ on Lord of the Flies. I had led Lord twice at this point, but a good few years before, and from what I could recall it was sustained and a bit scary, but sort of OK, and because I had just climbed 7a+, (maybe 7b) what could possibly go wrong? I didn’t have the stamina at the time to hang around and place too many pieces of gear, (sport climbing does not help static muscle endurance and it certainly doesn’t prepare the body for carrying a rack of gear) so in the style of the younger person I once was, pushed on. The ropes ran a good way without protection, but on I went, hanging, fiddling gear, hanging, not fiddling gear. Dougal, all blond and Germanic, all muscles and bony angles, had recently climbed Lord, or at least, more recently than me, and in his concern that he may not have time to lead a climb of his own, looked up, hit me with his shark eyes, and directed me to hidden gear placements hoping it would speed up the proceedings. Wrapping fingers to edges, smears for toes, I sweated and strained, while fiddling bits of gear. Fingers began to cramp. Toes pushed into tight rock shoes, burnt. Cars, a long way below us, sailed around corners, the drivers unaware of the revving engine that was my forearms. Two hours later, I pulled the top of the Cromlech, a cramping and sweating, toes screaming mess. Dougal had been bored stupid and as he followed, he complained about missing out, about not being pumped, but he put a brave face on my ineptitude and I told him I’d belay him on whatever he wanted the following day. Maybe having a little sport fitness didn’t completely translate to trad, (this is, perhaps obvious to most folk, but I’ve never been the brightest cucumber in the barrel) and a ten-day trip in spring was never going to completely kickstart arms wrapped in winter cobwebs.
But sport climbing does help trad fitness, and, as the years have passed, I’ve dedicated more time to clipping bolts in spring. I love on-sighting climbs, but having almost climbed (or fallen from) everything in and around North Wales, my trad objectives generally take the form of working climbs that are too difficult for me to on-sight or ground up and lead them, or, in the case of Nightmayer, not lead them.
Esgair Maen Gwyn, or for those like me that struggle with the correct Welsh name, Scimitar Ridge, is a fine, southeast facing slice of slippery, hard to read rhyolite, (but it may be dolerite with a bit of slate and quartz thrown in for good measure). Scimitar, high on the north side of the Llanberis Pass, blends into the hillside and is home to some of the best climbs around, having loads of quality E5’s and four brilliant E7’s. I always wanted to try and on-sight, or at least ground-up, a route first climbed by Paul Pritchard called Surgical Lust, so with this in mind I decided to take a, let’s get fit by working a climb I knew I would never be good enough to on-sight, or even ground up, called the 39 Slaps. The 39 slaps is a Jonny Dawes route stuffed full of sidepulls, smears and sawn-off pegs. I loved the process of working it, and getting close to a small section of rock, (yes, weird I know) and after about five visits, led it. I then thought, ha, I’m fit and in the zone, so I’ll drop a rope down an Adam Wainwright climb called The Trumpet Blowers. The Trumpet Blowers has a technical grade of 6c, one up from the 39 Slaps, (although since that giant Joe Bertalot pulled a hold off the 39 Slaps that is now also 6c) but the same E7 adjective grade, ‘Can’t be that much harder’ I thought, but as is often the case, I was wrong, I couldn’t touch it. I couldn’t even see where it went or how to climb it, so as the spring turned to summer, I gave up and went elsewhere. I returned later in the year to attempt Surgical Lust, and my on-sight dissipated almost as quick as the blood in my forearms, falling from the well-protected crux. On another visit, I tried Surgical again and made it through the crux, before reaching a tricky section of undercuts and smears. I hung from undercuts, while staring longingly at the old peg away to my left, the difference between me and the ground. I was pumped out of my brain, (a usual scenario) and with the possibility of exploding into the scree at the base of the crag, reversed, and threw myself off to continue with the ground-up strategy. A third visit with the Hippy, and in much better conditions, saw, at last, the fruition of my Surgical Lust ambition.
The following spring, and after another sport trip, I (once again) threw a rope down The Trumpet Blowers, and, (once again) couldn’t do the moves, or work out the moves, or see the moves. I did see a bold section in the lower half of the wall and two large rusty pegs above, but after the pegs, apart from a couple of large and slopey, open-handed sidepulls, (if they were handholds at all!) that were a mile apart for any normal human, (and no footholds other than smears) I couldn’t really see much more, so I moved one place over and took the weak persons option of a Jack Geldard E7 called The Trumpet Slappers. I’ve known Jack for many years now and I like Jack a lot. Jack’s a good friend, a good writer and a great climber, or at least he was a great climber until he became a mountain guide and took up brewing beer, but let’s just tell it how it is, Jack is no Adam Wainwright! Jack’s route was a combination of the 39 Slaps into The Trumpet Blowers, that, crucially, (for me) came into the Trumpet Blowers a good way above the crux. This combo had some new and bold climbing, it was very good, and after about three visits I climbed the second ascent [Film of The Trumpet Slappers here] In the hunt now for the full set, (OCD) I threw a rope down The Trumpet Blowers, certain in my greatness, I was now fit enough, but no, not a chance, not a bloody hope in hell, I still couldn’t even work it out with loads of rests.
Another year, a bit more sport climbing and another try at The Trumpet Blowers and another fail. Another year and my sport grade reaches 8a and can I do the Trumpet Blowers… no. But I did do a few more moves than previously, and maybe, just maybe, I can see what I need to do to climb it, and bloody hell, it’s all super long powerful moves and throws with smears for feet and slaps and flicks to undercuts, and all above two old rusty pegs, I’m never going to be good enough to climb this route, this isn’t trad, its sport in disguise and for people much more talented than me.
Another year, well, in-fact, this year, I decided to dedicate a good chunk of time to rock and I’ve had two long sport climbing trips, plus a few early season trad hits, so of course, at some point, the steep and heathery hill was going to see me, and a few weeks ago I dragged the Hippy off the golf course and went for a walk. Now, I know you’re expecting me to say, and hey presto, I at last saw where and how to climb The Trumpet Blowers, and it was easy, but I didn’t, it was still as much a mystery as before. I climbed the bottom half, the tricky, bold (not bold because I was top roping) section which had quite a punchy bit to reach the first of the two pegs, where I hung and tried to fathom, because, as it happens, the previous year, when I thought I had it sussed, I hadn’t. The thing I’ve discovered about sport climbing and bouldering is, not only does it get you stronger and fitter, it also opens up the mind to movement and possibilities, and armed with this, although when I say armed, think more peashooter than bazooka, I found a way to move from one peg to the other. I had a long look at what the possible sequence passing, and above the pegs may be then, and after a while, I think I had it, although I couldn’t do it, and wasn’t sure I ever would. At the top of this section, (about 10 hand moves and a thousand foot shuffles.) I had a look at the top of the climb, which was still a tad sparse in gear and difficult, although compared to what is below, easy! Well, that’s it then, game on I thought, although I also thought this game was definitely going into extra time and penalty shootout, maybe even a few seasons.
Since living in Llanberis, I’m honoured to say Adam Wainwright, the first ascensionist of The Trumpet Blowers, is now a friend. Knowing Adam reasonably well, I’m sure he is embarrassed to find out he was once one of my heroes, and, in-fact, still is. They say never meet your heroes, well in Adam’s case, this is incorrect, I always enjoy spending time with Adam and hearing his stories of the old days which is funny because Adam is quite a bit younger than me. I asked him about the name, Trumpet Blowers, and, as you can probably guess, it comes from what you would expect. Adam told me in 1993, the year he climbed The Trumpet Blowers, he had been spending his summers in North Wales and winters in Sheffield, and a fair bit of that time was in the company of Ben Moon and Jerry Moffatt. To cut a long story short, he said, in comparison to these two, and how they climbed and trained, he would have been on the substitutes bench, which if anyone who knows anything of Adam’s climbs, will appreciate is unfathomable, as many of Adam’s climbs are so difficult, to have only seen a few ascents. Adam said at the time there were folk about a lot less talented than Ben and Jerry, but who appeared to play their trumpet like they were Miles Davies, and that is how the climb was christened. (Adam still climbs, and given the tide of trumpets being blown on social media today, if he were to climb and christen a new route, I’m not sure there is a loud enough instrument in the brass section.)
Adam also told me the story of placing the pegs. George Smith, (another hero of mine, all be it a very annoying hero because his routes are too hard and under-graded) gave him the pegs, but would only give him one peg at a time. Adam repeatedly guessed the wrong size of pegs, so it took five rainy visits to eventually get them placed.
Another visit, this time with Zylo, and my new found sequence wasn’t going to work. I looked again and after much frustration, found something that may work if I could get fit enough.
I decided I had to do something radical. I had to involve someone with as big an OCD streak as myself, someone who would dedicate as much time as me, someone strong and technically gifted, someone who may find an easier sequence. But I needed someone older and more easily scared than me so they may take as long, if not longer.
Another visit, this time with Mick Lovatt, the perfect man, or at least, the perfect man for the job. At the end of the first session together it was interesting to find that Mick, who is very talented and who has climbed hard sport routes for years, (and years, and years, and years…) had not discovered a better sequence than the one I had, and he had struggled, so maybe this route was as difficult as first thought. But he was hooked, my plan had worked.
We had another visit, but in the time between visits, I had done an Adam, and visited in the rain, on my own, and replaced both pegs like for like. Mick and I had decided we would do this, but when Mick snapped the right-hand peg by pulling on it, it made the decision for us. So, with the new pegs in, a lead was on the cards, and by cunning and strategy, the like that has not been seen since a game of chess between Stephen Hawkin and Brian Cox, Mick was on lead. I belayed, comfortable in the knowledge that if my peg placing skills were unsatisfactory, it wouldn’t be me plummeting to the ground. Mick led the bold bottom section, slow, controlled, before reaching up, clipping a quickdraw to the new shiny red sling and clipping the rope. He was looking good, but I didn’t shout encouragement, it wouldn’t help my plan if he actually did the thing, I really wanted the pegs to be tested. He traversed right, puffing a bit, but eventually manged to install quickdraw and clip the rope on the second peg. Good job I thought, but he was beginning to look a tad red in the face and you could tell what was about to come was playing on his mind. Good I thought, it really wouldn’t do if he didn’t test those pegs! He pulled, he threw a somewhat spindly, but golden leg up, and smeared a toe. He pulled again and then slipped off. What a poor effort, he had hardly tested the pegs at all!
“What a great effort Mick, well done, you should have a rest and have another go from there to see what it feels like to do those moves on lead.” I said.
“No, I’m knackered, think I’ll come down and give you a go.”
“OK, no worries, good effort.” What a wanker!
I had a go and fell from a couple of moves higher than Mick, the pegs held, so I had a rest and went again, almost getting through the crux sequence, before plummeting onto the pegs which held. Open season on The Trumpet Blowers.
Another visit and it was this visit that my plan to get Mick involved payed dividends. On the previous visit, it became apparent how difficult placing a quickdraw and clipping the right hand peg was, which in turn made significant inroads to energy levels. Mick checked out a different sequence for placing the draw and clipping it, and it made a difference. With this in mind, I decided to let him off for the poor peg testing on our previous visit.
Bloody hell it was hot and humid, but hey, take it while you can. Mick again went first, and nearly reached the crimp, but flew off. I went and greased off even lower. Mick went again and fell at the pegs. We sat around, I brushed off the ticks crawling all over my ankles, and then, (because I’m not very good with insects that like to burrow into my body) had another go, and before you can say bitey little buggers, I was once again beneath the pegs.
No chance. No chance. Too humid, too warm. I screamed and lunged, and somehow manage to hold the open-handed thing. Smearing feet, screaming. Stand up, screaming. Throw for a hold, screaming. Readjust, screaming. Teeter, screaming. Flick into an undercut, screaming. Pop for the crimp, screaming. Match the crimp, screaming. Move toes, smear, screaming. Big openhanded sidepull, screaming. Left foot onto crimp, hang, chest heaving, and… silence. I imagined people coming from Pete’s Eats in the middle of Llanberis to see what the noise was. It would be easy to say the rest was a path… it wasn’t, but at some point, I gibbered to the top of the crag before returning, (still in shock) to the ground. Mick had another go, but fell level with the pegs so we ran away.
We returned the following week and Mick climbed it, perfect scenario really, well, maybe not, hello Dorys season!