The hour before dawn.

Tim Neill seconding pitch 7, day two of Astrodog. The Black Canyon of the Gunnison’s South Rim.

Protected by a small green tent, wrapped inside my sleeping bag, I lie awake on top of an air matt. Outside it’s dark and cold. Clothes piled next to my head smell of woodsmoke. A diesel heater attached to the underside of van on the opposite side of the gravel track, kicks in. I turn onto my side in an attempt to block out the noise. The sleeping bag becomes a knot at my feet causing me to struggle. I don’t like waking in the hour before dawn, because any concerns I have, will choose this time to force their way in and repeatedly run on something akin to a reel inside my head. Generally, my early morning concerns are not as bad as they feel while lying in the dark, and usually by ten, they have been forgotten. It’s not a problem on this occasion anyway because I know my alarm will sound in a minute and I’ll get up.

Many people have heard about The Black Canyon of the Gunnison, but loads haven’t, it could be described as one of climbing’s biggest, worst kept secrets. For those who do know about it, The Black has a reputation, especially with climbers from the States, and I suppose, rightly so. The canyon is about 2000 feet deep with a large river running through its length. In the base, at its most narrow, its 40 feet where the river butts the base of the cliffs, and the width at the top, is approximately 1000 feet. It’s difficult to see a climb before getting on it, never mind inspect, so it’s more often than not, a case of setting out, hoping the guidebook description is correct. There are very few climbs with less than six pitches, most have eight – twelve – fourteen – twenty… On the well-travelled routes, there will be suspect rock, on the less frequented climbs more so. The climbing is predominantly traditionally protected, there are very few bolts, in-fact, there is hardly any in-situ protection anywhere, not even for belays, and once you’ve started to climb, escape (should you discover the 5.9 you thought you would float up is actually really difficult), is a mission, and a big chunk of rack will have to be abandoned. If you do have to abseil, it’ll take a few hours, or longer to get out, and the sun will beat you for your lack of staying power. Even if you manage to get up your route, you’ll possibly underestimate the sustained nature of the climbing, the effect of the sun (or cold), or altitude, and top out in the dark, or maybe you’ll have an enforced bivouac, shivering the night on a ledge 100 metres below the campground or your car.

Tim Neill and I had been rock climbing in Colorado for three weeks. Apart from two days climbing near Boulder, all of our time has been in The Black, and we still had two weeks remaining. Tim and I had met many other climbers who asked us where else we are going to climb, but when we answer that we are spending the whole of our trip in The Black, they look a little bemused, you can see they think we’re a tad mad.

I dragged myself from the sleeping bag and into the dark and cold and after a quiet breakfast we left camp. A band of cold red on the horizon teased as Tim and I walked through the scrub looking for the cairns that signified the top of the Prisoner of your Hairdo Gully (by all accounts, a nasty descent with trees of poison ivy, and an hour and a half later, we reached the river. The canyon walls tower above us. It would be an hour, maybe longer before the sun would round the rim and warm would enter the confines of the canyon. We are here to climb a route called Atlantis, a 16 pitch 5.11, but with a slightly shorter get out clause; a massive ledge leading to an escape gully after 13 pitches. We are certain we will take the escape gully because we’re not climbing quick enough to complete all 16 pitches in daylight. A few days ago, we had climbed what we were told were the best three pitches from the ledge, the final pitches of a route called Lost Cities and they were three, exceptional pitches, (for those reading this that have climbed on the Main Cliff at Gogarth, think of the best pitch you’ve done and multiply by 3) so using a modular mindset, we consoled ourselves that escaping at the top of 13 pitches was fair enough.

The dark wrapped me. I felt alone. We had climbed all day to reach this point, but this point felt significant! There was supposedly a single peg, but I hadn’t found it. I was climbing pitch 13, the one that leads to the massive ledge and the escape gully. The description for pitch 13 is wander through the pegmatite band. Wandering is OK, until it comes to wandering in the dark. Wandering through pegmatite in the dark with only headtorch light is not OK! I scrapped crumbling rock fifty feet above two tiny brass placements, when the beam of my headtorch picked out a 4ft sling with a carabiner hanging from something, I climbed a few tricky moves and then a few more thinking it was the peg. I wanted that peg. Small flakes of rock rained from my toes. I really wanted that peg… Locking-off, I clipped the carabiner and for a second my dark became bright, then I tilted my head and the beam lit a small blue cam poking from a shallow crack. The cam wobbled, held only in place by two lobes. Above, now on the edge of the light was a dagger of rock, so I continued to climb and when close enough, grabbed it. Dirt poured from behind the fang and a hollow ringing noise echoed as I tapped. In the dark, alone, my breathing condensed as I grappled and eventually placed a single wire behind the dagger. Cramp and pump and terror wracked my body. Eventually I forced myself towards an even more overhanging groove on the left, but as I did, a square handhold ripped and I was falling. I screamed, and my scream bounced from the walls on the opposite side of the canyon, but the scream was cut short as the single blue offset, wedged into dirt behind the hollow dagger, held. Tim shouted asking if I was OK. I replied I was but in reality, I wasn’t!

Pulling back up the rope, I almost laughed like some demented person but I was terrified my laughing would cause the single offset to rip-out. Tim suggested lowering me to the ledge and waiting until the morning, but a pretty bad cold beckoned, and didn’t fancy the ledge so continued up. I reached the blue offset and crammed another three pieces of gear behind the same dagger, before tensioning left while expecting everything, including the dagger, to explode. Grappling. Slipping. I jammed a microcam into a crack and grabbed it. Placing another cam alongside the first one, I grabbed the two and attempted to control my breathing. I shut out what would happen if the cams ripped, and attempted to gain some form of composure before free climbing once more. The groove was yellow and mossy and dirty, it was overhanging, but at some point, I pulled from the top and stood on a ledge knowing we were now going to get out tonight.

The pool of light provided by my headlamp lit the rock in front of my face. Numb. The ledge I was stood was large and flat, and just above my head was the massive ledge that would be our escape. I was attached to five pieces of gear, each one was perfect and strong, but at that very moment I wanted to be clipped to all five pieces. The moon was almost full, the canyon and the river at its base was bathed in eerie light. Bats flitted around my head. I took in the ropes as Tim seconded the pitch, and wondered if he was enjoying himself?

Tim and I climbed one more route in The Black before we headed back to Denver, the route was a climb called Astrodog. Astrodog was another long climb, 14 pitches, but it had a perfect bivvy ledge at the half way point, so being old and slow, we took the approach we would go prepared and split the climb over two days. Even so, when we climbed Astrodog, we still didn’t finish the second day that far ahead of the dark.

*

The rain on my return to Llanberis was a bit of a shock, but considering it was the 25th of October, the rain wasn’t that much of a surprise. I trained indoors at The Beacon over the weekend and arranged to go outside with TPM, (Mick Lovatt) on Tuesday. I don’t enjoy rock climbing outdoors in the British winter. I suffer with Raynaud’s Disease, which makes rock climbing in the damp and cold miserable, plus, I have always hated wasting time, and a lot of rock climbing in the winter is about being shut down even before you begin, but maybe that’s a lack of effort from me. I’ve also had my toes frost nipped, and stuffing cold toes into cold rock shoes feels like punishment. To top all of this, I had a cold that had begun when I was on Atlantis. The cold became worse while climbing Astrodog and got even worse while climbing in Eldorado Canyon near Boulder before catching the flight home. Since returning to Britain, the cold had turned into one of those horrible winter things, I had a daily dose of nausea to compliment the feeling of crap. Anyway, that’s enough excuses, I don’t like winter rock climbing in the UK.

TPM suggested I go over to his back yard, the Llŷn Peninsula, and go to look at a climb called The Apprentice. The Apprentice was climbed in 2007 by a long-time friend, Dan McMannus while accompanied by another friend, Pat Littlejohn. When Dan climbed the first ascent with Pat, he climbed it on-sight, a great and bold effort. Pat had attempted it before, but backed off, saying it was too difficult for him. He then offered it to Dan. Dan gave it a grade of E6, but Pat said it was E7, and knowing them both, I was more inclined to take Pat’s take on it than Dan’s. Back in 2007, Dan didn’t realise how good a climber he was. At the time, Dan told me it was a good climb, but since then, it had not been on my radar. What I mean by not on my radar is, given the short amount of years I have left to climb, time is becoming more valued, and with what’s remaining, I prefer to maximise the climbing I do. But more than just climbing any old climb, I wanted to climb good quality routes and I’ll do this by using whatever style I feel is best given the situation and the climb. Having a feeling of time slipping away has always been a thing with me, even when I was younger, and finding climbing late in life has added to this feeling. I’ve never been the best rock climber, not by a long shot, but I’ve always enjoyed my rock climbing, it enhances my life, and almost always surprises me when I manage to get to the top of a climb by whatever style adopted on the day.

I began rock climbing properly when I was transferred, as a PE Instructor in the Prison Service, from Suffolk back to Leicestershire. I was thirty years old then. On my days off I would stay with my parents, who lived in Cheadle, Staffordshire, before driving on my own to the Roaches, and on-sight solo routes, or hastily down-climb or on occasion fall off! As time went by, my knowledge of ropes and building anchors and self-protection increased, so occasionally I would throw a rope down a climb and work it before soloing it. I managed to scrape my way up quite a few grit E3’s, E4’s and E5’s this way. I even manged Piece of Mind, an E6 on the Roaches Upper Tier, which was terrifying. I can still remember pulling the final moves and sitting down, my body almost locking up with shock and terror. I almost took the same philosophy to winter, because I was psyched beyond belief. More often than not I didn’t have partners, so on-sight soloing up to Scottish VI became usual. It took a few years before I found regular partners to climb with, and when I did, it became even more scary because I threw myself at anything thinking it was now safe. Fortunately I survived those early years, but I have always taken an attitude that my time is short and I will use all techniques and methods to get the best out of climbing for me; so there are climbs I will save for an on-sight attempt, there are climbs I will ground-up, there are climbs I will never be good enough to on-sight (but I can work and lead, generally placing all gear as I go), and there are climbs I will never be good enough to climb, no matter the adopted style chosen. Some climbs I work and use as a stepping stone, so I can attempt others in a better style, some climbs I don’t care what style I adopt. Being old and more scared now, I mainly top rope routes of an E7 grade that I still want to lead and it gives me a lot of personal satisfaction to do so, I still get scared and physically they still challenge me even though I’ve worked them. I still attempt some other, safe climbs, on-sight, because I love the battle and the psychology of it, but in North Wales there isn’t much for me to go at safely, or routes that inspire me having spent the last 18 years climbing in the area, so usually I do this on trips to other areas.

Walking across the hillside above the sandy Porth Ceriad Beach it feels a stolen day. The sun is shining, there isn’t any wind, its eleven degrees and it’s great to be out. Mick has a knackered shoulder and I feel like I may vomit, but it’s still great to be out on this grassy headland.

Mick had looked at The Apprentice before by peering over the top and knows the way, so we are soon throwing gear about and having a laugh. Since this is Llŷn, with poor rock quality, and the wall has a coating of lichen, Mick suggests cleaning and throwing a lap or two on a top rope. If we have chance for a lead, great, but the clocks have just changed and it will be dark by five. I agree, like I said, the climb has not been on my radar, it didn’t mean much, but if I get a day of exercise, given the way I feel, I’m not bothered. Mick has had a great summer, he had climbed loads of routes, and he said he didn’t feel like scaring himself today. I can empathise with this, especially as I was still quaking after the pegmatite pitch in the dark on Atlantis.

“No worries Mick, I can’t be arsed to scare myself today either.” I replied.

The sun is shining; it’s warm and peaceful. Below us there were boulders and towards the edge of the boulders, a calm sea. The sand of the beach turned from an orange dark-damp to yellow. Mick had placed gear in the climb so the rope followed the line and brushed off the lichen before climbing back out. I abseiled over the edge. The climb consisted two pitches, the first being short and overhanging, leading to a large ledge, the second was a gently overhanging wall made up of snappy red rock, cracks, crumbling edges. Neither Mick nor I climbed the first pitch, we decided to climb the upper section to see how that was, and a decision could be made whether to practice the lower section, or try to lead it without practice whenever the time came. Leaving the ledge, although relatively straight forward, the climbing was spooky and pumpy because of the quality of the rock. The middle section was technical and difficult, but on lead would be well protected, and the final section was pumpy as hell due to the lack of good foot placements.

I pulled over the top of the climb with mixed emotions. I was happy that the climbing was mostly good quality and challenging, or at least the upper pitch was. I was happy we would be getting the best out of a short day. I was happy that I wasn’t terrifying myself, and I was happy that I was in a beautiful place with a friend. I did have a bit of regret that we had not attempted to have a go ground up, but we had made the decision to go in from the top and so be it, this decision felt the best for us on the day, and there were many more climbs and experiences to be had when the situation felt more suitable.

While we had been on the climb a few families had arrived to spend time on the beach. As I sat at the top someone shouted up. It was a person I know reasonably well, a climber that I enjoy meeting and chatting with. Later in the day Mick and I shuffled down the hill side and the person spending the day with his family came up. We sat in the sun and talked for a while before I staggered back up the slope for a final climb. I thought about the conversation we had been having, which was about geology, nature, climbing and a large jellyfish that was washed up onto the beach. I enjoyed the interaction and the shared experience. I like connecting with people, and enjoy the company of someone I respected.

Later, in the evening I went onto Twitter and on the top of my news feed was a picture of myself on The Apprentice and the comment with the picture was Beautiful day at Porth Ceriad today, family beach scenes enlivened by a couple of top-ropers. Now, I’m a sensitive soul, I know I am, and at times I have to take a step back and think about things to arrive at a balanced opinion. At times with my sensitivity, I know I take things to heart. I realise this is my thing, and because of this, I always attempt to look at myself first before reacting, but even after reflection, I felt upset, deceived and let down. I’m not saying the term ‘top ropers’ is derogatory per se, because it isn’t, but in this case, it was being used as some form of insult; he knew both our names, so, could have used them, or he could have just said climbers. Did he need to comment on the style of ascent being used, no, not unless he wanted to make a point. The reason he used the term ‘top ropers’ was because he had a problem with the style of ascent we had decided to use that day. We had chatted and had a pleasant conversation, and at no time had the style of our climbing come up in conversation, and he chose to wait until he had an internet audience. If he had brought up in conversation the style we had decided to incorporate on that particular day, he may have heard why we had decided to top rope the route, and possibly for a more rounded and balanced twitter post, could have included this, but in general, that’s not the way of the people who like to seek mutual approval on social media, people who get something out of turning people against people. In the past I have possibly done a similar thing, but I think I’ve become more understanding and tolerant, I’ve certainly become a more compassionate person. I prefer now to look at my own inadequacies and write and learn about myself without damaging, bullying or being aggressive to others. I think, and hope, I have now become a person who favours people instead of an ideology.

The situation for me got worse, because a good friend, whom I have spent great and valued times, added to the conversation by saying, Hope it wasn’t Bullock. It’s got good gear that. The original poster replied, Who else? Fresh from The Black. Yeah they had loads of gear in. Is that how they do trad in Wales now? If I had any doubt about my initial understanding of his post, it was certain to me now, he was making a point, and the point was he didn’t like the style we were adopting. It was also clear (in my mind) he had a problem with me alone, Mick didn’t get a mention. Not wanting to defend myself too much, but on this occasion, I feel its justified, I think I’ve done a few bold things in the past, so the comments felt unfair, and I really don’t need to defend anything. I’m always honest about the style I use on climbs, and most of the time, I talk about my shortfalls and inadequacies. Top roping is a form of climbing many people, at some time or another, have adopted since the start of climbing, and in all areas, not just Wales. Even our top ‘trad’ climbers of today and of yesteryear, people who climbed and climb a lot harder than myself, people who were, and are, a lot younger and more talented than me, top rope routes, so why is the Twitter condemnation aimed completely at me, but on saying this, the question I suppose, when this sort of thing happens is, why should it be aimed at anyone?

I’m allowed to choose to climb in whatever style I wish. I’m always honest and open about the style of ascent and it shouldn’t concern anyone, unless they have a motive or are zealots. I was never going to spray across social media about climbing The Apprentice, because I don’t do that. I struggle to big myself up about most of the routes I climb. While in the Black Canyon and Eldorado Canyon, Tim and I climbed about 90 pitches over 5 weeks, all trad, all on-sight. One of those pitches was one of the most terrifying bits of climbing I have ever done, and that includes in winter, on mountains, on rock, anywhere. I took hundreds of pictures over the five weeks, and placed four of them on Twitter, and on all four occasions, I felt I was letting myself down, but I’m a sponsored climber and feel the need to somehow pay back a little for the support I receive. I’m never going to work a route and then shout about how good I am, and I think most people understand this about me.

At times, on social media, I get annoyed with the lack of honesty when climbers post pictures or a short, hyped description of a climb, because often the true difficulty, or the style being adopted is not talked about, and the whole thing lacks integrity. Sometimes friends post things I would never post, but I wouldn’t dream of going to social media and attacking them, they are my friends. I will sit with them and chat about my feelings, or send a private message, their friendship deserves more than whatever it is I’m trying to prove by going to the crowds. Shouting to a crowd, attempting to rally support against people I care for, people I value, attempting to discredit and cause pain, is not my way, there might have been a time in the past I have attacked people but I regret this. Social media has an air of the lynch mob and its nasty when used in this way, it destroys lives, I can see this now.

My good friend then added #lame. I was really upset by his comments, more than the original posters comments, he was a close friend. I felt bullied by the whole thing, it had an air of aggression and superiority.

I think a lot about social media and the effects of social media on the individual. There has been much reported about the stress it causes to individuals, and I think its valid. When someone chooses to go to the airwaves and write derogatory remarks about an individual, in many cases, they really don’t know what affect the things they are saying has. I consider myself emotionally strong and reasonably well balanced (ha, OK, I know there is a whole crowd laughing at that one!) but this twitter episode had me awake at night and in the hour before dawn. I was thinking, almost constantly, about how unfair it was and how I felt victimised. I really didn’t like the deceit from the person who published the original post, this upset me as much as anything. I had conversations running repeatedly through my head. I decided I would let my friend, who had added his comments to the original post, know how upset I was, and I did when we met in the Beacon. I’m pleased to say he looked shocked when I told him how upset I was, his reaction showed that he never intended to hurt me, he messaged later and apologized, he said it was just banter, but this proves how damaging and how cautious we should be when dealing with social media. My friend is a great climber, he has a large following and anyone reading his comments would not know he was joking, they would take him serious, I did, and before you know it (maybe not on this occasion), but a person’s life and health can be seriously affected by ‘banter’.

I don’t like social media, I struggle with the aggression, the bullying, the intolerance. I don’t like the way the world is becoming more abusive and aggressive towards people who have similar views or very different views than those of my own. I believe intolerance and abusive language and aggression cause more intolerance and abuse and aggression, and I worry where it’s all going.

People will always have a different opinion, a different way to do things, that’s fine, but as climbers and friends, let’s talk face to face, lets solve problems and differences with compassion and understanding and empathy.

Tim and I climbed 15 routes in The Black over 4 weeks, and alongside the climbing, the people we met and hung-out with, were friendly, supportive and helpful, they enhanced our trip and our lives. The camping was quiet and relaxing, and the wildlife we encountered, enriching. The low-key nature of the place made for a wonderful time and with no phone signal and no internet, there was of course no social media… Peace.

[I would prefer anyone reading this not to go to Twitter and try to find out who I’ve been writing about, it’s not important and please dont attack anyone on Social Media after reading it, thats kind of missing the point. Cheers 🙂 ]

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8 Responses to The hour before dawn.

  1. Dave Whettingsteel says:

    Sounds like old mate is a dickhead and winding you up I reckon.

    No upside in engaging in a war of words with him.

    • Nick Bullock says:

      Hi Dave,

      Old mate is not a dickhead, he’s a valued friend (I’d prefer it if you didn’t call him a dickhead, thanks) who at times doesn’t appreciate his form of humour can cause a bit of pain, especially on social Media.

      I don’t think my post is engaging in a war of words, it’s attempting to show how Social Media, and what we say, can be taken to heart and on occasion damage. I sent my old friend a message with a link and said I would change anything he felt unfair, he is happy with what I’ve said. I personally think this thing needs talking about more, how will people realize their words can cause pain if we don’t say anything. Social Media can be a good thing, but not if considerate and moderate people are bullied and scared and become silent.

      Cheers
      Nick

      • Dave Whettingsteel says:

        Fair point Nick, my apologies for calling your friend a dickhead.

        I think the hardest thing about social media, is things you would say to face to face and in context, and would be well understood, can take a quite different meaning when in pure stark text on a screen.

        My throwaway comment above illustrates that, I had forgottten I had even said that.

        I do really enjoy your writing and hearing about your life experiences.

        Thankyou

  2. Adam Long says:

    Nick,

    Really sorry, I clearly misjudged that. I though it was a bit of light-hearted piss-taking but clearly didn’t feel that way at your end. It was indeed a lovely day and if you’d offered me a burn I’d have taken it, so no ethical high horse either (for once). Getting too old for that now, the opportunities don’t come along often enough. I am stuck in an office or on the school run nowadays so twitter is a bit of a lifeline to feel still part of a climbing community, but clearly what might have come across in a pub with a grin didn’t work so well online.

    Anyway if I’m stupid enough to over-step the mark I deserve any backlash, so probably easier to have it out in the open. I’ll try to learn from this. Hope to bump into you again soon.

    Adam

    • Nick Bullock says:

      Adam,

      Thanks very much for this message, it means a lot. You are obviously brave by writing such a considered response, which I knew anyway because of how you go about climbing and the ethics you adopt. I’m a sensitive soul, (old sensitive soul) I don’t think people appreciate how sensitive and at times, I spend long and hard attempting to get to the bottom of what people say and what they really mean. Its not helped by sitting and writing loads, maybe I look into the meaning of words too much, and at times my sensitivity makes understanding a different way difficult. I don’t want any backlash, I didn’t write this for support, or to cause a lynching, that would have been hypocritical, I just wanted to show how social Media can go wrong and how at times caution should be used, or at least for people who care, which after receiving your message, I know you do. Sorry, it all sounds love and peace, I’ll give you shit to your face 😉

      Cheers and thanks again for the message, much appreciated.

      Nick

  3. Philippe says:

    Nick. Great words (per usual). I can sympathize with the confusion and hurt that remote socialization can create. It often seems that the more ‘connected’ you are the more disconnected you become. I’m glad that you found resolve but I know the sleepless nights of wondering how a good day out becomes anyone else’s business much less an egregious offence…

    Anyway, you’re much too kind to the Black, though the bunny rabbits say they miss you and Tim. I’m off to the ice after a few weeks in the desert. Still plan to be in the general neighbourhood in a few months. Perhaps we’ll connect.

    As we say around here, you and Tim are ‘good people’. Always welcome, we need to get you to the desert soon! And for what it’s worth, I’m the only top-roper in the black 😉

    • Nick Bullock says:

      Philippe,

      I left your name out of the post as I thought it may embarrass. No, not the 800ft top roping, [which I imagine is more scary than actually leading 😉 ] , it was the generosity and kindness you showed Tim and me, you’re a star… The secret is out 😉 Look forward to putting the clips in for you on something in Spain… hahaha… as if!

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