In 2005 I was given the choice between love for a woman and selfish commitment to climbing, I chose climbing.
Unknown to me at the time, I had just made a decision of such scale that I would spend the next four years battling with myself over it. By leaving her in order to fulfil my climbing ambitions I created a void in my life that I am yet struggling to fill. At first I suffered badly with depression, partly created by losing her but also as a result of my epilepsy medication. I had to fight my way through the darkest days of my life during the months following the split, until I started to discover that by pushing myself on the rock I could escape the depression, if only for a short time. At last I had something to aim for.
At first I didn't realise that I had a good head for bold routes, I was just climbing them without really thinking about it. But then I went climbing with some talented local lads who pointed out my gift for scary routes with encouraging statements such as “you're going to die young”. Rather than taking this as criticism I embraced the fact that I felt comfortable where others didn't and decided to actively pursue this facet of climbing. I guess also being lazy and having only one hand, it stopped me having to faff too much with gear.
“I had to climb something that would not only redefine my climbing limits but also myself...”
I started to try harder things at my then local crag of Quadrocks, where the hardest line at the time was an unprotected E3 arete. I hadn't climbed at this grade before but I was climbing with good people and my mind was in the right place to attempt this route. I foolishly thought that I'd be able to walk away satisfied after climbing this and feel I'd done enough soloing, but I was very wrong. The feeling which followed came almost close to how she made me feel and was to become my addiction. My friend Tam had belayed me during my pre-practise of the E3 and had noticed an unclimbed line to its right. With new found confidence after the E3 I decided to give it a go and it went protected only by a dodgy micro wire at E4. Almost without thinking about it I ended up doing a stack of new routes there, most of them solo and above bad landings
Between 2006 and 2008 I was stuck on a plateau at E4, the rest the rest of my life becoming a cycle of messy relationships, drinking, dead end jobs, moving in murky circles and depression. After a particularly bad break-up and another bout of depression I decided I had to climb something that would not only redefine my climbing limits but also myself.
I had climbed Fast & Furious at Newtyle Quarry numerous times when someone jokingly suggested I should solo it. It may have been a joke but it planted a seed in my mind, which took root and grew. Fast & Furious is a dry tooling route on an overhanging slate roof graded M10+. It's pretty damn hard and to add to the interest the rock is friable. I soloed it twice using a trail rope to lower off but I knew in the back of my mind it would never be a true solo unless I was 100% committed to it with no way of escape except to finish or fall.
On my third visit to the quarry to solo I felt quite sick about the risk I was taking but I never once questioned it. I knew that if I didn't at least try this I would only regret it. During the solo I entered another headspace, one where all else is black and silent. Only the rock and my picks matter here, it's simple; live or die.
“I was attacked by two idiots with bricks... I was too old to be drinking and fighting in the street...”
It may be seen as a big risk chasing this feeling, but for me it's worth it as nothing in normal life comes close. In many ways I struggle with this as trying to live an ordinary life after reaching such intense highs seems not only boring but near impossible. Even my closest climbing friends, those who fully understand the risks involved and the mental challenges, think I crossed the line by soloing Fast & Furious. I'm glad I did it but it didn't allow me to quit soloing as I hoped it would, it merely fuelled the appetite of my demons.
In late 2008 I was attacked by two idiots with bricks. I decided that at thirty I was too old to be drinking and fighting in the street and too old to be staying in the town I was born in. The time had come to get off the roundabout. If I was going to make anything of my life it had to involve climbing. Due to my disabilities and the tightening of building site regulations I could no longer do labouring work so I visited the Jobcentre for help. As a disabled person we have the career options of the worst jobs possible, I have friends in prison who, when released, will have better options than me. I found a job in Nevisport Fort William and the decision was made to head North. I burned a lot of bridges behind me on the move so even if I wanted to go back to my old life I can't.
In April 2009 I moved to Fort William and instantly felt at home. I moved into a doss with local climbers Blair Fyffe and Tony Stone. I couldn't fail to get psyched living in this house. Also living nearby is Dave Macleod. Climbing with Dave over the years has helped me realise what is possible if you can not only push physical limits, something I learned from Scott Muir, but mental ones too.
A day cragging in Glen Nevis with Dave and a conversation about risk changed the momentum of last summer. E7 had always been my ultimate aim in soloing rock but it seemed an almost impossible dream, something I would spend my life striving for. Little did I know that would all change in a few short weeks.
First, I set my sights on the amazing line of Fingertip Finale (E4) in the Glen. It's badly protected and bold so it suited me, it's easily one of the best routes I've ever done. After this and the risk talk with Dave I decided it was time to up the ante. Precious Cargo is the E5 variation of Fingertip but with bomber gear before the crux. I tried it on top-rope and got frustratingly close but no cigar. I began to worry that my climbing would stagnate and I wouldn't move on from E4, it was time to try something else.
“I am preparing to solo the hardest route of my life on a Saturday night instead of going to the pub and I love how that feels.”
I had been to Upper Scimitar in the Glen the previous year, climbing Dave Cuthbertson's slab routes. I did the E4 then tried the E5 of Where The Mood Takes Me, but it was beyond me at that point. I decided to have another look and managed to climb it fifty percent of the time - with my left 'thumb' slipping from the hold just as my right hand grabbed it. I reasoned with myself it was worth a try and so was Precious Cargo. I went back and top-roped Precious Cargo again and found a way through the crux but if I slipped on lead it would result in a compound fracture of my already disabled left hand.
After a nervous day at work a team from Nevisport headed up the Glen, all with the focus of me completing my first E5s. The team psyche was great and had an astounding effect on me. I headed to Where The Mood Takes Me first as it was in the shade. It went well with only the expected 'thumb slip' adding to the heart rate. Then it was down to Precious Cargo, it went like a dream and even the torque move where I risked the fracture seemed easy and painless. Keeping the right company can have a very powerful effect on what we are capable of achieving.
It's the following weekend and I am back at Upper Scimitar looking at the E6, Jahu. Being here makes me realise how much my life has changed in a couple of months; here I am preparing to solo the hardest route of my life on a Saturday night instead of going to the pub and I love how that feels. Paul Diffley from Hot Aches is here to film, Andy is here for photographs and a few mates are here for the laugh.
This time though it seems very serious. I walk away from everyone, try to cut out all external distractions and try to engage the mental triggers I use to get my head in gear for hard and dangerous routes, basically I just think about not being with her. I approach the route under a dark and threatening sky and start to climb. I reach the crux and it feels wrong, my heart speeds up, I feel my palms sweat. With some relief I down climb and just as I say "I'm not quite ready" and "I'll take ten to re-focus" the rain starts. I know it's going to rain for at least a week, I'm too far gone, too keyed up to just walk away.
I go for it. My heart pounds like a drum as I commit to the crux, it's real now. Then, just as quick as it started, it's over and I'm sitting in the rain, ecstatic and free of myself for a short while.
The rain didn't stop for two months after that and during this time I decided E7 was too close to not at least try before the end of the season. Dave MacLeod and Gaz Marshall had climbed a Julian Lines slab route on Hells Lum called Firestone, described in the book as bold and devoid of holds and protection. “Perfect for you Kev,” they said.
Eventually the rain stopped and my mates Fran and Kieran were able too come too. We headed into the Cairngorms on a windy but stunning day. On the walk-in I was a little confused about how I felt, knowing that if I were to be successful in soloing this route then I've reached an end point. E7 is where I've always said I would try and stop soloing. I felt almost sad about it but at the same time I knew I could potentially leave a lot of 'emotional baggage' behind and try to move on from that empty feeling of lost love.
As soon as I arrive at the crag I know I can climb this route. After a few top-ropes I realise I'm doing it differently every time so I decide to just go for it. I'm encouraged in a strange way by the knowledge that Gaz fell from the crux, got straight back on and climbed it, then hobbled home. On the first attempt I fall from three metres up, on the second I don't get off the ground. After that I feel the anger and I throw myself at the route. I've never been so ready to sacrifice so much so willingly before but the slight possibility that I may fill the void she left is too much to resist.
I reach the crux and feel the comforting and familiar cloak of darkness and silence envelope me as I step left to the crucial smear. I tickle two fingernails along a tiny hold, another adjustment, one more hard move. I almost fall but catch the final move and the world re-appears. I run up the last few metres and it's over. I feel so alive.
E7. I finally feel as if I've justified the choices and sacrifices I made all those years ago, yet the void she left still remains.
I've realised I can't stop soloing, I still have the relentless hurt that I have used to get this far, and I can try to go further. I've messed myself up pretty badly to do these solos, struggling now to form any relationship I might get hurt in or not be willing to walk out on, to protect me and my climbing. I also struggle to settle into jobs because they cannot provide me with the intense highs and brutal lows of the past few years. I need the lows to fully appreciate the highs, only by not being with her did I begin to appreciate what she meant and that lesson was learned too late.
Many have thought I am suicidal for the things I have done but they are very wrong, only by being so close to death on these occasions have I truly appreciated life and found contentment. For me this has been the biggest realisation of my soloing career, to find that being content is all I want in life. It's a pity it only lasts a short while before I have to move onto something harder. I wouldn't encourage anyone else to live this way, but it has had a hugely positive influence on my life and I feel I'm getting close to breaking through to the other side of the dark place I've been in for way too long.
VIDEO: Kev Shields soloing Firestone - E7