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A while ago we [UKC staff] asked what kind of articles you would like to see on UKC. Thread Here. I hope we've covered quite a few of them. One of the requests was for me to write about my experiences of on-sight trad climbing. What follows is an account of a recent brush with Gravediggers E8 6c - an accidental on-sight attempt.
I was supposed to be doing Grond E2, but instead found myself facing the crux of Gravediggers E8 on the other side of the valley.
I had packed my van with a few extra hand sized cams for Brown's classic jamming crack, and driven down the Llanberis Pass. Arriving at the Cromlech boulders I met my climbing partner for the day Neil Dickson along with Alastair Lee and his friend Ian who were there to film him for the new film On Sight Trailer Here. They said it was too windy for the top-tier of the Cromlech: a wise decision as Neil wanted to attempt Rumblefish E7 which catches all the wind going. So Grond was also off the agenda: a pity as I have always wanted to do it.
Neil suggested an alternative E7 in the Gravestones area and we trotted off down there. I was all geared up for belaying, while Neil looked every bit the rock star. He cruised Over The Beach and my ropes came tight all too soon. I seconded badly, with cold fingers and not much enthusiasm, snapping the only remaining protection peg with my foot. Neil had really pulled out a very bold lead.
We were then joined by an ever energetic Pete Robins, who came bounding up the hillside after work. His enthusiasm is contagious and I soon found myself casting about for a suitably easy route that I hadn't done. I didn't find one. It's funny climbing with a film crew around. Although they're a laid back bunch, the truth is they want to see some action: I didn't look that hard for an easy route.
The Llanberis grapevine had informed us that Gravediggers was a bit of an eliminate and would actually be a great E7 with a side runner in the neighbouring crack line of Pretty Girls. It was 'definitely possible' to place this bomber runner from Gravediggers. Options were discussed and I guess Gravediggers was kind of my idea, so I was chosen to go first. As Neil put it:
”Just like in war – the weakest get sent to the front line, so I guess that means you're going first Jack!”
Cannon fodder. What was I doing here? These two guys were the real deal. They were good. They didn't get pumped or scared – they didn't fail on tricky E4's like I did, they didn't have a hard time on 'proper routes'. I'd just got lucky on the harder routes I'd done, they were reachy, they suited my lanky frame, they were all soft touches. I don't on-sight E8's, no-one does.
I knew no details of the route except the guidebook description – 'the crux is at the top' and 'the wobbly flake wasn't used as a runner'. With that info and our special beta about the 'definite side runner' firmly at the front of my mind, I gingerly started up the easier cracks to get established on the route. It's not an E8, cos you'll get a side runner. It's not an E8 cos... - no matter how many times I repeated it, the mantra didn't work.
I climbed the first few metres with a mental technique that I call 'denial'. I've mastered it over the years, telling myself - 'I'll just go a little higher, then I'll retreat'. I edged up inch by inch, keeping the denial going until I reached the halfway rest. By now I was scared, even though the climbing was very easy and well protected, obviously the E8 bit hadn't kicked in quite yet.
Looking up, I could see the hard climbing was about to start and threw in a solitary wire. Thinking I was going to get a cheeky side runner (or more likely fail before I got much more height) I saw no need to back this wire up (I was getting pumped). At this point I had no real intention of going very high – this was an E8 after all!
Then the auto-pilot kicked in and from somewhere came a sort of rush of determination. Is that what people call 'The Zone'? I was grabbing laybacks, hanging slopers and slapping for edges – suddenly I'm right up at the wobbly flake – way above my solitary and poor wire (it was actually a good runner, but the fear had morphed it in to something else). I looked up and was hit by a nasty 6c sequence pressing down on me hard. No holds, no gear, wait... the finishing jug is tantalisingly close, just a couple of moves - but with it, the poison kiss of a ground fall if you miss. My breathing quickened; fight or flight - and my eyes scoured the rock, they burned into it, stalling on every useless detail as I desperately searched for an escape. I was committed and out of my depth.
Squirming around on the loose flake, trying not to pull it off, my mind raced. I looked everywhere. I couldn't go down - it was too hard to reverse, there was no way I was going up and the fabled side runner was well out of reach. I was thrown totally off sync – no side runner and I suddenly realised I was trying to on-sight an E8. Shit. Shit. Shit. I was unprepared for this, both physically and mentally.
The over-gripping was filling me with lactic-acid-lead. My arms weren't holding out much hope for the 6c sequence above. Indecision after indecision; can I get that side runner? I must be able to – stretch, strreeettch, slipping, no, shit-I'm-going-to-fall... Shit. Skid back on to the flake, the pump rising faster. Shit. Shit. Shit. What the f*ck am I doing on an E8? I can only climb E4, this is way too hard. I've got no chance. Shit. Shit. Shit.
If only I could get that side runner, maybe going feet first? Stretch again, same thing happens. Shit. Now I've really blown any chance of latching the crux – I'm totally pumped - idiot. The tentative grip at the base of the loose flake changes as the hands lose strength. Caution to the wind and I'm cupping the loosest and best bit of the hold, really leaning on it with all my weight. It's moving a bit too much... F*ck. Will it come off? I don't care any more, anything to relieve the pump.
Looking down at the fall, checking the runner, it looks too far. Will I hit that buttress? Will the wire hold me? God, I should have backed it up. Shit. Why didn't I back it up? Why did I climb this high? Fingers begin to unravel on the flake now. Instinctively a sport climbing rest technique kicks in – a sense of limited calm returns as I loosen the grip, use the thumb, hang on the skin and buy myself a few more seconds.
I look up at Alastair who is filming me. I know he wants me to take a big fall or to succeed – exciting film footage and all that, I feel some pressure there, a guilt, but it's so small beside my own pressures. I feel bad because I know what I'm going to ask him for and I don't want to, but I do want to. Swapping hands rhythmically on the spike gives me a few more seconds of holding time. Again I glance down at the wire below and I put it off just a little longer, then the inevitable; “Throw me a rope!”.
It takes forever (in reality he's pretty quick), he's joking and sorting the rope. I've left it too late to ask, I can't hold on long enough, but I had to wait for my demons to battle it out, I had to know the fire was completely extinguished before I could ask for it. So this is it, I've wimped out but it's too late... I've blown it both ways – I've got to take the fall and I've chickened out, given up, too scared.
“I'm on a countdown!” I shout – urging him to hurry as my fingers start peeling.
“A countdown to disaster?” he jokes, with a word play on the grit route. F*ck. Shit. I look down and prepare for the fall. The rope hits me and I clip in. Phew.. but..
“Don't weight it yet!” he shouts as he's tying it off. Jesus. My arms explode. I can't hold on any longer and my exhausted body slumps on the rope, just after the knot is tied.
Back at home and I feel worse for giving up then I would if I'd have bashed myself up in the fall. The pain is more intense and a funny, dull gnawing keeps me awake. I'll have to go back and I'll have to go back soon. Why? Possibly ego, pride or something like that. I really don't know. I'm thinking about it a lot.
I know I can do it now. The holds seem bigger, the jug nearer. The resting place seems better and the fall seems shorter. I'll have more gear in next time. I know there's no side runner so I'll make sure the belayer can run down the hill. Neil said he thinks it looks pretty safe. It's probably not really E8. I've got a good chance next time. I really can do it... I think. Can I?
I have since been back on Gravediggers and I was a lot more mentally prepared for the route. Did I get up it?
"Don't tell 'em everything Jack, or no-one will watch my bloody film!" - Al Lee - Posing Productions
Jack Geldard high and dry on an on-sight attempt of Gravediggers E8 - courtesy of Posing Productions