In this article, Kev Shields, a Scottish climber with just one fully working hand describes the process of him finding, cleaning and climbing the first ascent of a bold new E7 in Glen Nevis. The process of doing this helps Kev escape from the feeling that he is being hunted...
“Kevin your life as you knew it is over, you’re going to have to think seriously about quitting climbing”, the surgeon continued speaking, not grasping the weight of his words. The words were like a good punch to the nose, shock, confusion, anger. I’d smashed my ankle some years earlier when I fell trying a new ice climb and after a few operations and bad advice I was in a bad way, ankles, knees, hips and back all showing signs of wear due to imbalance, not helped by a lifetime of countering for only having a partial left hand. I thought after leaving the hospital what life without climbing and the mountains would mean for me, it was a few hours spent staring into an abyss.
The alternative was to ignore the advice to quit and at least continue trying to climb regardless of the now constant pain. A long winded phone call with my philosophical Dad confirmed what I already knew...
Dad - "Right whit these c***s sayin??"
Me - "A’m f****d."
Dad - "Don’t you be f*****g quittin' climbing!!"
Me - "Nae chance Da."
Dad - "Gid, stick in, see ye later."
The choice was simple; either I could fall into the abyss or accept that I was going to have to deal with pain daily, man up and crack on, Dad's motivational chat made the decision easier.
First order of business was to find a project that got me keyed up enough to push myself. After looking at a few existing lines I realised that I had very little appetite for established lines and that I was becoming more and more psyched to climb new routes. There are plenty out there but finding one that ‘suits’ my disability makes it a bit more tricky, then I remembered one in particular...
I’d seen a route a few years ago but it was beyond my reach at the time so I headed up to Glen Nevis by myself one day and threw a rope down next to Edgehog, a classic E3 arete on Wave Buttress. After a bit of inspection the slab to the right looked just on the possible side of impossible for me. The lower section looking to be the hardest climbing then lack of pro was the next obvious problem.
I hadn’t climbed anything I considered truly bold for around 2 years with surgeries, injuries, recovery and rehab always getting in the way. My first day on real rock after a long recovery from an ankle fusion went a bit awry as when filming a mate attempt his first E2, he fell and broke his back. I had to go out climbing the next day to make sure my head was fine. Winter took hold and the slab was wet all season so I tried to concentrate on winter climbing but the ever increasing pain led me to stop spending much time in the hills before I became a burden to my mates, a truly hard decision.
As winter receded I waited patiently on the slab to dry and eventually it was game on. After a great day out with Dave who had recovered quickly from his broken back I was back up at the route. Next few visits I was up there alone brushing and just getting to feel relaxed with the crag itself. Soon after that Steve Holmes moved to the area and we started to head to Wave regularly as he was keen to climb his first E5 and a route up there called On the Beach fitted the bill for him.
Aware of the psychological battle yet to come I knew I’d stand a better chance if I had led something else bold so after an aborted attempt on an E7 I climbed a new E3 with less than optimal gear and even with a mistake on the crux sequence and dropping a bit of pro my head remained steady which bolstered my confidence.
It made a huge difference having Steve at the crag regularly with both of us fired up for our routes the psyche was high. I began to work out most of the route but the lower section still eluded me, I almost considered traversing in from Edgehog but adherence to some kind of personal principle forbid that, then MacLeod came up with us one day. He figured out an extremely tenuous but possible way through the seemingly blank section, I only just managed it on top rope but the following day I tweaked it a little to suit my hand better. No excuses now, I’d linked the route so it was time to put on my big boy pants and wait for suitable conditions but at the same time hope it happened before the midges arrived.
A few sleepless nights followed then the day came, I picked Steve and Dot up at 5.30am to allow us time to get the crag in cool conditions. After two top rope attempts I knew it was time. I walked away and put my iPod in and began the mental process I use before hard leads. Soon enough I was ready and tied in, a nod to Steve and I left the ground. I had decided to place a single 00 Friend to the right of the tech crux instead of directly below it with the thinking that if I fell off then I’d slam my stronger right side into the opposing wall instead of my weaker left side taking the impact my theory being that I could withstand a bigger hit on that side, I’d be up the creek if I broke my right arm though!
I moved quickly to the 6c crux moves and upon trying the first move I backed off not quite ready. Five minutes later I went back at it with everything I had, fingernail crimp, smear my left hand on and roll it so one of the scar lines (from previous operations) folded and gave the impression of grip, tenuous footwork, throw for another slightly bigger fingernail edge, more scar line smearing and a big rockover and I’m through. I’d broken the route down into sections and that was the technically hardest bit done, next placing the skyhook. The trouble was I was balanced on two smears and the placement was well out to my left, I can’t place gear with my left hand so had to lean way over my left foot with my right hand to place then knock the skyhook on, heartbeat thumping in my ears but I felt in control and strangely relaxed. Another crimp and yet more scar smearing, it’s amazing what can be used as a ‘hand’ hold when the mind tells it so. Moving further away from the skyhook I knew I was pushing out a lot for me personally but I felt a sense of belonging there that I hadn’t felt anywhere else for some years. I was one move away from the bomber Friend placements and kept moving slowly, being too keen to reach safety here would be disastrous. Friends placed, Steve and Dot becoming more vocal in their encouragement, all of us knowing it’s almost in the bag, another 12 feet then one last move and boom it’s in the bag, almost 5 years since my last E7 I at last relax.
I named the route Cu Sith (pronounced Coo Shee), which was a huge, mythic wolf-like creature that hid in the rocky outcrops of the Highlands to carry souls to the afterlife against their will, upon hearing its three howls your days were numbered. I named it this in correlation to dealing with depression, being hunted by something, dark, menacing and usually out of your control but can be escaped with a bit of a fight.
Kev Shields is sponsored by Wild Country
- Break on Through 13 May, 2010