(Not so) Hard Grit

[Missing photo!]

A pleasant day's cragging at Froggatt Edge last summer - it's getting towards the end of the day and I'm thinking about that one last route before heading home. An inviting looking crack catches my eye, not too tall and perfect size for wedging hands, feet and protection alike. I check the guidebook: Diamond Crack HS 4b** “8m. The slanting crack gives a fine exercise in jamming - steep, strenuous and well protected. A popular route for logging your first flight time!” Sounds interesting, 2 stars and comfortably within my grade - this is the one.

The ritual begins. Gear on the harness: a place for everything and everything in its place, tie in then sit at the base tying the laces on my battered rock shoes while in my head I'm already on the route above, picturing the moves and planning where I'm going to place protection. I stand up and glance to my belayer. “Ready?” “Ready,” I reply and turn to face the crag. A quick final check of knots and buckles then a dusting of chalk on hands and I pull up onto the rock.

The moves are strong but comfortable, the protection is solid and the crack is just as good as I knew it would be; I'm enjoying the climb. Then a couple of moves up and reality bites back with a jolt - my right foot is stuck! I'm not in imminent danger of falling, but I can't move and in those few brief seconds as I wiggle it and tug it to no avail, a practical corner of my mind begins to weigh up the options. Then just as suddenly, I'm free and all thoughts of an embarrassing top-rope rescue are banished. I'm confidently climbing again, the momentary panic forgotten.

I'm nearly there, another move and now the belay stance is just a foot or two above my head. Only something is different. Where lower down I had a solid hand jam, I now have my whole right arm braced as the crack flares wider and I'm hugging tight against the rock like one of those Garfield toys stuck in a car window. Unable to reach around into the crack to place a bit of gear (if I'm even carrying anything large enough) my left hand futilely searches for something solid enough to allow me to free my right but the balance is all wrong for that. My heart begins to beat faster. The last protection is below my feet, there's not a cats chance in hell of placing more and I can feel my strength ebbing away rapidly. It occurs to me that I could well fall here and with a wry half-smile I remember the guidebook reference to “flight time”. For the first time mid-route, I wish that I was wearing a helmet but it's a bit late now and that practical little mental voice interrupts my musings. Its decision time: go for it, one last unprotected move to top out or just give up. It has to be now; if I don't choose right now then fatigue and gravity will choose for me.

It's getting late, I'm tiring fast and for a second I contemplate how easy it would be to simply relax, let go and allow myself to fall. But then a stubborn, competitive, sheer bloody-minded part of me yells an emphatic “NO!” that echoes inside my skull, and the tired, scared part cowers back to a dark corner of my soul. A fatalistic acceptance washes over me: if I fall then I fall – and it seems a distinct possibility - but it is NOT going to be because I wimped out and let go! The adrenaline surges. This is it: no half measures, all or nothing. If I don't give it everything then I'm sure to fail and I have a split second to hope that it is enough before I take a breath and make the move. I'm committed now, no going back... left foot into the crack, step higher with the right and pull hard upwards...

It's a bold move to top out, but not as difficult as I'd anticipated it might be from my somewhat precarious position below. The mixture of triumph, relief and adrenaline is intoxicating as I stand tall for a moment before taking a few steps back from the edge and slumping down against the rock. With arms pumped and hands shaking, I take a few moments to slow my racing heart before I can do anything. I call down to say I'm safe and set about anchoring a belay. My second follows and after my own challenges on the route, secretly, selfishly, I'm a little gratified that she just doesn't romp up like it's a walk in the park. “Good climb. You know I really thought you were going to fall off on those last moves there” she says when we finally sit together at the top. “For a moment I really thought so too” I reply.

So am I scared off climbing hard now? Nah, roll on the decent weather – I can't wait to get back out again!

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