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Room 101 - Toby Dunn's Worst Climbing Experiences

© Toby Dunn Collection

Toby Dunn casts his mind back to ten climbing experiences of which he's not proud: overly enthusiastic interpretations of forecasts, climbing offwidths without a top, and partaking in some extra-curricular bouldering activities, amongst other things...


The following are a few of the climbing experiences which aren't necessarily the most positive, although I'd take any of them over, say, having to work behind a desk nine to five (well, probably). They certainly aren't the worst routes by any means, more a testament to the fact that with the undoubted satisfaction of climbing goes considerable frustration, and it is impossible to have one without the other. I was too incompetent or cowardly to derive a lasting sense of being a honed rock hero from these routes, but I'm sure many, far more heroic than I, would have a great time on them.

The author experiencing the friction slab of Needlespoon (5.10aR), Tuolumne Meadows  © Toby Dunn Collection
The author experiencing the friction slab of Needlespoon (5.10aR), Tuolumne Meadows
© Toby Dunn Collection

Needlespoon (5.10aR), Pywiack Dome, Tuolumne Meadows, California

'I wasn't sure if you were about to vomit or start crying,' my partner dutifully informed me as I gingerly, and very slowly downclimbed from the crux of one of the pitches on this route. Needlespoon is a clean, shining grey friction slab on a dome with a beautiful view down over Tenaya Lake in a stunning and easily accessible alpine environment. The rock is solid, the weather was perfect, I was climbing with a great friend and trusted climbing partner, so what was my problem?

As it turned out, I was totally lacking any confidence whatsoever in my ability to climb a properly full-on friction slab. I discovered, years afterwards, that friction slabs are easy, in the sense that they are physically easy (up to a certain level at any rate). However, they are all about confidence, and if you lack any, no amount of finger strength or anything else will help you.

On Needlespoon, I must have spent an age, teetering my way up the bald scoopy slab, constantly looking for an edge or a dish that I could plan moves around, totally unused to the idea that you just had to pad upwards carefully, and just keep going. My mind seemed to be incapable of tearing itself away from creating grisly images of me sliding down the slab staring down at miles of useless rope, untethered by any protection much beyond the belay ledge. 'You'd better lead all the rest of it, I just can't do this stuff.' My response was a plea as much as a statement of fact. My failure was all the more galling given how easy it all felt with the security of a rope trailing from above, and the gorgeous location.

American Beauty (7a+), Mnich, Polish Tatra

Had it not been quite as serious, the sight of my partner holding the rope in his teeth, and the rain running down the rope gushing out of his mouth like one of those snarling gargoyles on a cathedral, would have been really funny. We were trying to retreat from several pitches up the route on a clean, imposing granite spire in the Polish mountains. The experience was a testament to the result of an overly optimistic assessment of the prevailing weather conditions, and a pig headed insistence that if you've got up really early in the morning to get on a route, you're not going back without at least a go.

Now, both soaked to the skin, and trying to make an anchor good enough to abseil from as swiftly as possible, we might have been slightly less sure of the wisdom of this strategy. Any remaining dry folds of clothing were totally soaked by the gush of water squeezed from the ropes, as I fed their waterlogged flabbiness through my belay plate and descended in that disconcerting series of jerky starts that you get when abseiling on very wet ropes. After a deeply unpleasant descent, I was extremely relieved to be back on the ground with our bags, some slightly drier jackets and was looking forward to the hour or so walk back to the hut passing as quickly as possible. Unfortunately, my great friend and loyal climbing partner managed to drop one of my approach shoes down a rock crevasse while pulling it from a bag, rendering it totally irretrievable. The two hour walk downhill in soaking rock shoes was bad enough, but the day afterwards, walking for several hours back to Zakopane, although more comfortable was infinitely more humiliating - wearing my partner's flip flops, four sizes too big for me and secured to my feet with a considerable quantity of silver duct tape. Fortunately, I couldn't understand the many passing Polish hikers, who were all pointing at me and laughing.

Barn Owl Crack (VD), Chudleigh Rocks - South Face

Most people remember the first route they led. It was freezing cold and the first day of March. We owned so little rack that we used to just put one bit on each of our collective five or six quickdraws, and set off and hope for the best. Several of the bits of gear were borrowed from the PTI instructor with our school's cadets. He was old enough that he had parachuted into Normandy on D-Day, and by the look of them, so had the old machine nuts slung with cord that he had kindly loaned us.

I placed four runners on the route, a slippery, ungraceful, and unremarkable limestone chimney, at least one of which fell out before I was very far above it. I wrapped a sling around a couple of sizeable trees at the top of the route and wondered if I'd go through something that unpleasant voluntarily again.

Sacherer Cracker (5.10a), El Capitan

This was my first real trip to Yosemite, and I was really excited just to be touching the 'big stone'. I felt like a hero, as the notional crux of the route, I think it was a finger crack, passed pretty easily. Cams seemed to bite reassuringly in the glistening silver crack system. I had taken my t-shirt off, as it was such a hot day and had started thinking about what I would try next as I neared the belay and abseil anchors. Over half an hour later, my bare back was still ground into the greasy offwidth crack only feet beneath the end of the pitch. The more I tried to paw and scrabble at the rock, the more it seemed to move me inexorably and slowly downwards. There didn't seem to be any way I could make any progress, and I eventually had to retreat and lower from my highest protection, much to the relief of my now very bored partner. He dutifully reached the top of the pitch in about five or ten minutes, being American, and rather more used to climbing wider cracks than I was. I learnt never to shirk clothing when approaching a wide crack as for several weeks, my back looked as though I had fallen off a motorbike and slid across a road at great speed.

Pantagruel (E5), Daddyhole Main Cliff, Torquay

Pantagruel isn't a route I'd recommend, it really embodies one of the least welcome combinations of characteristics in a rock route, having little, if any worthwhile protection, being extremely loose, and in places quite steep and pumpy. Desperately crimping spongy edges while my feet seemed to knock off more footholds than they sat on, I was definitely not having what qualifies as a good time. Sitting gratefully on the top of the crag, lashed to a number of sturdy gorse bushes, I felt no sense of satisfaction, but rather a slightly nauseated regret and guilt at even having set off.

Smokers Arête (V6), Skyland Boulders, Gunnison, Colorado

Skyland is one of the most beautiful places I've ever bouldered, a really pleasant reasonably lengthy walk in adds to the idyllic alpine isolation, and the boulders are perfect solid orange granite. I got quite a way up Smokers Arête on my first attempt, and I decided to drop off to go round to check the top out. A clean fall of a few feet onto a pad on flat ground, I didn't give it a second thought. I regretted it as soon as I felt my ankle turn inwards on impact and release a loud crack. The worst decision, however, was to accept the offer of another climber's herbal stash and consume most of it in the course of the afternoon while waiting for my friend to finish climbing for a couple of hours. I succeeded in rendering myself so beyond the herbaceous border, that I probably couldn't have walked even with two good ankles. Getting back to the car park involved a humiliating crawl, and having to eventually flag down some mountain bikers, who put me on one of their bikes and wheeled me back, giggling occasionally, like a four-year-old on their first cycle ride.

Toby bouldering at Skyland, Gunnison, Colorado  © Toby Dunn Collection
Toby bouldering at Skyland, Gunnison, Colorado
© Toby Dunn Collection

The Casual Route (5.10), The Diamond, Longs Peak, Colorado.

Mistake one was getting the alpine start, but not going to bed early the night before, and realising that drinking a couple of beers until eleven or so wasn't great preparation for a 2am start from Boulder and driving to the parking lot, followed by a few hours walk in through pitch black pine forest and an alpine rock route on one of the highest mountains in the 'lower 48' states.

About halfway up the route, my partner noticed that I seemed to have gone green and was retching; we had also noted a few wisps of cloud at the top of the mountain and on advice about the lethal afternoon thunderstorms, bailed without too much hesitation. The most disappointing thing was not realising how unpleasant being unacclimatised at altitude is, but the perfect afternoon as we walked out - the wisps had been smoke from a distant bushfire drifting over the summit.

Zodiac (A2), El Capitan

Zodiac was my first experience of setting off up a seriously long route and of proper aid climbing. I found using cam hooks, skyhooks and all the offset this, that and the other far more enjoyable than I'd expected and we seemed to make a good few pitches of progress slowly, but steadily. A team high on the wall seemed to be having some sort of difficulty, and on the vast amphitheatre of El Capitan, their shouts echoed around. Their ropes seemed to loop everywhere, and their portaledge was hanging awkwardly beneath them. The shouting intensified, and the ledge began to fall, slowly and gracefully like a leaf from a tree at first, until it got closer and windmilled crazily towards the wall on a light wind gust, striking it with a deafening bang like artillery firing at us. It was followed by an intermittent hail of various other items of the team's equipment and an hour later, by the first, fat drops of what turned out to be a spectacular storm. Fortunately, we were still low enough to bail quickly and retire to the Camp Four Campground to eat our way through our wall rations, and watch a helicopter retrieving the unfortunate aspirant big wall climbers from near the top of Zodiac.

Caveman, Berry Head  © Rob Greenwood Collection
Caveman, Berry Head
© Rob Greenwood Collection

Caveman (E6), Berry Head, Devon

I've tried Caveman twice and although neither of my attempts have, unlike some, resulted in having to abseil into the sea, they have both resulted in beating a retreat as the harder pitches have been far too wet for me to have a hope of climbing them cleanly. One of the attempts ended with judicious downclimbing and traversing, then an escape ascent of Dreadnought, a classic Berry Head E3. I remember an absolutely overpowering smell of guano on the entire route and finishing it with some relief, clothes plastered in bird shit, and a considerable headache from a couple of hours of the intense stench.



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11 Feb

Thanks for posting Toby. Now what exactly is the holding power of a gorse bush for a belay? Something I have often pondered as bought up my partner!

11 Feb

Gave me laugh - we've all been there. Barn Owl Crack gave me a right giggle. I soloed it in the wintry, pissing rain in the gloaming when I was 16 and just starting out - 87/88 - rather cold and unpleasant I recall! God knows why. Just keen and stupid I suppose.

11 Feb

Brilliant article, can well relate to a number of these!

11 Feb

As soon as I saw Pywiack Dome, Tuolumne Meadows I knew where that was going. A few years back we were on exactly the same bit of rock and the friction pitches are terrifying. Run out, blank and the heat from the sun is exhausting. Memorable for all the wrong reasons.

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