The Aspirant Mountaineer

© Mark Salter

Tryfan from Llyn Caseg-Fraith  © mr mills
Tryfan from Llyn Caseg-Fraith
© mr mills, Nov 2008

'Grooved Arête' on Tryfan, Snowdonia

Listen: I want to climb a 13 pitch Spanish mountain in 5 months time and I don't want to fumble, shake and whine. I want to climb it like a mountaineer. So far I've never shared a lead of more than 3 pitches; I've never had to route-find; and I've never had to climb with a heavy rucksack on my back. This is why I have to do this today.

Start from the beginning - when it grabbed me. In a deliciously hot pub, escaping the icy cold of tent space: feeling hurt after a dismal bad-head day on a crag that should have given out more; feeling disappointment and frustration at the continual stop/start of progress towards that day in Spain.

Doubt creeping in fast and furious - Am I too ambitious?

Best to have a quiet day tomorrow: play around on the confidence- building Little Tryfan and then home by tea time.

I'm flicking through a shiny guide book and something in it catches me, keeps me there, and becomes an important and pressing thing. It sinks down into my gut to become a hard desire – a 'want'. I want to do Grooved Arête and I want to do it tomorrow. It has my name on it: A three star classic of 8 pitches of HVD. Suddenly the world turns. Failures are put in the trash bin. 'That's what I really want to do tomorrow' I say, expecting nothing, to no-one in particular. 'I'll do it with you', says Dave - the man with a sense of humour blacker than the rubber on my rock shoes. Perfect. Good company and experienced enough to be an asset rather than a hindrance to my learning curve.

Is this what mountaineers do? Rise early, laugh at the unseasonal snowfall on the summits and the evil north wind already biting fingers, spread out shiny gear to choose a minimal load for optimum efficiency, and bicker over the choice?

For the masochistic sake of improving stamina I take on the lead-weighted rucksack and he takes the ropes. I've forgotten I've been running around Snowdonia for the last 2 days making the most of an unusually good window of weather, but on the way to the Heather Terrace my body remembers and it's more than complaining – it's shouting. We're scrambling up through boulders and heather, away from the path, and I'm sweaty, breathless and my calves really, really hurt. 'Shall I take the rucksack?' he asks kindly, noting my red face and inability to speak. 'No'. I'm resolute – but not for much longer, eventually realising it'll be useful to have a smidgeon of energy left by the time we get to the bottom of the route.

Grooved Arête is sitting quietly in the sunshine and the wind. Irritatingly there are others there already, but they're off and away like mountain spirits while we do the first ritual of the day – adorning the body with gear. As they disappear over the slab and flake I can see they could be helpful: they can do the route finding for us. But is that cheating? It is, but my route finding skills aren't destined to be strengthened today: it's so polished it looks as if a giant slug has left a shining trail up it.

Now it begins. I'm not thinking about the day ahead, just what's in front of me. Up onto the first pitch, free of rucksack but laden with enough bits of metal to feel the pinch and drag of the harness on my hips. I ignore the polish, stick in the right gear in the right way, put in the ropes in the right way and find a belay point and make a decent belay. Suddenly this is coming together. The routines are no longer a tick list -they're almost routine.

While I'm contemplating the High Definition view and doing a quick overview of my climbing career, I listen to Dave arguing with the rucksack and an unhelpfully shaped slab.

Eventually Dave squats on the broad terrace in mentor mode and we discuss how to accomplish a speedy turnaround at the belay. We swap the shiny tools of the trade quickly (and the rucksack), and I'm soon following him up the second pitch, getting used to the way everything takes so much more effort with a monkey on your back. More of a scramble than a climb, it's all over soon. Another quick swap at a generous belay ledge and I'm off again, amazed how it's all flowing, how warm it is despite the pockets of frozen hail hiding in small dark places, and how possible it all is. Is this how mountaineers feel?

But then it all changes and I become the smallest and newest child in the school. It's a long, long way down past this flaky rib to the blue dot of my tent in the campsite at the foot of the mountain. The welcoming handholds have faded out to become miserable wretches of their former selves. But this is why I have to do this – to feel that exposure and ignore it. Multi-pitches in the Avon Gorge and Wye Valley don't touch this.

I'm wondering why this pitch doesn't look as polished as the others - and I'm wondering why this no longer feels like a HVD. My head wails: 'Off route. Off route', like the most persistent alarm call in the world. My worse nightmare: adrift on a furtive E1. Peering over the rib into a deep groove I can see where the slug has been before. A small and fiendish move over the rib into the groove solves the problem – but then I'm faced with the polish. Not sure which I prefer: the close proximity of the drop-off from the rib or the polish in safety of the groove?

Knights Move Slab  © Mark Salter
Knights Move Slab
© Mark Salter, Jul 2008
Dave's bored by the unchallenging fourth pitch so I let him do the next to keep him quiet. Here the rib turns into an arête and then into overhanging blocks. He goes steadily up but then, just before the unpleasant looking tumble of downward jutting blocks, he down-climbs for some 4 or 5 metres for some reason, not sounding happy. He veers off to the left and then disappears.

The pitch looms up in front of me and I'm resentful of the uncomfortable weight of rucksack – its downward pull is wearyingly distracting. My arms and legs feel heavy and sluggish. Is how unfit mountaineers feel? My ambition is still biting my arse and I follow the gear up to steep and exposed arête from where Dave turned back. It narrows and then there's the overhang. The movements require delicate balance, and the rucksack has turned into an evil dwarf squatting on my back. I try unsuccessfully to forget the exposure, my tiredness and the dwarf. With relief I see I don't have to climb the overhang, just simply move left over the arête – as quickly and smoothly as possible into a more comfortable zone, which I do... and then start to breathe again.

As I make the last easy moves towards the belay, I hear Dave say he's inadvertently run two pitches together so the next, the crux pitch, with the appealing name of 'Knights Slab', is mine. In the pub I'd already conceded the point that he could take the 'prize' pitch, so this is a gift from him. But at this point I can't pull out the required amount of enthusiasm from either my head or my body. I don't want to face the stress of the challenge and I know my exhaustion will make me climb badly. I say: 'No, it's OK– you do it'. Do mountaineers have to make these decisions and do they feel this disappointed in themselves?

It was the right choice... and it all ended well, despite the fact I was disgruntled not to see a chauffeur at the top of the climb, waiting to whisk me away to a hot bath and food – a feeling revealing my under-estimation of the sheer physicality of a mountain day. It's so much more than climbing. There's a lot to be done if the Spanish mountain isn't going to eat me up for breakfast, and I get the feeling that 5 months isn't that long in the life of a part-time aspirant mountaineer.


fishinwater  © fishinwater
© fishinwater
Sarah Flint (aka fishinwater) writes a bit, climbs a lot and prefers to be outside rather than in some office staring at a computer.
She got bored with her previous obsession, gardening, a few years ago, and found the strength and fitness developed in the 13 years she had been head gardener, suited climbing perfectly. Since then she's been greedy to cram as much climbing experience into her life as possible.
Where before she wrote about vegetables, she now likes to write about all things climbing and is keen to share the learning curve of her new addiction. She's based in the south west which is ideal for popping out to a crag before lunch and whenever the addiction calls.
She has a blog on called 'Off the Wall' which is mostly about how not to climb.

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29 Jul, 2010
I think mountaineers spend less time worrying whether others will perceive themselves as a mountaineer and more time enjoying the easy VDiff that they're on.
30 Jul, 2010
Scrambling through heather? You do know there is a perfectly good path up to Heather Terrace don't you? Or is using paths a sign of weakness?
30 Jul, 2010
There is? When I went up years back the approach involved much scrambling through heather, soloing up a steep gully, backing off what we retrospectively realised was a route up some corner chimney thing, then popping out into the sun on the terrace somewhat unnerved...
30 Jul, 2010
Yeah. IIRC it's easy to miss the start of it, but once you are on it then it is a bit of a motorway. To be fair on this occasion I was the one telling her that paths were for the weak :)
30 Jul, 2010
There are two! There's the one that goes right before the fence and up the deep, short gully with steps, and one that goes right after the fence and up a scree/boulder fan. The first time I went to Heather Terrace I missed both and ended up squirming up the bottom section of Bastow Gully.
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