Runnel Vision – An expedition to find adventure

© Alun Richardson

In 2018, I joined Mike 'Twid' Turner, Steve Long, Angus Kille heading out to climb a remote big wall in central Brazil. The objective was to establish and free climb a new route on the south face of Pedra Baiana. However, the expedition ran into problems from day one. We arrived in Rio to find civil unrest in the streets, the shops empty and the petrol stations barren. Strikes had brought the country and our expedition to a total standstill. Over a week behind schedule, we finally headed north out of Rio but found ourselves stuck in countless roadblocks, diversions through favelas and large-scale protests. When we finally found the wall we had such little time left that any efforts seemed futile. We worked feverishly, living out of our D4 portaledges, pushing as hard and fast as we could, inevitably coming up short exhausted and frustrated in equal measure. We vowed to return and finish what we had started.

The 800m south face of Pedra Baiana   © Simon Nadin
The 800m south face of Pedra Baiana
© Simon Nadin

The return trip was planned for the same dates in 2019. However when the year rolled back around Steve was out in Mongolia delivering a UIAA training course and Angus was setting up his own instructing company, focusing on work for the first time in his life; neither could find the time to come. This left just Twid and I for the return trip. We knew more firepower was needed if we were going to have any chance, so Twid rallied some troops and Shaun and Simon joined for round two on Pedra Baiana.

James Taylor lead bolting on hooks during the 2018 expedition  © Rob Johnson
James Taylor lead bolting on hooks during the 2018 expedition
© Rob Johnson

Once an objective has been set, the mission of any expedition quickly becomes one of logistics and a game of odds; how are we going to get ourselves into the right position, at the right time, and how are we going to make success the most probable outcome, once we are there. The logistics are often a boring set of budgets, permits and access issues, but for me, stacking the odds in our favour is possibly the most interesting part of an adventure. This is where training, dieting, experience, tactics, ethics, gear and countless other variables come into play, loading the dice to land for success. Undeniably the people you go on an expedition will affect the outcome beyond any other single variable. Knowing that I was heading out to Brazil with three mountain guides and a big wall veteran/ex-world champion felt good. The team put my tactical and safety concerns to rest, I was in good hands, however, I did feel like this year the team was missing one critical element; a super strong free climber.

Left to right: Shaun, Twid, James and Simon. Standing on the summit of Pedra Baiana  © Shaun Hutson
Left to right: Shaun, Twid, James and Simon. Standing on the summit of Pedra Baiana
© Shaun Hutson

Shortly after getting back from Brazil last year I belayed Angus on his hardest trad route to date, a route that needs no introduction: 'The Indian Face', at Clogwyn Du'r Arddu. After the long and foreboding march up Snowdon to arrive at the foot of the cliff, Angus chose to a rope down the face for one final practice of the crux before going for a lead. He didn't even have to try. I stood at the bottom watching Angus climb the whole crux of Indian Face in his Scarpa approach shoes, with a pack on his back, whist pulling slack through a gri-gri. My jaw was on the floor. I have climbed with Angus quite a bit, but after that day out at Cloggy, I can vouch that Mr Kille is a total ninja on slabs. Climbing with Angus has always put me at ease. It's nice to be on a route knowing you have a secret weapon like Angus with you; it feels like whatever happens the odds are in your favour. I always take more risks and put myself on the line knowing I have a rope gun to pick up the pieces if I fail. There are a lot of lessons to be learned about that team dynamic, I often refer to it as going out climbing with a 'safety wad', but almost always end up doing more dangerous things as a result. I felt very exposed on this return trip without Angus the 'safety wad' with me. I felt like I was now having to fill the role as the young free climber, I felt I had a responsibility and had nowhere to hide.

Angus Kille and James Taylor waking up at dawn, ready for another day on the wall in 2018  © Rob Johnson
Angus Kille and James Taylor waking up at dawn, ready for another day on the wall in 2018
© Rob Johnson

Last year one big question mark was left lingering in my mind; would the connection pitch go free? In 2018 Twid had made a bold move. He decided to leave the ramp that led diagonally up the wall and aim for the nearest runnel. This decision was partly forced by the diminishing nature of the ramp which had led us to this fork in the road. Twid has a few thousand new routes to his name and trusted his instincts to guide him, taking the line directly towards the hanging features above. This decision is where the route gets its name 'Runnel Vision' and where the question mark in my mind came from. The holds Twid could see leading towards the runnel ran out after 50m leading to a blank-looking slab before the runnel began. I knew this slab would be where the battle to free the route would play out, representing the most uncertain section of the face.

I took it as my mission to free climb this slab; that's the reason I was there, to continue the free climbing from where we left off last year. Simon and I worked like dogs to find a passage through the maze of edges and nubbins, swinging around the wall, cleaning and bolting our way into each feature searching for a way to connect the dots. I have heard people use the metaphor of a jigsaw to describe climbing, fitting the pieces together to complete the picture- how nice and playful. The jigsaw Simon and I were putting together had no picture, few pieces, and every time we did make some progress, the puzzle would snap or crumble off the face of the earth. It took two days for Simon and I to give up on the hope of free climbing this slab. We soon came to the realisation that the route would require a pitch of A0 if it were to exist. I came down that night feeling despondent. I was sore to the bone from jumaring, cleaning and working on that slab for two straight days. Having that self-imposed responsibility to free the hardest pitches meant that in my mind the prospect of an aid pitch was directly my fault. I lay in bed that night feeling like I had failed the whole team and the trip. Where was my 'safety wad' to pick up the pieces and complete the puzzle?

James Taylor free climbing a 7c+ pitch in the lower dykes 2018.  © James Talor Collection
James Taylor free climbing a 7c+ pitch in the lower dykes 2018.
© James Talor Collection

A much-needed rest day came with a wave of guilt and confused emotion over the failings on the slab but ended with a new fire in my belly. This was partly to do with the Brazilian food but mostly from my drive to prove myself useful to the team. With renewed energy, we attacked the runnel feature, cleaning and freeing as we worked higher into its open arms. I led the first runnel pitch up into one of the steepest parts of the wall, stemming and pushing as hard as I could on the sides of the runnel to keep myself from pinballing down. The fire that was in my belly was now firmly residing in my calf muscles as I slumped onto the belay unable to talk properly though the amount of effort required to climb the single pitch. Blood was oozing from my fingertips where I had pushed the skin away from the nail, pressing on the walls to maintain my tenuous position, my palms were raw and starting to bleed from the effort. The next 400m was not going to be easy.

James Taylor leading the crux runnel pitch - 8a  © Alun Richardson
James Taylor leading the crux runnel pitch - 8a
© Alun Richardson

The crux came halfway up the runnel, a particularly flared section in the steepest part of the runnel with no foot or handholds to soften the relentless walls. Twid was belaying me at this point and after two failed attempts I began to doubt my ability and turn my thoughts inwards once again towards failure and negativity. Alun the cameraman, Twid, Shaun and Simon didn't seem phased at all. Why were they not worried about the prospect of failing to climb the route? We had spent so much time, effort, money and energy to get here, somebody please panic! Why is nobody but me panicking? Why are they smiling? Somebody else please fucking panic!

Then the penny dropped; this is the essence of adventure, the unknown, that's what we are in the midst of and that's what these guys live for. That's why they are smiling. My new age apprenticeship in climbing clouded the raw experience of being halfway up a big wall, with friends, trying hard and working as a team.

Perhaps that's the last lesson I learned from the old guys, to zoom out and enjoy the whole process rather than attaching success or failure to the arbitrary rules of free climbing. My thoughts about the game of stacking odds and wishing for a 'safety wad' to send what I can't, all seemed so silly right there with those smiling faces all around.

Over the next three days, we pressed on up the runnel and into the upper reaches of the wall. As the angle eased off, we passed hanging guardians filled with flowering cacti and golden hummingbirds, our vertical desert began to come alive again. Each pitch was successively easier than the last as finally, the wall started to lean back. Shaun led the last two pitches onto the summit as the sun dropped below the distant peaks of Minas Gerais, our efforts finally coming to fruition.

In the end, 18 pitches were free climbed, including the crux runnel pitch, establishing "Runnel Vision" (8a/A0) 800m. The team spent several nights on the summit and redpointed some pitches on the descent. Although it may be possible to free climb the remaining slab pitches I won't be returning. My adventure on this wall has finished.

The trips were sponsored by: D4 ledges, Rab equipment and wild trail snacks.

Twid: DMM Wales, Rab equipment and D4 ledges.

Angus: DMM Wales, Rab equipment and Scarpa.

James: 3rd rock clothing.

Angus Kille is a British climber and AMI Mountaineering Instructor based in North Wales. Angus is famous for ascents of hard UK trad routes, including The Indian Face, and has also climbed sport 8c.

Angus's Athlete Page 10 posts 2 videos

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21 Apr, 2020

Who is this petrol stations baron?

21 Apr, 2020


Great article by the way, I enjoyed it. That runnel looks absolutely desperate

21 Apr, 2020

Yeah, great article, sorry the first reply to it was a bit flippant. Sounds like quite an adventure.

21 Apr, 2020

Don't say sorry! We could all use a bit more flippancy these days. And I liked i.e. enjoyed your post anyway :)

21 Apr, 2020

Ha ha Oops! I'm really dyslexic and words like barren & baron, whether & weather etc etc always get me.

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