Craig Matheson has made the third ascent of If 6 was 9 E9 6c at Iron Crag in Cumbria. Established in 1992 by Dave Birkett, the line waited 15 years for a second ascent by Dave MacLeod (UKC News) and almost as long again for Craig's recent ascent 12 years later.
The route is described in our logbooks as 'A desperate pitch up the frightening black wall in the middle of the buttress,' with 'F8a+ climbing and a fixed RP and poor blade peg.'
Craig added more frightening context to this fierce line:
'It takes a fingery overhanging wall, broken by a wide ledge at 1/3rd height, which is conveniently placed to arrest a fall from the crux above! The hardest moves are actually reserved for the lower section, but these are relatively well protected (which is why you sometimes see the route given E9 7a). The higher you go the more serious the situation becomes, so when you're cranking the last few 6c moves towards the break, you're on your own, with that ledge waiting menacingly below.'
The decision to go for the lead was carefully considered by Craig, who knew that he had to be 'bigger than the climb' to ensure a successful and safe ascent. Commenting on the process of preparing mentally and physically for such a route, he told UKC:
'Repeating any route that involves bold climbing is about being in control. Control simply comes from the climber being more capable than the route (for example MacLeod talks about his 9a route climbing fitness, making the route justifiable to lead). That 'margin' will always vary from climber to climber, but you need a margin in order to succeed. On If 6 was 9, 'the margin' constitutes both a physical and a mental component: Physically - can you climb the route? It's F8a+ on small holds, with the crux hold at the top being the least positive of all. A shortfall on your physical ability means you're climbing into oblivion like a possessed lemming! Mentally - can you cope knowing a fall from the final moves will be life changing? Is your mental conditioning able to suppress the body's automatic response (known as panic) when you're on the final moves?'
Thankfully, Craig's margin was sufficient. He explained:
'The route went smoothly with the fingers firmly latched to each hold and nice calm/static reaches deployed to make upward progress. The only unplanned event was a foot slipping on a hold below the crux, a factor most likely attributed to my ice cold toes!'
If 6 was 9 - like many of Birkett's routes - has seemingly intimidated Britain's best trad climbers over the years. Craig explained that this goes with the Lake District territory, with which he is well acquainted as a local climber. He commented:
'The Lake District is a tough school when it comes to trad climbing. At each grade there tends to be one or two routes that hold reputations for 'seeing leaders off'.
He listed examples of the most notorious testpiece climbs in the area:
E1 – The Bludgeon, Shepherds Crag, Borrowdale (Ross/Lockey - 1957)
E2 – Extol, Dove Crag, Eastern Fells (Whillans/Mortlock - 1960)
E3 – Sarcophagus, Gable Crag, Wasdale (Whillance/Armstrong - 1977)
E4 – Fallen Angel, Pavey Ark, Langdale (Grindley/Roper - 1972)
E5 – SOS, East Buttress, Scafell (Botterill/Lamb - 1978)
E6 – Incantations, Tophet Wall, Wasdale (Whillance/Armstrong - 1984)
E7 – Borderline, East Buttress, Scafell (Sowden/Berzins – 1986)
E8 – Caution, Gillercombe, Borrowdale (Birkett - 1992)
E9 – If 6 was 9, Iron Crag, Thirlmere (Birkett - 1992)
Regarding the grade of If 6 was 9, Craig confirmed Dave Birkett and MacLeod's opinions. He told UKC:
'My grading is generally on the harsh side, but even so I would not suggest anything less than E9 6c. It's not physically the hardest of the Birkett routes (this is reserved for Welcome to the Cruel World), but as a combination of physical difficulty and mental challenge this ticks all my E9 criteria.'
In September, Craig made the first repeat of Birkett's Another Lonely Day E8 6c on Scafell East Buttress (UKC News).