It's hard writing about climbing. While it's very fashionable among those who read the climbing magazines (or have given up reading climbing magazines) to slag off the articles that they see there, it's only when you put your hand to it that you find out that - wow, this writing lark isn't easy.
Kudos therefore to all the people who entered the competition: in the month that it ran we received 30 entries from 25 people (you were allowed to enter up to ten times each, though only Paul Marshall took advantage of this, providing five separate entries.
A reminder of the other rules: entries had to be 500 words or less, and "describe your best climbing experience". The 500-word limit might have seemed tough for those who wanted to write a few thousand words about their time queueing to do Cemetery Gates on a hot August Bank Holiday, but believe us, brevity is the soul of wit in these things. Only really good writers should be allowed to ramble on - and even then we have to mention Jim Perrin. Hi, Jim!
What was at stake? A range of splendid prizes from Berghaus, Rock+Run and Rockfax.
There was no simple way to choose among the entries. We simply read them all out and then separately gave points to our favourite five. (They ought to do the Booker Prize like this - so much less argument.) Luckily this produced five clear winners, though there was a tie for sixth place. So here are the winners.
We also have to note here the honourable mentions - articles that we liked, but which didn't get enough votes collectively to win a prize. Commiserations, people, but be confident that we like your stuff - enough to publish it here: Essay Competition runners-up.
Isolation opened and I could not wait to get in. Not everyone likes isolation. I do, it's peace and quiet. After all the excitement of the qualifying climbs, the crowds, the dust and the heat, it's nice to have your own thoughts. I was the only English person in the room, but the Dutch, Belgium and French girls were really nice and we managed to have a small conversation in broken English and French. In the room some girls, like us, had formed little groups, some were with a friend and a few were either sat quietly in a corner or pacing up and down. I guess nerves are a very personal thing.
The door opened and we all stopped. The lady at the door said something in Dutch, then she said slowly, "It's time to view the route Charlie". It was not a route, it was eighteen metres of orange evil. I strained to pick out every hold. High up the route moved over a large bulge then traversed round a corner onto an overhang. The wall slightly overhung and would take its toll by the time I got to the bulge. The traverse onto the overhang looked tricky, but nothing was reachy, which made me feel confident.
I was the only girl to clean [complete] both qualifying routes so I would be coming out last. Each girl was called and we would wish her luck. We listened to sound of the crowd, the oohs and aahs, how loud the applause was, desperately trying to get a clue as to how well they did and we would have to do.
Eventually I sat on my own. The door opened and a huge bolt flashed through my body, the lady said "Charlie", I walked through the hall, people were shouting encouragement. I don't know whom or where from, it was just a bubbling pool of noise. I can't remember tying-in; in my head were two words, "climb hard".
The climb started as a F6b, but by the bulge was a technical F6c. On top of the bulge I rested. I had worked out all the sequence of moves well and had not wasted any strength. I looked at the traverse, it was F7a, I had the sequence of moves in my head, by the time I had reached the overhang I was tired. I looked - SLOPERS! All slopers, it was no longer carefully thought sequences and technical moves, it was staying on one hold at a time, fighting for grip, strength, traction, my body screaming "let go" and something deeper refusing to. Another hold then another then I'm airborne. I have failed to reach the top as I am lowered and convinced I have lost, someone must have done it. I knew I had done my best, but I felt empty.
As I untied an official patted me on the back "Well done, you won", my thoughts exploded, I had won the Dutch U13 girls championship. My first National title.
By Charlie Davis (aged 12).
So here I am again stood at the bottom of the Gospel Express, ten bolts of three star climbing. The South African sun is out and the guidebook mentions the idyllic Steeple crag, the nice walk in, the nice grassy base, the nice moderate grades. It all seems nice.
Nice! I've been here before, four bolts up the Gospel Express and gibbering like jelly. Back off and run away had been the answer then. Four months later and we're back and it's all nice again. Forgotten is the harrowing experience of not being able to move beyond the fourth bolt of a route I should be cruising up. Forgotten is the fear, the fact I climb like a donkey and the hatred for this route. This time it's gonna be nice and it's gonna be mine.
I'm off, confidence flying. "I love climbing, I love this route" is my mantra. It had me mentally beaten last time but this time I'm going to finish it. I have to win. One bolt clipped and I feel great. The second goes then the next and then I'm at the dreaded fourth bolt. I clip it, I'm there and I rest. It feels so easy and beautiful so far, maybe this time it's mine.
I'm staring at the next holds. This is the point I backed off last time; this is the point where I was beaten. The holds are positive cracks running like a staircase in the rock. Four inches horizontally then four vertically. I reach my right hand up, step up with my right foot, match hands, move the right, don't you dare be frightened the last bolt is only a metre away, step up with the left foot and go, go, go.
I've done it; I clip the fifth bolt, breathe deep and slump into the harness. Sod ethics this is war. Now the first time I tried this route I guessed this was the crux. How wrong could I be? It all gets worse and worse. More small cracks, large areas of blank nothingness, some bulges and beautiful flowing climbing await above.
At times I climb like a spider and at others like an elephant. I fly on adrenaline and then sag with anguish. I rest and wonder who the hell invented climbing. Yet I'm getting up the bastard and it's fantastic. After what seems like days I'm at the chains. One ecstatic mentally drained climber at one end of the rope and one girlfriend with neck ache at the other. I've done it.
Nice? Yes it's very nice. The Gospel Express is definitely a three star route. Three stars of pain, adrenaline, and pleasure. Three stars of why I love climbing. I've done it but there is one problem, I'll have to come back and do it again. Next time no bolt sitting. Next time I'll really fly. There will be a next time as this route is mine.
The best climbing experience I ever had, in fact the only good climbing experience I ever had, was when I was taken by deception to the forests of Fontainebleau. Sleeping in a barren field wasn't how I'd envisaged our romantic weekend in Paris. Evenings spent shivering round a paraffin stove, drinking paraffin flavoured wine, reliving the days bouldering highlights move-by-move, hold-by-hold, muscle-by-muscle. Call me mental, but to me that is not romantic. Arguments ensued, the relationship ended, but I was stuck there for the weekend.
I spent the next two days wandering alone and barefoot through the forests, scrunching the sand between my toes. If I closed my eyes and tried hard enough I could almost imagine myself on a beautiful Pacific Ocean beach, and not held captive against my will in climbing hell. I can't deny that the forests were spectacular in a fairy pixie-land kind of way, but the fairies that filled them did my head in. There was so many sweaty, swearing semi-naked men throwing themselves with gay abandon at immobile objects that I felt genuinely sorry for the families trying to show their young children the beauty of nature.
On the Sunday afternoon I was discovered on the periphery of Bas Cuvier and harangued into photographer duties. Because I'd obviously much rather be taking repeated pictures of the same move, than having nothing to do with the lying bastard at all.
Pull on, jump, slap, click, fall off. Two hours this went on for. As his tiredness and frustration ceilings and the estimated time of departure all drew closer, a weathered, white-haired and moustached old man of the forests walked over and bent down at the foot of the problem to rest the Gitanne he was smoking on a the ground. Pull on, jump, slap, hold, graceful drop to the ground, retrieve cigarette and disappear back into the depths of the forest. I used up half a role of film (36 exposure) in 30 seconds.
I'd never seen so much anger and disappointment screwed up in one face. The shirt came off, the belt came off, the wallet and watch were thrown in the sand; anything that could possibly be a hindrance to climbing performance was disposed of. He pulled on and leapt, seeming to hang in the air for an extra instant before loudly slapping the top. Simultaneously there was a crack like a gunshot and he was off again, a moaning heap on the floor, with no tick and a snapped tendon.
The Bible tells us to turn the other cheek, but revenge was mine and I didn't even have to lift a finger. It's supposed to be the first time that's the best time; maybe climbing and me are the exception that proves the rule.
Last spring I had one day's climbing in a smelly quarry that easily outshone the preceding three weeks of climbing on Skye, in Glencoe and in Devon.
With a month between jobs, a climbing injury sorted, and a rope, rack and sleeping bag in pack form I set off to hitch and climb Britain. Devon was lonely and Scotland was wet and the same forecast stopped me from going to the Peak district. However, The Lancashire quarries were perfect.
If you've never climbed in Stanworth then listen. Drew says it's where they put all the minging cracks they daren't spoil the other crags with. It has a weird fort formation with the rock rising up from the bottom of a moat that circles a central hill. And it stinks. Fate, and Lancashire county council, has left it next to a rubbish tip and a waft of decomposition circles the moat. The lambs' wool caught on the barbed wire is replaced by plastic bags and topping out can send a thousand startled seagulls squawking into the air.
We pissed ourselves as Drew inserted himself into a ropeless severe and vibrated to the top; they laughed even harder when I backed off it. Drew rolled cigarettes as he belayed whilst Ally and Jimbo sat on the central hill and took photos as I thrutched my way up the perfect off-width Amundsen (E1) pushing the friend we stole from Over-Keen as I went. I've never been more chuffed topping out.
Wally picked at the grass as Jimbo got nervous above his boulderer's five metre maximum altitude, then she waited as I rolled up my sleeves for the next photo. At the top everybody came up and Jimbo's face fell white as he pulled himself over the overhang, not daring to look at his legs hanging free above the bottomless chasm his mind had dug below. Again, we laughed.
Drew, with rolly, handbrake turned out of the car-park and we had a pint in the nearest pub. You can keep the Inaccessible Pinnacle.
Retrospectively, I know I'm going to enjoy this, but right now I'm crapping it. My stomach is churning around what little breakfast I managed to force down. I'm desperately thinking of excuses why not to, but behind me, stretching out across the enormity of the North Atlantic, there is nothing to see but blue sky. The sun isn't on us yet and the granite, sweeping up for 500 metres above me from here where it abruptly meets horizontal, is still morning-cool to the touch.
I look at Toby and say, "are you sure we're up for this?" He smiles and says "shut up and start climbing". He seems confident that we'll do okay, and this is good considering the 12 full rope-lengths, of mainly HVS and E1 granite cracks, that stand above us. It's decision time. How well can you know someone who you actually only met in person for the first time two days ago? At home, the plan had a certain appealing silliness to it: me, an 18-hour drive up from Helsinki. Toby, a three-stage plane journey from London. Meet someone you only know via the internet. Do the biggest climb of life with him. Right now, at the bottom of this huge wall, it just seems silly.
Toby has got the ropes in his belay device and is looking expectantly at me. Hmmm - roll the dice I guess. I put one well-taped hand in the crack, lock it and pull up.
The next 50 metres go in a blur of karate chop jams, the rhythm only broken by the quick placement of another perfect cam or hex. At the belay I look down and think, can I do that another 11 times? Toby is already starting up, moving smoothly. I stare out to sea, looking at the ragged skylines of the other mountainous islands that make up Lofoten. The view is superb, the air still, the temperature just right, but still my stomach is churning. Normally after leading the first pitch, it settles my nerves. If this had been Scotland I would have already done a quarter or a third of the route, but today it‚s not even a tenth. It's a big bit of rock all right.
Toby joins me at the belay, "nice lead" his says. It was as well. Would be a three-star route in its own right on any UK cliff. There's plenty more just as good awaiting us above. He takes the rack, I take the pack, and quickly he's off up the next pitch. Heading upwards into the pale Arctic sky to where the sun is turning the granite from grey to gold.
I breathe in deep, fighting back the nerves. Retrospectively, I know I'm going to enjoy this.