What are the ingredients of an adventure? Something that’s out of the ordinary, uncertain, scary and exciting? Alongside these qualities, I’ve found that adventures are also learning experiences. You can’t experience the same adventure twice: once you’ve had an adventure your familiarity reduces its intimidation factor and brings it within your comfort zone. Adventure is the first step towards experience and through climbing you accumulate adventures like you do old friends – they’re to be remembered and valued.
The first climbing adventure I remember was on the sea cliffs at Gogarth; on a loose, intimidating E2 5b called ‘Red Wall’. It was my second sea cliff climb and a big step up from my first. I was with Rob Greenwood: it was my first time climbing with him. I later learned that he is in his element on steep, loose and scary terrain. He was someone I should have felt safe with were it not for that occasionally irrational thing called fear. I didn’t understand how Rob could stand above the route with his ear-to-ear grin, happy and impatient to begin, whilst I quivered with fear at the prospect of abseiling over the edge. It was only pride that helped me to overcome my fear and abseil in. Nothing felt more committing than abseiling off that cliff above the loud and turbulent sea, knowing that my only honourable escape was to climb out up the loose, talcum-like rock, three pitches away from the safety of the cafe.
I remember shakily embarking on the first, easy pitch of ‘Red Wall’. I wandered around on the big, hollow flakes, losing the line of the route after only 20 metres of climbing. Nevertheless I ploughed upwards, sweat dripping in beads down my face as my arms weakened quickly through over gripping the holds. I finally reached an uncomfortable belay and created a complicated anchor on inadequate gear, the ropes tangled like a fishnet. Rob quickly followed and led the next pitch, a wild traverse on loose rock. I followed, cursing the horizontal nature of the pitch, until, all of a sudden, I was off, arcing through the air screaming. The flake I had been holding crashed into the zawn some two seconds later making a huge booming noise. I was rattled. Once I reached the belay I bottled out of the next pitch and allowed Rob to take the honours. What made this all the more surreal was the way the onlookers took photos, laughed and watched birds only 100 metres away, while I felt that my life was in danger and my head ached from the anxiety of the situation. I wanted nothing more than to be sat at home watching TV. When we finally topped out, four and a half hours later, I never wanted to see a cliff again, let alone climb one.
It was only later, when I recounted my story to others, that I thought maybe that day on ‘Red Wall’ wasn’t so bad. Soon enough, I found myself beneath other sea cliffs, only this time they didn’t feel quite as scary.
A year and a half later and after a lot more climbing, I found myself camped beneath the Grand Capucin, high in the Mont Blanc massif. It was an adventure I had planned the previous winter, at a time when I was left housebound by a broken collarbone. I’d persuaded my friend Francis Blunt to join me; very fit and strong, he could also teach me how to stay safe on alpine terrain. It was still a daunting proposition embarking on something big and new like that. Moving outside my comfort zone once again the night before our ascent, I struggled to sleep in the thin, cold air of the glacier, doubts surfacing and creeping into my head.
We embarked on our intended route early the following morning, having made a recce of the approach and climbed on the lower part of the face the previous evening. I’d never climbed in the Alps before and we chose to climb the Grand Capucin – a stunning golden pillar of granite rising up from Glacier du Geant – as our first route of the trip. We were using a diagram topo of ‘O Sole Mio’ from an old guidebook, following a friend’s recommendation. Several parties had already started up different routes around the side of the pillar but the main face, where we were heading, remained remarkably quiet. The first few pitches went well, even if they did feel a little harder than the grades suggested on the topo and we soon reached the Bonnatti ledge where we had lunch. The climbing above looked steep and difficult. The rock curved out of sight making the route appear even longer than it was and we still had twelve pitches remaining. Our spirits were high though. We were buoyed by the sunny rock and enjoyable climbing, which combined to outweigh our trepidation for a while.
Two pitches higher, we reached an impasse. A pitch that ought to have been straightforward went through two imposing roofs. The pitch was graded 6b, but it soon became apparent that it was far more difficult than we were expecting. I went for it, blasting through the first roof to a resting place below the second. This roof was an altogether different proposition. I made it through by resorting to some terrifying and very strenuous aid moves to turn the lip with 350 metres of exposure below. I reached a belay feeling mentally and physically drained and quickly realised that we were well off-route.
We headed up the easiest and most obvious ground for a couple of pitches until I recognised a feature on a different route 40 metres to the left along a slopey break. I traversed across, really concerned now about what I was getting myself into: I had no idea of the difficulties that lay ahead. Thankfully, more holds and just enough gear encouraged my progress until I finally reached the belay, a welcoming pair of bolts. Francis made an awesome effort following the pitch with a rucksack and we finally reached a recognisable route, the appropriately named ‘Gulliver’s Travels’. It was some two grades harder than our initial objective but still just about within our abilities. The next pitch was tough but thankfully a slabby wall, which is my favourite climbing style. I then made the punishing mistake of misreading the route description: from what I understood the next pitch was a relatively easy one. I leapt at it, sprinting up the laybacks, barely stopping to place any gear until I reached a point two feet below the belay ledge where I couldn’t move. My gear was now over 20 feet below me, the holds I was on were too poor for my diminishing grip strength. I couldn’t climb down, I couldn’t climb up and I definitely couldn’t place any gear. After a terrifying few moments, the rest of my strength left me and I took the inevitable plunge 50 feet down, bouncing gently off the rock beneath where I’d started. I was fortunate and quite exhilarated by the fall, but Francis who had belayed out of sight, had stubbed his toe badly. I returned to the rock and finished the pitch and soon Francis joined me after following the pitch in a great deal of pain. We were only four easy pitches from the top with plenty of sunlight left but the decision had to be made to descend.
We later learned that we had actually started on the wrong face of the pillar, following the topo on a totally different line. It was no wonder the climbing felt difficult! Although this mistake sounds ridiculous, the topo description didn’t mention what face the route was on and the first few pitches we climbed loosely fitted with the topo diagram. Instead of shaking us, I felt this adventure had actually been a success – barring Francis’ minor injury – and made us a stronger team. We had committed to a difficult Alpine route, tried our very hardest, gone off-route and had a minor accident, but we had managed to recover from the situation safely with enough time to walk back to the Col du Midi and attempt another route the following day. We learnt a lot more from having had that adventure – despite the fact we failed on our intended route – than deciding that the route was too difficult for us: it gave us confidence for the rest of the trip.
By continually staying within your comfort zone, you can miss some of climbing’s most beneficial and rewarding experiences. It’s worth remembering that experience isn’t just gained through time, but by the way you use it. Adventures are one of the best ways in gaining experience. By moving out of your comfort zone and trying harder, you force yourself to progress by adapting to unfamiliar, challenging environments. That’s what I’ve learnt from looking for adventure and why I continue to do so.
This article first appeared in Climb 80, October 2011 in the ‘Vertical Diary’.