About me:

Originally from Hull, I now live in Llanberis, North Wales. Totally addicted to climbing, I work at the Indy Climbing wall and as a freelance routesetter to fund my dirty habit.

7 June 2013

The Long Blog Post

In the two weeks running up to our trip to Hoy I lost the will to climb. Even on sunny days, the idea of cranking up some pumpy wall, or sitting on some sunny belay ledge, stopped seeming like fun. I couldn’t really put my finger on what was going on... Maybe I’m subconsciously preparing myself for Hoy? Maybe I’m getting old and I can’t face it anymore? Maybe I’m subconsciously cowering away from the impending challenge? Maybe my brain is just tired? Maybe the pressure of having less than no money is finally getting to me? Maybe I’ve realised there is more to life and I’m wasting my time? Maybe my days of climbing are over?? 

After a week off, one thing tempted me onto a rope. I went to have a crack at a big link on Main Cliff with Tom Ripley in an attempt to re-establish some kind of psyche. I seconded Emulator first, all the while dread encroached. At the top of Emulator, my fate was sealed. I went to have a go at ‘the link’. I managed to get up the direct start to Alien, but mid-way through the main section of the pitch my mind buckled with an almost audible snap. I knew I had to do Skinhead next. I was pumped (was I really?), it was greasy (was it really?), and every move was a fight against myself. Doubt had me by the bollocks and I conceded.

I’m positive that the ability to override fear, doubt and general concern is directly proportional to passion and desire. My passion was gone just in time for The Long Hope Route.

Three days later, George, Caff, Bransby and I were on our way North. I’d torn my bicep bouldering the day before, which, as frustrating as it was; provided a superb get-out clause should I need it. I had no idea how it would feel to climb on, but the soreness while sitting in the passenger seat didn’t bode well. We stopped at a service station for breakfast No.2. As soon as we pulled out of the services my untouched, three-pound coffee dived from the cup-holder pouring down my leg and the door into a gritty, brown puddle in the foot well. Fortunately, it didn’t scold me that would’ve been a nightmare.
We rocked up at Tunnel Walls in Buichaille Etive Mor (It might be there, I’m just guessing?). Caff and Ben cruised up Romantic Reality (E7 6b), to the extent George had thought they were on an E5. Meanwhile we climbed one of the only bolted routes on any Scottish mountain crag, the wonderfully crimpy; Uncertain Emotions (7b), and the extreme rock classic; The Risk Business (E5 6a). My bicep only hurt on undercuts, I began to feel a little psyched again.

George on pitch 1 of The Risk Business (E5 6a).
We stayed overnight in the CC hut, where I bumped into an old friend, Adam Harrison. He and his mate were staying up there for a month or so, mopping up Scottish classics every day. This sounded appealing and I wished I could do the same. Overnight I’d gained a dickie tummy and a bit of a cold, I was beginning to feel like The Long Hope Route might fall off the cards.

We arrived at the ferry terminal on Tuesday morning to learn that the ferry was cancelled and would not be running again until at least Thursday. I felt a warm wave of relief, but I quickly realised this was just the puddle of coffee sloshing over my foot as the car span around and we made for another ferry port.

Me on Pitch 2 of The Risk Business (E5 6a). George Ullrich photo.

We arrived on Hoy to be greeted by strong winds, self-proclaimed and unofficial judicial independence, a desperate attempt at a tourism industry and a baffling, poetic pamphlet quote; ‘To take the head of all their big talk, pay attention to the wise Hoy hawk’. We all pondered this clearly very poignant message as we drove, packed like sardines, to Rackwick Bay Bothy.

Packed tight into the car on Hoy.

We awoke the next day to ‘a mild breeze’. Caff and Ben had left already to work the Headwall pitch on TLHR. George and I decided to begin our time on Hoy with a saunter up the E5 on Britain’s biggest sea stack; The Old Man of Hoy. When we arrived at the top of the overlooking cliff, I could barely stand in the wind, but we reasoned that, having four climbable faces, at least one must be out of the wind. At the base it transpired that our best bet was the East face via The Original Route (E1 5b). I was surprised at how sandy the route was despite being one the most sought after routes in the UK. I had my first fulmar encounter of the trip and it took about fifteen minutes to negotiate the black-eyed bastard. Near the end of the pitch I came across a wide break with a ‘foul gull’ every metre or so along it. Here I learned how to drain a seagull. I was buzzing at the top. It’s such an amazing feature to climb; the ground drops away 140m to the sea on every side, the tiny elevated island epitomises, or generates, an awesome sense of achievement. 
We abbed back down the route with strong side winds. On the final abseil we threw the ropes and the pair of them, two 60m lengths of rope, blew straight out, perfectly horizontal; barely fluttering in the constant gale (totally true!). Even as we abbed down the line the ropes were still suspended diagonal by the incredible, invisible force. Wild!
We stashed the bags and boulder-hopped along the beach to check out some big unclimbed cliffs. There were hundreds of lines, but generally the rock was poor, or the line terminated at half height etc. Eventually we found a stunning 50m arête leading to an equally stunning 50m overhanging crack or a really compelling stepped crack feature (similar to Fern Hill at Cratcliffe). We decided we would definitely return with a rack. If we couldn’t do it, there was a big tiered wall with cracks and chimneys which should give ‘the best HS in Britain’ to do instead.

The Old Man of Hoy.
We hiked back up to the cliff top, legs knackered. George was psyched to go and have a look at St. John’s head, another hour or so uphill. I reluctantly went with. After about forty minutes my legs were like jelly. I hadn’t done this much walking for a long time. I was close to giving up on the walk, concerned I wouldn’t recover for days. I plodded on trying to keep up with thunder legs Ullrich. Any landmark you aimed for never seemed to get any closer. I felt pathetic. We finally made it to the viewing point and holy shit, it was huge. Videos and photos just don’t do it justice. It spiralled away to a foaming oblivion at the raging fringe of the briny. The awkward twist gave a natural vertigo-like visual as you peered down; the whole structure propped up by a screaming Beaufort 10. Hundreds of Fulmars swooped around the head like satanic sentinels and searchlights flashed across the wall through gaps in the cloud. It was an organic Auschwitz. Tolkien’s third tower.  An impregnable fortress of nature, riddled with physical and psychological repulsion. My tired legs gave me a heavy, human, feeling. We stumbled back to camp, my arm felt better, I’d stopped shitting everywhere and I needed a new excuse to not go back!

I woke up to the sound of rain, glorious play-stopping rain. Caff and Ben hadn’t had a chance to climb yesterday because the winds were too strong. Caff’s eagerness to get on the route was palpable. I felt the opposite. We drank brews and ate custard creams all morning until it became obvious we were consigned to a day of shopping and tourism. The island’s shop was shut with a note in the window saying; ‘Dr Tibbert’s funeral, all friends welcome.  Shop closed all day. Sorry for the inconvenience.’ We drove off down a street lined with cars, a peculiar site for such a small village. We passed rows of mourning faces on black frames until we were nose-to-nose with a car of disgruntled men on a narrow single-track road. We realised we were amidst the precession. George pulled off to the side, out of the way, only to land us all staring straight at a black car containing Dr Tibbert’s Oak retirement lodge. And that’s how we became Hoy’s most popular visitors.

That evening I was reading a book about a young lad who’d gotten into surfing. As he got the hang of it, the local surfing guru invited him to go and surf ‘Ol’ Smokey’ with him. He found himself questioning whether he could do something ‘serious’, or whether he was simply ‘ordinary’. This summed up how I felt about The Long Hope Route. As the young protagonist rode a fifteen-footer followed by an even bigger wave of euphoria, I realised I had to sort out my head. I’ve been preparing for this for months. I’ve come all the way here for this. I do want to do this. I am ready.

Ullrich surfing outside the bothy one evening.
The next day, the weather had cleared and the wind was ‘calm’. George and I planned to go do the new line, then ferry all our kit up to the top of St John’s Head, ready for an attempt the next morning. After about an hour of George trying to force a line up the arête we conceded that the rock was too weak in the damp conditions. We had a foray around the wall on the other side of the arête which looked much easier, but the wall was guarded by a not quite negligible twelve-foot of blank slimy rock. We backed off and went to climb ‘the Best HS in Britain’. George whipped up the first pitch at HS. I set off on the second, but I could barely get off the ledge. Any face holds peeled away like mud, the cracks widened with force; a pointless shit-fest! We made a simultaneous abseil over an arête where old tat marked a previous escape. After a few moments, like a tense scene from the Chuckle Brothers, we were back on the deck with two failures to hand. ‘Oh I know! Why don’t we try The Long Hope Route tomorrow?’

I felt excited and surprisingly relaxed as we cooked up an enormous pan full of pasta. Tomorrow was the day for all four of us. Adam Long had arrived ready to get some snaps of Caff and Ben in action. I was chopping some Chorizo, being conscious not to knock the pan of boiling pasta off the table... Arghhhh!!! I fled the room flailing, panicking, dancing. I tried to brush the water off as it sizzled down my calf. My leg felt on fire. I ran some cold water on it, pleading for it to be ok. It was not ok. An hour later it continued to scorch inside. I rang the Doctor. He was dead. I rang Orkney Hospital. It was recommended I stand in a river until it stopped burning. It was 11:30pm. We were supposed to leave camp at 2am to start the walk-in. The attempt was cancelled and I felt more glum than relieved.

The next day, I awoke with a hot, red leg, savage dehydration and a cold from standing in a chilly river for twenty minutes. I planned my escape from the island. George and Adam were walking up to watch Caff and Ben in action, so I decided to join them and leave the day after. When we arrived at the viewing point around 1pm, Caff and Ben were already high on the wall. I couldn’t believe it. They looked so small and distant and made the wall look even bigger. I wished I was there.  We watched them through binoculars, it felt intrusive and voyeuristic. On this calm sunny day the wall appeared much more inviting, still intimidating, but more goading than foreboding. My thoughts seared with the same heat as my leg. I felt guilty for letting George down and I wondered if everyone had noticed how scared I was about trying the route and thought I’d staged the whole thing. I doubt they did. What a fucking annoying mistake. I genuinely wished I could have a crack at the route now. We were sitting for a couple of hours, the flame of resentment was gradually dowsed by the sun. I thought about how it would feel to be on the wall with a sore leg and a cold. Would it make much difference? ‘Shall we get up at three then George?’ The penny dropped and he gave a huge grin.

George's Rock Scuplture and my wood sculpture outside the bothy.

1 comment:

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