Shit! My foot just slipped...
Please not now... Don't fall now...
|Tom Holloway, wearing his mother's tights, on the crux groove of|
Long Tall Sally on Burbage North
© Alan James
|A snowy start to the day!|
I pull the zip expecting blue skies and green pasture, and as I do the huge slab of snow that had been sitting on my tent door falls into my face, drawing my attention to the deep snow now covering the ground. Bugger.
We figure Burbage North might still be worth a look, and are pleasantly surprised. After a couple of dry and snow-free climbs, I sit down to consult the guidebook.
And there it is...
“Many people's first Extreme lead which is surprising since it isn't all that easy”
I go off to have a look without telling the guys what I'm doing, half hoping to find some insurmountable challenge that I could easily dismiss and get on with something easier.
But I find myself alone in front of Long Tall Sally, E1 5b.
And it actually looks do-able.
What am I thinking! The logical part of my brain desperately tries to make the rest of me realise that this is way more committing than anything I have done before...
My train of thought is interrupted by a yell from Jens,
“Hey Tom, watcha lookin at over there?”
He knows already. I wish he didn't. I could so easily just back down now.
“What's it looking like?”
“It kind of doesn't look too bad...”
“OK, I'm bringing your stuff over!”
No! I never said I was ready! But maybe I am. How would I know? This is different to anything else I have tried.
We discuss the climb a little as I tie in and begin to rack up. This is really bad. I'm actually seriously considering this now.
No, this is really good, this might be my first E1. No soft touch, this really will mean something. I will be proud of this climb and know that it counted.
My mind drifts, and I think of random things, of friends, of my girlfriend.
Stop! This is not helping. I'm suddenly aware, in a way I have never been before, that the route in front of me is all that is important. It doesn't matter what it's called, who has climbed it or what grade it is. All that matters is that I am about to climb it and I have to get it right. I try not to think about anything or anyone.
I just stay quiet for a minute and then, without saying anything, look up and explode into the first few moves. I vaguely hear Jens saying, “I'll just spot you for this first bit”, but it doesn't even register, I'm only thinking about the crux and how to deal with it. This bit should be easy.....
Three moves in, I slip off without warning. Jens spots me really well and I land firmly on my feet, but it hurts the arch under my right foot. Damn. It breaks my concentration and I am back in the world of communication where I don't really want to be.
I have to really try hard to get off the ground again. Finally I work it out and get back onto the route. I place a nut in a small crack and move up to the relative safety of some good holds for hand and feet.
Time to focus again. A slip from here is going to hurt if that nut pops out, and I think it probably will. I try out a few bits of gear before deciding on a solid large nut and a well placed cam. I decide to pull out the small nut just in case I need it, all the time trying to stay calm and not get pumped.
I take a quick breath and move up boldly. To my horror the crack line that I thought would provide good holds all the way to the top becomes so narrow I can only get the tips of my fingers in. This is going to be harder than I thought, and any more protection will be tricky to place.
I swing my right foot over the bulge and try to feel for some kind of purchase. All it will offer is a pure gritstone smear, something which I have trouble on with good handholds, never mind tricky ones. I start to pull up anyway, but I can feel my fingertips sliding out and I just know I will not stick it.
I back down to the good holds and feel just a little tension on the rope. I know that means Jens is worried about me falling and has taken in a bit, and it reassures me to know that he is on the case.
I haven't rested on the rope, there is everything still to play for.
Can I get any protection here? Maybe, but it will mean sustaining this awkward position whilst fiddling through my gear and I don't think I'm going to be able to do it without falling, I don't even know which hand I would use. The thought of even trying seems too difficult and scary.
Just press on, it looks like it gets better. Ok handholds aren't quite so bad but where the hell am I gonna put my feet? There's a pebble there about 8mm across, but it sticks out a bit and it might be better than a smear. Okay, I'm on it. Now the other foot.... another pebble! Well, the first one feels quite good so this one should too. Are these even going to hold my weight? Stop it. Bad thoughts. They will hold.
Slowly stand up...... slowly....... get the handhold.... slowly......
Shit! My foot just slipped.... Please not now...... Don't fall now.......
My heart is racing and my breathing uncontrolled. I try to play through a simulation in my head of falling and stopping before the bottom. I can't afford to fall now. Too much is at stake. A fall from here is going to hurt a lot and may even mean serious injury or worse.....Its gone way beyond a simple tick now, this is a moment of mortal realisation and I must do the only thing I can do to get out of the situation safely.
I crimp even harder and slowly get my foot back on the tiny pebble. I pull on every bit of strength, composure, willpower, drive, and whatever else I have to make the next move, allowing me to get my foot in the pocket and catch my breath a little. A few more seconds while I try to slow down my breathing and control my emotions.
Everyone below is silent.
Reach to the top, grab that wonderful, glorious hold and pull up and over with the strength of a thousand men, as if my body is suddenly lighter than a feather.
I scream and shout! My friends cheer from the bottom! I can feel their relief, as I suddenly realise mine. The rush of adrenaline hits me and I have to lie flat because my whole body is shaking. Wow. This is what it's all about, right here on the top of the hardest and scariest thing I have ever done.
"You'll have to give me a minute, I'll set up the belay in a bit!"
We laugh and joke about the route I discover that my 'solid' nut fell out but that no-one told me because I was too high up for it to make any difference!
I am still shaken up for a good few hours after and I think that experience will stay with me for the rest of my life.
Only thing is I might have to do an E2 now.......
(*edit - I led many more E1 to E3 routes after that including some loose and dangerous E3 first ascents and more than a few pitches on El Cap, but that day on Long tall Sally still sticks out in my mind as one of the scariest experiences I have ever had climbing)
Thanks go to: Jens Verhaegh for belaying and giving me the peer pressure I needed to try it, David Proctor for taking the photographs and Dave Terris for suggesting the route in the first place.
I wrote this article in 2009, roughly a year after actually doing the route. It was published on UKClimbing.com in March 2009 and has been read nearly 6,000 times since then!
I decided to put it on this blog after publishing an article about things going wrong while leading trad. I thought it was important to add one about things going right!