Last weekend we packed up the car and hit the road south, destination Pembroke. Despite the appalling weather forecasts we were psyched to get a trad break in and meet up with Neal and Naomi. I had a hunch that the weather Gods would smile on us and that all the forecast rain would fall further inland – I was right! 3 days of clear skies and dry rock were on the cards.
It felt good to be back on familiar ground – we’ve spent a lot of time down here during our years in the UK. But having not lead any trad lines since October I was feeling rusty and Caroline hadn’t lead on gear in well over a year. An easy introduction in Stennis sorted us out and then I ab’ed into have a look at a line I’ve wanted to do for years – Ghost Train, E7 6b. Immediately the rock didn’t inspire confidence and I decided to back clip the line on ab and toprope it. It was brilliantly steep the whole way and relied on 8 points of fixed protection in the form of threads. Two problems though, the rock was filthy and loose and the threads were ancient and creaky! The top peg was completely blown out and rusted and needed backing up by wires too. This felt like it hadn’t been done in a while. Surprisingly the climbing felt easy – despite the dirt and breaking holds. Climbing it wouldn’t be a problem but coming off due to a breaking foothold onto suspect threads would. I climbed it 3 times in all just for some mileage but in the end just couldn’t justify leading it in it’s current state – I would have just been doing it for the tick and not because it inspired or challenged me. Probably 7a+ or 7b climbing and safe all the way.
But it got me thinking a lot while I was climbing other routes. This whole trad thing… seems less about the climbing and more about placing the gear and deciding to trust loose rock. I was missing the physical challenge on these routes and not enjoying the slow pace and bravado associated with what are essentially piss easy climbs. Being honest I was a prime example of a climber playing to their strengths. When I started climbing I was fat and weak – so I climbed to my strengths – my head. When I was 17 I soloed some E4 slabs. Then I realised I was quite good at placing and trusting gear so I targeted technical lines around Dalkey and the Burren with definite cruxes and reliable protection. Eventually I built up the strength to climb steeper lines and could venture onto the sustained cracks of Mirror wall and Fair Head. This was when I began proper climbing. But even then I left the head’s cracks for the more technical and bold face climbs. I found the E6’s at Fairhead easier than the E3 cracks! All this time I avoided sports climbing and hard bouldering or at best treated it as a joke or bit of fun for a while – simply because I was too weak for it. I could just about manage the odd 7a sports route (if it suited me!). Well lately I am feeling more and more comfortable on sports climbs. I am loving the physical difficulty and the falls and the run-outs and the solid rock, small holds, steepness, diversity of the climbing, the power. And although the trad lines are feeling easy they’re not ringing my bells in the same way – I miss having to fight. And that’s where I think things have begun to change – the E7/8 I did in the pass last year was an eye opener. My first true headpoint. 7b+/c climbing in a ground fall position above psychological protection. It needed a sequence, it needed to be precise, conditions mattered and I needed to fight and stay in control of myself. But the rock quality was unquestionable so I could justify the climb through belief in myself – it was like a test of that belief. It’s easy to say “I would never let go” but until you’re somewhere where letting go has a serious consequence – how do you know? In Pembroke I resigned myself to having a fun weekend of climbing low to mid E-grades as I couldn’t justify leading anything harder with the prospect of loose rock. And I wasn’t prepared to devote much time into cleaning when there were others who wanted to climb and nothing that I really, really wanted to climb there. For now at least, trad is taking an enjoyable backseat in my priorities.
Onto Caroline. She was feeling rusty as hell on this trad sea cliff climbing. Double ropes, seconding, carrying a rack, setting up belays, etc… But by the third morning Caroline had adjusted well – her trad switch had been flicked and she warmed up with a onsight of a nice E1 on the White Tower near Mother Carey’s. Straight after that she was eyeing up a neighbouring E2. From the ground it looked spicy and as I had never done any of the routes down here I had no advice to give. Caroline started up off the belay ledge and after placing her first wire was up against a difficult move off an undercut. Making the high step up and span to the next edge meant she was totally committed and in an un-reversible position. Keeping calm and taking time to shake out Caroline managed to place two wires and a small cam and then ploughed on through high steps, smears and sidepulls to the sanctuary of a small detached flake and a sling runner. After that it was like watching a vertical sprint to the belay ledge – it was obvious that the intensity of our recent sports climbing was doing wonders for both Caroline’s endurance and route reading – she was climbing smoothly and with confidence – It’s a good place to be when you get there.
Finishing off the weekend in a café with Neal, Naomi, Matt and Marsha was the perfect ending to a great weekend. I’m gonna have to climb a lot more with these guys before our move!!