Monday, 20 February 2012

At Last

I am already tied in, the rope already rigged through a screwgate on the 2nd, in an effort to gain a bit more margin for ground clearance if I drop it clipping the 3rd (which I know, from one alarming attempt, is far from being an impossibility.) I wiggle my toes into the end of my shoes and crank the laces as tight as I can, absorbing myself in the comforting sensation of the familiar ritual, knowing that I will need all the support and precision my shoes can give me to stand on the route's footholds. 

I try to slow my breathing as I chalk up, rubbing one, then two, then three layers of chalk into my fingers, dusting the excess off on my jeans each time, knowing the route offers no opportunity to chalk up once I have pulled off the ground. Exhale sharply.

I step off the ground, moving as quickly and crisply as I can. Left hand on bevelled triangle, right onto jug rail, match it, step up onto the starting ledge. Left foot goes high into the crack, twist my knee down and cam it into position in the sentry box. I reach my left hand through into the undercut jug, holding my balance in with the knee bar, as I shuffle my right foot blindly until I feel the positive knobble through my toes. Exhale. Drop the knee bar out and hold the swing, allowing my body to come back under my left hand as I reach up and grab the crimp at full extension. The moves get harder now and there is no more time, no room in my mind for anything other than climbing movement, everything else fades out and I allow the familiar sequence of movement - tried, rehearsed, re-examined, tweaked, refined, drilled, visualised, over and over - to fill my awareness. I crunch my core tight and hop my feet up, left onto the jug rail and right into the poor sloping dish, twisting it to make the rubber bite. I press my right hand into the fingertip undercut, lock my core gut wrenchingly tight to keep my right foot on the bad smear as I step up with my left foot. Hold the tension, hold it, right foot stabs out right onto the edge in the groove. This time, my foot hits the tiny chalk dab first time and I dig my toes as hard as I can, bracing and standing up on the undercut. Exhale. Left hand up to the quarter pad flowstone crimp, feeling the sharp edge bite into the skin of my tips, I allow my core to swing out from the rock slightly while I step my right foot high, then twist as close into the rock as I can, reaching my left foot out to provide stabilising torque. Exhale. I cannot drop it, not now, not when I feel so close, I cannot bear to have to come back  to do this all over again. I have been at this point so many times, but this time I know I can do the moves, and I move my right hand onto the projecting flange, taking care to press the length of my thumb into the left hand side of it, crimping my tips onto the single pad right hand edge. I swap feet, stabbing my right out onto a poor, but adequate smear on a bulge. I take a moment, exhale, allow myself to sink back onto a straight arm. Always, I don't know how, but at this decisive moment, I know from some subtle kinaesthetic sense whether I will stick the next move, and this time I feel good. I feel like I have all the time in the world, to reach up into the sign of the vulcan, clawing my left hand into the split pocket, my first two fingers stabbing and chiselling the right hand pocket and my ring finger open on the left hand pocket, my thumb closing round into a pinch - it sticks. Exhale. I need to remember to deviate from my sequence here, and consciously, the moves feeling clunky and unfamiliar despite being slightly easier, I place the inside edge of my right foot on a good edge, and rock up to the matchbox. I take a moment to gather momentum from my hips, and immediately flick my right hand into the side-pull jug. It feels solid, in control, easy. Exhale. 

I can't drop it here, not now, although I know I have, months ago. I take a moment, only a moment, to relax, awkwardly swap feet blindly, and brace my right foot on the tiny projecting rib, bringing my left foot up onto the sharp cut out edge. I drop my knees together, trying to press outward into the narrow stance as much as I can, my right hand in the jug feeling much less secure than it did a moment ago, and I try to stabilise my body, fighting the barn door. Exhale. Standing up, with the screwgate at my feet, this is the first time the rope has entered my awareness - from this position, I can afford to fall, just - with a good belayer, stopping short of the ground. I clip the rope into the extended clip at my waist, then pull rope through again to clip at my shoulder, the awkward double clip being the price paid for the security in pulling the rope up. Exhale. My arms are starting to cramp now, although in real time it has probably taken only twenty or thirty seconds to reach this point, in my subjective frame of reference it feels curiously both like an instant existing outside regular time, and like half a lifetime. I grab the sharp broken crimp with my left hand, swap feet awkwardly on the sharp cut out, and bring my right hand up into the side pull, as high as I can reach. I step my left foot into the vulcan pocket, right onto the matchbox. Exhale. I use momentum to deadpoint my left hand into the sharp undercut crimp, my core is tired now but I take a moment to  brace it as hard as I can, and I step my right foot through onto the good smear. Almost forgetting the sequence, I am flustered now, I remember to bring my left heel onto the sharp crimp, and relax slightly. The end is in sight. I slap my right hand up to the good sloper, and standing up off the good heel, move my left hand to the poor side pull sloper. The top of the pillar is within reach. Exhale. I bump my left hand again onto the top of the pillar, and shuffle it down into the jug. I let out a whoop and clip the extender. 

As the lower off itself is not in reach from this position, I go for the extended finish, on easy ground now. I bring my feet up onto poor crimps and slopers, slap right, my forearms burning and my hands starting to fail on the poor slopers. I stumble, bring my left foot up onto a good shelf, but the body position's wrong - desperately freestyling, I bump my left foot a bit further left, and I can slap my left hand for the top - in agonising slow motion, I think I have dropped it - and then I hold it, just, and can slap for the sloping jug with my right. Exhale. I try to clip, but my right arm's dead - I spent too long clipping off that damn jug - my movement becomes frantic now, as I try to take first my left hand off, then my right, to be able to clip - in desparation, I shuffle my feet along, clawing at the mud and pebbles above the top of the route, trying and failing to find something incut - then almost before I have seen it, before I can consciously think about doing it, I have moved my right foot onto a good hold and pressed into a knee bar. I can drop down onto a straight arm, solidly pumped, but stable, sheepishly pulling up rope to clip the lower off.

'What on earth was that?' shouts Hazel, but she is laughing, and I am laughing, and grinning. At last.

I started Sign of the Vulcan as a project last spring, because at the time it seemed like a good idea to get on something that would test my bouldering limit on a route. Between May and February I have spent 10 days on it, and perhaps 40+ redpoints. Although this is fairly small scale as far as redpoint projects go, it is the longest I have personally spent on something that I have successfully ticked. At some point over the summer it started to go from being a regular project into becoming bogged down in the psychological version of a massive grinding impasse of trenches, mud and razor wire, and all I could do was give up or keep feeding redpoint attempts into the meat grinder. I was trying to do too much, wanting to do 8a and final exams at basically the same time, and this route was putting up so much resistance - on about day 6 I managed to get through the crux only to fall off 3 moves from the top on relatively easy ground. I sacked it off in about August as I was finding the whole process too stressful - then got back on it in December, once exams were out of the way and cold conditions had arrived.

I got really close to doing it, then I got a parter on it who boulders very well - who immediately spotted an easier way of doing what was, for me, the RP crux - and at this point I had got the rest of the boulder problem so totally wired that with a combination of the new beta and the added psych I was able to do it next go, although it was a close run thing with a desperate flail at the top. I was going to argue that my old sequence felt at least as hard as, say, Chiselling The Dragon (7c at Malham) which is the only other route I have done in this style at this approximate difficulty, but given the new sequence I have absolutely no idea how hard I think it is, although 7b+ sounds about right.

I have very mixed feelings but lots to take away from the experience - pay attention to conditions, don't even bother trying cuttings routes at your limit in the summer, the benefits of having partners willing to try your routes and help you out of sequence blind spots - but first and foremost, don't be afraid to go back to the drawing board if you keep falling again and again in the same place. If something feels unreasonably hard for the grade then quite possibly you are doing it wrong. I am gutted to have invested so much time and effort in a duff sequence - actually I feel quite tempted to continue trying to finish what was my original sequence to get closure, although that would be a slightly weird and obsessive thing to do. I anticipate lots more time spent at the Cuttings (Hall of Mirrors awaits...) so we shall see.