Wednesday, 5 March 2008

Does Trad Hold You Back?

A Dream of White Horses, Cemetery Gates, Comes the Dervish, Left Wall… actually Right Wall for that matter.

When I began climbing back in 2004 all of these routes were dreams of mine. Each one held a special place in my mind and represented to me the pinnacle of what was a reasonable achievement for me. It seems as though I was not alone. Indeed, looking at the UKC logbook summary these routes factor highly in the top 20 Wishlist Climbs.

Onsight trad was the ultimate to aspire to and I viewed other types of climbing (sport and bouldering) as just training for the ‘real thing’.

Jenn at the belay on the top stance of Slab Climb on the Gribin Facet, North Wales

I believe this opinion is held by a lot of the UK climbing community primarily due to the prominence of ‘trad ethic’ which in turn stems from the nature of the prevalent rock types (gritstone, rhyolite, granite, etc. which tend to have naturally protectable weaknesses, as opposed to continental limestone). Also, I suppose the history of climbing plays a part in this romanticism as well.

While all forms of climbing have an inherent risk associated with them, trad can be one of the most dangerous, especially for beginners. It makes sense to take it slowly with trad and gain a lot of experience on ‘easier’ climbs before branching onto harder stuff. I certainly learned this the hard way. After a few months of trad climbing I had a bad accident which left me in the Emergency Room questioning my motivations for climbing. I tried something that was technically well within my ability, but not within my experience of placing gear.

However is it possible that ‘the leader never falls’ mentality becomes more of a mindset which ultimately ends up holding you back?

The reasons why I chose to stop trad climbing are manifold; however the primary one was that I am more interested in the physical challenges of bouldering, rather than the mental challenges of trad. I always felt with trad routes I had to be climbing well within my physical limit. Bouldering came to be the opposite for me. It wasn’t fun unless I was pushing my complete limit and barely able to do the moves.

Surely there is room for all types of climbing, but I feel that trad is held in such high esteem in the UK for two additional reasons. First is possibly a lack of inspiring mid-grade sport routes. There is always Portland, but it doesn’t come close to venues such as the Costa Blanca and Kalymnos. Places like Malham and Kilnsey in the UK are meant to be world class, but few people climb within the grade range on offer. I’ve come to the belief that the best lines in the UK that mortals can aspire to are mostly trad lines. Surely if the UK had more inspiring and approachable sport routes comments such as “sport is artificial” would be less widespread.

The second reason is maybe that bouldering is by nature hard and this can be off-putting for some. If you weren't naturally strong, I could easily see how a beginner would get despondent. Again, there is a lack of venues with a large concentration of bouldering. While the Peak District may have a plethora of ace problems across the grades, they tend to be spread out. Indeed it is arguable that there is no one area in the UK with a critical mass of boulders to rival somewhere such as Font.

I guess in the end it depends on what you want out of climbing. For me, I find it boring spending days (years?) building up my gear placing skills on climbs that are well within my technical ability and as a result will probably never feel confident with trad. I’m much more inspired to get as strong as I can and be able to pull off moves that I thought were impossible in a relatively safe environment. So nowadays I’m inspired by Pill Box Wall, Lickety Split, Simple Simon, Lightning Strike and actually Soulslinger for that matter.

A Font 6b problem at Cratcliffe, Peak District


Peter said...

I think that it is entirely laudable that all of your trad routes are in North Wales. The fact that you only have one slate route is something that I can possibly overlook for now.

Jenn said...

I can entertain the notion that grit may contain some interesting boulder problems, but routes, eck! ;-)