Saturday, 8 March 2008

Trad – An Alternative Perspective (by Peter)

Climbers on the East Buttress of Clogwyn Du'r Arddu, North Wales

Given Jenn's recent thoughts on why trad is currently not her cup of tea in Does Trad Hold You Back?, I thought I would pen my alternative perspective.

I did an awful lot of bouldering in 2007. Looking at my UKC logbook I see figures of 144 boulder problems and only 20 trad routes. 2008 is not starting that auspiciously either. The figures are 7 and 10 respectively, but that is rather distorted by UKC's insistence that 5-6m problems at Slipstones above perfect grassy landings are for some reason routes (go figure!); 17 and 0 would be more accurate as the only place I have used a rope in anger this year has been Portland. In a soon to be published magnum opus, I find correlation between the amount of bouldering I have done and achieving trad grades that I had previously failed with. Elsewhere on this blog, I describe my “coming out” as a boulderer. But I suppose at heart, despite all these examples to the contrary, I regard myself first and foremost as a trad climber. Not only that, but one who has a strong affinity for the multi-pitch climbs of North Wales. This article is my attempt to explain why.

I think I still get a frisson standing at the bottom of pitch 1 of x that is different to either single pitch, or bouldering, however hard either of these are. The feelings are different, with bouldering and single-pitch; maybe the negative feelings are ones of potential failure, or worse, not even being able to get on to the thing. With mountain multi-pitch there is the ant-like complex. What lies between you and success is not a sequence of hard moves, but an awful lot of vertical space. Mountain stuff is serious; mountain Diffs are serious when you think about the consequences of failure and potential weather issues and route-finding and loose rock and (if you are anything like me – experienced hill-walker as I once was) getting lost on the way back down!

The level of intimidation – yes that is the word – intimidation, is much higher for me. I have been a lot calmer standing tied in under single pitch E-grades than under multi-pitch VDiffs. Maybe there is more of a sense of cutting loose (no not in that way), of embarking on a voyage rather than a quick sprint. Well so far, so negative. But as with many things in life, negatives have a positive element as well. Overcoming these fears and starting. Finding the first gear placement and it being good. Getting to the first stance and thinking, only five more to go. You are committed, the scenery is spectacular, the air is clean and you begin to remember that natural rhythm that only mountain climbing gives you. Maybe the moves are well within your ability, but that is like saying that because you can run 100m you can complete a marathon; it's really missing the point. Maybe the gear is not as rich as it might be, and maybe it's a long way down, but, for me anyway, I tend to experience a calmness and even a certainty in these situations that I don't get thrashing about on some 25m test-piece or 6m problem. Maybe there is just more time to get immersed in the experience, for it to take you over, for a Zen-like state to develop.

Jenn has spoken about our joint experiences on Adam Rib early in 2007. For reasons that she eloquently explains, I led all four pitches. It's an HS, but I seemed to find lots of creative ways to turn it into a VS. These mostly consisted of rather bizarre meanderings away from the jugs in search of elusive gear. At one point on the penultimate (and allegedly 4a) pitch, as I tried to get my right foot established on a high hold for the third time, with a somewhat speculative purple Camalot as my most recent piece 20 feet below, I remember thinking “if you don't latch this soon, then you are going to fall”. However the thought was rather less immediate than on a single pitch climb, maybe detached even. A positive way of taking this is that I didn't panic or let the problem get to me, I wasn't overwhelmed by the situation as maybe I would have been closer to terra firma on a single-pitcher. I got my foot up on the third try and moved up smoothly to a bit of a ledge.

It is moments like that that stand out in my mind with trad. Things that I remember when other details fade. A bit like recalling today what it felt like 20 years ago to effortlessly raise a slightly leg-side delivery up and over mid-on and one bounce into the picture window of the pavilion. I get more of those moments with mountain multi-pitch than any other form of climbing. Mountain trad sticks with you.

And then of course there is the main event – topping out 100m or 250m up and realising that you have done it. Which of course then leaves the problem of finding your way back down the other side to the campsite, but that's another story.

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