Positive attitude. Experts tell us it goes a long way. American climbers are masters of the positive, before climbing they’re bouncing around full of energy shouting that this is it, how the route’s gonna be easy and how awesome they feel

This article was published in CLIMB 31

Positive attitude. Experts tell us it goes a long way. American climbers are masters of the positive, before climbing they’re bouncing around full of energy shouting that this is it, how the route’s gonna be easy and how awesome they feel. Everyone’s fired up, the climber is about to explode, the belayer psyched and the crowd expecting a great effort. Brits seem to have a different approach, the opposite in fact; the more excuses the better. Before setting off, everyone is informed of tiredness / illness / injury / bad conditions etc, generally putting a downer on the whole situation. Though maybe not a downer, actually I think its reverse psychology, we don’t like expectations, we don’t want everyone watching and expecting a dazzling display of power. In good old British style we’d rather no one was bothered. And if everyone expects nothing, if nothing happens, no one is disappointed. I guess the problem is when all the negative vibes result in negative performance. Fine if you can convince the crowd you’ll be pumped in seconds but inwardly you feel like a gladiator, not fine when you convince yourself there’s no point even trying.

Sometimes it can even be pretty funny, the amount of excuses we come up with. The excuse cards people play vary from the obvious and acceptable to obscure and vague. Some of us are master card players, always with a good hand and always with a trump card that will beat anything. This ensures that no matter how badly they climb their excuse is better than anyone else’s. Some of the real hustlers can be found around the limestone of the peaks and dales, and I witnessed some awesome displays recently. In fact I learnt a lot, and even had a pop myself, playing a few hands and even doing quite well. It’s all about knowing what cards to play and when, and keeping a cool head when bluffing. Here are some typical cards in the deck.

2 – Have brought the wrong climbing clothes
3 – Have brought odd boots (though two lefts / two rights is worth a 10)
4 – Conditions not very good.
5 – Stress at home or work. Better card for redundancy / divorce.
6 – Still sore from training yesterday.
7 – Flapper in finger.
8 – Dodgy injury, but since you’re climbing it can’t be so bad!
9 – DIY epic yesterday; digging / cementing / bricklaying etc.
10 – Just returned from a 12 hour flight this morning.
Jack – Illness; must be visible in form of cough/vomit/sneezing/turning green
Queen – Route is soaking wet and probably unclimable.
King – Have young baby and been on marginal sleep forever.
Ace -  Last night was at all night party obviously getting no kip whatsoever.

It was at Malham a few weeks ago when I found I had a truly great hand, having an 8, 9, Jack, Queen and King. There was clearly no chance of getting up my route, or apparently even any point being there. In fact, prior knowledge of already having a Queen led me to collect the nine which unfortunately led to acquiring a Jack. Basically, the route I was trying had got wet, so expecting no success I spent 12 hours the previous day mixing and carrying 2 tonnes of concrete leading to exhaustion and easy entry for the cold that had been niggling away for a while. Obviously I laid down my amazing hand just before attempting a redpoint where I promptly fell off the very last move, a high point by a long way after more than 30 days of effort! Pressure off or cheating at cards? I like to think the route was simply ready to give in, but there’s a lot to be said for being relaxed.

After 30 days on the same route most climbers would only need to play one card; ‘I’m flipping sick of this route and I’m not trying anymore’! In fact the vast majority of climbers have never redpointed anything, and fail to see any attraction in it at all. Redpointing has always been seen as a bit of a scourge on British climbing, not upholding the true traditional beliefs. Well, I certainly favour the on-sight style, but what happens when you’ve either on-sighted or fallen off everything local? Two choices, climb them again, i.e. redpoint them, or give up! Personally the latter option never appealed which has left me often on the same collection of rubbish holds for more than a few goes. 

My first ever trip to Malham Cove was interesting. At first glance everything looked easy, my next glance was at the reflection of myself in the polished holds as I sat on the first bolt after a very short lived attempt at ‘Raindogs’. Despite clearly being one of the most amazing cliffs in the world I didn’t seem to like it and legged it back to the peak. Slowly it grew on me, how could it not? OK, so it’s polished in places but the routes are brilliant and the concentration of hard routes is about as good as anywhere in the world. Combine that with amazing Yorkshire Dales scenery and basically you’ve got the UK’s best sport cliff. In 2003 I got stuck into a hard project above Raindogs. It was one of the hardest and most amazing climbs I’d ever been on and when I finally clipped the belay after about 17 days of effort I was well and truly in love with the place. I guessed that route would be my personal high point. But the good thing about climbing, or bad thing depending on which way you’re looking at it, is that the challenges just never end, and as I lowered off basking in my personal glory I was already looking sideways at a huge chunk of unclimbed rock. Which is exactly where I found myself a few years later!

The whole line of Overnight Sensation was originally bolted by Paul Ingham in the eighties. The first part was climbed to where it turns considerably harder to give a classic and very popular F8a+. This route begins with a nasty font7b boulder problem straight off the floor snatching between crimps before moving into slightly easier yarding up to the redpoint crux at the top and clipping the belay in the middle of nowhere. However, the belay was actually well placed as straight after it all the holds get tiny and have apparently been put on upside down. Ten hard moves lead into the crux sequence. Bad crimps for the hands and a tenuous drop knee allow, sometimes, a big slap to an undercut edge. Desperate foot fagotry and a few hopeful slaps with the left hand finally land you on a thin fin. Good enough to clip off, panic, then press on into some steep 6b pulls to a tufa hold. Another clip (having already missed a few out), and the final section of complicated desperateness that must be at least F8a+. When I first looked at it I couldn’t even find the holds on the crux, and the rest of it was utterly brutal. On my 5th day my climbing book said “All the moves done except the middle that I can hardly imagine doing even in isolation. Note to self, if I ever do this I’ll be psyched, way harder than anything I’ve ever been on, must be 9a+ or worse, it’s gonna be along haul”. But the line was so awesome there had to be a way so I ignored the crux and spent time on the upper bit in the hope that if that went free the tough bit in between might grow some hand holds over the projected lifetime that the route was obviously going to take! In the end it took about six days to do the crux., once. Don’t ask me how hard it is, no idea. It did feel impossible, then desperate, and by the end I could do it most times off the rope. Considering I’m relatively weedy and not a top boulderer, it might not be totally nails, and there might be a way better sequence. Feel free to show me how rubbish I was. It took more than 20 visits to make the link I wanted, to climb from Overnight belay to the top. Theoretically that made it quite hard since it took way less time to climb Northern Lights (F9a). Just making that link felt like a major achievement, almost like I’d done a new route, which I guess I had in a two pitch kind of way!

Redpointing can be a tough business; it’s certainly one of the hardest disciplines in climbing. Some assume it’s easy since if you fall off you can just have another go at your leisure. But that’s the problem. Falling from an on-sight marks the end, one chance only. Disappointing maybe, but game over. The redpoint isn’t ever over till it’s over. Fine if you’re one something easily within reach, but the real game is up there at your limit. That’s the beauty, finding the limit, exploring it and stepping right up to it. And then pushing it further. So far this route wasn’t stressing me, in fact I’d barely considered it a route, just a project, a collection of hard moves that I tried every now and again. The end goal was barely visible, replaced by a series of more attainable targets; climb the top bit in one, the crux, Overnight belay to crux, route in three sections etc. I first looked at the line in 2004, spending just a few days on it, looking and replacing the odd rusty bolt. In 2005 I was there eight days then last year I put in about 10. That period ended on a hideous day in November, completely freezing and pouring with rain. I turned up alone, climbed Overnight on a shunt a few times avoiding the wet bits and then left. Still, by then I knew the route could go, but it was a way off. I had to train, but more than that I had to be cunning. I’m not the fittest, or strongest, but I reckon I’m up there when it comes to sneaky tricks. Probably the best hold on the route is after the crux, a round hole the size of a mini football, flat and smooth inside with a razor edge at the lip. A potential shake out, though unfortunately a 6c move to get to it and with no footholds at all, it was basically hanging off one arm. Strangely it was easier to flick both toes into the hole and drop down into an awesome bat hang position. Still, it was a killer on the feet, felt like 1000 sit-ups crammed into 20 seconds, and was 6c to get out of. It was only after 12 days that I even considered it but now I had to have it! Some short bits of tape between the tongue and the laces of my boots helped with the foot pain, but a winter of hanging by my toes from a bar was the only way to make the ‘rest’ into a rest.

First day this year I went from Overnight belay to the top. It was the link I wanted, the project was suddenly on and instantly everything changed. No longer was it my mate that I had a nice time with in a great setting, it became an enemy that seemed to cheat and deceive me at every corner. You’d imagine a redpoint simply tests your physical performance but when you’re close to the edge its way more than that. I had to put the time in to get smooth on the route, but make sure I didn’t loose strength and fitness by only doing one thing. So days were long; 10am till 11pm, with some training the next day. Boiling weather made conditions terrible but I stuck in there, making negative progress for days and days in the hope that all the ground work would pay off. I was on the redpoint now, three times per day, zooming up Overnight to a poor shake by the belay then blasting up into the crux only to fall where, to be honest, I expected to fall. Drive to Malham, warm up, three goes, falling from the same move every time, drive home, repeat. It seemed my life was becoming this saga in the vague hope that some day I’d get through this desperate move, but even then I had no idea what would happen next, with a ton of hard climbing above it could end in the realization that getting through the crux was still miles away from the end. I knew this, but didn’t want to face it, thinking positively that if I made it to the bat hang, I’d surely get enough back to get high – if not to the top.

14 days this year, nearly 6 weeks. Barely no other climbing. Mates were ready for a change of venue and I spent hours collecting phone numbers of people who might be a potential belayer. I’d put off work to make sure I had as many days as possible but things were stretching out now and I was skint. Climbing trips were cancelled, even in the autumn because it was looking like I’d blown it for this season. A snapped hold made things even harder. It was hot, but then it was also wet, a week of rain had turned the line into a river. A good thing really, my body was collapsing, tweaks from specific holds; a finger ligament from the crux crimp, busted shoulder from a weird upside down edge move and a bad knee from knee-dropping. Every night was spent with ice packs rotating around various knackered bits. The route seemed to be slipping away. My family were pissed off with me turning up at 11pm, and pissed off with me being pissed off simply because I couldn’t get up a random chunk of rock. I wanted time with my 11 month old daughter who’s changing every minute. DIY on our building site of a house had been utterly sidelined, in particular one of the floors was still damp bare soil. I cranked up the mixer, chucked in a few tonnes of ingredients and laid down the concrete floor. Next visit to the crag I was staring at the last hold! It wasn’t the top, but it was the breakthrough I needed. If I could get through the crux with at least some energy to spare, and make it to the bat hang, then it was there, laid out on a plate for me to take. On the final redpoint two visits later everything was in place. ‘Racking up’ took on a whole new meaning as I tied onto a shoelace of a rope, fixed a tyre inner tube round my leg for a painful knee-bar, placed the tape into my shoes and rubbed half a block of chalk into my T-shirt ready for a ‘super rapid chalking’ on the top wall where getting a hand into the chalk bag is not an option. Bank holiday Monday, the crag was packed but I’d hardly noticed. The ascent was everything it should be, completely absorbed, aware only of the moves. At the same time energy levels were monitored, adjusting position and force even mid move to give the optimum chance. 

Still the hard part was to come, naming and grading the line! Up until then neither had been important. I called the route Overshadow. It overshadows all my other achievements in terms of difficulty, commitment and focus, and makes a fine companion to the neighbouring route, ‘Rainshadow’. It’s one of the best routes I’ve ever done, and it’s the hardest. It seems important to stick a number on things these days. If you don’t, everyone else will anyway. When it’s a big number some say its for publicity, to ‘big up’ ones self, but at this level allowing others to grade is perhaps even more self publicity, as often it’s over inflated. And then it’s easy for the climber to avoid the issue but bask in the glory. I suggest it could be 9a+, an estimate based on effort and experience. But then how important is it to get it exactly right? Not important at all! What’s important is honestly suggesting a level. If it’s wrong, either up or down, so what! At this level the actual number is not so important. What counts is it’s a great route that tested me right to my limit. Had it been 8c or 9b the journey from start to finish would have been no more or less rewarding.