I never thought I’d climb this one day. Ueli Steck on The Secret.
Photo: T. Lamiche/Petzl
Tuesday, 24 February 2015
Sulawesi. Soo.la.wes.y. Sulawesi, sulawesi. What a great word, just rolling around my head!
Last Saturday was a fantastic day in my climbing because I managed to complete a route I had aspired to for many years. I had seen the pictures, read the news reports. To pull over the top after onsighting The Secret (IX,9) was really special.
The following day, Sunday, was perhaps even more exceptional. It felt like a rare, perfect day that you wait for years to get in Scotland. Although Sunday’s route was altogether less strenuous, stressful, ‘sensational’, it stood out as being a much more enjoyable experience…
Although I’ve only been in Scotland for a few weeks, it feels like months. Time and dates have no meaning. There’s something comforting about climbing every day: the most important thing on my mind is always what tomorrow brings.
The phone alarm signals another early morning, another climbing day. The music screeches in my ears, vibrations kick into my brain and the light blinds my tired eyes... but I’ve come to love the sound of that alarm. The beep has become a tune of grim pleasure, a welcome start.
5am? It doesn’t matter. I’m doing something I love for another day.
Pete Harrison and I were keen for two weeks of hard mixed climbing, ideally in the North West Highlands. Beinn Eighe, Beinn Bhan etc. But Scotland always seems to have other ideas. The ice was in fantastic condition but the mixed wasn’t in, or covered in cruddy ice. We had to face reality, so racked the ice screws.
We enjoyed the classic ice routes (or rather, Pete did and I behaved like a spoilt child and complained about the lack of mixed. Thankfully I got a kicking and even started to enjoy the ice!). Over a couple of days we did Minus Two Gully(after an attempt at Minus One), Mega Route X (after an attempt at Sioux Wall), soloed The Curtain and climbed both Left and Right pillars of The Shroud.
Apparently, these routes were all in ‘once-in-a-decade’ condition, which has made me appreciate the experiences a lot more. We kept saying, ‘this isn’t Scotland!’ when lowering off a brilliant two-pitch ice route, or sinking another ice screw to the hilt. The left, free-hanging ice pillar of The Shroud was particularly exciting. Thanks for putting up with me, Pete!
At last we managed to get our fix with the mixed. Heidbanger (VIII,8) came into condition and we got stuck in, eager for some steepness at last.
Pete led the first pitch - an overhanging and technical corner into an offwidth. I had delicate and technical face climbing for pitch two. It was cool to swing into a hanging ice smear at the top of the face with a small but tasty run-out below! We rapped down Mega Route X just before darkness, appetites sated after a thoroughly enjoyable route. I think this is the third ascent, interestingly. There’s a cool video of Greg Boswell climbing it on the BMC TV site.
Pete returned to Wales and Simon Frost came up the following day - perfect timing. We found ourselves beneath Babylon (VII,8) on Ben Nevis, and Si kindly let me have the crux pitch. I remember watching Luke Hunt climb this many years ago and thinking the top roof and chimney looked impressive.
Since then, route took on a personality - it became more than just a name in the guidebook. This was just one of hundreds of routes committed to memory, saved as ‘I would like to climb.’ The image of Luke pulling through the roof simmered, ticking over, waiting for the day. It was a pleasure to climb it after all these years and finally ‘complete’ the route’s personality. It put a close to that particular memory.
That evening I packed my bag, then emptied and repacked again. I checked the rack, flicked through each quickdraw, ran the ropes through my fingers. I even re-filed my axe picks until they gleamed in the light.
I set the alarm for 5:30am as I laid my sleeping bag on the floor. For once I was too tired to think about tomorrow’s route.
The Secret was first climbed onsight by Andy Turner; a winter-only line which had been eyed for a while. He originally proposed a grade of X,10 (according to Alpinist), but it has settled around IX,9. It was a brilliant lead and the iconic photo looked incredible. Ueli Steck famously made a repeat in front of the cameras for Petzl. It never occurred to me that one day I would climb this route!
After a long stomp through deep snow to Coire na Ciste, Simon led the first pitch of The Secret. It’s a tricky pitch which got me thoroughly warmed up. We had some issues wondering where to belay, but eventually I set off… only to be stopped two metres up the wall by the crux. After several up-down-up-downs, testing a cam and drowning in waves of spindrift, I considered sacking the whole thing off. It was heavily iced and the wind was really buffeting me - not ideal on technical, tenuous moves!
I saw one of those motivational posters once: persistence prevails when all else fails. Nonsense? I guess it works since I got back on with renewed determination. I scraped through the lower moves, using small hooks and deep lock-offs. Before I knew it, I was committed and gunning for the ‘two-thirds’ ledge. It probably took me a while to make each move but it felt like the route flew by, skipping my feet up the wall on matchbox edges. I nearly had a ‘moment’ just below the two-thirds ledge, laybacking my axes with thin footholds and spindrift pounding down, but managed to keep it together.
The final headwall cracks were really cool to climb but I was very conscious of completing the route. To fail right near the top, ‘Cracking Up’ style, would have made me really pissed! So, with Ueli in mind I carefully pulled onto the snow slope above and whooped with relief.
Sulawesi? When I’m climbing close to my limit I often have a word, phrase or sound that constantly goes round my mind. It can be something I’ve never (consciously) heard before, or a song that I haven’t listened to for 10 years.
On The Secret, the word ‘Sulawesi’ was rolling, tumbling, cruising around my head. I digested it, enjoyed the sound of it, even saying it out loud at one point. This is probably linked to some mental condition but it’s usually totally uncontrolled, words just popping up. Sulawesi is an island in Indonesia, with images of palm trees and golden beaches. Perhaps that’s where I’d rather have been?
The following day Simon and I climbed Central Grooves (VII,7) on Stob Coire nan Lochain, Glencoe. It was a delightful route and the day was perfect: good visibility and views, light winds, even sun on our faces at the gearing up boulder. The climbing is superb, too: three good pitches of technical, interesting moves. We slept late that morning (7am) after a night in the Clachaig Inn, climbed without a hitch and even walked down in daylight.
On this occasion, the word of the route was ‘frimpong’. Again, I hadn’t consciously heard this word before and had to Google what it meant. (Apparently it’s “the most awesome person you’ll ever meet. A near mystical being who combines good humour, sensitivity and pure muscle mass in one earth-defying body” according to Urban Dictionary). Whatever. It’s a word that sounds great!
Thanks to Pete Harrison, Simon Frost and Helen Rennard.
A concise version of this piece was kindly published by Simon Richardson on the Scottish Winter website/blog.