How Not to Headpoint

Tuesday, 14 June 2016

I was recently climbing in Pembroke with James Taylor and Lukasz Warzecha, and keen to try something really hard. I haven’t really headpointed properly before, preferring to go ground-up, so made a few crucial errors. Below are some of the lessons I received; I hope you can learn from my chopstick mistakes!

1. Don't choose a wet route. Seepage is a bad sign, as does the guidebook description: ‘often wet.’

2. Don't choose a route with a wet start. If the route is tidal the base will be gopping every 12 hours… obviously.

3. Don't choose a route that's banned by military firing restrictions. Pembroke is one of the greatest trad climbing areas in the UK, but don’t let that fool you. The military figuratively ‘bomb the shit’ outta the place. Then there’s the bird restrictions and the tides: the crags are half underwater every 12 hours… Oh. Hang on. Climbing here requires a bit of thought and logistics.

4. Don’t try just one route and stick with it. Try others at a similar grade to see which feel less desperate, and play to your strengths.

5. Don't choose a route because it looks good in photos - choose it because you want to climb it. ‘Climbing is not just an imitation of life, it’s more a metaphysical substitute set up beside it to overcome it…’?!

6. Don’t assume it’s over until you’re actually at the top. “It ain’t over ’til it’s over!”

7. Don't rush the experience. If you've decided to headpoint the route, put time into working out a good sequence and finding the gear. If you skimp on this part, you could find yourself high above shit gear, trying to frig your way through 6c moves and in a very bad place.

8. Do think very carefully about whether or not to headpoint. Many safe and hard routes should be saved for your best onsight or flash efforts, or at least attempted ground up. In theory you’ll be fitter and stronger next year, and having goals will motivate you to improve. Sometimes it’s better to save them.

I ignored all of these points when I was recently in Pembroke with James Taylor and Lukasz Warzecha. I wanted to try something hard in Huntsman’s Leap and, after much debate, decided to drop a rope down Dusk till Dawn (Dave Pickford’s E7) - ignoring 1., 3., 4., 5., 6. and 7.

It was high tide so I started a few metres off the ground - ignoring 2., but I managed to flash the route on top-rope. This immediately made me thought I should’ve saved it for an onsight ‘one day’ and I confidently told James the route would go tomorrow… - ignoring 6.

The next day the lower half of the route (Terminal Twilight (E7 6c)) was seeping worse than ever - ignoring 1., and I half-heartedly dried it on abseil - ignoring 7., before starting the route from the beach. The smooth water-worn start was like bouldering with a rack on, and I fell a few times from very wet holds. I embarrassingly got shut down repeatedly on the first 8 metres after the seeping holds proved too much. If the guide says it’s often wet… it probably is. I’m a shithead!

We bailed up The Minotaur (easy E5 6a for James and his long arms) and I tried to top-rope DTD again, but I physically couldn’t climb the lower groove because it was so wet. As James said, ‘it has an in-situ river in the lower half,’ and I walked away with my tail firmly between my legs! What a schooling.

I hope to revist Dusk till Dawn, as the top 15 metres climbs some brilliant scoops up the pink and grey headwall of the Leap. I’m annoyed because I feel it it was entirely within my onsight capabilities (isn’t everything like this from the safety of a top-rope?!) - don’t ignore 8. But I’ll make sure it’s completely dry before going anywhere near the lower groove of Terminal Twilight again!

I also learnt all of the above lessons, which in itself was useful. I’m keen for a rematch and hope my first foray into the world of headpointing eventually ends in success.

Tom LivingstoneComment