The Collection - Bold or Stupid
This is the last of five short stories based around climbing, and describes a gripping time on 'Book of Ages,' Yellow Walls. A micro-wire was all I could find. The stories were first written about two years ago, and have never been published.
The crumbling, sandy cliff leans over like a wave, frozen just before crashing into the sea. It's Yellow Walls - an overhanging mess of corners and roofs - and we’ve come to get our Gogarth fix.
Lying on our stomachs on the cliff-top, poking our heads into the salty updraft, we stare down in silence at the crag below. I nervously pull at a chunk of quartzite on the edge and it snaps easily in my fingers. The crack and crunch makes we wince, like static into my skin. I hold the piece out above the drop and wait. Finally, I let go and it tumbles, slowly at first. By the time it hits the sea it’s spinning madly, delighted to be with gravity.
A full 60 metres high, I only feel the true steepness of Yellow Walls as I abseil into space - and by then, it’s too late to escape. When Alex suggested this route I had readily, egotistically, arrogantly agreed, even though I didn’t know what I was getting myself in for: ‘of course, mate. Should be easy!’ E5 6b, and I wasn’t even leading the crux pitch.
But now, my hands tighten on the rope as I slowly drop further and further out from the crag. Eyes dart in alarm, legs kick in slow circles to stop me spinning. It’s looser than I thought, and much more serious… are we really going to climb this rotting yellow mess?
Much later, as I pay out rope slowly, inch by inch, the frozen wave hangs over me. Still and silent. I’m stuck on a belay near the bottom of the cliff and my neck hurts just looking at Alex. My heart beats faster and I’m scared of what’s to come. I’m scared of this place. It’s a kind of torture - a test of how much I can endure. I look up again and he’s out of sight, finishing his pitch.
Alex suggested this route as a last resort of the day. As usual, I was willing; besides, it was the least above my ability. Now he’s despatched the first pitch I regret my enthusiasm.
A breeze funnels up the crag, rich with the smell of salt and campion flowers. The sun casts shadows over the three-dimensional puzzle of grooves and slabs but we don’t feel it’s warmth. Alex has strapped himself close to the belay, backed up with extra pieces, and I once I'd climbed the first pitch - with a hang to take out a stuck wire - I begin my bid for freedom. ‘Get me out of here. Get me to the horizontal,’ I think. The bleached yellow rock, renowned for its’ loose and serious nature, arches above my head and disappears beneath my feet - toes perched on a narrow slab, chalky fingers curled tight.
To my right the ropes hang in long loops from the belay, whipping in the gusts. Alex is tucked into his corner at the belay. He glances at me warily as I tiptoe leftwards, my wedge-shaped slab growing thinner with each shuffle. I have no gear between me and the belay: nothing is worth trusting. 'Would this be a Factor 1 fall?' I wonder. My hand waves like a flag in the wind, backwards and forwards, fingers searching for cracks to give protection. ‘Where is the gear? It’s got to be here somewhere… hasn’t it?’
Although time runs unchecked when climbing, I’m aware that have I spent a long time in this strenuous position, endlessly probing for gear and a sequence through the next section. Alex has become silent, wrapped up against the cold. The ropes still flick wildly; there’s no gear to weigh them down. At the end of my wedge I must climb upwards. I can see it’s the crux of my pitch, featuring a committing pull on this funky rock, but I can’t risk falling straight onto the belay.
Finally, I sink one of Alex’s micro-wires into the soft quartzite. I haven’t placed them much before, and I’m not sure how good it is. Eyeing it closely, it looks dubious. The slither of metal is no more than 5mm wide, all twisted and battered, but it’s all I can find. The ropes finally stop jerking with the weight of the quickdraw, and I accept: this must be it.
Glancing across to Alex, our eyes meet and I simply nod. The moment I’ve been dreading has arrived: take a deep breath, time to commit. Grasping the snappy, sandy crimps and placing my feet high, I lunge upwards and enter the crux, scared and running.
At the top of the crag a long while later, I slowly take in the ropes as Alex climbs. In hindsight, the pitch was a ‘one-move wonder’, and thankfully I managed that single move without falling off. If the wire was good, I can rationalise my commitment, but if it was bad, I would’ve been a fool to risk it. ‘Would the micro-wire have held me if I fell?’ I wonder, contemplating my fate if the protection had ripped. The scenes play out in my mind - each result ends badly. Perhaps I was wrong to have tried, should have backed off.
Alex rolls over the edge of the crag, back onto the sweet, solid earth. He looks at me sternly. ‘That first piece of gear - the micro-wire…’ he says, and I hope he's about to tell me it was good. I know Alex doesn’t mince his words:
‘You’re either really brave, or really stupid!’