Saturday, 19 October 2013

The road to 8c

Since the last post, just over a month ago, I have been focusing all of my energy on one particular project, Steve Mcclure's Mecca Extension. Since climbing Mecca back in June I had the idea to maybe take a look at the upper section, but at the time it was still something I felt was way way above and beyond anything I'd ever be able to manage.

Mecca Extension:
The full version is an incredible stamina test which packs an 8a+ on top of the already desperate 8b+. There is a rest at the Mecca flake and a breather higher up before the upper crux.

I've belayed friends on this in the past and would often try to put myself in their shoes and state of mind as they set off up Mecca on each redpoint. How does it feel knowing you have to repeat an iconic 8b+ before you can even think of carrying on up the technical wall above? And how do you deal with the obvious mental pressure weighing you down. It was just something I could not get my head around at all.
I've watched many people attempt it, all extremely talented and fully capable climbers, each cruising on up the bottom section only to drop it from the last few moves countless times. How do you prepare yourself for something like this? All these questions kept going through my mind over the summer.
People would keep asking me if I was thinking of maybe trying it come the autumn and as the summer months went on and I was able to tick off a bunch of hard routes I got more and more psyched to check it out, once it was cool enough for the Tor season to kick back in again.

 Jon Clark high up on the Extension back in 2010
©Robbie Shone

So once September hit I found myself back at the crag and took an opportunity to pull up to the head wall and take a look at the moves, see how it felt and more importantly how I felt about getting stuck in and giving it some proper efforts.
The first time up I just thought I wasn't physically tall enough to make any of the moves and felt as if I needed to be strung out on a medieval stretch rack to give me the height and reach to shift my body between the marginal holds. However I quickly found out I could just about do all the individual moves and all that was needed was for my body to adjust to the different positions and let muscle memory do the rest! It is the same with anything that is at your limit, as we've all experienced at some point during our climbing lives. Things that feel impossible suddenly become possible etc etc. It is hard to fathom how this bizarre phenomenon works, but man does it work. 
The route really is a game of two halves. With the bouldery and powerful bottom section giving way to a nice big rest on a chunky flake. Once you've shook the latic acid out of your aching forearms (and pumped some blood back into your lifeless fingers) you launch into some sustained, technical and extremely delicate face climbing, on gastons, sidepulls and crimpy blades. Holds that take absolute delight at eating into the skin of your fingertips. It's safe to say its all pretty intense and complex up there. Sounds lovely right?

©Robbie Shone

That first session finished and I was totally hooked. It had gotten my full attention and I was super excited to get back again. Each session got better and better and I quickly started to make some big links on the top half. I knew what was coming next. If I was serious about giving this some proper burns I needed to jump back on Mecca and start to remind myself of what to do. So I tied in and set off and completely surprised myself by repeating it at the first time of asking. I was chuffed to bits and decided to carry on to see how far I could get. I shook the arms out, feeling pretty boxed and tried to put myself into the mind set of what it would take to recover here and then have enough left in the tank to climb the second half. I eventually ended up screaming my way to within around 8 moves from the finish! This opened my eyes massively and turned the whole thing and idea of climbing this route into something that was actually possible.

I still hadn't managed to link the top half yet, from the Mecca belay to the finish but I'd gotten so far up the top wall on my attempt from the ground that I imagined it would just get easier and easier. Which it did, but at the same time I admit I got slightly carried away with myself and very quickly realised that the need to make that link was pretty critical, just for my own confidence if nothing else.
Eventually I found that I could do the link with a fair amount of ease and made sure that it was incorporated into my warm up every time. Those small little edges for your feet still had the tendency to scare the life out of me every now and then. I like how Ted describes them as "timebomb smears". It really paints an accurate mental picture of just how on-off it is up there. However, even those in the end started to feel good and my confidence grew and grew with each attempt. I found myself getting higher and higher, inch by inch and each session I left feeling more motivated for the next one.

Mecca felt easier and easier each time, to the point where I was barely out of breath at the belay, but then my arms would suddenly die on me on the final few tense moves. I blew it from the last couple of moves about 4/5 times, taking some big falls in the process.
Neil Mawson was at the crag for one of these attempts and we talked after about the stresses that go along with hard redpointing and that when you fail on a particular move that many times, you should start to re-access and think about changing up your sequence. So I did just that. All it took was the changing of one foothold at the top and the whole sequence felt 110% better. I knew that this new beta was without a doubt going to mean the difference between getting to the top and falling countless more times at the same hurdle.

Thursday morning I set the alarm for 7am and picked on old climbing friend up from the station. The weather seemed perfect and I knew it'd be prime conditions. I also knew that Ben Moon, who had also been trying the route with me, had managed to get the it done a couple days before, so it was going to be dry!

My first attempt went like toss, dropping a move that normally goes fairly smooth. My fingers were numb, I couldn't get the blood back into them and I fell feeling pretty disappointed in myself.
I took an hours rest and began to get nervous as the sun slowly began to accelerate around onto the face, knowing from past experience it'd soon be way too hot for another attempt. However maybe climbing in the sun today would be a bonus and at the very least my fingers would have to be warmer?
I set off for another burn and sure enough arrived at the belay with much warmer digits and feeling a million times better all around. I kept it together all the way up to my highpoint, heard the shouts of encouragement from friends on the ground, telling me to just breathe and relax. I took a breath, placed my left boot on the new found foothold, pulled on up into the final two gastons and cranked on through to the jug! It was shear joy, a crazy mix of emotions and like a total dream. The battle was over. It was won.

The mental pressure of climbing something like this, and something at your personal limit is crazy and if you're not careful it can blow you away and seriously start to effect your performance. I tried to limit myself to two big efforts a session to keep this pressure at bay and maintain motivation and it seemed to work. I did my best to maintain focus and concentrated on enjoying every moment of it all, and not get sucked into the ticking pressure cooker that I've witnessed others get dragged into.
The whole process from start to finish was an incredible journey, I learnt many things and I can honestly say it was the best experience of my climbing life.