Friday, 6 December 2013

Getting into The Zone

It is hard to know where to start with this one as it seems so much has happened in such a short space of time. For that reason I'll try to break up the latest news into a couple of posts and hope ya'll don't get too bored!
Cold days and top conditions in abundance have continued to arrive each week, which has allowed us to get out there and work our way steadily through the grit hit list. 
I've gotten into the habbit this last couple of years of writing out a list of routes to try over the approaching season. Some are dreamy, some maybe more realistic but I just find it not only maintains motivation, working through a list, it also means there are no days spent wasted trying to decide what you want to climb. All you do is check your list and pick one that takes your fancy. Simple.

I had hoped to try The Zone last winter but in the end time ran out and the winter was over, so this year it was one of the routes at the forefront of my mind. I knew that after a summer of crimping and climbing things much much harder it would in theory feel okay, as long as my head was in the right place and I swatted up on my skyhook knowledge...
I also wanted to do something where you actually had to pull a bit harder, and not just keep it together on another 'steady plod' above a big scary run out.

The route was first climbed back in 1998 by the legend that is John Arran. What this guy hasn't done is not really worth knowing about. He was one of a small collection of guys who were at the front of the gritstone revival back in the 90's, with numerous hard and bold ascents up and down the edges. To put into perspective just how good this guy was, one of these routes was 'Dr Dolittle' at Curbar. Thought it be somewhere in the region of E10 7a, it remains unrepeated to this day.

Just over a week ago I got a brief opportunity to jump on The Zone and check out the climbing. It is one of those routes that you look up at and all you see is just a blank canvas of rock. No matter how hard you gaze upwards it still appears to be virtually holdless. Only when you get up close and personal with it, you begin to see that actually there are holds there and the majority are fairly good. Flat, positive edges.
Anyway the sun was baking, people were walking around in t-shirts and the smaller holds felt disgustingly hot and sweaty. I understood now why it needed to be really cold for this route. Regardless of this I still figured out I could do all the moves and it was obvious that in crisp cold conditions everything would feel so much better.

The protection for the route to most would seem farcical and an utter joke. Carefully placed pieces of metal hooked over small edges, situated at just over halfway up the almost featureless wall. In the past I too thought this was completely bizarre and that you'd have to be a mad as a hatter to put your faith in something that seemed so 'marginal'. However they had been tested, most recently by Oli Grounsell last winter, and rumored to be as solid as a bolt...
I managed to borrow a collection of skyhooks and all I needed now was the right day to come along so I could head back up to try again. Tuesday arrived, it was cold, freezing in fact and I had manage to persuade Jon and Pete to meet me at the crag mid morning. I arrived with no real intention of going for the lead but knew in the back of my mind that it could potentially be something worth considering if everything went according to plan. I just treated it like any other climbing day I've had recently, with the attitude of not caring too much and just having fun out with friends.

 The Collection, weighted down with a couple of heavy bags.

After jumping around for about 30 odd minutes and trying to force the hotaches I jumped on and eventually the blood very slowly started to make its way to my frozen fingertips. I could at least now feel the holds! The sequence quickly came together, the crux holds felt like different holds to the ones I'd been pulling on in the heat a few days previous. The crux was linked, it felt solid, my mind started to contemplate the lead, but ideally I really wanted to link it all in one go which I managed fairly smoothly after a brief rest. This was it then really, it was possible and all I needed to worry about now, beside the suspect protection, was whether I could keep my fingers from numbing up...

Most of my ascents of late have followed a similar pattern. Once I know something is doable and tying into the sharp end is inevitable, I've gone through a certain mini routine. This generally involves, checking out the gear, fetching my skinny rope from the car, cleaning my boots and all the while trying not to focus too much on fully commiting yourself to the line until the last second, right before pulling onto the first holds.
It was really interesting to read what Katy Whittaker had to say recently about her ascent of Knockin' on Heavens Door. How she slowly talked herself into it by taking small steps towards tying in for the lead "just in case" she fancied giving it a try. It is a brilliant tactic that works incredibly well to calm any nerves, take away the pressure and just keep things nice and casual for as long as possible.

The nest of skyhooks actually seemed to be quite decent and one in particular looked as bomber as a nut placement, which did wonders for my confidence. I managed to fiddle 4 of them over two reasonable sized edges. Surely together they would hold a fall...? They obviously had before but so had the Parthian Shot flake and look what happened there...
I was confident however they would not need to be tested so the helmet went on, the boots tied up and off I set. Smoothly arriving at the gear, I clipped in the rope and quickly blew on my hands to give them a boost. The next bit went fine, and still going strong I took the little left handed pinch. By this point it must have been too much for my little fingers to bear as they seemed to instantly numb up, the last drops of blood squeezed out leaving them verging on lifeless. I could almost feel myself falling backwards in slow motion. It was either jump off here or give it an almighty lunge and risk falling off anyway. I took the latter option and thankfully made it to the good holds and easier climbing. SAFE.

 The moment of truth...
©Jon Clark

Another huge relief and such a privilege to climb. It is hard to comment on the grade and I have a limited amount of experience in these things. French grade wise, 7c/+ ish seems fair, definitely no harder. I will say though that in no way should the route be taken at all lightly but if the gear is solid and you could absolutely guarantee it holding, then in some ways it climbs like a pretty bold, slightly sketchy but brilliant, sport route... Maybe that's taking things too far. Just try to keep in mind what happened with the shipwreck flake and Will Stanhope.

Check back soon for a short video of the day as JC was again on hand to capture all the action and I'd just like to thank Pete once more for his encouragement and patient belaying.  Cheers!

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