A flying lesson

Posted by Niall Grimes on 31/03/2007
Flying Buttress. Photo: Jamie Moss.

Big Lars the German raved about it loudly. Paul immediately dispatched himself around the corner to do it too. Not long later he bounded back: “Wow, you’re right it’s brilliant. You have to go and do it, it’s really easy.”

Well I remember my first day on Grit. Myself and Paul had travelled far to visit the area, the crucible of British climbing, and, after a night on a Sheffield floor, we had now hitched out to the hallowed ground that was Stanage Edge. Now, in the summer sunshine, it stretched out before me.

This was the fabled grit that I had heard so much about. So many routes, so many stories; the risk, the buzz, the heroism. Endless yarns of balls-out solos, skin-of-the teeth topouts, gearless grapples. In fact, such were the stories, I truly remember wondering how anyone ever survived a day’s climbing on the stuff. So it was with a blend of awe-inspired curiosity and terminal terror that I walked up to the mighty edge that July day. Gritstone. The climber in me talked loudly about ‘going for it’. The coward in me whispered that the important thing is to survive the day. Don’t get into trouble. Just take it easy.

We met some friends there, Lars, and an Austrian friend of his, Bobby, and excitedly started soloing about. I, on some classic Severes, while the rest seemed to dive straight into VSs and HVSs. I watched with awe as Lars soloed the fabled Flying Buttress Direct. I had seen pictures of this before, and hoped to lead it after we had warmed up. He stretched confidently across a huge roof, feet casually hanging free between reaches, and at the end of the roof he let a great whoop.

Watching it gave me the willies, and I sneaked off round the corner where Paul was topping out on a HVS. I found a HS nearby, and carefully climbed it. Lars giggled round the corner to us, and babbled that we had to go try it. I muttered something about wanting to try something different, but Paul did as was suggested. When he returned and added his voice to the calls that I should do it, I gathered myself, and promised to go and have a look. I stood below the slab, and tried to find the motivation.

“Right,” I said, with an air of conviction, and loud enough for me to hear. I ambled up the slab, doing it smoothly to make myself feel like a good climber. I am a good climber, aren’t I? At the top of the slab the overhang stuck out like a gibbet. Big jugs? Easy? From a deep horizontal break at the junction of the two angles I leaned out and groped about for an easy way. Nothing. I could tell there were holds in a break a little farther, but I couldn’t reach them from the jugs I was on. The option was to move out using a crimp on a pointed block. This small hold would allow a longer reach, but to my jug-hungry grasp, it felt small and unsure. I tried it a few times, making little short-armed reaches before deciding I would need to be a bit bolder.

No one’s looking, no one can see me here. I could sidle left and do the original Flying Buttress. That gets three stars, that’s a good tick. Or I could just go down. Stood there on the threshold, it felt like to go up would make me a good climber, a gritstone natural, a bold thrusting mover. I imagined myself swinging confidently across good holds, awakening my innate affinity with this age-old rock, tracing a proud line through the likes of Dawes, Fawcett and Joe Brown. However, to go down would mean that I was a bad climber, had failed on my first day on gritstone, just another scared hopeful without a hope. A bumbly.

Right. Feeling the weight of the decision pressing me from below, I felt I should give it a better-looking go. With three chalk-ups for each hand, I took the small crimp, walked up the slab, and grabbed for the break above. Got it. Oh no. I was a bit surprised at myself, and before deciding to do so, I released from the crimp, brought my left hand up to the break, and with that, my feet cut free. I threw them up level with my hands on the jutting break, and then another couple of moves led to another break, where I paused. By the time I looked down to where I had been, to where I wish I now was – where, emotionally at least – I still was, it was too late. I had stopped. I tried to move up, but had lost the drive. My hands felt above me for escape jugs, but came back empty. It should have stopped now. I should be cruising to the top casually, then strutting back to the others to agree, yes, steep and easy, such fun. Why had I let them make me do it? Why was I here? I had known I hadn’t wanted to try this.

Once again I tried to move up. Holds felt desperately poor. And which way to go, right, left, straight up? I definitely didn’t want to go the wrong way. I hung on while I thought about it, one foot up level with my hands, the other hanging free below. I became aware that I was now starting to get pumped. I looked up at the options. I looked back at where I had been, and where I longed to be. I knew that in the pumped state I had allowed myself to get into, there was no chance of reversing. Then I looked down at the ground thirty feet below, where rocks and pointed boulders jumbled about. Looking back on this event, what surprises me most is the calmness with which the next thought passed through my mind.

There’s nothing I can do. I will hang here until I can hang no more, then I will fall off and die.

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