Over the weekend I was out climbing with a bunch of friends. It was one of those half social, half serious climbing trips where sitting around the campfire was as enjoyable as crimping edges on perfect Grampians orange stone. But one particular incident got me to thinking. I’d led a bunch of stuff on the Saturday and although I was pretty tired by the end of the day I figured that I’d sneak in just one last short sport-climb. All went well until after the crux, at the last bolt before the lower-off. I clipped the draw to the hanger but every time I tried to pull the rope up to clip in to the biner it would catch between my thigh and the rock. I was flustered and apparently snookered.
It was at this point that I realised I had to disregard the draw and continue on through to the top. The climbing wasn’t particularly difficult, the last bolt was just below my feet and I still had just enough juice left in the tank. The trouble was that every time I decided to go for it I suddenly felt an overwhelming desire to try and clip the draw instead. MUST….CLIP….DRAW…! MUST….CLIP….DRAW…! Eventually I burned all my fuel, lowered off and spent the rest of the afternoon kicking myself.
So, to make myself feel better I dug out a couple of old photos of myself on the Thornton Viaduct, near Bradford in Yorkshire, England. The year was 1982 and I was staying with my grandparents, barely a stone’s throw from the viaduct itself. Over a few months during that summer I became obsessed with ticking one of those incredible arches. The one I eventually chose looked every bit as enticing as most of the local grit routes, but at 37m it had the advantage of being three times higher. I decided against scoping it out on a top-rope and planned to instead work my way up the pillar, getting a little higher each day and then reversing the moves to the ground. The initial 25m of the pillar wasn’t too technically difficult and I quickly worked out the best way to climb it. The real difficulties, however, were in the last 12m. Here the stonework was much finer and with correspondingly smaller holds. On an almost daily basis I would climb up to the top of the pillar and from it’s narrowest point push on upwards, sometimes solving only a single move before fear took hold of me and forced me to reverse back to the ground.
On that last day I reached about 28m, still barely a couple of body lengths above the pillar’s narrowest point. By now I was at my psychological limit (a technical term meaning I was a hairs breadth away from shitting myself). From this point on the moves were substantially harder and I still wasn’t convinced that they were even possible. My Get Out of Jail Free card was the confidence I so far had in being able to reverse all the moves back to the ground, but now I had to make a decision. I either had to play my card one last time or tear it up and just go for it. There was no hesitation. I reversed all the way to the ground and never tried the pillar again.
Which brings me back to the climb that I wimped off on the weekend. I’m convinced that if that draw hadn’t been dangling in front of my face I wouldn’t have hesitated. I would pulled on through. Done and dusted. Job done. But it was and I didn’t. But that really isn’t my point. My point is this. If my pillar had have had a row of bolts up it I really don’t think I’d have got anywhere near to the high-point I did. That’s because I would have probably worn a harness and carried a couple of draws (you know, just in case!) and then, already having set myself up for failure, I would have got to the very first hanger and heard that same old song: MUST….CLIP….DRAW…! MUST….CLIP….DRAW…!