Tuesday, October 17, 2006

A fast sloth!

The Roaches is one of the great four classic gritstone crags (the other three being Stanage, Froggat and Curbar). Its lower tier contains many true grit challenges, among them the super classic, and perhaps one the most famous roof climbs in The Peaks: The Sloth (5a HVS). A truly horrifying overhang with massive holds that is a must for any aspiring trad climber.

I had seen this route two years ago in my first visit to The Roaches, nobody was climbing it that day, and I could only dream of ever tackling something like that. But time passes by and we get stronger, and after having bagged one E1 and another E2, there was no excuse for me anymore not to do this route. So being at The Roaches again this weekend meant that I HAD to tackle it. I spent the whole Saturday morning pondering it, looking at it from far away, watching one candidate struggling and falling off, just to get back on and conquer it. What a route.

In the afternoon my moment of reckoning arrived, I had to do a route, and it was to be The Sloth or nothing. Like a doomed animal I approached the base of the climb, and slowly went up, getting closer and closer to the dreaded overhang. As it drew nearer, it became more and more terrifying, and my level of disbelief in myself kept growing and growing. Just at the bottom of the overhang there is a big 'cheese' block where one big sling can be put around. This is really sound protection, but being right at the bottom means that falling at the crux of the overhang implies a whipper and a big smash against the lower wall and ledge below. Indeed, stories abound about broken ankles and shattered egos, giving this climb a bit of a reputation.

At the crux point there is a wide crack where a bomber hexe can be placed, but you have to put this piece of gear while you are hanging in the 'sloth' position, while your strength is being drained away and your brain becomes increasingly unsettled. I tried three times to reach the crack to place the hexe, and three times I was unsuccessful and climbed down to the lower ledge. The fourth time would be the last try. My right arm was already pumped, and I would not have the strength for a fifth attempt. So it was all or nothing. Get to the top or fall down.

I took the biggest hex and put it firmly in my mouth, and set off to conquer the mighty roof. I tried to keep my concentration, placing my feet carefully, laybacking my way up the overhanging flake, jamming my left foot into a big block, and bridging with the right one. One pull up on my right arm and I was able to stretch and place the hexe, a truly beautiful placement. I kept my nerve and confidently took in some rope and clipped it to the newly placed runner. After that everthing happened in a flash. My left hand reached for the upper flake followed promptly by the right one. Big handholds kept appearing all the way, as I sprinted up. At the critical point I reached the famous upper crack, where a solid fist jam helps the final push. As I put my right fist into the crack it felt like melted butter, it wasn't going to hold, but I had no other chance. The hex at that point felt like it was placed miles below. With a final push of blind faith, I let all my body weight on the jammed hand, and thanks God, it did hold. My left hand finally reached the final jug and milliseconds afterwards I was finally over the roof, with my right knee firmly jammed into the upper off-width crack, panting like I had just ran a marathon. The rest of the climb was easy, and as I reached the safety of the belay, I could only gaze into the distance and admire the impressive view, the valleys bellow engulfed by the autumn mist. And there, relieved and happy for a job well done, you discover why trad climbing is so fascinating!

Yours truly on his little epic (The Sloth, 5a HVS):

Saturday, June 10, 2006

Fast Grip - E2!

I'm psyched. Last friday went to Avon Gorge, Bristol, and lead my first E2!!!! Fast Grip, a fascinating 5b that climbs for about 35m following a groove system that is poorly protected, the hardest move being an awkward mantelshelf protected by three very dubious micronuts, and then a 5m runout to the next peg! Highly recommended!

Sunday, February 26, 2006

Scottish misery

Some people argue that mountaineering is about pain and suffering, and that true mountaineers are those that can withstand or even enjoy miserable times in the hills. The week has just ended and I am back from a trip to Scotland, where I got more than my fair share of suffering, and I can truly say that I didn't enjoy it.

On Monday 20th February 2006, I headed with a bunch of friends to the North Face of Ben Nevis. We decided to tackle the classic, easy (grade II), Gully Number 2. We were pretty excited about the climb, and after about a 3-hour walk from the car park we were at the bottom of the gully, past a couple of climbers that decided not to go up for fear of avalanche. The snow was very soft that day, knee deep, very hard going. Nonetheless we headed up the gully, unroped. The couple decided to follow us after all. At the bottom a team of four German climbers just arrived intending to do the route as well.

The climb was pretty beautiful. We easily overcame a couple of small icefalls, and struggled a bit because of the strong spindrift. My french mate Pascal reached the top first. He stayed below the cornice waiting for me and our two friends to arrive. I was a couple of metres below him, when suddenly I started to slip. I tried to dig my ice axes firmly in place and kick my crampons in place but I kept slipping ... I looked up and to my horror I saw a crack developing and widening quickly on the snow all around me. The windslab I was standing on had collapsed. I managed to shout "avalanche" and a few milliseconds later I was sliding at full speed down this waste pipe of a gully. The Ben Nevis had flushed me down mercilessly. I slided very fast, trying to self arrest unsuccessfully. I kept trying until at some point I tipped over, my feet kind of stopping and my whole body whipping around, I started to roll wildly, hitting everything on the way down. The ride was so wild that I just thought that I would kill myself. Suddenly I stopped in the soft snow of the lower slopes, shaken but relatively unhurt. I lost both Ice axes. The four German climbers where still at the bottom of the gully and hadn't started climbing yet. They kindly came down to me, they had found one of my ice axes. They checked if I was ok. They draw my attention to two people further down the slope. My two friends had been avalanched as well! The German guys were pretty helpful and helped us down the slopes to the CIC hut. There we managed to recomposed ourselves and head back to the car park.

We found Pascal on our way down. We later lernt that the couple that was following us up the gully happened to be just below one of the little icefalls inside the gully and we just flied past over them! And it seems they didn't even realised! Went to the hospital in Fort William were we were checked over and found to be fine. We also lernt that the avalanche hazard for that day was grade 3 (considerable), with hight risk at North East facing slopes with unstable windslabs and snow over 900m, with special mention to gullies!

The rest of the week was filled with an easy traverse of a lower Munro and returning to Ben Nevis were Pascal and I tackled Castle Ridge (grade III). Beautiful but miserable. The wind at the top was hurricane like, and I kept climbing with visions of my body rolling down the hill and over the rocks, the snow slabs breaking underneath me! My biggest regret is that in these occasion I didn't manage to conquer the Ben's summit! I'll probably head back during the summer to do the easy 'tourist' route . . .

Gully Number 2 (red arrow) from the CIC hut:

The slab avalanche started near the top (top arrow) below the cornice, and I ended up well below down the lower snow slopes (bottom arrow)

About to be avalanched: looking down gully number 2