It has been a long time in coming, well it seems like it to me, but yesterday evening I reached the top of Escalatamasters, the route I had been projecting in Perles, Spain, my first 9a!
I loose count of how many times I must have said grades are not important, insisting instead it is the beauty of the climb and the moves that I search for. Yet for the last few years, hiding just a little way beneath everything else, was an urge to succeed only for a number. It might have been small, barely noticeable at times, but there it sat none the less, an ever present hope for something I thought perhaps I would never achieve.
But it’s a nice number, don’t you think? 9a. I hope you can forgive my shallowness?
In all seriousness I am very very happy. Its true that I had often thought about climbing a “9a” but up until very recently, realized I had never actually tried one. For the last few years that I have been more focused on Sport climbing, I became drawn by the challenges of Flash and Onsight. Perhaps because I wanted to prepare for such challenges as Muy Caliente, perhaps because I wanted to try to correct what I considered to be my biggest weakness? Or perhaps just because this was what Caroline loved to do, and following her up routes was an easy option (edit: not easy in a climbing sense, as following her up certain routes seems impossible at times, but easy in a “day to day at the cliff” kind of way).
Either way, red-pointing became something of a forgotten game, which is quite strange considering how much time I spent on a top-rop during my days on the Gritstone. If I fell on my onsight, by my 1st redpoint I would already be bored with the route. Spending more than one session on a project was almost unheard of, reserved only for the most magical of climbs.
And yet the urge was there. Popping up from time to time, long enough to realize this was something I did want, and if I was going to make it happen, there were two ways to go about it. Option 1 was to continue as things were, raising my fitness, gaining more experience, until the day came when I could climb a “9a” in a few quick tries – not likely any time soon! Option 2 would hopefully be a little quicker, but would involve me biting the bullet, finding a project, and working it to death!
In December I made the first step on my little quest in the shape of a visit to Spain. I wanted to chose a route of such high quality that even after several weeks and perhaps 10’s of redpoints, the days would still be fun, so what better place to come than Catalunya, the area with perhaps the highest number of hard routes in the world. 5 days were spent checking out various cliffs and several lines until I settled on the one that inspired me most – Escalatamasters, perhaps the most visually beautiful route I have ever seen!
A steep imposing prow of blue and gold, tracked by wiggling collonets transforms at half height to its polar opposite; a slightly overhanging smooth blue face, criss-crossed by tiny crimps and pinches. It’s a very odd mix of Jekyll and Hyde, fortunately with a good knee-bar in the middle where you can rest and perform your own personal transformation.
The first days progressed surprisingly well and I enjoyed the intricate and involved process of finding the many complex tricks to make each movement as easy as possible. I quickly linked the route in overlapping halves, and despite my initial horror at the size of the holds in the upper wall, found the second half quite comfortable when starting from resting on a draw.
Feeling confident, I began my redpoints, but immediately realized this would be a lot more than just sticking the pieces together. Despite feeling like you recover very well in the kneeebar, the 20m of steep athletic climbing leaves its mark, and the upper section feels like a different animal. Controlled static moves become fast awkward slaps, and my previously calm mind became an awkward cluttered mess.
Thankfully each attempt took me 1 or 2 moves higher. Whilst I wouldn’t say I was getting fitter in the route, I did feel like I was learning to deal with the exhaustion in a more efficient way. As each highpoint was reached, the feelings in the moves below became less of a surprise and I was able to better control my nerves on the following attempt.
A forced lay-off from a giant split tip meant motivation was higher than ever. I returned to Spain for the two final days before I would be forced to leave again, however my finger was far from perfect, requiring constant attention to stop the skin from opening again. I decided to climb the first half of the route fully taped, removing the tape at the rest if I felt good enough to make a worthwhile attempt. My first try of the day went better than expected and despite feeling more pumped than usual in the bottom, managed to reach a personal highpoint, falling just on top of the final really hard move.
My finger was holding together, a little battered, but still in one piece. I was happy with the progress and decided not to try again, saving my skin for one final attempt the following morning. As the day passed by and the wind picked up I found myself keen to try again – the idea of climbing in the route seemed fun, simply, and despite my previous logical plans, I decided to follow the flow!
20minutes later, pumped out of my mind, having just come out of one of those rare magic moments where everything somehow just works, I am shaking out on a huge jug with only the final easier section between myself and the chains. I’m terrified, almost too scared to go on for fear of wasting it all, but I do my best to clear my head, and eventually start climbing again.
The hours of practice take me into autopilot, as the moves so feared come easily and I actually enjoy climbing them… though nowhere near as much as I enjoy clipping the chain!