Trad climbing. The art of sticking bits of metal into similarly-sized cracks in rock, clipping them to ropes, and then hoping you don’t have to test your metal-bit-wedging skills by falling on one. Trad stands for the ‘traditional’ in ‘traditional climbing’, and Wednesday was my first experience of the arts involved.*
It kicked off like a dream in monochrome grey. Trusting the weather forecast is a bit like trusting a dodgy piece of gear: you’re really keen that it does what you expect but you secretly know that it might not when it comes to the crunch. Despite my misgivings and the morning drizzle, the crag dawned bright and sunny – we tied a rope to some metal stakes at the top of the sea-cliff we were to climb, threw it over the edge, and abseiled in.
Abseiling is a horrendously unnatural experience. Sure, it’s great once you’re skipping haphazardly down a sheer wall, but actually leaning back off a precipice, losing your balance, having to trust the rope and the anchor and the harness and the screwgates and ALL THOSE THINGS THAT COULD GO WRONG is pretty tough. First abseil of the day is a nerve-wracking experience – will the anchor hold, will I have to pick pieces of myself off the ground in a few seconds time, all that jazz. After that first hurdle it’s all giggles, laughter and trying not to burn your hands off with the rope. Feet on the ground, and the with all the gear we were carrying sounding like a morris dancing xylophone salesman, we set about climbing.
I was halfway up the first route when I saw a Cornish pasty wrapper float by me on the sea breeze, and I couldn’t help but notice that it looked uncannily like the one our lunch was wrapped in. Lesson learned: seagulls are the incarnation of evil in this world and will steal lunch from any location that isn’t armoured against them. Being helpless halfway up a climb was pretty frustrating, but not as frustrating as it was for my partner in climb who, while sitting at the top of the route belaying me, could but watch helplessly as the seagulls devoured an entire £1.50 of meat/pastry goodness. Little known fact: a seagull is capable of eating an entire cornish pasty in about 15 seconds and then flying away, which is probably the equivalent of me swallowing an entire roast meal and then running a marathon. Irritating, but nonetheless impressive.
Moral of the story: if you see seagulls, hate them.
Despite that, I managed to get up some good climbs, lead my first trad route (putting in all the protection as you go rather than taking it all out after someone – it’s more difficult as you need to have free hands to put things in and the stamina to deal with the time it takes) and the experience was a good’un. There is a wonderful point to trad which is missing from sport climbing. It sounds simple, but there is something really awesome about getting to the top of a climb and basking in glory. Sport you just reach the top of the route, rather than the cliff, so you never technically get anywhere. It’s also good to know that this is climbing you could do anywhere there is rock – you climb cleanly with nothing in place to start and nothing left behind when you’re gone. It feels like a useful skill rather than a purely recreational one. Useful is good.
And you know what? It’s even more worth it when you’re sitting on a clifftop gazing out over the sunlit sea, thinking ‘this is the life.’ Priceless.
At some point some gear got truly stuck in the rock and I stood there on some pretty small holds trying to remove them for a good 20 minutes. Eventually I gave up and finished the route, and lowered my partner in climb back down to try and retrieve some gear that had gotten properly wedged in the rock. It’s a shame I was taking this photo on my phone, as it really was quite spectacular and could have used a real camera to do it justice. *All the climbing I’ve done previously has been sport, which has bolts in the rock you can clip in to; the idea being you carry less gear on you and focus on the climb, not methods of protecting yourself should you fall.