Wednesday, 11 July 2007

Helmet's Story

Helmet and his Shiny Blue Coat

This is the sad story of the Petzl Meteor II no. 13,456 Helmet . Helmet was created in the Petzl factory in 2003 and given a wonderful metallic blue coating. It was here that Helmet learned of the privilege of his purpose: he was to protect his owner’s life and ensure his owner could climb with increased safety. Helmet was shown many gruesome images of what could happen to peoples’ heads if a helmet was not worn; Helmet now felt suffused with purpose and meaning, even vowing to make the Ultimate Sacrifice himself, if it meant that his owner would live on.

In the shop, many people tried on Helmet and commented on his nice colouring, but Helmet ignored them. He wasn’t there to make people look nice. Finally a young lad tried him on and Helmet just knew this was going to be his owner. Helmet’s heart lifted when he heard his new owner chatting to the shop assistant “Aye, I am going up to the North West this weekend, and thought it was time to get one of these lightweight jobs. Should be good for the winter stuff too”. A proper climber then! Helmet looked forward to a long and fruitful relationship with his owner. Helmet got worn a few times in the wind and sunshine and even acquired a few dents-the mark of a real climber’s helmet!

Helmet and me, Expecting To Fly E4 6a, Stac Pollaidh

And then the long dark waits in the back of the cupboard started. At first Helmet reassured himself, that not everyone could climb all the time not even this super keen lad. But from time to time, Helmet noticed that the other gear would go missing for days at a time. So, the Lad was climbing without him then! And with the nuts and cams too! Helmet felt betrayed, hadn’t the Lad brought Helmet to protect himself just like all the other gear? Surely not to be stuck on a shelf collecting dust, sinking deeper and deeper into a purposeless depression.

A rare outing for Helmet on Angel, Etive Slabs. Helmet came in very useful on this pitch as I fell off twice getting to this point and slamming into the lower slab... (S.Richardson)

One magical day, Helmet got taken winter climbing and he really showed the Lad what he was made of then as he deflected all the snow and ice that came tumbling down and even once, an axe that popped out of a placement. Helmet was ready to forgive the Lad if it meant more days like this but sadly, he never got taken out onto the white stuff again. One time, Helmet was put in the bag and taken off to a crag where he simply sat on the grass and didn't get worn at all. He even heard the Lad saying to his partner that because the crag was steep and the rock solid, he didn't need to wear a helmet!

Hadn't the Lad learnt that rock is unpredictable stuff and anything could happen like a foot slipping and taking a swinger into a jaggy corner? Or when a flake decides to detach itself onto a belayer? Or what about a backward fall onto spiky boulders?

Helmet got angry at being left on the shelf for longer and longer periods while the other gear went out and had all the fun. Occasionally some of gear didn’t come back, having made the Ultimate Sacrifice for the Lad. Helmet now hates the Lad and wishes that someone who did not climb such "steep and solid rock" had chosen him. Resigned to his fate, Helmet collects dust and dreams of days of feeling the sunshine and wind...

Sad and angry, Helmet sits and waits and collects dust

Thursday, 5 July 2007


Wednesday, the day for our mid-week transfer to Mingulay from Pabbay. I wake up to the sound of heavy rain on the tent. I go back to sleep. Nobody even bothers to check the bay to see if the boatman appears. Everyone seems to be chilling out today, Dan and I don’t feel too bothered about get anything done; down time after the excitement and stress of new-routing the previous day.

Thursday, a much brighter day. The boatman picks us up. I ask how the weather’s been on the mainland as we’ve had it pretty good with three days of solid sunshine: “Floods. England. Rain.” A man of few words but gets his point across without any fuss. We all feel smug, soaking in the sun and the fresh wind whilst knowing the rest of the country is being soaked.

The last time I was on Mingulay three years ago, I had a bit of a mare on the Creag Deargh (the Red Cliff), an immaculate face balanced a 100 meters above the sea and choss. I lost my bottle, to put it bluntly on an E6, and retreated with a bad case of the wobbles. This time I wanted to face an old demon and get on the hardest route on this cliff, Steve Crowe’s The Scream E6/7.

Aren’t belayers wonderful people? Not only do they stand for hours on a small ledge the size of a chocolate bar holding your ropes but they also put up with your repeated down-climbing and resting on ledges whilst you wait for the sun to dry out the rock. And after many aborted attempts at the crux with the ensuing down climb to jugs whilst you try and work it out. And then they have to listen to your Tarzan like yells as you swing out ,high upon the void, hand traversing and kung foo-ing sloppily as your feet regain the rock. Yes, they are fantastic people indeed. Very strangely, Ali couldn’t be bothered leading anything after his three hours of belaying me on The Scream

Another hard route repeated, another down-grade? I felt that The Scream, was hard E6 but did not warrant the original split grade. Yes, there is a run-out bit, but this is on good rock with fantastic gear in a flake and the technical crux is only just above this flake, plus, the entire lower section was wet up to this point…

But, I can’t help but feel that I am turning into a serial down-grader of routes especially with these split grades. Credit to Steve for climbing this route, absolutely amazing effort for the ground-up (shame that hold snapped on the first ascent, eh?), however this is part of the problem when climbing new routes and the subsequent grading.

Contrast following a route description and knowing the difficulty, even knowing exactly where the crux is to climbing into completely unknown territory with knowledge of absolutely nothing ahead of you: no idea if there is gear, no idea how hard the moves are going to be, no idea how good the rock is, no idea where the line really goes and no idea where you are going to end up on the cliff. A whole bag of uncertainty compared to simpler task of just following the guide and pulling hard on some holds.

So, of course it’s going to feel harder when onsighting new routes as you hold on harder and climb more conservatively: this approach gets reflected in the proposed grade. It happened with my own route, Geomancer which Dan repeated only a few days earlier, going from E7 to E6. Basically, repeats of routes first done in this style may not feel as hard on the second and third ascents (or is that a gross generalisation?).

Part of the problem with down-grading routes, though, is that it can be perceived as a personal slight towards the first ascentionist. The down-grader in some cases is seen as saying “I found this easier than you, therefore I am the better climber”. But personally I think I am guilty of the attitude that if I can climb something then it just can’t be that hard, in a kind of inverse modesty, conveniently forgetting the amount of effort that the route required. I am glad grading’s not an exact science because it fuels about half my conversations with other climbers!

Team ascents of the four star Big Kenneth E5 6a on Dun Mingulay were made the following day and the rest of trip passed by in a more relaxed vibe. Everyone myself included seemed a bit climbed out and lacking in psyche by the last two days. Poor Fiona, though had a major fright abbing down after her partners only to discover that the abseil rope had been completely shorn of the sheath 70 metres above the maelstrom (don’t worry, she made it out alive). Whilst staying in Castlebay overnight on the way back, I heard that some very drunk visitors had managed to row out to the Castle and scaled the church roof during the night…tut tut.

(Apologies for lack of photos on this post-Nobody could be bothered taking any pics by the time we got to Mingulay)