We have been on many trips recently, mainly climbing related. Yesterday we left the children with their aunt, and spent three and a half hours driving to North Wales. We stayed in the Tyn y Coed hotel, which was very friendly, although the beds were rather soft. The objective of the trip was a simple multipitch route called Grooved Arete, on Tryfan. It is really quite famous in climbing circles, and Richard has been telling me stories about it for years – his eyes shining with pride in past glories. I had always thought I would do it one day, even if perhaps climbing in Wales has never quite grabbed me in the way it does some people. I’m more of a fair weather sport climber, enjoying a frisson of fear on well-bolted routes in the Spanish sunshine – it involves no rope work, no route finding, nothing else to do but find the right moves, facing one’s inner doubts with brute force. Trad climbing in general (i.e. instead of clipping existing bits of metal, you have to place the bits of metal first, and then somehow secure your partner at the top) involves so many ways of making stupid mistakes that those inner doubts have plenty of time to surface and overwhelm everything you’re doing right with a general sense of worthlessness.
I have never done a true trad multipitch before; a bit of alpine multipitch doesn’t count in my head for some reason. I was keen to see if I could perhaps do some leading, as it was a few grades below my technical limit, and therefore I should easily be able to focus on placing the gear. Setting up the belay is my weakest area, as I’ve only done it once or twice, and in theory the price you pay for getting it wrong is death – if your partner falls and the whole setup collapses, then you are pulled over the edge of the cliff, with nothing to stop you falling to the ground. In reality you might be able to grab hold of something, and you might only break an ankle, but it still wouldn’t exactly make a great day out. So I find it quite hard to manage psychologically.
It was a very rare day of blazing sunshine. We parked up and organised all the equipment into our packs. Richard had taken the lion’s share of the weight, and as a result I strolled up the ramshackle path quite easily, chatting away about our friends, the nature of intelligence, relationships, the news. These are topics that form the mainstay of our trivial chatter on long walks or car trips – and of course stories of youthful glory in various athletic pursuits, with which we tend to burnish each other’s egos. I was also trying not to think about what I had signed up to. I saw the mountain above me, which was basically a big pile of crumbly rock. It was not beautiful, lacking the smooth granite lines of alpine peaks. I was suddenly feeling uninspired by the gentleness of the surrounding Welsh hills. It was not the dark tower of Ben Nevis, or any of the other imposing peaks in Glencoe; neither did it come surrounded by a whole mountain range of famous vistas covered in snow.
Richard told me the first few pitches were quite easy, but he decided to lead them anyway, on the basis that it’s hard to get into the mindset from the off. I was starting to feel that the whole enterprise was not going to be quite the escapist physical challenge I was looking for. Things are sort of hard at the moment, with our children having some possibly significant health difficulties. I struggle to manage the fear of an uncertain future, and I wanted to go climbing in order to a) be away from them a bit, and b) focus on something that was physically so hard that it crowded out all the other thoughts. As I started out on the first pitch, I quickly realised that the climbing itself was fairly easy, and left me plenty of headspace to freak out about the uncertainty of life in general. By the time we got to the third pitch, my shoes were squeezing my feet and making each move very painful, so I was pretty keen to just finish up the whole damn thing, get off the mountain and back to the car. It was taking longer than I had hoped; the usual fiddling with the ropes, plus the fact we were not alternating leads, meant it was all not flowing particularly well. Then on the fourth pitch I failed to retrieve a nice, shiny new nut I had bought when I optimistically bought my first rack – right before I got pregnant. I thought back to that carefree time, when none of this bad stuff had happened, when I had nothing to worry about and we went on a little weekend to Plas Y Brenin, where I messed about on a really cool big wall climbing course, learning about etriers (weird little rope-ladders) and self-belay systems. Back then, I was strong and much less fearful, confident in my abilities and happy to keep working at all the aspects of climbing that I struggled with. It is a sport that tends to cause a certain degree of psychological stress when it doesn’t go to plan. The whole idea, when it all comes together, is that managing that level of risk makes managing the everyday risks of life (like the what-ifs of car accidents, heart attacks, dementia, cancer, unemployment, mortgage rate hikes) much easier.
The problem on this particular day was that the everyday fears in my life are so overwhelming that I only just keep a lid on them, mainly by virtue of exercise and alcohol. As a result, the additional fear – however irrational – of falling and somehow ripping out the belay was throwing my carefully constructed castle of rational practicality into complete disarray. On the best pitch of the route, Knights Move Slab, I snagged one of the ropes under a bulge. In itself, this didn’t particularly frighten me, just pissed me off as I once again felt like a total muppet. I unthreaded the rope and Richard took it in. I then moved up to retrieve one of the nuts that had been running through it. Like an even bigger muppet, I failed to connect the lack of rope with the nut in my hand; my usual method of retrieving gear is to leave the quickdraw on the rope, unjam the nut, and then make sure that the last thing I do is unclip from the rope and attach to my harness. This was so ingrained in my brain that I unjammed the nut (a lovely new shiny blue one, another from my rack of optimism), and then let go of the whole thing, thinking it was on the now absent rope. Around that time, I kind of psychologically gave up completely, and simply sat there sobbing for a bit. I thought about all the times Richard had gone up this route with all his friends, the happy adventures of his youth, before we were together, or married, or parents. And I thought how much my frailty must disappoint him, spoil the happiness of those fun times past, and how maybe I’m just not cut out for this. I suppose, at the moment, I want security and comfort. I am like a toddler that wants the same bedtime story every night. I pictured myself going for a little scramble, then pottering around the shops in Betws y Coed, maybe with a nice glass of ice tea on a hot day. In my little reverie, the kids were with us, a few years older, running around; all their issues resolved and no more uncertainty.
So I got to the last belay, which was one of those rather enterprising setups where you’re leaning your weight out against the rock face, supported by some slings and cams. The belay itself did not frighten me; I trust Richard completely. He hasn’t got it wrong yet, and if he did on this route, the whole route is fairly well protected by various ledges anyway. That much rationality remained, and yet as I leant out and waited for him to set off up the last pitch, which was quite vertical, I was gripped with the general fear that everyone has – the fear of death in general. The fear that my life partner might die before me, that he might leave me behind with my worries and all the horrors the future may hold. I wailed and cried, “Don’t leave me, don’t go, don’t die”. He tried very hard not to look at me like I was a full-on crazy lady, reassured me, and off he went. It was fine, obviously. I seconded the last pitch, which was fairly straightforward, and we wandered off to the top. The top of Tryfan, in case my account has you itching to go, is a big pile of broken rock, with two equal-height slabs that mark the highest point. Ordinarily, I would probably think it was cool, having a peak that’s almost the same as most alpine peaks. On that day, I just wanted to get back home, and away from the moonscape.