Wednesday, 19 August 2009

In the shadows

It has been a strange year for me climbing-wise so far.

We did quite a lot of climbing over the winter and spring, and at the start of April I led my first HVS, Lakeland Cragsman at Sergeant Crag Slabs, Borrowdale. It may be something about the name of the route, because although I've probably done trickier VSs, I started to feel like I was getting somewhere.

A month later, however, we headed to Pembroke for May Day Bank holiday weekend. I'd been to Pembroke a couple of times before at Easter, and although I'd certainly been intimidated by the place, I had fond memories. However, this time, for some reason, I wasn't in a great frame of mind for climbing.

And it was busy - every climber in Britain, and a few from elsewhere seemed to be packed into this picturesque little corner of Wales. Add to this a sea state that meant the lower ledges were getting very wave-washed and it still being bird banned season, and the easily accessible, non-soggy crags were heaving.

On the Sunday, we headed to Crystal Slabs to meet up with friends there as G had manflu and, unusually, didn't want to climb much. It was, inevitably, somewhat crowded. No VSs were free, so I headed up Crystal Edge feeling somewhat resigned. After romping up the easily angled slab, I had words with myself, placed a good cam and then pulled over the overlap. I realised I only had a couple of moves to make and life was about to get a lot easier. I reached for a small hold, and then another on the arête, and then went to work my feet up and rock over onto a tiny ledge on the arête. I pulled up, moved my feet.... and then suddenly I was pitching over sideways, off the edge of the slab, with my gear some 8 feet below me.

I tumbled down the corner, knocking various bits of me against the perpendicular walls, letting out the occasional clichéd 'oof'. And then I stopped. It was time for that horrible few moments post-incident where one has to take stock of the damage. Only my left arm seemed to hurt, though nothing was sticking out at funny angles. I steadied my voice, already embarrassed at making a spectacle of myself in front of the hordes, and called for G to lower me down.

Once I'd been through the tiresome business of going into shock and sitting for 20 minutes or so with my legs pointing back up the slab, I dared have a look at my elbow. I'd ripped my windshirt. And those blood stains were going to be a pain to get out.

We packed everything up, and G carried everything back to the top of the crag whilst I staggered after him, and dripped blood back to the car. The rest of the day involved a scenic trip to Haverford West A&E for an x ray and stitches, then a potter round Pembroke (after I'd changed my no-longer-beige climbing trousers for something less scary for the general public).

We made it back up to the Lakes the day after. It was a couple of weeks until I could bend my arm again (which made life more difficult than I would have imagined), and another four or so weeks until it felt nearly normal again and fit for climbing.

However, my head has taken longest to mend by far. After an initially good start at getting back on and leading, I felt I was becoming more and more scared every time I tried to lead something. As soon as I stepped off the ground or the belay, my head would cloud with dark thoughts, and I would become convinced I would somehow sabotage myself, and throw myself off the crag. Even though my gear had clearly held well when I fell, I became convinced I couldn't place it, that I didn't know what to do with this assortment of shiny, jangly stuff weighing me down. Moreover, would it stop me from getting hurt again? I very much doubted it.

I rather wondered whether I would manage to enjoy climbing again. I had enjoyed following the occasional route, and spent a lot of time bouldering, with some (relative) success, but as soon as I found myself on the top end of the rope, the chattering demons massed again, I would get a few feet up, gibber, retreat, cry. Repeat, repeat, repeat.

However, as summer passes, I'm starting to feel this change. I led an easy (but run out) sports route at Foredale Quarry (never the most reassuring of places), and it actually did feel easy. For the first time in ages, the fog of panic didn't descend when more than a few feet up. I felt relaxed. I didn't even mind so much when I stepped things up and tried to lead the next route at my usual lowly sports grade - an rested and flailed on the crux. A week or so later, I also managed to do my first V3, at Fairy Steps, Lancashire, and felt that I was starting to enjoy pushing myself again, that maybe I'm able to climb after all.

Of course, it shouldn't matter to me. But it does.