With so much emphasis on success nowadays, failure has become a dirty word. The media in particular wants winners. Failure is not ‘inspirational’. It’s easy to forget that we learn by our mistakes. But in a rollercoaster year Matthew and I have a scarily bad day on the hill to thank for teaching us a lot about our climbing partnership.
In September I was flown out to California as a Holman Prize winner. The award for blind adventurers will fund our attempt on Am Buachaille next year. In addition to meeting the organisers, San Francisco LightHouse For The Blind, I was invited to give a climbing lesson to a group of blind adults at Mission Cliffs. An indoor climbing centre very similar to The Castle in London where I do all my training. It was a wonderful opportunity to pass on some of the techniques and joy I have acquired over the years.
I returned to London keen to get stuck into the project that will culminate in the attempt on Am Buachaille next summer. First on the agenda: a trip to Sardinia in late October, to do a lot of planning and have a crack at another sea-stack – Pan Di Zucchero, a glorious island of white limestone, 2km offshore in Masua Bay.
However, in early September, Matthew suffered a minor stroke. Why, the doctors had no idea. His levels of health and fitness put most of us to shame. They also ensured his full and swift recovery but he, and I, were profoundly shaken.
He was training again within six weeks and seemed stronger than ever when I fell off a bouldering problem, caught the finger of my (fortunately ring-less) ring finger behind a hold and tore the muscle in my forearm. Scarcely as serious as a stroke but hardly ideal just nine days before a challenging climb.
Despite extensive physio I had serious doubts about Pan di Zucchero. A 130m sustained multi-pitch finishing with a 6b crux and approached by an abseil to an otherwise inaccessible ledge, it lay at the limits of my abilities even without an injury!
But Matthew was determined and climbing really well so, having aired my self-doubt, I bought a Tubigrip bandage, continued doing my physio exercises and kept the fingers of my uninjured hand crossed. And, when we landed in Sardinia things didn’t seem so bad. We spent a couple of days warming up on some excellent single pitch routes with no ill effects from our recent medical dramas. However I’ll confess it was a relief to discover the sea was too choppy to risk the crossing to Pan di Zucchero.
Instead we decided to bag ‘Le Grand Mammut’ – a five-pitch 150m cliff climb that looks out over Masua Bay. It’s graded 5b, 6a+, 5c+, 5c, 5c – which shouldn’t present too many difficulties…
We woke early and were at the foot of the crag by 9:30, by which time it was already hot. Once you’ve got past its tricky first couple of moves – on footholds worn smooth by the attempts of others – the first pitch is fun. It ends on a narrow ledge facing out to sea – in the full glare of the sun, which by the time I got there had climbed high into a cloudless sky. As we exchanged the belay Matthew asked how my wrist was holding up.
‘Fine’ I said, swigging down water and squeezing sweat from my Tubigrip.
The second pitch is the crux and at 35m the longest of the five. As I paid out the rope I willed Matthew to finish it quickly. There was no shade on the ledge. Sweat streamed from under my climbing helmet as if my head was being grilled. I knew I should get something over my head and drink some water but my hands were full, belaying.
‘Take!’ screamed Matthew from 20m above. As I drew in the few inches of slack the rope jerked and snapped taut by my ear. If only I could turn my back to the sun but on such a narrow ledge there would be no room to belay properly and it was too late to alter my stance. I’d just have to sweat it out.
At last Matthew shouted down that he was anchored. My head was pounding and I was beginning to feel sick. I’d been on that exposed ledge for the best part of an hour and couldn’t wait to get off. I should have drunk some water but was worried I might drop the daypack if I took it off. Also I couldn’t wait to escape that bloody ledge. So I unclipped my cow’s tail and began to head up. The first 15 m was a doddle and I began to feel better. Positive holds led up to a corner with a little shade and a big crack to follow.
I followed it up, only realising when I felt a tug at my harness that I’d deviated from the route and climbed above a quickdraw. I blinked away sweat from my useless eyes, swore and lay back one-handed from the corner crack to search the wall on my left for holds. Nothing – it felt as smooth as if it had been rendered. Smearing with my left foot I bridged out far enough to brush the ‘draw with my fingers. I leaned out further praying my foot wouldn’t slip.
Under the full glare of the sun again I felt dizzy. I fumbled with the quickdraw. My leg started to spasm and my foot began to slide down the face of the rock. Slick with sweat the fingers of my right hand slid from the corner crack, launching me on a pendulum beneath the quickdraw.
I cursed and yelled my apologies up to Matthew. I was starting to appreciate just what a ballsy lead this must have been – and why it had taken him as long as it did. I called up to him again, asking whether this was where he’d fallen off.
‘Nah,’ he replied ‘It gets harder further up.’
Groaning I unclipped the ‘draw and began to work my way around the bulge above it, following the rope towards the crux.
Here my memories, like the holds, get sketchy. The route meandered back and forth round an arête, repeatedly throwing me off balance. My footwork, never my strong suit, went to pieces and I began to fear that all the hanging off finger pockets would tear my arm muscle again. It throbbed in time with my head and I began to make more and more mistakes.
I whacked my head on the underside of a bulge and even as I praised the resilience of my helmet I felt my brain swimming from the impact. Flinging my right hand up in search of a hold I tipped out round the arête, lost my footing and cut loose entirely. As I tried to pull myself up my injured arm twinged and a wave of nausea flooded through me. I let go and hung there wondering which end my breakfast was going to reappear from.
‘Yeah, this is the crux,’ Matthew called down. ‘You’ll have to look for them but the holds are there…’ He hadn’t realised how much trouble I was in, couldn’t see me round the arête and under the bulge. I was panting hard, fighting to control my breathing and get my shit together. I gave it another minute or so then with a hoarse cry of ‘climbing!’ and, feeling strangely light-headed, started back up to where I’d fallen off. This time I made it over the bulge but again the rock face felt like it had been rendered and whitewashed. ‘Bridge out to your right’ shouted Matthew. ‘If you don’t mind going off the route there’s a gully you can follow for a bit’.
I groped around but found only thin air.
‘No you’re right’.
What was I right about, I wondered?
‘Right, Red, Right’
Woozily I realised what he meant, I stuck out my right, correct, leg this time and found the rock face. My left leg began to jitter like Elvis and, as I raised my arms to unclip the next quickdraw, I felt the energy drain from them. Another wave of nausea swept over me. I gulped down breaths to fight it and tasted blood as my dry lips cracked and split. I gagged and began to retch.
I was desperate not to be sick. I couldn’t afford to get anymore dehydrated. The knowledge that there was half a litre of water in my backpack was torture. I dared not try to get it, my hands were shaking too much. I had to get to the belay ledge.
I tried calling up to Matthew but only succeeded in producing slurred mumblings that did nothing to allay his worries.
‘How far away?’ I eventually managed.
I moaned. ‘I’m done. Sunstroke.’ I croaked.
There was a long silence. I sat back on the rope and tried to focus. About 20 feet above lay shelter and water. I groped at the rock above me. It felt impossibly steep and just moving made my head spin. Matthew was trying to talk to me. I heaved my thoughts back to focus on his words.
‘Can you climb up to me?’ He sounded worried.
‘I don’t think so. I feel sick.’
‘Shit,’ I heard him mutter. A minute or two later he called down again. ‘We’re going to have to ab’ back down. Can you remember how to set up an abseil?’
For the first time that morning I felt cold. My mind turned the question over painfully slowly. I wasn’t sure I could remember which foot was which at the moment. I began to work down the checklist: ‘…double rope through the ATC…’ I croaked.
‘Right’ he sounded relieved. I knew he knew this but needed to know that I did too, so he could double-check the procedure next to me. I guess he also wanted to find out how compos mentis I was.
‘I’m going to make you safe, take you off belay and try and work this out,’ he called down. ‘Okay?’
I mumbled something incoherent even to me, and pulled myself into the rock. Once off belay I slumped into my harness and let the fuzziness I’d been fighting flow through me. I don’t know how long I hung there. Next thing I remember Matthew was calling down to me.
‘I can’t set up an abseil with you on the rope. If you can climb to the next quickdraw you can clip in and rest on the ledge below it. Do you reckon you can do that?’ An imploring note had entered his voice reminding me that we were a partnership and relied as much on each other as our own abilities. I took some deep breaths and found solid holds for my feet.
The next ‘draw was out at about 11 o’clock to me. It was only 6-or-so feet but every inch seemed like a battle. My legs and arms shook and my head and balance swam but I made it and after a few attempts clipped into the protection with my cow’s tail. I took a long rest while Matthew busied himself with the rope. Now that I could hear him, muttering as he talked himself through what he was going to do, he seemed closer and I felt more safe and therefore more equal to the task ahead.
Again I ticked off the steps for an abseil, skills we’d rehearsed at The Castle before leaving London. They came back quicker now, more tangible. I realised that my position twelve-feet below Matthew made the risk of mishap much greater. It would be far safer to stick to what we’d practiced and abseil from a proper belay stance. I could sense Matthew’s discomfort with the situation as it stood and so began to grope around for hand and footholds.
I was also conscious that I had been sitting in my harness for too long. My legs felt heavy and I couldn’t be sure how much my wooziness was caused by sunstroke and how much by poor circulation.
My fingers traced a ladder of square-cut footholds up the left of the wall and a flake like an elephant’s ear up the right. I could and would do this!
I called up to Matthew to put me back on belay. Though he doublechecked that I felt up to it, the relief in his voice was audible. As I felt the tug of the rope at my harness I took a series of long breaths, unclipped my cow’s tail and began to climb. On any other day it would have been a beautiful finish to a hard-won pitch. The holds just seemed to appear where they were needed and soon I was flopping down next to Matthew on a narrow ledge. But I felt too much like death to appreciate anything other than that rest and rehydration were at hand. My head pounded and when I held out my cows-tail to make myself safe it was as if I were doing it via remote control. Matthew took it from me, then quietly slid a carabiner through two half-hitches making me secure before unzipping the day-pack and feeding me small sips of water.
‘That was scary,’ he said eventually. By now I was clutching the bottle, more terrified I would drop it than by anything else.
I nodded. ‘Sorry. I blame my Irish forebears, I just can’t take this heat, that sun.’ I wafted a hand at the fireball behind him careful not to move my head from his shadow.
He grunted. My retreating nausea was being replaced by a gnawing sense of guilt. Matthew was climbing well and we had an objective that I was proving unequal to. Against my better judgement, but knowing we had done the crux so that easier pitches lay ahead, I said quietly.
‘I could give the rest the route a go if you want to carry on.’
‘No f***ing way,’ he snapped. ‘I’ve had quite enough excitement for one day! Let’s just ab down and go for a nice cool swim.’
A wave of relief swept through me. The cool waters of the ocean lay just 200 metres below, and I made lying in them within the hour my new objective.
With both of us now focussed on our descent Matthew set up the abseil, talking me through every step as he did it, as much to reassure himself as remind me.
Finally we were ready and, after one last check, Matthew began to lower himself down to the first belay ledge. When I joined him there ten minutes later it was still baking in the full heat of the sun. I finished the water as I waited for Matthew to set up and ab off, wondering whether I could or should have done anything differently on my previous visit, before deciding that this probably wasn’t the best time to conduct a post mortem.
That came later, along with a fierce attack of the shivers, in the shadow of the cliffs, in a beach café, looking out over Masua Bay; when the full impact of what we had both just endured hit me.
‘I was absolutely terrified,’ Matthew confided. ‘I thought you were going to pass out and then just be hanging there so I’d have to climb down and lower you off from 60 metres.’
‘I was more afraid of being sick. I couldn’t afford to get more dehydrated. God, I’d have killed for a Camelbak! But I knew I had to keep going. I guess that’s what got me up to the belay ledge – eventually.’
‘I’m bloody glad you did. Only, by the time you decided to tell me, I’d just worked out how I could set up an emergency abseil. And I’d hauled up all that rope! I was knackered!’
‘Well sor..ree! Next time I’ll stay put then.’
‘Let’s try not to have a next time – eh?’
Silence, then… ‘Well at least no one died,’ we said in unison.
And with that we moved on. In the context of failures it could have been much worse. If we didn’t exactly triumph over adversity, we did at least overcome it and live to fight another day.
But as both of us agreed the following Friday in the Engine Room at The Castle, we have returned wiser and in some ways more confident climbers. For my part I needed a reminder that the sport I love is more than just a physical challenge. It’s about risk analysis, problem solving and above all, partnership. If I am honest, I think I have allowed my personal agenda of meeting and overcoming physical obstacles to blind me to the need to respect these other aspects of climbing.
Perhaps too I allow others to assume responsibility for me too easily. Indoors it’s not so much of an issue, but outdoors on a multi-pitch, it’s more important than being physically equal to the climb.
So, despite Sardinia being a bit of an epic, I am glad we failed to summit. Success should never be taken for granted and now I have a greater understanding and respect for the challenge we face as blind climber and sighted partner. All of which should stand us in better stead for our attempt on Am Buachaille next summer – where hopefully the Scottish weather will be a little cooler!