Top Ropes and Tick Marks: Once Upon a Time in the Southwest (E9 6c)

Back in my Dad’s day (according to my Dad) head/redpoint tactics such as toproping, practising, tick marking, mock leading were for those climbers who were too rubbish to onsight or at least go ground up after a few tries. ‘Headpointing’ and ‘cheating’ for him and his friends were practically synonymous. Probably because anyone can do a route in 20 tries… right?

Up until a few years ago, I was almost always an onsight climber and I shared a similar perspective to my Dad.

But now I’ve crossed to the darkside and I see their value. Whether it’s a sport route, a boulder problem or E9, redpoint stress is well, very stressful. Mainly because of the self-doubt that creeps in, when you ask yourself whether you can actually do it; maybe you were just deluding yourself the whole time; perhaps you’re not good enough a climber after all. Even when you really believe you can do it – there’s still the time or money constraints, weather, skin, friends, fitness, injuries etc.

And that’s coming from me, who has spent at most about 5 days working a route. Hardly stressful compared to Scott Burk’s 261 days working the Nose. You’d pretty upset to find at day 240 that you’re actually shit at climbing, or you don’t have the time or money to come back. Or Leo’s 10-year stint on the prophet, the pressure of doing it the day before he flies home.

Sounds rubbish? Not really. When climbing is mostly about setting arbitrary challenges for yourself, you may as well go big and find a project.

Dave Birkett on the first ascent of once.. Alex Eves photo, stolen from UKC

So a week after finishing uni, as weak as a kitten, Charlie asks me if I want to go down and try D. Birket’s ‘Once Upon a Time in the Southwest’. Even though I’d tried it a month before with Neil Mawson and worked out how to do the crux, I was a little reluctant to give up the plan of going to Pembroke to get some mileage in, start getting some fitness back and generally have fun in the sun after such a horrible time revising for exams. Onsighting perfect routes above the sea with good friends? Sounds like heaven. But instead I go down to Devon to try one route with only a few days left before leaving the country. To stew in Charlie’s van, in the rain and in my own self-doubt: the routes too hard, the rain wont stop, the holds are snapping off, if one more goes it could be over, too hard for Hazel.. etc.

Me on the start of Once.. A classic ‘safety first, probably got a rollie in the other hand’ Steve Findlay shot.

Before I racked up for the route I had one of those ‘moments’. I looked behind me and there was a family just beyond the shade line, enjoying time spent by the sea tanning and watching a silly girl drag herself up a rock. I wondered what I was doing.

A little cold and a little too keen, I suffered from some disco leg at the start, but after the first crux I eased into it and it started to become apparent that I wouldn’t fall off and I would love it. At the top of that wall, thoughts of fun relaxing times in Pembroke seemed too easy and too boring. Of course the days stewing in the van were worth it for this. In the words of Si Wilson: I was ‘buzzin’… even more than I was after passing my driving test. I pulled over the top, wind whistling past me, loose dirt blowing in my eyes and I was psyched, psyched out my tree and a little sad that it was over, that I was standing at the top and not alone on that face crimping for dear life, onto those holds that I had come to know so intimately (and sorely miss those that had fallen). My 30 minutes buzzing for 4 days of stressing.

Even more pysched than me was my Dad who belayed me. So I guess my headpoint/cheating has to be worth something, even to an old-school, no-chalk using, onsighter like himself… runway tick marks and all.

One response to “Top Ropes and Tick Marks: Once Upon a Time in the Southwest (E9 6c)

  1. Hazel you’re my hero! Hardest I ever climbed was 6c, now I solo up beside my 4- and 6-year old daughters on nice easy 3s! Hope that in a few years we’ll be able to swing leads on something a bit more challenging. Congratulations on the El Cap climb, and keep writing and philosophising.

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