Written by Alan Hills
Photos by Jacobus & Clinton
After a long morning of climbing for the four of us, with varying degrees of success, we headed back over to The Cauldron.
Jacobus and Steve were done for the day and on belay duty. Clinton was headed up Bronze Up because a few thousand inconsiderate bees decided that the hole next to the chains of Ebola was a great place for a home, and The Cauldron is the best place to build up endurance for big wall FA’s in the Arctic, obviously. I was psyched to have another go at Switch Bitch, I hadn’t managed to better my previous high point but had reached it on both morning attempts and just knew that if I stuck that one move, I would be able to do all the moves on the route.
I arrived first and got all my gear ready while everyone else slowly made their way to the base. Wondering if I had been resting for too long since the morning or if I even had enough energy left for an attempt, I tied my knot and pulled on my climbing shoes. Jacobus asked if we should set up the video camera and I absent-mindedly replied, “Nah, we’ve got enough footage for today.” I rubbed my hands together and clapped off the excess chalk then reached up to the first crimp and set off up the route.
I reached the lower crux feeling good, the shlorky conditions from the morning session seemed to have disappeared. I hit the sharp crimp and wrapped my fingers over it, I was feeling solid and a few more moves saw me to the finger-lock. I breathed deeply and clipped a draw next to me, like I had always done, half a meter lower but the easier of the two bolts I could choose from. I reached across, grabbed the next crimp and set the wild dropknee. Reaching up for the intermediate and throwing for a sloping edge, I had reached my highpoint and was preparing for the inevitable, but my hand stuck. I bore down on it and continued through the last handful of tenuous moves to the jug that signalled the end of the route.
All I had to do was hang on for a few seconds longer, clip the chains, let out a whoop of delight and then we could all go and celebrate over a few beers or celery smoothies, or whatever it is that hardcore climbers drink these days, but something was wrong.
My arms were aching and I was pumped out of my mind, I heard things being shouted from below: “You’re there!”, “Clip it!”, “Come on!”
I grabbed some rope and reached up to clip, but I could feel that if I moved enough to reach the draws, I’d lose my grip. I dropped the rope and tried to think. I repositioned my feet slightly and tried again. I had nothing left in me, this was my last chance. I made my mind up and hoped for one of those ‘rope slides through gate and clips draw while falling’ miracles. I reached up to the draws with the rope in my hand and caressed the draw for a moment hoping to hear that reassuring ‘click’ before sliding away.
It was over.
I was falling.
I’d have to try again.
I was still falling.
Why was I still falling?
As numbed to the fear of falling and as confident in the sports climbing system as I was, I didn’t even have time to contemplate what was about to happen. The ground was arriving fast and I braced myself for impact. What seemed like centimetres from the ground the rope pulled tight and my feet slammed into the dirt. The arc of the fall and the tightened rope sent me skidding forward as my ass hit the ground and I gouged a small furrow out of the base of the crag before settling in a puff of dust.
For a few moments, there was a stunned silence in The Cauldron. I made the quick assessment that I knew everyone was waiting for. I wiggled my toes, then my ankles, moved my legs and checked myself over. It seemed as if I was all in one piece! I looked over at Jacobus, still swinging around a few feet off the ground, Clinton staring expectantly, Steve with his jaw hanging so low I could see his tonsils. I broke the silence with a laugh and exclaimed, “I got a new high point!” then a bit more laughter and: “I told you I’d be able to do all the moves if I stuck that hold!”
Needless to say there was a collective sigh of relief followed by the standard chorus of concern, “You alright?”, “Are you sure you’re ok?” and then by a few more serious realisations like “Fuck, It’s a good thing all of those rocks and that wooden stump lying next to you weren’t where you landed.” I dusted myself off and gingerly got up to my feet knowing that adrenaline can mess with your mind in situations like this. I stood up, untied my rope and said: “Dammit Alan! Why couldn’t you just clip the fucking chains!”
Normality slowly returned to our little corner of the world as everyone contemplated how very nearly a great day out climbing had been turned into a terrible day out climbing and that luckily the unthinkable had never happened. I got a chance to fully absorb my disappointment at having dorked a great send but know now that it is just a matter of time before I crush that bitch… I’m off to the gym to practice hanging from jugs.
Now, before anyyone decides to flame the belayer. Having played the situation over in my mind a few times, it was a number of things that led to me hitting the ground.
The first factor was obviously the runout above the draw that I had clipped. I clipped the draw that I had clipped every time I had done the top moves before and the one that seemed more on line and is easier to clip from the position you’re in. There is one hanger slightly higher and left of the climbing line, this one didn’t seem to be the natural one to clip, but perhaps it is.
I never thought that the total slack would add up to anything near to a ground fall, but with the additional slack required to clip behind your head, it must come close.
The second factor was the time of day. With the sun almost directly behind where I was, relative to my belayer, he could not see me against the contrasting light until after I had fallen when I emerged from the shadow and was silhouetted against the sky. When he saw me fall he sunk down backwards and the fact that he was dangling in the air afterwards tells me that all the slack was out of the system before I decked.
Thirdly, no one is expecting you to fall from a jug. I shouldn’t have fallen from a jug. He’s a good belayer and I still trust him with my life.
Side side note: I wanted to tell this story after I sent the route! It seems though as if it might be a month or so before I get back to The Cauldron
Ed’s note: Alan made a flying trip to sent Switchbitch (31/8a+) this last weekend