Articles about sport climbing don’t often describe failure. In part, this could be because the basic premise of sport climbing is that if you work a route for long enough you will eventually do it. A premise that obviously doesn’t apply if what motivates you is on-sighting routes. In this mode, success and failure can be separated by the narrowest of margins, making on-sighting a very uncertain business. With failure comes disappointment which needs to be channeled to increase the likelihood of success on the next route.
On this trip we have sampled both the highs and lows of going for the on-sight on every route we have done. Two routes that will stand out for me because they fall either side of the success / failure divide are The Underclings at sector Arhi on Kalymnos and Confusion at sector Sucuk on the Datca peninsula in Turkey. They have many things in common, including having the same grade (7a) and both being quite steep.
The Underclings is long, 40m long. It starts easily with the difficulties ramping up until you hit the crux section at around 30m. On arriving at that point I felt reassuringly fresh and in control but then indecision crept in. So many holds at the crux were well marked by the chalk of other climbers that they suggested two solutions, either move left, up, and then back right, or go straight up. Straight up looked like it would involve more powerful climbing but my initial instinctive reaction was to go this way. My rational brain, however, was less convinced. Going left first was less steep and the holds looked like they were more heavily chalked. So this was the way I decided to go.
I stepped up and made quite a tricky pull into the undercut holds under the left hand side of the roof. These turned out to be horrendously greasy but I had no choice but to try and use them. I forced myself to move right to the small gap in the overhang where you need to pull through. My fingers were constantly sliding off the holds and I just couldn’t take a hand off long enough to reach into the next undercut which looked like it should be good enough to give me a bit of a rest. After much faffing and with rapidly tiring arms I managed to scramble back to a semi-resting position. After repeating these moves forwards and backwards about half a dozen times I was completely pumped. Somehow, I managed to find enough strength to reverse down to where I had gone wrong in the first place. Once there I knew I had at best one attempt to get through the crux before my arms gave out. After a couple of deep breaths I went for it and just managed to battle through the roof on to what I hoped was going to be easier ground. All I had to do was step up and rock over on to quite a good foothold and I would be able to take the weight of my arms. But the gods weren’t smiling. The next two holds were just as wet and greasy as the ones below the roof. I managed to hang on just long enough to get a quickdraw through the bolt and grab it with my left hand just as my right hand slid off. I’d blown the on-sight due to one small error and not trusting my instinct. After a short rest on the rope, I battled my way through the last few metres to clip the chain.
Lowering back down to the ground I was actually feeling quite good about the attempt. I had fought hard and very nearly made it. This positivity soon wore off and was replaced by the less pleasant feeling of disappointment and dissatisfaction. Why hadn’t I trusted my instinct? Why did I make such a stupid mistake? Why hadn’t I been able to find the extra ounce of strength to clip the bolt without grabbing the quickdraw? Why hadn’t I just gone for it and not tried to clip the bolt at all? All unreasonable or illogical thoughts but you can’t really use logic to control how you feel.
What you can do is use the experience to spur you on to try harder in future and the opportunity to do this came just a few days later. It was our first day in Datca. We had done a few relatively straightforward routes at Sector Sucuk and I decided I would finish the day by doing a route called Confusion. Unlike The Underclings, you are very quickly into the hard climbing on Confusion. It goes up a gently overhanging wall using a combination of disappointingly small side pulls and flat holds. No one move is desperately hard but working out what to do isn’t easy and there are no rests. It is the sort of climbing that saps your strength very quickly. None of the hand holds were quite as good as you wanted them to be and the footholds were small and sloping and it wasn’t long before my forearms were completely pumped.
Decisions on where to go and what to do next were being made solely on instinct. At the same time, the rational side of my brain had to work overtime to try and ensure that I stayed calm. At three separate points I came within a hairs breadth of falling, only minute adjustments to the position of my foot on a toe hold or the angle I was pulling on a finger hold kept me attached to the rock. I had moved into ‘mind over matter’ territory, it seemed almost impossible that I wouldn’t fall. Only the determination not to get our time in Datca off to a disappointing start by repeating the experience I had on Underclings kept me going. But still, I have no real idea why I didn’t fall off.
Eventually, I made it to the good hand hold at the end of the crux and, just like on Underclings, it was wet. This time though fate was much kinder and it was large enough, and in-cut enough, for this not to matter too much. It was possible to hang there for a minute and compose myself for the final few metres of climbing up to the chain. Now the pressure was on not to mess up with the finish line in sight making me approach the last few moves with more than my usual hesitancy. At last, with a surge of relief I was there.
Lowering down the elation hit and this time the post stress euphoria didn’t fade into disappointment. This is what on-sight climbing is all about. The feeling you get when you have tackled the unknown, pushed yourself to the limit physically whilst using all your mental strength to stay calm and continue to move with precision, is magnificent.
Sport climbing routes can lack character and individuality. Often the pleasure comes from the physicality and joy of movement that climbing brings but when this is the case it can be difficult to remember and distinguish one route from the next. When you give your all physically and mentally then the experience becomes unforgettable. Whilst it is two weeks since I failed on The Underclings I can still remember all the moves and the thoughts I was having when trying the route. Despite the disappointment of falling off these are good memories. The grade of the route is irrelevant to this. Almost by definition the most intense experiences will occur when you are climbing at your limit. It is irrelevant whether that limit is 6a, 7a or 9a, the experience will be just as rewarding.