Banks of cloud lowered the temperature in Strathspey, making a cool day up on Firestone a fine prospect. This time I was joined by Dave Macleod, keen for a look after seeing it while working his mega-route To Hell and Back on Hell’s Lum in 2007. I felt pretty calm and optimistic after my first session on a top-rope on Thursday, and felt sure that it would feel easier in the cooler conditions. I decided to go to the crag with an open mind, if I felt good on a top-rope I’d go for the lead, but only if. Dave was keen for the onsight – a very hard task on such a delicate and tenuous route. I’ve known Dave a wee bit from living over in Fort William, bumping into him in Glen Nevis and running endless laps of the Ice Factor bouldering wall, but this was the first time I’d been climbing with him, so I was looking forward to learning a few tricks from the master. I suspected that I was going to be shown up pretty rapidly as he calmly waltzed up the route.
My turn again. I was faced with THE decision. I knew that I could do the route. I knew the moves and where to go. I knew that if I didn’t get on the lead today I’d only have to come back another day, and all the time between now and then it would be eating away at me, challenging me, questioning me. For some reason the name of The Smiths song How Soon is Now? came into my head. Was now too soon? This was only the second session on the route; I’d expected that this decision was weeks or months away. That slide, thirty feet from the last moves to the ground, okay, it’s not going to kill you, but it’s definitely broken ankle territory, and what if you clip a heel and spin, landing badly? I tried to take all the nagging doubts and push them away, focusing on the positive – I know I can climb it, I know I can climb it. I’ll do it.
Inside the bubble I stepped on, vaguely aware of Dave above taking photos, gently snaking up the rock, right foot rock-over, left foot rock over. Standing on the mid-way ‘holds’ I suddenly became aware of the bubble bursting and realizing what was happening, where I was and what I was doing. Trying to re-focus I noticed how much I was shaking, adrenaline surging. Taking it all in I started the crux sequence, a tenuous series of smears rising leftwards to the crescent flake. Three moves to go, rock over left and match the horizontal fault, shaking, two moves, feet on bad smears now the rock steepens, trust trust trust. Then I feel a foot going, I try try to stay in balance but deep down know the battle is lost. I managed to shout out “Fuck, I’m going” four times before gravity took over and I was gone. Sliding thirty feet, picking up speed, hurtling at the ground. Bang. Shit. The first thing I did was laugh, I was okay. Was I? Picking myself up I could hear Dave calling down, seeing if I was hurt. Wow, I genuinely was okay. Besides bruising my heels and the odd scratch I was fine. Lucky bastard! We both giggled as the dark air diffused. Oh well, next time, I thought.
Dave on the last few hard moves before the crescent flake - the point I took the slide from
Relief: it's in the bag
Me again. I opted for another go on the top-rope to refine those top moves, and to see how my bruised feet would get on. With a slightly different foot sequence making the stretch to the crescent flake more in-balance I came down. Faced with the decision again, the thoughts began to swirl in my head once more. I really didn’t want to take that slide again, but I really wanted this route, and knew that whatever happened, I’d be doing it soon. If not now then maybe tomorrow or the next day or the next. I was here now, standing below it, with the moves fresh in my mind. Ding ding, round 2.
And this time it worked. Firestone, E7 6b, headpoint. Possibly the 3rd ascent. Slight hobble, big grin. Committing to those crux smears was still utterly terrifying, but this time I had enough mental strength in the tank to trust them and make the awkward stretch to the crescent flake, gently rocking over onto the easy slab above. Happy days.
So, big thanks to Dave for coming across and offering up the psyche, and to Jules for doing the first ascent 14 years ago. You’re a nutter!