Memorable is such a broad word; what makes a climb memorable, that really sick beta sequence from projecting it? Is it the rock that you’re on? How about the view? They are just a few of the many things to consider. I want to tell a story that started when the climbing world collided with mine and nearly took me out in the process.
Being a Liverpool boy, I’m slightly trapped in a little corner of the climbing scene in the UK; I suffer from a range of mental health related disabilities and as a result I am unable to drive, which creates an issue when the rock starts calling. I know what you’re thinking but, I assure you, this isn’t a blog of complaint. Liverpool itself has a couple of decent bouldering crags but the surrounding areas of Preston, Cheshire and Runcorn all offer excellent examples of bouldering and lead – there is more than enough to get on. Sadly, with most of it being either sandstone or grit, weather becomes a major player when it comes to climbing outdoors. Sandstone is shut down from early autumn to mid spring, and grit being out of action from late spring to late autumn after the heat and humidity has passed makes for short windows for getting routes ticked if you stay local.
I have a bit of a soft spot for the sandy messes that are our crags. What’s left over from quarrying and excavation is an outdoor paradise in the heave and flow of urban life, a slice of calm. One memorable thing that stands out to me was finding my “nemesis” and what it took to beat it.
"Just another fifty (6a+*)"
Let me give you some back story, I feel this needs a lot of context. Back in 2014 I was still pretty fresh to climbing and finding out a lot about my abilities; it was also the same year I was prescribed medication that was advised as a promising treatment for my mental health issues. One of the negative effects was weight gain. I gained just shy of 7st 5lb (48kg) in less than a year. At the peak of my weight, seventeen and a half stone, I was heavily sedated and sluggish. I trained to try and combat my weight issue and still made efforts to climb regularly. One day, we headed out to Frogsmouth Quarry for a few hours of climbing, everyone was on great routes and it was an awesome time. I had been there a year previously and loved it, this time was a different story. I had my eyes on a route which was bouldery to start with and lead up a nice face of pockets and an evil mono to boot!
Now, I’ll admit I’m stubborn but looking back, I was about to be humbled, hard. At 6a+ this was within my pre-medicated range and I felt daring enough to have a crack at it; so I did, and I failed. I shot off the thing before I passed the first clip, shut down, upside down and beaten. I spent the rest of the day belaying and replaying it in my head. I had to make a choice: give up or fight back. I took three months off to figure things out; take my medication and be stable but sedated and unfit, or stop and find another way.
I end up choosing the latter.
In mid-2015 I came back to the wall and I trained, I went right back to basics and started fresh. In two months I had lost almost two stone, I was becoming flexible again, I could feel my muscles hardening and I could climb for longer each session.
Just before my first lead attempt during medicated period: 13-4-2014.
Picture by James Cutler
Fast forward a year, a year of sweat and grit. I mean it when I say I was furious. Being shut down on this route, “just another fifty”, made me see red. I couldn’t get it out of my head, it drove me harder than any Shaun T exercise video ever could and it was apparent to a number of people that I was on a mission – but only the people who saw the condition I was in that day knew what the driving force was. Climbing became a pathway for me to centre my mental state and take time away from being disabled, ill and reclusive; it brought me into a circle I never knew existed and a camaraderie that I had never experienced before.
This puts us to May of 2016. It was just a regular day, the weather had been pretty dry through the late spring and we were getting some pretty warm weather. I was spending time with my girlfriend, Alison, when one of my climbing pals gave me a call and let me know he was having a climb at Frogsmouth and the conditions were decent; naturally I asked him about the “nemesis”. Not going to lie, I was doing the suspense lean and everything at this point.
“Looks good man, you coming?”
I was there; I spent mere minutes packing my gear, camera equipment and even my drone and with my curious partner in tow (at this point she had no idea what was going on apart from we were going to a rock face to do a thing) we were off. I explained the situation as we boarded the train to Runcorn and told her about what it meant to me; she agreed it was the right time to try again.
Covered by a thick canopy of greenery, this old sandstone quarry doesn’t see much sun in the warmer seasons but if it’s dry, it’s a wonderland of huge lumpy pillars, straight vertical pocket fests with a smattering of traverses and slabby goodness. For the non-driver it is perfect, being only fifteen minutes from Liverpool city centre by train with the approach just a walk up a street – it is perfect for a quick day out… when it is dry, that is! This place is pretty special to me; first 6a+ was done here (“The Snurger”), that was also my first onsight 6a+ before the “nemesis” saga had begun.
We got off the train and headed up the slight hill toward the quarry. The sun was blazing and it was very warm for mid-May. The conditions were perfect when we showed up soon after, cool under the canopy of tree tops and quiet; barring a few other climbers and some gobby kids sat at the top of the quarry walls, there was nobody around. We headed down to the base of “The Cosmo Wall” and met up with Phil and Emma who were already set up and working the beta for “Just Another Fifty”. I was eyeing it up myself, checking the rock for visible damp or missing holds. Satisfied that the problem wasn’t greatly affected I began my warm up, well, more like I threw my arms around a bit and put my harness on; I was in the zone and I wanted to just get on and crush.
My mind was full of noise, thinking of the moves and remembering the start sequence. I had top roped the problem once, maybe six months before my lead shut down, and this was my last chance to make sure my head was in order to do this.
Boulder intensive start leading out to a sloped shelf and gaston.
I got the first two bolts pre-clipped with a clip stick; the ground had a lot of debris and mud right where I was starting and there wasn’t much run out to the first bolt so I didn’t want to risk falling. I checked my starting holds and I was off the ground.
The feeling I had when I first started climbing comes back and takes over, it’s like a detuned radio, noisy and garbled and then as soon as I’m on the wall it’s gone, softened to white noise. All I can hear are birds, the scrape of the rock on my shoes, my breathing; my heart is pounding as I pass the second clip and break out of the slabby boulder section and into pocket city. At this point you have a puzzle: a horizontal shelf with a dozen little pockets and divots and only a few that are useable with good foot holds above it. Third clip done. I spend a little more time here deciding on which combination will get me up to better footing. I take a breath and commit to the sequence, rocking out to a side pull and levering over the shelf and passing the break. Fourth clip down, fifth clip; crux.
Middle finger mono and a smooth wall up to a positive shelf.
Sat there, just left of the clip is the mono, the evil mono; the only comfortable finger I can use is my middle finger. (As I type this, I’m smiling at the metaphor playing out in my mind. Giving the middle finger to the route as a means to succeed is a refreshing thought.) Finding my feet I gather up the gusto and push myself up and onto the second break to the fifth clip; one more to go. A sequence of delicate moves and positive holds later and I am up, done, clipped into the top and letting out a whoop of victory; revamped and satisfied.
Even as recently as this month I have thought back to last May, all the work that went into what I still consider my comeback from the brink, and it is still worth every drop of blood and sweat I put into defeating “Just Another Fifty”.
Relaxed as I make the last move to the chains.
Frogsmouth Quarry isn’t what the local scene would call an amazing crag; it’s usually pretty quiet because of persistent rainfall and too much tree cover to dry fully, no less run-of-the-mill than any other sandstone quarry crag. What makes it memorable is that it’s the place where I didn’t just tear back some paltry shred of pride, I lost myself there and I had to take a long hard think about how and where I was going to find myself.
I guess when it comes down to it, you’ll always find what you’ve lost by going back and retracing your steps.