It’s not hard to understand how humans developed a fear of heights. From an evolutionary point of view, it makes sense. The less time you spend hanging around on cliff edges, the more likely your genes are to survive. Of course the thrill in climbing lies, at least partially, in overcoming this fear; in temporarily ignoring the screaming objections from your genes and your ingrained sense of self-preservation in order to achieve a greater goal.
"Sometimes rock climbing reminds you that your natural fears are natural. That scary stuff is scary for a reason. This was one such occasion..."
We found a second slice of summer in and around Alicante last autumn, catching warm rays up and down the coast for a pretty perfect week of climbing. But it came with a side order of shredded nerves.
As is often the way, we had a mixed group - all regular indoor climbers, but with different levels of experience outdoors. And for myself personally, this was another new venture, as I started out into the slightly unnerving arena of lead climbing.
Now lead climbing, for those who don’t know (or haven't read this glossary of rock climbing terms), involves clipping into ‘protection’ as you ascend. Sport routes, like the ones we found in Spain, have existing bolts and loops set up by the person who first found and set them – and, when used correctly, these protect you in the event that you fall. In theory…
To properly lead climb a route, you carry quickdraws (two karabiners or ‘krabs’ linked by webbing) on your harness, clipping one krab into the protection, before looping your climbing rope into the other - so one end of the rope is attached to you, while the rest runs down the rockface through the previous quickdraws to your belayer at the bottom of the route.
As with most rope climbing, your belayer is a responsible for control of the slack in the rope, making sure you have enough to move freely at any time, but keeping a keen eye out for when you need to be secured.
If you happen to slip, your trusty belayer down below should have full control of the other end of the rope, meaning you only potentially fall a bit further than the last bolt you clipped into.
Still with me? Good.
So you’ve given this process a go a few times indoors at Mile End climbing wall and think you’re a pro? Not quite.
Lead climbing outdoors can be pretty different to indoors in terms of bolt-spacing (which can be wildly variable), bolt quality (which can be a little rusty/loose) and also in terms of the protection you find at the top of the route.
Shortly before tackling my first Spanish route, I discovered why that last point could be a pretty serious cause for concern.
"If you somehow cock up this process, there’s suddenly nothing holding you to the top and you come hurtling down..."
At the top of each route we climbed, there was a big metal ring instead of the industrial karabiner you’d find on indoor climbing walls in the UK. So to make sure we could retrieve all of our climbing equipment, we had to secure ourselves to the ring on the top bolt with a sling, ask the belayer for slack, and then feed a loop of rope through the ring.
In that new loop of rope we’d make a new figure of eight knot, attach the new knot to our harness belay loop, and then undo the original knot holding that had been linking the rope to harness.
If you somehow cock up this process, and then undo your sling too hastily, there’s suddenly nothing holding you to the top, and you come hurtling down.
The first time I did this on real rock, I nearly couldn’t bring myself to undo the sling.
Double checking, triple checking, following the rope’s path from the figure eight knot through the hefty metal ring at the top of the route and looking down to my belayer. With your adrenaline going, thirty five metres up, even clear tension as the belayer takes in the slack can’t provide enough reassurance that you’re not going to hit every rock you can see on your way down.
Which leads me nicely onto my second point: Slab.
Slab rock differentiates from overhanging and vertical rock in that, as you go up, it leans away from you. Overhang leans towards you as you go, forcing you to hang on with your arms – while slab routes are like very steep, very tricky, near vertical sets of stairs - often with smaller holds, making you push up through technical climbing moves with your legs.
And where we were climbing in Spain, there was a lot of slab.
Less immediately tiring because you’re not dangling your bodyweight away from the wall as you climb, but potentially bad in terms of consequences should you fall.
Take a fall on a clean overhang, and as long as you’re high up and on a steep enough angle, you’re falling into nothing. Even a biggish drop on overhang like that is absorbed by the inbuilt stretch of dynamic climbing rope – it’s like doing a mini bungee jump while wearing a harness.
But on slab, every successful clip is a huge sigh of relief, and especially for a newcomer, the moment before clipping in can be terrifying.
That dynamic rope and its impact absorbing stretch turns from a blessing to a curse, every extra bit of slack you pull through in order to clip into the next quickdraw is extra distance for you to fall if you muck up, cheese-grating whatever limbs hit the limestone on your way down.
Even letting loose a spare arm so you can reach to clip into that protection can mess with your head:
“If I make a wrong move at this point, I’ll drop down past my last bolt, and then as far as the rope between me and that point now too. And I can’t even see a way to down-climb to safety from here."
Sometimes you just have to tell your brain to shut up, and let your body do the work. But of course your brain is only given extra leverage by the slippery combination of your own clammy palms, melting rubber shoes and limestone sweating in the hot sun.
Now, lest you think we spent the whole week in that uncomfortable limbo between bolts, there were further curveballs to shred nerves on the Costa Blanca.
You may have read previously about this little crew’s first encounter with deep water soloing (DWS). Well for our ‘rest day’ we sought out some of Berry Head’s Spanish cousins.
Made only more precarious by recent rains, the crumbling cliffs around Cala Del Moraig weren’t really prime for any serious DWS, but did offer plenty of other opportunities to test our nerve.
Initially, we tried a simple traverse around the circular rocky walls surrounding a small lagoon, with no obvious means of climbing back out if you fell in. No problem. Then two long traverses away from our makeshift base: one heading towards the beach, with a swim of questionable difficulty to reach safety if you fell, and the other blindly carrying you away from our cove. Both described in the guidebook, but neither particularly easy to scout from the rubble above, let alone plan exits from the water.
Even small diving holes were explored. You could tell that the water was deep enough to jump in from light coming in from sea, but it was near impossible for the first of us to tell whether we’d be able to climb out easily with wet hands.
In all instances it turns out, I needn’t have worried.
In fact there was only one point where the Costa Blanca beat me, and it wasn’t out of that ‘fight or flight’ adrenaline-fuelled fear, but out of that slow lingering fear that comes with injury and maybe age.
In another alternative to straight sport climbing, we’d planned a day hiking across the Bernia ridge - a six to ten-hour expedition so the guidebook said, with some basic climbs and abseiling spots along the way. A few hours in, however, and partly due to my own misreading of slightly unclear instructions, we were off course.
Where the book had gone in depth to describe the fascinating feature of a natural tunnel through to the other side of the face, we’d assumed it was instructing us to go through said tunnel to get to the top of the ridge. But in fact you had to go straight past it.
Eventually back on course, but with less hours of daylight left than expected time on the ridge, and a niggling ankle pain, myself and Jess favoured a walk back down to the restaurant, leaving the three most confident scramblers (Will, Jake and Conor) to blast over the ridge.
Despite our occasional concerns, they made it back in time, just as the sun was starting to set.
So our fears were largely unfounded then? We took calculated risks and walked away unharmed? Well not exactly.
The day before the ridge hike, the seven of us were at a stunning spot called El Classico. Two of our party, Jana and Boon, had to return back the following day, and were making the most of their last day on Spanish slab.
We worked from left to right in the area, ticking off as many routes along the face as possible, Jake, Conor and Boon even found some suitable routes to multi-pitch. All was going well.
But we weren’t going to get away without one good scrape.
"Reaching for her next clip, she missed, and slipped..."
Jana, tackling a tricky little face graded 6a (Mermelada del Futuro at Marín’s Sector Classico), came more directly into contact with her fears than the rest of us…
Reaching for her next clip, she missed, and slipped.
She fell through to the bolt. She fell through the extra slack in the rope that she’d just pulled through.
She fell through the stretch in the brand new cords that hadn’t yet taken a fall. And were it not for the quick movements of her belayer Boon to take in slack as she fell, she could well have hit the ground.
All in one short moment, a reminder of why we tend to trust our fears.
Typically bold, Jana, on coming away with a relatively small scrape down her leg, commented that she’d “wanted to practice falling before she left". Luckily this particular slab was near enough vertical, with a small overhang at the bottom, giving room to fall into and limiting the damage significantly. But I think we all quite rightly chose to tread carefully that week, and would if we went there again.
Playing in nature’s playground, and especially lead climbing on slab, you’ve got to know the risks, and the rules. And sometimes being a little scared isn’t a bad thing.