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Quantum Leaps of faith in the late afternoon

posted Jan 25, 2011, 6:42 PM by Brisbane Rockclimbing Club

That elusive Grail in Rock climbing - pushing the grades without pushing utterly past the boundary!

Where and when does that leap of faith come from? Can you remember your first ever lead? Bolts, hangers or was it trad? We can all remember those first forays into the vertical world of rock and I suppose due to the very nature of the sport only a certain type of person is drawn to it (in most cases). It is a leap of faith to head up into a world where there is a chance of injury. Didn’t your parents tell you to get down from there before you fall and hurt yourself? What fascinates me (and most climbers) more is that elusive elixir that carries us up to the next grade, an onsight, to do longer/harder climbs or run it out on a trad route. In a word – Improvement.


Looking back over my time climbing I can pinpoint those moments when I’ve climbed over the threshold and taken that quantum leap. Such actions by climbers are littered with success and at times unfortunately failure, sometimes with lasting consequences. It is this last fear that holds many of us back in our climbing.

We all should be able to make judgments as to our mental and physical state on the day and climb accordingly. Hungover bigtime is not the morning to consider that grade 26 unprotected trad route that you’ve always had your eye on, no matter what your “mates” are telling you. This sort of decision making should come as second nature to any climber. No, what I’m talking about is that decision to push a boundary in a rational way. My Quantum Leap this year was on the club trip to Girraween in May.


The year before I’d climbed well and progressed onto a couple of 19s at Turtle, with rests but no falls. Since then I’d climbed with confidence throughout 2009 and had a great trip to Nowra, leading into the 20s and mentoring Fiona, as well as climbing well at Frog - nailing Plume, leading Gladiator and whimpering my way up Iron Mandible. Please note Michael – your fist jam means a full arm thruch for me. Argh. 2009 was a good year for me in terms of Quantum Leaps.

Anyway, 2010 was looking good and, as I’d looked up at Late Afternoon Flake, a trad 18 on the second pyramid in 2009, it was in the back of my mind. Scary in that intimidating
Girraween sort of way but within reach now. Possibly!


Saturday at Girraween went well, really well. Turtle was the destination and I waltzed up the climbs on the back slab at Turtle including the 19 I rested on the year before. Hmm! Feeling good we went around to the alcove near that easy arête and Staircase, the “14 which is more like a 17”. Fiona does thank the sandbagger who nearly put her off doing it. Anyway, between those two climbs is 3 bolt grade 19 gem I had one rest on in 2009. This year it all flowed and I was left wondering what the fuss was last year. The balance and control was all there. Ending the day on Wading Ape having fun set some cogs ticking over that night.


I was climbing well and confidently, an utter pre-requisite for safe climbing at Girraween. I’d bought and borrowed a couple of extra bigger cams and so headed up with the gang to the Second Pyramid on Sunday. After spending some time showing the Girraween newcomers which climb was what, I passed the time exploring the back of this rock monolith , then chimed in for a warm-up second on Charlotte’s Web. It was then around to Late Afternoon Flake, (FFA Henry Barber).


The climb looked as daunting as it did before. The comment in the guide “don’t get sucked into the crack” echoed in my ears as I took the first tentative steps onto the rock. The climb steepened really, really quickly and I focused on my feet placements. This was not a climb for beginners I muttered to myself. A cheese grater slide would have been John’s thoughts. The biggest handholds and footholds were mere ripples amongst the grippy crystals of granite. Talk about balance moves on nothing. This left the short 19s from the day before for dead. Delicate move followed delicate move and every move was an operation in focusing. Each ingrained technique of movement on steep rock with thin moves, balance while placing gear, and even breathing calmly seemed to come naturally without conscious thought. I’d even racked up before the climb with gear on the side I could easily access. Smart thinking ahead Graham.


Halfway up to the corner the climb suddenly got even steeper and the holds for hands and feet seemed to magically thin to not very much at all. My breathing was a little more audible and the supportive cohort below yelled encouragement. In the middle of this thin section I choose the wrong cam size and some audible “F… French” was forthcoming. Another pair of climbers on ground level decided that I needed lots of uncalled for gratuitous advice. I actually laughed as I felt in total control, in balance as I placed the right sized cam in. “Nah. This is fun” I called down.


An even bigger laugh ensued when I came up to the 2 homemade rusty hangers at the crux. One hammered flat and the other you clip for the historical value only. A few more moves then finally a rest. One of those dykes of rock meandering across the face of Girraween granite. Some more wild moves as the crack widened ever more and I reached the corner. The next section of the climb of course is out of sight from the ground, so imagine my surprise that it went on for what seemed forever. A huge, unprotectable crack stretching toward the clear, blue heavens. Well this is going to be interesting. Luckily the angle eased off and the overlap bent back the other way so in reality it was a doddle, a big, long unprotected doddle. But where could I fall except into the crack, so it wasn’t a concern.


Finally at the top of the climb, I set up an anchor and brought up a very wide eyed Eddie, who stated it was the hardest thing she’d ever climbed and was I crazy, Glen C and then Michael followed and  accepted their congratulations on how well I’d climbed it. I did feel super, especially later that afternoon watching some young climber thrash and moan his way up the climb, sucked into the crack. It made me smile. Some of us older climbers can still hang out there. The next my girls and I walked up the first pyramid and looked across at Late Afternoon Flake. No wonder I could hear the tourists “oohs and ahhs” during my climb, as the foreshortened view makes the climb look vertical. A climber must look spider-like suspended on a vertical face of granite.  That would make a great video!


Higher grade climbs at Girraween, especially trad are notoriously hard, especially on your head space.

So what brought about this leap of faith into the unknown? A mountaineering guide once taught me about the triangle of knowledge. Your gear, your fitness – mental and physical and your technical ability. Mountain climbing is even less forgiving than rock climbing, so the guide told me that as a minimum one needs to have 2of the 3 sides of the triangle to survive. Less and I’d be a statistic in the accident log. This concept applies to those leaps of faith. Success on Late Afternoon Flake was built on the foundations of that triangle.


Being climbing fit, understanding that if you’ve only ever been on 20m climbs, you are not going to waltz up a 50m pitch without some trepidation, let alone fatigue comes into play. Climbing long enough to understand your mental reserves, dealing with the head space and being in tune with your abilities on the day is an important skill in any climbers bag of abilities. When to climb on and knowing when to back off. All those years of just moving on the rock. Each climb you do is a store of remembered technical abilities filed away for that time when you tell yourself I’m going to do such and such a climb today. This applies to not just the actual physical moves but to reading the rock and choosing a move that is achievable and mentally planning the next few moves and possible gear placements.


Of learning about gear, how it works in the rock and placing it competently, especially with respect to how the climb flows – is there a chance of a ground / ledge fall, looking at “outside the box” placements when nothing is obvious to little things like clipping properly, knotting the end of your ropes on a 50m abseil and racking up with some forethought to the climb in hand. All the placements you have made over the years. Why most were good, some average and others were downright crap? On moving above your gear and sometimes this takes a fall onto gear to enable a degree of trust. You aren’t going to push your limits if deep down inside you can’t believe in your gear placement.


All these learned values lead to a belief in one’s ability to take a leap into an unknown vertical zone. This concept leads to a dichotomy in some peoples’ view. I’ve heard both sides. Just jump on the climb and chuck lots of gear in and fall / rest your way up or build up your expertise and repertoire and move onto the climbs you want to tackle with a good base to draw from.


 I sit on the “build up my repertoire” side of the fence, since the other way is great if one actually places the gear properly but  I will admit to doing it both ways. However, the just jump in climbs I’ve done were all after a wealth of experience, so in reality the successful jump in the deep end approach is only successful if the baseline abilities are there. Some climbers blaze through this period and accumulate this store of knowledge quickly, but most of us mortals labour away between work and family commitments hitting plateaus before our quantum leaps.  A review of most accidents points to bad climbing judgment - be it gear failure due to bad placement, not enough gear, fatigue, an overestimate of one’s ability or worse, a combination of all of the above. Building your base goes a very long way to reducing those bad calls on the rock. It gives one the ability to move forward with confidence.


Those quantum leaps of Faith have in the most part been some of the most enjoyable climbing I’ve ever done and it is an ongoing process. Not one of us started trad leading 50m grade 21 climbs but we’ve all built on what we’ve learnt and achieved throughout our climbing days. Funnily enough I’ve often not followed my advice and settled into the status quo of climbing, especially in the early days but I’ve built a solid base to enjoy my climbing for many years to come.


Graham Baxter