When is safe safe enough?

Climbing is a funny old sport. A curious mix of physical strength, technical ability and skill in some cases in managing risk and fear. On Monday the 15th of April I made one of my best gritstone ascents on a great and relatively unknown crag just outside Matlock. Following my ascent I was involved in a car crash whilst driving home which really got me thinking about why we do what we do and even when we feel we are safe could we be doing more?

The following is an extract from my Pitch Climbing Team blog:

“Nestled on the hillside above Matlock, Bank Quarry is a bit dingy, with litter from local teenagers having fires and drinking cheap cider. Too most climbing purists, this place would seem like a real dive however, it is home to two incredible looking quarried Peak Gritstone lines.

Where as others saw Bank Quarry a place to get up to no good, local hero James Pearson saw potential and opened two brilliant routes along a Star Wars theme. The first was the Power of the Darkside (E8 6b) and the second Return of the Jedi (HXS 7a) both towering arêtes of immaculate “Milstone” rock.

Both really stand out when you see them and after having a brief play one evening last year with my good friend Tim Lounds, I vowed to return. Fast-forward a year and some training later and I was in much better shape. I had pretty much forgotten about the line but after watching Dave Masons video of him climbing Return of the Jedi I got all juiced up for a return visit.

I was so excited to try the route I stupidly got impatient and dragged both Mich and Katy Whittaker along to the crag in the pouring rain to make an attempt. I was literally rubbish, sliding off wet holds, forgetting sequences and all while shouting down “Its alright it’s not too wet”. Not impressed Katy wisely stayed firmly on the ground and I trudged back up the hill with her and a soggy Mich to the van.

Power differs from most other Gritstone challenges in that its moves are very positive. The style of the route is also a little more modern in the way people approach it. Compared to other E6’s I have done such as Nosferatu (very soft E6, we all know it) and Linden at Curbar the climbing on this route is quite short. Recent ascentionists have used similar tactics to some of the more highball esk style boulder/routes I have previously done Ground Up such Thumbelina in the Churnet (High Font 7a+ or E6 6b), The Pride (High Font 6c+ or E6 6b).

Matlocks Bank Quarry

Matlock Ban Quarry. Photo: Michelle Forrest

However, despite the newly built platform, the landing on Power is pretty poor after the crux move. Where as Thumbelina and the Pride have nice flat landings, this has a mix of rocks and a tree to land on in a small hole as it slides down a slope. I can see how JP though the route deserved E8 with this poor landing but in this state, and for me given my previous ascents of this nature, I think top end E6 or low E7 seems appropriate.

I am not big into un-necessary risk so padded the landing out well, wore my helmet and even took a rope to clip some gear for the final British 4b top section (what a wuss). Still better safe than sorry and I felt a lot more comfortable just knowing that if the worse came that at least for the crux I would be relatively OK.

So my attempt came round quickly on a nice evening with friends Dave and Katrina there. I was feeling relaxed and well warmed up after using Ethan Walkers tree pull up beta, so eventually committed to my ascent. I often use mental rehearsal and visualization before things like this and it really seems to help me focus and to purely think about flowing on the wall.

Breathing calmly I set off and before I could really think, I was off into the moves. I managed to avoid looking down the throat of the void below me as I stretched out right for a good hold. Taking a breath I promptly finished off the route. The 4b bit still stumped me for a few seconds as I totally forgot to even look at the holds on it!

Power of the Darkside

Power of the Darkside (E6/7 6b) Photo: Michelle Forrest

Coming back down to the bottom of the route, I was full of that nice fuzzy feeling you get after something like this. Looking at all my equipment at the bottom I thought “you know what, even though I didn’t need all that it is still good to have it there just in case”. I totally agree that Power would be a much sterner proposition if I hadn’t used matts etc and much more the E8 that JP had experienced but hey, I am happy I climbed it and I made it as safe as I needed, by having some insurance there.

On the drive home Mich was giving me my de-brief about how she was pleased I had been safe and climbed the route well when an oncoming car pulled out in front of us. We collided at 45 mph right in the front of each other. The air bag deployed, setting fire to my sleeve. I shouted for Mich to get out of the car and we crawled to the side of the road through what seemed like a sea of car debris. With back, neck and head pain from the impact, I was put on a spinal board and taken to Chesterfield General for a precautionary x-ray.

Waiting for my neck and back X-ray. Photo: Michelle Forrest

Luckily all was OK and I was released sometime in the early morning. However, during the 5 hours my head was immobilized I got thinking about the route and what happened after. I had just done something which Joe Public would see as massively dangerous, especially when compared to the routinely act of driving your car home. Yet there I was, being treated seriously for an accident that happened in a totally normal situation. Luckily both parties had insurance, which will cover the costs of treatments afterwards and new cars etc. Lying there I was thinking how bad it would have been if we have had no insurance! All the time, money and heartache that would have been added just because someone was too lazy to pay a bit of cash each month.

So my point emerges in that I think we would all agree that we loath having to plan for the un-expected. What is the point of investing in something, which we will hopefully never need? At the time that extra pad you think about taking out, that extra bit of gear or helmet might seem like a chore but even if you think you are safe, could you do a bit more? Because if the unexpected does happen and you do need it, you will wish you had!”

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