From that day a totally different realm of rock climbing opened up, without the ropes, the need to stop and place pro or of belaying a partner you could do a ton of routes so fast. When I hit 17 it had become integral with most of my climbing done alone. I remember Prana and Bitter Oasis being a big deal the first time I soloed them which makes sense as I wasn’t leading that much harder, eventually they were just part of bigger days out. Many routes in the Lakes I’d look at and wonder how it would feel to do them without a rope and more often than not I would find out. It became a habit and I saw it as an extension of scrambling. I did a lot of routes in the Lakes, down Borrowdale, on Pavey, Dow, Scafell, Hodge Close and down in Wales in the Pass, at Gogarth, Slate, Tremadog, Ogwen, Carneddau, Pembroke and elsewhere. Never too hard generally but quite extensive, in the several 1000 route mark, often onsight or routes I'd not done for a few years unless they were on a regular circuit.
On moving to Wales I remember a few times that first summer; spinning around on the top shelf of Lubyanka to look outwards, going for a swim beneath Main cliff after a few routes like Big Groove and Assassin in March, crawling through the hole on the top pitch of Ducking Stool and Ray Kay talking me out of Heart of Gold at a party. It had even helped me escape from an argument with an ex after a car chase.
It’s a habit I got out of and in fact would more say lost for a good few years partly due to choking. This apparently can only happen to an expert and is where in extremely stressful situations the expert loses their head and becomes literally a complete beginner! Its one of those things you don't really believe in (like chronique fatigue/lazyitis) until it happens to you. I won’t linger on the details although it is worth a read in Matthew Syeds excellent book Bounce. Choking in a sport competitions is humiliating but think about choking when soloing. For a few years it felt like a piece of me was missing, imagine the strongest bit of your climbing just disappearing, almost completely. It led to some farcical and dangerous moments when I decided to rid myself of the block to regain access to this Elixir.
Although kicked into touch as a regular habit the ability to cover a lot of moderate climbing fast is still there and once in a while there would be an urge to do so. Unless you are a very fortunate person life will have its periods of feeling rather flat and feckless and if you go out and do 30+ routes you know the feeling will evaporate with any worries just falling away.
The last 2 years I had in mind a list of 100 Welsh routes to do but having left it too late in the season both years had settled on doing 60 of the best in September. This would still have given a very good day, giving homage to many Joe Brown with routes like Vector, Vember, Cenotaph, Cemetary Gates and I figured I could do it with plenty of energy still in the tank. I did the odd timing out of curiosity to give an idea of how long some sections might take. Gogarth was under 9 minutes, Pull my daisy, 2.45, Dervish 4 and thought I could rattle through a lot of it fairly quickly believing I was 17 again.
The enchainment of routes in the mountains felt like my main forte and if you really want to do something you can find reasons to justify it. Taking something that you feel good at as far as you can, which you find tricky to envisage and pays homage to an area and some of its pioneers. A channel of energy.
A few weeks later I’d just had 3 days climbing in Pembroke with Emma Twyford, a climbing partner of mine now for 20 years. In fact I first climbed with Emma when she was 12 and she said she was keen to try an E1, I pointed her at the Grasp she took 2 lobs totally unafraid then did it!
It had been a cracking weekend, Preposterous Tales and Stargate when piss wet on the 1st afternoon, Pleasure dome, mutiny on the bounty, big issue and a good piss up with friends on day 2 then Emma kindly took me up Barbarella and Headhunter before a good tide let us finish on Woeful on the last day. We finished with Fish and Chips in Aberaeron on the way back.
I was starting an ML assessment the morning after when Eve Lancashire delivered the news that Yorky was dead. He’d been found in Donegal with boots and chalkbag on. He’d been so proud to go to his sons’ wedding 2 weeks before in Berlin.
The weather was appropriately shit on the ML to go with the news and it gave me some time to reflect on how nice a guy he was. When dad was on his last legs Yorky would travel up from Nottingham to the Lakes and take him out to crags and after dad passed away he would always email me and stay in touch with mum.
At his funeral there was his wife Pat who is a stand up comedian and although we’d never met she took the time to grab me for a chat about Yorky. I also spoke with his son Tom who runs a Theory and Bio-Systems lab in Potsdam.
The best days I’ve had over the years haven’t been on my own, they’ve been the days doing a couple of routes with a good friend and having that shared experience. The wknd in Pembroke with Emma and having a brew on the top of Carn Gowla with my favourite doctor after climbing Guernica and going too direct on America were the best times climbing this year. It would be great to be climbing with Emma in another 20 years.
Some of the biggest mountain solo days in the UK would have been Jimmy Jewels impressive outings on Cloggy and the film Total Control shows him floating up Left Wall, T-rex, Grasper and Silly Arete. He was obviously a great soloist but he still died doing it. The Big Jim is a huge meal you can order in Petes Eats and is named after him, apparently having a strong brummy accent he asked for a full welsh breakfast and they mistook it for four breakfasts which he polished off anyway.
I’m not going to tell you not to solo but would hate to think of some youths thinking it’s a cool thing to do when it’s the opposite. You might like to think you are the next A-hon or Catherine Destivelle and the odd easy solo like the odd fag is unlikely to kill you but the more you do the more the evidence starts to tally up against you. It might be a crimp or flake loosened from a winter, a bit of hidden dampness, rain, a palsy or lack of concentration at the wrong moment.
If you decide to give it a go then I’d tread fucking carefully as there are plenty of things to look forward to in life and it’s likely you’ll be missed even if you are a dickhead.