Safety in Numbers

Simon leading the top ptich of El Mancho. Thank to Chris Guest for the photo.

My life is governed by numbers (….and some letter!), E6, F7b, VI 6, V9. They are all numbers that I know, I have operated safely within those grades at various times in the past. Knowing your numbers is good, they are a benchmark we can measure our ability against. It is bragging rights. It is a whole host of stories. It is friends both present and absence. It is part of my life as a climber.

I will never be good enough to set the climbing world on fire with one of my ascents, but that’s not the point of it all. The point, if climbing has one, is to find where you are right here and right now. It is about pushing myself occassionally in a myriad of climbing displines and drawing a line in the sand. A reference point through which I can judge myself, we are our own harshes critics after all.

This last week those numbers have been winter climbing oriented, and having lead a V, 5/6 pitch last week, that line had moved. Mainly because the amount of mixed climbing I have done is limited.  The line was unknown and in trying to find the boundary, I headed out today to reappraise the situation. Having never made it to the top of Clogwyn Ddu it seemed appropriate to climb El Mancho, its number is VI, 7 and it even has 4 stars.

It has another number, it is 850m up the side of a mountain, a steep mountain. I did not count the steps, it felt like a few thousand too many. After all that sweating I was disapointed to see other climbers there, until a friends Chris Guest came into focus (My glasses steamed up so were in my pocket). He and ian were going for El Mancho as well, so we agreed to follow them.

Si led up the ramp and joined Chris at the belay. I joined them all below the now seriously steep wall. Ahead I saw the pitch, remembering its number I quickly tried to remember that it is a number within reach. For those who don’t climb and even those that do this may sound weird, but in my mind within seconds I had climbed the route. That to me is the hardest part of climbing, the belief. When its there, its there and when its not finding it can be more challenging than the actual physical climbing.

Today it was there, and I was chomping at the bit. Hooking along the ramp, good gear abounds for a route this steep. A few committing pull up off good sticks and the worse was in the bag. It was now my time to join Chris and Ian for a chat. It was like hot desking on the belay, which a few years ago would have ruined the expeience for me. Today it was the social side to climbing that I enjoy. The short chats with a band of brothers in pumped forearms.

Me leading the first hard pitch of El Mancho. Thnak to Si Lake for this.

Chris went up and Simon moved in to fill his space. Cameras, jackets and rack are swapped. Words are said and simon disappears after Ian who is now on the infamous bellyflop ledge, looking down at us. Like a beefed up winter man sized version of  Shadrach chimney exit.

All too soon and the rope goes tight and simon calls on belay. This pitch despite being on the blunt end of the rope I am unsure of. Straight away I use brutal force and ignorance to thug my way up on bomber hooks. Only to be stuck by a wide crack. I resorted to fist jamming, it is mixed climbing after all.

Si on the first steep corner with uber hooks. Here he shows good technique, I opted for brute force.

All too soon and I am level with the ledge, eyeing it up. The ledge stares back. My attempt at a dignified approach lasted less than the time it took me to wedge my axe in the crack at its back. Torquing it in with twice the force as was actually needed and there I am. Facedown looking down the crag. My mind has Charlie Croacker’s expression as he say ‘right no body move’, but move I must.

I do the 6th thing I ever learnt and rollover followed by the 5th sit up. Above I find a hook and manage to move to number 10 and stand up with the aid of funiture. Whilst physically getting stood above the overhang is the crux, the bomber hooks mean I go for option B in winter climbing, pull like a tractor. Above the holds sketch out and mental I am push to get my head round what will hold my weight and what won’t. My best guesses play out and I join Simon at the top of El Mancho my finest ever winter route.

The numbers fade along with the sun, but the deep satisfaction of the battle lingers like the warm glow of windburnt cheeks.

Thanks go to Simon he has a guiding website like me at North Wales Climbing and Chris Guest who also does what I do through Skylark Mountain Adventures. They supplied the photos from todays adventure.


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