Sun and Nothing

I’ve recently been chatting to Alex from about climbing experiences and he’s kindly written this piece about his most memorable climb.

“We are what we do”. I’m not sure who I can credit with saying that but I don’t think it’s entirely true. I consider myself a trad climber, first and foremost, but I boulder far more than I trad climb. In fact I boulder indoors. So if ‘we are what we do’ then I’m an indoor boulderer who believes they’re a trad climber. However, time spent does not equate to the extent to which something that defines us. For example, I rarely remember any of the boulder problems or sport climbs I’ve done, yet I remember every trad climb. In fact, some of my keenest memories narrow down to a single gear placement. So forget the philosophy of ‘we are what we do’. I say we are our most powerful memories.This is a story about one of those memories.

Far away across the sea is a mountain range deep in the desert. A climber is on the second pitch of a route. The air is still and the sky is cloudless blue. The rock is yellow and the air is warm. The route seems to be easing. Curling into a slab and then leading into a small roof turning left to an arête. All of life’s happy moments seems to be collecting into this one. Life couldn’t be better. I’m happy; at ease; I’m careless.

Scrambling up the slab I decide to run out the rope. The vast empty plains spread out below. The air is warm and the rock is yellow. The sky is blue. My belayer can no longer see me. I’m alone. I work my way up into the roof and prepare to place some protection, but there’s nothing. Under the roof all I find is scoop of yellow rock in dark shadow. I work through my rack, shifting my weight from my left to my right foot. I can feel the heat of the sun on the black soles of my shoes. I start to become aware of scraps of flesh that missed the suntan cream. The sting of burning skin drying and shrinking on bare legs. I now feel very present in the moment, no longer drifting in the warm sun.

I’m anxious. Panicked. Disbelieving I could have been so absent minded. So confident on alien rock. I’ve climbed past the point of down climbing. I can’t protect the crux move of this pitch. If I fell I’d fall a huge distance. Probably ripping out my last gear placement and from there I’d be lucky not to hit the ground. I manage to place a micro. I’d placed it several times that day, more for amusement that protection as I knew it annoyed my girlfriend. It didn’t seem very funny now. It was better than nothing, but barely even that.

The sequence is in classic bouldering style. Fully committing and delicate. A series of underclings with toes slowly edging up the wall as your body finds a 45 degree angle. Then to a powerful reach up and around onto the face of the roof. Find a positive hold and the let your toes fall from the wall, like a pendulum weight below you, your body in thin air, then in that same motion using that pendulum swing to bring one foot onto a foot hold at the same level as your hands. Rock your weight to the foot, power up, up, up, on a sequence of right hand holds. With each upward movement contact is lost and regained on the rock. A hand opening and closing like boy waving goodbye.

That sequence, at the time, felt like a free solo. A climb without ropes where the consequences of a simple mistake could be severe injury or death. I continued, from the roof and stepped across onto a slopping arête. I stand very still. My face pressed against the rock, the warmth of my breath on my cheeks. My hands lay gently on each side of the arête as my feet hold my body weight on the wall. I settle into the position and gradually lean back to look for gear placements. I place a cam and climb on.
The shortest of moments can be the life experiences that define us. That make us.

Inexperience, confidence, a warm sunny day. Very nearly, very different.

This is a memory from a trad climb I led in Morocco. I won’t forget it.

The author is owner and founder of – home to the world’s most inspiring climbing videos.

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