Of course climbing is dangerous, says Sheona York; that's the point of it
Rock climbing is facing assault by the risk-factor police, and little effort has been made to defend it. Two consequences follow, both potentially fatal. One is that rock climbing is getting lumped in the public mind with virtually skill-free 'dangerous sports' such as bungee-jumping, tour-guided white-water rafting or big-peak bagging, and we soon won't be allowed to do it without insurance or supervision. The second is that the rock climbing world itself is adopting a neurotic, risk-obsessed way of approaching the sport, which detracts from the main reason why people want to do it and makes it more - not less - dangerous for those who do. We need to celebrate precisely what gives us our 'pure adrenaline' before somebody makes it illegal.
Climbing is dangerous and scary: that's what I like about it. Alone on some remote Scottish ridge (the Great Ridge of Ardgour, Diff, 300-metre, first ascent 1897), fear comes in big waves. Have I found the right place to start? 'By vegetated slabs', says the guidebook, but don't all Scottish mountains look like that? The huge cliff towers above and away each side for half a mile. Supposing I get halfway up and face Moves I Do Not Want To Make By Myself, both up and down? More mundane matters also intrude. I've left my car in a lonely parking spot two hours' walk away. Supposing it isn't there when I get down? It's a long walk back to the Glen Coe campsite. Shut up. This, I sternly tell myself, is where you find out if you are a woman or merely a mouse. It's a Diff. You can do Diffs. Get on with it.
And so, terrified and exhilarated, I do. The unforgettable joy comes from looking the fear in the face, calmly assessing the Move I Do Not Want To Make By Myself, and making it. Because this isn't Sennen Cove or Stanage, climbed on every week by hundreds, nor yet Mile End climbing wall, where I am sure each bolt-on hold is checked carefully each day, I take my time. Each rock I use, I wonder whether a slight looseness, having lasted since the last Ice Age, will for a few seconds bear my own 50 kilograms plus rucksack packed resentfully full of compulsory survival items. (Fear of the average Scottish Mountain Rescue leader's baleful equipment inspection greatly exceeds any real expectation of needing half of this stuff.)
Who knows if I am on the route? This isn't a thin sharp ridge like Tower Ridge, Ben Nevis (also Diff), which has a whole page of the guidebook describing every small feature, but a vast dome. Hardly anybody climbs here, except perhaps in winter. Here, unlike in inner London, litter is useful and even reassuring, though the person who ate that Mars bar could have been climbing a nearby E4. I might be lost! Fear!
Moves have to be made which are definitely not just Diff, but this is Scotland, and guidebooks are not (yet) subject to the modern complaining consumer culture. I stare back down the aching precipice, trying not to wish I could see other climbers following below. Self-reliance is character-building, but very tiring. But of course I'm not lost. Looking east and north I can see the whole world: Glen Coe, the Mamores, Ben Nevis and Knoydart, ridge after ridge of bone-dry rock silhouettes against the hard blue sky. To the south, lochs, islands and the sea. Only the way up requires more of those Moves I Do Not Want To Make...
Working out at climbing walls keeps you fit, helps you learn 'moves' and become 'a better climber'. But no amount of that can prepare you for the decision, unroped, to step out of the groove on the Inaccessible Pinnacle (Mod) and reach up for the (not brilliant) first hold on the edge of the ridge: almost vertical, just slightly out of reach, and unfathomable precipices each side. Or the orgasmic sense of achievement afterwards. No amount of top-roping and seconding at friendly crags and cliffs, or articles about placing protection, can prepare you for your first lead, where you alone are responsible; and the decision about 'what to put in' fractures into a million micro-decisions. Something above me, to protect my move? Or level, so I don't lose my balance putting it in? Behind the small quartz flake, which might crumble, or in the big solid sandstone groove yards away to the side? Little tight nut/Great Big Friend? Big Hex (so I don't have to carry it up the cliff)/quick Spike? Extend it? Which rope? Delay here and make my partner lead the hard moves I Do Not Want to Make?
No amount of leading at friendly crags, leaving your lunch and big boots at the bottom, can prepare you for a proper mountain climb in a remote Scottish corrie, where one pitch of a hardly-ever-climbed 1000-foot Severe on wet Torridon sandstone can take over an hour, where your protection will be one or two items on huge slings, where with a big rucksack one strenuous move can defeat you, and the whole route can take all day and part of the night. You just have to do it.
I can already hear the marching feet of the risk police behind me: 'you shouldn't go out without proper training and instruction, and you should never go out alone....' I can also hear the New Climbers: 'what's wrong with climbing walls, top-roping, bolted routes, proper guidebooks, etc?' Nothing at all - except that between those views the central point is in danger of being missed. Climbing is a dangerous activity in which human beings, either alone or with friends, personally triumph over the danger and their fear, through daring, skill and intelligence, experiencing ecstasy: which should be a metaphor for all human life.
Reproduced from LM issue 125, November 1999