I stand, shaken, on a small ledge in a rarely climbed corner at the Ruckle. I try to grasp enough rope to tie a one-handed clove hitch to the small cam I’ve just nestled in the only truly solid looking crack available. My last pieces of protection are now ten metres away – two very marginal cams stuffed in a flaring crack, the cam I placed moments before in the preceding corner having ripped out in a shower of mud and rock chips as the rope tightened. I take a deep breath to try – and fail – to feign calm over the radio to let Sam know I’ve reached the belay.
I knew the first few metres of this pitch were fairly loose and dusty, having climbed here before on the exit of another traverse, and that it was heading directly up towards the chossiest band of rock on this one kilometre stretch of cliff. The words ‘poor protection and snappy rock’ in the topo didn’t fill me with hope.
It only gets HVS 4c, it must be fine.
Tossing a large hex in a sandy crack, I move out and around the arête, glad to be out of the sandy corner. Testing every hold, I quickly find some loose rock, one big block, and shot put it clear of the wall. Watching it tumble, then explode on the boulder beach below, I wonder what I would look like taking that same journey. Memento mori. Having cleared a handhold, I swing around another arête and under a small roof, throwing a couple good nuts in – what I fear will be the last good protection. A large mud-filled scar in the back of the roof signifies recent rock fall.
Having escaped the cramped roof, I find a fixed nut, its wire free of rust, at the start of a brittle looking, run out slab. Scanning down its length I see no possibilities for gear so clip the wire.
Dusting a sloping rail as I go, I begin to shuffle across the slab. Smearing my feet, not trusting they won’t slip. As I move, a flared seam appears – it doesn’t look good, but at least there is a feature which may take gear. I manage to make a 3CU – a three-lobed camming unit – scarcely sit in the crack, and a larger cam below, neither of which I believe would hold if I slipped after continuing the traverse. I can see that no more gear awaits until I reach a double corner system waiting at the end of the most friable-looking part of the slab.
Too far to go back. If I move forward I can’t slip. The cams won’t hold. How far to the last wire? How far is the deck?
I make a quick mental calculation of the distance between me and the good wire and factor in the amount of slack in the system – a sag between each piece of gear in the traverse accounting for a fair bit – and picture my soft, fragile body in place of the tumbling block I pulled off minutes before coming crashing down to the large ledge below.
Stop thinking like that. You’ve soloed harder, this will be fine. It has to be fine. You have no choice but to keep going…
I step up, an uncomfortable move with no handholds to speak of, to a higher rail, but better feet. Shuffling rightwards again I edge closer to the corner where I’ve told myself I will be safe. Handholds turn to snappy crisps of sandy limestone as the corner gets closer. The kind you cannot weight, but can be used to balance. I imagine them being solid.
Don’t break, don’t break. Don’t slip, don’t slip.
All my weight is on my feet as I shift them over, and down, hoping sticky rubber is effective on dust. I drop my body across into the corner, catching a solid face with my hand then moving my feet down.
This is not safety. That’s sand under my feet. The back of the corner is just loose flakes and blocks. Unprotectable. Why am I here?
I start to pull out some chunks, carefully turning the rock loose behind me. I call to Sam over the radio, thinking I’d better let him know what the noise is.
‘I’m just cleaning.’
‘You’re building a belay?’
You couldn’t be more wrong…
I spot what looks like a good placement. The crack at the back of the corner divided from another parallel crack by a vertical pillar of rock, roughly three inches thick. The left crack is full of quartzite crystals and won’t be good, but the right crack looks solid. I place the cam and give it a slight tug. The central pillar moves as the lobes expand.
Am I so shaky that I’m hallucinating? *tug* No, still moving.
I opt for a cam in a dusty looking pocket, not trusting it but hoping it reassures Sam on second. I grab the only bit of solid rock in the corner and lower myself down and round to the next corner. As I get established in the corner the rope tightens, freeing the cam from its home and removing some shingle in the process.
I build a belay, place a Jesus piece at the left-hand edge of the corner, and tell Sam I’m safe.
That was fucking sketchy.
I look at the rope drooping from me to the two cams in the middle of the slab and wonder if I should tell Sam what awaits. I think it’s best I keep quiet.