Soloing at Hound Tor

Soloing is a bit of a taboo subject, even amongst climbers. A bit of an eye-brow raiser. It's something I've done precious little of, and anyone who's ever climbed with me will tell you I'm one of the most cautious, timid climbers going. But some of the things I wanted to do this summer involved [some easy] soloing, chief amongst them was the Black Cuillin Ridge on the Isle of Skye.

The Cuillin is ~11 kilometres long end to end, and renowned as one of the ultimate mountaineering challenges in the UK. Most first time attempts fail. Lots are caught out by the sun going down, and missing last orders at the Sligachan pub at the end. Plenty of people attempt it over 2 days with a bivvy, and the vast majority carry ropes and rack for the various technical climbs and a few abseils. I've done quite a bit of running this year, and even given the 4000 metres of ascent and descent involved, I'm pretty happy with my cardio fitness for a long day in the hills, but I've not done enough climbing mileage, and have resolved over the last month or so, to try and get out more, and try and practice soloing to get my head as fit as my heart and lungs are!

A good friend of mine suggested we run the Cuillin Ridge (and solo all the climbs, and down-climb all the abseils), as that would mean carrying a lighter bag, no bivvy equipment, no ropes, no rack, move fast - need less; Solid logic, and truth be told - I was immediately seduced by that idea. Moving swiftly and easily over rock in the mountains is my greatest joy, and from the comfort of my armchair it's easy to imagine how amazing this would be. The reality of actually doing it though is that I'll need to practice. The hardest graded climb on the Cuillin Ridge is about HS (Hard Severe), which is a grade I wouldn't think twice about on a normal climbing day. But when you factor in that I'd be climbing that in trainers, without chalk, or ropes & protection, possibly tired (probably tired!), down-climbing and onsighting, with mountain exposure, carrying a small hydration pack (which will still weight ~5kg)... it all adds up to make that feel like more than HS, and to do that I'd want to be totally cruising, so practice was definitely needed.

So far I've not done that much, a few of the longer easy routes at the the Dewerstone (Mucky Gully, Colonel's Arete, Reverse Cleft) on a gusty Sunday, which all felt fine, easy even. Moving slowly and deliberately, always in balance, statically and being careful to be able to reverse any moves - it felt deeply satisfying and fulfilling. Quiet, peaceful and mellow, and far from the adrenaline rush non-climbers might imagine it to be. With plenty of time to wallow in your thoughts, calm any fluttery breathing, being methodical but also relaxed and enjoying the moment, I was really thrilled with how enriching it felt. I drove home wondering if I'd cracked it already. But next day out I backed off a bunch of super easy sport climbs at Portland that were not as high, or as hard, but just, well... I wasn't feeling it... and it's really not the right genre of climbing to force it. At a loose end one night, I went to Dartmoor and did a circuit of easy highball stuff I've done before (note to pedants: I know climbing above pads isn't really soloing, but it's still high enough to have some spice!), but actually this doesn't really feel like soloing. These type of micro-routes which Dartmoor is so rich in - they're not really high enough or long enough to have time to practice, or to dwell, to accept and deal with the head games. They're not the exact sort of soloing I need anyway. Chudleigh's polish and occasional loose blocks doesn't inspire me to venture there either really. DWS (Deep Water Soloing) also doesn't really feel quite right. It just doesn't 'fit'. In truth, Devon doesn't seem to have a wealth of the right style of routes for my own very personal preparations.

Anyway, I'll post more as I get around to it, in the meantime, this is the utterly delicious Aerobic Wall on Hound Tor. A friend of mine badly broke his ankle falling off this some years ago, he had to have it pinned and limped for a long time afterwards. Having only done it myself once or twice prior to his accident, I hadn't done it since. I'd longed to have it as a part of my regular circuit, something I could enjoy time and again, but been intimidated. On my first time, I'd top-roped it as practice, and then tried to solo it, but on reaching the top I realised that while I'd been top roping and rehearsing moves, I hadn't actually practiced topping out. So with my hands sliding on the slopers and slapping to replace them while I searched for a Thank God hold, I was starting to panic as I heard a small boy somewhere below and behind me (they hadn't been there when I'd set off, but must have stopped to watch) say, "Daddy, is that man about to die?". For the record it's graded E2 5c, but with a pad, and having done it before (years ago), the grade doesn't really apply - it was just easy to balance my phone against my chalk bucket on a boulder nearby, and hopefully capture some of the lovely solitude of having the Tor to myself on a spring evening!