Sometimes a man gets lonely. He wants to climb but he cannot, for lack of a partner. I recently found myself in this position, and I finally did what I said I would never do. I relented to the climbing equivalent to anonymous sex in public toilets with strangers (also known as “a good night out” by some). That’s right, I responded to a call out on the Belfast Climbers group on The Facebook.
Have a listen as you read.
As I planned a week of climbing with my soon-to-be civil partner Kyle, I realised I was yet to have a stag do, so as I was given a heads up by Ronan I looked on the Belfast Climbers page. What did I see here you ask? Well I saw some lad called John McDonald, who had spotted the ludicrous weather we had coming in, that is to say GOOD weather (madness all together). Now at this stage, in my mind this was a man of familiar name, who had been living in Scotland until times of a recent nature. A man who was returning to trad for the first time after a while, as he had pursued the brave undertaking of the dreaded WINTER CLIMBING, a place of hot-aches and ice-screws (a place I fear).
I don’t really know what I expected as I walked to get in this man’s van in the morning, but we were going to Lower Cove, so probably what routes to do later. I was rather jealous of this magical van complete with furnishings, perfect for climbing trips and travels all over the country. After a good chat on the way down, I learned that John had a far more employable degree under his belt, namely Chemistry. Interestingly he had been working with Gore-Tex for the last few years, and doing all the scary winter routes. Fantastic, this spoke to the good character of the man who would hold my strings for me while climbing.
We parked atop the lane and began our walk in sharpish, and had a lovely chat with a pair of older walkers, who had wisely come out during the week to avoid the rabble and riff-raff of Saturday walkers (my words not theirs). After a good natter about walking routes and climbing experience, and having a good hint thrown my way to check out the Slieve League sea cliffs for climbing, I learned something interesting. John is an amateur painter. Now you know when you say “amateur” but they are either really good or absolute shit? Well John is the former, and its absolutely stunning. Scenes from Scotland, and the Mournes, all in a great impressionist style. But that was not all.
As we talk the standard shit (and really John is a top class shit talker, it was great) we also begin to eye up our routes. So I got the lucky draw, and was first to lead and selected the ever classic Dots-Delight (which interestingly I have never lead before, only seconded it). A good route to be sure, though a bit bold, but rewarding. Now John was to climb some classic, this time The Great Treacle Sponge Robbery (I know it’s a fantastic name). Now it was while reading the description for this that my eyes wandered and I looked at another couple. And I saw that John McDonald had done a first ascent a few routes over. It was at this point that I realised why I recalled the name (and not only for the song), multiple first ascents or belays on first ascents in the Mournes. This was a man of the old-school, responsible for many of the routes we flounder on today.
Suddenly I stood in slight awe of this man, and tried not to seem too stupid and disgrace myself. I did not succeed, as so much shite was talked, so much. And it was great, because I wan’t judged once. From stories of multi-pitching a diff, to royally screwing up my first attempt at an E1, none were judged, only met with hearty laughter and returned stories of shite. John headed up the route, and after placing bomber gear below the crux moved into it. Some difficulty was met, though nothing he was not equal to, and soon he sailed on to the anchor and called safe. I seconded up impressed by the solidity of the gear, so much so I forgot I didn’t get the nut key from John, and had to leave a tri-cam on the route. I abseiled in to get it back, no harm done.
Now I eyed up a route I had been too scared to try until recently. You could say it was long OVERDUE…(yes the route is called Overdue). The crux is a series of long moves between jugs through a slight overhang, which the photo in the guide makes look thoroughly intimidating. Between encouragement from Jamie, Prebs and Kyle on Sunday, and John’s psych to climb, I was convinced. I began the movements that looked easy and arranged gear below the crux. I was solidly protected and couldn’t back off now, for shame would befall me if I did. So I made the highly committing long reach (the crux move) to the next jug. I quickly placed a couple of cams, as I was afraid, though I verbalised the contrary (much to the amusement of John, as it was a blatant lie). Pushing through to the under-cling and on to the easy top I was rather pleased (more than rather as I didn’t have to fall), and sauntered up to the anchor.
John seconded in good style (code for “he made it look piss and I felt silly”) and we wandered to our bags for a well earned lunch break. After our stomachs were sated, we aligned our goals on the magnificent crack, Gynocrat. John geared up, and spurred on by the send train he pushed though the hard start with ease and boldness. After no time at all, he was half way up and telling me about the top quality blue hex (the lovely big one) he had just placed. He moved to the side and topped out in the standard fashion, that is without falling (as is the goal in this sport of ours). After retrieving the expensive shiny things from he cliff, I joined him in success and we walked back to the bottom (really why do we even do it?).
Now, the way I saw it we were having great success. Far too much in fact, and didn’t think it prudent to push it too much. I looked to the easier Democrat, and as this was a multi-pitch (though only short) it would even out the number of pitches lead in the day nicely, as it was fast approaching sunset. I hoped on the first pitch, a brilliantly crimpy, though horribly hollow face to an excellent ledge. I managed to make a lovely belay, which allowed me to lean over a “railing” and watch the climb, and still be comfy for belaying the next pitch, which was some horrid (and yet so brilliantly entertaining) groove thing. John, however, had no troubles at all, and soon I was on belay to the top.
As we dandered down I continued to learn interesting things. Among these, John is an ex-president of the club, and magenta is a primary colour when it comes to paints. Above all this I learned a wealth of information about the history of trad climbing in Ireland, and some really good books to read for training and how to do it with minimal equipment. All together the day was a resounding success: John was a brilliant climbing partner, I learned about climbing history, no injuries or deaths. This was a very good day.