The past few days have been spent under the stars in the Zillertal. My eyes were aching from video editing and the associated headaches that comes with it, so I thought a few days out in the mountains would be a nice break. This is one of the reasons why I feel so lucky to live in this area, because there is so much to see and do if you’re into the outdoors.

I ended up meeting Marius (the in situ Romanian in Mayrhofen – and one of the nicest people I’ve met) at Ewige for a climb, and after doing a few warm up routes I got stuck in to an 8a called Alarm. It wasn’t what I wanted to try, but the crag was busy, the draws were in it, and it’s a 3 star route, so it’s hardly as if I needed pushing! I’d kind of seen a guy on it, but I’d only seen him fall off rather low down and then missed him climbing the rest of it, so I was climbing more onsight than anything else. These definitions of onsight/flash are woefully inadequate in my opinion, and come from a result of valuing succinctness over clarity. I think that onsight should mean onsight, with no information about the route, no quickdraws, and perhaps even no chalk on the holds. This is the purest way to do an ascent, and in many ways this is a bit of a platonic ideal. I’m not too concerned about achieving this ideal, because the art of climbing is more fun to me than the act of chasing the platonic ideal of onsight in order to stand on some lofty ground. Anyway, I set off, and made it to what I guessed would be the crux, turning a small roof and getting established on the slab.

There was what I thought would be a good kneebar just before the roof and I wasted a heap of energy trying to get it to fit, but in the end I had to give up as I couldn’t get it to stick. Quite opposite to my intentions, all I’d done was manage to increase the pump factor. Turning the roof I was slapping somewhat desperately, and my final slap landed my hand on a decentish hold, but I was too pumped to pull up and get my foot around the roof. I fell off, pulled back up the rope, and then spent 10 minutes faffing about trying to find the easiest possible method.

Big G taught me many secrets in the art of sport climbing, but his most important lesson was one of using a minimum level of exertion to get through moves. This is perhaps the ideal situation, but there are situations whereby it might not be totally necessary. I found a bunch of different sequences for getting around the roof and eventually settled on one which wasn’t the easiest, but felt the most solid. I would have to use more energy, but I knew I wouldn’t fall off, and at the end of the day that’s the most important thing.

After the roof comes a rather technical but steady slab, which featured a secondary mini crux. As I stood there brushing the footholds I suddenly thought back to Johnny Dawes brushing footholds as he went, perhaps achieving the platonic ideal of a true onsight. I don’t know why I suddenly thought back to JD, but something must have worked as I smeared my way to the top and clipped the chains.

Unfortunately, when I came to have a redpoint go the route had been stripped! My onsight go was with the draws in, and now I was having a redpoint whilst putting them in. Something felt a little odd. I had to skip a bolt as I couldn’t reach it, but apart from that the redpoint went fairly smoothly. Before reaching the crux I reached a rest position whilst being a little pumped, and for the first time ever I think my forearms actually began to recover. The pump actually decreased as I stood there shaking left/right/left/right, which came as a bit of a shock! I don’t think I’ll be doing realisation any time soon, but it’s all about baby steps! I reached the crux, used an over powerful but secure sequence, and pulled around on to the slab, smearing my way to the top and getting the job done. There was definitely a little bit of extra spice as a result of putting in the quickdraws as I found I couldn’t reach the bolts from where I had previously clipped!

Whilst pondering the route, I thought about what it would have been like to come here in the early 80’s and bolt/climb these routes. Strangely, about 20 mins after I did the route Gerhard arrived at the crag, and I got my answer! I think he’s probably done every single route at the crag, but he still comes to potter about which is a testament to the high quality of both the rock and the routes. We were having a chat and he mentioned that he wanted to go to a newish crag up in the mountains but had no one to go with, so I obviously leapt at the opportunity. A team was assembled, which included 2 Austrians, 2 Romanians, and a half Englishman. The Austrian team was a strong one, including Gerhard and Alfons. Alfons is only 15 years old, but has already climbed a couple of 8b+ routes, and will no doubt go on to crush much harder in the next few years. This is the standard at which kids are climbing, and I think it’s worth pointing this out as people in the UK seem to be amazed when a 15 year old Brit does an 8a. I don’t wish to discourage the kids in the UK, quite the opposite. I want people to realise what is possible and to set the bar ever higher in their rock climbing. Achieving the possible is so much easier (mentally) than aiming for the impossible.

The following day the team reassembled and after taking the Rofanseilbahn up the mountain we walked for about 1.5 hours away from the crowds, and towards an impressive limestone cliff. As we got closer the cliff only got bigger and when we did eventually reach the base I looked up only to feel my arms getting as pumped as my legs already were. Gerhard showed us around and it became apparent that not all the routes are super long, so Alfons and I decided to try a short and crimpy 8a+. Alfons made the moves look so easy, so much so that I decided I should try and flash it. When I did try to flash it my world came crumbling down. It most definitely wasn’t easy, and working out a sequence destroyed my tips. That’s the price you pay for pulling on small limestone holds with already thin skin. I was glad to have tried it and done all the moves/sections, but knew I wouldn’t be able to have a redpoint attempt. Alfons wasted a few redpoints attempts with a duff sequence, but once he had that sorted the route was in the bag!

Meanwhile, Gerhard cleaned what looked to be a super meaty project which he’d recently bolted. As he was doing this I became acutely aware of the effort that goes into bolting, cleaning, and preparing a route. It’s something I’ve never done and so I have no real understanding of the time/energy that it takes, but watching him on it for hours gave me a small indication of just how much psyche the guy has. He’s been doing this since the early 80’s, at a consistently high level, and when I asked him at what point he’d been in the best shape of his life, he replied “now”. This is pure inspiration in my opinion.

Since my skin was trashed I decided to go big, and headed off up a line of bolts without a name or a grade. I figured it would be at least a couple of pitches to the top so it would provide some adventure. Limestone slab climbing doesn’t sound all that appealing, but here the limestone is exceptionally grippy and you can actually smear on rather poor footholds. The climbing was really interesting and as the quickdraws ran out, so did the holds. With only a few metres to go I could see no holds, but I was stood in a semi rest position, utilising a thumb undercut rest on a vertical wall. I was good for a minute or two, but if I didn’t move after that I was surely off. I thought back to all the times I’d nearly onsighted something, and how I’d spent too long umming and arring before committed to a sequence, so this time I focused my mind, found a possible hold and committed. My entire sequence revolved around doing what looked like a hard move to a hold which I couldn’t see, but figured must be ok as this route couldn’t be that hard. I committed, reached up, and found a very bad, very slopey hold. Oh no. After 40m of climbing I was going to fall off 1 metre from the top! I suddenly entered the desperation zone and my body sunk as low as possible in order to try and milk everything from this non hold. I matched it, already beginning to slip off it, moved my foot upwards slowly as I slid off some more, and then lunged for another unknown hold. It was better, but still not good enough. One more move, I could see the jug. Don’t fall, don’t fall, don’t fall. That’s all that was in my mind on a subconscious level. On a conscious level there was nothing. My mind was empty. I reached up, my hand crawling spider like along the rock, easing out every last bit of friction. My index finger just reached the jug, then my middle, and then I knew I’d made it. I crimped down way too hard with only 2 fingers, and hauled my body over on to the ledge.

It was a real deep sense of satisfaction that washed over me. I hadn’t done anything particularly spectacular, but I had done something new to me. I’d entered a zone where I thought I was definitely going to fall off, but then fought as if my life depended on it in order to get to the top. My life didn’t depend on it of course, but I was no within the moment that it really felt like my entire world, my entire being, depended only on doing the next move. That’s a somewhat new feeling for me, and one that brings a whole heap of thinking material. It was a really interesting experience. The top pitched turned out to be trivial but delightful climbing, and afterwards we sat at the top looking out over a truly magnificent landscape.

As I’d been belaying at the half height ledge I’d been looking out and seen gliders, paragliders, and birds sharing the airspace. I could see the turquoise lake down below with speed boats zipping around. I could see the mountains rising up in every direction and in the distance the huge glacier above Hintertux. It was really special and so amazing.

To get an inkling of what I’m talking about have a look at this, which shows the view from near where the Gondola deposits you. Click the picture for an interactive panorama!

The first time I ever went climbing outdoors was with my friend James Dear. He took me to the Slate quarries of North Wales and I literally spent 2 days saying “amazing” over and over again. Perhaps I need to buy a thesaurus, but nearly 7.5 years later I still find myself muttering “amazing” to myself when I’m out climbing…