Six months ago, almost to the day, I fell off The End of the Affair. First climbed by Johnny Dawes in 1986, this gritstone arête stands proud on Curbar Edge high above the village of Curbar, overlooking the Derbyshire countryside. A young Leo Houlding scaled it in excellent style in Hard Grit. The route is typical of gritstone: Bold, precarious and technical. It is now a yard stick by which climbers can test their skill and nerve. Head-pointed by most, which involves rehearsing the moves on a rope like a sport red-point, it has been flashed by the capable brave.
Protected by good cams in a break that can be placed from the starting ledge, a series of laybacks and high steps leads to the crux, around five meters above the gear. A slopey crimp on the arête has to be matched, then feet hiked up on smears and a long move to another sloper gives access to the finishing jugs of glory. Although the climbing isn’t technically hard for the trad grade of E8, the climbing is tenuous, run out and the consequences of a fall from the crux would result in a ground fall from 8 meters. Anywhere else in the world and this route would likely have bolts, making it a more reasonable proposition. But there’s something so essentially British about wanting it to remain natural. Fixing additional protection would be like defacing an artistic masterpiece.
So why try again? The short answer is that I’m a perfectionist at heart, and hate leaving things undone. There was a route burning a hole in my mental list that had to be scored off. The long one is this: Who wouldn’t want to be part of the legend of the route? I wanted to share in its narrative. Routes such as ...the Affair are like potent drugs. They allow us to reach higher mental states, to explore parts of our mind and character that we otherwise could not access. It’s funny how a piece of rock can allow us to realize our potential. There’s something very empowering in dangerous head-pointing. The act of doing something with potentially severe consequences, and yet for no good reason, is both ludicrous and profound. Taking life into our own hands; that’s what it’s about.
Curbar is just a 30-minute drive from my home city of Sheffield. Every weekend, thousands make the same journey through the cities veins, deposited in the moors of the Peak District National Park. Not many do it for the media glory, instead measuring success through a personal journey and to tick a worn guidebook. Coming originally from London where 30 minutes might get you to the next neighborhood, it still surprises me that such wild experiences can be had so close to home. To be plunged into a world of fear and anguish for a few fleeting minutes on a route, before returning to the normality of the city.
I feel a peculiar telescoping of time when I stand at the bottom of any hard route. The sequence plays at super fast speed in my head, and then slows at the crux passages. A ghostly splitting of the time line occurs, whereby I imagine both falling off and pulling through the crux simultaneously. Whichever scenario I sense more clearly, up or down, gives an indication of the chances of success.
Setting off on ...the Affair was no different. I visualized the dab of chalk that indicated my left foot placement, and hiking my right foot high on a smear before making the final reach to a good sloper with the right hand. It was important to anticipate the feeling of being "out there", on the arête, the wind blowing me and emptiness below. I put earplugs in, gave a faint smile to my belayer Tom LeFanu, and let my body take over. The climb passed without drama, as head-points should. I scurried over the top, feeling that endorphin surge come over me. Shouting would have felt out of place so I just stood at the top, overlooking the rural Derbyshire landscape.
It didn’t last long. It was 4pm and I had a night shift to go to. But that feeling of standing at the top, the sun in my eyes, stayed with me for days. It was pure fulfilment, coming full circle and becoming whole. Memorable routes, boulders and mountains are milestones in our lives, as significant as any life event. This affair has ended, but the next has already started.
Jerome Mowat Climber and writer. Based in Sheffield and London.