For those committed to climbing projects on British gritstone, the best conditions come within the colder months between November and March when the air is chilled and the nights close in early. There is a band of dedicated individuals who spend their summer months training hard and getting strong at their local gym. Jobs, relationships and weather mean that they cannot guarantee success on the weekends or during the day under the winter sun; instead they take their lamps, head torches and chances at night where they dance out of the shadows.
Winter bouldering shares parallels with its bigger and better known cousin, mountaineering. Like the white capped mountains in winter, the gritstone edges of the UK take on a different appearance under their cloak of darkness. They rise up abruptly out of the black, silhouetted against the sterile ghostly night sky. As you traverse the moorland edge your head torch catches a glimpse of what lies ahead. The contrast of light against the insidiously dark night plays tricks on your mind. Familiar lines appear much grander, much harder and altogether more intimidating when not softened by the winter sun. As with winter climbing, your senses sharpen to take in your new environment. Unfamiliar sounds play out in the pitch black, only adding to the anxiety which has been building from the moment you left the car.
What is not immediately obvious is the dedication that is required to succeed in such conditions. You see, there is an irony to this game of shadows where success on gritstone is friction dependant. You have to embrace the cold which means sacrificing your comfort. As you arrive at your chosen project you begin your usual warm up ritual. It seems futile, a never-ending cycle of warm and cold, always trying to find that illusive happy medium, winding your arms around your head, trying to pump the circulation to your fingers and toes. Then your time is up, its time to rise from the shadows and begin working your project, only for the cold gritstone to steal the warmth from your fingers without remorse as you get intimate with the starting holds. As you follow the sequence of moves, you are all but conscious of the cold. The friction's good but it's hard to know if your foot placement is on that smear correctly. Your toes scream out in agony, exposed to the elements, protected only by the rubber rand of Stealth rubber, or any other brand you may choose, but yet you push on up, not wanting to drop this attempt. The consequences will be desperate, the cold has slithered that little bit deeper into your body during your attempt, the keep warm ritual begins again—only this time its a little harder.
Under the illumination of head torches and spot lights the climbs take on a different appearance. Holds that you know exist disappear under the blanket of artificial light, lines appear blank and featureless requiring you to get up close and personal in the dead of night. There is a point during your ascent, a high point at which your lights become redundant. Without their help at the top of the line you are ascending, you enter the shadows not knowing if it's a sloper or a jug at the top and you press on hoping the good friction will save you. And either way, if it does or doesn’t, you will try again. You have to persevere and commit with every fiber of your being if you want to succeed. The shadows will try to suppress your motivation, working together with the cold night in a conspiracy aimed to make you fail.
But like the bigger mountains, the gritstone edges simply exist. They inflict no harm upon anyone. They have no objectives, goals or bad intentions. It is us who inflict such discomforts upon ourselves. But as the winter turns to spring and spring turns to summer, we retreat back indoors, psyched and motivated to train even harder, increase our strength and diminish our weakness all in preparation for the conditions which only the winter darkness can bring. The suffering begins again for a small community of climbers whilst the rest play indoors, hiding in the light.
Yorkshire based climber, photographer, writer, alpinist