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New Routing in Italy with Pete Whittaker – Nocturnal Nightmare

Do I look gripped? Summit Fever takes over...

I don’t believe in a God as such, but I think I have found some kind of spiritual calling in climbing. Many people around me would suggest that I am a fanatic, but in reality I only follow one kind of extremism – that of new routing. It is partially suppressed in the UK due to our limited rock resources, but just a plane flight or ferry ride away are endless opportunities to open up new routes of every standard and rock type. This is a chance that I have taken for a few years now, travelling to Europe to explore its relatively untapped trad potential.

The beauty of establishing a new line from the ground, can be embodied in one experience for me: a new route that myself and Pete Whittaker established in the Valle Dell’Orco in Italy last year, called Nocturnal Nightmare. The line certainly wasn’t the hardest climbing I have done, nor the boldest, but it was a incredible day out that went from bad to brilliant all in the space of 6 pitches of onsight new route. It captured many of the key elements of this spiritualism I have alluded to – the personal adventure, the questioning of belief in oneself, the game played out on the rock of cat and mouse and of course the bond between two climbing partners.

The day in question had not started well. I’d made a rash statement (fairly normal) the night before about having a big new routing day and I was paying for it. We’d been climbing almost two weeks without rest and I’d had a terrible night’s sleep. My body was wrecked and it was only Pete’s youthful keenness that was stopping me from returning back to my bed in the campervan. He literally had to drag me to my rucksack and place it on my shoulders to get me to take the first steps that day.

The walk-in did not bode well as we discovered that we were not the first to the tread that path. As more and more cairns were found my morale rapidly dropped because I realised that perhaps the best lines on the rock might have already been climbed. When we arrived drenched in sweat at the base of the perfect granite face, the final nail in the coffin was hammered. Our line 400ft above was only a water streak – a cruel and enticing trick of the light. There was no splitter crack running up the huge tombstone of rock and someone else had even beaten us to that realisation. I sat dejectedly on a rock and wondered if we could still make it back down to the valley to explore a different crag.

As usual, Pete was having none of it. After some discussion he persuaded me that the face was still worth a look and we should at least climb as far as possible to see what happened. I didn’t share his optimism scanning the vague line above, which appeared to be very unlikely indeed. As I watched Pete head up the first proper rock pitch I hoped that he would come to a blank section of rock and we could make a quick retreat back down to the Valley. It was like watching Seb Grieve on Parthian Shot all over again….. cummon Pete, just give up and we can all go home….

As Pete made his way up the long crack line of the first pitch he looked a little unsteady and even at one point shouted down that the footholds really needed cleaning. Maybe I was going be ok after all? However, over the next 30 minutes he kept steady and finally reached the end of the main crack. He called down that he couldn’t find a belay above, but he could see a possible belay point 10m to the left of the line, so he would make a bold unprotected traverse to reach it. Anxiety rose as I thought of the commitment to our line that this would ensure and also of the knowledge that the traverse would need to be followed very shortly by myself.

“Tom, your pitch looks very good!” he shouted down to me.

My heart sank – that meant only one thing – it was not going to be simple. In Pete’s world anything that is good, is hard, and success is certainly not guaranteed.

Suddenly my ropes came tight to my harness and I had little time to continue pondering my fate that lay above. As I followed the first pitch I started to realise how brilliant the climbing was. A little bold, a little technical and very pumpy. The initial strenuous crack section pushed me alarmingly close to my limit and I found myself internally congratulating Pete yet instantly questioning myself on the first pitch of the day. He had looked so strong on the pitch, but I felt so weak. Why was I even up here climbing on a day when I clearly should have been soaking in a river somewhere? Was this too much for me and should I call it a day now whilst we still had a chance?

Reality snapped me back as I removed the last nut from the crack and glanced across at the traverse that Pete had left in his wake. If I fell off the last few hard moves of the crack or any of the starting moves of the traverse I’d take a huge fall straight into the corner system that Pete was belayed in, to my left. I looked at Pete and raised my eyebrows. He started to giggle. What am I doing? The situation was serious, but I couldn’t help but laugh. With laughter in my ears I started to climb, falling back into the no-fall mental zone. Before I knew it, the hard moves were completed and Pete was patting me on the back and telling me that I should hope that the crack above was wider than it looked as he’d used all the small gear on the belay.

I looked up at a vague cracked groove above the belay which ran for some 50ft before petering out into a blank corner, bordered on one side by a blunt arête and on the other, a blank face. I felt the butterflies in my stomach as I contemplated what might happen up there in the next hour. My nerves however, were masked by a feeling of inquisitiveness that urged me to explore above and find out what would happen. I knew with certainly that the cracked groove would succumb as I could see holds and protection, but it was the thought of the puzzle above that that drove me on.

As expected the first half of the pitch ran fairly smoothly, and as expected the crack ran out at 50ft. No holds, no protection. I started to explore the rock around my high point and noticed that out to the left was a line of tiny edges that lead to the arête running parallel with the crack. Oh, dear God. That was my get out! How, could this be so perfectly formed? I’d been enticed into this pitch with a secure and well protected crack that would suit my climbing style, but now I was to be offered a path above that was the antithesis; a bold unprotected arête leading to the belay.

I slowly traversed out to the arête, leaving my last protection behind. I reminded myself that my partner would have taken this exact course of action if in this situation. Surely a young and reckless climber would climb the arête? But I’m so old, and not so bold. I shut the thought out of my head and began to follow the line of crimps that appeared on the arête ahead of me – my heart pounded and eyes bulged at what I contemplated doing. A run out of a further 50ft up the arête, with the possibly of a colossal fall.

With my heart in my mouth I slowly edged upwards praying that I was doing the right thing. I knew that I was in control and I could physically pull on the holds, but would I find myself in an irreversible position that would force me to contemplate my worst nightmares? Would I have climbed to a point where I was so committed and option-less that all I would be able to do was to grab the knot on my harness and take the ride of my life down that virgin granite face?

Inch by inch I balanced my way up the arête, with erratic glances to either side of me, hoping for some kind of miracle to occur. I’d not felt terror like this in quite some time and Pete’s encouraging words below barely broke the surface of my heightened senses. At the moment that I could truly take no more, fortune arrived at my fingertips. A life-line of holds appeared leading me back rightwards from the arête, back to the groove where one perfect nut slot lay. The route was saved for one blissful moment.

After placing the nut I looked up the groove again in hope of some secure crack climbing, but still I was going to be forced out to the arête once more. As I found myself again on the exposed arête, more edges appeared at perfect intervals. I began to wonder if someone was looking down on me and was this pitch designed perfectly to test my faith. How could this be? The climb was keeping me on the very edge of my sanity – I was constantly torn between failure and success, but every time another hold would lead me on…. Coaxing me…. Willing me to not give up… on myself.

As I grasped the finishing holds at the belay I could hardly believe I’d arrived. So many emotions, so much adventure, so much uncertainty in 100ft and all in one hour of climbing. We hadn’t even finished our route, yet this cathartic moment had defined my entire year of climbing. It reminded me of what I have always looked for in climbing experiences and what that day really was. That was new routing and this is my religion.

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