TRNovice’s Climbing Training Diary

A Tale of Two E1s – The unabridged version

Posted in General Climbing Post by Peter James Thomas on 9 October 2008

The guys at were kind enough to post an article I wrote a while back about my experiences in trying to break into the Extreme level. At the time, the UKC editor suggested, rightly I think, that I shorten the piece in order to make it more accessible to readers. This led to the “Psyched Cut” version of the article, which was published in August 2008. A link to this version also appears under Published Articles in the sidebar to the right.

I kept the longer version and I think that enough time has now passed that I can publish this here in full . Hopefully people will be now able judge for themselves which version they prefer.

TRNovice – October 2008


A Tale of Two E1s A Tale of Two E1s – The unabridged version

The author having just led Seams the Same

The author having just led Seams the Same
© Jenn Pacyna

This article is a comparison of two E1 attempts by the author. The first was also my first attempt at an E1; it ended in failure. Just over a year later, my second E1 attempt was successful. In between, I had climbed nothing harder than VS, so I guess an obvious question to ask is “just what happened in the intervening period to make a difference?”

30th June 2006 – Fool’s Gold (E1 5c) – Bus Stop Quarry, Llanberis

Morgan Woods on Fool's Gold - © Kiera Lang

Morgan Woods leading Fools' Gold
© Kiera Lang

I have always liked slate. I both onsighted my first VS, Seamstress, and climbed my first HVS, Solstice, on it. The second climb also saw me taking my first leader fall and thankfully escaping pretty much unscathed. Something about the rock suits me. I think it is the combination of the typically just-short of vertical angle; the small, but positive, edges; the emphasis on foot-work; and the types of moves: high-steps and rock-overs and small dead-points rather than full-on dynos.

Whatever the reason, I decided that, despite never having onsighted HVS before, it was worth giving Fool’s Gold a go. I did this at the end of a week’s climbing in North Wales. The time had been spent mostly doing easy mountain multi-pitch, maybe not the greatest preparation for technical 5c climbing! I probably also went for the E1 5c grade, rather than the more typical E1 5b, because of the likelihood of bomber gear; something Fool’s Gold has something of a reputation for.

So we pitched up, I racked up and stood underneath the line. I wasn’t certain that I should be there and had more butterflies in my stomach than could be explained by the adrenaline rush associated with excitement. I guess in many ways I failed the route right then, not having the right mental attitude. I was intimidated and, at least for me, trad doesn’t work when I’m intimidated. Still I thought as I’m here, in my harness and roped up, I’d be a wimp not to give it a go; so up I went.

For those of you who don’t know the route, it starts with very easy climbing on a number of ledges up to a platform under a triangular mini-roof. From here, you move up and right into a crack which leads to the top of the climb. The 5c crux is just after you move out from under the roof. You have small edges for your feet, then have to reach up for a finger-lock for your left hand, pull through to a gaston on the far side of the crack and then get you feet up high enough to become properly established. There is gear aplenty at the platform and, as you move to just below the crux, there is what has been described as the most bomb-proof DMM no. 5 placement in North Wales. It is a lock-like, T-shaped notch which the wire drops into and would probably hold at falling baby elephant.

I moved out from the roof and got the bomb-proof wire placed and clipped. The finger-lock felt ultra-positive on smooth, non-painful rock. The move up to the gaston felt smooth as well and I was through the crux. Here is where it all went wrong. In my mind, I thought that if I got the crux, it was all over. Now here I was with not the most positive of gastons and on foot-holds that suddenly seemed like micro-edges looking up at the crack which seemed to stretch on to meet the sky above. The guidebook says that the next section is solid 5b climbing and it looked like it. I had just done a single 5c sequence, but a series of 5b moves now seemed beyond me. Stupidly, I hadn’t been prepared for anything other than a VS-style romp from this point and mentally I had lost it. The bubble burst and my only thought was “you are in over your head, what were you thinking of trying an E1”. Despondently I lowered back down.

With the benefit of hindsight, I got everything wrong that I could have. I jumped on an E1 when I had been climbing nothing harder than HS that week and had done no bouldering to get my body used to harder moves. I picked a climb with a higher than usual technical grade, when my strength leading (if I have one) is more keeping it together above gear than doing hard moves. I had not warmed up at all. The first part of the climb was so easy that I was essentially still cold when I approached the crux. I had no plan for the part of the route past the crux and naively assumed that it wouldn’t be a problem. When things started to go wrong, I didn’t think about trying to calm down and reassess the situation, I just panicked.

At the time of course, I didn’t take away these learnings, I just thought that E1s were clearly way beyond my meagre abilities and I had no business being on them.

It was a long time before I tried another climb of this standard.

29th July 2007 – Seams the Same (E1 5b) – Serengeti Area of Dinorwig Quarry, Llanberis

A climber on Seamstress - Seams the Same is the second crack to the right of this © Sarah Clough

A climber on Seamstress - Seams the Same is the second crack to the right of this
© Sarah Clough

Standing at the bottom of Seams the Same some of the thoughts and feelings that I have just recounted were buzzing round my head. But crucially there were some differences. I can’t claim that I was confident about the climb, but I wasn’t intimidated. My thoughts were more, “let’s give this a go and see what happens” rather than “oh my God, why am I trying this?” Seams the Same is an easier technical climb that Fool’s Gold. It used to be an E2, but has eased with traffic; however it is still described as being somewhat bold. I think it helped that I had climbed Seamstress – the VS I mentioned above – on the same slab and a few feet to the left. Something felt familiar and I had already made it to the top of the buttress.

I guess I had a bit more of a mature attitude to preparing for the climb as well. I did some stretching; I bouldered up adjacent to the climb, traversed left to Seamstress and down-climbed it. I stretched some more and cleaned and squeaked my shoes. The climbing on Seams the Same is 5a/5b from the start and stays that way all the way up. I started with perhaps no great expectations of finishing, but with a much more positive attitude than a year before. The moves are a bit like on Seamstress: lay-back a bit on horizontal ledges in order to get your feet up nearer to your hands, rock over and stand up to get the next crimp, or (if you are lucky) larger ledge. The hand- and foot-holds are much smaller, and perhaps a bit further apart, but the moves are beautifully in balance, much more so than on its sister VS.

I got in my first wire and felt secure enough to look up and contemplate the rest of the climb. True to its name, It seemed like more of the same; so if I could manage this far, then why not the next section as well? I think this attitude helped me. Before, I had been so put off by the second half of Fool’s Gold that I had gone to pieces. Here I didn’t worry about the rest of the climb, just the next section and placing some more gear. I had a brief shake and proceeded to do just this. I passed an in-situ jammed cam and clipped it for the hell of it. Just past this I had my first pause for thought. There is a slight bulge at this point (about two-thirds height) before the more vertical lower slab transitions to the gentler upper slab. I backed up the cam with a DMM peanut that and convinced myself that it was a good bit of gear (denial can be positive as well as negative I guess).

I dipped my fingertips in my chalk bag, tried not to think about the gear and committed to the move. It felt smooth and easy and well-oiled, a by-product of all the other 5b moves below and I was now on the final slab.

The next few moves were probably easier with the more amenable angle; maybe one or two at 5b, but mostly 5a. However I had passed all the obvious gear placements and had a third of the climbing left (maybe 9m). This was a time for maintaining the same measured fluidity that had got me this far. A time for thinking nice thoughts about VS 5a slabs in Craig y Castell. I guess it was also a time to rely on the confidence I had acquired from the steeper section of the route. I kept on deliberately; not too quickly, making sure my foot-placements were secure and my weight was in the right place; but equally not really pausing, just flowing slowly and smoothly upwards.

I guess the point at which I nearly blew it was just short of the top with the final jugs about 3m above me. Here for the first time an unbidden thought popped into my head “you know, you are going to do this!” Such thoughts can prove fatal I guess, maybe literally so. For a very different reason, the bubble had nearly burst as it had the previous year on Fool’s Gold. Not without some effort, I managed to bury the thought and concentrate on the next move. Where was I going to step up to? Where is my next hand hold? And then focus on the next move and then… Oh I seem to have my hand on the belay ledge! A quick mantle and a quick expletive later I’m at the top and more pleased than you can imagine. The grin didn’t subside for several days.

Interestingly my happiness was not just getting the Extreme tick, nor was it “slaying the beast” of Fool’s Gold (with immense apologies to Neil Gresham and a marginally harder Welsh route). Yes both of those were things to be pleased about, but the climb had just been a really good experience. Despite a couple of pauses to think about what to do next and despite my potentially premature thoughts about completion, the overall feeling had been of being “in the zone” all the way. It had been easy, it had felt natural, it had felt that I was meant to be there and meant to be doing this climb. Feelings that were a million miles away from my previous experience.

Things that Made a Difference

The author training for E1 in Bishop California

The author training for E1 in Bishop California
© Jenn Pacyna

So again with the benefit of hindsight what had been different? Well some of the factiors are mentioned explicitly above. I had warmed up and done a bit of bouldering on the same rock I was going to climb. Although I wasn’t psyched about doing the climb, I thought that it was possible and had certainly not written off my chances before I had set rubber to rock. I had picked a route that played more to my strengths, a technical grade that I was comfortable with rather than harder moves with better protection. I had thought about the whole climb and not just focussed on the crux; I guess it helped that Seams the Same doesn’t have that distinct of a crux section, just sustained climbing at around the same grade. This sustained standard meant that the first few moves got me engaged and thinking about the climbing rather than worrying about a tricky section to come. I didn’t get overwhelmed by the whole route; instead I just tried to hit mini-goals: stick this next move, get up to that jug 3m above and so on. Crucially, I managed to make myself focus on the climbing again when thoughts of success began to prematurely enter my head.

As for the rest of what had happened in the intervening 13 months, I had put in some milage at a lower grade. I did so many Hard Severes that I began to believe that I owned the grade and there was no HS in the UK that I couldn’t climb. While you might think that being solid at HS isn’t much help for E1s, I think it is. It is good to feel that you have an absolute floor to your climbing, if I can climb any HS, surely I can climb at least some routes that suit my style and are harder than that. I had also done quite a lot of VSs and, while maybe not solid at this grade, this also helped. Who knows, maybe if I hadn’t kept my head together on the fourth pitch of Adam Rib (HS 4b) then I wouldn’t have done the same on Seams the Same.

But I have left out what is probably the most important. In my opinion what really got me to be able to climb E1 was bouldering. I had done tons of this between the two attempts. Most pertinently, I had spent two weeks in Bishop, California. Here, although I didn’t set the world alight grade-wise, I got a lot stronger and the highball nature of many of the problems meant both that I developed route-type endurance and a head for being high up.
This was consolidated by more bouldering in North Wales and the Peak. The day before Seams the Same was spent at The Sheep Pen high on the side of Ogwen valley. Here I climbed problems from V0 to V3 (and sadly fell off V4s). When you have bouldered as much as I had, UK 5b moves begin to feel pretty easy, even if there are a lot of them – they are only V0+ right? Bouldering had got me used to regularly sticking UK 6a moves and I guess that is a good place to be if failing to stick a UK 5b one would result in you decking.

So I will end this rather lengthy saga with a recommendation from a old trad climber who has a liking for easy mountain routes. If you want to lead harder, buy a bouldering mat and a beanie!

Epilogue (now slightly out-of-date)

Having a reputation for doing things out of order in my climbing life (I climbed HVS before I climbed VS for example), climbing Seams the Same meant that I had now onsighted E1 before I had onsighted HVS and before I had climbed F5+ clean. I guess the same things that helped me to get up Seams the Same led me to onsight HVS, F5+, F6a and F6a+ shortly afterwards.

However, E1 felt pretty easy and accordingly I haven’t tried another one since. I have however failed an E2 5c, Holy, Holy, Holy; have a list of others to try including: Psychotherapy, Last Tango in Paris and Pull my Daisy (I have heard rumours of rock types other than slate, but believe them to be exagerated); and am now seriously contemplating an E3 6a route, Goose Creature. I guess the cycle is starting again and I hope that I can remember the things that got me this far. On the bright side, I’ve now also sent V5, so surely UK 5c/6a can’t be that hard can it?

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