Wednesday, 23 May 2012

Vertical Limit Review

There are very few mainstream Hollywood films centred around climbing, and up until recently I had only seen one of them; Sylvester Stallone’s Cliffhanger. The only scene I can still remember from it involves Stallone free-soloing an overhanging mountain face with something like 12 TRILLION KARABINERS hanging off his harness to rescue two climbers stuck on the summit of a neighbouring peak. Exactly why he does this I cannot say, given that there’s a perfectly good helicopter hovering in the sky besides them, but there you go. An elaborate escape is conceived (using shockingly few karabiners, considering the efforts our hero had gone to in order to bring them all), it goes WRONG, one of them PLUMMETS to a dramatic and messy DEATH, and so the film goes on. Audiences everywhere sit back and gasp in amazement at just how dramatic and death-defying climbing really is.

But as bad as I recall Cliffhanger being, it pales in comparison to Vertical Limit. Just thinking about it makes me angry. Take the first scene, for example. We see three intrepid climbers, father, son and daughter, scaling a sandstone tower in the desert. The son reaches a roof on what looks to be a difficult pitch, all the while singing an Eagles song that his sister, dammit, simply DOESN’T RECOGNISE. He cuts loose and hangs there, like a TWAT, saying “You give up?”

And her response? She scowls, does something (I don’t know what) with the ropes, and says;

“On belay.”
The father was the one who led the pitch, he’s way up on the next stance, surely he’s the one belaying? Or maybe the siblings are so competitive they only allow each other the security of a belay if they succeed in baffling the other as to what song they are singing? But no, look closely and you will see that the son is indeed climbing with a rope from both above and below. What’s more, it’s only after he surmounts the roof, and presumably the crux, that good old Dad decides to strap on a gri-gri and actually safeguard his son’s climbing.

I am not exaggerating, you could sit me in a room with every climber who has ever lived, is living, and will live, for the rest of time, and I could not be made to understand what kind of system they are using in this scene. Fortunately it doesn’t matter, because a few seconds later the team above them fall off, all their bolts EXPLODE, and the trailing ropes floss everyone off the face.

A single cam holds them all, and, despite the incalculable force of a 5 person mega whipper, does not break. Surely this is the most bomber gear placement in the world? Well yes, except for the fact that it then starts merrily sliding down the crack, threatening to send them all to their frankly well-deserved DEATHS. How does that work? Is the cam ALIVE???

Whole essays could be written on everything that is wrong with this scene, but suffice it to say there is a lot. And that’s only the opening 10 minutes. Good old Dad, the world’s most haphazard belayer, is CUT FREE in order that his horrible children survive, and so the emotional drama is cunningly set up for the remainder of the film.
It focuses on an egocentric millionaire and his desire to summit K2 at the exact moment his new fleet of planes fly over. Or something like that. I think. Anyway, the daughter is a member of the team, and her brother, who she blames for Dad’s DEATH, just happens to be in the area. They meet up, sparks fly, it becomes quickly apparent that a lot of VERY STUPID PEOPLE are about to set foot on a VERY DANGEROUS MOUNTAIN, and that’s about that. The brother stays behind with a predictable bunch of mismatched idiots, and the sister and the millionaire begin the climb. At one point real life mountaineer Ed Viesturs shows up, with the dazed expression of a man who can’t quite believe what he is witnessing. You’re not alone there, Ed.

They climb. It all goes TITS UP.
Avalanches, blah blah, bad desicions, blah blah blah, “we can’t possibly turn back now”, etc etc, they all end up trapped in a crevasse, injured and cut off, IN THE DEATH ZONE. Now the brother, who hasn’t climbed since Dad’s DEATH, must venture up to save his sister. And maybe the others, but they don’t matter as much. Because, you know.

In a sequence of events that bend over and arse-rape credulity, climbing logic, and even the fundamental laws of reality themselves, our team of chalk ’n’ cheese rescuers inch closer to the crevasse. They take with them NITRO-GLYCERINE, so obviously some of them EXPLODE before they get there. We witness wonders such as dynamic cam placements (for the uninitiated, this is where an un-roped climber escapes from a ledge by jumping, cam first, at what may or may not be a suitable crack placement, sinks the device, and thus is saved). More people DIE, but that’s OK, because none of them are AMERICAN.
I can’t actually be bothered to type anymore, so here’s a quick conclusion. The sister is rescued, with the NITRO-GLYCERINE, of course, but the foolish millionaire PLUNGES TO HIS DEATH in a crevasse. However, this is alright, because prior to that moment there is a lingering shot where he clearly, beyond any reasonable doubt, does THE EVIL EYES. The brother and sister reconcile, new relationships are forged, and no one seems to mind the fact that dozens of people DIED in order to save just one.

So, after much careful consideration, I have decided to award this film a score of 27 hexes out of a pair of 50m half ropes, and now I’m going to KILL MYSELF.

Monday, 14 May 2012

The Black Zawn

I took a deep breath and lowered myself off the edge. The cliff overhung by about 10 feet, and the abseil rope went 25m straight down into the sea. Will, who went in first, had clipped the line into some nuts on the way down to pin it to the rock. However, as the second man, I would have to take them out again, and rely on him to pull me in. The target was a hanging belay stance just above the water line. I slid down the rope, thinking that the battle music from the Lord of the Rings would be a perfect soundtrack to this.

Enter the Nine Riders. I descended into the Black Zawn.

Many months ago, when I first read through a Swanage guidebook, two routes immediately jumped out at me. One, Behemoth of the Boulder Ruckle, I had since done. The other was called Astrid. A HVS, it lies in a deep, gloomy fissure known as the Black Zawn, hemmed in on three sides by vertical cliffs. A difficult and committing free hanging abseil is the only way in. Just a stones’ throw away from the crowded Subluminal area, the Black Zawn is an altogether more serious venue. The sun rarely reaches the dark rock walls, and the routes are often wet and slimy. For some reason, this appealed to me. Now, as I swung in towards the stance, I wondered why.

Will had done a brilliant job of building the belay, even making two loops in the static line to hang the climbing ropes from. I attached myself and studied the route. It followed an obvious crack all the way to the top. A steep bit getting around a flake looked to be the crux. The entire lower section was damp, and droplets of water kept splattering on my helmet. I gazed around at the overhanging walls surrounding me, unable to quite believe where I was. No way out but straight up. Time to get going.
I got established on a good foot-ledge and placed some nuts to prevent a direct fall onto the belay. Above me was the start of the hard climbing. I pulled upwards, aiming for the bottom of the flake. I placed a hex. Then one of my feet greased off a wet hold.
“FUCK!!!” I yelled, fingers digging into the rock, somehow keeping me in place. Lunging higher, I managed to reach a decent hold and bridge out to gain an OK rest position.
“Jesus, you scared me there,” said Will.
“Bloody well nearly shat myself,” I muttered, fumbling around on my harness for some more gear.
I was at the crux now. A thin, damp crack snaked immediately above me, promising protection but few holds. To the right was the bulging flake. I felt around, finding nothing. Fantastic. I gripped a wet undercling, trying to wedge my shoulder under the flake to take some of the strain off my arms. Slick footholds gave me no confidence whatsoever. Shit. I was getting pumped. Shit.
Desperately, I reached above rightwards, hoping to find a thank god jug. No chance. I moved my feet higher, tried to pull through, instead almost fell off again. Eyes bulging, chest heaving, I scuttled back down to the undercling, shouting “Watch me!” with each movement. Will held the ropes and waited for me to peel off. It felt like even if I figured out a sequence I wouldn’t have enough strength to go through with it. The gear was good, there was nothing to hit but air; still I refused to give up. I wanted this route badly, had been dreaming of it for too long to fuck it up now.
“This is it mate,” I said through gritted teeth, bridged out and hauled for glory. The holds were greasy and unhelpful, the angle forced me outwards. I squirmed higher, my arm muscles burning. It was all or nothing climbing. The steepness demanded intricate footwork, I was splayed out X-shaped to use the best possible edges. Then suddenly, wonderfully, my left hand grabbed an uber-jug, and I yanked myself on top of the flake to a decent resting ledge, whimpering with relief.
It wasn’t over yet though. The crack spiralled upwards, still steep. I placed some gear and carried on, as pumped as I’d ever been before. My arms were shagged out so I paid attention to my feet and rested wherever I could. It got progressively easier, the rock drier. Putting in tons of gear, I climbed my way towards the sun.
“Keep it together,” I whispered to myself, “Just keep it together...”
Then at last I reached the point where the route branched off left to easy ground, and I knew it was in the bag. A final undignified belly-flop mantle onto a block, which made Will piss himself laughing, and I was there. A simple scramble brought me up onto the abseil ledge, where I pitched forwards face first and lay there for a few minutes with a mouthful of grass. The passing kayakers must’ve found this particularly amusing.
Both my hands were bleeding and stank of salt, everything hurt, but it was done. The terrifying Black Zawn conquered at last.