Return to Rhapsody

Screen grab from my ascent – Picture courtesy of Hot Aches Productions

I’ve done Rhapsody!

Those are 3 words I thought I’d never say, for more reasons than one!  Yet here I am, standing on top, looking out over the Clyde and trying to take in what it all means.  Well I say standing, but the truth is more like slumped/lying on the ground, panting hard.  Either I’m really tired, or this must mean quite a lot.

I first tried Rhapsody over 6 years ago in 2008, 2 years after Dave Macleod had made the first ascent.  It seems so long ago now, and so far ahead of its time, even more so now I have a solid idea of how hard it actually is.  With little free time and even less money for petrol, I blagged a lift up North with John Dunne and Steve McClure to try the route.   I made rather quick progress in the upper half of the route, but despite this found myself more focused on the proximity of the arête, and the line of Requiem, both of which it seemed you were forced to avoid

Early attempts from 2008 – Picture courtesy of Hot Aches Productions

I can’t really tell you why I was like this, I can only speculate that despite being relatively comfortable with the movements, perhaps deep down I knew I had neither the fitness nor the conviction to link the whole thing together?  It was easier to dismiss the route, than risk probable failure, and perhaps if it had stopped there, everything would have worked out for the best?  However, little James knew better, little James was trying something he thought was really hard, and little James wanted to prove a point.

I not only based the outrageously graded “The Walk of Life” on this taste of Rhapsody, I openly criticized the nature of the route and even questioned the proposed difficulty!  With hindsight it’s easy to cringe at my arrogance, my ignorance, and with reflection it’s easy to see how I was digging myself an extremely large hole.  My tower of cards had been built on questionable foundations.  There was no glue holding anything together, and very soon, it would very painfully come crashing down.

Redemption will be a new film from Hot Aches Productions that follows this whole journey

Losing the respect of people is hard to deal with, but not nearly as hard as losing respect for yourself.  I ran away to distant lands where nobody knew my name. Climbing took a back seat and I almost forgot what the pain was. I learnt a lot about people, about the world, but more importantly I learnt a lot about myself.  I started to connect the dots, to join A to B and see just how things had ended up like they had.  However it’s one thing to understand the past, knowing where to go in the future is another, completely. People say it’s human nature to fail, that we are doomed to disappoint, repeating the same mistakes over and over again.  This whole thing just seems a little gloomy to me.  Surely evolution can apply to everything, intellectual, and emotional.  If we take the time to look closer, if we really try to understand, if we work together to move forward then perhaps we can forgive anything, anyone… even our self?

Despite a good push, climbing just wouldn’t stay away.  I guess I should be thankful for that, as eventually it brought me back to where I am today.  Climbing can’t take all the credit, there were some other important players, but I shouldn’t say that too loudly as one of them is French, and you know how big their heads are already!  Life seems to be a lot about luck, and I consider myself blessed for my friends, and my family.  Without the support of these amazing people, sometimes near, sometimes far, yet always there, perhaps things would have worked out differently.

Caroline and I met in turkey – Picture courtesy of Jakob Schrödel

When I met Caroline, I was struggling to climb the routes she was warming up on.  I guess I should be happy in the knowledge that she loved me for me, and not for being a superstar, and it was actually quite nice to have someone to put the quickdraws in my project! Caroline opened my eyes to many things, and shared with me the training secret that I had been searching!  The secret is… there is no secret!  Just science, structure and a lot of hard work.

In 6 months I went from 7c to 8c, 1 year took me to 8c+, and 2 to 9a.  The training clearly works, and I had achieved things in Sport climbing I could have only dreamed of before!  Yet I was a Trad climber by heart, and anyone who climbs both Trad and Sport will understand me when I say, the two are not necessarily the same.

The difference was more than I could have ever imagined, and on-sighting routes that would have previously been long-term projects, became day-to-day business.  The newfound levels of fitness caused a shift in my mental approach too.  Trad routes were no longer scary, or stressful situations to race through when absolutely necessary.  With my newfound fitness they were just amazing challenges that I couldn’t wait to try.  For me, getting better at Trad was as simple as getting better at Sport climbing.  I was on the beginning of that journey and I was excited to see how far it could go.

Coming back to Trad – Photos courtesy of David Simmonite

Since meeting Caroline I have been on many expeditions all around the world, and had my eyes opened to countless new styles of climbing.  That’s what I really love about climbing, the variety!  On any given day you can be climbing in a totally different way – this stunning sport of ours just never gets old.  Having said that, it’s Trad climbing that I always seem to come back to, and Trad is where almost all my projects eventually lead.  There is something, I don’t know, perhaps spiritual is too strong a word, but a level of involvement, of total immersion in the rock that I have found nowhere else.

Until about 1 year ago the thought of returning to Rhapsody had never entered my mind.  It was Caroline who first suggested the idea, and I immediately rejected it.  Why would I want to go back to try THAT route?  I thought I could probably climb it now, but why should I put in the effort, and what if I failed!  I was happy, more than happy, why on earth would I risk throwing that away?  Caroline explained that it was not about THE route, but about everything the route represented.  I guess she could somehow see inside, deep down, and knew that things were not quite right.

After some time to digest I realized the inevitable – Caroline was right!  If this was going to happen, I needed to do my very best to make it so.  Training was the name of the game, and I had to get as fit as I could during the hot summer months, so that when the cooler autumn weather came I’d be ready to go.  I made circuits in our gym that represented the route, first climbing the individual sections, later linking them together, and eventually getting rid of the good rests in between.  It’s amazing how your body learns and progresses over time, and making progress in my “cRhapsody” only increased my confidence for the real thing.

Re-discovering Rhapsody was a rather surreal experience.  It felt like bumping into an old school friend, someone you knew from long ago but have nothing in common any more.  I remembered the holds, remembered the moves, but everything just felt a little wrong.  It felt so much harder than I remembered; I struggled even to hold the positions during my first session.  Eventually I managed some small links, but I was light years away from those I made in 2008!  How could it feel so hard, was it the conditions, or was it me?  Whatever the reason, climbing Rhapsody felt more unlikely than ever before!

After struggling to climb the moves on the lower crack I realized conditions must be far from prime.  This eased my mind a little, but I still questioned how much difference better conditions could realistically make.  I finalized my method for the upper wall, and figured out a reasonable sequence for the crack, but after falling pitifully low in an attempted top rope link of the Crack and Crux, serious doubt about my chances started to creep into my mind.

A rest day gave me chance to reflect on things, and try to pull the situation around.  Something Caroline had told me recently about climbing better on Trad routes than Sport began to tickle, and I wondered why not to just get on the lead and start trying.  Climbing hard sport routes is often about just putting in the hours, making try after try and going a little higher every time.  Its not that you get fitter in the route, but you do become more efficient, and that is often enough to make the difference.  I knew how to climb Rhapsody, I just had to do it.  Top-roping was little more than wasting lead attempts, so why not simply start the process and see where it all leads.

One of my early attempts – Picture courtesy of Hot Aches Productions

On my first attempt I set myself a goal to reach the top of the crack.  I passed this with a big fight and arrived at the rest, the headwall looming above me.  It’s funny when you look at photos of the route, and even look up at the line from the floor.  What is in reality over 25 run out moves, looks like less than a few meters, yet get up there on the lead and the situation reverses itself, with the rope billowing out below your feet!  I expected nothing from my 1st attempt so climbed with no pressure.  I passed the first 10 large moves without even feeling pumped, and fell on the crux traverse after sliding off the holds!  WOW!  That was unexpected; I can maybe do this thing!

My second attempt came later that day.  I left the gear in place because it’s such a pain in the arse to strip, and went for a try on pre-placed kit.  I have never climbed a Trad route using pre-placed gear, and was not planning to start here, but it seemed reasonable to “work” the route for the next week or so like this, and should I find my way to the top, clean the gear and try it without.  It was the end of the day, I was tired, and I made mistakes, but I arrived at the rest and tried to recover as best as I could.  To my good surprise, it started to come back!  I felt far from fresh, but a lot better than before, and started on the upper wall with a smile on my face.  The climbing felt a lot harder, and I felt a lot heavier than before, but I slowly but surely wobbled my way up, through the crux, and entered the last few moves! It was more shock than pump that made me hesitate, or perhaps it was catching sight of the rope running way, way down, but I came up short on the next hold and a second later I was off.  Down and down I go, the rope comes tight but I’m still going down as Caro is pulled from her feet.  Gradually I slow to a stop.  The fall finishes level with the starting ledge, 15 to 20 meters below.  Whooooooooopppp, what a ride!

Video of my second lead attempt, and fall, courtesy of Hot Aches Productions

One of my main recurring problems is the excitement induced pump that rears its ugly head roughly half a second after reaching any highpoint. It’s rather frustrating to say the least, and something I imagine a lot of climbers can sympathize with.  You’re feeling great, you pass the crux for the first time, excitement turns to nerves, “don’t F#@k it up now”, elbows go up, and down you go!  I worked a lot on this problem during my attempts on Escalatamasters, and had really good results using “visualization”.  If it worked in Spain, then why not here.  It had to be worth a crack?

Well it worked a little better than expected, as after a restful rest day I topped out on Rhapsody on my next try! Obviously I was happy, no, I was over the moon, as I had basically done what I had come here to do, and achieved something that had seemed almost impossible only a few days before!  However, the gear had been in place, which sadly meant only one thing… back for another try.  If a job’s worth doing, it’s worth doing well!

Placing the gear on Rhapsody doesn’t change a lot, but it does change something.  If I had to put a number on it, it makes it about 5% to 10% harder, simply because you have to spend much more time in the crack.  My first go placing the gear was clumsy, and I wasted a lot of energy.  I managed to make it quite high, falling on the infamous match move!  It was possible, it was there for the taking, but it’s often when things seem so close that they suddenly slip away.  More visualization was in order, and a slight refinement of the gear to make it quicker to place.  A rest day did its job, and I topped out for real on my first try of the following day!

Starting the crux sequence on an early attempt – Picture courtesy of Hot Aches Productions

So here I am, 1 week later, again looking out over the Clyde and still trying to figure out what it means…  Rhapsody is by far physically the hardest Trad route I have ever done, does this mean I have reached a new level with my Trad climbing, or was it simply a case of preparing well and putting in some hard work.  Has it changed how I feel about climbing in general, and do I feel I can finally move on?  My honest answer is I don’t know for now, perhaps it just needs some time to settle in?  I do feel a certain amount of pride, firstly for climbing what is undeniably a hard route, but more for seeing through this project to its end.  Coming back to Rhapsody was a big deal.  I have learnt a lot, about both climbing and myself, and I’m very excited to see where things will go over the next few years.

Lastly, perhaps the most important question I should ask myself is “Was it worth it”?  The answer is of course yes!  For all the reasons above this had been a truly worthwhile experience, and in addition to the self discovery, I also got to (re)discover a great rock climb.  Yes, Rhapsody may not be the “perfect” line, and ok, there are other easier variations of the route, as well features you have to avoid. But there is logic behind it all – to follow the crack of Requiem to the top, taking in the hardest moves you can along the way.  You could escape at several points onto the arête, you could re join Requiem just before the crux, but once you commit to the route, once you commit to the sequence, these other options fade away and you are only climbing.   I genuinely enjoyed my time climbing on and falling off the route and hope that people can believe me when I say I’m sorry for the comments I made all those years ago.

High on the wall, just a few moves to go – Picture courtesy of Hot Aches Productions

Climbing at Dumbarton, especially upon the main wall, taught me so much about how I use friction to make movements easier.  It’s a frustrating skill to learn, but incredibly satisfying once you start to understand.  Climb well and you can flow through move after move with almost no effort, but make a mistake and it will spit you off before you know what’s even happened.  I’d recommend Rhapsody to a Trad climber looking for a hard project to push their physical limits, or to a Sport climber looking to test their courage, without any real danger.  It’s a great hybrid and a whole lot of fun.

What Dave did way back in 2006 was truly remarkable, both as a feat of climbing, but also relentless determination.  To work on that route alone, to discover, and even rediscover the incredibly complex sequence, to take God knows how many ankle crushing falls from the last hold, and finally finish it off shows a level of commitment I have rarely seen!

I hope one day I too can find something like Rhapsody, and also find the strength to put in whatever it takes…

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