Hardest thing I´ve ever belayed!

Posted by Rich Mayfield
Friday 10th October 2008

James and I first met at The Orange House three years ago, when he came out on our work exchange program. He stayed for free working for his food and lodgings, and he worked hard bless! We climbed together at all the steep crags, Wildside, Forada and even the odd secret crag. I remember thinking at the time that this young man would be good.

Fast forward to now, James is one of our MasterClass Coaches and a bright star in the traditional world pushing the limits and expanding what is thought possible in the UK.

I was on standby a few weeks ago to belay James on this project. The conversation with Dave Simmonite went something along these lines. "We´re getting up at 4am to start climbing at 5.30am, could I make it to the North Coast by 5am?"

This call came in at midnight and I had just driven all the back from Yorkshire. Luckily for me James found another belayer for the Alpine start, un-luckily for James he took a huge wiper from high up and had to wait to try another day.

 After the light relief of the Costa Blanca DWS Festival, the call came again, but this time at a very reasonable midday. High tide at 6-ish should give us loads of time.

I hadn´t seen this crag before, but I had seen photos and the video clips of James`s fall. Some crags have WOW factor when you first see them, some crags have scare factor. After careful inspection and some gained knowledge these factors usually diminish to the point where you think, "OK it´s not so bad, I´ll give it a go."

This is different, on closer inspection the true nature of the confidence only gear, the non holds, the friable rock, a truly hideous landing and the threatening weather, all combine to push the wow and scare factors off my scale.  

James rappels the lines and works the route, the Hot Aches crew set up cameras and rap lines, Dave sets up cameras with remote releases and enlists the help of Sam. Hours drift by and the tide starts to turn. Two passing climbers wonder over to see the circus and pass the time of day.

dave hanging

James raps the route one last time, the moves he makes on top rope somehow don´t seem real, flagging, lay backing, and dead pointing from nothing to nothing. I can´t see where the first piece of gear is either, my apprehension levels are maxing out.

I ask James if he has any special belay requests, he says, "if I come off in the first 15m don´t stop me, just lower me straight to the floor, the gear probably won´t hold anyway."

A Hot Aches camera gets shoved in my face and the potent question gets fired, "How do I feel, about to belay James on the lead of his life? " I know what they´re asking me, and I know why but James is in ear shot, and I really don´t want to psych him out. I reply, "looks fantastic, and James looks well strong and in control, I´m sure he can do it!" I know that´s not what they asked me, and the question gets fired again. I smile and in true politician style side step the question.

As James ties in and I put him on belay I glance nervously at the sea 50m closer than midday, only 10m more before I get wet. I form a strategy in my head for when the sea hits that boulder, I will reverse coil the ropes over my shoulder so they won´t get caught on the rock as they get washed, I´ll get wet, but no one ever died of wet, so that´s fine.

We looked at each other and I nodded. James sets off. Ten metres of rope paid out I spot him for the first 10m, then move out of the way, nothing I can do from that height. The micro goes in upside down, it would make a very poor upwards runner, but a non-existent downward runner, I stand ready to run forward and pay slack out. But there´s no need, he´s passed the crux and started throwing gear in. I breathed a sigh of relief. 

james start

Only 5 metres of dry land left, and James has 35 metres of climbing to go, I identify the highest rock to stand on, might give me 15 minutes more time.

James makes steady progress, and places gear at regular intervals, but I know it's all rubbish and not likely to stop a fall. Rain squalls pass by to the North and South of us and the wind starts to gust. I willed him not to hang around and rest for too long.

james rain

Starting from the end of the ropes I started to coil them over my shoulder and jumped onto the highest rock. James looked down at me from a semi rest giving a thumb up sign, I smiled and give a reassuring return thumb. Wind and sea combine to drown out all verbal communications.

Light drops of rain started to fall, I swore under my breath and the sea engulf my rock turning it into a tiny island. Under my breath "come on James, you can do it!" The shower only last a few minutes and he´s off again. "Go James GO!" Belayers neck stinging hard, but this was where he fell from, I´m ready for the fall, make it as dynamic as possible, ready, eyes glued to James 40 metres above me.

The first wave hits the top of my rock turning it into dark green ice, feet flew out from under me, I looked down in shock landing heavily on my arse, SHIT! Snapped my head back to see if James had started the fall, had I pulled him off? He´s still there oblivious to my slip, I opt to evacuate, paid slack out and headed for higher ground. Thank God James topped out and disappeared.

james happy

Hardest and scariest thing I´ve belayed on.

To read James´s Blog click here....

Read more blog entries by Rich Mayfield

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