I Must Have Been Nuts

It was involuntary, almost like a cough or sneeze.  As Tobias fell I murmured “Stay in you bastards.”  This wasn’t some trite entreaty, nor premeditated, but a genuine, instinctive terror that all his gear would come out.  I watched as he reached the full stretch of the rope, the belayer jerked forward and Tobias stopped.  I looked at the sorry excuse for a flake and marvelled that almost all the gear remained in place.   The question I kept asking myself was why I’d agreed to place it.

Let’s begin at the beginning.  It had been with some trepidation that I awaited Tobias Wolf’s arrival.  In Austria, me old mate Tim Skinner had met a German climber who was planning to visit the Peak District.  Would I chaperone?  Apparently said Teuton had been trying to repeat The Emperor’s New Clothes, a grade ten.  I surmised that this was considerably harder than VS. What was I, with my ‘Glad to be Bumbly’ badge, going to do to keep him entertained?

Tobias, ensconced at North Lees, had managed to get out and tackle Strapadictomy.  He’d had some trouble placing the gear and succeeded after a couple of goes.  OK, OK.  Situation dodgy but not irretrievable.  He’s climbing E5,  I can just about second the odd E4.  Let him lead all the time and he may never work out what a crap climber I am.  Next day I picked up Tobias.  He bounced over, full of youthful bonhomie and suggested Millstone.

Having cruised nonchalantly up Embankment Three and Time For Tea in spite of a heavy drizzle, he suggested London Wall.  He produced an umbrella and we sat under the impending wall that constitutes definitive Grit E5 and chatted as the rain gently fell.  Eventually, Herr Wolf discerned an abatement in the rainfall that was frankly lost on me and proceeded to rope up.  I watched with awe as he proceeded to dispatch, with ease, a route that sees more flyers than Heathrow.

Quite apart from the obvious talent shortfall, the weather precluded any attempt on my part, so we decamped chez moi and I began to get to know young Master Wolf.  Tobias is 23, an ex-member of the German junior team who gave up competition climbing to concentrate on real climbing.  Basically, our kind of chap.  He’s from Dresden, has climbed all over the place, opened new routes in the Elbesandstein and on-sighted 7c+.  I asked him what his targets were and he replied, “I thought we might have a look at Masters Edge tomorrow.”  We?

Next day, by way of a warm up, he casually soloed Edge Lane, probably the most beautiful E5 in the peak.  The first top-rope attempt on Master’s Edge was an education.  I witnessed a level of technical excellence that left me inspired as Tobias edged, smeared and palmed an arête that is at times positively parsimonious.  No snatching, no dynos, just clinical precision.  Then it began to rain.  Do you see a pattern emerging?  Calmly he chatted and assured me that the rain would stop any moment.  Sure enough it did and Tobias windmilled his arms madly a few times by way of warm-up before tying on.  Again the lower arête, the technical crux, was dispatched with ease and the gear placed.  Now I could watch and enjoy.  The next two or three moves passed without incident but the move just below the top saw Tobias hesitate for the first time.  His footwork seemed sketchy and I thought “Don’t fall from there.”

Talk of belayers running from the foot of the crag to reduce the fall is utter bollocks.  No sooner had I realised that Tobias was off than he was dangling on the end of the rope.  A strange inversion now occurred.  He berated himself for the failure, angry that he had climbed differently when leading.  Meanwhile, I was elated.  I had caught someone falling off an E7.  Even though he had been near the top he had stopped fully three metres from the ground.  I’d caught him.  I was part of the team.  Confident that I could stop him hitting the ground, I was able to enjoy the next couple of attempts and his inevitable success.

….. which set the tone for the next few days.  Quietus and Old Friends, both solo and on-sight.  Ulysses, Nosferatu, Skinless Wonder, all solo, all E6.  Masters of the Universe and Balance It Is in an afternoon, both E7, but the plum is surely the latter.  Balance It Is palms up a bald arête and when Tobias first top-roped it I thought there was absolutely no chance he would do the moves in the foreseeable future.  Half an hour later, he led it with aplomb.  His ability to fashion, memorise and replicate a move is an object lesson in climbing as intellectual pursuit.

Next phonecall was to tell me he had done his first E8, End Of The Affair.  Black Rocks soon after and it was payback time.  Tim Skinner had managed to avoid the border patrols and sneak out of the south so once Tobias had top-roped Gaia to his satisfaction, I suggested Tim belay while I took photos.  That’ll learn him.  Then it began to rain.  Once the heavens had closed, and allowing what could charitably be described as minimal drying time, Tobias again made light of some serious climbing.  I don’t think Tim even had time to feel frightened.

Which brings us to Parthian Shot.  Tobias has an invigorating attitude to climbing.  He has enthusiasm in spades.  His technique is backed by a clinical dissection of the climbing process but most of all it is driven by fun.  And Tobias ain’t having fun if he’s not trying hard routes.  His fondness for Burbage South meant Parthian Shot became the target.

At this point, I began to feel the cold hand of fate on my shoulder.  It muttered in my ear, “What are you doing bumbly-boy, helping this young man to try one of Britain’s hardest routes?  What do you know of its mysteries and peculiarities?  What right do you have to place this visitor in harm’s way?”

Bloody good question really.  And as I looked at the motley crew assembled beneath Parthian’s intimidating overhang, I just had to chuckle.  None of the usual suspects were here, none of the Peak aristocracy, just a gaggle of ex and current southern sandstoners.  The closest we’d ever been to such a serious climb was the Hard Grit video.

And then Tobias asked me to place the gear. It wasn’t the first time.  I’d placed the gear on Gaia at his insistence.  In the Elbesandstein only knotted slings and the occasional bolt are allowed so Tobias was erroneously convinced that his gear placement wasn’t yet up to the required standard.

However, Gaia, on which the gear is bomb-proof, was an entirely different proposition to the frankly terrifying prospect of placing gear on Parthian Shot.  In spite of the falls it has held in the recent past, the famous flake still retains an aura of impermanence, like a flake of skin hanging less than resolutely to Burbage’s craggiest face.

And still I said yes.  What’s more, the rationale behind my decision was far from pretty.  Am I the first example of a climbing groupie?  I guess not, but I was definitely swayed by the prospect of reflected glory.  When the best you can hope for is to be a climbing journeyman, dogged but never inspired, the prospect of being associated, however loosely, with an exceptional piece of climbing was hard to resist.  I wanted to be part of this and I’d be a liar if I pretended that part of me didn’t shout for joy when Tobias insisted I place the gear.

Hence my invocation as Tobias swooped from the crux.  On each subsequent attempt, I checked the gear and replaced the failures until I began to believe that it was quite safe, almost like a sport route.

Two days later, I placed the gear with a sense of foreboding.  I fiddled, removed and replaced and still I wasn’t happy.  Eventually, the strain of hanging onto the flake from the ab rope forced me to convince myself that all was well.  Which it was, right up until I felt myself heaved off the ground as Tobias’ weight hit the rope.  Immediately he started yelling for me to let him down, but gently.  Only one runner had survived the fall, a Wallnut ¾.  I felt physically sick and had to walk away.  How close to disaster could you get?  The thickness of a nut?  One millimetre had been the difference between lowering Tobias to the ground and trying to revive his broken body.

Which really begs the question, should Tobias have trusted me?  Equally, should he have placed such a responsibility on my shoulders?  Should I have accepted it?

I wish I had a trite answer, some little maxim to encapsulate my thoughts, but I haven’t.  Sure, climbing is a team game, we often respond to a shouted “Does this nut look OK?”  with an encouraging affirmative.  But would I place that gear again?  I reckon not.  Being in the presence of amazing talent does not, unfortunately, make you talented.

Tobias never did complete Parthian Shot and a few days later he broke his wrist falling off Ray’s Roof.  In hospital, he was philosophical in spite of the perfect Grit weather outside, “Don’t worry Gearman, I shall return in the spring for Parthian Shot!”  Perversely, I can’t wait.