Natalie Berry | Pretty Girls Make Graves

 
Words by Natalie Berry. Images by Chris Prescott.

 

The name of the crag, The Gravestones, hardly inspires confidence. The name of the route, Pretty Girls Make Graves, even less so. Whatever connection you make between it and the title of The Smiths’ song, in reference to a quote from Kerouac’s The Dharma Bums, any route alluding to death is likely to evoke feelings of unease.

 

So far, my trad apprenticeship had been nothing if not an exponential rise through the grades. Within a matter of weeks, I’d jumped from E1 to E2 to E4. We joked that E8 should be my next target given the doubling sequence I was unconsciously following. Even if my confidence was soaring, E8 seemed a stretch too far. After careful consideration, I thought I’d meet it halfway and try an E6 instead. People around me seemed to believe I could do it, and in my naivety, I took their word for it.

 

 

On a trip to North Wales with Lucy Creamer, Pretty Girls Make Graves E6 6b at Craig Cwm Glas Bach was mooted as a potential project. I pored over the guidebook:

 

‘A striking route. Start part way up the ramp below some overlaps. Climb the steep crack to gain a disappointing horizontal break. Move right to a semi-rest below the upper crack. Big powerful moves up this on jams of various styles may lead to the top before your arms explode.’

 

Disappointing. Semi-rest. Steep crack. Powerful. Jams. Exploding arms. These words jumped out and merged to give an overriding impression perfectly summed up in the term ‘anti-style’. I was used to crimps and clipping bolts; I’d never secured a jam in my life, let alone placed gear off one. Nonetheless, the description of the line being ‘adequately protected’ partially allayed my fears.

 

 

I hadn’t climbed with women much before; the scene in Scotland was male-dominated, and unlike in the climbing honeypots of England and Wales, there were fewer women pushing hard grades on trad or sport. I was used to competing against women, not climbing with them, and this trip was a welcome shift in purpose and pace. Lucy – pre-eminent in her all-round climbing experience – was a calming influence. She too had competed and made a reverse transition to that which I was currently undergoing, from outdoor climbing to competitions. There was no ego or competition, just an older woman supporting a younger one in her goal. She reassured me that the gear was plentiful, the climbing was within my capabilities, and that my gear placements were passable. That was, until a small cam ripped as I worked the moves on top-rope…

 

I’d heard about trad ethics, and top-roping the line first seemed a less legitimate way of going about it. Lucy imparted her wisdom and advised me not to worry about the style of ascent, and instead focus on completing the route in the safest way. I lacked trad mileage and had limited time, so it made sense to optimise efficiency and safety by familiarising myself with the gear and moves. After two working top-rope attempts, I felt – unexpectedly – ready for the lead.

 

 

I rack up and set off. A boulder problem low down is the hardest and boldest section, involving a delicate step on undercuts. I grapple with the sustained crack above and find that my fingers and hands fall into place intuitively, despite being oblivious to the mechanics and minutiae of jamming. I torque and twist my wrists and ankles, occasionally reverting to a layback when it suits. The gear sinks perfectly into the crack, locked-in by constrictions that seem guaranteed to bear weight and hold a fall.

 

The late afternoon sun bathes the rock in a soft glow. ‘Nice one,’ Lucy utters softly after each gear placement, clip or chalk-up. I pause to let my arms recover and appreciate my position, high above the ground on a route that I had never imagined myself climbing. In my exuberance, I forget to place a planned piece. It doesn’t matter; I compromise and continue, pulling through the top groove. As Kerouac wrote in The Dharma Bums, ‘you just can’t fall when you get into the rhythm of the dance.’ Full of thoughts, but not quite able to express them eloquently in the moment, I conclude: ‘Chuffed with that!’

 

 

I never anticipated ticking E6 so soon after starting my trad climbing journey, nor did I expect to complete one in a day. When competing, I was used to planning and preparing and ruminating and reflecting on my performance, giving me time to get nervous or to allow the self doubt to creep in. I had to perform in the moment, on a given date and at a set time. On rock, I had to trust my instincts and juggle weather, conditions and risk when considering the time to go for a climb; you pick your moments. In competitions, it was easy to get lost in other people’s potential and lose your own self-confidence by thinking yourself inferior, but it takes two to trad climb, and the process is reciprocal and collaborative.

 

Lucy’s belief in my ability to climb a route that was out of my comfort zone on a daunting crag with an intimidating name instilled confidence in my own skills and taught me about the power of trust in climbing partnerships, and that spontaneity can yield results. Pretty Girls Make Graves made me realise that training and expectations can only take you so far; it’s the trying and the doing that counts.

 

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