My new high point and getting in ‘the zone’

My high point of 2020, check out the video:

A short film by Alastair Lee of me climbing Forked Lightning Crack

It’s safe to say this year hasn’t turned out the way I thought it would back in January! After a good winter of training, the year started well and I was able to squeeze in a trip to Norway at the beginning of March. Then of course everything changed. Corona, lockdown – my trips were cancelled, the walls were closed, competitions cancelled.

A picture of Jesse ice climbing on a huge frozen waterfall in Norway. He is leading up with the rope below him, and swinging his axe into the ice. The ice has formed in hanging chandeliers which looks quite spectacular.
Ice Climbing in Hemsedal, Norway March 2020

It’s often really hard in situations like this to stay positive, but I try and focus on the things that I can affect and not what I can’t. I couldn’t train at the climbing wall, but I could train in my garage. So I decided to work on my weaknesses through lockdown. My max finger strength is a relative weakness for me. And throughout the early part of the pandemic I really focused on this. I put in the effort and saw big gains which translated to my outside climbing as soon as lockdown was eased.

A picture of Jesse training in his garage on a homemade campus board.
Adapting my training in the garage over lockdown

Luckily I live with my climbing partner! So once the restrictions eased and climbing outside was back on the menu, Molly and I could happily climb outside together as a household bubble. With climbing walls still shut and no competitions in the calendar, we focused on climbing outside at our local crags in the Peak District and we’ve had a cracking summer on the grit.

A picture of Jesse rock climbing. He is wearing a blue t-shirt, a white helmet and has a harness full of gear dangling around his waist. He is hanging on to a small side pull hold with his left hand, with two feet in a horizontal break. His right hand is dipping in his chalk bag.
Left Unconquerable E1 5b at Stanage Plantation in the Peak District

This culminated in something special, a new high point for me, I led my first E2! To put this into context this is harder than the Old Man of Hoy and that wasn’t easy. Forked Lightning Crack is only 25 meters tall, but it overhangs for it’s entire length. All the moves are physically challenging and there are no places to rest to place gear. It requires total commitment both physically and mentally.

The mental aspect of this route was a big one for me. It was harder than anything I’d ever climbed before. When I was younger and had a tiny bit of sight, I had led E1, then I had lost what little sight I had. This knocked my confidence and I’d taken a break from leading. Through hard work, I’d pushed my climbing back up to that level culminating in the Old Man of Hoy last year. But I’d never climbed harder.

A picture of Jesse climbing Forked Lightning Crack in Yorkshire. Jesse is wearing shorts (not a good choice for a gritstone crack...). He is sideways on to the rock in a layback position. His two hands are pulling sideways in a vertical crack and his feet are on the right hand side of the crack, pushing his body to the left. It looks like a very strenuous position. The rope is below him and several pieces of gear have been placed in cracks and clipped to the rope.
Forked Lightning Crack E2 5c, Heptonstall, Yorkshire

It was really difficult for me at the base of Forked Lightning Crack knowing that this was going to be the hardest thing I’d ever attempted. I’d not been to this crag before, I had no previous memory to fall back on and had no idea of my surroundings or what it looked like. All I had was the verbal descriptions from Molly.

Try and imagine you’re me. You’re at the base of the crag, you’ve had the route description read to you, you know this route overhangs all the way, you know it’s going to be the hardest thing you’ve ever tried and that sighted climbers are intimidated by this route. On the first ascent, Don Whillans famously had 2(!) calming fags before setting off. The mark of a serious route, few of his ascents required this ritual. You’ve never seen the route, you’ve never seen the crag. How do you prepare, how do you plan? What will the holds feel like? How do you psych yourself up to pull on?

Molly leads me up to the base of the climb and puts my hands on the starting holds. I remember thinking, she said it was steep, I didn’t realise she meant this steep! I had to reset mentally, not let that put me off. I thought about all the preparation I’d done, the trust I have in Molly, built on the thousands of climbs we’d done together. A conversation with a friend when he’d reminded me that there is never a perfect time to attempt a route and if you save them forever you’ll never get them done. I pulled on. I think that was the hardest bit. Having the bravery to try.

A picture of Molly and Jesse both standing at the base of the crag.  There are 2 ropes that have been flaked ready to go on the ground behind them. Molly has her hand on Jesse's left arm and is directing him to the starting holds.
Molly showing me the starting holds and describing the features of the rock

Once I was on the wall it was like a switch had been flicked, I had crossed the rubicon, there was no going back now. Just full commitment, and I just had to go for it. I think the thing that I was most proud of was that I relaxed and let my body take over. It’s physical climbing but it seemed to flow easily, on the top section, my arms weren’t even tired. I got my hands on the top ledge and thought about trying to extricate myself in style, but decided the safety of the good old belly flop onto the final ledge was the safest option. For me that moment of reaching the top was pretty big, I’d done it. Despite all the challenges, the preparation had not been ideal, corona virus had turned the world upside down. All my plans had gone sideways. I’d found it hard to commit mentally at the base of the route, but I summoned the courage to try. The only disappointment was that my massive green cam went for another unused adventure!

A picture of Jesse sat on a rock at the base of the crag wearing a bright red jacket. He has both fists clenched and his arms in the air and a huge grim on his face. He looks extremely pleased to have successfully climbed the route.
Chuffed. Back at the base of the crag having successfully climbed the route on my first attempt

On reflection, I don’t remember all of the route or all of the moves, my head must have been in that space that is purely focusing on the task at hand. Molly and I usually discuss climbs afterwards and she sometimes checks whether her wittering away in my ear is distracting and interrupts my flow. You may think it would, but interestingly it doesn’t. To be honest I’m not sure how the rest of you cope with all the visual distractions! Molly explains that for her, when she’s leading, she focusses on the holds, the next moves and tries to block out all the noise. I guess for me it’s the opposite, I have no visual input and focus purely on sound. In fact, I sometimes encourage Molly to keep talking when I’m in a hard section…where am I going, what’s next? Even if she can’t see the next hold or what to do next, as often she is stood in close to the base of the crag belaying me (and she’s not climbed the route before), she always comes up with some useful words or encouragements on the spot and never panics.

A picture of Molly and Jesse at the base of the crag with grass and shrubs in the background. Molly is holding the guidebook and is looking up at the route.  Jesse is looking towards Molly and listening intently to the verbal descriptions.
A still from Alastair Lee’s film, Molly describing the route to me from the ground – to jam or to layback..?

Rising to the challenge of this route was a bright spot in a challenging year. I’m excited to see what 2021 has in store and hopeful that the delayed adventures will soon be possible. If 2021 includes a couple of routes as good as this one it will be a good year.

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