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Blind Ambition

Photo: Dan Clemson

Rock Climber, Adventurer, Author and first blind person to climb 'Old Man of Hoy', Red Szell has many stories to tell. Four years after his ascent of this iconic stack Red hasn't lost his Blind Ambition. 

I don’t do New Year’s resolutions.  Nevertheless each year, the first week of January is the time to put my money where my mouth is, as far as climbing is concerned.

So here I am, back at The Castle, barely 72 hours after the end of an epic New Year’s Eve party; contemplating my first 6a of the year with an excess of turkey and mince pies bulging reproachfully above my harness.

This year my climbing partner Matthew and I have two projects planned – the first of which we hope to bag just after Easter. 

Pan di Zucchero is a glorious island of white limestone rising 130-metres above the waves off Mazua Bay, Sardinia. A multi-pitch sport climb graded F6a+, it’s sharp, steep and sustained.

Pan Di Zucchero

So I’ll need to be knocking off routes like this nubbinsy 6a rock-over fest I’m sizing up in The Engine House at The Castle.  It wasn’t too much of a problem a few weeks ago, but today…

Generally Matthew and I spend each Friday afternoon top-roping at The Castle, and try to slot in some midweek bouldering, if we can.  But somehow Christmas gobbled up most of last December, so it’s been a few weeks since we last climbed together.

We’d both been itching to get back onto the walls but, after a couple of warm-up routes with big juggy holds in all the right places, all that time off is beginning to tell.  Stamina and technique seem to have deserted me.  My forearms are throbbing and my legs feel unequal to the weight pushing down on them. 

It’s amazing how quickly you lose climbing condition – particularly as you get older – and neither Matthew nor I is the right side of 40.   

Not that I’m particularly bothered about my appearance.  Being blind it’s been a long time since I last saw my reflection in a mirror!  

But I do take pride in my climbing; and today isn’t going well. 
What little vision I have left is like looking through a keyhole into a dark, smoke-filled room.  When I’m climbing Matthew acts as my eyes, so I need to be able to hear him directing me to my next hand- or foot- hold.  Outdoors we either take another climber with us or use 2-way radio headsets.  Indoors we try to plan our sessions for the quieter times at The Castle, or find the less busy areas to work in.  This has the added advantage that only Matthew has to hear my occasional outbursts of frustration – like now… 

My fingers buckle and spread like over-ripe bananas, and peel away from a gnarly pinch.  And I’m left dangling a couple of feet above Matthew’s exasperated face.  Pan di Zucchero in April suddenly feels very ambitious.  

This will be our third attempt in as many years on Europe’s second tallest sea stack.  On both previous occasions we’ve turned up fit and ready to tackle the route only to be thwarted.  

The first time, the third member of our party arrived on crutches having sprained his ankle the day before!  Then last year our arrival coincided with that of the maestrale – a strong North Westerly wind that whipped up the sea and made the 2km crossing impossible.  Third time lucky?

I hope so!  I’m not getting any younger.  Because I can’t see and don’t always have someone else’s eyes to guide me, I have to be strong enough to hold awkward stances for extended periods while I try to grope my way out of trouble.  Getting to that level of preparation for projects like Pan di Zucchero feels like a bigger mountain to climb with each passing year.  I’m going to need all the time on the wall I can get!

While I recover and belay Matthew, who I’m pleased to hear is also struggling, I comfort myself that at least I have three-and-a-half months and The Castle to help get me back into shape.  

Dan Clemson - Red    Dan Clemson - Red

Photo: Dan Clemson

Back in the day, when I was learning to climb in the 1980s there was no indoor climbing.  So, unless you were into winter climbing or could afford to find a crag in the sun, there was a lengthy off-season with nothing much to do except keep fit in the gym till the weather improved.  

Then the first couple of trips outdoors again would be brutal.  Soft hands, damp rock and a loss of muscle-memory made even the first few Diffs feel like Longhope.  And it would take weeks, often interrupted by the great British weather, to rebuild technique.

Now, thanks to indoor centres like The Castle, there is no off-season for climbing.  Weather permitting you can head straight back out to a crag, fit and ready to tackle a project - so long as you didn’t let the Christmas break go on for too long!    

I have no excuse and three-and-a-half months to reacquaint myself with gnarly-crimped, narrow-edged 6a and b’s, and a lot of smearing ahead of me.  I chalk up and give it another go.

Red Szell’s book The Blind Man of Hoy is available from The Castle Shop.  And you can follow his progress on The Castle blog or via his website.