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(Re) Learning the Ropes

Red & Matthew
Photo: Dan Clemson

Another cracking blog post from Red Szell on his latest ambitions for Masua Bay - including a glowing report of Dan one of our long standing members of staff.

Red is a Rock Climber, Adventurer, Author and first blind person to climb 'Old Man of Hoy'. He's recently been sharing his exploits with us through a series of blog posts. You can find the past two here and here.

Spring has sprung – finally – and I feel the need to get outdoors and embrace some rock!

If only the weather would be a bit more co-operative.  But the good news is that my climbing partner Matthew has a place he rents out in Sardinia and needs to go out there to get it all shipshape before the holiday season begins.  So we’ve decided to turn it into a climbing trip as well, and a recce for our attempt on Pan Di Zucchero later in the year.

That’s the good news.  The bad news - I am still recovering from mashing up my foot and breaking a toe in a random diving-board accident at Highgate Pond.  I can only just now get it into a climbing shoe, which has rather scuppered my training schedule for the past six weeks.  So I’m a little apprehensive about the wish list of multi-pitch cliff climbs round Masua Bay that we’ve made.

Maybe it was that, and not wanting to risk over-doing it on my injured foot, that prompted me to suggest Matthew and I booked a rope-skills refresher course at The Castle.
We have known Dan Clemson, one of the Castle Duty Managers, for years.  It was he who gave us the abseiling refresher course we so needed before our ascent of The Old Man of Hoy back in 2013.  He was also the catalyst to us making The Castle our base for indoor climbing.  

Dan is quite possibly the best trad and sport climbing coach I have ever worked with and what he doesn’t know about rope-skills has yet to be discovered.  So he was the obvious choice.

I think both Matthew and I thought it would be an easy hour or so brushing up on actions that have pretty much become second nature over many years.  After all, as I joked before we started, we wouldn’t be here if we didn’t know what we were doing.  

But even as I said this, my conscience was piqued by the memory of a particularly sweaty few minutes trying to sort out a poorly stacked rope on a hanging belay while the climber above cursed my carelessness.  As we all know you don’t skimp on safety.

So we joined Dan at the wall of anchors and chains near the front desk.  Feet planted firmly on the ground we went through all the skills we thought we’d need for multi-pitch sport climbing on Masua Bay’s magnificent limestone cliffs: making safe at the top of a pitch; setting up a hanging belay; threading the rope through the anchors at the summit then tying in again (always a bit hairy for a blind climber); and setting up an abseil.  

Both of us made our share of sloppy little errors that in and of themselves would not have got us killed on a crag, but could certainly have spoiled our day.  Each time Dan calmly asked us why we’d done something ‘in that particular way’ before politely reminding us of the ‘more correct’ way of doing it.  

It was while we were going through setting up a hanging belay that he asked how we might prevent Matthew, belaying from above in a hanging stance, from being pulled upside down if I took a fall?  We both shrugged, knowing we’d forgotten something but unable to call it quickly to mind.  Dan held out a quickdraw and reminded us that it’s always a good idea to place a piece of protection between the belayer and climber – preferably a few feet above the hanging belay stance.  

On a sport route, he suggested running the rope through a quickdraw placed in the first bolt of the next pitch.

It was something we both knew but, not having practised it for ages, it was knowledge that needed to be dug out and dusted off.  And it’s much better to do that before you need it.  

A winter of top-roping and leading single pitches indoors may have left us in good physical shape to climb outdoors again but, I realised, we should probably book a rope safety refresher course each year before we do.  

So I guess I’ve got reason to thank my broken toe, alongside Dan and The Castle for ensuring that Matthew and I are as well prepared as we can be to go out and bag some multi-pitch cliff climbs in the sun.

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.