Walking dangerously

Posted by Matt Heason on 02/11/2003
Ben Heason, Froggatt. Photo: Messenger.

Volunteer for the BMC? You’d never catch me doing that; it’s all sitting around in pubs arguing over bits of paper isn’t it? Yep, that and putting up new E9’s. Summit takes a look at Ben Heason and his work at Froggatt for the forthcoming BMC guidebook.

If writing up an established crag for a guidebook, most of us would be tempted to wander along, check it was still in the usual place, that none of the buttresses had suddenly fallen over, take a picture or two, then retire happy to the café – job done. The alternative is a lot more scary. Wander along, decide all routes require accurate descriptions and grades, climb all routes, then fill in any outstanding gaps.Ben Heason decided that plan two was the only option. And with just 12 routes left to go, he’s keen to finish the job as quickly as possible.

This approach, whilst obviously very commendable in its attention to detail, does have a few stumbling blocks. The thorny problem of making the second ascent of “Toy Boy” (E7 7a), was one such block, but after six or seven days of work, Ben unlocked the sequence and managed to psyche himself up for the solo above a bone breaking landing.

So what does it take to be able to come within a whisker of ticking Froggatt? Well, some uncompromising boldness is useful, since he climbed many solo without spotters or mats, and strict ethics are handy, although sometimes inconvenient – he generally aspires to climb without pre-practice or prior inspection. And don’t despair if you’re not climbing E9 just yet, it appears that E2 will do the job…

At a ripe old age of 21 Ben experienced his first taste of hard grit with a solo of Obsession Fatale at the Roaches, a bold E8 6c slab with a highball friction crux. Back then ascents of E8’s like this were infrequent, and usually confined to the elite, but what made this ascent unusual was the fact that his hardest on-sight climb prior to this was E2!

He’d only tried the route out of curiosity, and surprised himself by top roping it cleanly on his second attempt. Although still falling off one in every three or four attempts on a rope he felt confident, and promptly soloed it. At the time he’d expected a long apprenticeship through the grades, ticking the classic routes and maybe one day leading an E5. Obsession Fatale however, made him realise that with more experience and strength there was no limit to what could be accomplished.

Ben’s confidence grew and grew, but he says, with hindsight, “I was becoming a little reckless, pushing my limits too close to the edge”. After a few weeks of excellent weather during the winter of ‘97, and several hard on-sights under his belt, he says, “I felt indestructible”. And whilst making an on-sight solo attempt of “Narcissus”, a classic E6 arête at Froggatt, his momentum came to an abrupt halt, costing him two broken ankles.

With the wonderful benefit of hindsight he now considers this accident one of his most important learning experiences in climbing, giving him plenty of food for thought – not to mention time to polish up his Nintendo skills! Less than six months later he had climbed his second E8, but more importantly he’d returned to Narcissus and climbed it, without any top rope inspection and without mats or spotters. He says, “I needed to bury the ghost, to be able to move on with my climbing”. His accident had forced about the self-realisation that, for self-preservation reasons, in order for his climbing to progress he would need to work on his weaknesses, namely his power and endurance. He said, “the possible consequences of becoming even bolder were not an appealing option”.

The following year, he found himself yet again pushing the limits back on the grit. His on-sight solos of Epiphany (E6/7), and Monopoly (E7) in September ’99 started to turn heads, and after a couple more years working his weaknesses, he was ready to really push his ambitions. It was during the winter of 01/02 that he really made his mark, and captured attention with his seemingly unstoppable momentum, making numerous hard ascents (mainly on-sight and solo) of gritstone test pieces past and present.

Starting in October he soloed Jerry Moffatt’s “Renegade Master” (E8 6c). This was followed by on-sight solo ascents of “Jasmine” (E6/7 6b) at Bamford edge, “Desperate Dan” (E6/7 6b) and “Deathwatch” (E7 6b) in a day at Ilkley, North Yorkshire and another on-sight solo of “Jumping On A Beetle” (E7 6c) at Black Rocks. This was followed by headpoint ascents of “Feeding the Pony” and “Angels Share”, both hold-less friction E8 7a slabs at Black Rocks. At Froggatt he made a good start on his guidebook work by soloing “Bud” (E7 6c), “Art Brut” (E7 6b) “Dick Van Dyke Goes Ballistic” (E7 6c), and added two new routes “Firecracker” (E7 6b) and “Chin Grinder” (E6 6c).

His form continued into the new year, culminating in a memorable day at Curbar in which he headpointed the classic arête, “End of The Affair” (E8 6c) and flashed “Slackers” (E6 6b) and “Moon Madness”, E7 6c. This string of ascents had a suitable finale when he added his hardest ascent on gritstone - a new E9 7a called “Ozbound” to Froggatt just days before he left for a nine-month trip to Thailand, Australia and New Zealand. Despite this solid tick list, he claims to be somewhat baffled by all the attention that grit receives throughout the climbing community, saying “most routes on grit aren’t like real climbing, they’re more like bouldering in a dangerous place, and sometimes the bouldering is more like ‘difficult walking”.

Few expected him to continue to make the headlines on his big trip, but he took the opportunity to prove to himself that he wasn’t just a “difficult walker” and put his cool head to good use. In Thailand he soloed numerous routes on Tonsai wall, including “Phet Maak”, a classic F8a with a reachy crux high above the ground. Moving on to Australia he took no time adapting to the more physical nature of the climbing, bagging a satisfying collection of on-sights.

The most notable being “Journey Through Nicaragua” and “Contra Arms Pump” in the Grampians. Both climbs are graded Aus 30 (8a+) and are protected by mainly trad gear. Ben made the first ever on-sight ascent of “Journey Through Nicaragua” commenting that “it felt relatively straightforward, about E7 6c”. “Contra Arms Pump” on the other hand nearly ended in disaster and Ben considers it “probably my best ever effort – and it needed to be…”

Apart from two spaciously placed bolts at the start, the route is protected by traditional gear which is extremely pumpy to place (the route is normally led after top rope practice with pre-placed protection). Ben however missed a crucial blind gear placement. After failing to place the cam in the blind crack Ben tossed it over his shoulder, opting to push on instead in an attempt to preserve some strength for the rest of the route. With an Australian grade of 30 (8a+) he says “basically it felt like I was on-sight soloing an 8a/+ sport route - completely at my limit”. Luckily he was successful.

Before finishing his Australian adventure he made the second ascent of an E8 6c gritstone style arête called “Orca”, and despatched a few more F8a’s, as well as plenty more trad climbs, including the mega classic “India” (7c+) at Arapiles. Stopping off in Thailand on the way home he made good use of his new found route fitness, on-sighting yet more F8a’s and soloing “Old Chicken Makes a Good Soup” (8a/+) and “Cara Cangreso” (8b). This achievement is put into context by the fact that this is his hardest route with a rope on! The fact that he chose to solo it indicates just how much confidence he now has in his own ability, both mental and physical.

However since arriving back in Britain he has been plagued by injuries, the most serious resulting from playing basketball! Only able to climb about a dozen times over last winter, many would have expected him to lose all form. But after a few months off, he marked his return in style with a flash solo of "Paralogism" (E7 6c) - his only ‘beta’ for the route had come from watching the “Hard Grit” video footage. Crossing one of grit’s largest roofs “Paralogism” has had few ascents, and all of them before had taken place after top rope practice. In his typical style he set off solo, with no spotters or mats for protection, just total commitment and faith in his ability. “The crux moves were physically slightly easier than I thought, but the dynamic moves were a bit more committing than I’d expected!”.

Now seemingly injury free and fresh back from new routing in Greenland, he’s been making good use of the recent Indian Summer with some further stylish ascents in Mallorca and Lundy. Ben admits he’s getting properly psyched again and is looking forward to another winter on the grit - one of the main aims of course, is to finally finish those 12 remaining routes at Froggatt.

When probed further about his guidebook marathon, he explained; “it turned out to be a bit more effort than I’d first envisaged, but equally I enjoyed doing it more than expected. I really got involved with the whole process, as well as getting into the crag itself. It helped give me some extra motivation through the bleak winter months, when I was trying to repeat as many of the routes as possible. It’s no secret that the BMC aren’t the most affluent of organisations, so I’m happy that I’ve been able to volunteer my services”.



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