Mission Impossible – E9 7a in the Welsh Mountains

On the final moves of Mission Impossible E9 7a

After two seasons of looking up at the impressively steep wall in Ogwen Valley, wondering if I’d ever get fight through the run-out on this rarely-climbed endurance piece, I’ve finally put this project to rest.

Mission Impossible inspired me because it’s an unusually athletic piece of climbing to find in the Welsh mountains, and yet it’s completely safe. Most of British trad climbing is about shuffling through grooves and cracks and corners, moving between ledges, pulling together lots of skills and experience to make a good adventure a safe one. But compared to sport climbing, British trad doesn’t demand the same strength and fitness (until you’re holding on for your life!). Mission Impossible on the other hand is steep, pumpy and intimidating, with a crux sequence you have to fight for. That kind of climbing that would stand out at a top Spanish sport crag, but it’s nestled up in the mountains of North Wales. What’s more, it’s traditionally protected (albeit with quite a few in-situ pegs), which means there’s still some of that adventurous trad feel about it.

The walk-in with Ogwen Valley below

While trying the route I began to really understand the name. Although I took every opportunity to walk up to Gallt yr Ogof in Ogwen Valley, I only managed to get up there and find the route dry five or six times in that first season. The climbing is about 8b, and on the two occasions I tried to lead it that year, I just didn’t manage to link the 8b climbing while fiddling with all the gear. I was also struggling with the expectations I had on myself to climb at this level, and how hard I was finding it. I wasn’t very constructive in the way I blamed myself and was embarrassed with how poorly I managed my psychology as such an experienced climber. The timescale didn’t help – having failed on it in late September 2019, I knew it wouldn’t be in condition again until April 2020. Got to love British climbing…

Attempting the route in 2019

As it happened, we had absolutely stunning weather for April and May, and the route would have been perfectly dry and climbable if a global pandemic didn’t stop us from climbing altogether. When restrictions did ease enough for us to be able to climb, Hazel and I managed to squeeze in two sessions up there before mid September, with August being particularly bad weather and us being busy putting on trad falling workshops. Mission Impossible indeed…

I worked out that there was only one very important hold that really stayed wet all the time, and if I could find a way to avoid that hold it would triple the number of days I could try the route. It’s actually the hold I do the crux move from, so it’s asking quite a lot to avoid it. However, by reaching a bit further and trying a bit harder I found a smaller, quite positive bit of rock I could fit two fingers on and crimp the hell out of. Hazel thought I was daft, and so did James the Beast, but it actually allowed me to keep another foot on and certainly gave me more days on the route.

James Taylor walking out from Gallt yr Ogof, Tryfan in the background

We finally had a dry week of weather in September and I was keenly aware that this was the time to finish the project. I went up with James Taylor (the Beast) who was on particularly good form from working on his project at The Diamond (The Beast, 8c). Thankfully he didn’t make Mission Impossible look like a complete walk in the park and made me think it’s probably quite hard even if you’re a beast. While supporting James on that I actually had a few good attempts on The Brute (8b), which is my anti-style being so anaerobic and perfect training for MI, so I felt better about getting on lead.

Getting a little frustrated with myself after slipping off!

I slipped off on my first attempt that day, then slipped on my second attempt too, but held on somehow, slipped again and fell off (video above). It was a mixture of heat, fatigue, shaky foot placements and the knowledge that I was already running out of chances to try this thing. It still felt good to climb on such a steep wall and take the falls. Both times I pulled back on and climbed through the runout to the top, which was a great sequence of moves (video below). At this point I had a better idea of what sort of challenge this route was for me and felt quite positive about the progress I had made. It was still frustrating, and I could feel the end of the season nearing, but it was good to have a clear head around that sort of failure.

Climbing to the top after falling

I came back with Hazel a few days later, and Ray Wood joined to get some photos. I find that people watching me climbing plays into my psychology and I feel a sort of outside perspective on my climbing, but somehow I often get the added pressure to work to my advantage telling myself that now is the time to perform. I made it through the crux this time, fighting and re-adjusting on holds and soon found myself shaking nervously on the rail below the top. I was really adrenalised and pumped fiddling in the cam there and struggled to relax myself enough shake out. I wasn’t very composed when I set up for those last few moves and I slapped for the top feeling stretched and desperate. My hand slipped from the top of the crag whilst yelling “Noooo!” and I plunged into the air below.

I couldn’t believe how stupid I had been. I was pacing around, kicking myself, knowing that I might not get that far again this year and that could have been it. It was really hard to make sense of how that failure would affect my next go, how I would ever get there and compose myself, this time with more fatigue and that fall fresh in my mind. Of course, that failure needn’t affect the second attempt and if I climbed well I wouldn’t be any more tired at the top. And that’s what happened. I got to climb all the way through that runout from the ground again, but this time with more composure and sang froid. It felt amazing. Slapping for the top of the crag was much smoother and controlled, and came with the relief that all the hard work did eventually pay off.

Climbing through the middle section of the route

Hazel had been trying Mission Impossible with me on and off, having had a bit of trouble with her shoulder she had put the route to the back of her mind. That day however, she made an impressive link of the entire crux sequence whilst playing around on my gear. We came back a few days later on the last day of good weather and Hazel led up to the crux with a bit of tiredness in her arms and a few misplaced feet. She didn’t let go however, and fought through several moves, power screaming each time, refusing to let go. She had her sequence wrong but was remarkably near the top, so continued to fight and scream until she was on top of the crag. Being able to try that hard is like a super power. She climbed at her absolute limit that day and showed me what you can do if your mind is strong enough.

Hazel falling off while working the route

I think of myself of having quite a strong mind, but it’s interesting that even on a route that is safe it’s still my head that holds me back. I’ve been exploring this recently and have a lot more to learn. I need to put myself on more routes that put me at my physical limit for long sequences to test my resolve, both in anticipation and in the moment.

Hazel lowering off the steep wall

I actually got to put that practice the same day, trying to onsight the E7 on the same wall – Heart of Stone. The crux was actually quite green with moss, almost unclimbable, but I tried to be like Hazel, climbed well and fought through a desperate wrong-handed sequence to fall quite a distance onto my little cam. If I could extend the summer I’d aim for a bunch more experiences like that.

Thanks Hazel and James for all the belays and support etc. Thank Ray Wood for the photos.

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