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Four Times I’ve Been Gripped While Climbing

The term gripped is a colloquialism in climbing meaning in a state of fear

When I opened my first copy of Gripped magazine in 1999, I read the term gripped described as, “A colloquialism in climbing meaning in a state of fear.” I didn’t know it at the time, but over the next two decades, I would find out firsthand what gripped meant.

You never know when you’ll be gripped, but being run out, exposed high on a wall or negotiating a difficult traverse can all lead to its sudden onset. Below are a some gripping moments that I will never forget. One time was on a 12-metre crack at the Centennial Bluffs in Thunder Bay. I was 20 and had teamed up with a partner who was much stronger. We forgot a rope, so my partner suggested we solo the easy routes. We moseyed up classics that we knew well, nothing harder than 5.5, trying to keep it easy. I knew that at some at short crags, like the Bluffs, even the “easy” lines were not so easy.

The last route was a wide corner. The jams were good until the final moves. Looking down at the jagged boulders, I realized that I had no escape plan. My left foot wasn’t jamming and the crack forced me away from the wall. I felt dizzy. I locked into the best position I could and wiggled my foot up. It slipped out, and for a second I thought I was going to fall. I rolled over the top, heart pounding, and knew soloing wasn’t for me.

Years later, I was climbing a new Rockies route. I headed up the unknown soon-to-be 60-metre crux fifth-pitch, a face with broken corners. I found my first cam after 40 metres. A little higher, I pulled on the rope and the cam broke a small, friable limestone flake that it was behind. I was looking at a 50-metre ledge fall.

My calves cramped, I pushed my fingertips into breaking crimps and ground my teeth. I was scared. It took a long time, and lots of encouraging shouts from my partners, for me to proceed to a small ledge with a piton-perfect crack. We named the 10-pitch route Eastern Posers 5.9+.

Feeling confident and cocky led me to a big summer of sending a decade ago in the Rockies alpine. I ticked routes like The Greenwood/Locke on Mount Temple, the East Face of Chephren, the West Face of Mount Robertson and Mount Robson. Next up was the Northeast Buttress of Howse Peak, a route easier than all the above, technically.

Pitch after pitch, I led us higher run-out slabs and fun corners. After a bivy, we reached the “black band” halfway up the route. I opted out of the original route and found a series of cracks up the steepest section. It was a 200-metre deviation, but looked solid. On the second pitch of the variation, I found myself above a section I couldn’t down climb, absolutely horrendous rock above and stacked car-sized flakes to either side.

I couldn’t communicate with my partners, and I was stuck. My protection was horrible (four pitons equalized in mud-like stone), but I had to do something. After 30 minutes, I decided to weight the best looking flakes and moved sideways and up for 15 metres to a ledge. A fall would’ve been fatal. I’d never been so scared, but that’s alpine climbing isn’t it. The rest of the route was safe and fun. We came face to face with a grizzly bear on the hike out, another gripping moment.

With too many alpine-gripped moments to choose from, the next-best trouser-browning memory is from the Squamish Apron. It was my first slab climbing trip. We roped up for Unfinished Symphony 5.11b. I was a way above the last homemade bolt when I froze. I couldn’t sort the next move and feared a cheese-grater fall down the granite.

I could hear my shoe rubber squeaking off a warm crystal. I covered myself in chalk, yelled expletives to my belayer, watched other climbers and then focused on kite surfers in Howe Sound. At that moment, the next rusty bolt was all that mattered in my life.

Nauseated, I inched upwards on the greasy stone and clipped it. Climbing to the next bolt would be just as gut-wrenching. I took a breath, chalked up and embraced being gripped.

The Chief from downtown Squamish.