I first perceived the fear barrier on my first VS climb — the Barbican on the Castle Rock of Triermain.Four of us,on separate ropes,went for it on a damp March day in 1975. Big black boots; a stiffish nylon rope; not much experience (on my part). The book's relentless phrases had shelved themselves in a dark layer of my brain: "exposed and sensational in the upper part" — I would rather not have known that. "Particularly for the last man" — I couldn't understand that, which made it the more unnerving. We huddled beside the ash tree above the seeping vegetable life of the lower pitches and stared at the corner which bent round into space. It was undercut and it looked holdless. Below there was nothing but the crowns of tall trees and the backs of flying wood-pigeons.
Pete led off round the corner, hands on invisible holds, toes on derisory edges, moving fluently. A few years after he was to help pat up an E4 on Kilnsey; today he was in a state that he later called "blind fear". One of the party, an experienced climber but years out of practice, leaned her head against the rock beside the ash with her eyes shut. When I followed Pete, it felt like treading a wire-thin line of rock stretched in mid-air. At the corner lay the fear barrier, a zone of menace, of impossibility. As I neared it, it shrank, became transparent, turned out to be impalpable. I rounded the corner and there it was again, part way along the seemingly impossible wall. As though in a dream, pulled by the magnet of sheer necessity (and pushed by the impossibility of going back), I kept fitting the hefty Vibrams to the little edges, advancing on the fear barrier — until it disappeared, and we both felt fully human again, tethered to the rusty but solid peg (Drasdo' s from the first ascent in 1951?), and beginning to glow with the realisation that the barrier could be nullified.
Jim Birkett in Langdale
But still it lurked,ready to materialise on any crag, and for me it still has the character of that great wall on Castle Rock. A character made of the bottomless drop below an overhang, the vacancy that yawns behind you as you climb only just in balance, the silent obdurate resistance of any big steep mass, of stone. There it was again on Gimmer, on the steep rib above and to the right of the chimney stance on Kipling but not at its crux (though I fell off that twice); and at the apex of the flake on the traverse of Haste Not, Birkett's most spectacular line in White Ghyll, where you cling on with strained forearms and frictioning toes, trying to drape a sling; and on the incredibly undercut crux a hundred metres up the VI — on the Punta della Disperazione above the Canali but in the Pala Dolomites, where I only made the fear barrier vanish by deciding in advance that I would aid along on a sling clipped into one of Renzo Timillero's solid wedges.
It is an invisible obstacle —the point where your arms and your nerve will buckle and fail — the divide where impossibility begins, where everything is too much, the steepness, the sheerness, the not yet-known — a kind of break in the world, a space-warp, where the laws favouring your survival will stop applying and pure gravity will take over.
You can best it — or should I say disprove it? or exorcise it? —only by pushing on into it and through it, as I did in those novice days of big black boots and nylon rope. In that same March, when the mist verged on drizzle, we went at White Ghyll Chimney, and on the thinnish crux where you leave the sheltering security of the corner and step out onto a wall which is all downward-sloping ribs and fitigery edges, I met the fear barrier when I wasn't expecting it, I felt suddenly club-footed, all friction seemed to cease, the rock turned blank and dark, the mental steps afforded by runners ran out and I perched there fearfully, face to face with the barrier, willing it to cease — it didn't — calling out excuses to the other two in the party — they said nothing . . . the barrier consists also of loneliness: you are on your own, as helplessly solitary as though you were hovering in mid air, trying to invent the glider,or evolve wings.
With help from equipment and from people, and with experience, the fear barrier does lose its power. That May we went back to White Ghyll Chimney, I in squashy pumps, and of course I swarmed across and up that wall, and as Chris finally joined me at the top, he said, "Loony tunesville! You failed on that six weeks ago — in proper footgear" (his quaint name for hulking Vibrams). Six weeks later again I made a hash of Kipling, feeling the pumps splurge and wobble on the smaller holds, and by the autumn as the rains came on I had graduated to PA's and my feet felt elegant as an okapi's, unerring as an orang' s. But the fear barrier hadn't lost its power, it had only moved, to a perhaps diminishing but still vast number of locations around the crags the world.
Perhaps it has lost some power in this respect, that I barely notice it when I'm seconding (which for me means on anything harder than 5a). If you fall as a second you can usually swing about airily, like some clumsy trapeze artiste, and the wild free arcing through mid-air helps to make up for the ignominy of failing to surmount the crag by your own powers — I used this compensation heavily when I failed to mantel up the crux of Kipling, tried too late to traverse right, my arms turned to candlewax and I took off on a pendule, facing outwards, Horse Crags, Pike of Blisco, Crinkle Crags, Bowfell all swimming past in a slow-motion arc — crunch as my right hip hits rock and the arc reverses itself, majestic, as exhilarating as flying, the best way to see the Lake District.
Even if there is the comfort of a rope above you, some of the usual fear symptoms still flicker. The sinking gut as the impossible move looms just beyond you, the inefficient scrabbling with fingerends that just aren't up to it. But all this is far less formidable than the barrier itself — that zone of pure ill being or unbeing where your imagination balks — across which it can't throw any Bailey-bridge of conceivable moves into which it implodes like matter into a black hole.
At times the fear barrier locks itself onto a piece of rock and stays there with all the illusory deadliness of the Bermuda Triangle. The only way to prove it doesn't exist is to fly through it and come out alive and well at the other side. For me it was locked for six years (until June 29, 1984) onto the overhung corner and rib on Castle Rock where Triermain Eliminate goes straight up and Harlot Face veers out onto the rib, then round and up it out of sight. The book promises "a good resting place", but you can't see it, and this invisibility helps the fear barrier to form out of the steepness all around. On the Eliminate, in 1978, I tried to follow Pete up the corner, got past the in-situ nut, and faced with more overhang and diminishing help from the crack in the joint before I could even reach the high step onto the doubtful perch on the downward-sloping block, the scale of the overhangs and the colossal outward shove of the great face overcame me — I had reached the fear barrier — it had continued to exert power invisibly, like negative magnetism, and I had to downclimb rapidly (to put it politely) and abseil off the ash-tree.
I hadn’t even tried the move and failed...pathetic! And this mental defeat is what potentiates the fear barrier like nothing else. In this case I’d made it spread and permeate the crux stride out of the corner onto the rib of The Harlot’s Face. Like a fool I let this move become a rite of passage. It was the great thing that I must do to prove my courage, among the thousands of other commitment-points that I might as well have built up into ‘The One’. On a day of cold rushing wind early in June 1983, after retreating off the Raven Traverse with Bill Peascod and Neil because we were too numb and shuddering to climb, Neil and I went over to the Castle for my first epic tilt at the barrier on The One. Seconding it would be worse than useless. The One must be led. I climbed up to the ledge much too quickly, putting on no runners, and belayed to the ash-tree with my guts feeling thin and quaky like watery porridge.
Neil settles himself down for the siege. I put on an original Moac, absurdly low down, and pull clumsily up the corner towards a blur or two of chalk. The crack takes a No. 6 hex, and as my forearms tire I eye the fateful step, the tiny abyss, one stride through air to fix my right foot on the side of the rib and then — the moment I make as if to move, the fear barrier rears —almost visible, almost palpable — a kind of tough formation of the air which my will and my imagination can't win through. No, not my imagination — I can conceive of the move all right: find the best lodgement for the left foot on the pockety wall — right hand onto the first small sweat-blackened spike on the rib — swing out — go for the almost juggy flake three feet up — transfer the left hand — but from what? It's feet away, clung on by its fingerends to a little saw-edged pocket — and if I can't bring it across double-quick to some sharp hold on the rib, or a jam in the corner-crack . . . The half-chances and fantasy-moves flick through almost subliminally, frames in a horror film. My faith in myself has now sucked out into the black hole, and I half-lower off the hex feeling witless and craven and defeated. Five or six minutes on the ledge, shaking out, analysing the moves to Neil — over-analysing them, letting the mental tension build far beyond the point of a useful surge.
Neil is phlegmatic, sceptical. He has a motto for this situation now: "You're your own worst enemy, Dave." He adds helpfully, -It's just one move." I now have a plan: climb higher up the corner; from there I can launch across to a point where the rib is less steep. It turns out that this takes me too high to use the black spike, to reach the juggy flake I would have to fly or something, and anyway at that height the corner impend's, demolishing my strength. I slither back down from nut to nut and stand on the ledge speechless with chagrin, fingertips numb, then starting to throb. Three more deranged efforts make no impression on the Harlot, or on the fear barrier, which remains in place. During the last one I find myself absurdly crouched ten feet up the corner, like a slug impaled on a cactus, craning rightwards, eyeing the gap and that taunting rib beyond it, urging my inner self to go for it, feeling my inner self quail as the fear barrier toughens into a thick glass presence against which my mind scrabbles and fizzes like a trapped bee.
Then I spent a year rescreening the moves. The barrier was never more precise: six inches out from the rib. At that point the exact grasping of the fingers must begin, the centre of gravity shift smoothly across, the feet pick the perfect friction points, the will remain intact. At the barrier the will may crumple like plastic in a fire, or it may hold and then the barrier is a nothing. I do the climb most weeks — in my head — and in a bad week six or seven times. Maybe I should do more on snow and ice, to reduce the pressure, since it hardens and thickens the fear barrier still more.
The Return Match Just after the anniversary of the epic siege we are up there again. A fine drizzle has made the Castle the obvious place to go. Neil has designs on Rigor Mortis, whose second pitch he fell off several times when he was 16. For me, of course, it has to be The One. "Here it comes at last, the great grey distinguished thing," as Henry James said on his death-bed, and no-one knew whether he meant death or the Order of Merit? Such banter makes me forget the fear barrier, for a minute or two. And then we're there again, Neil steady on the ledge, amused at me but helpful, me staring at the corner and running my eye across the void to the rib. Original Moac, move up, lean out, sketch a sally with the right foot through space, downclimb in good order, five minutes to let the fingertips recover, back up to put on the hex and take a last reconnaissance.
I lean way out, bridging to the utmost, get my right hand on the black spike — then the fear barrier repels my right foot, the lodgement for it under the rib is useless, a greenish slip of cracked rock, I change hands and reach for the juggy flake with my right but the barrier is still working, the flake top runs out, how can I use so poor a hold to haul my full weight up an angle beyond the vertical? Again I retreat, as deliberately as a technician winding back a film (after all, I've done it six or seven times). "This time," I tell Neil, "I'll go for it — no more waste of glycogen - if I fall, I fall." He puts up both thumbs and blows out lips and cheeks in his inimitable mime of jollying and confirming. And as I swing across this time, the barrier shatters and scatters around me. It almost takes me with it, I don't climb well — "I can't do this, Neil!" I remember squawking as my left fingers just clenched my weight inwards and my right just curled hard enough over the flake-top to power me up round into that resting-place I have been trying to visualise for six years — which has become for me the embodiment of whatever lies beyond the fear barrier. It's a flat ledge about the size of a dinnermat, and as I stand on it for minutes, matching little nuts to the crack above, I feel as ensconced in mid-air as a kestrel or a helicopter.
No doubt Jim Birkett, climbing the route without runners 35 years before, made those crux moves at the first attempt. "When I got my hands on something, the rest of me generally followed," was his sublime motto. The fear barrier will have been so much less hard and deep for him, and locked onto fewer places, although he clearly saw it one winter, climbing Engineer's Chimney on Gable (grade IV/V) in nailed boots with one long-shafted ice-axe, since Len Muscroft (his second also on Harlot Face) heard him give a short rasping cough as he moved across the hard wall on verglas: "When he did this I knew it was going to be desperate." (Bill Birkett, Lakeland's Greatest Pioneers, 1983, p. 122).
I now see that the image of a barrier which is there, as though solid, is not true enough. The fear barrier is a zone of nothing, where you cannot be. As you move up closer to it, it may enter into you —you become nothing, your strength is cancelled, weakness hollows out your arms, your feet can't be trusted, your brain ceases to screen clear images, your balance shakes out of true, your imagination can't conceive of a way beyond. But if the fear barrier fails to invade you, it cancels itself, and you remain yourself, strong, limber, and collected, in a fit state to savour the lovely jubilation that floods through you as you move on and up, unscathed.
David Craig: First published in Climber and Rambler May 1985