Lliwedd reflection (2007-11-25)

I am here explaining what happened in our climbing, what went
wrong, and lessons I have learnt, for both positive and negative
sides, reflecting the epic now.  I am meaning this as a kind
of compensation/contribution to the people who were annoyed due to
the event, for future reference.
You don't have to read this, of course (I warn you, it is quite long!),
but I am just trying to share the experience and reflection with you
to make it beneficial for you climbers who read.  I summarise
the main lessons in the end of this email, so you may want to read
just that part alternatively.
# Please feel free to forward this email to your friends, particularly
# to the people who came to the meet.  I don't know the mail addresses
# of most of newbies..

Personally it was a very embarrassing event, and I admit it was
the worst epic I have ever had.  In summary, the planning and
preparations were reasonably good, the dice of uncertainties,
which we could do very little on, went rather bad for thing after
thing, and one thing I made was pretty stupid.  In that sense
it is a sort of typical background for an epic event --- a combination
of a human error with multiple misfortunes.

** Planning
 * Route

 Climb a mountain crag of Y Lliwedd, taking a route of Mallory's
Route (Slab) and Great Chimney to top out to the summit.
The grade is HVD, which is generally speaking easy enough for me
to climb even without climbing shoes on (Indeed that was what I did
several months ago in a 250m HVD route in Tryfan).  Nevertheless I took
my climbing shoes this time and wore them throughout the route.
The route length is 280m in total.  The guidebook says it will be
Severe in wet conditions and be impassable in pouring rain.  If it is
just Severe, it will be still fine for us.
  Verdict (when I look back at it now): OK.

 With the partner Dan, who is good at climbing, I was planning
to use the style of moving together.  If we can do so,
it could be climbed in 2 hours or so.  Even if we pitch every
single pitch, it won't take more than 5 hours at maximum.
That was my estimate.
  Verdict: OK.

 As is often the case in mountain crags, the route description
is rather vague in the guidebooks, so I compared three guidebooks
in the previous night and tried to understand it well.
In addition I searched for and identified the possible escape routes
just in case things go wrong, and listed them.
  Verdict: OK, but further closer look and memorising may have helped.

 * Weather

 Weather-wise, I had kept an eye on the pressure chart in the previous
few days till Friday evening. The Sunday was forecast to be sunny,
and my prediction was cloudy and possibly a bit (not a lot) of shower
at worst.  In the Sunday evening it would get worse, though.
Saturday passed as forecast said (the weather front must have passed),
so I anticipated Sunday would be all right at Saturday night,
although I stupidly forgot to check the latest weather forecast
at Saturday night, when we dropped by Betse-y-Coed.
  Verdict: OK, except the failure to check it in the previous evening.

 Because the rocks may be still wet due to rain on Saturday, we decided
not to make the earliest start to give rocks the time to dry.
So, the planned leaving time was 7:30 (but I overslept a bit, and
we actually left at 7:45).  In the morning my barometer said
the pressure was improved, so I confirmed the weather was moving
as forecast.
  Verdict: OK.

 * Miscellaneous

 We should have left a memo of the summary description of our plan
and basic equipment to other people, so that in case of emergency
they can provide the required info to the rescue.
  Verdict: Appalling.

** Equipment and gear

 In the previous night we arranged all the climbing gear, so as to
maximise efficiency while minimising the weight to carry.
Because we planned to move together, providing things allow,
we decided to take two rucksacks between two instead of one,
which I think worked well after all.  With the same reason,
we took a single 50-metre rope, as it is much more handy for
moving together.  This after all turned out to be a bad idea,
however, I think it was a reasonable decision at that time
and I would still choose the same in the same condition.
  Verdict: OK.

 I took only a couple of abseil tats (one of which is used to clip
my chalk bag), which turned out to be too few.
  Verdict: Bad.  Should have taken more to be enough for the abseil
             for the full route length.

 Dan took a pair of cumbersome gloves, which turned out to be
not a nice idea, as he was suffering from cold hands, while he
was belaying with bare hands.  A lesson.

 I took a pair of light-weight non-waterproof boots, instead of heavy
mountaineering boots, which was not good, either, as my feet
were pretty wet by the time I arrived at the cliff bottom.
Climbing with wet feet did not help my performance.
  Verdict: Could have been better.

 We didn't make a final thorough check of the equipment in the morning.
  Verdict: Bad.

 As a result, I forgot to take my head torch and radio transceiver.
  Verdict: Absolutely appalling!

** What happened?

 The weather was OK as expected.  Not sunny, but no rain with a bit
of wind, which hopefully would dry the rocks.

 We started in a moving-together form, however I quickly
decided to change into the normal pitched climbing after just 10 metres,
as the rocks were found to be still wet from place to place, and so
the route was not easy to climb on at all.  I took a leader fall
at one stage.

 Dan started leading the second pitch, but soon I took over after his fall.
Some time at this stage, it was already 1 o'clock, meaning 3 hours
after we started climbing.  Looking back at it, we should have
retreated by abseiling at this stage, considering how hard
the actual climbing turned out to be in the conditions on that day.
I remember I thought "this is just HVD, so the past pitch was just
unusual.  The next pitch would be drier as the time passes, and easier".
No way.
I was calm in a sense to check the barometer to check the potential weather
progress, but was so daft and excited in climbing that I was blinded
and climbed on...
  Verdict: This is the biggest mistake I made on the day.

At one point in this second pitch I had to resort to positive aid
climbing (A1/A2 move in American (Yosemite) aid grading system).
The true grade in the conditions on that day must be pretty hard.
After these first two long pitches (100m), we decided to go for
the easiest escape route (Mod), which is also the easiest
in route finding, from the finishing ledge of the second pitch
to climb up to the ridge of Lliwedd.
I argued it would be much easier to climb up than to abseil down.

The justification was, because we had only one single rope,
at least full 4-pitch abseiling would be needed, which would take
ages at best.  Indeed I realised by then it would not be easy to find
anchors, given the poor quality of rocks (the gear was pretty
sparse while I had climbed up), which would cause lots of problem
in abseiling.  In addition I only had a couple of abseil tats.
  Verdict: This decision is I think debatable.  Maybe bad.

The next pitch (Mod) started easy.  But by the time I found
a belaying ledge, I noticed I was off-route.  I could see
the route on the left, across the gully.  Hoping I could
negotiate the gully to cut across somewhere (the 250m gully was
overall Severe), which I thought would look possible, I climbed on
for the next pitch, after Dan seconded that pitch.
  Verdict: A bad decision.  We should have retreated by abseiling
             there, even though abseiling from there was expected
             to be quite tough, for we had already made a mistake,
             and was not certain how hard the traverse would be.
  Verdict: A more careful look at the guidebook would've been better
             so as not to miscourse.

In leading the next pitch I found no good place to traverse
for both the leader me and second Dan (traversing is sometimes
more nerve-wrecking for the second), and I decided to retreat by abseiling.
There is a Diff route up there (which was my worst scenario
back-up plan), but I came too left in order to find a traverse line,
thus the slab I ended up on is harder than that, and so climbing up
further is not an option.
However, it was so hard to find reliable anchors for abseiling that
I ended up climbing further 10m or so on the steep wall till I found
moderately reasonable anchors (TriCam-3.5 and shallow spike for sling).
I wanted to be lowered down, but far too much rope was already used,
so I belayed Dan up there.
  Verdict: A right decision, finally...

I chose Shallow Gully for the line to abseil, because the gully
is the easiest feature to identify in the dark and so is unlikely
to get lost.  In addition, given the rock nature of sparse gear,
I expected a gully had more features than a face, which are
usable as an anchor.
  Verdict: OK.

It was half four.  I realised I forgot a headtorch (Damn me!!).
After making ourselves a bit more comfortable, off we went
for 8-pitch abseiling (we had only one 50m single rope, so 25m is
the maximum gain per pitch; n.b., we didn't have enough cords/slings
to make it longer, either).  I abseiled first, placing anchors,
then Dan followed, and repeated this process of abseiling in mountaineering.
# I chose a bit off-standard procedures, though, mainly because
# we had only one head torch between us (Damn me!!), partly because
# I was concerned with Dan's conditions.  Looking back at it,
# I think it was the right decision.

The gear was again pretty bad.  It took ages to get anchors sorted
in each pitch (the main reason it took so long in retreating).
I had to sometimes climb up the rope back to search for gear.
I used every knowledge (and gear) I had, such as, a number of
equalising methods, one-sided-pull hex placement,
opposition of offset nuts, etc.  Nevertheless, despite of my best efforts,
I had to resort in the grade sum of 4 in anchors in the worst case,
while I want 7 (in a way that was why I had to bring everything I could)...

  Verdict: Given my knowledge and ability and surrounding conditions,
             I did this retreat pretty well, although it would have
             been immensely better if this event had not happened
             first of all.

Added on note, I appreciated a lot Dan's patience.  Despite of the fact
he was a bit weak due to the cold and perhaps fatigue (and his
trusty headtorch was snatched by the stupid partner), he followed
my instructions very well without making a fuss, showed even a positive
attitude, and as a result the retreat worked the best we could.
I was impressed, honestly.

If you go to Y Lliwedd for climbing, I'd advise you to make sure
to choose the dry condition.  It affects hell of a lot.
Rocks are rather fragile, so big guns are more useful, such as
Friend No.4, rather than micronuts.  Loads of cracks are flared,
so cams and offset nuts are more useful.  And take loads of slings,
as spikes are quite often of best use for protections.

# If you go there now, you may want to choose Shallow Gully
# (Severe) --- you'd need only a partial rack, as you can collect
# the gear on site, including 4 SLCDs (cams), several
# nuts/offset-nuts/hexes/TriCams, loads of slings including
# 2 cordelettes (chopped, though) and loads of krabs... ;-(

Finally, if you end up being in a situation, where you have to
make a nerve-wrecking retreat, the following is my advice.

First take a deep breath.
Take plenty of water and foods (providing you have plenty!).
Wear dry and warm clothes, and remove wet layers
if necessary, so that you feel comfortable.  Even if it is a bit of trouble
to do so, just do it.  The bit of effort will be paid off before long.
Or if you don't, you will regret before long.  Those things
help you keep your morale high, as well as are physically practical
to prevent you from having cold and numb fingers, feet and brain.

After making yourself a bit comfortable, make a decision of what to do.
Keep your morale high.  Believe you will prevail.
At the same time, be calm but don't be too excited, either.
Just plainly make your best effort you can to maximise the chance
of survival.  Just do what is needed, precisely.

Triply check everything among the party.  In addition, make one more
final check before you commit yourself.  Make sure you don't
drop anything, particularly descender, rucksack, head torch and helmet.
Be aware of the fact you are at best tired, are most likely stressed
whether you notice or not, so the level of concentration is reduced,
and your fingers and brain may not function as well as they normally do.
Never be skint of your gear to leave.  Abseiling has seen more
fatality than climbing.

If you are a leader, survey your partners, and calm them down
if they panic, and try to keep their morales high, too, while you are
contemplating the best possible option.  Cheer them up within the
extent of natural behaviour.  Show your confidence and positive
attitude, even if you are actually not feeling so.  Don't show
your anxiety to your partners, unless you fully trust your partner
whom you can expect to give you a better choice and/or help you
emotionally.  Be strong.

For the other members of party, help the leader emotionally,
if not practically.  If the leader sees you stand by yourself,
then one of the burdens of the leader's is reduced, which helps
the leader concentrate on the job, maximising the chance of
survival as a party.  Don't start arguing pointlessly.
At this stage, there is no point of lamenting,
"we should have done this and that", either.
And, after all your party have finally reached the safe ground,
you can pour your anger and swearing to your partner if you wish.

Finally if the things go really wrong, don't be afraid to bivvy
overnight (_in general_, though), providing you have a right kit.
Don't forget some bivvy kit, such as a group shelter and/or bivvy bag.
That gives you a confidence of survival even in the worst case,
and helps you be calm and act correctly in retreating/escaping/descending
even while you are not planning to bivvy.  It is a good idea to make
experiments of bivvying in a safer ground beforehand, as it would
boost your confidence in emergency.

 1. It would've been better to time the progress and compare it
    with the pre-planned worst case scenario, so as to decide
    the timing of retreat more appropriately.  Particularly I should
    have been more careful about it.

 2. Don't forget a headtorch (and a knife)!!

 3. Leave the note about the planned route and emergency equipment
    to your mates.

 4. It would've been better to take enough abseil tats for the
    full retreat.  It may affect the process of decision, too.

 5. It would've been better to bother checking the important
    equipment list immediately before setting off.

 6. It is good to practise (repeatedly) abseiling in a simulated 
    mountaineering situation in the safe and controlled ground.
    Trust me, there are loads of tips for it, a failure of one
    of which may lead to a gruesome situation.

 7. To check and choose the possible escape routes beforehand
    is a good idea.

 8. Most of quickdraws (QDs) in my trad rack are with extendable slings.
    Those extendable slings were extremely useful in not only climbing
    but also abseiling.

 9. Use of climbing cord (instead of shoe lace) for chalk bag and
    of full-strength krab for nut key is sometimes handy.

10. A famous alpinist says something like "Mountaineering is all about
    putting as many tools as possible in the drawers in your brain,
    and use them when needed".  I believe in the words.  Indeed I had never
    appreciated my own knowledge and experience as much as this time.
    Keep learning!

That is it.

Hope this mail is of some use for you.

Many thanks,
Masa xx