Birnam – Fast and Furious

Me and Greg Boswell were at Birnam yesterday. We’ve both got our eyes on a route called Fast and Furious. It’s a Scott Muir dry tooling route that takes a route up a 45 degree roof and would be about M10 if it had ice on it. That equates to about Scottish XII, though obviously comparisons are somewhat tricky to make, as Fast and Furious is a sport-mixed route. There is no traditional gear on the route – it is climbed entirely on bolts.

Progress for me has been slightly frustrating. However Greg, (on his second day on the route) was making short work of the climb, and he looks pretty close to making a successful ascent – and all this before his 18th birthday!

Kev Shields and Paul MacDonald was already at the crag when we got there. Kev has solo’d the route before. This in itself is a remarkable feat. The route has an extremely unpleasant landing (onto a boulderfield) and at its highest point, it is probably over 40 feet off the ground.

However, when you factor into this ascent that Kev has no fingers on his left hand, then you are looking at a truly remarkable piece of climbing. Kev was born with a disablement which means that he has only a small thumb on his left hand, and no fingers. How on earth does Kev climb with no fingers?

Well, his left hand attaches to the axe with a prosthetic attachment, developed in conjuction with the University of Strathclyde Prosthetics Department. This makes climbing for Kev particularly challenging. He can only clip with one hand and the climbing on the route itself involves axe hooks into friable rock.

Anyway, in the car on the way to the cliff me and Greg had both heard rumours that Kev was planning to solo the route again. We both discussed how we would react if this happened when we were at the crag. Both of us agreed that neither of had the stomach to watch such a potentially terminal activity, and that we would probably sit away from the cave while it was going on, with our fingers crossed and hoping for the best.

Kev made a couple of smooth ascents and then started to make preparations for the solo. Greg was handed my video camera and Kev handed me his camera so we could record this for posterity. We took up our filming positions, and Kev walked towards the base of the route. He paused to get his mind into gear and you could have cut the atmosphere in the cave with a knife.

There could be no going back. He wasn’t wearing a harness so there were no options to clip into the bolts if he got tired. If he decided to go ahead with this it was going to be completely 100% committing climbing, with no margin for error.

If he fell off, the consequences for him could not be more serious. He then started to move up the cliff, sending the moves with a succession of figure of 4’s. I put the camera in front of my face and focused my eyes on the LED screen. I couldn’t bear to watch this. I glanced across to Greg. He was holding my video camera and he was doing exactly the same.

Kev continued up the rock face. He was now about 40 feet off the ground, breathing heavily and continueing to climb well. When he got to the top of the route, he put his axe through a carabiner that was hanging off a rope that was looped through the lower off, and Greg (who was on the ground with the rope through his belay device) just lowered him to the floor, like he was James Bond – except Kev is a bit braver than 007.

Although I didn’t really want to be there for this kind of ultra-dangerous climbing, with the potential for my extremely limited first aid skills to be tested if things didn’t go Kev’s way… Looking back on yesterday, it was also a tremendous privilege to be there when Kev pulled this off.

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