An Alpine Butterfly at Master’s Edge

Climber Rick Smee on the circular meaninglessness of mantras.

Neil lowered me down gently. Having just completed my first clean top-rope ascent of Master’s Edge, there were no words that needed to exchanged. Etiquette dictated my next course of action. This would be my first classic hard-grit lead.

I untied from the rope, took off my rock shoes, pulled on a hoodie and, leaning back, I stared hard at the route. As I visualised the moves I began to rationalise the dangers.

About eight metres to the protection, steady away. Another eight or nine metres of climbing, steady away, crux move, finishing jug, easy top out, clip belay, pub.

I walked up to the bottom of the route gave it one last look, took hold of the belay rope and gave it a jerk and watched it fall into a pile at my feet. There wasn’t going to be a better moment. Conditions were perfect. It was a crisp winter’s day and the the gritstone was dry. It was now or never. Neil readied himself to belay as I went through my rituals.

I sat on the floor and blew a warm breath into both my rock shoes. I made sure to don the left first. Once I was satisfied they were tightened correctly I began to clean the rubber on the tips with some spit and the heel of my palm. Only then would I be ready to tie in.

Never before have I felt such elation and sheer dread in equal measure and in quick succession. I had just ‘topped out’, albeit on top-rope, on ‘Master’s Edge’. I was stoked. But the buzz quickly dissipated as I was lowered to the ground. My belayer, Neil Gresham, (one of greatest climbing talents Britain has produced), had climbed the route ‘ground up’ (with no top-rope practice) the previous year, perhaps the first since Ron Fawcett’s pioneering ascent.

“Some climbers speak of hearing the most inappropriate song on repeat in their heads whilst climbing at the limit. Here I was, with a voice inside my head, describing the the process of tying an Alpine Butterfly over and over.”

I belayed Neil on that occasion and here he was returning the favour. The look on his face said it all. I knew there was no backing out of it. I had to lead the route, there and then. “If you’re going to be a bear, be a grizzly,” was all he said as I tied in.

I remembered Neil taking a fall at the uppermost crux move. We had worked out a belay system so as to limit the possibility of him hitting the floor. By looping the rope through an anchor point, I was to run in the opposite direction and take in the slack should Neil fall.

As the ‘shot holes’ are not quite mid-point, a fall at the crux would mean a very strong possibility of the climber ‘hitting the deck’, suffering a serious injury, perhaps as severe as the one that befell Wolfgang Gullich.

Neil’s legendary enthusiasm helped me rationalise the potential dangers. I was feeling strong both physically and mentally, I had been busy working my way through the grades. To climb it clean, and to feel quite comfortable, albeit on a top-rope, had filled me with confidence, even if I was skipping a grade or two.

It was back on my first real day of head-pointing the route, all had gone well and I was pretty stoked with my progress. We chatted idly as we packed up the kit. Leaving Neil to finish up, feeling energised by his enthusiasm and my small success I ran round to the top of the crag to take down Neil’s belay rig.

At the top of Master’s Edge there are some rusty old pegs and wire that constitute a belay point that inspires little confidence. As a result Neil had taken upon himself to organise something a little less ‘sketchy’.

Staring hard at the the rig, I tried to make sense of what Neil had set up. It was a thing of rare beauty. The most obvious and safest anchor points were the concrete fence posts that lined the quarry and Neil had indeed used them. As the actual ‘top out’ point of the route was some way away Neil had used a 12mm rope as rigging. I had never seen anything like it.

He had used two posts as anchor points, attaching one end of the rope to the first to create a perfect isoceles triangle with the belay point at the apex.The remainder forty-odd metres of rope doubled back along the long edge of the triangle and was attached to the belay point by means of a screwgate carabiner. The remainder of the rope disappeared over the edge in the direction of the route to act as the top-rope belay.

I marvelled at the beauty and ingenuity of the rig, my eye drawn to the knot that Neil had tied at the apex of the belay anchor. I had never seen this knot before I stared intently trying to figure out its construction.

In the pub that evening he let me into the secret of tying an ‘Alpine Butterfly’. That night I spent sat on my bed, using the bedposts as my anchor points trying to replicate Neil’s handiwork.

The next morning, the conditions were the same. It is time.

Some climbers speak of hearing the most inappropriate song on repeat in their heads whilst climbing at the limit. Here I was, with a voice inside my head, describing the the process of tying an Alpine Butterfly over and over. By now I was several metres off the ground, clinging to the arête by the most tenuous of holds. A fall from this height, with no protection, didn’t bear thinking about.

Wrap the rope around your palm until you have three strands.

A quick series of layback moves had brought me into clipping distance of the protection. I pulled up a length of rope from between my legs and clipped in the protection.

Pull the middle strand under the strand closest to your fingers.

Having clipped I dipped my hand in my chalk and continued up the arête.

Pulling the strand towards your thumb, thread it under the strand closest to your thumb.

I now had my feet level with the protection, with my right toe in the spare ‘shot hole’. The heel of my left foot was hooked around the arête, affording my arms a moment of respite as I alternately dipped both hands in my chalk bag.

It took me few moments and few words of encouragement from Neil to leave what seemed like an island of respite. My foot was in the shot hole and the other was ‘heel-hooking’ the arête. You’re almost safe. I moved onward and upward. The crux move lay ahead. My thoughts returned to the Alpine Butterfly, but I couldn’t pick up the strand of thought.

I’ve pulled the middle strand under the strand closet to my fingers, I’ve taken it back towards the strand closest to my thumb. What next?

I was now at the crux move, I reached out right onto the face to take the undercut.

How do I finish the knot?

My mind had drawn a blank. I had become all too aware of my situation. I remember taking the undercut and as I was about step up and take the finishing ’jug’ my foot popped.

I was falling.


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