Friday, 25 July 2014

Climbing....Reprise





 Ed Drummond on The Long Hope: Photo Kendal Mountain Festival

The following essay by David Craig was first published on Footless Crow on October 14th, 2011. However, I recently discovered that it had been removed from the Google search engine under the EU Data Protection directive which instructed the company to remove links to online sites when a request is made by a member of the public. This came as a surprise to me as the article was reprinted with the full consent of the author who holds copyright. It was originally published in the London review of books in 2002. Could it be this august journal who made the request but on what grounds? Could it be Jim Perrin who is mentioned in the article, albeit in glowing terms of reference. It wasn’t Ed Drummond for sure. Whoever made the request then it certainly succeeded in denying the public the opportunity to discover an outstanding essay from one of our finest outdoor writers. So...in an attempt to circumnavigate the frankly ill conceived  censorship laws which the EU in its wisdom have forced upon Google and other search engines. Here it is again bearing a brand spanking new url! It will be interesting to see if it remains as a searchable article this time?

The shortest day of the year. We perch on the saddle of a promontory jutting west out of Anglesey into the Celtic Sea and look down into Wen Zawn – the white inlet. It seethes, the waves lift slow and bulky and burst suddenly, propelled by a force-8 gale. Rain hits our anoraks like grapeshot, pelmets of fog lour and droop on South Stack lighthouse, the airstream throws us off-balance and makes breathing difficult if you face into the wind. Across the rocking water is our goal – what was our goal as we planned at home over roast chicken and red wine: the crag of quartzite that armours Wales at this point, three hundred feet high, seamed with cracks. Ed Drummond found the first way up it 17 years ago and gave his line the most beautiful of rock names, A Dream of White Horses. For seven months we’ve been exchanging poems between his home in San Francisco and mine in Cumbria. Now we’re here to pluck his route from the teeth of winter but it seems madly unfeasible. I couldn’t live in that maelstrom. A thread of waterfall near the start of the route is blowing sideways and upwards. Ed looks and looks, saying little. Then: ‘If you don’t mind, I think we’ll leave it. It doesn’t look good. In these conditions.’ Pause. I say: ‘I’m glad you’ve said that. Because it looks terrible to me. I’m glad you didn’t feel you had to decide for it, for my sake.’

‘Let’s walk round and down the slope to the notch on the arete, and have a good look at the whole of the zawn.’

The nearer we creep to the sea, the less drastic is the wind, away from the focused up-draught.

‘Will you belay me?’ says Ed. ‘And I’ll have a look’ – now using ‘look’, apparently, in the Scottish climbers’ sense of ‘go and climb it although it’s clearly impossible.’ Why am I not terrified? Because there’s still a stage or two of non-commitment before I have to step into the vortex? Ed climbs unhesitatingly down a groove, tiptoes out along a tapering ledge, fixes a metal protection nut in a crack, and manoeuvres onto the wall, through the cascade, into the grey, fleeing world of spindrift and squall. Even the wintry twilight (at 11 in the morning) feels to be against us, subduing life. I chill and qualm as Ed places his left toe-tip on an invisible feature, poises with finger ends on other invisibilities, and clings with his right foot frictioning. Seconds tick. Nimble foot-change, then a mantis’s or gekko’s locomotion left and upwards. Can I do that? I can’t do that. But we’re inside the experience now, the huge looming and sucking fear has moved beyond the rim of vision, the climb is happening, it’s controlling me, its practical demands locking onto me, supplanting emotion.

After ten minutes’ enthralled spectating as this modern rock-master moves at his ease up and down the first big crack, holding onto the rope with one hand, establishing a hanging belay where he roosts like a large orange bird, I untie from my anchor and clamber down the groove. It should feel like lowering into a bottomless ocean but no, all is possible, at our command. Ed’s total competence flows along the rope. His smile of steady geniality, just visible, shows through the on-ding like a lantern. Under his guava-pink balaclava he looks like Punch – like an Andean shepherd steering his flock through a clouded pass – like the Pied Piper playing us into the hillside: contradictory symbols have begun to form.

Commitment time. From now on each perch will be precarious, spreadeagled; retreat from the razor-edge no easier than what lies ahead. As I cling to take a runner off, my fingers chill down towards the zone of incapacity, strength ebbs, command wavers. But a cat’s cradle of manageability has been woven along the cliff. At the crux I shout into the wind, ‘Looks difficult,’ and Ed shouts back: ‘Good little ledge level with your hip.’ Well remembered – there it is – a rung of possibility in the midst of nothingness. I press more blood out of my congealing finger ends, bracheate to the slim vantage-point (4 inches by l¼), and try to will the next stage. I don’t want to move, to take my left foot off terra firma and trust my compulsively curling fingers yet again. I must. I pull up a foot or two, lock my arms bent at right angles, shimmy my feet, and it’s happening – I’m in balance – the abyss of nothing, of non-possibility, has firmed over and turned material. I reach for a protruding rim of quartz, it’s rough below its film of wet, in ten seconds more I’m stretching for the karabiner on the soaked yellow sling that hangs from a fang of rock below Ed’s feet. I clip on, plant my feet, lean backwards at my ease, and chat happily on the flush of adrenalin. 


As the wind poured its moisture and the winter day gloomed darker and darker, Ed decided against finishing the route by the overhangs, where the climbing is less hard but a slip would leave you hanging above an implacable sea-cave. We climbed homewards up Wen crack, a near-vertical ladder of black holds as convenient as an old-fashioned route in the Dolomites. 
On the ledge which was now our goal, huge tumps of sea-thrift bulbed out like green brains. As Ed’s silhouette merged with the silhouette of one tump, I saw it as a thought absorbed back into a mind. When I told him this fifteen minutes later, he laughed and said: ‘Oh no! I hoped they were breasts, and I was suckling up to them!’ As he led up the final rearing shield, these images started to grow and many phrases and lines of poetry were drafted before I pulled up over the last high step.

That degree of consciousness seems natural in climbing because so much time on the rock-face is necessarily still – contemplative. In extreme cases a discipline like meditation can even be necessary for survival. One rock-master of the Seventies, Pat Littlejohn, has been described, at extreme points where he feels near his limit, as ‘staring fixedly at the piece of rock in front of him’ in ‘an eerie, fascinating aura of quietude’ for ten to fifteen minutes (Jim Perrin in Climber and Rambler, March 1982). Equally, if you’re a climbing writer, you’re hard up against, almost inside, your subject, it’s inches from your nose and eyes. Behind your eyes, behind your front (the word still has for me the Latin connotation of ‘forehead’), your mind teems, with physical perceptions, often of tiny things (a pellet of fur and bone hawked up by a peregrine, stuck to a crystal; rust weeping from the stub of a piton hammered in by the first person to tread this way thirty years before), and with self-images. On a climb that frightens me my self feels to myself like an overheated cave; doubts of my adequacy flicker and dart like a maddened bat; not until this uncontrollable soot-black monster deigns to retreat into the deepest shadow and pretend to fold its wings in sleep can I muster my fingers, toes and forearms, my balance and my daring, and apply this mixed bag of faculties to the struggle against gravity.

Are such things felt at all by the ‘hard men’, as leading climbers are called in this golden age of machismo? On television climbs they’re as studiously monosyllabic as subalterns from the heyday of Empire and the stiff upper lip. Their humour is typified by the famous one-liners of Don Whillans on the Eiger, for example, ‘Somebody’s left a boot here’ drew the response: ‘Look and see if there’s a foot in it.’ But in 1976 I saw Ron Fawcett, rock-master since the middle Seventies, on the second ascent of Footless Crow in Borrowdale, then the hardest climb in the Lake District – 190 feet of overhanging rock without a resting-place. When his second called up, ‘What’s it like?’ he answered, ‘An ’orrendous place – Ah’m scared out of me wits,’ as he leaned way back on his fingertips, relaxing as comfortably as a sloth under a branch.

Some climbers use music because the rhythm steadies them as they climb near their limits: it gives them something to focus on, a means of earthing their rational fears and their neuroses. And in Mountain for July/August 1978 there is a photo of one American climber reading the Bhagavad-Ghita to another on a granite face in New Hampshire. Each one of us has a threshold beyond which we feel our selves will implode, crushed by the sense that the thing is too much, that it is beyond us (beyond our finger ends, beyond our belief in ourselves). Physically I was able to climb through the maelstrom of that winter day on Anglesey, mentally I was dependent on Ed Drummond’s rational knowledge that the thing could be done, and I know that this dependence (the cause of my limit being where it is) is rooted in my upbringing – my father’s fear of the injuries that my daring and love of wilderness might bring down on me. Whenever parents say to their offspring, ‘Be careful,’ instead of leaving them to discover for themselves that an edge or a drop or a depth is dangerous and must be explored with care, they cut at the off-springs’ sense of balance, their self-reliance, their ability to estimate risk rationally. It is analogous to leucotomy or amputation. The mental tendons, the driving-belts between mind and limb, are threatened with severance, the person starts to look elsewhere than in himself for the faculties that will enable him to survive. So, on the hardest rock that I can climb physically, I need a leader – usually, so far, my eldest and youngest sons, whose mental tendons I have tried (and apparently managed) not to sever.

I offer this not as a sad case – I climb many thousands of feet of rock each year and lead climbs to a quite hard standard – but as an example of how fully climbing engages our whole complex selves. So it’s natural that intense awareness and a habit of self-expression have been common in the history of the sport. Robert Graves climbed difficult routes in Snowdonia with Mallory just before the Great War and was told by Geoffrey Winthrop Young that he had ‘the finest natural balance’ he had ever seen in a climber. At the height of his enthusiasm he wrote that climbing ‘made all other sports seem trivial’, and in Goodbye to All That he records a fine physical image of the well-being that springs from it: ‘I remember wondering at my body – the worn fingernails, the bruised knees, and the lump of climbing muscle that had begun to bunch above the arch of the foot, seeing it as beautiful in relation to this new purpose.’ I.A. Richards loved to climb with his wife Dorothy Pilley and both wrote eloquently about it: in a Borrowdale climbing hut the other day I found the handwritten note of what may have been their last mountain walk in England, in the same logbook as my eldest son’s record of some of his first hard routes.

This long tradition (it starts with Coleridge’s tense letter describing his downclimbing of Broad Stand on Scafell in 1801) flourishes now as much as ever. Jim Perrin, one of our most intelligent writers on the outdoors, has been a leading explorer of the tortuous sea-cliffs at the south-west extremity of Wales, he has named some of his routes after classic works (Heart of Darkness, Second Coming, Strait Gate), as has Pat Littlejohn, a former teacher of English (Desolation Row at Bosigran near Land’s End, Crow in Cheddar Gorge), and Littlejohn also made up the inspired Joycean name Darkinbad the Brightdayler for his fearsome route up the sombre expanse of Pentire Head in North Cornwall. Now Perrin has used his scholarship to write an exceptionally wise biography called Menlove – the life of John Menlove Edwards, one of the strongest and boldest climbers between the wars and the chief explorer of the cliffs round Llanberis and the Ogwen valley in Snowdonia.
Menlove Edwards
 

Edwards was a psychiatrist in Liverpool, noted for his success with difficult psychosomatic cases. His poems struggle to express what sometimes amounts to a metaphysic of inanimate rock in relation to sentient humanity. Perrin’s subtle analyses manage to treat such passages as biographical evidence (e.g. his noting of Edwards’s use of ‘valley’ as an erotic symbol) without any relaxing of his critical judgment. His biographer’s appraisal is focused as exactly on many passages of formidable Welsh cliff (‘passage’ was in fact the old word for what climbers now call a ‘pitch’ or section of a route), like the Devil’s Kitchen, which obsessed Edwards: ‘Whether or not he saw in these buttresses and damp grooves ... built of fissile rock and unregenerate grass in equal measure and vying in their states of decay, an objective correlative to his own condition of mind, we cannot know. Did he equate their rottenness with his own feelings of guilt about his homosexuality?’ So this study in climbing history, to be complete, must find its way into the depths of a person – one whose own climbing writings used creative means. In an article for a club journal in 1937, for example, Edwards wrote:

The arms of the sun, as if driven into quick motion,
 lifted their beams clear of the earth, and the particles of their warmth, despairing, concentrated their last effort in a soft rose light along the western aspect of the strip of cloud. Down on the rocks a squat yew tree, clinging to the face, shivered and drew itself,up. The shadows came together and lay cramped stiffly over it.

      We turned our backs finally to the hills and began to chatter: setting about to make our minds easy. But behind us, fighting their slow wars, the forces of nature also shifted steadily on.


For such a writer it is natural to perceive nature as a being, a presence. Wordsworth’s crucial passages – ‘a motion and a spirit that impels-All thinking things, all objects of all thought’- ‘a huge peak, black and huge,-As if with voluntary power instinct,-Upreared its head,’ ‘Black drizzling crags that spake by the wayside-As if a voice were in them’ – were palpably still potent in the Thirties and the Forties for writers at home in Britain’s wilder uplands, as they are for me to this day.

The sub-culture has changed. I like my cliffs to rise out of lonely valleys, whether pastoral or trackless. The new climbers are at least as happy on faces that overhang motor-roads, quarries, transport yards, and they specialize in sustained angles beyond the vertical, manoeuvring by sequences of mini-holds invisible from ground level. The style for such experience is often more aware of self than of the rock, fraught with instantaneousness, the verbs violent, the syntax fragmented into verbless phrases or streams of short principal clauses separated by commas, and the tense is often the present – vividly present and extremely tense:

      Soon, there is a brain whisper, all jumbled like bearings scattered off a shop table. ‘Do. Go. Wrong foot, but do. Why have ...?’ The whispering is me but not me. It is like a possession. ‘Just do. Fall up. Something. Try that. Do. Do.’ Outside myself, I watch a foot near my shoulder. I’m catapulting over little sections, prying and foaming, a little crying sound bubbling out. ‘Lovely horrible. Lovely horrible.’ It’s a veritable ricochet of thought bits, not passion, not tactic, but a precious drop of madness. ‘It goes. Lovely horrible goes. Bitch! Sweet bitch! Foot flake. Nail hold. Enough. Go! There!’ Finally, there is a platform for most of my foot. With rest, the fire fades and logic returns.

Such writing (by Tom Higgins in the San Francisco magazine Ascent for 1976) is more American than European, it draws deeply on the drug/pop culture of the past two decades and specifically on the New Journalism that reported the trips of people like Andy Warhol and the Merry Pranksters by letting them invade the prose rather than drawing back to explain or judge.

This was a culture of heightened, even deranged perception, of pushing well beyond the limits usually deemed sane or civilised, with the help of heavy music and potent chemicals. When an Australian climber writes his account of a seven-day siege of Pacific Ocean Wall on El Capitan in the Yosemite valley (in Mountain for May/June 1978), his prose climbs jaggedly like a fever-chart from peak to peak, congested with specialist terms and images of excruciation:

    A race against time: it’s only a matter of moments before my brain weight pulls the teetering rurp [a kind of piton] that holds the memory together and unzips the entire string of flimsy aids from the present, the whole recollection of the climb falling into oblivion. Like so much suds sucked down the sink ... I am nodding off into a belay dream when Eric zips a few copperheads down to a bolt at the start of the pitch, jarring me back to reality. Back up there he welds those ‘mothers’ with a vengeance and makes progress on nested pins. Again I am awoken by pain-ridden screams ...

A few lines later, the climbers’ use of drugs shows through in a moment’s zany comedy:

    Kim reaches us and suddenly has the grim realisation that he has forgotten our vital life support and mellowing-out formula – the grass. Darryl begins to foam at the mouth and I have to beat him over the head to stop him from chewing through Kim’s rope.


Even where drugs are unused, or unmentioned, we can see how the experience of living for hours, often days, at the vertical or beyond it, flushed by maximum secretions of adrenalin (and we can become addicted to our own adrenalin), forces the imagination to screen so many signals at once that only the Modernist prose of the cinema age can re-enact such moments.

The more conscious climbing writers know very well how modern, how momentous and high-strung, their experience is: it shows in their readiness to use the language of ego and subconscious, masochism and schizophrenia, and explicitly in an observation such as the following (anthologised by Perrin in Mirrors in the Cliffs, 1983) whose title, ‘Coast to Coast on the Granite Slasher’, epitomises the culture of speed in both its senses:

    A hyperkinetic hotshot from the Bay Area named Zacher talked me into a free repeat of the West Face of El Cap. He talked so fast I had no chance to refuse.

      That’s the parking lot though, a market place for partners, gear, and simple amusements. People you hardly know will ask you to launch off on all manner of routes. All manner of people too. Sometimes the walls will echo to the screaming matches of teams in the throes of divorce.

The motives that impel us to take it to the limit (the name of a recent Extreme climb in Far Easedale) lie in our depths, but they seem to me not mysterious. Certainly we can get well beyond Mallory’s consciously off-hand ‘Because it’s there’, or Menlove Edwards’s laceratingly self-critical ‘symptoms of some psyclioneurotic disorder’. Michael Roberts, a notable literary editor in the Thirties, reviewing ‘The Poetry and Humour of Mountaineering’ in the Alpine Journal for 1941, opined that the risking and gruelling of oneself on climbs were good because ‘they show superiority to all mere utilitarian values: they show an excess and overflow which is really a gesture of confidence and vitality.’

These days such positives tend to be entertained with an ironic or problematic twist, as when Ed Drummond adds capital letters to them in his classic essay ‘Mirror Mirror’ about an agonising epic on a huge Norwegian wall, ‘To climb is to know the universe is All Right’, or the Cumbrian climber Neil Allinson writes in Hard Rock (1975) that we climb ‘to play at life’s brinkmanship ... to live like a searchlight of survival searing through the total darkness of failure’.

For myself, when I climb, I’m getting back as nearly as possible into the elemental immersion I left at birth. The hand sinks sideways into a dark crack, the toes take the shape of the rock, the nose smells moist fibres inches away as the fingernails delve into an earthy crevice, the spine plants itself against a bulge, the eyes pick out the shadow cast by a crystal, the arms embrace a burnished yew trunk, the eardrums vibrate to the hoarse hissing of jackdaw chicks three feet inside the rock ... During one of my first hard climbs, on White Ghyll in Langdale, I had a sense of myself cladding the rock as intimately as the clay applied to a sculpture to make a mould, and this came out seven years later in a poem that ends:

    It moulded him. He was its casting.
    His clay was kneaded to its bas-relief.
    His brain infolded, mimicking its strata.
    And when he called, and the echo heard his note,
    It parodied his language.


Such experience is whole, it is inseparably physical and mental –

      O the mind, mind has mountains, cliffs of fall
    Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed. Hold them cheap
    May who ne’er hung there. Nor does long our small
    Durance deal with that steep or deep ...


– and this wholeness of the experience enables it to be a paradigm for all that we know. The impossible is that gritstone prow my arms will never haul my body over, the unknown is the foothold waiting round the blind arete in heavy cloud, space is the void between your heels and the backs of pigeons skimming the larch tops a hundred feet below, effort is the squirming of muscles round your nose and upper lip as you strive to get your weight above your hands, imagination is conceiving of the will it must take to leave that half-inch flake top when the next hold is smaller, more sloping, and the angle is still 100° ... Being alive is when the organic mix that is you remains together, remains itself, in the pressure-chamber of Wen Zawn on the shortest day of the year.

Leo Dickinson's classic shot of Ed Drummond and Dave Pearce on the FA of A Dream of White Horses 

David Craig: first published in London review of Books

Friday, 18 July 2014

Fugitive from the Führer...Lake District wanderings





Pillar Rock from Black Sail: A Heaton Cooper.Photo Heaton-Cooper Studios

IT began early. Ever since leaving Germany as a small boy, a fugitive from the Führer, I have been surrounded by all sorts of mountains; that is probably the only thing I have to thank the Führer for. The first were the cliff’s and hills of Majorca, an island where the most varied beauties of hill, plain and shore are compressed into the space of a few square miles. When we had been set free from the schoolroom some hot summer afternoon, a pack of us, wearing only shorts and a pair of alpargatas – light canvas shoes with rope soles which every- one in these parts wears – would rush out over the parched heath towards the fresh air of the seashore and the cliffs.

And what adventures we had among them, those fantastic limestone shapes, their features wrinkled by wind and sea into countless corrugations which the alpargatas gripped with delightful firmness; with their great mysterious caves, in which the breakers boomed resonantly over stolid ranks of sea-hedgehogs and other queer-shaped creatures. This was the training ground where I first learnt to climb with all four extremities, There was one particularly large cave, with a chimney at the far end; you climbed up this, and suddenly you’ emerged from the cold clammy recess on to a sun-baked plateau high above the sea. It was a new surprise every time we did it, and rather what I imagine the "secret" chimney on the Bhasteir tooth to be like. But the Spanish sun in summer has little in common with its feeble counterpart of more northerly latitudes, and soon we would be scampering off again to the shelter of our caves.


Once I was taken for a holiday to Valldemosa, a little village tucked away among the central hills - the place where Chopin spent leisured years composing his most entrancing melodies. They were parched, sparsely vegetated hills, crouching low as if ducking from the stinging rays of the sun. The name Georges Sand gave to the island, "La verde Helvecia", the green Switzerland, must be taken as artistic license; those hills were more the sort of thing, I fancy, that the Author of "Don Quixote" had in mind when he described that wretched knight’s wanderings through the wastes of the Sierra Morena. The cool vineyards and gardens of the village were definitely more inviting.


Another place that deserves mention is the great mountain under whose shadow I lived for a while, Mont Serrat, in Catalonia, a great jagged rock peak rising abruptly from the foothills of the Pyrenees. It gives pretty good climbing, and its rock towers are popular with Spanish mountaineers. Perched somewhere near the summit is a monastery, famous all over Spain.


The Civil War turned everybody’s thoughts to anything but mountains, but as fate would have it I found myself not long after its outbreak among the Dolomites of Southern Tyrol. It is hardly necessary to say that they were a revelation. Their gigantic size and appalling steepness, and especially the absolute bareness of their gleaming white rock, overpowered the mind, but yet at the same time held out a promise of joys to come. They became to me what the engine-driver’s cabin and the pirate’s quarterdeck are to other boys of the same age, and I can remember with what mixed jealousy and admiration I saw bronzed and tough-looking Italian youths setting out for the mountains with axe and rope. That was one of the few good things the Duce introduced, the training of young people among great peaks, and we might with advantage imitate it, as Geoffrey Winthrop Young has suggested.

The most impressive of all those magnificent mountains was the Langkofel, a lengthy ridge buttressed by huge towers, and a true climbers’ paradise, as readers of Smythe’s "Adventures of a. Mountaineer" will know. 

 Bowfell Buttress above the Langdale Valley


But it was left to that perfect miniature of mountain landscape, the English Lake District, to turn admiration into action. In 1940, hustled out of London by anxious parents, I woke up one morning after a night journey by road from Windermere to find Buttermere Moss looking down at me through the window. A modest sort of mountain, you may say, but to one who had barely seen a molehill for years it was lofty enough. Well, there I was, an hour later, puffing and blowing up my first real hill. Standing at last upon the summit, out of breath and up to my ankles in one of those ubiquitous Lakeland bogs, I felt at last the true joy of the mountaineer, and made a firm resolve that before the year had passed I would set foot on all the dozens of peaks that were visible even from that low eminence.

It wasn’t allowing a great deal of time, but two years later the ambition had been fulfilled and surpassed. There was the mighty Grasmoor, (the Lake District has of course a scale of adjectives all its own), with its halo of lesser heights, Hobcarton, Sail, Causey Pike; the ridge of High Stile, above Buttermere, with its grand view and succulent bilberries; massive Pillar Mountain and the slender Steeple, rising from the deserted valley of Ennerdale. Then again, a kindly walker took me up the Guide’s route to Scafell Pikes, the highest of them all; this is a fine mountaineering route, winding its way up the mountain’s flank to land one on the boulder-strewn summit plateau. One would have thought that a debris-covered, windswept summit like the Pikes would be even less inviting than the hills of Majorca; yet it is a remarkable fact that the bare stark nature of many of the Lake District hilltops lends them a peculiar attractiveness.

Perhaps it is due to the part they play in furnishing the contrast in a land already rich in contrasts: steep rock face against gentle grass slope; dry bracken, russet heather and grass against blue lakes and grey rocks; and the most obvious contrast of all, the ceaseless changing of the weather. Then there was the true sovereign of the Lakes, Great Gable, a mountain of many aspects, but majestic in them all, and possessing one of the best views in all the district; Skiddaw, the shapeless mass that looks so imposing and is so impossibly tame, with its complete lack of contrast and its path fit for a four-in-hand right up to the summit; Catbells and Maiden Moor, odd-shaped sentinels of Derwentwater.... there seemed to be no end to the summits we could tread. 


And then, just when I was beginning to feel myself the "Compleat Mountaineer ", vast new fields were suddenly opened up by the possibility of climbing. I had always thought of rock-climbers as very superior persons who were on the plane altogether from us humble walkers, until one day I found myself gaily scaling the vertical side of Pillar Rock with a sangfroid I should have shuddered at a year before. This New West climb really does merit the attention of all climbers, from the trembling novice to the most hardened veteran bred in the tradition of de Selincourtian gravity-defiance. It has plenty of exposure and sensational positions, it is steep in the most modern meaning of the word, and in its three hundred feet or so of continuous climbing it calls for all types of technique.

It starts with a "staircase ", traverses off the "landing" to a steep groove, soon after which the climber can spread-eagle himself on a step even wider than the notorious Strid on the North climb. Then follows a beautiful chimney, complete with chock-stone, and topped by a wicked vice which most people attempt the first time they do the climb, in the mistaken belief that the route continues up it. As a matter of fact, it emerges from the chimney to follow a traverse which is almost completely hidden from the climber inside the chimney. This traverse is not lavish with its handholds, and gives exhilarating balance climbing. Finally there is a dose of good smooth slabs, which take one right out on to the summit of the Rock. The sort of perfect climb that a valley-bound cragsman might compose for the solace of his imagination, as a gourmet on a desert island might conjure up visions of the perfect meal. And yet withal it is easy enough, unless of course it happens to be raining.


There are plenty of other climbs of moderate difficulty on the Rock; the North climb is of course one of the classic climbs of Great Britain. There’ is one place on it where the leader unropes and makes a long detour to avoid the only tough place on the climb, which incidentally makes up for all the other tough places that aren’t. When I did this I spent a considerable time trying to locate my second when I had reached the top; while his mind was no doubt filled with the most gloomy forebodings.


The Pillar Rock is impressive enough, especially if you approach Low Man in mist, (the normal state), when the great steep ribs soar up into what seems to be infinity. But, even on a fine day, I know of nothing to compete with the face of Scafell for sheer splendor and power of rock scenery. One gets a good view of the whole thing from Pikes Crag, but I found it most awe-inspiring to scramble up the bed of Deep Ghyll, an enormously deep ravine cutting back between the sheer walls of Deep Ghyll Buttress and the Pinnacle. On either side you have the walls of the ravine, and between them a narrow field of view filled by Great Gable and Pillar. We tried one of the climbs on the Pinnacle Wall of the ghyll, known as Jones and Collier’s climb, which was first climbed by the great pioneer Owen Glynne Jones. It consists mainly of a continuous traverse above an overhang, with the bed of the ghyll dropping away below. We did it in boots, and as a result I would recommend rubbers for this climb; the holds are strictly of utility quality.


 The Abraham 'Keswick' Brothers

One finishes to the top along the famous Knife-edge Ar0te, which is ascended horseback-fashion on account of the considerable drop below on either side. The Pinnacle has a number of things in common with the Pillar Rock, including a gap which prevents direct access to the summit. Below Low Man, falling sheer, is the Pinnacle Face. The routes up this face are climbs of the highest delicacy, with few belays worthy of the name the sort of place where the rule that the leader must not fall is expanded to include every member of the party. The face has a number of casualties to its discredit, and we left it well alone, until such time as we might become very much more competent climbers. We sampled the buttress climbing on Scafell by going up the Keswick Brothers’ climb, an old favourite, which works its way pleasantly up one of the steeply tilted strata which compose the left-hand part of Scafell Precipice. It is a true face climb, though it does sometimes delve into a chimney where a flake has split away from the main stratum. 


While it is true that a large proportion of the best climbing is in the central massif around Great Gable, that versatile mountain which attracts the climber as much as the walker, there is a great deal scattered more diffusely over the rest of the district. Gimmer Crag, for instance, proved to be an ideal place to spend a hot unenergetic summer’s day. Most of the climbs are hard, some of them very, but they are short, and the crag has the advantage of being easily reached; the climbs perhaps tend to be what is called rock gymnastics, but they provide at least excellent training. Langdale is dotted about with other climbs, for instance the classic Bowfell Buttress, surely one of the most enjoyable of its kind, continuous and not artificial. Dow Crag would almost constitute a life-study in itself, with its small area with an incredible concentration of routes of all types and standards. In the latter respect it differs from Lliwedd, which is more uniformly hard, I should just like to mention Gordon and Craig’s route, which we found remarkable for a long dead level traverse with so little lebensraum that it is necessary almost to bend double and lean out over space – a good test of balance.


Finally, there are any number of "outlying crags ", as the guide-books call them, the Mecca of those with a bent for blazing new trails. Thus the Buttermere region, and especially Birkness Coombe, above Buttermere Lake, has been extensively developed in recent years, as a glance at recent numbers of the Journal of the Fell and Rock Climbing Club will show. We couldn’t resist the temptation to try and make a variation to the "Oxford and Cambridge" Climb, in this coombe, just to shift the balance in favour of Cambridge; our success was highly questionable, as the said variation was partly done on a rope. However, it consists of swarming up a sort of pinnacle and then traversing horizontally across Dexter Wall to join the parent climb at the top of the second pitch, and is quite entertaining. This sort of thing is very small meat, but A. T. Hargreaves, who ought to know, assures us in an article in the above-mentioned journal that there are still various crags awaiting such intensive exploration as Buttermere has had.


During the war we have been restricted to the hills of Britain, though I imagine that most of us are not conscious of this as a restriction at all. We have learnt to cherish these hills for their own sake, and not to value them merely as a training ground for attempts on bigger game. The Lake District is far more than this; and have not Alpine and Himalayan climbers who spent early years on its crags always returned to its friendly intimacy after months spent on inhospitable snow and ice? Certainly, should it ever be my fortune to climb on bigger mountains, I shall nevertheless come back to the cradle of my mountaineering aspirations, the English Lakes. 

 Skiddaw from Derwentwater:Oil on board- J Appleby

RW Cahn 1944