Saturday, 22 November 2014

Redemption: The James Pearson Story.......Review

James Pearson is something of a veteran in rock climbing film circles these days. Having featured in several productions over the years, but usually as part of an ensemble alongside people like Hazel Findlay. In Redemption however, James gets the stage to himself  in a production which sets out to record an extraordinarily difficult period in his career. A period within which his reputation as one of our leading trad climbers was called into question and his achievements were dissected and undermined by that most viperous of climbing constituencies..the UKC forum!

Redemption begins with James setting out his stall on his local Peak crags. A section which uses footage of the young tyro repeating, and then very quickly establishing his own top end routes on the short, unforgiving edges within his local orbit. Setting himself the task of repeating Neil Bentley’s 2000 test piece- Equilibrium:(E10-7a)- footage taken at the time shows the bold James setting out above a blanket of snow and a hushed expectant audience. The brooding menace of his perilous situation is brought home by the contemporary commentary which reveals just how ‘outside the zone’ he was as he set off, and just how close to potential disaster he came as he hovered between the rock and a hard place. We watch with bated breath while James describes the dream like sequence where he watched as his thumb and finger began to peel from the tiny hold just as he psyched himself up to make the crucial crux move.

With Equilibrium in the bag, he sets out to establish his own hard test pieces in the area and within a short space of time, has routes like Burbage South’s The Promise (E10-7a) and Cratcliffe’s oft eyed but never led The Groove (E10-7b) on his CV. However, it is a difficult and dangerous ascent on a friable Culm sea cliffs on the Devon coast that acts as the spark which eventually ignites controversy.  After eventually bagging what becomes Walk of Life, James, believing it to surpass routes like The Promise and Equilibrium in difficulty, grades it E12-7a. A unique grading which would bracket it amongst the hardest climbs in the world. Footage taken at the time show him taking some big falls onto dubious gear. Most of which appears to rip out!  

Within a short period, James’s state of the art routes begin to attract the attention of fellow top end activists. Notably, a team of visiting American rock jocks who repeat his Peak routes quickly and without fuss before proffering their own opinion that routes like The Promise are actually no more than E8. To make matters worse, the venerable Dave Macleod arrives in the south-west whilst recovering from injury, repeats Walk of Life and gently suggests that the route is more like a straight E9-6c. Enter the Trolls! Actually, Dave Mac does admit in the film that he knew that his comments would unleash the forum hounds upon James and it’s something he felt uncomfortable about, but he felt he just had to put the record straight. Adding that James had nothing to feel bad about as he is ‘an amazing climber’ who has done some incredible things.

James on Culm's Walk of Life
Not that that JP’s achievements would dissipate the outpouring of scorn from the more vituperative ethics Nazis who patrol the climbing forums. A variation of ‘Yes...but what's he done on grit?’ very quickly became ‘Yes..but what’s he done on Rhapsody!’. (Rhapsody is Dave Macleod’s awesome Scottish E11 on Dumbarton Rock). Not surprisingly in the circumstances, James took this tidal wave of criticism to heart and took off to pastures new; living in Austria for a while and just taking in new locations and getting into sport climbing. A style which he felt brought on and complimented his solidly trad background.

It was while cruising around the continent that he met a mademoiselle who would become very much part of his life. In fact he liked her so much he married her! In this case, the beautiful and talented Caroline Ciavaldini. No slouch she on the rock face. Rare talent which can be seen in the Hot Aches 2012 film Odyssey

Back in the UK and imbued with a new steely resolve and confidence, James seeks redemption on Rhapsody. A route which appears to have surpassed The Indian Face as the holy grail of rock routes for all budding rock Gods. Not surprisingly, the film climaxes with James strung out on Dumbarton rock with the master himself, turning up to see if the pretender from the south can gravitate from apprentice to sorcerer!

Redemption-The James Pearson Story is everything you would expect from a Hot Aches movie by now. From the filming to the creative editing. Its sharp, focused and absorbing throughout.

Rating on the Krabometer

John Appleby:2014
Photos HA.

Monday, 17 November 2014

Dangerous Dancing

After our failure on the Walker’s flank, three weeks of bad weather passed, and ideas changed. Terry King turned up, and Gordon Smith came back from Leysin. They directed their considerable charms towards the Croz Direct. I wanted to do the Dru Couloir and teamed up with Nick Colton, an ‘aristocrat’ from Manchester and one of the scruffiest people on God’s earth. Once, having just had a vision in which he had cleaned the Fissure Nominé, he threw away all our hardware except for an ice-screw and a couple of bugaboos. (ever lost eighteen krabs and twelve pegs at one go!) That night, two ‘enlightened’ persons perched themselves on top of the Petit Dru, to freeze in the teeth of a north-easterly and study a starlit and by then plastered Jorasses North Wall. Visions of Armageddon faded, and around midnight we cracked. We decided to go back for another try.

Which indeed we did, though we nearly didn’t because I left my head-torch behind and so dedicate this affair to the congenial Froggy who lent me his, and to the half-roll of Sellotape with which I repaired it. 10.30 pm, on August 6, 1976, found two little lads at the foot of the Walker Spur. This time we had decided to beat the ‘schrund’ with a short left cross. Water was still running, but the face was quiet and the night clear. To start the spur, we took the left-hand rock alternative (the initial ice-slope did not exist) and followed this as far as the main ice-slope that cuts into the buttress on the right. Then it was softly, softly rightwards, to slip between the upper ’schrund and the rocks above, out on to the ice-field for a tense tip-toe affair, like ants going the wrong way up a bowling alley, with not a sound uttered lest we bring the house down.

We hung left to avoid being anywhere below the mouth of the Japanese Gully- vulnerable, so vulnerable. A roar: hearts in boots, we froze in fear, but it was only a plane passing low from the south. 2.30 a.m. We hung back on our ice screws, sorting the gear,roping up, peering and wondering, because it looked steep up there. At least, it looked steep as far as we could see, which was as far as you can throw a head-torch. There was no moon and it was dark in the couloir.

There followed five pitches in a grand Scottish illusion: steep, bulging, demanding, all engrossing, totally rewarding. Up through a spindrift flow,in the teeth of a biting wind. Belays for sitting, but not for falling. Few runners- no time-fantastic stuff. We emerged with the daylight on to the ice-field separating the two rock-bands. Around us, ropes darted in and out of the ice like frozen umbilical cords. I counted footage, but thought in cash. We rescued a couple of shiny krabs and took a hefty swing at a little blue sack, but its coffin was hard and rubbery and it would have taken an hour to release, so we left it with parting tears.

It was no place to linger: a sensational, exposed, vulnerable, 50° platform in a vertical sea, a mean place to quit in trouble. Above, fixed ropes ran up a broad shallow gully of compact looking rock, but we were hungry for ice and, a little to the left, there seemed to be a connection with the runnel above. It looked a little like The Curtain on Ben Nevis, but the first 50ft. or so turned out to be unconsolidated powder, so we took to the steep and deceptive pile of rubble on the right. It was loose, a fact to which Nick swore blind as he sailed past for a sixty-footer on to a hapless second.

“Just hold tight and I’ll monkey up the rope.” He did, and reached the top of the pitch for a belay. There followed a full and interesting run-out, on the border between ice,and rock, and finally we were through the second barrier, with 1,000ft. of sensational climbing behind us. Then it was away up the cold, blue runnel that broadens out into the second ice-field. We front-pointed. Audoubert understands:

Now begins that very special ice dance, a rhythmic ballet in four movements, a mixture of barbaric and primitive gestures and classical movement. The character before his mirror of ice makes precise steps with his front points, like a lead dancer rehearsing. In this special ballet pirouettes are forbidden. The emphasis on the  curve of his calves and the strength of his ankles equals the fierce, attacking look on his face. The best dancer, like the best toreador, strikes only once.

It was a long haul. Away to our right we could pick out more ropes, relics of the mammoth Japanese siege. Somewhere round here Lachenal and Terray passed by, but I think it must have been in pretty bad visibility. We heard voices but saw no one. The ice was hard and, after three years’ wear, my poor Chouinards (God bless him!) let my toes know there was no more curve left. What had appeared to be three pitches up the ice extended to five, and we regained the rocks with creaking calves.

The final head-wall is about 800ft. In it, a well-defined gully system curls up and left in behind the Red Tower, to join the Walker Spur about two pitches below the summit. For about 400ft. It is backed by a thin ice weep. But this wouldn’t take the gear, so we kept to the right wall. It was mean stuff: deceptive, awkward, and inevitably loose. And this was no time for mistakes, for we were tired now. It seemed a long way from that 9.0 a.m. rise the day before. In the northerly wind, the rock was bitterly cold. Above, sunlit walls beckoned, but progress was slow and any thoughts we had dared to entertain of reaching the heat receded to the summit. Incredibly, we had seen no stones all day, but Nick made up for that by burrowing away through the rocks above. In places the second is nastily exposed. I took a slate on the leg, with much wailing and gnashing of teeth. Nick solved the problems of getting back into the gully bed by falling off.

“What’s happening?” “Nowt-just fallen off.” and finally we arrived at the summit of a dream, a couple of pitches down and desperate for a brew.We charged on up but then there were these two little ledges just asking to be sat upon, so much more comfortable than the cold, wet snow on the other side and so much more convenient. So we sat down, just five minutes short, to dine on cheese and ham butties, with coffee by the gallon. Rare moments: we were asleep before the night came. Next morning we woke late. The weather had closed in and it was doubly bitter.

The stove worked, but the theory didn’t. 20 minutes could only provide water on the rocks. We dozed over this cold brew until shouts from below drew us out of our lethargy. Two lads appeared, fresh as daisies, despite their fourth bivi. They were the first party up the Walker for weeks. We chewed hurriedly at laces and gloves and raced them to the summit. They had come thousands of miles to climb this hill. It was like Christmas on top of the Walker.
Oh yes, I nearly forgot...... And they all lived happily ever after.

Alex Macintyre: First published in Mountain 1977

Saturday, 8 November 2014

An excursion over Kirkstone Pass in 1807

On the third morning after my arrival in Grasmere, I found the whole family, except the two children, prepared for the expedition across the mountains. I had heard of no horses, and took it for granted that we were to walk; however, at the moment of starting, a cart - the common farmers’ cart of the country-made its appearance; and the driver was a bonny young woman of the vale.

Such a vehicle I had never in my life seen used for such a purpose; but what was good enough for the Wordsworths was good enough for me; and, accordingly, we were all carted along to the little town, or large Village, of Ambleside - three and a half miles distant. Our style of travelling occasioned no astonishment; on the contrary, we met a smiling salutation wherever we appeared - Miss Wordsworth being, as I observed, the person most familiarly known of our party, and the one who took upon herself the whole expenses of the flying colloquies exchanged with stragglers on the road. 

What struck me with most astonishment, however, was the liberal manner of our fair driver, who made no scruple of taking a leap, with the reins in her hand, and seating herself dexterously upon the shafts (or, in Westmorland phrase, the 'trams' of the cart.)

From Ambleside - and without one foot of intervening flat ground - begins to rise the famous ascent of Kirkstone; after which, for three long miles, all riding in a cart drawn by one horse becomes impossible. The ascent is computed at three miles, but is, probably, a little more. In some parts it is almost frightfully steep; for the road being only the original mountain track of shepherds, gradually widened and improved from age to age, (especially since the era of tourists began), is carried over ground which no engineer, even in alpine countries, would have viewed as practicable.

In ascending, this is felt chiefly as an obstruction and not as a peril, unless where there is a risk of the horses backing; but in the reverse order, some of these precipitous descents are terrific: and yet, once in utter darkness, after midnight, and the darkness irradiated only by continual streams of lightning, I was driven down this whole descent, at a full gallop, by a young woman – the carriage being a light one, the horses frightened, and the descents, at some critical parts of the road, so literally like the sides of a house, that it was difficult to keep the fore wheels from pressing upon the hind legs of the horses.

Indeed, this is only according to the custom of the country, as I have beforementioned. The innkeeper of Ambleside, or Lowwood, will not mount this formidable hill without four horses. The leaders you are not required to take beyond the first three miles; but, of course, they are glad if you will take them on the whole stage of nine miles, to Patterdale; and, in that case, there is a real luxury at hand for those who enjoy velocity of motion.

The descent into Patterdale is much above two miles; but such is the propensity for flying down hills in Westmoreland that l have found the descent accomplished in about six minutes, which is at the rate of eighteen miles an hour; the various turnings of the road making the speed much more sensible to the traveller. The pass, at the summit of this ascent, is nothing to be compared in sublimatity with the pass under the Great Gavil from Wastdalehead; but it is solemn, and profoundly impressive. At a height so awful as this, it may be easily supposed that all human dwellings have been long left behind: no sound of human life, no bells of churches or chapels ever ascend so far.

On the solitary area of tableland which you find at the summit - though, heaven knows, you might almost cover it with a drawing-room carpet, so suddenly does the mountain take to its old trick of precipitous descent, on both sides alike there are only two objects to remind you of man and his workmanship. One is a guide-post - always a picturesque and interesting object, because it expresses a wild country and a labyrinth of roads, and often made much more interesting (as in this case) by the lichens which cover it, and which record the generations of men to whom it has done its office; as also by the crucifix form which inevitably recall, in all mountainous regions, the crosses of Catholic lands, raised to the memory of wayfaring men who have perished by the hand of the assassin.

The other memorial of man is even more interesting: - Amongst the figments of rock which lie in the confusion of a ruin on each side of the road, one there is which exceeds the rest in height, and which, in shape, presents a very close resemblance to a church. This lies to the left of the road as you are going from Ambleside; and, from its name, Churchstone (Kirkstone,) is derived the name of the pass, and from the pass the name of the mountain. The guide-post - which was really the work of man - tells those going southwards (for to those who go northwards it is useless, since, in that direction, there no choice of roads) that the left hand track conducts you to Troutbeck, and Bowness, and Kendal; the right hand to Ambleside, and Hawkshead, and Ulverstone.

The church - which is but a phantom of man’s handiwork - might, however, really be mistaken for such, were it not that the rude and almost inaccessible state of the adjacent ground proclaims the truth. As to size, that is remarkably difficult to estimate upon wild heaths or mountain solitudes, where there are no leadings through gradations of distance, nor any artificial standards, from which height or breadth can be properly deduced.

This mimic church, however, has a peculiarly fine effect in this wild situation, which leaves so far below the tumults of this world; the phantom church, by suggesting the phantom and evanescent image of a congregation, where never congregation met; of the peeling organ, where never sound was heard except of wild natural notes, or else of the wind rushing through these mighty gates of everlasting rock - in this way, the fanciful image that accompanies the traveller on his road, for half a mile or more, serves to bring out the antagonist feeling of intense and awful solitude, which is the natural and presiding sentiment – the religio loci - that broods for ever over the romantic pass.

Thomas de Quincy 

Friday, 31 October 2014

On Great Gully Buttress

WHERE do all these people come from?” said Len. You would think nobody did any work.” “Including us?” I asked, since the day was Tuesday, in the middle of the June heat wave, and here were we, speeding north to Buachaille Etive Mor for the second time in four days. His remarks were evoked by the sight of so many sun-worshippers by every burn and bay from Loch Lomond side to Rannoch Moor.

Len had managed to snatch an additional day because he had been working over the May holiday, and the marvellous warmth and clarity of the previous Saturday had whetted his appetites After the wettest May in meteorological history, we had almost given up hope of dry rocks. Then had come our good luck, to be on Buachaille  Etive on the first real day of summer.

This looked as if it was going to be a repeat, and car windows down, we were enjoying the fresh scents wafted into us from bluebells, May blossom, rowan and gorse, all at their brilliant best together, in a world of shimmering birches, oaks and beeches. “ I’ve never seen anything better than this !” exclaimed Len. He was almost running out of exclamations by the time we reached Ben Lui, rising  above us with a, thousand feet of unbroken, snow in its corrie.

Then to Loch Tulla, floating snowy reflections from the Black Mount peaks ; and when we stopped to pay homage we could hear the vibrant “reeling” of dunlin, and,surprisingly, the “ tuleep ” of ringed plovers, the first time I have known them here.

Buachaille Etive Mor, its rocks shiny pink in the morning light,looked invitingly clean as we slung our packs and started towards Great Gully. The good weather and dryness ofthe past four days had filled Len with ambition. After our climbs on the Saturday he had talked longingly of Guerdon Grooves, a very exposed and delicate climb, so sustained at one point that the leader needs 150 feet of rope to reach a stance.

He had asked me to bring my long Perlon rope. I kept my apprehensions to myself as we scrambled up the rocks below our route, remembering that some of the best men known to me have retreated from this climb, indeed have had to “ rope-off ” it when failing to find a way. Len had done it once, and I did not know whether to be sorry or glad when, after scrutinising the buttress rising smoothly and without break for over 500 feet, he pronounced it “hopeless.” I could see why.

 The rocks were stained with gleaming patches of wet, on a route which has to be absolutely dry before there is any hope of ascent Let’s do ‘Ledgeway’ on Great Gully Buttress,” Len suggested.You take the first pitch, I’ll lead the crux.” Rock climbing has been rightly called “ a baleful sport”. I always find it so, especially when the first steps of a pitch are hard and unrelenting and I have to fight an inner voice of fear. Yet I never climb well without this ” inner voice.” It is rather like the moment of getting up to give an after-dinner speech. You may feel a sense of inadequacy for the task, but if you have given thought and preparation to the subject, then you will forget yourself as you begin to talk.

On the rocks, the mind takes over from the nerves, as the whole of your experience and training goes into the control and balance of the body,with an effect of exhilaration on your whole being. This pitch docs not let up for forty feet, and when he joined me for his lead, I was glad to hear Len say he found it hard. Marvellous rock. The best in Glen Coe,” he said as he traversed rightward from me. He could have added that it is also some of the steepest rock, and I saw the route was none too easy to find as he explored right and left before committing himself to a line that lefty the rope hanging clear in space behind him.

Then he vanished from sight, behind a bulge,and in a short while I heard his “ Come on!’. The crux was where he had disappeared, a daunting place with an overhang pushing you out with its beak. And no holds for a pull up until you make a delicate move up the smooth right wall and then you can swing boldly onto the nose and enjoy the thrill of your body tilting over the long drop below.

The next pitch was mine, right over Len’s head,for a hundred feet of sheer climbing delight,never easy but never too hard. The route had us purring with pleasure and after it we crossed over to Rannoch Wall,to the foot of Grooved Arete, first climbed by John Cunningham and Bill Smith 21 years ago.

It was this amazing pair of climbers who pioneered Guerdon Grooves, setting a standard of achievement hitherto unknown on Scottish rock. Members of the Creagh Ddu club, they are still active and as good as ever * Wherever their names are linked to a route you can expect something technically exciting. This one is particularly elegant.

Len took the edge of the arête which soars up for ninty feet of small holds, where every move depends on fine balance. The crux lies above and this fell to me. The problem is to get around the crest of the arête into the groove beyond. I enjoyed it, but made the mistake of keeping too vertically to the crest above, until I found myself unable to proceed, so I had to climb down again which was very much harder than the crux.

Now we coiled the rope and followed the Crowberry Ridge over the Tower to the summit of the mountain, basking in a sunlit world of peace and silence, strange contrast to the Israeli war which had been dominating our thoughts for a week. Boots off, we gave thanks in silent contemplation of the Lost Valley snows, still filling the cream jug between Bidian nam Bian and Stob Coire nan Lochan.

All too soon we were scrambling down the Curved Ridge, marvelling at the changes which four days of sun had wrought in the hanging garden beneath it, with clusters of buttery globe flowers, sprays of yellow roseroot, starry saxifrages amidst red campion and the white flowers of fleshy scurvy grass.
We felt the world was a pretty good place as we took the winding track along the foot of the crags, stopping now and then to look up at the pink edges of soaring rocks which have given us such intense delight over the years.

* The legendary John Cunningham was killed when coasteering on the Gogarth sea cliffs, North Wales in 1980. He drowned whilst attempting to rescue a student who had fell in the water.His body was never recovered.

Tom Weir: 1967