Thursday, 15 October 2009

New Lands for Old Hands

Harold Drasdo was born in Yorkshire 1930 and began his climbing career on his local outcrops just after WW2. A member of that loose band of climbers from his home city, The Bradford Lads whose personnel included Arthur Dolphin and a young Dennis Gray. A contemporary of Brown and Whillans, Harold’s career in the great outdoors began working alongside the former legend at the White Hall Centre in the English Peak District, eventually moving to North Wales to run The Towers Outdoor Centre near Capel Curig. In between a full time career in outdoor education Harold still found time to ferret out classic first ascents, more especially in the English Lake District, North Wales and with brother Neville, opening up the previously unexplored 1000’ cliffs of The Poisoned Glen in Donegal, Eire. Regarded as one of the UK’s climbings most cerebral writers.His works include the influencial ‘Education in the outdoor centres’, Mountain Spirit’ and his autobiographical ‘The Ordinary Route’.
Harold and Maureen Drasdo live on the North Wales coast.
Harold Drasdo on the first ascent of Jac Codi Baw (HVS 5a-US 5.9) Arenig Fawr North Wales.
Clogwyn Du'r Arddu: The Black Cliff. Is there a classic
'Severe' awaiting discovery ? Alan Leary©

Nowadays, climbers who want to know what's going on keep up to date by reading the area surveys in the magazines. The writers of these columns keep up to date by checking new routes books, by accepting advertising, and by loitering near the known activists. Within its limits the coverage of novelties is probably pretty good. But this information focuses mainly on a single dynamic in rock-climbing, the ascent of hard new routes.
The sport has other dynamics and larger areas of activity. Here I want to propose an alternative project, as satisfying, as tricky, but admitting more of the climbing public. First, though, I have to tell young climbers about their prospects and to say a few words on behalf of those of us who've learned, with mixed feeling, that we're now categorised as a recognisable club, 'the coffin dodgers'. It's true that experienced climbers — that is, those who've pursued the calling for 30, 40, or 50 years — have found that performance hasn't gone off quite so much as they'd predicted from the airy vantage point of the age 20.
Some few, in fact, are climbing better than ever: that's probably because, in the shadow of more pushing companions in youth, they never discovered their limits. Many have learned that an undeniable deterioration has been almost offset by modern footgear and protection: that's a bonus that won't come up again without some changes in the rules. For most there's an undoubted decline, compounded for those like myself who find retirement so time-consuming that they can't get out so often as they'd like. I sometimes meet people who seem to be perfectly happy to repeat at regular intervals routes they already know well. That puzzles me. Surely the only strong satisfaction comes from climbing unseen routes and with the slightest fall in standard and with years of activity in an area these become thin on the ground.

If good climbs of lower grades are still being found they're not often being reported. Best not to speculate on that. Further, in some of our mountain areas the available guidebook record of easier climbs is actually being cut down. Looking at a couple of popular cliffs in an old guide and in its immediate successor I find what anybody would expect: that the number of routes at Hard VS and Extreme had roughly doubled. I also notice what might not have been forecast: that the number of routes below that level had been reduced by a quarter. Odd climbs have shifted through straight revaluation but the process works both ways and the main causes are clear. First, classics of the fifties and sixties which used aid points have been freed to appear at a higher standard. We're all awestruck by the achievements of that crusade.

What is remarkable is the acceptance of the new grade by those who can't achieve it. Even where a nut might stand in for the original peg and give the whole route a more consistent standard everybody seems prepared to forego that option and strike the route off the repertoire. Second, perfectly satisfactory climbs have sometimes been deleted after a high-standard variation has been found, in order to cobble together a complete and more difficult new route. That's piracy. Third, routes with a fair amount of vegetation tend to be excluded. Certainly grass isn't rock but on this ruling Great Slab on Cloggy and the Original Route on the Idwal Slabs, classic climbs both, would also have been excluded. Finally, I might add that cliffs offering only low-standard climbing are now so far outside the guide-writer's threshold of interest that they're likely to be dismissed by formula: 'here the climber is left to discover his own routes.' British climbing has a missing generation, that of the war years.

When I joined there seemed to be a few grown-ups around but many years later we did the sums and discovered they'd been hardly any older than ourselves. It wasn't until we made contact with and eventually infiltrated the posh clubs that we met the few amazing survivors of the twenties and thirties. They're mostly gone now or not dining out and the baby bulge that entered climbing in the fifties is starting to queue up for its pensions. We've got used to seeing wave after wave of young climbers appearing without considering the awful consequence. Shortly, for the first time in history we're going to see hordes of old people on the crags, if you can accommodate the thought. They'll need fields for action and I don't think they'll be content to spend their declining years on the Milestone or Middlefell since they've become addicted to more dramatic rock scenery. Maybe we should start a Tame Tigers section. So here is my proposal: that paralleling the drive to find the hardest climb on each hard crag we should put some time into finding the easiest route up each hard crag.
I can see your furrowed brow. It must have been done already, you're thinking, the first explorers grabbed it. That assumption needs checking everywhere. All crags have an Original Route but they don't all have an Ordinary Route. I'll handicap myself and take the most extreme and testing obstacle to my programme. Answer this: what is absolutely the final problem in British rock-climbing? Silence. Well, clearly, it's the working out of a V Diff up the West Buttress of Cloggy. What majesty and integrity it would have, Britain's only four-star. Now I hear the gasps of disbelief: impossible, crazy, nothing goes there below VS. What if I say Mild Severe, then? A minute's silence again, while we all think. Making an ascent of Longland's last summer I was surprised at how easy most of the climbing seemed. It was nearly 40 years since my only previous ascent.;My companion, Duncan Boston, hadn't done it for over 30 years. He took a quick glance at our old guidebook and offered to lead off. Bad at decisions, I agreed willingly, but glancing at the guide as he moved up I thought I saw the plan. He'd get the two easier pitches and I'd get the two harder. The idea disturbed me since, logging or something, I'd just wrecked an arm. However, I could always check out the variation finish if necessary. In the event he concentrated upon upward progress with such single mindedness that it wasn't until I called out the rope in hand that he realised he was halfway up the second pitch and, unable to find reverse, was obliged to belay there. From that point, by running out 160ft, I was able to anchor so close to the overhang that a preferable stance couldn't reasonably be suggested.He arrived, saw the score, said nothing, gritted his teeth and led it rapidly, well done. I followed single-handed, but only just.
So it happens I still haven't seen the slab finish, given as Hard Severe. But below that point we found only three or four moves approaching or reaching that standard. And all the old legends about seriousness, exposure and the chance of a fall into the Black Cleft were blown away by the simplest modern protection Maybe we could get it down to Hard Severe, then, without even any fiddling? (Since starting this piece I see the grading of the alternative finish described as 'an invitation to disaster'. Must get back there). It will be said that I'm just talking about an arguable regrading. But with a bit of looking around I might do better. If not, I'm going to rewrite the ethic. Throughout recorded history the do-it-yourself movement and the rewriting of ethics have been intimately linked.

Q: What is the raison d'etre of the competition ethic? A: The raison d'etre of the competition ethic is the need to conserve a sense of uncertainty of outcome. Q: What is the modus operandi of the competition ethic? A: The modus operandi of the competition ethic is the imposition of restrictions on tactics. Q: What is the cut off point for the restrictions imposed? A: The cut off point for the restrictions imposed is that at which they become severe enougf/to permit ranking of the leading contenders. Q: Why is there continuous dispute about the ethic? A: Some are bold, some are strong, and some are skilful. Each wishes to reshape the ethic to centralise his own style. And some tell lies but get found out. Q: What is the silent prayer of the originator of a hard new route? A: That his route will win acceptance into the canon of classics. Q: No. What is the silent prayer of the originator of a hard new route? A: That his place in the history will be further secured. Q: No. What is the silent prayer of the originator of a hard new route? Think carefully. A: The silent prayer of the originator of a hard new route is that those who follow will find themselves even more gripped or more bushed or more stretched than he found himself. Q: I'll accept that. How is it that experts often allow themselves advantages — inspection, rehearsal, pre-placement, and so on — which they forbid to the less expert? A: To allow these tactics to all would pull the rug from under the contenders marginalising their edge and making assessment more difficult. Q: If the ethic is devised primarily to sort contenders, how is it that the permanently relegated continue to observe it? A: Presumably they're still competing. Q: With who? A: Their ageing contemporaries. Q: And? A: Oh! Their younger selves. Q: Can they win? A: You tell. Isn't it a losing battle? Q: I'm asking the questions. And proposing alternative games with new sub-sets of rules. One being that if you're well over the hump you needn't set yourself impossible standards. I want to rid you of your sense of shame. (Or is it false pride?) If you stick at Severe now and you've climbed all Tremadog offers, you must do Scratch next, a brilliant Severe with two or three moves on nuts. There's lots more where that came from. What I'm saying is, if the ethic gets in your way, don't just stand there looking at it. You only live once. Go on, be brave, kick it over. More importantly, many hard crags might be furnished with an Ordinary Route, described by the easiest possible line and accepting the easiest possible style. It mightn't matter how it's worked out since that sort of climb wouldn't necessarily have its eye on the list of first ascents. Think of it as a community effort, improved through generations.

Of course, restrictions are still needed since satisfaction can only come from the resolution of doubt. An obvious rule would be the acceptance of an appropriate technology: you don't buy your way up a cheap climb so sophisticated and expensive gear must be rejected. But from this position we can immediately accept the use of the body, the rope, the sling and the karabiner — the pioneer skills — as ideologically correct. That is, the use of a shoulder, of lassoing, of diagonal abseils and tension moves, of a sling stirrup, is okay. (And, incidentally, we've reclaimed for ourselves an element —horseplay, pantomime, burlesque, call it what you like -­rarer in modern climbing though, surprisingly, it's been rediscovered at one frontier with the invention of the soft fall.)
Probably, by now, we have Longland's down to straight Severe. If we throw in the modest use of nut aid (since nuts, though shockingly pricey, can often be found abandoned on crags and if you're not lucky that way you can always improvise with jammed knots or pebbles) perhaps it goes down to Mild Severe. But it wasn't New Longlands I was dreaming about, it was the New West. Fifteen feet up Great Slab, V Diff, and a rope move across to the groove... Stance. Up the long groove...Severe, delightful. Stance. Up the approach to the top traverse or up towards the traverse of Bow, no problem. Already, we're nearly halfway up and only 50ft below the easier upper slabs. Unfortunately the crag has spotted us and rearranged its defences. We may have to concede or to wander round to look at Narrow or to play grass ladders and nylon snakes until we're deposited, dry-throated, somewhere near the start of Longland's. But I want you to think about it. Cloggy presents a rotten and unfair obstacle to this programme. Thousands of deeply worried leaders have looked for escapes round corners and few of their discoveries have made much difference. But I'm convinced that some of the prestige cliffs would repay closer inspection than they've had from the middle-grade climber. And any routes produced should be of high quality by definition.

At present the star system is a shambles. Different logics demand different applications based on district, area and cliff, and stars are pinned on to the newest routes for difficulty alone. Many writers have tried to say what makes a great or classic climb. McKee (1989) is sound on the basic issues but does not address the problem of difficulty itself. Drasdo (1972), usually our most reliable commentator, seems to be in some confusion on this point, listing difficulty as an unqualified requirement. He uses a doctrinaire analogy with literature. The expert reader usually finds greater value in the difficult book rather than in the simple book; the expert climber usually finds greater value in the difficult climb than in the simple climb: therefore there is a value in difficulty itself and, other things being equal, a harder route deserves a higher status than an easy route. I hope I haven't misinterpreted him.- The argument is appealing but, with respect, the present writer disagrees.
Avoiding the semantic problems of whether difficulty is a grading of climbs or of climbers, surely the merit of a Diff to a Diff man is as great as the merit of an Extreme to an Extremist. Further, there seems to be a crucial difference between books and climbs. Put a serious book by a simple book and the former is augmented; put a serious climb by a simple climb and the former is diminished. For example: if a V Diff chimney ran up four feet out from Cenotaph Corner it would draw three stars and the Cenotaph would lose one or two. From this illustration it appears that, above difficulty and above consistency of standard, inescapability and setting are more important determinants of value in climbing. It follows that the easiest route up a hard crag might even be the best. The more serious issues for the pioneer of easier climbs comes not from competition ethics, which we may rewrite as he wishes, but from environment ethics, which are not so lightly rewritten.
Generally, the easier a climb is the more likely it is to support plant life and the more open the climber will be to accusations of over-gardening. The charge is serious but is sometimes overstated or inconsistent. Years ago, a conservationist assured me that it was vital that a rock-paved path be built around Llyn Idwal in order to limit damage to vegetation. The very same week another conservationist complained to me that the climbers' descent over the Middle Rock of Cloggy was now eroded to bedrock and that the damage was regrettable and irreversible.

My own experience, both inside and outside climbing, says that nature is more resilient than some of her defenders believe. In fact, she can only be defeated temporarily with the bare hands: it takes machines or chemicals to overcome her. I'd like to have been able to call this piece 'Recent Developments in Wales' and to round it off with some good examples. But as usual theory has outstripped practice. Also, I still maintain mainline ambitions and try to climb in that style. Here's a small example, though, of what I mean.
A few months ago I paid my first visit to Craig y Llyn, above Llyn Dinas, again with Duncan Boston. (Since starting this piece I see mention of an access problem there. Must enquire further.) He'd been up Terra Nova once and something further up and we were able to work out the whereabouts of routes on the upper part of the crag. It mostly harbours Extremes. However, we weren't feeling too good and decided to begin with the easiest route, Honeysuckle Wall, Severe. It was a bit breezy, I got into some tricky moves, and then I wasn't sure whether I was heading the right way so I came down. That didn't bother me. I always feel that if I don't fail regularly I haven't been trying hard enough. (I mean that I've been picking soft touches. Successes never sustain me for very long but my imagination stores and feeds on every move on which I've failed. I look forward to going back.) Since there were no other Severes left we thought we'd better knock off one or two VSs. We were living dangerously. That is, we were still using Trevor Jones's 1970 Snowdon South guidebook but by pooling our experience, intelligence, intuition, guile and gut feelings we had so far avoided serious injury. Right may mean left, a variation may take you to the stance below pitch four on a two-pitch climb, any of his own routes from which the author had more or less recuperated by the time he reached his notebook will be graded Hard Severe. It's all tremendous fun and for the sceptical middle-grade climber we can thoroughly recommend this collector's piece for a great day out.
Unfortunately this edition is without the amazing illustrations Barbara Heatherley produced for the earlier volume.. We especially miss the expressionist pen-and-ink study of a rabbit (?) entitled Pant Ifan. We looked for Clonus which, oddly, wasn't described in .relation to the features of the cliff but was to be found only by locating 'a dead tree lying almost at the foot of the crag'. It wasn't there. It wasn't anywhere in sight. If we could have found a dead tree in the woods beneath maybe we could have got it up to the foot of the crag if the guidebook had said which part of the foot of the crag we should drop it almost at. Presently a nicely-shaped scoop covered in thick moss caught our eyes and we started to play with it. So we took turns and lifting the moss off discovered smart rock and cute holds until we had advanced to a position at which, with a sling to stand in or clip on to, we could have cleaned out a pull-out on to easier ground. No means of support was immediately apparent. Then, looking down, I saw that by stepping out of the scoop a few feet lower, I could make a delicious traverse to the left. I did that, made a short ascent, overcame some little grassy steps and was on the big balcony halfway up. A vegetated ramp led us to an airy position on the nose of the buttress and another 40ft took us to the heather forests of the summit. Good, we had a new route. Back at home I reread the other routes and consulted a later guide. At the stance we'd joined Honeysuckle Wall which had sidled right around the corner of the buttress.
Our ramp was given as an alternative 'on more dubious going' to the second pitch of that climb (which here made a lunatic excursion on the the left wall, a possibility I hadn't even noticed and completely baffling until I saw that the originator was Derek Howarth). Then we'd straightened the third pitch by a step or two. Our start looked rather like Clonus: but why make an 'awkward mantelshelf' on to a ledge we'd climbed straight past before finding a better line? Clonus: what the hell did that mean? Ah: a muscle spasm. We'd both made complaints about cramp, not a standard excuse for either of us. But, surely, even if the route hadn't been repeated in 20 years there'd have to be some slight evidence of human progress? What had we got then? Not much new climbing. But we had a natural line following a logical course through steeper surroundings and offering apparently the easiest route on the crag. The rock was excellent and beneath the grass and moss there was some sort of Crackstone Rib waiting for the masses.
If a climber who frees an aided route to give a harder climb may rename it, so a climber who links harder climbs to give an easier and more sensible route should certainly describe and name it. Honeysuckle Wall was close at hand. Near the traverse I had noticed attractive little mats of the tiny succulent leaves of a specie of sedum but the flowers were long gone and I couldn't say which. However, the English generic name would do and seemed quite appropriate for a rock climb: Stonecrop.

Harold Drasdo© First published in HIGH: May 1990.

Out there on Cloggy: Al Leary©