Thursday, 22 October 2009

Ronnie's last long climb

Terry Gifford was Director of the annual International Festival of Mountaineering Literature for all of its 21 years and is now Chair of the Mountain Heritage Trust. He is the author of The Joy of Climbing (Whittles, 2004) and The unreliable mushrooms : New and Selected Poems (Redbeck, 2003). His most recent book is Ted Hughes, the first green reading of the poet’s life and works (Routledge, 2009). He still seeks out the easier rock-climbs in esoteric places. Professor Honorario at the University of Alicante, Spain, he acted as porter for the making of Gill Round’s walking guide, Costa Blanca (Rother, 2007).

Terry Gifford©

"Stay off the pop, lad!".....Those were Don Whillans's last words to me as we saw him off at the airport: "Stay off the pop, lad", he said. Of course he'd done nothing of the sort while he'd been here in Majorca. That's the great danger in Deia — for a small village there are an amazing number of bars.... Within two months Don was dead'.
Ronnie Wathen, Climbers Club, poet, and piper, smiled his quizzical smile. Behind his specs there was that characteristic mixture of mystery and mischief. He and I were waiting on a stance whilst Norman searched for the line, little thinking this would be Ronnie's own last climb. He did climb again at Harrison's of course, and in Dalkey Quarry as late as June, before his death from a brain tumour on September 5th 1993. But that was something else.
He'd taken us with typical enthusiasm and poor memory to what must be the best VS in Majorca — 800 feet of varied, sustained climbing spiced by the need for good old-fashioned route finding, if you get up early enough to beat the queue. The soaring ridge of Sa Gubia can be seen from Palma airport. It's the left-hand skyline of a vertical scoop out of the nearest hills. Ronnie told me that Sa Gubia means, in Majorquin, (which he had learned fluently) 'the woodworker's gouge'. It is a route of continuing interest whose secrets are not given away by lines of bolts, or by my hinting that descents over the back of the mountain are usually made in the dark and finally involve passing The Three -Headed Dog to reach the road.
It was our third Alpine start for this route, from Ronnie's mountain village of Deia, where he had built a house for his family in 1968. It was Robert Graves who provided the focus for those poets and artists who, like Ronnie himself, have homed in on Deia. Where else would you find that there are two poetry readings in one week? And one of them was Ronnie's reading that night, so we'd better not hang about on Sa Gubia. Easier said than done.

We reached the foot of Sa Gubia in the cool of a New Year's Eve morning under a cloudless sky. My son Tom and Simon from Jersey opted for the bolted right-hand start up a leaning crackline, whilst Norman led off from the red-painted foot of the ridge. It's a scrambly, slightly loose first pitch to a belay in bushes where Ronnie, with his flair for the unpredictable, found behind a bush, a gift of a bottle of water. We accepted it. The second pitch passes two pegs and begins to get into 4b gear. Each belay has double pegs or bolts and is painted with a number. From R2 we should have traversed right beneath a scoop to gain the crest of the ridge, but Norman's instincts led left and back right to a double peg belay on the right of a cave where a large ledge would detain Ronnie and me plus the next team for an increasingly intense impasse.
Norman looked round to the right and returned. Not likely. He looked left and returned. A long way left a line of bolts above and below indicated what he took to be Supernova. Norman tried the cave roof. Ronnie tried teaching me my cue for coming in with a poem of my own in the middle of his reading of his long poem in which he shows Lord Byron around Deia and its inhabitants. It's written in ottava rims, the form perfected by Byron, and it's written by Ron who was quoting: " the Isles of Greece! The Isles of Greece! are calling
And he hopes that, on a wing and a prayer He'll leave this Deia which he finds appalling...' "

Cue Gifford:
" 'In the mountains they have a dance..." but Ronnie was stopped abruptly by Norman shouting down rather unpoetically: "For pete's sake shut up! I'm trying to get us out of here and you're reciting poetry!"
He returned to our ledge which was getting crowded. Friendly, but crowded. Another leader had belayed beside us and his second, perhaps motivated by Ron's Byron, looked round to the right and returned. Not likely.
"Well, I've run out of ideas!" Norman declared.
So, having given up hope on this route the only alternative was any route. Norman crossed the cave to the left again and this time the rope kept moving. A steep bolted wall that Norman was ascending out of our sight proved to be the delightful 4c crux of our version of this route. At the top a delicate traverse right brought a painted belay and a helpful red arrow pointing up right as if by now you might be feeling a little lost. This was Ronnie's fourth ascent and he found it got mysteriously harder each time he did it.
"It's amazing," he said. "You don't need to work at raising your grade- You just do the same route every five years!"
Norman attacked the crack, indicated by the arrow, that slanted up a steep wall. He popped in hexes and Friends, swung out off the crack's edge and disappeared again. Ronnie took off his slippers, which he called his 'chinese torture socks', and aired his horrible toes. His Majorquin shepherd's shoes were clipped in to his faded Whillans harness. From deep in his 'sack he offered me olives. I declined. He offered me garlic. I declined. So he popped the clove into his mouth and chewed on it: "Just like Don used to say, 'Don't put any of them olives or garlic in the cooking!' "
He offered me a satsuma.
"That's alright," he said, "They grow on trees round here!"
I tried to peel it whilst belaying. He popped an unpeeled orange into his mouth and chewed on it.
At the top of this pitch Norman hailed Tom, asking him to wait so that we could speed up the route-finding. At R5 Tom's route joined ours. From here the route looked broken by the odd bush above and slightly easier. It's deceptive. Norman raced after Tom.
Ronnie arrived at my stance, then the next two lads, then an English girl who was leading and had to wait at the top holds of her pitch.
"Are you happy?" One of the lads asked.
"I'm ecstatically happy!" she replied, relaxing on her small holds. Fair enough. We all believed her. For the rest of the route Ronnie kept reminding us that people in the queue behind us were 'ecstatically happy'.
Above the next belay, R6, a steep wall demanded strenuous pull ups, then a stretch left where a manky peg offered a dubious quick clip before jugs tempted sweaty grasps in a groove. To say it's 4b is to convey nothing of the way it reminds you that there's going to be no let up high on this pillar above the plain. The following easier slabs might tease you, but at R7, where there's an in situ tape round a natural thread, another wall asks the old question, 'which way ?

Norman took an airy ramp to the left, then came back right, warning about loose blocks. A rightwards slanting groove led up to a tree in a recess at R8. When Ronnie joined us here, his tale this time was about the amazing etiquette on the stances of this climb. A German had arrived on a stance and asked Ronnie: "Do you mind if I smoke?"
"Here we are, 700 feet up in the air, and he asked my permission to smoke! What did he expect me to say? 'I'm sorry, this is a non-smoking stance! "So what did you say, Ronnie?"
"I said, 'It's alright, if you give me one,"
The final pitch of this magnificent climb sustains its interest and quality right up to the unnecessary 'Fin' on the rock at R9. A step right from the alcove reveals sharp fluted rock that tears at the fingertips. Above, pinnacles finally bring into sight the 400ft ridge-walk to gain the summit. The sun may be about to set, but the day is not over yet!
We relaxed as we walked down the long winding roadway off the summit through the olive groves. The sky paled from orange to yellow to green as the moon came up. Talk turned to Cerberus, the three-headed dog that guards the farm before the road. Dave Gregory had warned us about this dog. "It rushes at you suddenly at full pelt, but its chain is just long enough for it to be pulled up with enough room for you to squeeze past with your back to the wall. That's when its neck is jerked back and its back legs swing round to kick you."
Ronnie also vividly remembered this dog and he had plenty of time to give us the gruesome details as the moon rose higher.. One by one, as we got closer to the farm, we each picked up an olive branch. It wasn't for peace. We were approach­ing some outbuildings. A vicious barking started up. Norman shouted back and amazingly the barking stopped. But that was the puppy.
Cerberus was round the corner. And here was the owner, standing by a gate across the track through his farm. Ronnie greeted him in Majorquin and asked if we might pass through. Somehow none of us appeared to be gripping sticks anymore. The owner was charming and kindly told us to keep to the wall. We didn't need telling as the huge black dog came racing out of the darkness snarling at us and doing the business.
Later that night, Ronnie gave an hilarious reading which poked fun at several members of the audience as Lord Byron was introduced to Ronnie's version of the recent history of Deia. To illustrate his poem he continued what he'd begun on the climb, producing props out of a suitcase and flinging them aside. Here he was doing what he loved best, giving his friends fun out of his magical capacity for the unexpected. That it was kindly and intelligent fun, often at his own expense, is what made him so widely loved by all sorts of people, from dons to Don Whillans. It was New Year's Eve. Ronnie took his Irish pipes to the bar and told me that once Mo Antoine had heard him playing in the Royal Vic, and had said to him: "Is it dead yet? I should get it by the throat! ' It seemed impossible that Ronnie would be struck down by the same fatal illness as Mo and that I would never see him again after that precious week in Ronnie's company. I would like to remember him playing his pipes that night when, after the grapes had been eaten on each stroke of midnight, after the firework display over the mountain, the dog's three heads became six in the re­telling and Don's advice was toasted again and again: "Stay off the pop, lad."

'Ronnie Wathen was a shaman Only he knew what it was he blew
 From the mountains of his life Through his poems and his pipes'.

Ronnie Wathen on his last long climb: Terry Gifford©

First published in the Climbers Club Journal of 1992. Thanks to Terry for permission to re-publish the article and photographs and The Climbers Club for their cooperation.