Tuesday, 21 December 2010

Season's greetings from Crow Towers!

The mountains of northern Snowdonia: North Wales 

I can't believe that it's twelve months on and I'm once again offering my thanks and best wishes to all those writers and photographers who have supported Footless Crow over the last year. Of course I also send my warmest regards to those readers who have regularly dropped in and hopefully enjoyed most of the articles.
I am gratified that here in the UK I have continued to receive the good wishes and support from many in the UK climbing community,including some of our best known names who appear to appreciate the Crow's traditional slant on all things mountain related!
I have always felt that those who engage in mountain activities should have an appreciation of the natural environment and from the start Footless Crow has described itself as 'offering the best in mountain and environmental articles'.Sadly, as Jim Perrin pointed out in his book 'West', climbers are often the most disengaged of all communities from their natural environment. However I still think it is most important that Footless Crow and it's linked To Hatch a Crow page offer articles and news from a conservationist perspective.It might be a cliche but we live in a global village these days and we can't ignore the pressures we face from a burgeoning global population and the increasing pollution and environmental degradation which inevitably comes in train.The very least a media which embraces environmental matters can do is to cast a spotlight on these issues.
Over the Christmas and New Year period there is always a noticeable decline in readership as understandably,most people are involved in the festivities and enjoying the company of friends and family. For this reason,Footless Crow will be going into stasis until the new year when it will return with some unique material about and from the legendary North Wales multi media artist and climber par excellence, John Redhead.The articles themselves are fascinating, thought provoking and controversial so if you prefer your outdoor reading of a more wholesome nature then check out the Amazon adventure list and perhaps best avoid Footless Crow in early January!

John Redhead. Coming soon to a screen near you.


As I write from the North Wales uplands I am looking across snow covered fields under a foot of snow with temperatures down at minus 10c. Still in the early days of winter but already I can hear George Harrison in my head singing  It's been a long and lonely winter. Great days for the snow and ice climbing fraternity-especially for those living in their centrally homes in the cosseted urban suburbs- however,for the marginal hill farmers and many of the old and poor in the uplands hereabouts.. It seems like years since it's been here...The warm sun that is. It's certainly been a cruel winter in many parts of the UK and across Europe so far. As a climber who prefers to feel the texture of warm rock under my skin and experience the vivid colours and scents of summer as a rising sun lifts winter's aches and pains from my  bones; as you can guess....I'm already counting the days until spring!

Whatever you do in the outdoors; whether it's hacking your way up an ice smear,bouldering in a forest clearing,pounding along a mountain bike trail or trekking over the mountains with a dog at your side, I hope you enjoy this Xmas season....cheers to all wherever in the world you are and thanks again !

Traditional Welsh mountain sheep in the Berwyn range this December


PS: If you are on Facebook or Twitter you can always join the Footless Crow Facebook group or follow on Twitter.

Friday, 17 December 2010

A Great Effort

Menlove Edwards making the second ascent of Kirkus'Great Slab,Clogwyn Du Arddu.
1933


In the last three years three people have asked me how I climb. Hence this personal article.
They said also that it was the state of mind and not the mechanics that they thought important, and that if each man would write of himself under this head then others coming after might know better what to and what to avoid. A primary condition for this, of course, would be to lay aside any modesty that one had at any other times assumed.

It will be best to describe directly a given instance. I will not weary you with the preliminaries. There were none. Everything has been in order, the customary had occurred. I had come here for the weekend  to climb, had got up, dressed, eaten a good breakfast with a good appetite and having nobody to climb with had gone out for the day alone. I had considered  carefully which cliff to visit and chosen a near one not to make to strenuous a day. This involved walking along a stretch of road, then a slope towards the cliff.
The slope I took by stages. Three hundred yards then a rest, three hundred then a rest. During the last war it was explained to me that the British marched by stages and it has been my chief method since. It is easier. Some people prefer to go up hills at a steady ten miles an hour, as if they were an army tank cruising or Scott hauling sledges in the Antarctic. I do not.

During each rest I gazed at the cliff, exploring from a distance how a route might go. Then when quite near the cliff I stopped again and looked up at it more slowly, heavy with the fresh air, and it looked at me, and it slid about in my eyes as a cliff sometimes does, and was difficult to focus. I shall go there and there, I thought, and then perhaps coming to the steeper portion, I shall go there, or perhaps it will be too hard for me to go there then I shall not go there but will go there instead by what appears so far as can be seen from here to be a dirty and a bare sided finger crack, but which may not be so, or otherwise examining the rock closely when we are there, rubbing the nose against it, there may be some third or fourth way, not guessed at from a distance. But first I thought, husbanding my energies, I will rest here for a little time where stability can still be assured without effort or trouble by sitting down. So in the middle of the mountains upon a pile of rocks I sat down. A certain tendency to inertia in the mind can have great force.

Do not mistake me, the choice of cliff and pastime had been free, it was unhampered by any conditions either of expediency or friendship, there was no particular unhappiness on me at this time beyond the normal. Yet I sat down. And as I lifted my head, stones, blocks of rock, sky, cliff faces lay round the field of vision arranged in various ways.
Then later I got up and walked to the foot of the cliff meditating carefully where to start. Then tied the rope on, flung the loose end down the slope and arranged it so that its coils should open without snags. This took some time, due to a complex cluster of small rocks in the way which needed re-arranging before I could be sure that the rope would come clean across them. Then I moved on to the rock itself.
Now perhaps you looking on might remark of these actions that none of them had been done in any rapid or decisive mould. You would be right. Perhaps that is why there was no great resultant from them. After 20 minutes I had advanced about fifteen feet and was trembling slightly, not too sure of my position. The rock now before my face was ordinary rock, surfaced at an angle of 60 to 70 degrees, fairly smooth. Heaven was above, the earth a few yards beneath, and I remember nothing of either. As for myself the fore part of my right foot was planted well on a square ledge, the heel overhung into the air and demanded a constant muscular effort at the calf-, my left foot was three feet higher and one and a half feet to the side put against a small sloped piece of grooving. In appearance there, had anybody been passing, I was about to step up. In practice I had been trying to do this for ten minutes but had not yet succeeded. It seemed simple, the need was clear, holds were there, but they were small and I am not a man in any way to make a move until satisfied that it is safe, so that to remain in this statuesque and silly position was my only choice for the time being. Every minute or two, when my right leg began to tremble, I pulled the left leg down from its unserviceable height, bent myself this way and that a little to relieve the strain, then put the leg back again, using the action also as a gesture of purpose.

Anvil Cracks.A remote Menlove route originally graded V Diff (US 5.4). About to be re-graded VS-4c (US 5.8)in the forthcoming guidebook.

But any man must be to some degree hard-pressed before he gives up on a point where his heart is set; so I began to struggle. Oh, good heavens, good heavens. I thought, what on earth am I to do; this is not very good, you are being a coward, an arrant coward and this cannot, must not, continue. I have time and again pointed out to you that you are being very silly but you do nothing, you do nothing except stand there with that fixed and ridiculous stare a few feet from the foot of this wretched precipice. But I still accom­plished nothing. Then I began to struggle again. I thought, what is wrong, there is something missing, there is no spirit, I am heavy and unable to move; perhaps if I launch out and become sufficiently frightened; in fact I am sure that once over the border there would be no holding me. So I made several attempts to launch out, but nothing happened. 

Then I thought perhaps if I eat my sandwiches that will improve me, but no no for shame, it is not yet half-past eleven, how can I eat them now, yet there can be no harm in it, give yourself a change, I said, eat them all and that will be a load off your mind, then you will not have the temptation to eat again until you get home. So standing still on my footholds and feeling firmer than I had done for some time, I got the tin of sardines out of my pocket, twisted the lid off in the usual way but carefully because of the position and ate the fish one by one with my mouth. This took some time. Then I drained the tin, put it back in my pocket and turned to the rocks once more. Now how will it go I thought, every excuse is exhausted. And I tried again. No, it is not good, I said, it is no good: here I am fifteen feet from the ground on easy rocks as I said before it is after lunch but in my own bones there is no more energy than there ever was and my whole soul is as flat as a carpet, what am I to do? Perhaps if I were to recall former victories or to picture glory, but how can you do that when you are alone, perhaps if I shouted and sang, but you know you were never able to shout and sing: now if there were an onlooker, that would make an effort worth while, perhaps—is there anyone in sight? no, not a soul, not one in the whole valley: there is no representative of the human race, none to praise, nobody to look surprised at cowardice or to laugh at folly, to provide me with a gibe or comparison or stage: there is a sheep, but the sheep do not know about these things, a little bird but she is away out of sight already. 

Menlove leading Spiral Stairs on Dinas Cromlech:

So I stood on waiting, unable to move. It is difficult to describe what it feels like to be so, to describe that extreme desolation that may be left behind in the human brain when it is without anything working in it to spur it on. I stood on that hold for a long time. Then quickly, with the sweat standing out on my skin and my heart beating, I moved up on to the next holds and then the next and then I did not see what to do and the movement stopped again.
The view had changed. There was heather now in front of my eyes, and some of the thin dust that goes with it. I took a handful of heather in my right hand. It seemed firm but when bent back it snapped and broke off. A bad material. I made a final effort. Look at yourself I said, and do you know what this is, that it is schizophrenia, the split mind: I know but I do not care what I said: it is stupid: what could you do if you did get ten feet higher up, the rocks have not started yet to become difficult, take yourself off from this climb: oh, this climbing, that involves an effort, on every move the holds to be spotted and often there are none, then every limb placed, the body set into the one suitable position found but with trouble, then with the whole organism, great force must be exerted, before anything happens, and this is to be done while the brain is occupied sick and stiff with its fears: and now you have been doing this for well over an hour and a half and the strain must be telling: get down therefore.

My mind made up, it only remained to go, not always an easy thing to do. But as it has often been remarked God may be merciful and is so sometimes when you least expect it; and on this occasion it happened that feeling in behind the heather I almost immediately found a good enough spike of rock for my rope and was able to get back down again in no danger. Then I walked a little way up the hillside slowly, rested and walked home.
But the resilience of man is great, and his ingenuity. 

So I was not done yet and on the way back setting to work I soon picked up my pride in this way, by thinking, today the victory has been to the devil, but tomorrow is not to him yet, also by thinking: it has been said that the secret of life is in detachment from it..... good.

Helyg...the Climbers Club's historic hut in the Ogwen Valley:


Menlove Edwards: First published in the Climbers Club Journal 1941

Tuesday, 14 December 2010

Coming up: Menlove Edwards..between a rock and a hard place

 " Now how will it go I thought, every excuse is exhausted. And I tried again. No, it is not good, I said, it is no good: here I am fifteen feet from the ground on easy rocks as I said before it is after lunch but in my own bones there is no more energy than there ever was and my whole soul is as flat as a carpet, what am I to do? Perhaps if I were to recall former victories or to picture glory, but how can you do that when you are alone, perhaps if I shouted and sang, but you know you were never able to shout and sing: now if there were an onlooker, that would make an effort worth while, perhaps—is there anyone in sight? no, not a soul, not one in the whole valley: there is no representative of the human race, none to praise, nobody to look surprised at cowardice or to laugh at folly, to provide me with a gibe or comparison or stage: there is a sheep, but the sheep do not know about these things, a little bird but she is away out of sight already. So I stood on waiting, unable to move. It is difficult to describe what it feels like to be so, to describe that extreme desolation that may be left behind in the human brain when it is without anything working in it to spur it on. I stood on that hold for a long time. Then quickly, with the sweat standing out on my skin and my heart beating, I moved up on to the next holds and then the next and then I did not see what to do and the movement stopped again.
The view had changed. There was heather now in front of my eyes, and some of the thin dust that goes with it. I took a handful of heather in my right hand. It seemed firm but when bent back it snapped and broke off. A bad material. I made a final effort..........'

This Friday, Menlove Edwards proves that even a fearless rock genius can find themselves strung out and stalled on a route which should fall effortlessly into place.

Friday, 10 December 2010

Forgotten Tigers

The Wayfarers Club's Robertson-Lamb hut, Langdale in the English Lake District.

One of the real delights for me as a member of this grand old club, is meeting the wide variety of folks you encounter staying at RLH; banking the fire up and chatting about climbing and the mountains long into the night or at least until the booze runs out. I often wonder what similar conversations were like in the very early days of RLH back in the early nineteen thirties. No doubt the lads of that era had their own heroes and villains, and the club had some big names batting for it in those days; Jack Longland, Bill Tilman, Alan (AB) Hargreaves, Ivan Waller, Colin Kirkus and John Menlove Edwards to name but a few. Having had the opportunity to delve into the history of climbing in the 1920s and 1930s whilst examining the exploits of Colin Kirkus (one of the most famous Wayfarers) I'd like to use the opportunity of the Centenary Journal to throw some deserved focus onto two men, who were both Wayfarers, and were both close friends of Colin Kirkus and AB Hargreaves.
They were in their day brilliant rock climbers, but neither to my mind ever got the credit their great ability warranted. The men in question are Ted Hicks and Bob Frost and I'd like to tell something of their respective stories, and their part in the history of our club.
Much has been written about the brilliant climbing exploits of such as Jack Longland, Ivan Waller, Colin Kirkus, John Menlove Edwards, A.T.Hargreaves and the particularly gifted Maurice Linnell. The late 1920s/early 1930s was a time of huge improvement and consolidation in British climbing after the slow recovery following the First World War. By the late 1920s Ted Hicks was the equal of just about anyone climbing in Wales or The Lakes and in 1929 had a particularly fine year producing ten new routes, two of which were of outstanding quality.

Ted was brought up in the Birkenhead area, and after leaving school he went to St Catherine's College, Cambridge and gained degrees in classics and mathematics. Whilst at Cambridge he became involved with the particularly talented group that constituted the University Climbing Club at the time. Through this involvement, he also joined both the Climbers Club and the Wayfarers Club in 1929. Though not tall, Ted had a powerful physique and was outstandingly fit. He took to rock climbing very quickly and soon moved up through the grades and was leading Very Severe routes within a couple of months of starting.
In the summer of 1928 he started to acquire something of a reputation in the Lake District and by that time had also become established as an expert night roof climber at Cambridge, a breeding ground for many a good cragsman. Ted made the second ascent of Gimmer Crack (a climb that held a mean reputation for years) and strolled up it wearing an impressive pair of Oxford Bags. Later that summer he added direct starts to Terrace Wall Variant on Tryfan and to Holly Tree Wall and climbed extensively at Helsby and on the Gritstone edges of The Peak District.
His great year as a climber was undoubtedly 1929. In April of that year he made the first free ascent of Piton Route on Holly Tree Wall. Of even greater significance was Ted meeting Colin Kirkus in the June of that year. He accompanied Colin on the first ascent of Lot's Groove on Glyder Fach, a brilliant route and the Cenotaph Corner of the 1930s, a major psychological  breakthrough in the way rock would be climbed. Following this he climbed frequently with both Colin and AB though a wonderfully warm and dry summer and early autumn.

Ted proceeded to produce a number of good quality new routes of his own around the Idwal slabs and Holly Tree Wall area. Ash Tree Wall was an excellent and exposed introduction to the East Wall of the slabs and is very enjoyable. He later added Heather Wall (further to the right) a bold excursion that still rates top-end Very Severe, on small, sloping holds. Another addition was a variation finish to Faith on the Idwal Slabs. Of even greater significance were Ted's two visits to Cloggy that summer. In July he made the third ascent of Pigott's route (Fred Pigott himself having led the route in 1927 and again in 1928) with AB Hargreaves and E.A.Stewardson (all three of them were members of the Wayfarers Club) This was considered to be just about the hardest route in Wales at that time and they had something of an epic on it, and a bad accident was only just avoided. 

In September, Ted led the fourth ascent of Longland's route on the West Buttress, climbing with C.V.A. Cooper and W.E.Wousnam Jones. These ascents on Cloggy, together with a rapid ascent that summer of Central Buttress on Scafell, with Colin Kirkus and AB Hargreaves (it was the seventh ascent of the route) placed Ted firmly in the forefront of British rock climbing.

Colin Kirkus

Ted was involved in three other good quality first ascents in Wales that remarkable summer. He partnered Colin Kirkus on Rake End Chimney and then led the Girdle of Holly Tree Wall another exciting route still regarded as top end VS. However, the climb Ted remains best known for was a very delicate affair away to the right of the Idwal Slabs. This was the superb Rowan Tree Slabs, a climb that instantly gained a considerable reputation. Years later an excellent (and hard) variation pitch was added to Ted's original starting pitch by Jim O'Neill making this a top class Wayfarers Route par excellence! Still graded Extremely Severe, it is an excellent climb and a fine memorial for Ted and Jim.
After 1929, Ted never again climbed with quite the same passion, but he remained very capable and he led an early repeat of Colin Kirkus' Great Slab on Cloggy in 1931. In 1933 Ted took part in Marco Pallis' Wayfarers Expedition to the Gangotri Himalaya. It was on this trip that Colin Kirkus and Charles Warren managed to make the first ascent of Bhagirathi III alpine style, a superb achievement that went relatively unrecognised for years. Ted gave them a lot of support on the expedition and frequently entertained everyone at Base Camp with his excellent singing and general good humour. Later in the expedition, Ted made the first ascent of the 21,000ft Dolmetch Peak with Richard Nicholson. Ted and Colin had to return home earlier than the other members of the expedition, and had an entertaining trek back to Calcutta together and then the month long sea voyage back to Liverpool.

In the mid 1930s, Ted was involved in a bad winter accident in Deep Ghyll on Scafell when his partner was badly injured. After this he climbed very little, but continued to walk on the hills and to ski with great enthusiasm. Throughout the late 1930s he was a regular user of the RLH and knew the Lakeland Hills in great
detail. In 1935 he started working at the Dragon School at Oxford as a teacher and apart from the War Years, continued working there until he retired in 1966. He became a Housemaster at this most prestigious school, and he was greatly loved there both for his great academic ability and for his wide involvement in the overall life of the school.
Ted had an interesting time during the Second World War, where he enlisted in a Light Infantry Regiment. His unit was captured at Dunkirk and Ted spent the remainder of the war in a succession of prison camps. He attempted to remain a constant thorn in the side of his captors and by all accounts was the life and soul of all the camps he was in, and also continued to study until the end of the war. AB told a lovely story, of how Ted not only repaired over 1,000 watches during the war, but when prisoners from the Dieppe raid came handcuffed into his camp, Ted speedily found a method to unlock all the handcuffs with an adapted sardine tin opener. He was clearly quite a character, in an excellent Wayfarer tradition!

For many years after the war Ted sailed for a hobby (indeed he won the British Moth championship in the early sixties, and sailed across the English Channel many times.) After his retirement from teaching in 1966, he became Sailing Master, Skipper and Navigator of the Yacht Noryema VIII, working for the owner. This resulted in him making many long distance voyages and he sailed across The Atlantic twelve times. It was said that he was not only an excellent sailing master but a quite outstanding navigator. In 1972, as skipper of Noryema VIII he won the Bermuda Cup and was given the Yachtsman of the Year award. Late in life he suffered badly from asthma and suffered a heart attack while at sea, only his outstanding physical condition saving him.
Ted died suddenly in 1978, at the age of seventy while preparing for yet another voyage across The Atlantic. AB referred to Ted as just about his dearest friend and a man of many talents, and outstanding qualities. Once when I visited AB at Ulverston, we had been talking about Colin Kirkus, Jack Longland and of course Ted. AB wondered off to the kitchen at one point, as we had run out of wine. I heard him chuckling to himself: "Ha ha,.........    good old Ted!" It was a lovely moment and a chuckle of deep affection. AB then uncorked another bottle.

Compared with that of Ted Hicks, the name Bob Frost may not mean a great deal to many club members, but in the mid-nineteen thirties he was one of the finest climbers in the Wayfarers Club. The bulk of my information about Bob, come from several conversations I had with the late John Watson. John joined the Wayfarers Club in the early 1930s and provided me with a great deal of valuable information about the club at that time and the Idwal Hostel scene, and was of great help to me in writing "Hands of a Climber." Sadly, John died before the book was published in 1993. He was great company and had a wealth of stories about the club in the pre-war era. John was a close friend of Colin Kirkus and in the period 1933-1938 climbed a great deal both with Colin and with Bob Frost who was Colin's main partner for much of that period. The picture that John painted of Colin and Bob at this time was both fascinating and revealing. Both Colin and Bob were very modest and self effacing characters, but I was left in no doubt that Bob Frost was an outstanding climber both on snow and ice, and on rock. Relatively little is known about this gentle and modest man but the very high regard Colin Kirkus and AB Hargreaves had for him is important to reconsider, as Bob left little record of his exploits. What has emerged, is that in the period 1935-1937 Bob was climbing as well as anyone in Britain at the time and was a Wayfarer Tiger in the true sense of the word.

Following his awful accident on Ben Nevis at Easter 1934, when Maurice Linnell was killed Colin Kirkus took a long time to recover both physically and mentally. He was tormented by guilt over the accident (Colin was leading at the time) and shattered by the loss of Maurice who had become a close friend. Colin gradually returned to climbing and sought solace in the company of a few friends who had gravitated to the scene at the Idwal Youth Hostel. Amongst these were some Wayfarers, including John Watson, Bob Frost and later a young Hal Jacob. Colin had felt increasingly distant from associates in the Climbers Club and the Rucksack Club after the accident and increasingly spent his weekends either at Idwal Hostel or at RLH, places he particularly loved.

Idwal Cottage:Photo YHA©

Colin increasingly climbed with Bob Frost from the latter part of 1934, the two men having met one weekend at the Idwal Hostel. Bob was from Liverpool having been born on Merseyside in 1912. He obtained a clerical job with the Liverpool Corporation Trams Department and joined the Wayfarers Club in 1933 at the age of twenty one. Like Colin Kirkus, Bob was devoted to the mountains and virtually every weekend saw him at Idwal, RLH or out at Helsby rapidly gaining the experience that was to make him one of the finest rock climbers of the period. Like Colin, Bob usually got a lift to Wales or to The Lakes either from John Watson or from Graham Macphee of the Rucksack Club. Graham was also heavily involved at this time in preparing a new guidebook for Ben Nevis, and he and Bob made the first summer ascent in August 1935 of Gardyloo Gulley. By all accounts the ascent was a difficult one, and the climb retained its Scottish VS grade for the next forty years

Throughout the summers of 1935 and 1936 Bob climbed a great deal with Colin Kirkus, and hit a period of considerable form. Having already climbed Roper's notorious routes on Dow Crag (Black Wall and Great Central) and Central Buttress on Scafell, Bob succeeded in repeating all the then known routes on Clogwyn du'Arddu, including an early ascent of Maurice Linnell's Narrow Slab (originally put up in 1933.) Perhaps the most notable of these was a successful ascent of Pigott's East Buttress Route, arguably the hardest route on Cloggy until Joe Brown's ascent of Diglyph in 1951 (1 know that some people will argue for Bow Shaped Slab or the West Buttress Girdle, but they are just not as consistently nasty as Pigotts!) Bob climbed the route with Colin, in damp conditions and given the poor protection of the period it must have been quite a struggle. Certainly AB Hargreaves told me that the route was regarded with considerable awe by climbers until well after the Second World War

In July 1936 Bob travelled out to Chamonix with Colin, where they spent a fortnight dodging the showers and grabbing what action they could. For both men it was to be their only visit to the Mont Blanc range and for working lads of the time quite an enterprising effort. John Watson remembered recalling Bob's awe and delight at how far he had to tip his head back to see the tops of the mountains! They made a successful traverse of the Aiguille d'Argentiere, and the following day did the classic Forbes Arete on the Aiguille de Chardonnet. They were caught in a fierce storm on the descent and had a pretty grim time getting back to the hut almost at midnight, quite exhausted. This was something of a baptism of fire for Bob, as this was his first visit to the Alps. Bad weather moved in for the next few days, but they managed to climb the Ordinary Route on the Aiguille du Moine and the South West Face and Main Ridge of the Grand Charmoz before they had to return home to Liverpool. Commenting on the Chamonix trip Colin said: "It had been a most glorious holiday, in spite of the weather. People often find it hard to get on together through all the difficulties and discomforts of an Alpine holiday, but in Bob Frost I had found the perfect companion."

As I write this, I have in front of me Colin's album of photographs of that holiday of seventy years ago. It makes poignant viewing, given the respective fates of the two men over the next six years.

Tryfan

Despite being a top class rock climber (Colin Kirkus regarded him as being almost in the same class on rock as Fred Pigott and Maurice Linnell) Bob only made a few first ascents. Frost's Climb on Castel) Y Gwynt is very pleasant, while Arch Gully, Main Gully Ridge, Two Pitch Route and Five Pitch route were all done with Colin in the period 1935/36 when they were putting together the Glyder Fach guidebook (1937.) None of them are particularly outstanding but the two on Bochlwyd Buttress are a delight on a sunny evening.
In describing Bob as a climber, John Watson had this to say in the Wayfarers Journal of 1938:
"One remembers overhearing the remark, passed by an onlooker, as he watched, that "he made it look easy.' And truly, with his beautifully neat style and his perfect safety and composure on the most difficult problems, he did make it look so easy, and therein stamped himself as a supreme artist.

Bob continued climbing with Colin through the summer of 1937 and he helped in completing the draft of the Glyder Fach guidebook that was to be published at the end of the year. They did not visit The Alps that summer, but Colin and Bob did climb a great deal together and it is thought that Bob's enthusiasm was rapidly drawing Colin back into climbing really well again.
Alas, tragedy was to strike in the October of that year when Bob was travelling on his motorbike to Blackpool to see the illuminations. With him was Geoffrey Furness who had just applied for membership of the Wayfarers Club. The two men were involved in a collision with another vehicle just outside Rufford and both were killed. In five years Colin was gone too, lost in an RAF night bombing raid over Bremen.

It is almost certain that Ted Hicks and Bob Frost would have known each other, as their respective memberships of the Wayfarers Club overlapped by some years. I like to think that through the mutual friendship of Colin Kirkus and AB Hargreaves, they would have met on occasions, perhaps at RLH at the end of a good day on the hills and crags. The history of the Wayfarers Club contains the exploits of some great names in the evolution of British climbing. This is an opportunity in the context of the club's centenary to remember two lesser known characters who demonstrated with great effect what the Wayfarers Club was all about. Both men were experts on the crag and climbed at the highest standards of the day. Of far greater importance, is the considerable affection with which they were both remembered by their friends in the club. You get the feeling that they would both have been excellent company around the fire at RLH, with a fund of stories. Remembering them is also a nice reminder of a time when the Wayfarers Club was very much at the cutting edge of British Climbing, when it had come of age and become what the founder members in 1906 had cherished hopes for. Here's to Ted and Bob, and to their contribution to the history of the club.

Postscript:
AB did tell me on more than one occasion that "Colin and Ted quite easily got a long way up Suicide Wall at Idwal but neither could commit to the top part of the wall, regarding it as unjustifiable." AB wasn't able to clarify any further whether they were top roping or attempting to lead the climb, but it is a fascinating point to ponder on. John Watson also told me that Colin had looked at Suicide Wall, with Bob Frost, some years later.
The first ascent of Suicide Wall Route 1 by Chris Preston in the autumn of 1945, was an extraordinary achievement (albeit much rehearsed) and was incredibly bold even given the poor protection generally found on hard routes at that time. It is likely that the route did not get a second ascent until the early nineteen fifties, when it was led by Joe Brown.
I have often wondered if the line Colin and Ted attempted in 1929 was that now taken by Suicide Groove, some distance to the right of Preston's masterpiece. It is a far more amenable climb, notwithstanding its current grade of El 5b, and the groove line may well have caught their eye while exploring the East Wall area of the Idwal Slabs. I would love to have known more, but neither AB nor John Watson had further details to give me. Given the fierce standard that Colin, Ted and Bob were climbing at on Helsby, they were almost certainly capable of climbing Suicide Groove. The route was finally climbed in 1948 by the gifted John Lawton, but what a Wayfarers triumph that could have been!


Steve Dean©....first published in The Wayfarers Club Centenary Journal

Tuesday, 7 December 2010

Coming Up: Steve Dean's 'Forgotten Tigers'

Kath Bromfield on the bubbly first pitch of Ted Hicks' Ash Tree Wall: Photo Al Leary

" Compared with that of Ted Hicks, the name Bob Frost may not mean a great deal to many club members, but in the mid-nineteen thirties he was one of the finest climbers in the Wayfarers Club. The bulk of my information about Bob, come from several conversations I had with the late John Watson. John joined the Wayfarers Club in the early 1930s and provided me with a great deal of valuable information about the club at that time and the Idwal Hostel scene, and was of great help to me in writing "Hands of a Climber." Sadly, John died before the book was published in 1993. He was great company and had a wealth of stories about the club in the pre-war era. John was a close friend of Colin Kirkus and in the period 1933-1938 climbed a great deal both with Colin and with Bob Frost who was Colin's main partner for much of that period. The picture that John painted of Colin and Bob at this time was both fascinating and revealing. Both Colin and Bob were very modest and self effacing characters, but I was left in no doubt that Bob Frost was an outstanding climber both on snow and ice, and on rock. Relatively little is known about this gentle and modest man but the very high regard Colin Kirkus and AB Hargreaves had for him is important to reconsider, as Bob left little record of his exploits. What has emerged, is that in the period 1935-1937 Bob was climbing as well as anyone in Britain at the time and was a Wayfarer Tiger in the true sense of the word.'

This Friday,Steve Dean offers an account of two of the historic Wayfarers Club's Forgotten Tigers; Bob Frost and Ted Hicks.Two talented pre-war climbers who have remained somewhat in the shadow cast by the clubs more illustrious members.Most notably, Menlove Edwards and Colin Kirkus.

Friday, 3 December 2010

In Search of Elizabeth Coxhead.

Liz Coxhead on Hope,Idwal Slabs,North Wales

In his review of One Step in the Clouds, Harold Drasdo makes a telling comment on Elizabeth Coxhead's novel One Green Bottle (which is included in that bulging omnibus): `Coxhead has that indulgent affection for her heroine that we sometimes see in the great novelists -especially perhaps in the women.

I hardly think you could call the ending of the novel indulgent, but the exciting, frustrating, moving thing about what Jack Longland called 'by far the best novel about climbing that I have read', is that Elizabeth Coxhead cares about her central character, Cathy Canning, the girl from the backstreets of Birk­enhead who wants to break out of the demoralisation of poverty and the sexual repression of both men and women. Elizabeth Coxhead, I have been discovering, was a person who cared, with enthusiasm and intelligence, in a remarkable range of dimen­sions and ultimately with her own life.

So who was Elizabeth Coxhead? Since she died in 1979 at the age of 70 I did not expect to get much impression of her early climbing. But I found that she had written a chapter called `First Mountain' for a collection of essays edited by Max Robertson  under the title 'Mountain Panorama', published in 1955.

In it she describes the difficulties of getting started in the early 1930s: 'The established climbing clubs froze the ill-connected female with a glance. Inquiring at Wasdale-head. I learned that if I made my way to the foot of Pillar Rock I might there fall in with a noted Lakeland guide. It was true. He already had five clients with him, and they were roping up for the Old North. With real kindness they included me, but naturally the did not change their plan'.

In fact Elizabeth's younger sister Alison still remembers the day in 1934 when the two of them were staying at Burnthwaite in Wasdale on a walking holiday. It was actually both sisters. the 25 and the 20 year old, who set out that day in search of their first rock-climb. Alison says, "I remember us going out rather laughing." You can imagine what she means.

Elizabeth was hooked and started going regularly on Jerry Wright's weekend meets, "more the working-class end of things" as Alison puts it, in contrast to the Fell and Rock. "He very much believed that climbing was a sport for everybody.' When I,put it to Alison that One Green Bottle is clearly a socialist novel, she confirmed that Elizabeth was a socialist who became firm friends with Tom and Madge Stevenson of The Workers' Travel Association, later the architects of The Pennine Way.

Perhaps this rejection of exclusivity explains why Elizabeth never joined a club, although her niece, Miriam. is a member of the Alpine Club today. In fact Jerry Wright's Mountaineering Association provided a kind of club which was orientated towards introducing beginners into the sport and probably gave Elizabeth a source of contacts who, like Maud Godward of the Pinnacle Club, went on the annual trip to Glen Brittle which for many years took up two of Elizabeth's three weeks holiday a year. By 1938 she had published her second novel. It was called 'June In Skye' .

It was Alison who gave me the key to understanding One Green Bottle when I suggested that the novelist seems to be firmly saying that there can be no easy happy endings in life. "But that", she said, "was the zeitgeist of the 30s. And we had that war which you're too young to remember!" I was chastened and convinced.

Although set in 1950, it makes sense to read t as a novel written in the spirit of 1930s socialism, with its vision of the freedom of the hills for working people, its pervasive disillusionment in the face of rising Fascism and its retreat in a commitment to domestic duty. What would also support the reading of the book is an observation by Elizabeth's niece, Miriam. Apparently Elizabeth was indignant when she heard that some readers were assuming that Cathy Canning was based on Gwen Moffat, saying that the character of Cathy was created before she had heard of Gwen Moffat. "In any case", Miriam pointed out, "Gwen Moffat was clearly of the next generation from Cathy since she was able to continue climbing and raise family."

But Cathy Canning's retreat to a life of compromise is see more autobiographically by Miriam. She told me that Eliza­beth's first love ("That's putting it rather strong - a friend", says Aunt Alison) was killed in a climbing accident on Skye. Elizabeth never married. Part of the reason for that seems to have been her commitment to caring, first.for five nephews and nieces whose parents were working abroad, and later for her mother and other elderly relatives. "She had a strong sense of duty and doing the honourable thing' said Miriam. Cathy is equally concerned about her own integrity when she asks herself at one point in the novel. 'How could a lass who was on top of the world be so unkind to a lad who was down?" Elizabeth Coxhead's nephew. the writer and journalist Robert Chessyre, who was first cared for by her when he was two, said at her funeral that she was "a rare human being who combined the highest moral, personal and intellectual integrity with a loving concern for everyone with whom she came in contact."


Elizabeth leads Oliverson's Variation, Langdale.

So who was Elizabeth Coxhead the writer and intellectual? Her father was headmaster of Hinkley Grammar School. At a time when few women went to Oxford, Elizabeth went to Somerville College and gained a first in French. (She was at Somerville after Janet Adam Smith had left and Janet tells me that they "met only once, for lunch, in the 50s.") She spent her working life as a journalist in London, first on the staff of The Lady and then as a freelance for the Fleet Street offices of The Liverpool Daily Post and The Manchester Guardian . Her grandparents lived in Birkenhead and were of Irish extraction. After her eight novels she turned to biography with a particular interest in Irish women. Lady Gregory (1961) has been her most important biographical work. She also served as film critic on the radio programme, The Critics.

These are the barest of facts. What they do not indicate are the qualities that could "make each of us children feel special" as Miriam puts it, or Alison's memory of her as "a strong personality who was extremely generous and willing to do anything for family and friends." That spirit seems to be what Maud Godward observed when she wrote that Elizabeth 'was a great one for encouraging young climbers'.

But how would Elizabeth Coxhead have described her own experience of climbing? Amongst her papers when she died, she left what appears to be an outline for a climbing autobiography. In the brief 'Foreword' she explains that she is 'a poor moun­taineer. I can lead a Difficult in rubbers on a fine day... For these deficiencies I do not even apologise... I started at twenty-five, have always lived in or near London, have never owned a car'

In her notes for 'Section 1. North Wales' two paragraphs in particular speak volumes between their terse abbreviations: The war years. Disappearance of cars and leading friends. Snowdon for full holidays of a fortnight, having it to ourselves. No one to lead but me - I am forced to - ecstasy of no longer being "a parcel". Beginners' routes and by-passes. At last getting to know the country and appreciate its quality - gaunt, austere. Night mountaineering....Start of the mass week-ending movement as the war ends. Genesis of One Green Bottle. Much haunted by Cathy Canning thereafter. Temporary abandonment - as of other scenes where I have laid novels'.

In her 'Foreword' to this proposed book Elizabeth Coxhead insists upon climbing as open to anyone of any age: 'It is not the prerogative of the strong and the. brave'. This may come as a surprise to many of today's young climbers. So here, published for the first time, is Elizabeth Coxhead's rationale for climbing: `A sport is advanced by the handful of people who do it brilliantly, but it is kept sweet and sane by the great numbers of the mediocre, who do it for fun

And this is especially so in the case of mountaineering, which is something more than a sport, being an atavistic hark-back to the original ape in us, or at any rate our nearest approximation to the way primitive man must have covered the ground. It is an urge, an instinct; there is nothing artificial about it; it is like discovering another dimen­sion, like flying, like gliding; it brings one, with senses sharp­ened by physical effort, into the closest contact with natural beauty in the most dramatic form'.

In September 1979 Elizabeth Coxhead took her own life. She had recently had a fall, fracturing a femur, and at 70, realised that she was probably going to end her days as a burden to others. Having spent much of her own life looking after elderly relatives, and being the strongly independent, supremely generous person she was, she wanted, as she wrote in a letter to the family, 'to go out with a bang not a whimper'. It was a brave act of caring. in her own way, for those whose sensitive kindness has helped me try to give climbing readers a little more understanding of the creator of Cathy Canning.



Terry Gifford©
The Joy of Climbing: Whittles Publishing


Tuesday, 30 November 2010

Coming Up: Terry Gifford's In Search of Elizabeth Coxhead

Elizabeth Coxhead leading Oliverson's Variation,Gimmer Crag,Langdale.

" In his review of One Step in the Clouds, Harold Drasdo makes a telling comment on Elizabeth Coxhead's novel One Green Bottle (which is included in that bulging omnibus): `Coxhead has that indulgent affection for her heroine that we sometimes see in the great novelists (especially perhaps in the women)'. I hardly think you could call the ending of the novel indulgent, but the exciting, frustrating, moving thing about what Jack Longland called 'by far the best novel about climbing that I have read', is that Elizabeth Coxhead cares about her central character, Cathy Canning, the girl from the backstreets of Birk­enhead who wants to break out of the demoralisation of poverty and the sexual repression of both men and women. Elizabeth Coxhead, I have been discovering, was a person who cared, with enthusiasm and intelligence, in a remarkable range of dimen­sions and ultimately with her own life.
So who was Elizabeth Coxhead? Since she died in 1979 at the age of 70 I did not expect to get much impression of her early climbing. But I found that she had written a chapter called `First Mountain' for a collection of essays edited by Max Robertson  under the title 'Mountain Panorama', published in 1955.
In it she describes the difficulties of getting started in the early 1930s: " The established climbing clubs froze out the ill-connected female with a glance. Inquiring at Wasdale-head. I learned that if I made my way to the foot of Pillar Rock I might there fall in with a noted Lakeland guide. It was true. He already had five clients with him, and they were roping up for the Old North. With real kindness they included me, but naturally the did not change their plan !'.

This Friday,Terry Gifford offers an insight into the world of Elizabeth Coxhead, the author of the classic 1950's climbing novel 'One Green Bottle' . A rare radical female contemporary voice in mountaineering literature.

Friday, 26 November 2010

Water and Stone

Steve Bowker on Swordfish.
Photo: Al Leary

The venturing demanded by sea-cliffs feels quite different from inland climbing because you can't see the rock face before you have to start contending with gravity. You have only just parked the car, or breakfast is still a recent memory, and already you're having to find some way over the brink. The Good Book may encourage you with happy talk of reaching the foot of the cliff by 'scrambling down moderate standard rock' or even admit to 'tedious and at times mildly desperate descent'. The fact is,from above. all brinks are points and there is no telling whether the drop below is manageable or sheer?
From below, a small hold is the more friendly because from the moment you start to pull up on it your weight is creating friction, maximising leverage. Lower yourself onto that same hold and there is this gulp, this moment when you have to consign your body to the drop with minimal support. It grows on you, after a while the long stretchings downwards with the toes begin to feel like slow-motion dancing, and it's certainly the quickest way of limbering up the mind – of brusquely accustom­ing it to the day's chances.

Even when you have sussed the vertical maze, and you know how to reach this or that tidal ledge, how to avoid the coastguards' rubbish-tip and the hotel's sewage outlets, the sea-cliff still keeps- as you look up at it- a secret air. You have not been able to stare at it for an hour as you walked up the gully or across the corrie floor, identifying famous lines, eyeing up new possibilities (or impossibilities).
It is the very thickness of your native land, made visible for once, defended all along one side by that mobile sea which now quakes and tilts behind you, making your ears attend to its noise in case you have miscalculated the times of the tides. When Anne and I first climbed at Bosigran, north of Land's End, we made for the huge backbone of Commando Ridge, a dinosaur with its head lolling on steep grass slopes and its tail piercing the sea seven hundred feet below. `Very popular ... great fun in all weathers': oh good. 'The first pitch requires a calm sea': eh? In Cornwall clear weather and a low tide do coincide sometimes but, as often as not, in the middle of the night. As we nipped round the last joint of the dinosaur tail, the tide was filling and a brisk westerly threw white water up at our heels.

Anne likes to climb Very Difficult but the steep corner which is the only way out of the sea's reach felt more like Severe. She climbed it in the fluent surge that is sucked out of you by sensing that there is no other way (for eight or nine hours) to escape from the swim and churn of salt water and re-establish yourself in your homeland of heather, dry granite, and flowers yellow as butter. The sea is so alien, so hard to live in, so far (in our waters) below blood-heat. It swarms with life but, for animals formed to take in oxygen as a gas rather than dissolved in water, it is more like death – the 'cold obstruction' abhorred by Claudio in Measure for Measure. Once when I took a slalom canoe out into Loch Diabaig in Wester Ross, I dared to paddle between the last skerries dividing the haven from the outer sea. I saw the big slope of the ocean setting in, grey hills of water hulking up. abolishing the horizon, heaving past under me, and I felt balanced on the very fulcrum between being and not being, the above and the below.

I had never heard of that last pair of phrases or concepts until I found myself using them to epitomise my perception of a painting by Bill Peascod which hung in his sitting-room at Melbicks on the north-west slope of Skiddaw. It is a yard across and two feet high, big enough to embody the expanse of the elemental world. The upper third of the painting is made of watery ink-blues, the lower third of clay greys. Between them churns a zone of sand-browns, buffs, ochres, layered on by the palette knife in slices of acrylic. When I first took it in, in 1982 I told him how much I liked this seething stretch 'between the above and the below'. He seized on the phrase and told me it was in fact a concept in Zen Buddhism. I have always seen that painted vision of his as land and water mixed: below an overcast sky the percussion of the breakers stirs up the seabed and does away with the boundary between the waters and the earth. Bill felt he had been painting hills. In either case it is an image of world creating itself– the original flux, from which may emerge any and every one of those shapes which we then come to think as eternal because they outlast us.

Luke Appleby on Commando Ridge:V Diff: Bosigran.Cornwall

At the very verge of the world we can inhabit naturally. sea-cliffs stand up, and as we come to know them, whether or not by climbing them, there can exist this sense that we are looking out from life into nothingness. In Cornwall the feeling is all stronger because out there, beyond eye shot, the sea loses itself over the curve of the earth. The Scillies are rarely visible. Wolf Rock lighthouse (nine miles out) epitomises with its dark slender vertical the human effort to stand against inchoate elements. This has been felt for centuries. On September 1743

John Wesley preached at Sennen just after sunrise to a congrega­tion 'consisting chiefly of old, grey-headed men'.

We went afterwards, as far as we could go safely, towards the point of the rocks at the Land's-end. It was an awful sight! But how will these rocks melt away, when God ariseth to judgement!
Journal, Everyman ed., I, p 433

It's sublime, in its way, the crassness with which the true believer, powered by his vision, zooms right past the object of attention. For a moment Wesley is on the verge of reacting to what is there, a twinge of token thrill in the eighteenth-century traveller's manner, and then it's gone, and he can no longer see those blunt towers of granite glowing pale brass when the sun lights them directly, prows dividing the North Atlantic Drift, their roots in the sea, the salt spume rasping them till the crystals stand out faceted like gems: a landmark for the invaders from prehistoric Iberians to Athelstan the Saxon who finally defeated the Cornish at Boleit, the Field of Blood, a little north of Lamorna . . . All those strivings which the crag has stood for, people and elements with and against each other, are nothing in the sight of the zealot.
The rocks will outlast him, will they? Very well then, his god shall outlast the rocks! But however hard he shakes his fist at the gnarled world itself, however desperately he plies the wand of belief, the rock prevails, the chapels quarried out of it are converted to garages or holiday homes, and when these revert to cairns of scree with the last crumblings of our Civilisation, and there are no humans left to enlist imagined gods in the long struggle against nature, then the plied pinnacles along the coasts of west Penwith will still be raising their silhouettes against the gleaming sea.
In winter this everlasting atmosphere feels all the stronger because the swarms of people are not there, the social and the historical' shrink to a scattered presence, and the bareness of things comes through as an image of the not-yet-fully-created: leaves have only just evolved (hard, smooth, and salt-resistant for the most part) but not yet corn or flowers or fruits. The light seems new, uncertain, diffused through Gauls of moisture as though solidity was barely born. A bird-world, not vet mammal-world. On the arable plateau the plough land is monotony of primitive brown, a rich mineral mix still empty- any sprouting. When it is windless here in midwinter, the place more than ever like an unawakened void, the world on the second day, with a firmament dividing the waters, an evening an ' morning, but little else. Is there breath in nature's body? Can waters bring forth anything at all?
They can, they can bring forth seals. Soon after one New Year as Anne and I followed the North Cornwall Coastal Path from - Pendeen south towards Sennen, a round head gleamed up out of the sea, like water-polished rock but mobile. It turned this and that way, looking. We hollered to it and for over an hour two miles of walking) it followed us off-shore, diving occasionally coming up again for a look. We hallooed and hallooed and it did not go away until it seemed put off by the combers bursting_ Whitesands Bay and went down into the sea at the same time as the sun.
A day or two later another seal bobbed like flotsam in the sea that swelled up into a drawn at Pordenack Point where Rob and I were climbing comfortably in our shirtsleeves, finding our way up little ramps and clefts and zigzag chimneys blackened by the sea's iodine.
We could have felt like 'the first that ever burst into that silent sea' had it not been for one ordinary metal nut that someone (possibly Zeke Deacon the Marine climber) jammed into a crack for protection a generation before. moisture had fused it to the rock in a blob of orange. Apart from ourselves the seal was the only other evidence that temperatures could ever rise to blood-heat or animal life take shape in that huge twilight  hollow of the cosmos.

Emma Alsford on B Team Direct:E1:Crickmail Point.
Photo Al Leary

The midwinter trance in west Penwith, if it occurs. momentous partly because any calm down there is a lull cyclonic onslaughts. The energy of the wind is manic, inextricable. The exact point where it peaks lies on the boundary between and the above, the climax of the updraught. Further down the cliff it may be possible to live and climb in the wind provided you choose a moment of slackening between gusts.lift a foot from a hold and raise it onto the next one. And on the plateau you can get used to a gale by shouting instead of speaking and leaning instead of standing. But what Yeats called "The haystack- and roof-levelling wind, Bred on the Atlantic' becomes impossible at the cliff edge where, deflected by the two hundred-foot thickness of the granite, it accelerates upwards, tearing out clumps of sea-thrift, scouring crumbs of earth into a brown blizzard, sending the surf from the base of the cliff, where it quakes in a dense white mass like milk half-churned to butter,to blow in clots across the plateau up above. We first saw this during a late October week on Lundy, eleven miles out into the Bristol Channel, north of Hartland Point near Bideford. Force seven to force nine gales dominated us for six days on end.
We were staying in the Old Light, a great Victorian tower which had failed as a lighthouse because its head was buried so often in fog. All that week, as we rounded the base of the empty tower going anti-clockwise with the gale behind us, we were forced to run headlong. Suddenly, as you met the airstream pouring round the far side, you were stopped dead and had to force yourself forwards, head down. The froth was blowing clean across the saddle of the island, four hundred feet above sea level, in ghostly clumps like tumbleweed.

One afternoon, as the gale rose to the 'sea-wind scream' described by Yeats and fumes of sulphur dioxide choked us as flames blew right out of the iron stove's little door, we all went mad to experience the wind, to drink it, eat it, embrace it. We ran down to the cliff top nearest the old Light, between Black Crag and Pilot's Quay. You could only make headway by leaning forward, face three feet from the ground, and staggering in a long dive. At the edge normality disappeared entirely. Neil was barely recognisable, his hair racing off his head in a solid blond stream, his face squared out sideways like a rubber mask, his eyelids puffing and trembling –the grimace of the ejecting pilot in Life magazine's famous photos. Gravity became secondary and we could lean out over he edge, wind-supported, and peer straight down at the waves ramping below, their white limbs clambering up the cliff as though a tribe of polar bears were coming at us.

Two days before, we had seen a flight of curlews, flocked for winter feeding, come hurtling over the island. They should have stayed in the quiet lee of the East Midlands, a zone of deep bracken mulch, wild rhododendrons in Asiatic luxuriance, and plinths of granite where the seals haul out to bask. The moment the updraught caught them they were forced to behave like gulls. changing course at obtuse angles, heeling to flee downwind, the leading edge of each wing sharpening to an apex as they 'bent like an iron bar slowly', in Hughes's marvellous image of the windblown black backed gull. How to climb when you could scarcely walk? Yet, as we abseiled cautiously down the chute of gravel and sea-thrift next to the Devil's Slide on the west coast, a sheer plane of granite that slopes four hundred feet from sea to summit, symmetrical as some great ceremonial ramp in a Maya temple, everything became less cold and easier near the tidemark. as though we had passed inside the wind and were looking out through the storm's eyes. And so we padded upwards, clumsy baboons in treble jerseys, to the horizontal break at half-height, a serrated ledge upholstered with thrift which deflates the climb a little because you can step for a moment out of the precarious world. As I stand there, waiting for Neil to come up on the rope. I chat with Norman, who's climbing the Devil's Slide route proper with Terry. Norman is fond of dry quips - you can tell when one is coming because his grizzled beard begins to twitch.In answer to the standard climber's call, 'Is that you?' - meaning `Has the rope come tight between us?' - he's been known to answer, 'Who else would it be?' On this occasion, as the wind cuts through our woollens, I say, `It's colder up here. That wind's finding the bone.' `That's the trouble about climbing with poets he says. 'They make everything sound worse.'
Neil leads as the slab steepens, up the line called Satan's Slip The book has told us that it's 'protected solely by a bolt'. The air has eroded this to nothing but Neil finds placements for six small nuts on wire, some barely sunk in the cracks but two so good that they have to be knocked out with a krab and a Cassin  peg: finicky dental work in the shuddering cold, like performing an operation at sea or trying to mend a cathedral roof in winter.

Emma Alsford on Explosion Exposure(HVS) Ogmore.

To make headway upwards, finger ends must hook into little holes no bigger than a five-pence piece, better than nothing but useless for the feet, and all this delicate balancing and frictioning begins to feel weirdly furtive, as though we're tiptoeing so as not to let the wind know we're here. Gradually we near the granite bird totem to which the Slide tapers at its summit; from the south it looks like a cartoon sculpture of a cliff-dwelling bird, as though nature has contrived a memorial to the puffins which have now almost deserted the island that was named after them.
We had heard the gale scream once before, as we lay sleeping in our frame tent on August 11 1979, at our camp in the field at Boleigh which we later learned was the very site of that last defeat of the Cornish by the Saxons in 931. Anne and I could not believe that the straight walls of the tent would stand against the demonic battering. I had laid an old telephone pole on the hem of the windward side with its metal steps sticking into the turf to prevent it rolling. Moon-shadows streamed and writhed wildly on the cloth above our heads and the whole little home-from ­home was bellying and creaking like a windjammer about to founder. But it held out all night, we were saved by the slope of the field to the west where tall standing stones lean – the Pipers, where Athelstan may or may not have placed himself to observe the armies grappling. In the morning, under a sky blown by the gale into a great dome of blue glass, we went along to Sennen and stood with hundreds of others watching the sea lay on a spectacle.

Beyond the horizon dozens of yachts in the Fastnet race were foundering and dismasting. Here at our feet the waves were lifting  in blossom-trees of white foam. It streamed in rills off the crown of the famous climb called Demo, which starts ten feet above mid-tide and rises for another seventy. When we did it the week after, we could understand why the layer of black schorl veneered onto the granite of the final slab is fretted into shapes like the flakes of bark on a pine trunk.
On Lundy the gale began to seem as permanent as our own lungs breathing. It made communication impossible as Terry, Norman and I tried to thread our way up the climb called Cable Way, on Montague Buttress where a battleship was wrecked in 1906. For nearly twenty years they worked to salvage what they could, building a giant ladder of two-inch steel hawser with plank steps. The ruptured, rusting tendons of it still loll down the cliff. After losing my way and making an involuntary Very Severe variant that I called Bad Connection, I belayed onto a cable-end to bring the others up. The thrumming of the hawser in the gale, transmitted along the rope to my waist, was as unsettling as though the planet was shaking loose or working itself up to an earthquake.
For six days the environment was all antagonism and we went out to accept it and make the most of it. Even on the lee side, as Anne and I climbed Gannet Traverse at the north end, spiralling round the buttress below mouthed and horned gargoyles bearded with lichen, the sky sent hail showers to rattle off our helmets and rasp the green sea dark mussel-blue. The church itself was threatening to come unstuck – the gawky, semi-derelict adver­tisement for defunct ideals which the wonderfully named Reverend H. G. Heaven had commanded to be built ninety years before, importing bricks and stone to an island whose main export was granite. As we walked under the east wall after a wet gale had driven us off a fine route called Ulysses Factor near the Devil's Limekiln, we saw that the clock face was shattered and fallen slates littered the grass, some driven in edge ways. What a way to go, we fantasised – your skull split by one of the Reverend Heaven's slates, as though God had reached down His hand to fell a passing atheist.
But there is no divinity in the storm, it is pure energy issuing from the maelstrom of matter, you can work with it or let it envelop you, and it was in this spirit five years later that Anne and I stood at the top of Sennen cliffs again, on the crag called: in Cornish Pedn-Men-Du. A strange south-easterly gale was blowing, in January, straight up the coast. By wave refraction this bent the sea inwards against the land and, as we watched, the waters rose in a ridge with a tossing top, the white hair blown sideways off it as it came towards us. Sixty feet below was granite stage where you sort your gear before climbing Demo.A broad wedge has been bitten out of it, this is what focuses the waves and forces them skywards. Now the foam-trees were blossoming again, improbably high up into the air, and this was going to be a big one. Shep stood well back from the edge while his humans got ready to be silly yet again.

The wave hit the face of the rock-stage, burst in a white explosion, swelled on into the vee, and levitated. The gale caught the head of spume and blew it at us. Behind it Long ships lighthouse disappeared. Steeply above us the air filled with grey bees, swarming, coagulating, swoop­ing onto us, hitting me with a solid impact as I turned my shoulder against it to protect my camera, drenching me instantly to the skin.

Lands End: Cornwall

David Craig©

With great thanks to David Craig and Al Leary.


Tuesday, 23 November 2010

Coming up: David Craig embraces the 'sea wind scream'.

George Christie on Heart of Darkness.
Mowing Ward,Pembroke,S Wales Photo-Al Leary

"Two days before, we had seen a flight of curlews, flocked for winter feeding, come hurtling over the island. They should have stayed in the quiet lee of the East Sidelands, a zone of deep bracken mulch, wild rhododendrons in Asiatic luxuriance, and plinths of granite where the seals haul out to bask. The moment the updraught caught them they were forced to behave like gulls. changing course at obtuse angles, heeling to flee downwind, the leading edge of each wing sharpening to an apex as they 'bent like an iron bar slowly', in Hughes's marvellous image of the windblown blackbacked gull. How to climb when you could scarcely walk? Yet, as we abseiled cautiously down the chute of gravel and sea-thrift next to the Devil's Slide on the west coast, a sheer plane of granite that slopes four hundred feet from sea to summit, symmetrical as some great ceremonial ramp in a Maya temple, everything became less cold and easier near the tidemark. as though we had passed inside the wind and were looking out through the storm's eyes. And so we padded upwards, clumsy baboons in treble jerseys, to the horizontal break at half-height, a serrated ledge upholstered with thrift which deflates the climb a little because you can step for a moment out of the precarious world. As I stand there, waiting for Neil to come up on the rope. I chat with Norman, who's climbing the Devil's Slide route proper with Terry. Norman is fond of dry quips - you can tell when one is coming because his grizzled beard begins to twitch.In answer to the standard climber's call, 'Is that you?' - meaning `Has the rope come tight between us?' - he's been known to answer, 'Who else would it be?' On this occasion, as the wind cuts through our woollens, I say, `It's colder up here. That wind's finding the bone.' `That's the trouble about climbing with poets he says. 'They make everything sound worse.'

This Friday, West Coast Story. David Craig observes the elemental forces at work whilst climbing above the Atlantic ocean.

Friday, 19 November 2010

One Step in the Past

Dave Williams reaches the second overhanging chimney on pitch four

When the sky finally burst open like a rotten pear, it swept the streets of Llanrwst clean of life in seconds. All that remained was the flickering headlights of motorists who crawled through waterlogged streets, faces pressed against streaming windscreens, peering out into the unexpected autumnal monsoon.
Sanctuary for myself was a secondhand bookshop, an occasional port of call when I drift over the county line from my rural abode to sample the delights of this North Wales market town.

As always I scanned past the old favourites which appear to bulk out the mountaineering sections of every secondhand bookshop in the land - the Boningtons, Blackshaws, Hunts and Smythes - to an unfamiliar little, blue volume wedged between Lord Hunt's doorstop and a Showell Styles guidebook.
A 1920s rock climbing guide to Snowdonia, its yellowing pages boasting the occasional grainy black and white of a popular climb of the day. One caught my eye. An intrepid leader poised upon a clean, steep slabby wall. His attentive second belaying him from a spacious stance at the edge of the frame.
It appeared the leader had traversed out right and was about to ascend the clean lightning cracked slab. If memory serves the caption compared the pitch to Kern Knotts Crack in the Lake District. The route was Overhanging Chimneys on Trwyn y Graig in the Nantlle Valley. The seed was planted; I had to seek out this intriguing fragment of climbing history which geography and fashion had relegated to the backwaters of Welsh rock climbing.
Overhanging Chimneys lies within the Cwm Silyn area, and is now included in the Tremadog guide*. The current edition lends couple of pages to Trwyn y Graig and even in today's climate of over-hyped Extremes it gives Overhanging Chimneys a star.

I recalled that Ron James' influential 1970's guide for Constable, 'Rock Climbing in Wales', also includes the route although Paul Williams' up-dated version 'Rock Climbs in Snowdonia' excludes it. This 330ft Severe is described as  'an old fashioned and somewhat artificial route but well worthwhile and on excellent rock' in the current Climbers Club guidebook.
The last part of this statement was clearly encapsulated in the 1920's photograph and furthermore, I had already confirmed it with own eyes.
A couple of years before I had been on another obscure Cwm Silyn route, Engineers Climb on Craig Fawr, when the occasional break in the cloud revealed a clean impressive crag less than half a mile away to the east. This I later discovered was Trwyn y Graig ( Crag of the Nose), but I did not realise at the time that it held within its elegant ramparts Downes, Carr and McNaught's 1925 creation -Overhanging Chimneys.
It was during an early May heatwave that I persuaded erstwhile partner Dave Williams- stopping over in North Wales for a few weeks twixt Saudi Arabia and Argentina- to join me exploring in Trwyn y Graig. It was mid-week and the parking just beyond Bryn Gwyn Farm was deserted.Despite-or more likely because of its remoteness- this particular area had become a black spot for car crime in recent years.

All around lay evidence of broken windscreens and side windows. It appeared that at least five cars randomly parked around the site had been vandalised in the past few days.
Somewhat perturbed by the obvious risk factor, Dave approached a local farmer who was mending his fences along the lane and was  kindly given permission to park his borrowed car in a field opposite Bryn Gwyn. The farmer confirmed that the activities of the car thieves had led to a noticeable decline in the number of walkers and climbers coming to the area.
As we rounded the twin lakes of Llynau Cwm Silyn which lie beneath the majestic heights of Craig y Ogof, each footfall gradually lifted our destination from the jumbled mass of rock and heather which from a distance can appear a confusing matrix of indistinct mountainous features.
Toiling in the hot sun through the pathless heather and boulder fields, I was surprised at the scale and character of the crag. From below it looked extremely steep and intimidating. However, the rock did at least look clean and inviting. My anticipa­tion was growing by the minute. A cool breeze blowing in from the coast alleviated the worst effects of the burning sun. This was Wales in May for you: one week you are wrapped up against the sleet and rolling mist; the next, you are basting on a sun drenched crag!
The first pitch of Overhanging Chimneys begins beneath a short, cracked groove. From below it looked straightforward but as is so often the case, it proved quite awkward. The top of the route mean­dered across a heathery ledge before breaching a slabby wall via a rightward trending rampline. Although technically never more than 4a, it provided consistent interest and as I watched my friend reach the heather belt which marks the end of the first pitch, my eyes feasted upon the beautiful upper tier, capped by the impressive nose from which the crag derives its name. Certain climbs have a distinct agreeable ambience, this route was certainly one of them.

For traditional climbs such as this, grading appears at times to be an almost arbitrary affair. Most appear to be lumped in the V Diff category which can mean anything from a gentle, juggy stroll on a benign outcrop to a heartstopping excursion on one of Lliwedd's 700' mountaineer­ing routes. If a traditional route rates Severe or Hard Severe then you can usually expect some spice in the proceedings!

The author in Maurice's Crack. Choose your own innuendo laden caption !

The second pitch of Overhanging Chimneys proves the point. The leader has to ascend a thin ramp line to reach the ferociously steep 'Maurice's Crack' which leads a grassy bay. Despite its description the crack is not over generous the way of protection or positive holds. The unremitting precipitous nature means that screaming calves demand movement regardless of the paucity of holds or protection. " Christ.. I've climbed easier HVS's this!" I yelled down at my partner. My ascent was fueled by hysterical laughter at my own uselessness and gnawing frustration.

Despite their almost pantomime appearance in nailed boots, plus fours and tweed jackets, those old pioneers could certainly climb a bit!
The difficulties do ease at the top of the 40ft crack but it is fair to an overall technical grade of 4c would not be unreasonable. As assessment Big Dave, was quick to concur with after he had hauled himself up to join me.
From the grassy bay at the top of Maurice's Crack,the climb traverses left on small, positive holds to reach a massive ledge which at the point of departure is out of sight around the corner. For those who are vertically challenged the stride to reach the edge would be frustrating to say the least. For myself at 5ft 10" , I was just about able to plant my toes on the edge of the slab whilst hanging from thin hand holds.
For 6ft 2" Williams it was more amenable if not more gracefully executed! Despite the difficulties of the last pitch we could at least luxuriate on our spacious stance for a while and take in the complexities of of the first overhanging chimney through a haze of duty free cigarette smoke.

`Thrutchy — how else could you describe this most trad of pitches? The bold Williams overcame it in a symphony of sweat, curses and neanderthal grunts. For myself- I found it useful to dig  into my repertoire of almost forgotten climbing techniques and came up with that cobwebbed classic 'back and footing'. After reaching an overhang which halted further progress a long, blind reach meant a monster jug could be used to spin into the chimney and then apply some simple bridging before rocking out of the constriction on to the rib which delineated the left edge.
The fourth pitch was a pleasant amble up a cracked wall and on to a broad, clean rib which ended beneath the second over­hanging chimney. Despite its lack of stature
the chimney was, as expected, both awkward and interesting and delivered us to a superb stance beneath the final tower.

Dave Williams in the final overhanging chimney

As I reached the stance I moved out right across a broad heather ledge to take in the final pitch which at this point darted around the tower and up a narrow ramp-line. Im­mediately I was transported back 70 years for it was in this very spot that one of those early pioneers — was it Downes, Carr or McNaught? — had left the party to frame his photograph and caught for posterity the attentive second and his leader trans­fixed upon white,cracked rock.
From the stance the leader has to make a delicate step around the edge of a sharp, angled wall and reach a steep ramp. The climbing is absorbing and delicate but generously protected. The ramp gives out at a square, slightly sloping ledge about the size of a paving stone. The line then moves deviously around the ramp-line headwall and a long step across the void reaches a meagre foothold on the very edge of the final overhanging chimney.
Another heaving thrutch and you are in the chimney itself where easy climbing leaves you below the final steep crack which soon reaches the top of the nose. The moves are tricky and absorbing until the very end when the satiated leader pulls into the widening crack which brings you to the end of an immensely satisfying climb.
So, there it was. A climb which had cast its spell within a rain lashed Llanrwst book­shop had finally been consummated upon a scorching spring day. Would memory dull the experience or would it exaggerate the encounter?  On the negative side, I would have acknowledge the contrived nature of the line in that escape is possible along one of the heather breaks which seperate the pitches and also dilute the exposure. However, the same could be said for many Tryfan classics including Grooved Arete, Gashed Crag and Pinnacle Ridge?

Overhanging Chimneys was a highly enjoyable and satisfying climb that never lacked charm, character or interest throughout its six pitches. A classic climb? Yes, although perhaps not a three star classic, but certainly an excellent diversion from summer's heaving, honey-pot crags of North Wales.

 Trwyn y Craig















* Now in the Climbers Club guide to Cwm Silyn and Cwellyn

John Appleby© First published in Climber: July 1996.