Thursday, 22 April 2010

The View from Plato's Cave

Harold Drasdo:Original Photo-Ken Richards©

Plato's famous parable on knowledge comes towards the end of the seventh book of the Republic. "Imagine a cavern open to the light," he says, "like Doveholes, say, but vast. In the floor of the cavern a pit in which a group of people have spent the whole of their lives. They can't see anything outside but they can see the back wall and they can watch the shadows the sun throws on to it a tree, birds, a passing fox, Ilam Rock (displacing it a bit), a climber making the ascent. Never having seen the real world they give names and attributes to the shadows instead. From this and other considerations I infer that beyond the world we know there must exist an ideal world of which all earthly things are copies or imitations."

There is an odd correlation here with a climber's view. We have the climb as it appears to the detached observer, the climb as the whole body comes to experience it and the simplified perfect climb of the imagination. Sometimes the three have little in common. The Seen Climb, the Known Climb, the Dream Climb. You can turn it round and round. The sieging of climbs has been severely criticised but it has to be admitted that it gives a purpose to life. However, 15 years is a long time for a route of less than 200ft and that was the period spanned by my attempts on Plato's Cave. During those years I never saw another party on Clogwyn Pen Llechen.

In 1972, with Anne Cornwall, I had made a series of routes on the east face of the cliff. We had a perfectly good reason for not writing up these routes and another less good reason in that one of our climbs wouldn't go where it was told and we wanted to get it right ourselves. Promises, Promises was an attempt on the left side of this face which shows a 200ft barrier of overhangs in its upper part. We climbed a good pitch to an impending groove but made no impression there. We traversed right looking for weaknesses but couldn't get into the most likely one, a niche at the end of the barrier. The slabs beyond seemed flawless and eventually we found ourselves round the blunt nose of the face and taking an exit a hundred feet displaced.

Anne went to work in America, came back, moved off again. But the idea wouldn't go and everything was on my side. The cliff, though nicely shaped, is hung with Persian carpets of a velvety black moss, unappealing to the climber's eye. When wet the place takes on a horrendous appearance and it needs a few days to dry out. The easy lines of our predecessors were unlikely to tempt the new generation. To get into Pen y Pass car park you have to queue for hours and if you do get inside they impose a stinging fine. The myopic vision of the last guidebook writer added literature's strongest disincentives to a visit. Finally, changes in guidebook coverage left the crag off the map for 20 years.

Welsh Esoterica:Harold on the first ascent of Jac Codi Baw in the Arenigs.

All this was very good. I could drive up there on a fine summer evening, adjusting my arrival to the attendant's departure. Then a civilised, almost level, 20 minute stroll. The top of the crag is the most accessible and least frequented summit in the area, giving an exceptional view into Cym Dyli. Across Llyn Tyrn, at a proper distance, the last victorious cripples may be seen, hobbling down the Miners' Track from Snowdon. And the rock is superb. Every tuft of grass rests on a clean, marvellous hold. But now I had had to surrender descriptions to Paul Williams and anyone who could carry his guidebook might come poking around.

It would distend this account to list the various probes I made. More often, with successive companions I was persuaded to repeat my favourite amongst our earlier climbs and for years at a time I tried to forget about the place. But about a year ago I found myself attempting the route again in the company of my brother. The easiest way of starting had been settled and the niche selected as the key. Presently we were belayed beneath it.

The wall defending it was steep, exposed, and offered no protection. Just one precarious move, really, but after three or four experiments the leader stood back a little and studied the problem. Only a few feet above his head a sheaf of saplings, a few feet in length but pencil-thin, leaned out from the floor of the cave. If a rope could be passed behind them there'd be a bit more security. Instructing the second to untie on one rope, he began to gather coils in his hand. "You seem to be doing this bit on a top rope. If you get up, will it count as a first ascent?" "Ruses like this don't fall within the domain of climbing ethics. They come into the realm of common sense.

I made the move and clawed my way on to the earthy floor of the recess. I was 1 Oft higher and 14, years older. Also, my hair had gone grey and I needed spectacles for reading. I was sitting in a structure like a saint's niche.
The floor was level, a square of about four feet angled to the cliff, the little tree extending from its outer corner, the inner set into the wall. The alcove wasn't six feet high but its sides were smooth and its roof almost overhung the ledge so that it was impossible to stand comfortably. It proved necessary to face half out, one foot braced on the doubtful grass of the edge, and twist around to see what lay above.

A thin rise from the apex of the niche. At that very point it admitted two-thirds of one of my scavenged hoard of nuts. A foot higher it accepted a rather better one to extend incidentally a small hold adjoining it. Otherwise I could find no footholds to launch from and could see no handholds to aim for. The nuts weren't quite good enough. If I used one for aid my feet would swing in. As I moved higher the resultants would change, the nuts might pop and I'd start a slow backward somersault. The sapling would flatten, the tape ripped over its head like a honeymoon nightie. Nev would stop me 40 to 50ft down, snapping my neck. A peg was needed.

So I had a few with me, just in case. Twisted awkwardly, more or less one-handed, I lodged one between the two nuts. It looked encouraging. I flailed up at it, pausing at intervals to relieve the ache in my side. As it went in its nose lifted and its eye came down until it neared the vertical. Useless. No other placement in reach. I felt as if I had cracked a rib. There was nothing left to do but to sit down and look at the view.

The view from Plato's Cave. The wide flat boggy armchair between Cwm Dyli and Nant Gwynant. Two mallards on the tiny pool beneath us, all that remains of the shallow lake which must once have occupied this shelf. The huge clean isolated boulders disposed mysteriously about. On the further shore, in line but spaced at some hundreds of yards, four or five small trees, indicators surely of some ancient trackway. And there had been a change. When we had arrived the morning had been sunny and full of promise. Now a thick cloud had descended the far slope, its skirts were already below our level and soon it would engulf us. This transition had taken place by such imperceptible stages that, absorbed in our purposes, I had not been recording it.

I had wanted this climb for so long. When I first came here I had been full of confidence but the years have wasted me. I had lost strength and audacity, my central nervous system was shot, certainly I had been ill for ages with some untraceable energy leak. But the drive had dissipated so slowly that its loss could only be comprehended by a long reach of the memory. And if I gave up on this, what else? I could go back home, buy a glass tit, and settle down in an armchair to live in our century's revision of Plato's metaphor. And then? Just the slow drift at the unobservable speed of 24 hours a day towards what is, they say, 'only a tending-to-zero of behaviour', the event horizon of death. Well, it was time to get off this cliff, find a new hobby, a new occupation, something productive, write down what I knew about subjects more important than rock-climbing. I saw now that Nev was shivering though he had made no complaint.

It was four days before I knew that I'd be there again. Through the whole winter I bored my friends by miming out the problem.
"Just rope down and bang the peg in properly." "Not allowed. Has to be done from below."
"These kids just abseil and wire-brush and chip out whatever they want."
"They use chalk and caroming machines.
"Let's get ourselves some of these fancy tights." "We'd look ridiculous."
"I can see you with an earring."
"Thanks. I think I have tinnitus already."
"See that amazing full-page portrait of Andy Pollitt in one of those climbing mags?"

"The editor forgot to give credits for hair, make-up and jewellery."
When the day came I was accompanied by Duncan Boston. He didn't have the case history of this obsession but seemed to guess that something heavy lay ahead. I had declared the day's objective without allowing our normal half-hour of indecision and fantasising. Walking up the Miners' Track I couldn't speak. In the early years of the Bradford Boys a sub-group known as The Baskers, addicted to sunbathing under cliffs, used to make fun of the activists, driven to struggle in the rain in stocking feet. The Baskers said they climbed for pleasure. I said I climbed for satisfaction. They said pleasure included satisfaction. I said satisfaction included pleasure. Pete Greenwood said he climbed for recognition. I wasn't getting much of anything from this project, it had hung over me far too long. We ate a snack and drank coffee, Duncan inspected a cigar, I smoked a few cigarettes and we began to reminisce about old times.

All this without looking at the cliff, three feet behind our backs. I felt too oppressed to start. Something was needed to lighten the atmosphere. Jokes? I couldn't think of any. Thirty feet up and I found I was enjoying myself. The
mood had lifted, the rock was marvellous, the sun was shining. Up the little semi-layback, across the neat hand-traverse, then the false mantelshelf. Back into the corner and over the bulge. The traverse right, eased by a palm-upward jam into a low slot. Then, with the assurance of familiarity, the open corner. I was at the stiff, bleached tape from which Neville and I had abseiled.

Halfway up the pitch Duncan called out in surprise and pleasure. He was enjoying it too. Soon we had made the smart move round the rib across to the further stance and eventually I was back in the cave with neither time nor weather against us. I had been afraid I would find it occupied by squatters, a kestrel or even a peregrine. It was untenanted.

It still wasn't any easier. I replaced the nuts, clipped into them and the useless peg and stood in a tape on the lower nut which promptly half-capsized. I swung back sweating. So run through the various substitutes, outside the normal selection and brought specially for this notch, to settle finally for an archaic cube of alloy with no side taper and drilled side to side for a dirty old loop of laid white rope. It seemed marginally better but it was a long time before I dared move on to it and put my hands behind my back.
The gesture changed the situation. Now I was facing the rock and had both hands free. There were still no holds, the nuts might still pop if I moved higher, the peg hadn't improved but the remedy was clear.

 A young HD on Grizedale's Eagle Crag
Get a solid one in. And a few inches higher, a long reach to clip from the ledge, an old-fashioned tinny-looking channel sank in six inches before refusal. A couple of moves and I was going up the upper wall in a very exposed position neutralised by the stupendous holds. Duncan sorted out the ropes and slings and came up coolly and methodically, retrieving the insecure peg. Soon we were on the top congratulating ourselves.
"What's the standard?

"Straight V.S. About severe, mostly, but the stance to the peg feels serious."
"They'll laugh at us, aid on a V.S."
"They'll laugh till the peg's removed. Then it won't seem so funny."
"Is it possible without?"
"It's a production. Needs rehearsals. I can't guess the method but in the end somebody will manage it. Pull up on the hold by the second nut, heel-hook over the overhang, make a long dive for the first jug. They're doing it all the time. "
"You have to have something to heel-hook on to. Come on, I bet you've never even done one."
"Only last week. Have you seen that new footpath they've made up towards Soap Gut? It's built for giants. In the middle flight I had to hook a couple of steps. My friend Nick Gough did the lot in straight mantelshelves but then he was too knackered to climb."

On the walk back I felt light-headed with the weight off my mind. And it had been so simple really. Why on earth hadn't Anne and I done it on that first day all those years ago? A chief cause for regret was that Neville wasn't with us. He had told me to grab it if the weather, the inclination and the companion were to coincide. But his presence would have stretched our partnership on first ascents to a spacious 37 years. Well, we still had a few lines up our sleeves if no-one got there first.

Zeno said: "Listen, Harold. Just stop worrying! I was thinking about this the other day. The modern rock athlete runs like a hare up routes up which you crept like a tortoise. But while he's repeating your first ten thousand climbs you'll have done another thousand. And while he's doing those you'll have done another hundred. I know it sounds crazy but if you think about it logically you'll see that you'll always be that fraction ahead. You can call that Zeno's Paradox."

Harold on Pinnacle Ridge-Braich Ty Du

As a matter of fact I don't think Zeno knew as much about climbing as he pretended. Have you ever heard of anything at a place called Elea? Also, there always seemed to be something wrong with his theories, though I could never put my finger on it at the time. Still, Zeno's Paradox. A possible name for a climb.

Harold Drasdo©: First published in High-Jan 1988.