Friday, 30 April 2010

The Night Shift

Steve Ashton grew up in Lancashire and began climbing in Wilton Quarries at the end of the 1960s. Encouraged by this short but brutal apprenticeship, he visited the Dolomites aged 17, climbed a couple of short grade VI routes (one of them a first ascent), and narrowly survived an epic thunderstorm that claimed many lives across the Alps. He worked as a labourer and body exhumer then moved to North Wales to train as a climbing instructor. After a brief career in outdoor centres and a summer of guiding in Switzerland, he switched to writing, eventually becoming a regular columnist for High and an adventure sports writer for lifestyle magazines. He also produced several mountaineering guides and handbooks, the best known being the influential Scrambles in Snowdonia, which was largely responsible for reviving interest in this esoteric sport, and 100 Classic Climbs in North Wales. He moved to France but soon returned to Britain to begin work as an actor and playwright, later co-founding Blue Lizard Theatre Company. He is currently writing a novel with a climbing backdrop.



" I was leading the Very Severe Great Central Route on Dow Crags. My second Alan Hargreaves, was belayed on a small stance, about 30ft below the ledge known as the Bandstand. Above me was the South America Crack. The crack was terribly strenuous, and near the top the holds seemed to give out completely. My only support was my left arm jammed in the crack; I hung outwards from it and clawed at the rock... I squirmed up again until my head came to the overhang; my balaclava helmet dropped noiselessly to the bottom. I slipped down again and hung there exhausted... I had to go on struggling — for ever and ever, it seemed. I jerked myself up again in a last despairing effort. I was so done in that I could hardly see. Everything went black. The next thing I knew I was 30ft lower down, hurtling head-first through the air... Now I'm in for a nasty smash, I thought.' (from Let's Go Climbing by Colin Kirkus)
`I was leading the Very Severe Great Central Climb on Esk Buttress. My second, a youthful Crag Jones, was belayed on a small stance, about 30ft below the ledge known as the Waiting Room. Above me was Frankland's Crack. The crack was terribly strenuous, and near the top the holds seemed to give out completely. My only support was my left arm jammed in the crack; I hung outwards from it and clawed at the rock. I squirmed up again until my head came to the overhang; my shirt tore and my tobacco tin spilled out, clanking down the cliff with a terrible noise, followed by the guidebook which fluttered past Crag's head like an angry owl. I slipped down again and hung there exhausted... I had to go on struggling — for ever and ever, it seemed. I jerked myself up again in a last despairing effort. I was so done that I
could hardly see. Everything went black (hardly surprising — the sun had set over an hour ago). The next thing I knew I was 30ft higher up, sitting on a ledge above all the difficulties. Now I'm in for a pat on the back, I thought.' (from Let's Not Bother by Steve Ashton)

Steve Ashton leading Via Rossi (VI) Sella, The Dolemites 1972: Ashton Collection©

 Kirkus's epic ended when `everything went black' — he fell 70ft without major injury and limped down to Coniston in time for dinner. Ours was only just beginning. Crag prusiked up using a sling and his teeth. We didn't know the way down. There was no moon. Crag said we might make last orders if we hurried. We got back to Brotherilkeld at 2.30am.
Kirkus had epics because he was pushing out the frontiers of technical achievement. I had epics because I couldn't get up in the morning. Climbing in the dark was as normal as climbing in the rain, in the days when that was normal. Night climbing through choice became part of our preparations for a first visit to the Dolomites, anticipating (correctly) that we would be incapable of completing any of the routes in daylight. This nocturnal but otherwise innocent banging and flashing in Wilton Quarries once attracted the attention of the Lancashire Constabulary. At the time I was struggling among a tangle of fifis and etriers two-thirds of the way up a route (probably since free-climbed at Mild VS) while my brother Tony belayed me from the shelter of an umbrella. The PC shone his interrogating light up into my eyes: "What are you doing?" he said,unsure which word to emphasise. "Trying to place a Cassin channel peg," I replied. The light waved around a bit but there was no response.After five minutes of standing in the lashing rain he said, "Oh", and walked off.

Climbing by torch or moonlight was almost cheating. It could be brighter than Houghton Quarry on a dull afternoon. Our new puritanical approach reached its zenith on the Widdop Ordinary. We climbed as a threesome — one climbing, one belaying, one striking the matches. The rain didn't help. We pulled socks over our boots for extra grip on the lichenous rock and battled through to the crucial Bull's Horns move. We took the bull by the horns, as it were, and hung on while it bucked us around the paddock. And we were well and truly bucked, I can tell you, when we finally emerged bloodier and wiser at the top. We decided it would be easier in the Dolomites if we simply got out of bed earlier.
I was to meet Tony at the railway station in Bolzano. `Bring lots of food and money with you,' he had said in his letter. I brought a family-sized pack of Kellogg's Cornflakes, two loaves of Mother's Pride, and eight quid in cash. Tony called me a dick. In his rucksack was enough
ironmongery to aid our way up the Brandler-Hasse without having to clean the pitches. But there was no food, and not much money. "Help me up with it," he said. But it was so heavy I couldn't even pick it up off the platform bench.

Top of our credentials for blitzing the Dolomites was a recent ascent of Crackstone Rib, a wobbly Severe on Carreg Wastad. Alarm bells rang on the bus ride up to the Sella Pass as we pressed our faces to the back window and looked up at the 4,000ft north face of Sassolungo — our prime objective. Ignited by the setting sun, it looked like a volcano about to erupt. Unable to control my anxiety, I let out an involuntary and embarrassingly loud noise. The passengers turned their heads and glowered at us in South Tyrolean. Due to some confusion (or perhaps it was deliberate), we were put off the bus some five miles short of the Sella Hut. This created a bit of problem, because although Tony was capable of lifting his rucksack, he could not carry it and walk at the same time. We curled up on the grass, masticated a slice of Mother's Pride, and lay awake all night wondering if we wouldn't be more at home in Cwm Idwal.
For three days we avoided benightment, largely because we never got higher than two pitches off the ground. On the fourth day, our supply of cornflakes and bread exhausted, we went shopping. We bought grapes, bread sticks, spaghetti, pilchards and red wine, these being the five cheapest items in the shop. Thereafter we had spaghetti sandwiches and red wine for breakfast; grapes and red wine for lunch; pilchards, spaghetti and red wine for dinner; and red wine for supper. Then, after we had sicked it all up, we made eyes at the daughters of Italian mothers until our vision became too blurred to make a distinction between mothers and daughters and then fell asleep in, or in the vicinity of, our room in the Englishmen's annexe to the hut.

One day we got to the top of a mountain. Being unprepared for this turn of events — we had neither torch nor bivvy gear with us — we became desperate to get down before nightfall. We got 50ft down before it went dark, then it went like this: Tony would throw a pebble over the edge while we both listened carefully; a noise meant there was a rock ledge below, whereas no noise meant there was a grass ledge below. Tony, being the leader, would then go down with the cigarette lighter to confirm our prediction, later holding the lighter so it shone in my eyes while I climbed down to join him. Then we did the bit with the pebble again. It worked well enough and we didn't die.
Next day we went on Cinque Dita. It being already two o'clock in the afternoon, a route billed as, 'ideal for a short day' seemed like our sort of climb. No need for bivvy gear, just throw in a spare cardigan and off we go. Chastened by our experiences the previous night, Tony nevertheless decided to upgrade our emergency equipment with a pen-light torch.
Everything went smoothly until we reached a notch a couple of hundred feet down the descent route. Then it went dark.Tony threw a pebble over the edge. Silence. Good, that meant grass. He began to climb over the edge, the torch gripped between his teeth. We knew all about this sort of thing. Fifteen seconds later came a distant tinkling noise as the pebble hit rock. Tony climbed back up and spat out the torch.
Fortunately we both knew how to abseil. Only last month we'd abseiled down an 80ft slab in Cwm Idwal. "I'm game if you are," I said, anticipating a jolly adventure. Tony banged a Cassin knife-blade almost halfway into the rock and lowered himself over the edge, taking the torch. I leaned down and put my hand on the peg. I could feel it bending and hurriedly unclipped from it. Then I thought about freezing to death all alone on the mountain and clipped back in.

Free Abbing in the Dolemites 1971: Ashton Collection©

Hours later, or it could have been minutes, the peg relaxed and I knew Tony had either reached a ledge or slid off the end of the ropes. Either way it was time for me to follow. Fumbling in the dark, I clipped my figure-of-eight descendeur made from superior-grade coat-hanger wire on to my state-of-the-art, four-strand chest harness and lowered over the edge. Thank God for technology. After 15ft I lost contact with the rock. I could see nothing, and if it hadn't been for the asphyxiating constriction on my rib cage I might have been falling down a bottomless chimney.
By and by I came to a knot in the end of the ropes. My ordeal was over. But what's this? Tied to the end of the ropes was a sling. I stood in it and unclipped the descendeur. I could breathe again. But what's this? Another sling. Then another, and another, until there were no more slings, only air. Then a voice said, "Start swinging towards me," and from somewhere in the blackness a switch clicked and a bulb glowed.
After penduluming this way and that (mostly that) for a couple of minutes, something grabbed hold of my leg. Hello Tony. Hello Steve. Tony was hanging from a sling clipped to a Cassin knife-blade hammered almost halfway into the rock. "How did you manage to get that in?" I asked. "It's a long story," he said. Then, in a quiet but authoritative voice, added: "Don't let go of the ropes."
While Tony shone the torch in my eyes, I climbed up to retrieve the ropes. Tony said to be careful because he couldn't guarantee the belay. I told him to quit shining the torch in my eyes. I thought I must have offended him, because at that moment the light went off altogether.
Job done I climbed back down over his head and on to his shoulders and clipped myself into the Cassin knife-blade peg, the full story of which hasn't been gone into, even to me. Then Tony said in a quiet voice: "Keep very still; I've dropped the torch and I think it's wedged between my leg and the rock." And it had. I retrieved it and Tony started giggling. I thought about slapping his face. But then he put the torch back between his teeth, said "eel gee gow shoo", and abseiled off into the night.
Hours, or minutes, later the peg stopped twitching and it was my turn again. When I got to the end of the rope I felt a knot, and beneath the knot was a sling, and beneath that sling was another sling, and so on and so forth. And then a voice said, "Over here," and it was the same thing all over again. Thirteen abseils later we tossed the ropes into a black void only to hear them thud into scree a few feet below. Our waking nightmare was over.

We got to the hut just as the sky started to pale. There was an Italian gentleman sleeping in Tony's bunk. Tony told him what to do, expresso. But the Italian shook his head, turned over, and went back to sleep. "Leave him, he doesn't understand", I said, having noticed that the man reached both ends of the bunk. "I'll make him understand," Tony said, starting up the ladder, "I'm buggered if I'm going to lie on the floor all night listening to Mario here snoring in my bunk".
Well, one thing led to4 another, and the upshot of it was that I lay on the floor listening to Mario snoring in Tony's bunk and Tony snoring in mine. But it didn't matter; in an hour it would be
daylight, and we had some shopping to do.

Pia Ciavazes, Dolemites 1971 at the impromptu bivi. Ashton Collection©


















Steve Ashton© : First published in High- April 1990.

Tuesday, 27 April 2010

Coming up: Classic Steve Ashton

A 17 year old Steve Ashton at Bolzano in the Dolemites:Photo Ashton Collection©

`I was leading the Very Severe Great Central Route on Dow Crags. My second, Alan Hargreaves, was belayed on a small stance, about 30ft below the ledge known as the Bandstand. Above me was the South America Crack. The crack was terribly strenuous, and near the top the holds seemed to give out completely. My only support was my left arm jammed in the crack; I hung outwards from it and clawed at the rock... I squirmed up again until my head came to the overhang; my balaclava helmet dropped noiselessly to the bottom. I slipped down again and hung there exhausted... I had to go on struggling — for ever and ever, it seemed. I jerked myself up again in a last despairing effort. I was so done in that I could hardly see. Everything went black. The next thing I knew I was 30ft lower down, hurtling head-first through the air... Now I'm in for a nasty smash, I thought.' (from Let's Go Climbing by Colin Kirkus)
`I was leading the Very Severe Great Central Climb on Esk Buttress. My second, a youthful Crag Jones, was belayed on a small stance, about 30ft below the ledge known as the Waiting Room. Above me was Frankland's Crack. The crack was terribly strenuous, and near the top the holds seemed to give out completely. My only support was my left arm jammed in the crack; I hung outwards from it and clawed at the rock. I squirmed up again until my head came to the overhang; my shirt tore and my tobacco tin spilled out, clanking down the cliff with a terrible noise, followed by the guidebook which fluttered past Crag's head like an angry owl. I slipped down again and hung there exhausted... I had to go on struggling — for ever and ever, it seemed. I jerked myself up again in a last despairing effort. I was so done that Icould hardly see. Everything went black (hardly surprising — the sun had set over an hour ago). The next thing I knew I was 30ft higher up, sitting on a ledge above all the difficulties. Now I'm in for a pat on the back, I thought.' (from Let's Not Bother by Steve Ashton)

This Friday,another chance to enjoy the unique, entertaining work of one of the UK's best loved outdoor writers, Steve Ashton. For many years through his features and regular columns in High magazine,Steve offered a unique quirky take on the climbing game which to many was a refreshing contrast with some of the more po faced and earnest offerings being printed at the time For first time readers of Steve and grizzled old sweats alike,prepare to be entertained!

Thursday, 22 April 2010

The View from Plato's Cave

Harold Drasdo: 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 attibutes 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.
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.
Harold in action on Grizedale's Eagle Crag in the English Lake District: Drasdo Collection©

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. 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."
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.

Clogwyn Pen Llechen. Plato's Cave is on the left hand section of cliff: Photo Al Leary©











Harold Drasdo©: First published in High-Jan 1988.
A potted biography of the author can be found in the October archives 'New Lands for old hands'


Tuesday, 20 April 2010

Coming up: Harold Drasdo recalls a 15 year itch !


A young Harold Drasdo takes time out from developing the Poisoned Glen with brother Nev to go beachcombing on the shores of Donegal: Photo Drasdo Collection©

"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.'

This Friday...Harold Drasdo describes a long frustrating campaign to subdue a humble 200' VS in the Llanberis Pass, North Wales.


Friday, 16 April 2010

Up against it


Menlove Edwards remains one of great romantic doomed heroes of Welsh climbing. One of four children born to a country vicar in Formby on the Lancashire coastal flatlands  just north of Liverpool. The maturing Menlove quickly found himself adrift from a conservative society on the cusp of the second world war by virtue of his homosexuality, complex character traits and controversial  political values which included his declaration as a conscientious objector.However, what really guided his sad destiny more than these elements was what was almost certainly, a bipolar condition.

It was Menlove's lot in life to become increasingly obsessed with feelings of isolation and persecution from his professional peers and the climbing establishment. In his career as a psychiatrist,his belief that he had been ignored and scorned with regard to his academic psychiatric theories caused extreme bitterness and anger. Emotions which led to him finding solace in what at the time was an extreme approach to rock climbing.An activity in which he possessed true genius aided by almost unnatural strength,a reckless disregard for bad rock and vegetation and a boldness which bordered on suicidal!
Concentrating his activities on the as yet unexploited cliffs of Llanberis Pass, the traditional venues of Ogwen, Lliwedd and peripheral areas like the Carneddau and Nantlle. Apart from occasional forays to the Lakes and Scotland and his regular sessions on the local Helsby crags on Merseyside, Menlove essentially was a Welsh activist Par excellence!
Here he established routes which were at the cutting edge of the time;Climbs which quite often were hopelessly undergraded ! As a member of the establishment Climbers Club he was often to be found at the club's Helyg hut in Ogwen Valley where he based activities which included work as a guidebook author.A role which saw him pen the club's Lliwedd, Cwm Idwal, Tryfan and Clogwyn du Arddu guides.
As his mental condition worsened, Menlove took refuge in Colin Kirkus's beautifully situated but isolated little cottage of Hafod Owen in Nantmor.Increasingly he threw himself at vegetated disintegrating cliffs and undertook hare brained dangerous activities which included rowing across the storm tossed Irish Sea from the Isle of Man to Cumbria, swimming down the white waters of the Linn of Dee and attempting to row from Scotland to Norway in a leaking little boat. A doomed passion for a young Wilfred Noyce further exacerbated his fragile mental condition and the period from the end of the war until his journeys end in 1958 was marked by suicide attempts,periods of mental hospitals and living alone with his paranoia. Despite periodically returning to north Wales and establishing the odd hard route,his climbing career had wound down to occasional salvos of activity punctuated by an increasing feeling of hopelessness and worthlessness .
Returning home on his motor bike from a climbing trip to north Wales in 1957, Menlove was involved in a collision when he hit a young boy on a cycle and killed him. It was the final straw. Months later he took his own life by swallowing cyanide.
Fortunately for the climbing community, apart from his legacy of outstanding popular climbs,he left a body of work which includes some of the finest essays on the sport ever written.

Recommended further reading...Menlove by Jim Perrin: Ernest Press.

Al Leary on the crux of Route 2. Just before the legendary 'thank God!' holds.Andy Bruce©

We all like to gloat over a thing and as the year goes by we think of summer and what to do in the holidays, whether some great feat, but this year, age creeping on, no I said, this year a rest. It was not to be. Won't tell you why, take too long, but here I was at the beginning of August, four weeks to go, and the four of them booked for Lliwedd – the guide.
We had meant to camp, but what can you do, the rain pouring, the tent blown down, sleeping sacks drowned, and not wanting a repetition who but a fool would do anything else ? We shifted back down the valley.We had a car just then and the climbing? 
 It's no good telling chaps like you trash about all we did. You wouldn't be interested. It's new stuff you want, we weren't really on for that, we had work to do. We had meant to do some, but once we started ... you can't give up climbing, go soft, without an insidious weakening coming on, and so it was with us, we found. We had to do the ordinary climbs first.

We started off on the Rocker Route first day, early start, photograph of cliff in sunshine, last chance for two weeks but we didn't know that, strode over the grass, up the screen and stood panting a little but full of hope at the foot of the Rocker Route. Nice easy climb, but it was on the second pitch I began to wobble, being some way off the ground by then and it's very nervy if you don't trust your footing, then on the fourth pitch I couldn't do it at all but could take a shoulder, and after that, you know what it is, you've got to do it somehow but how, you may come adrift any minute and go for six, but we went on, grim as death we went on, a little light refreshment half way didn't we need it, 3.0 p.m., and the worst is yet to come, but we went on knuckles, scraped knees bleeding, 5.0 p.m., 6.0 p.m., 6.30 p.m., the summit : what a victory : what a life: but if every climb was going to go like that what about the guide, we'd never do it, not in four weeks, not in four years. So Alec and I stout friends, we drew in our belts, shook each other by the hand, swore faith to the end, and that we must be very careful, that we had bargained to be bad, but not quite so bad as this, no, but we had four good pitons and we would keep them ever round our belts. So we couldn't come to too much harm we felt whatever happened. Then as I said, the rain came and we got wet, wet through, and then the tent blew down, and there was nothing for it after three days like that only to go down and cart all the food away again, though we left a little just in case, and bread is such a bulk to carry, though when it's wet it very soon gets mouldy, but the birds might have it. You may think we laughed, but we did not, it was too much for us, and over the next two weeks I draw a veil. It shall cover also the climbing, our cheeks, pale then though now burning, and the fact that we did not quite do one climb per day.

But you say then, how is it, how can it be ? It came thus. It was I who started it, I said we will do the Great Chute, two Rucksackers did it, it can't be too bad – I hope not. Then we got there...... the mouth of the East Gully . . . Yes...... band of quartz . . . " Yes. So we went up, slow of course, and getting higher we said these Rucksackers they lie, and it was all loose, and we were not at all safe, but we went on, not without doubts, and followed it up foot by foot reading what was said about it, and only not doing what we should when it was certainly impossible. Near the top it got harder as it said it would and we stepped with difficulty into the unsuspected crack on the right, as it said we would, then we stepped with difficulty up it, as also told, and dropped a very big block which cut the rope and knocked away the ledge No 2 was standing on.
the rock was not good,so that he hung by his hands and shouted and I hauled in the rope though in no position to do so greatly to my credit, but as I say, the rope was cut, after which we were very careful and we went on and reached the summit. But when we got down again we found the Great Chute went up from near the same start indeed but not up that side of the East Gully at all, the other side, so that what we had climbed was not a climb at all. So we wrote it up new, and said how funny, we would never have done it otherwise, and it has been a great day for us, but hush, not a word about that in the guide. We only did one climb that day too, because we were quite tired out and you know what a strain it is always to be climbing, and if you are frightened, and if you are on one cliff day after day, there is no variety. We gave it a name, the Runnel, which sounded aristocratic, we thought, and au fait.
Graham 'Streaky' Desroy on The Terminator. Al Leary©

Then another week went by, bad as before but not so atrocious. One climb after another we did, one day after another, nearly every one, but not quite, for on one day or more we were too exhausted, so that we could not rise up in the morning but lay there stuporous until the day after. Nothing new except a variation here and there, especially I must say the Birch Tree Terrace Route which wandered heaven knows where all over the place before we did it, but that was a flash in the pan, no true harbinger. Things were altering though. Yes, looking back you could see that, it was D's before and no harder, but now it was Vs too, and VD goes a long way on Lliwedd, there's nothing much on that cliff. And the party changed. One went. Then we tried to find the Great Chute again and it was even harder to see where the words went on this side of the cliff, where it did go, than on the other, the Runnel side, where it didn't. We got tied up a bit and when I was off the route on one side I got stuck, and I got off the route on the other side next and dropped a very big stone again which landed 80 feet below on the side of No. 3's head so he fainted a bit, and when we got down to look at him we had to abandon that climb and get him down, take him to hospital. So another went. And next time, too, that we tried that climb the last chap nearly went, but we digress, we go too far. It happened like this. We got so far, then the steep bit goes up a crack 30 feet which then opens into a great V chute suddenly, a very great one but no stance, not till 40 feet up the great V chute, and I got there, the top of the crack, and feeling giddy with the air and on a good foot hold. For twenty minutes I rummaged and got a first-class thread at the back of the crack, got No. 2 up there and tied him on and a thunderstorm started, a real cloudburst, the sky dark, the birds stilled (there were six that week, very heavy ones). Very soon there was a big stream down the great V chute getting bigger, so I stayed to see what would happen for I felt a little giddy still, and No. 2 with the water breaking over him couldn't move, not more than six inches at all and that didn't take him anywhere, being tied on, but stood on one side, and the storm was over in two hours, praise be, and then I got up, I was soaked right through; so as I say he nearly went, but he was tied on, but we digress.

Hafod Owen. Owned by his friend and fellow rock genius Colin Kirkus and rented by Menlove during the early war years.

Then when three weeks were up he did go and Dodd came. Dodd was good, too good, better than I but less pushing. He had a little MG too which he took along every day to the causeway, we two in it, and that was balm indeed with the long walk otherwise, it put new life into the party. And it is funny isn't it how when you can do a thing the whole cliff is different from when you can't, but we still had a lot to do and no time to do it, but what's the use when all's said, and there's more fish in the sea than ever came out, and there was one thing that really must be looked at – Central Gully, next on the list, hadn't been done,and he said you do the first bit and I'll do the rest, which he knew, and I said, well, I had looked on a rope, because of its reputation, and never had I been in such a filthy place, and it with water down it, and at the first overhang I had fallen and was in difficulties and then at the second overhang I didn't fall but before it started I had said pull now, pull please, and you will have to pull very hard I am finished, but now, I said, I think I am better and we will see. So we did a new bit on the left first, and called it the Squiggle, his name, to warm up, and because there was another party looking on applauding. Then we did the Central Gully as he had said, and there was a piton half way up because a lot have nibbled at it, Central Gully, but we couldn't get it out, tried we never so hard, and the blood streamed from our fingers where we hammered it,
so we left it in but we didn't rely on it, it being battered too, so we said Wales forgive us and went on.

Then we said now we have that behind us, and it has been a great day, what else ought we to do now, but then I said I am tired, and I have got to keep fit, and I have come here for a rest; so we did nothing else that day. But the next day we went to and worked again, there was the East Gully, the right hand branch, which had not been done, the next thing. So we did that, I must admit below the hard part I stuck a piton in to stick my rope through it for you never know, but the piton was loose in anyhow. Then there was Purgatory, that day too, wanted an end, and we did that though such a stretch is needed and my legs so parted got jerks and would have let me down had I not acted, but I will not describe these climbs, you would be bored, you can see for yourself, and I have left some out. But we still could not do more than two that day because of the slowness, and because I was bad, my nerves out of order. We really were going splendidly considering though, and then a man fell off a cliff in some other part of Wales and we had to help, so we stayed in bed next day, tired out we were, and the day after that we did climb again but very badly, something had put a stop, such as it seemed, to our jollity, and we did only one new climb, very easy, and called it, his name not mine, the String Climb, and it was a lovely little climb we thought, and such as in the evening we had longed for, and we said how strange, and life, and so the next day we had a whole day off, we thought better, and we went to see little Miss Temple in Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm at Bangor, then the next day we felt much better and went up from Birch Tree Terrace to Avalanche, which was needed, then we did a new Anklet on which I very nearly came off exploring, then we had to go to the Central Gully again because it was challenging and we looked at one bit on a rope because I was afraid, and then we did it, right up, across, left up, on the walls of the direct part, the first part I hadn't looked at because it was known to me before when the writer of the guide took me up but he had had an accident, so we were finishing off now though it took us a month because we were slow, and if you multiply 28 by 1 or less you don't get many. We did this climb though and we called it Swastika, I did not think of that name, he did. Now we must hurry on, two days left, but boredom came over us ever greater, that comes on also over our reader, days such as the toughest only could stand; no, I have got it wrong, forget, we did this the last day, it was the two days before, we went to the West peak and we did this and that, tidied up the cliff a bit for it needed it, climbed a nasty little brute the Clam, not my word, he said it that damned Clam, and then on we went, finished off Three Pinnacle Gully, the Slabby Patch, three other parties, pioneers avoided it, oh yes and I forgot we had had great trouble there ourselves when wet a few days before, or I had, but been rescued thank heaven not able to stick on, off the side of it. And that was all, but unexpectedly we had another day, extra, with another party, and that day we did the Quartz Babe direct and called it The Sword and that was my name. But this is ridiculous, a mere catalogue, what on earth do you imagine you get from this? Then we failed on another thing and another thing, I don't know why, then we had to go to that Central Gully again, because it exerted a pull, I say it, yes we had to, and we did another route on its walls, left up, right up, right, crossing the other one and we called it Swastika 2, and that was my name also. That was all we did that day, then we came down and for an hour or so we felt joyful, I can remember that, I can look back upon it and testify, and I think I have not felt so conceited in my life, before or since; and as for numbers two and three I do not say what happened to them on these two things, they were out of practice rather and I wasn't.
We ran out of petrol late going home that night, but August was up now, praise be to God, and I was happy I just sat in the car, and I would not ever need to go near the place again, I thought, and petrol or no petrol, I don't care.

Photo: Al Leary©












Menlove Edwards: First Published in the Wayfarers Journal 1939.


Tuesday, 13 April 2010

Coming up: Menlove Edwards on Lliwedd

Al Leary at the start of Menlove Edwards' classic VS-5a climb, The Sword: Photo Andy Bruce©

"We started off on the Rocker Route first day, early start, photograph of cliff in sunshine, last chance for two weeks but we didn't know that, strode over the grass, up the screen and stood panting a little but full of hope at the foot of the Rocker Route. Nice easy climb, but it was on the second pitch I began to wobble, being some way off the ground by then and it's very nervy if you don't trust your footing, then on the fourth pitch I couldn't do it at all but could take a shoulder, and after that, you know what it is, you've got to do it somehow but how, you may come adrift any minute and go for six, but we went on, grim as death we went on, a little light refreshment half way, didn't we need it, 3.0 p.m., and the worst is yet to come, but we went on knuckles scraped, knees bleeding, 5.0 p.m., 6.0 p.m., 6.30 p.m., the summit : what a victory : what a life: but if every climb was going to go like that what about the guide, we'd never do it, not in four weeks, not in four years. '

This Friday, Menlove Edwards  is up against it on Lliwedd.

Friday, 9 April 2010

Bouldering at Harborough Rocks


In the best spirit of play I remove myself from undertakings that have purpose and focus on one that has only meaning.

John Gill on bouldering.

The chill of an autumn breeze cools the sweat on my forehead, and I suddenly realise how tired I am after an evening of good exercise. My forearms are swollen solid, my fingers ache with fatigue and the blood throbs under my nails. My shoulders are complaining and my legs feel tired as well! But I'm happy enough. My hands and my feet are moving steadily across a favourite boulder problem I've been climbing on occasion for twenty years. The holds are almost as familiar as my own hands and are polished by the combined effects of sweat, chalk and the tackiness of butyl rubber. I muse on the fact that on my early visits to this place they were satisfyingly rough to the touch, but alas no longer! Once again I swing into the familiar sequence of a well used ( and in my case well rehearsed) fingery traverse, ten feet off the ground, my hands dropping onto a glossy round hold as the feet bridge out to allow for the long reach to the right for better holds.
My location is the steep section of the traverse across Jug Wall at Harborough Rocks, a traditional forearm pumper and bouldering spot for an ageing climber like myself with that wonderful simplicity of just rock, rock shoes and chalk bag, the warm sense of enjoyment of the moves on the little wall is as familiar as an old friend or a long time lover. With arms and fingers totally pumped out from the earlier efforts, I drop to the ground, sit down and take in the gradually darkening view out towards Carsington Water.

On settling in Derby in the mid-seventies I immediately sought out the possibilities of bouldering locally. Harborough turned out to be just about the nearest climbable rock to my home and so commenced many visits over the years, either alone or with mates, often resulting in unbelievable levels of exhaustion tempered with the occasional tendon injury or sprained ankle! The delights of bouldering; that intense form of training and play so beloved by most true climbers. I have always been convinced that someone's degree of enthusiasm for playing on boulders says much about their overall attitude to the mountains in general.
Anyway, here I am alone sitting at the foot of these fondly remembered rocks, gazing out over that familiar view, body totally spent. There is nothing new in any of this. People have been going out bouldering after work on the outcrops of the north of England for a hundred years; it has become an integral part of how the climbing game is played. Harborough itself is a strange place but I have grown very fond of it over the years. True, it is not one of the traditional bouldering spots. It lacks the superb range of problems of a Caley or Brownstones; Kyloe or Pex Hill it is not! however, these shiny little limestone walls and are^tes have helped me, and many others, to build up the strength, fitness and technique needed to achieve some ambitions on the big crags over the years.
 By Peak District standards, Harborough is really only a minor outcrop. It is formed neither from Millstone Grit nor top quality Carboniferous Limestone, the normal climbing rocks of the Peak. Instead, it's unique pocketed quality derives from it's composition of magnesian (dolomite) limestone. This rock is of varying quality, but it is mostly sound and some 6-10 metres in height. It is predominantly clean and south facing and has the obvious benefit of being very quick to dry after rainfall. The crag is therefore available for most of the year and sometimes sunny and windless afternoons on dry rock can be a lovely surprise even in December or January. The occasional loose hold is not unknown and I know of wrists and ankles being broken on account of these, but in general the rock is good and lends itself to steep, fingery climbing.

It is not my intention to outline specific routes on the crag, suffice to say that you can climb almost anywhere at 5b/5c and good problems abound. Alas, as is often the case with limestone, it is not best suited to heavy use for bouldering and some areas of the crag are now highly polished. For all it's shortcomings, not least of which are the obtrusive works beneath the crag, the place has a charming quality that draws me back again and again. Between bouts of exercise on these steep little walls my eyes are often drawn to the fine views to the south and west, as the hill country of the Peak District drifts towards the anonymity of the Midland plain. To the south is the impressive sheet of Carsington Water and the roll of the lovely countryside between Wirksworth and Duffield. The real visual attraction however, is to the west and the hills beyond Brassington and Longcliffe. In the evening the setting sun draws your eyes straight to the mysterious group of trees at Minninglow Hill, the most prominent neolithic burial ground in Derbyshire. This feature is readily visible from much of the Peak district and is situated close to the line of the Roman Road from Buxton to Derventio (Derby). The place has a sombre atmosphere, touched perhaps by the spirits of the many buried there so long ago. It would seem however that the spirits are benign, as the locals say.......' make a wish at Minninglow."
In climbing terms, Harborough has an interesting history, with some significant early Peak explorers leaving their mark on these little walls and areftes. Before the turn of the century the ubiquitous James Puttrell was the first person to record climbs here, together with W.V.Watson and Ernest Baker, writer of the classic "Moors, Crags and Caves of the High Peak and Neighbourhood" published in 1903. Here is Baker's description of an early attempt on Harborough Crack:
Gripping the thin edge of the fissure, I levered myself up a few feet, and jammed the left arm and leg well in, pawing wildly with my right for some dent or wrinkle in the smooth wall. I wriggled up inch by inch till I could all but clutch a safe little hold near the top; then my arms gave out, and I was extremely glad of a friendly shoulder to help me back to mother earth.
This particular climb still thwarts many an attempt even today and is highly polished. In later years Harborough received the attention of the early gritstone explorers, John Laycock, Siegfried Herford and Stanley Jeffcoat, while in the 1920's and 1930's it drew visits from such characters as Fergus Graham, George Bower, Eric Byne and Clifford Moyer. It remains a popular evening bouldering spot for many climbers in the Nottingham, Derby, Matlock area and during the day it is heavily used by groups from schools and outdoor centres. Despite it getting eroded and worn in places, Harborough retains a special place in my heart, particularly late in the day when bathed in soft sunlight. At such a time it's many problems are a delight.Of course the history of the place is far longer than the mere scramblings of industrialised man over the past century. The cave at the western end of the crag has yielded evidence of occupation stretching back thousands of years. Bones have been discovered here of sabre-tooth tiger, hyena, bison, brown bear, lynx, Irish elk and wolf, which all at one time roamed these strange hills. In addition, the cave was used for human habitation from the early Iron Age period right through to the Roman occupation and beyond. Indeed, as late as the eighteenth century Defoe discovered a lead miner and his family living there. The cave was partitioned into three rooms by curtains and these people were no temporary squatters as Defoe wrote: "The father and his father before him, had been born there, as were all his children, and everything was clean and neat, tho' mean and ordinary."
You might think that because I have visited the rocks and their surroundings so frequently, and for so many years, that they would lose their appeal .... not so! The different moods brought about by the weather, the turning of the seasons, or the time of day continue to delight and surprise, as does the continued enjoyment of climbing on such unusual limestone. One or two particular moods of the place remain strong in my memory, in particular a bitter cold winter visit with Mick Wrigley in the mid-seventies. It was a Sunday morning and we were badly hungover as we trudged up through deep snow, to the foot of the rocks. The place had a particularly gloomy, misty atmosphere and the only sound *as the calling of the beasts in the fields below as they gathered for winter feed. There was (unsurprisingly) no one else there. As we approached, the main part of the crag loomed out of the mist, shrouded in fresh snow and ice. In that strange light, some kind of optical trickery occurred and the rocks looked huge, like smaller versions of the Civetta or the Marmolata in the Eastern Alps. We did not stay long as the cold soon drove us away to a pub fireside in Wirksworth.
Sometimes in the summer months, the south facing nature of Harborough makes it too hot to climb on. At those times it is very pleasant to sit beneath the rocks on a carpet of daisies and buttercups and watch the Swallows and House Martens swoop about the place, for that is no weather for strenuous exercise!
 Spring or Autumn are best, the light is more interesting and the desire for physical exertion stronger. The bright vivid sunshine of an October evening on the rocks, snatched after a day of rain in Derby, was a quite recent pleasure. The brutal darkness of the sky was gradually illuminated by shafts of bright light from the west, quickly drying the rock and dousing it in a wash of yellow ochre. The air was still, the friction of the rock perfect for climbing and the views to the west not only beautiful but mysterious as well, as the darkest part of the sky framed the familiar shape of Minninglow. Later in the evening I ended up climbing on the hard little problems of Clarkey's Wall, at the eastern end of the crag. I felt exhausted and my finger ends were very sore ... enough was enough! It was good just to flop down on the grass and the thistles, as the lowering sun painted the rock an surrounding hillsides an even deeper hue. In a low slanting light of wonderful clarity after the day's rain, the rocks took on the appearance of a giant piece of honeycomb. With very tired fingers I changed my footwear and looked up as Chris and Gordon yelled cheerful abuse and made it clear that they were heading for "The Gate" at Brassington for a pint. This would perhaps be the last of such evenings until the spring, since the clocks were due to change at the weekend. I followed them down the path savouring the smell of wet elderflower and wild garlic, as an owl called out from the buildings below the crag.
By the time I reached the road, the rocks were almost in darkness, while to the west the sun was setting in a sinister darkening sky. The wind had begun to gust and it suddenly felt as if winter would soon be upon us. Later, in a cosy corner of the pub, luxuriating in front of a fire, I listened as the rain returned and battered against the windows. We sat and enjoyed the delightful tang of that first pint on a throat dry after hard exercise and fresh air. Gradually I retreated into that wonderfully satisfying state of fatigue-, aching, swollen forearms and fingers, sore finger ends and tired legs. I knew I'd be worn out at work the next day, but we're fit and still out there doing it! As the late Nat Allen once told me "....aye lad, you've got to keep the pot boiling!" Bouldering and the pub afterwards; deep, simple pleasures that enrich the spirit and keep it youthful. I once read an article in which John Beatty described with great warmth, his delight in climbing at Windgather, itself totally unfashionable and yet retaining it's own strong sense of place and the spirits of those who climb there. For me Harborough has the same effect, providing a sense of healing and continual pleasure as we travel into middle age. As I looked away from the fire, Chris returned from the bar with another round and the conversation flowed as ever. All thoughts of work could wait until the morning, as the wet Derbyshire night closed in.
Steve Dean©: First published in High magazine

A potted biography of the author can be found in the October09 archives 'You are being watched'

Tuesday, 6 April 2010

Coming Up: Steve Dean's Bouldering at Harborough Rocks

" By the time I reached the road, the rocks were almost in darkness, while to the west the sun was setting in a sinister darkening sky. The wind had begun to gust and it suddenly felt as if winter would soon be upon us. Later, in a cosy corner of the pub, luxuriating in front of a fire, I listened as the rain returned and battered against the windows. We sat and enjoyed the delightful tang of that first pint on a throat dry after hard exercise and fresh air. Gradually I retreated into that wonderfully satisfying state of fatigue-, aching, swollen forearms and fingers, sore finger ends and tired legs. I knew I'd be worn out at work the next day, but we're fit and still out there doing it! As the late Nat Allen once told me "....aye lad, you've got to keep the pot boiling!" ,

This Friday Steve Dean loads those muscles and gets his tendons singing at Harborough.

Friday, 2 April 2010

George Abraham's...On a new mountain.....Part Two.

 
Climbers Club Ogwen guidebook author Mike Bailey on the second pitch of George Abraham's 'West Ridge'....second ascent ?


We were repeating the experience of other parties. However, what was probably the most continuous-looking ridge was found at the western end of the crags, and this we decided to climb.
The beginning of the West Ridge as we called it, should be unmistakable. A cairn was built on a conspicuous, large mass of rock, which pro­jected from the grass terrace or rake that ran along the foot of the cliff. The ridge was com­posed of three main steps. The first of these rose directly above the rocky projection ; it was steep, but firm, and full of footholds. The second was somewhat tower-like in structure, nearly eighty feet high, and split en face by a narrow chimney, which held many loose flakes of slaty rock delicately poised. My companion made a clean sweep of these, and we left the place in excellent repair.
The crux of the third obstacle consisted of a curious, slanting groove in the front of the tower. Its repellent-looking, slimy smoothness led me to attack the vertical right wall. Thereon I had a sufficiently prolonged perpendicular poising to make me realize that the direct way up to the groove was advisable. My companion in due course quickly justified this view, and soon we were hurrying up the easier, quartz-marked  crest of the ridge where a final cairn was built.
Unfortunately, it was now raining steadily and there was just time to race over to the top of the main ridges on the Creigiau. The actual central point of the principal mass of the cliffs has not yet been climbed but to the left of it as we looked down, the strangely shaped edge of the Tower Ridge was visible. Excepting our West Ridge, that was the only course on the westerly side of the summit.
One of the Edwardian cairns built to mark the start of their routes. Still untouched after 100 years.

In the easterly direction or on our right the finishes of two distinct ridges were noticed. Both had cairns. That to the right we proved later to be the Great Ridge proper, and the other was the easier variation of the same course. From its distinctive character a separate name would perhaps be advisable for the latter, because, though the start for both seemed to be the same, higher up the two ridges divided unmistakably.
Then, as the rainstorm chased us down along the mountain crest, numerous small ridges and gullies loomed through the mist. Some of the former might give short and indefinite problems, for most of them seem to divide bewilderingly, but the gullies on Creigiau Gleision are not of interest. They slope at easy angles, will contain mostly grass and the debris from the retaining ridges.
Some details of another day's visit to Creigiau, Gleision may be of interest, because on that occasion we reached and ascended its most fascinating and prettiest problem. This was the Tower Ridge. During the approach a fruitless effort was made to discover other routes made by former parties. Thus from the sheepfold we walked up the screes and into the Mushroom Garden Thence a series of grassy ledges led across the face at some height until we soon gained a great scree-filled recess about midway the full length of the crags.
Those bound for the Great or the Tower Ridge by the ordinary lower way would reach the foot of the scree-filled hollow by following the base of the cliff. At the corner of approach, where great masses of newly fallen debris poured out from the rocky hollow, there was a striking view of the serrated sky-line. On the extreme right there was the West Ridge. Then, with one's gaze following upwards to the left, the tooth-like spire of the Tower Ridge attracted immediate attention. Its right-hand vertical wall was cut sharp and clean, but on the opposite side lay the gentler angle up which we must climb. A black, undercut portion of the ridge with a jutting nose of rock above it, was very obvious.
To the left of the Tower, which rose in curious,slanting form almost parallel to the lay of the face of the crags, there was a deep, vegetation-choked gully. Overlooking this the top of the Creigiau rose steeply, and farther to the left the two crests of the Great Ridge, by comparison, stood forth somewhat mildly. To the east  again some off-shoots of the lesser ridges formed a sky­line of " Coolinesque " contour. Their import­ance and size were apt to be overrated because of their nearness.
Daisy Hobson nears the top of Central Arete.V Diff (US 5.5)

To reach the foot of the course up the Tower Ridge we climbed up the scree-filled hollow and into the stony gully under the Great Ridge where the initial cairn stood. An extended wall of overhanging rock cut us off from our goal, but after a slight descent a curiously weathered shelf underneath the dripping lintel led far across the face to the right. There a shattered cairn showed that we were following  the route of the first party. Soon a short but somewhat loose rock buttress gave access to a great green hollow in the cliff's frontage. This was probably the " Bilberry Bight " of our predecessors. After clambering up through the lush growth for fully eighty feet, a way could be made to the left to the true crest of the Tower Ridge.
The real climbing now began with a sharp struggle up a 2o-foot nose, and there we found that the ledge above it might have been gained by a simple walk up the grass gully on the left. However, this characteristic feature of so much of the Welsh climbing was accepted philosophic­ally for we were determined to make the most of the ridge's opportunities and adhere to its true crest as much as possible.
A really stiff confronting bulge had now to be surmounted. It was about twenty-five feet in height, and proved in the end to be the most diffi­cult part of the day's work. After a steep start a step to the right, followed by a delicate balancing movement back to the left, landed me in an airy situation with little for the fingers to grasp. My companion below was out of sight under the overhanging bulge. The difficulty of retaining the position of the left foot on a small hold until a loftier distant knob of rock could be partly grasped was somewhat of a strain, and even when this hold could be secured the final upward haul was trying on such sloping support.
This agreeable section would disagree with many thoughtful scramblers, Above it some easy steps led to the foot of the noticeable overhanging " nose." Its black recesses pro­vided safe sanctuary for a luxuriant wealth of beautiful ferns, whose delicate emerald fronds spread vernant in the dripping depths whilst all the outside world was tinged with the brown of autumn's progress.
The impending roof of this " hanging garden was obviously impossible. The upward way to the left was the only alternative, and there an awkward, slimy face of rock about fifteen feet high brought me into a grassy corner with the crest of the ridge towering overhead. To reach this was the immediate intention, and a steep, narrow crack allowed the plan to mature. Above the point of arrival on the narrow tip we were told by the authority to " bight the rope round a stook of bollards." The absence of a dictionary placed one in an awkward predicament, for there was absolutely nothing but the bare, thin edge of the ridge springing skywards.
Fifty feet of rope dangled from my waist. No convenience was available to warrant the ascent of my companion, thus there came a bracing swarm up the front of the knife-edge, and I was thankful meanwhile for the grip of rough tweeds on the somewhat smooth structure. After twenty feet of sensational ascent a place was gained where a curious break occurred, and there it was possible to sit saddle-wise on the cloven crest enjoying comfort and safety and a magni­ficent view. I sat facing down the ridge, a great slab behind and nothing in front but the far-off, breakered shoreline, white and lazule, beyond the golden sands of Lavan.On either hand, or foot, nailed boots overhung the depths. A sideways vault would have ended 5oo feet lower, and Cwm Goch would have had further justifica­tion of its name. The voice of my companion from far below disturbed these soliloquies. Soon he appeared astride the narrow edge, and though the rope was more ornamental than useful he showed how easily the sensational place could be surmounted.
Then a steep slab, 25 feet in height,proved to be the final problem, for it ended close to the actual tip of the tower. There we gathered together the remains of a small broken-down cairn, which was the first evidence of a former party noticed since the beginning of the climb. The big buttress of the central mass of Creigiau Gleision rose grandly on the left, but our ridge continued more to the right. Only two short pinnacles remained to be climbed ere the solid front of the mountain could be gained up a steep 15-foot buttress.
Such was a typical ascent on the new Welsh climbers' domain, a crag abounding in astonish­ing and romantic situations, and offering oppor­tunities which seem almost wholly unappreciated by cragsmen in general. For obvious reasons I have said as little as possible about the errors of the only published description of the Creigiau, but this would undoubtedly account largely for its neglect. Almost all parties seem to have had trouble regarding their whereabouts on the crags, and the place had received an undeserved ill-repute for instability. From Nant Ffrancon it looked uninviting.
Yet, once the gullies and the grassy lower reaches were passed, the true ridge-crests usually afforded sound and splendid sport. They were above the average for Wales, the formation being free from the slaty inferiority of the greater mass of Lliwedd. The man who obtains a good photo­graph of the face, and details upon it the various courses, will have a reward of thankfulness from all climbers. Unfortunately, bad weather and the lack of sun on the northerly-facing frontage prevented our achievement of this object.

After the climb over the Tower Ridge the downward way from the mountain's crest was made to Ogwen by Cwm Cywion, and so to Llyn Idwal. There, with the last gleam of sunset flashing a golden crown on the Glyder's lofty head, we lingered by the 'silver strand', stirred by old memories of unforgettable days on the great encircling crags, and soothed by the simple music of the wavelets on the pebbly beach. To some the evening gloom of Idwal savours too much of the sombreness of solitude. But to others, who hear aright, the whisper of the breezes on the heights and the full chorus of hurrying streams, the great Cwm is filled with heartsome echoes of the joy of life that is given to those who climb from valley darkness into the open light of summit splendour.
George Abraham: First published in 'On Alpine Heights and British Crags'. Methuen and Co 1916