Friday, 5 August 2011

Lost Horizons

David Craig on Jean Jeanie:

When I can't sleep, usually around 3 to 5 a.m., I find myself picking my ten favourite rock-climbs. Over the past five years the list has settled down to something like this:- Gimmer Crack, Haste Not (White Ghyll, Great Langdale), Right Angle (Gurnards Head, West Penwith), Moonshadow (Blouberg, Transvaal), Satan's Slip (Lundy), Swastika (Etive Slabs), Grooved Arete (Rannoch Wall, Buchaille Etive Mhor) -and so on and so forth. Or I can move on to one-pitch routes:

Right Unconquerable (Stanage), Cravat (Neckband, Great Langdale), Salome (Round How, Buttermere)~ Demo (Sennen, West Penwith), Porkers Parade (Swine Knott, White Ghyll), Jean Jeannie (Trowbarrow Quarry, Silverdale), and so on, and on... Or I can do hill-climbs: Liathach, Beinn Eighe, Beinn Alligin (all in Torridon), Lochnagar, Cairn Toul, and Braeriach (Cairngorms), Adam's Peak, Huayna Picchu, Towaya'lane (the 'Corn Mountain' of the Zuni in New Mexico), Monte Matanna in the Apuian Alps... Or I can do walks, long walks: the Lairig Ghru from Deeside over to Speyside; the east coast of Raasay from Brochil down to Hallaig; Upper Loch Torridon through the mountains to Grudie Bridge on Loch Maree; Keet Seel Canyon in Arizona; a big circle through the forest near Kakadu in Arnhem Land, Northern Australia...  

Last month I began to do favourite islands (Lundy, Barra, Mingulay,  North Uist, Cape Breton). Then rock sucked me in again and I began to do crux moments: stepping left into the flakey wall on pitch 4 of Overhanging Bastion on the Castle Rock of Triermain; launching right, then instantly upward on pitch 2 of Harlot Face (Castle Rock); starting the traverse near the top of Venusberg at Bosigran (West Penwith); craning backwards, then pulling up onto and over the roof on Moonshadow in the Transvaal; laybacking the upper section of the Great Flake on Scafell's Central Buttress... I'm awash with memories now as the great black peat bog of sleep comes swelling up around me.

When I was climbing every week, I did none of this obsessive recalling. Now that I can't climb, it's a great standby and consolation. I had a heart attack in 2005 and got back to some­thing like health - septuagenarian health - via a regimen of beta-blockers, statins, etc, etc. This has so slowed me down that walking uphill is like driving with the brake on. How can I expect climbing partners, children, grandchildren to gear down to my laboured crawl?  No harm, though, in trying a few outcrops, with short and non-mountainous approaches. In September 2008 I went-over to Trowbarrow Quarry, on the Cumbria/Lancashire border, with Dick Renshaw.

We'd had satisfying days in the Lakes over the years. He'd never been into this wonderful limestone arena with its west-facing range of towering walls and corners. In the early Seventies its owners, Tarmac, blew up the central mass to stop climbers enjoying themselves on their property - and produced a superb 90-foot face, corrugated with fossil crinoids and seamed with cracks that now have David Bowie names. Dick - a veteran of El Capitan and K2, to say nothing of Beinn a' Bhuird in winter - very decently agreed to nip up Jomo. This V.Diff. starts with a slabby scramble up to a platform, then faces you with a delicate ramp crowned by a jutting blunt beak round which you have to semi-layback with the help of a polished nodule for the right foot.

Dick would lead that, so I waltzed up the easy, lumpy start.  At thirty feet a familiar feeling stole over me: no fuel left in the tank - surroundings turning surreal - vision going sparkly and colourless. I had to pause, reach for my ever-ready nitro-lingual spray, fill my mouth with the taste of cloves, and wait for the improved flow of oxygen to gee up my heart. The rest of the climb was fine. And I had had to medicate my way up that dear old route.
My body was confirmed as seriously sub-standard. The joy of upward movement of grappling with the Earth's ' surface, of rubbery gymnastics, of sharing air-space with rock-doves and peregrines - all this was no longer unfettered. It was hobbled. The end was nigh.

I got out again next year, with my climbing partner Chris Culshaw, who introduced me to modern rock sport in 1973. He'd found an unexplored limestone edge north of Grange over Sands, on the Kent estuary south of the Lakeland massif.
The crag on Hampsfield Fell is thirty feet high, south-facing above rough pasture dotted with hawthorn and ash, akin to twenty or thirty others between here and Malham. The bone-white upper reaches of it stood out against the cobalt sky of Indian summer with Greek clarity. The shapes up there were rounded and cracked skulls, blunt.beaks of bird gods carved on totem poles. The usual rising damp has sapped the first twelve feet and you have to set toes on blunt little knobs that all slope downwards and fidget in their sockets. One corner-crack runs right up from base to rim. I bridge up it, making for a big white flake, hoping it will be solid - tug on it - it doesn't shoogle about like an old door-handle - I teeter back down for a rest. When I go for the upper moves, the flake is a perfect key to the upper zone of skulls and beaks. I swarm up a ladder of jugs, ecstatic, and thankful that my arms haven't wholly shrivelled after many months of handling nothing harder than a steering wheel or a lawnmower.

We do four routes in all, climbing the easy way, on a top rope. Once, struggling round a little overhang, I have to rest on the rope. Better than nothing - 'Better to tryve like this than age-in an armchair,' as I wrote in a poem about climbing Yew Knotts on Honister with Bill Peascod. That was twenty five years ago, and he was a mere sixty five at the time, and about to die of his second heart attack. Ach well, so it goes (as Kurt Vonnegut puts in after every death in Slaughterhouse-Five)

Bill would have relished the beauty of this place - the Kent's broad mouth between Meathop crag and Arnside Knott, pale blue expanses shirred by breezes, pencilled by sandbars, salt water stretched taut from one headland to the other. Its infinite shades of blue are caught up in glints from the flowers at our feet - sheep's-bit on the slope, single harebells at the base of the crag - every blue from Prussian to Barra to ultramarine. Beyond the green canopy of woodland the westernmost Pennines show across the vale of Westmorland like the Hebrides seen across the Minch. Two hours on a wee crag next the path over the fell to Cartmel have reminded me in the sweetest way that I climb to be amongst nature, which is sometimes too fierce for me and more often seems to fold me in. Hampsfield edge is the real  thing - delicious Cumbrian  rock - and there is plenty more of it waiting for us this year.

David Craig 2011