Thursday, 27 October 2011

Full of Myself...extracts

In the 80s movement was taking off, coming away from its surfaces in a new way. Bodies lightened speeded up: breakdancers’ heads became feet to spin on, skaters ollied the board they stood on top of, opening up a whole new wave of moves. BMX. Laird Hamilton rode the big waves looking like a God. Freddie Spencer slid GP bikes on tarmac as if he was still on grass. Vatannen in Group B left foot-braking the T16, Senna in F1, Oh…my…God! All this was a fresh kinaesthetic mandala, a quickening expression of our inner urge to fly.

As much as Fosbury’s Flop changed high jump forever I could sense climbing would be transformed by new ways of spinning together body and mind.

When the Wright brothers left earth there must have been a sense that the fragile plane flew not with just a person aboard but with the whole of humanity. The sky wasn’t even the limit. Into the blank of mind came the unmistakeable sense that this was a new thread for the fabric of motion to weave with. The great climbing library in the sky would have to find a new shelf for these moves.
The face immediately proves more quixotic than hoped; both powdery and damp to the hand. The sea had got to work on the 600-million-year-old quartzite as soon as it could. Like a mad archivist searching through one folio after another for a missing word, one solid looking plate levers easily off, only for another that looks the same to hold, then ping unexpectedly at the last moment. Both leave pistachio-coloured scars behind, clearly telling me this rotting tramp’s Mac is no tableau on which to search for technical 6c.

What holds are left lead me to an overlap at a 100ft. Above, the rock sweating in the sun, though more vertical looks more tender still, impregnable and blank. Possibility above time had eroded down to a coughing, diagonal crimp. Faint. A skyhook perched on forgotten Parmesan would be the best to hope for in need of retreat.
…Joe Brown has pencilled a map for me on a Post-it that leads to an old tunnel. It cuts deep into the heart of Elidir Fawr. Slates scatter music around puckered ironwork. The cry of peregrines around discarded blocks fade, through hidden shallow puddles sound merges into half-light. A recognition comes to me, invisible as gravity; humanity walked out of thin air…we look up. High above on a tower, off to the side of Joe’s big adventures, flaring like a torch, is an astonishing groove. Away from it, glazed with water, a jewelled mineral array sparkles in the sun. This wall promised to be fresh territory for the world of climbing – a Schneider Trophy monoplane in sheer aluminium – tenuous seams, polished featureless shields, jagged undercut bulges way up in the sky.

To be just 15ft up it is to realize it means trouble. Already faced with a threatening slam, big crack features above that promise protection draw me. Each possible hold has to be wrenched or tapped in turn. Few pass the test, each that does cements a profound worry. The ‘rock’ is no such thing; super nutritious were it not for the salty ooze. Un-warm, power pumped, by the time the sprint to the roof past beautiful efflorescent mould is over, forearms are gone, all chalk supped off by the cliff. It’s a surprise not to find roses growing in the loose soil of the break at the bulge.

The Dawes family en-route to the French Grand Prix from Coventry Airport.

...I wasn’t joyful, trying these lines was what I did, fair or foul. 

Lean from not eating and angry I go with the gear in a rattling flare. A foot
smeared on a bump low under in the groove, the technical problem is to
yank off a big flat 70° dish with your left palm, right hand on a chunky
waist height sidepull. A dry squidge of flesh pressed quickly in gives some
bite by the timed ‘in and out’ of my waist. Falling again – cursing, clapping
my hands, belting the rock, spitting – an acid intuition kicks in. I try again.
Fiercely I lurch for the slap, whirling my left foot from far right under my
right foot to full left; for a moment that extra motion both forces my left
hand on enough to snag the gruff sloper and reduces my apparent weight
– the flared undercut sidepull far up in the groove momentarily scratches
into my fingertips. Unexpected, the lateral force unleashed pulls me off.
Again I fall but this time an inner burst of excitement silences the shout. I
point at the floor careful to log the flow of the move.

I tie in small, take a pee and another shirt off, give my Calmas a final squeak.
The instant I tee up the move I feel I can set up deeper into the air behind
me. Firing with knowing this time, hitting the side-pull nicely, as the lateral
force kicks in both feet release automatically hopping together right, up
into the groove. Oh dear! Now I’ve done it.

The flow out of the blind corner up onto the rib is delightful. Card tricks;
dish, sharp pocket, arĂȘte in just the right spot, care on smears tight, rhythm
eases the sequence dramatically. Pulling round back into the scoop to a
place where a comfortable rest awaits, heels down, left hand leaning into
a shallow cup, the true situation I’ve put myself into rises up in my mind.

Breathing changes. “Mantels are good”, this angle of mantel I understand. I
reach under and chalk the remainder of my weighted left hand with my right
where it’ll be needed on the unprotected virgin mantel above. Four minutes
later, chalking again, sharing feet together out right, so it is possible to ease
the right foot to a place from where I can tease the base of the sloping shelf,
left foot drags unnervingly on the edge of the scoop...not yet.

I back off, tears come, foot shakes a little, Bob is freaking out as well. We
discuss him running round, throwing a rope down but I’d have to untie
and the rope would be off to the side. I’m slowly melting out of this big
hollow. “Gone too far this time”. Though I sometimes act like I don’t care
it shows me I do. Fifteen minutes in, stretching that bit farther, making sure
to leave room to share, I ease myself out of the groove using a pockmark
hole, swapping feet to shuffle the other hand in. It had been invisible from
the left. A ladybird is on the hold. There is nothing to do but crush it. Its
bodily juices don’t help, but killing it, so opened up, throws my mind away.
I rush at the mantel hell for leather, picking a good enough patch of rock
that works and chuck my foot around the arĂȘte. Pulling up I feel upset. The
climb is magnificent, beyond me now.
We arrive at the coast just in time to miss the ferry to Skye. We settle down to sort out the gear in a lay-by. We had just started the task when this moaning Scotsman arrives; all bagpipes and 2nd World War.

 “Wharrrr dya thaynk yooore doin laddee? Woodie yaa do this on a road in England?”

“Of course”, I say, when Paul unhelpfully hurls something clattering down on to the man’s driveway, then whirls around like a dervish, screaming. When he starts to splash water from a dirty puddle on his face, the Scotsman turns and strides back to his house in disgust. Whatever Paul dropped on the drive flashes a warning as it rolls by: “do not put on metal or vinyl surfaces”. Paul has got ‘Jungle Juice’ in his eyes.

We half expect the highlander to return with his regimental sword and cut us down but instead he brings back a camera and shoots a couple of cheeky portraits of Paul. They would have been quite blurred, but he seemed pleased and told us:

“I’ve got evidence now, I’ll be taking it off to Angus”??
At 4 O’clock in the morning, at one of Dai’s dos, I needed to get back to the Peak so I bought a red Mini 850. One crook I’d met sold it to me for a fiver. A good deal? Well no actually, having no tax, no brakes, though suspiciously an MOT. It would do for a middle of the night romp. You could grind the barriers to brake. By keeping to the back roads police and public were avoided, even if at one junction it was necessary to actually hold the car on the foot break – my right foot that is – out the door.

Often stayed with illustrious mountaineer and cragsman Alan Rouse in Sheffield in those days and by the time the milk was being delivered arrived at a well-kept three story house in Wayland Road. It was never locked. Alan had got some new prints of the Alps and a new teapot. Kettle on, brew made, I quietly climb the stairs, put the mugs down on the side, take a run up and jump onto the bed. The faces of two people I have never met in my life shoot out from beneath the covers.

“I’ve brought you a cup of tea,” I say by way of introduction.

Alan had sold the house, Tom and Wendy had moved in.

A Real Buzz

Luckily the Cambridge Audio CD player from Richer Sounds had come with a promotional lollipop.

The van sets off down the hill, but on the windscreen, motionless, is a bee. Before wind-speed builds up to spill the bee to the mercy of road and tyre, I slow the van and stop. A car impatient behind, my bank card is already out of its holster. I rush out and lift the creature off into my hand.

By licking the lollipop – red like the van – and by dripping the syrup into the hollow of my left hands anatomical snuff box, the bee placed alongside it can start to feed. Her mouth is extraordinarily thin and long, like a straw.

We go around town and shop a little, I even take her to The Forum for a coffee. By now she is showing signs of a lively character. To attempt to put her at her ease, I stroke her thick fur as she feeds, but instead clumsily get syrup on her wing at which point a short sharp head movement points back up at me.

I watch as she works on the task of renewing her wing. Half an hour of meticulous cleaning with no discernible waste of effort, makes her look like a knowing miniature helicopter able to repair itself.

What had seemed like an abrupt reproach after my clumsiness with the syrup is now forgotten. Bee turns its head, this time a full 270° – show off – then tilts her head, and then again, as if to say: “Do you understand what I mean…?”

My companion’s gesticulations so precise, seemingly deliberate, make her appear not just sane, purposeful and certainly skilled, but generous of spirit. I have come to love this beady-eyed bee. She seems to say thank you and, slipping out of my cavernous hand is gone.


Full of Myself: Johnny Dawes 2011.Images J Dawes Collection.

Available direct from the author at Johnny Dawes.com




Tuesday, 25 October 2011

This Week: Johnny Dawes- Extracts from Full of Myself

Hereeeee's Johnny!!!

"By licking the lollipop – red like the van – and by dripping the syrup into the hollow of my left hands anatomical snuff box, the bee placed alongside it can start to feed. Her mouth is extraordinarily thin and long, like a straw.

We go around town and shop a little, I even take her to The Forum for a coffee. By now she is showing signs of a lively character. To attempt to put her at her ease, I stroke her thick fur as she feeds, but instead clumsily get syrup on her wing at which point a short sharp head movement points back up at me.

I watch as she works on the task of renewing her wing. Half an hour of meticulous cleaning with no discernible waste of effort, makes her look like a knowing miniature helicopter able to repair itself.

What had seemed like an abrupt reproach after my clumsiness with the syrup is now forgotten. Bee turns its head, this time a full 270° – show off – then tilts her head, and then again, as if to say: “Do you understand what I mean…?”

My companion’s gesticulations so precise, seemingly deliberate, make her appear not just sane, purposeful and certainly skilled, but generous of spirit. I have come to love this beady-eyed bee. She seems to say thank you and, slipping out of my cavernous hand is gone.'

This week,extracts from Johnny Dawes long awaited auto-
biography 'Full of myself'- Chosen by the author himself. Johnny's unique writing style is both fluid and dynamic and reflects the physical and mental attributes which has made him such a unique character in the climbing world.

Full of myself can be ordered direct from the author at Johnny Dawes.Com

Friday, 21 October 2011

Two Weeks in June: Graham Balcombe and Engineers Slabs

A rare shot of Graham Balcombe on the first ascent in 1934.

You could never describe the north-face of  Great Gable as appealing. Standing at the head of Ennerdale and rising above Stony Cove to a height of 2,800ft it can be a gloomy place - often wet,  its deeply cut chimneys and untidy gullies are more in keeping with the exploits of the nailed-boot brigade. First impressions however, can be deceptive for set within this confusion of broken and vegetated buttresses lies Engineer's Slabs – the name Slab is  certainly a misnomer for this  is a imposing vertical wall, of clean ryolite, nearly 200ft in height. The Crag had been climbed in the past the early pioneers seeking out  the dark and damp recesses  of Central Gully, Engineer's and Smuggler's  Chimney, but  for whatever reason, this impressive up-thrust of rock was left in its isolation until the summer of 1934 when it was decided to investigate the Crag for the forthcoming  FRCC guide to Great Gable.

And it was around this point an virtually unknown climber, called Graham Balcombe, burst upon the Lakeland scene.  He was a battle-hardened climber, but not part of the establishment, and had been recruited by FRCC member,  Astley- Cooper,  to help with the new guide, after the two met on Botterill's Slab. A couple of days later Balcombe showed his intent by pioneering Buttonhook, (HVS) on Kern Knotts so called as he used a wire to thread the hemp rope behind a small chockstone.
 At first he came up on a top rope, but found his rope had come loose and swung away. This incident is vividly recalled in his notes:-
''I was wearing a new ''Beale'' (hemp rope) which was stiff and springy and tied with a bowline and half a fisherman's. Yes we decided to top-rope as it looked rather dicey from below. First pitch was rather strenuous and I did not notice the waist line had untied and  it sailed away into space, but pendulumed back and I held it in my teeth in case I had trouble higher up. We didn't count that climb, but its memory has bitten much deeper that the formal lead that followed later that week.''
At the time Buttonhook was considered as the most technically difficult route in the Lakes - even today, after seventy-odd years and with modern protection, the first pitch, still  remains one of those a 'pause and ponder' situations - Balcombe had set the tone for what was to follow on Engineer's Slabs.
 The next day on Gable Cooper was due to lead but was injured by a fall of stones whilst gardening the first pitch so it was left Balcombe, supported by Jack Sheppard, to take the sharp end. Although somewhat shaken Cooper recorded the climb on his camera and came up on a tight rope.

Balcombe's Diary entry for that day may well be a reflection of his laconic approach to  climbing when he wrote: " Friday 8.6.34. – Met Astley on Moses Trod. On starting up the scoop as an easy variant to the first pitch Astley dropped a pile of boulders on himself hurting his chest and arm muscles. Temporarily hors-de-combat. Took over lead and removed heaps of grass and muck with a slater's hammer. A full days work – six hours approximately and made a fine climb of it.' ( At first it was called Central Route then later changed to Engineer's Slabs.)

Gable Crag, north facing, dries slowly and it is best enjoyed after a period of dry weather – come here in damp conditions and the climbing takes on a  vastly different dimension. Some consider the first pitch with its awkward distribution of holds as the crux  but in reality the route holds its grade through-out. As you make height the exposure becomes  more apparent especially on the long stride right from the safety of the sentry box to reach the twin cracks  leading to the Chimney. An enjoyable finger and toe layback at the base the overhang gives access a comfortable stance.  'There is no belay here at present', recorded Balcombe, but a chockstone can and should be fitted in the crack at the back of the sentry box now attained'

All that remains is a steep V groove, which tends to hold moisture, even in the driest conditions, can give problems, leads to the top of the crag. Unable to find any belay points Balcombe was virtually soloing – it was a truly extra-ordinary lead.   Describing the climb, in  KenWilson's Hard Rock,  Paul Nunn wrote:
'...It was a feat of considerable boldness...the climb Engineer's Slabs, must have been sparsely protected given the techniques of the time and the few stances...Yet it was neglected left to its geographical isolation and persistent darkness, the challenge of its considerable technical difficulty ignored.'

As far as is known the climb was repeated only twice in the following twenty years – in 1945 by Muscroft and Hill then in the early fifties when Peter Harding made a visit..
 Balcombe was astonished to learn that his climb went unrepeated for that amount of time and comments:-
'Surprised that a generation missed out on an interesting route. Don't think the write-up made it appear particularly formidable, but the entrance examination at the first pitch may have turned the more caution away...My second Jack Sheppard was a remarkably reliable man...and it was a second like Jack that made it possible.'

 During that 2 weeks holiday Balcombe led 7 new new climbs and variations (1) – it was without parallel in the previous decade of Lakeland climbing – this included a direct finish to Central Buttress (HVS) regarded then as possibly the hardest route in the country. Surprisingly, when the  Gable guide was published in 1937 Balcombe did not warrant a mention in the historical section. Whether the old guard were closing ranks and operating a closed shop, is debatable, but Balcombe who was not a member of the FRCC recalls, ' they could be cool with those not from their own.'  As a personality he could be very direct and was supremely confident of his ability which did upset some –  perhaps he was misunderstood but Balcombe had no time for mock-modesty.  There was an occasion during a FRCC meet at Pillar Rock when they discussing who would lead Route 1 (VS) ( now called Sodom) and without further to do Balcombe tied on and indicated, ' let's get on with it' – he would lead. This especially annoyed  senior member Bill Clegg  who went off, in a huff, to solo The North Climb including The Nose, indicating he would not climb with that man!

By the thirties, history was to record, the balance of power had swung to North Wales – Kirkus and Edwards was showing what was possible on Welsh Rock – Lake District climbing needed a resurgence and Balcombe could well have provided that. He should have been encouraged and given due credit for his achievements, but it was not to be – Balcombe came back to the Lakes only once, after that momentous holiday,  as a leader for a party of Germany climbers, visiting Britain, in 1936.
In 1933 he had joined The Northern Cavern & Fell Club and was introduced to caving.  Balcombe embraced caving with a vengence and with his natural tenacity and enterprising character he was a natural and certainly the pioneering spirit behind Cave Diving in this country.  Looking back on those times he said,' I came to recognise what I could achieve in caving could be more important than enjoying the clean sport of climbing.'

Balcombe lived well into his nineties and to the end was his own man –  as a committed atheist he  declined a Church Service and his ashes were scattered at Wookey Hole, in the Mendip Hills, where a Plaque set into the rock pays tribute to him and his contribution in cave-diving.
And if those  astonishing 2 weeks  on the Lakeland Crags  are anything to go by we can only speculate what he may have achieved, on British Rock, had his immense potential been fulfilled.

Notes.
(1) Balcombe's Routes.
Rainbow Ridge; (variation); Severe – Balcombe and Sheppard.
Lucuifer Ridge; Severe – Balcombe and Sheppard.
Hellgate Ridge; Severe – Balcombe, Barker and Sheppard.
Buttonhook (Kern Knotts);Hard-Very Severe – Balcombe and Cooper.
Engineer's Slabs; Very Severe – Balcombe, Sheppard and Cooper.
Unfinished Arete;  (Gable Crags) Very Severe – Balcombe, Sheppard and Cooper.
Direct Finish to Central Buttress: Hard-Very Severe – Balcombe, Wright and Files.

Ken Smith 2011

Wednesday, 19 October 2011

This Week: Ken Smith on pioneering climber Graham Balcombe


"You could never describe the north-face of  Great Gable as appealing. Standing at the head of Ennerdale and rising above Stony Cove to a height of 2,800ft it can be a gloomy place - often wet,  its deeply cut chimneys and untidy gullies are more in keeping with the exploits of the nailed-boot brigade. First impressions however, can be deceptive for set within this confusion of broken and vegetated buttresses lies Engineer's Slabs – the name Slab is  certainly a misnomer for this  is a imposing vertical wall, of clean ryolite, nearly 200ft in height. The Crag had been climbed in the past the early pioneers seeking out  the dark and damp recesses  of Central Gully, Engineer's and Smuggler's  Chimney, but  for whatever reason, this impressive up-thrust of rock was left in its isolation until the summer of 1934 when it was decided to investigate the Crag for the forthcoming  FRCC guide to Great Gable.'


This week,respected climbing writer Ken Smith profiles pre-war activist Graham Balcombe and descibes his pioneering ascent of Gnarly VS climb Engineers Slabs on Great Gable. A route which can still provide a stiff challenge for competant climbers today in less than perfect conditions.




Friday, 14 October 2011

Climbing


The shortest day of the year. We perch on the saddle of a promontory jutting west out of Anglesey into the Celtic Sea and look down into Wen Zawn – the white inlet. It seethes, the waves lift slow and bulky and burst suddenly, propelled by a force-8 gale. Rain hits our anoraks like grapeshot, pelmets of fog lour and droop on South Stack lighthouse, the airstream throws us off-balance and makes breathing difficult if you face into the wind. Across the rocking water is our goal – what was our goal as we planned at home over roast chicken and red wine: the crag of quartzite that armours Wales at this point, three hundred feet high, seamed with cracks. Ed Drummond found the first way up it 17 years ago and gave his line the most beautiful of rock names, A Dream of White Horses. For seven months we’ve been exchanging poems between his home in San Francisco and mine in Cumbria. Now we’re here to pluck his route from the teeth of winter but it seems madly unfeasible. I couldn’t live in that maelstrom. A thread of waterfall near the start of the route is blowing sideways and upwards. Ed looks and looks, saying little. Then: ‘If you don’t mind, I think we’ll leave it. It doesn’t look good. In these conditions.’ Pause. I say: ‘I’m glad you’ve said that. Because it looks terrible to me. I’m glad you didn’t feel you had to decide for it, for my sake.’

‘Let’s walk round and down the slope to the notch on the arete, and have a good look at the whole of the zawn.’

The nearer we creep to the sea, the less drastic is the wind, away from the focused up-draught.

‘Will you belay me?’ says Ed. ‘And I’ll have a look’ – now using ‘look’, apparently, in the Scottish climbers’ sense of ‘go and climb it although it’s clearly impossible.’ Why am I not terrified? Because there’s still a stage or two of non-commitment before I have to step into the vortex? Ed climbs unhesitatingly down a groove, tiptoes out along a tapering ledge, fixes a metal protection nut in a crack, and manoeuvres onto the wall, through the cascade, into the grey, fleeing world of spindrift and squall. Even the wintry twilight (at 11 in the morning) feels to be against us, subduing life. I chill and qualm as Ed places his left toe-tip on an invisible feature, poises with finger ends on other invisibilities, and clings with his right foot frictioning. Seconds tick. Nimble foot-change, then a mantis’s or gekko’s locomotion left and upwards. Can I do that? I can’t do that. But we’re inside the experience now, the huge looming and sucking fear has moved beyond the rim of vision, the climb is happening, it’s controlling me, its practical demands locking onto me, supplanting emotion.

After ten minutes’ enthralled spectating as this modern rock-master moves at his ease up and down the first big crack, holding onto the rope with one hand, establishing a hanging belay where he roosts like a large orange bird, I untie from my anchor and clamber down the groove. It should feel like lowering into a bottomless ocean but no, all is possible, at our command. Ed’s total competence flows along the rope. His smile of steady geniality, just visible, shows through the on-ding like a lantern. Under his guava-pink balaclava he looks like Punch – like an Andean shepherd steering his flock through a clouded pass – like the Pied Piper playing us into the hillside: contradictory symbols have begun to form.

Commitment time. From now on each perch will be precarious, spreadeagled; retreat from the razor-edge no easier than what lies ahead. As I cling to take a runner off, my fingers chill down towards the zone of incapacity, strength ebbs, command wavers. But a cat’s cradle of manageability has been woven along the cliff. At the crux I shout into the wind, ‘Looks difficult,’ and Ed shouts back: ‘Good little ledge level with your hip.’ Well remembered – there it is – a rung of possibility in the midst of nothingness. I press more blood out of my congealing finger ends, bracheate to the slim vantage-point (4 inches by l¼), and try to will the next stage. I don’t want to move, to take my left foot off terra firma and trust my compulsively curling fingers yet again. I must. I pull up a foot or two, lock my arms bent at right angles, shimmy my feet, and it’s happening – I’m in balance – the abyss of nothing, of non-possibility, has firmed over and turned material. I reach for a protruding rim of quartz, it’s rough below its film of wet, in ten seconds more I’m stretching for the karabiner on the soaked yellow sling that hangs from a fang of rock below Ed’s feet. I clip on, plant my feet, lean backwards at my ease, and chat happily on the flush of adrenalin.

Ed Drummond

As the wind poured its moisture and the winter day gloomed darker and darker, Ed decided against finishing the route by the overhangs, where the climbing is less hard but a slip would leave you hanging above an implacable sea-cave. We climbed homewards up Wen crack, a near-vertical ladder of black holds as convenient as an old-fashioned route in the Dolomites. On the ledge which was now our goal, huge tumps of sea-thrift bulbed out like green brains. As Ed’s silhouette merged with the silhouette of one tump, I saw it as a thought absorbed back into a mind. When I told him this fifteen minutes later, he laughed and said: ‘Oh no! I hoped they were breasts, and I was suckling up to them!’ As he led up the final rearing shield, these images started to grow and many phrases and lines of poetry were drafted before I pulled up over the last high step.

That degree of consciousness seems natural in climbing because so much time on the rock-face is necessarily still – contemplative. In extreme cases a discipline like meditation can even be necessary for survival. One rock-master of the Seventies, Pat Littlejohn, has been described, at extreme points where he feels near his limit, as ‘staring fixedly at the piece of rock in front of him’ in ‘an eerie, fascinating aura of quietude’ for ten to fifteen minutes (Jim Perrin in Climber and Rambler, March 1982). Equally, if you’re a climbing writer, you’re hard up against, almost inside, your subject, it’s inches from your nose and eyes. Behind your eyes, behind your front (the word still has for me the Latin connotation of ‘forehead’), your mind teems, with physical perceptions, often of tiny things (a pellet of fur and bone hawked up by a peregrine, stuck to a crystal; rust weeping from the stub of a piton hammered in by the first person to tread this way thirty years before), and with self-images. On a climb that frightens me my self feels to myself like an overheated cave; doubts of my adequacy flicker and dart like a maddened bat; not until this uncontrollable soot-black monster deigns to retreat into the deepest shadow and pretend to fold its wings in sleep can I muster my fingers, toes and forearms, my balance and my daring, and apply this mixed bag of faculties to the struggle against gravity.

Are such things felt at all by the ‘hard men’, as leading climbers are called in this golden age of machismo? On television climbs they’re as studiously monosyllabic as subalterns from the heyday of Empire and the stiff upper lip. Their humour is typified by the famous one-liners of Don Whillans on the Eiger, for example, ‘Somebody’s left a boot here’ drew the response: ‘Look and see if there’s a foot in it.’ But in 1976 I saw Ron Fawcett, rock-master since the middle Seventies, on the second ascent of Footless Crow in Borrowdale, then the hardest climb in the Lake District – 190 feet of overhanging rock without a resting-place. When his second called up, ‘What’s it like?’ he answered, ‘An ’orrendous place – Ah’m scared out of me wits,’ as he leaned way back on his fingertips, relaxing as comfortably as a sloth under a branch.

Some climbers use music because the rhythm steadies them as they climb near their limits: it gives them something to focus on, a means of earthing their rational fears and their neuroses. And in Mountain for July/August 1978 there is a photo of one American climber reading the Bhagavad-Ghita to another on a granite face in New Hampshire. Each one of us has a threshold beyond which we feel our selves will implode, crushed by the sense that the thing is too much, that it is beyond us (beyond our finger ends, beyond our belief in ourselves). Physically I was able to climb through the maelstrom of that winter day on Anglesey, mentally I was dependent on Ed Drummond’s rational knowledge that the thing could be done, and I know that this dependence (the cause of my limit being where it is) is rooted in my upbringing – my father’s fear of the injuries that my daring and love of wilderness might bring down on me. Whenever parents say to their offspring, ‘Be careful,’ instead of leaving them to discover for themselves that an edge or a drop or a depth is dangerous and must be explored with care, they cut at the off-springs’ sense of balance, their self-reliance, their ability to estimate risk rationally. It is analogous to leucotomy or amputation. The mental tendons, the driving-belts between mind and limb, are threatened with severance, the person starts to look elsewhere than in himself for the faculties that will enable him to survive. So, on the hardest rock that I can climb physically, I need a leader – usually, so far, my eldest and youngest sons, whose mental tendons I have tried (and apparently managed) not to sever.

I offer this not as a sad case – I climb many thousands of feet of rock each year and lead climbs to a quite hard standard – but as an example of how fully climbing engages our whole complex selves. So it’s natural that intense awareness and a habit of self-expression have been common in the history of the sport. Robert Graves climbed difficult routes in Snowdonia with Mallory just before the Great War and was told by Geoffrey Winthrop Young that he had ‘the finest natural balance’ he had ever seen in a climber. At the height of his enthusiasm he wrote that climbing ‘made all other sports seem trivial’, and in Goodbye to All That he records a fine physical image of the well-being that springs from it: ‘I remember wondering at my body – the worn fingernails, the bruised knees, and the lump of climbing muscle that had begun to bunch above the arch of the foot, seeing it as beautiful in relation to this new purpose.’ I.A. Richards loved to climb with his wife Dorothy Pilley and both wrote eloquently about it: in a Borrowdale climbing hut the other day I found the handwritten note of what may have been their last mountain walk in England, in the same logbook as my eldest son’s record of some of his first hard routes.

This long tradition (it starts with Coleridge’s tense letter describing his downclimbing of Broad Stand on Scafell in 1801) flourishes now as much as ever. Jim Perrin, one of our most intelligent writers on the outdoors, has been a leading explorer of the tortuous sea-cliffs at the south-west extremity of Wales. Steeped in literature (with a PhD in 17th-century biography), he has named some of his routes after classic works (Heart of Darkness, Second Coming, Strait Gate), as has Pat Littlejohn, a former teacher of English (Desolation Row at Bosigran near Land’s End, Crow in Cheddar Gorge), and Littlejohn also made up the inspired Joycean name Darkinbad the Brightdayler for his fearsome route up the sombre expanse of Pentire Head in North Cornwall. Now Perrin has used his scholarship to write an exceptionally wise biography called Menlove – the life of John Menlove Edwards, one of the strongest and boldest climbers between the wars and the chief explorer of the cliffs round Llanberis and the Ogwen valley in Snowdonia.[*]

Menlove Edwards

Edwards was a psychiatrist in Liverpool, noted for his success with difficult psychosomatic cases. His poems struggle to express what sometimes amounts to a metaphysic of inanimate rock in relation to sentient humanity. Perrin’s subtle analyses manage to treat such passages as biographical evidence (e.g. his noting of Edwards’s use of ‘valley’ as an erotic symbol) without any relaxing of his critical judgment. His biographer’s appraisal is focused as exactly on many passages of formidable Welsh cliff (‘passage’ was in fact the old word for what climbers now call a ‘pitch’ or section of a route), like the Devil’s Kitchen, which obsessed Edwards: ‘Whether or not he saw in these buttresses and damp grooves ... built of fissile rock and unregenerate grass in equal measure and vying in their states of decay, an objective correlative to his own condition of mind, we cannot know. Did he equate their rottenness with his own feelings of guilt about his homosexuality?’ So this study in climbing history, to be complete, must find its way into the depths of a person – one whose own climbing writings used creative means. In an article for a club journal in 1937, for example, Edwards wrote:

    The arms of the sun, as if driven into quick motion, lifted their beams clear of the earth, and the particles of their warmth, despairing, concentrated their last effort in a soft rose light along the western aspect of the strip of cloud. Down on the rocks a squat yew tree, clinging to the face, shivered and drew itself up. The shadows came together and lay cramped stiffly over it.

      We turned our backs finally to the hills and began to chatter: setting about to make our minds easy. But behind us, fighting their slow wars, the forces of nature also shifted steadily on.

For such a writer it is natural to perceive nature as a being, a presence. Wordsworth’s crucial passages – ‘a motion and a spirit that impels/All thinking things, all objects of all thought’, ‘a huge peak, black and huge,/As if with voluntary power instinct,/Upreared its head,’ ‘Black drizzling crags that spake by the wayside/As if a voice were in them’ – were palpably still potent in the Thirties and the Forties for writers at home in Britain’s wilder uplands, as they are for me to this day.

The sub-culture has changed. I like my cliffs to rise out of lonely valleys, whether pastoral or trackless. The new climbers are at least as happy on faces that overhang motor-roads, quarries, transport yards, and they specialise in sustained angles beyond the vertical, manoeuvring by sequences of mini-holds invisible from ground level. The style for such experience is often more aware of self than of the rock, fraught with instantaneousness, the verbs violent, the syntax fragmented into verbless phrases or streams of short principal clauses separated by commas, and the tense is often the present – vividly present and extremely tense:

      Soon, there is a brain whisper, all jumbled like bearings scattered off a shop table. ‘Do. Go. Wrong foot, but do. Why have ...?’ The whispering is me but not me. It is like a possession. ‘Just do. Fall up. Something. Try that. Do. Do.’ Outside myself, I watch a foot near my shoulder. I’m catapulting over little sections, prying and foaming, a little crying sound bubbling out. ‘Lovely horrible. Lovely horrible.’ It’s a veritable ricochet of thought bits, not passion, not tactic, but a precious drop of madness. ‘It goes. Lovely horrible goes. Bitch! Sweet bitch! Foot flake. Nail hold. Enough. Go! There!’ Finally, there is a platform for most of my foot. With rest, the fire fades and logic returns.

Such writing (by Tom Higgins in the San Francisco magazine Ascent for 1976) is more American than European, it draws deeply on the drug/pop culture of the past two decades and specifically on the New Journalism that reported the trips of people like Andy Warhol and the Merry Pranksters by letting them invade the prose rather than drawing back to explain or judge.

This was a culture of heightened, even deranged perception, of pushing well beyond the limits usually deemed sane or civilised, with the help of heavy music and potent chemicals. When an Australian climber writes his account of a seven-day siege of Pacific Ocean Wall on E1 Capitan in the Yosemite valley (in Mountain for May/June 1978), his prose climbs jaggedly like a fever-chart from peak to peak, congested with specialist terms and images of excruciation:

    A race against time: it’s only a matter of moments before my brain weight pulls the teetering rurp [a kind of piton] that holds the memory together and unzips the entire string of flimsy aids from the present, the whole recollection of the climb falling into oblivion. Like so much suds sucked down the sink ... I am nodding off into a belay dream when Eric zips a few copperheads down to a bolt at the start of the pitch, jarring me back to reality. Back up there he welds those ‘mothers’ with a vengeance and makes progress on nested pins. Again I am awoken by pain-ridden screams ...

A few lines later, the climbers’ use of drugs shows through in a moment’s zany comedy:

    Kim reaches us and suddenly has the grim realisation that he has forgotten our vital life support and mellowing-out formula – the grass. Darryl begins to foam at the mouth and I have to beat him over the head to stop him from chewing through Kim’s rope.



Even where drugs are unused, or unmentioned, we can see how the experience of living for hours, often days, at the vertical or beyond it, flushed by maximum secretions of adrenalin (and we can become addicted to our own adrenalin), forces the imagination to screen so many signals at once that only the Modernist prose of the cinema age can re-enact such moments.

The more conscious climbing writers know very well how modern, how momentous and high-strung, their experience is: it shows in their readiness to use the language of ego and subconscious, masochism and schizophrenia, and explicitly in an observation such as the following (anthologised by Perrin in Mirrors in the Cliffs, 1983) whose title, ‘Coast to Coast on the Granite Slasher’, epitomises the culture of speed in both its senses:

    A hyperkinetic hotshot from the Bay Area named Zacher talked me into a free repeat of the West Face of El Cap. He talked so fast I had no chance to refuse.

      That’s the parking lot though, a market place for partners, gear, and simple amusements. People you hardly know will ask you to launch off on all manner of routes. All manner of people too. Sometimes the walls will echo to the screaming matches of teams in the throes of divorce.

The motives that impel us to take it to the limit (the name of a recent Extreme climb in Far Easedale) lie in our depths, but they seem to me not mysterious. Certainly we can get well beyond Mallory’s consciously off-hand ‘Because it’s there’, or Menlove Edwards’s laceratingly self-critical ‘symptoms of some psyclioneurotic disorder’. Michael Roberts, a notable literary editor in the Thirties, reviewing ‘The Poetry and Humour of Mountaineering’ in the Alpine Journal for 1941, opined that the risking and gruelling of oneself on climbs were good because ‘they show superiority to all mere utilitarian values: they show an excess and overflow which is really a gesture of confidence and vitality.’ These days such positives tend to be entertained with an ironic or problematic twist, as when Ed Drummond adds capital letters to them in his classic essay ‘Mirror Mirror’ about an agonising epic on a huge Norwegian wall, ‘To climb is to know the universe is All Right’, or the Cumbrian climber Neil Allinson writes in Hard Rock (1975) that we climb ‘to play at life’s brinkmanship ... to live like a searchlight of survival searing through the total darkness of failure’.

For myself, when I climb, I’m getting back as nearly as possible into the elemental immersion I left at birth. The hand sinks sideways into a dark crack, the toes take the shape of the rock, the nose smells moist fibres inches away as the fingernails delve into an earthy crevice, the spine plants itself against a bulge, the eyes pick out the shadow cast by a crystal, the arms embrace a burnished yew trunk, the eardrums vibrate to the hoarse hissing of jackdaw chicks three feet inside the rock ... During one of my first hard climbs, on White Ghyll in Langdale, I had a sense of myself cladding the rock as intimately as the clay applied to a sculpture to make a mould, and this came out seven years later in a poem that ends:

    It moulded him. He was its casting.
    His clay was kneaded to its bas-relief.
    His brain infolded, mimicking its strata.
    And when he called, and the echo heard his note,
    It parodied his language.

Such experience is whole, it is inseparably physical and mental –

      O the mind, mind has mountains, cliffs of fall
    Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed. Hold them cheap
    May who ne’er hung there. Nor does long our small
    Durance deal with that steep or deep ...

– and this wholeness of the experience enables it to be a paradigm for all that we know. The impossible is that gritstone prow my arms will never haul my body over, the unknown is the foothold waiting round the blind arete in heavy cloud, space is the void between your heels and the backs of pigeons skimming the larch tops a hundred feet below, effort is the squirming of muscles round your nose and upper lip as you strive to get your weight above your hands, imagination is conceiving of the will it must take to leave that half-inch flake top when the next hold is smaller, more sloping, and the angle is still 100° ... Being alive is when the organic mix that is you remains together, remains itself, in the pressure-chamber of Wen Zawn on the shortest day of the year.


David Craig: First published in the London Review of Books

Wednesday, 12 October 2011

This Week: David Craig..where it all began

 "The shortest day of the year. We perch on the saddle of a promontory jutting west out of Anglesey into the Celtic Sea and look down into Wen Zawn – the white inlet. It seethes, the waves lift slow and bulky and burst suddenly, propelled by a force-8 gale. Rain hits our anoraks like grapeshot, pelmets of fog lour and droop on South Stack lighthouse, the airstream throws us off-balance and makes breathing difficult if you face into the wind. Across the rocking water is our goal – what was our goal as we planned at home over roast chicken and red wine: the crag of quartzite that armours Wales at this point, three hundred feet high, seamed with cracks. Ed Drummond found the first way up it 17 years ago and gave his line the most beautiful of rock names, A Dream of White Horses. For seven months we’ve been exchanging poems between his home in San Francisco and mine in Cumbria. Now we’re here to pluck his route from the teeth of winter but it seems madly unfeasible. I couldn’t live in that maelstrom. A thread of waterfall near the start of the route is blowing sideways and upwards. Ed looks.... and looks, saying little.'

This week, a brilliant and masterful essay from argueably Britain's finest climbing writer, David Craig. The extensive work originally penned in the 1980's became the template from which David's classic work 'Native Stones' was drawn.

Thursday, 6 October 2011

Almscliffe,Marvell and the Lord General


And I desire... to expresse my great thankfulnesse unto God for the many p[re]servacons I have had in those hazardous imployments and dangerous encounters I have mett with in the course of my pilgrimage in this troublesome world...
(Will of Thomas, Third Lord Fairfax, 1667)

For well over a century climbers with a taste for literature have kept their eyes open for allusions to the appeal or challenge of our hills and crags. In poetry, before the appearance of the Romantics, any searches were poorly rewarded. What was found derives from a short list of perhaps ten poets. With two quite expansive exceptions these contributions are fragments, some unforgettable, some simply tantalising. One poem of interest to rock-Climbers has escaped notice however, perhaps because it was written in Latin, the English version the writer usually offered is presumed lost, and few translations are available. This is Andrew Marvell's Epigramma in Duos Montes Amosclivium et Bilboreum: Epigram on Two mountains, Almscliff and Bilbrough.

The poem was written between 1650 and 1653 at Nun Appleton by the river Wharfe, Yorkshire.
At that time Marvell was tutor to the daughter of Thomas Fairfax, Commander-in-Chief of the Parliamentary forces during the Civil War and finally the Lord General.  Fairfax opposed the execution of the King and subsequently resigned in protest at the planned invasion of Scotland. Handing over to Cromwell, he retired to his country estates and properties.
These were disposed in two groups. South-west of York lay those close to or near Nun Appleton and Bilborough, Now Bilbrough. 30 miles further up the Wharfe lay the cluster of estates east of the family seat at Denton.

Marvell's mountains wouldn't be called hills today but these expressions were used loosely by lowlanders. The monumental gritstone block of Almscliff stands on a grassy plinth and is seen from distant viewpoints though it barely reaches 700 feet above sea level.
It's held about 10 names, first appearing as Almusclyue or Almusclive, 1203-20. (It's  thought to derive from a woman's name, Almus. That name remains unknown but -us was a feminine suffix of the time with several closely similar forms recorded locally). `Amos‑cliff which Marvell latinised in his poem, isn't seen until 1695 but would have been established in local speech much earlier.

Bilborough Hill has been so reduced by gravel quarrying that it hardly exists, now only reaching 140 feet above the plain of York. This explains a problem that puzzled some since in the well-known poem 'Upon the Hill and Grove at Bilborough'. Marvell uses extreme poetic license in assertions about the extent of the views.
Three full translations of the epigram are now in print. The earliest, by the Rev CA Clark, is undated and also uses the form Almias-cliff, not recorded until 1822. It's a stylish effort but in forcing the Latin into a tight English straightjacket some strain has been imposed on meanings. The second is by W.A. McQueen and K.A. Rockwell. Almost a literal prose translation, it offers a corrective view. The third is by Mira Seo and follows the second closely. These three appear in the Lord, Donno and Smith editions of Marvell's poems. In addition David Craig, with the advantage of a climber's eye as well as Latin, has offered a reading of the crucial line.


The poem is of a kind common enough in Marvell's time and earlier, an exercise in flattery, the poet praising his patron or employer. It's in couplets, is twenty-four lines in length, and is dedicated to Fairfax. First the two landmarks are placed as dominating the plain with the observer near or on Bilbrough Hill (here, this) so that Almscliff (there, that) is seen distantly. In six shifts between one and the other their dissimilar characters are contrasted. These characters, rugged or gentle, are then shown as displayed in Fairfax's nature, unyielding or gracious according to circumstance. It ends with a brief salutation to Mary, Fairfax's pupil.
Almscliff, then, gets just six lines. Four of these are what we'd expect for the period. It rises from its mound like Pelion on Ossa, it supports the skies like Atlas, its towering rocks stand untamed. It's seen from great distances as a goal or as the turning-post to be reached in a race. A fifth line proves divisive: paraphrasing, either the jutting rocks stand erect; or the rough rocks are cloaked in terrors (Clark) this from a curious extension of meaning possible in Latin. The remaining line seizes the climber's attention:

Erectus, praeceps, salebrosus, et arduus ille
Marvell
The steep, the rough, the difficult are there
Clark
That is lofty, steep, uneven and arduous
McQueen and Rockwell
That is lofty, steep, uneven and harsh
Seo
That's high, vertical, rugged, and hard to climb
Craig

Clark's translation is intriguing since his abstract categories suggest that various lines of ascent have been noticed and that the writer realises that different approaches would present problems different in nature. It almost amounts to a prototype of a grading system. But four into three won't go unless advantage is taken of overlaps in meaning in the four terms. Looking at Marvell's work as a whole however it's hard to believe he'd wedge synonyms side by side.
McQueen and Rockwell make the distinction between height and steepness in a cliff and the sense of an on-site inspection persists. 'Uneven', on the other hand, seems a clumsy term in this context and Seo adds nothing useful. (It may be that none of these translators visited the cliff, a trivial detail in considering Marvell's output.) Craig also rejects Clark's abstractions as not in the Latin. The expression 'hard to climb' is justified since 'arduus' carries the sense of difficult to undertake. In speaking of a cliff that can only mean to get to the top.

It may be worth considering a grammatical liberty: to take 'salebrosus', usually trans­lated as rough or rugged, neither as scholar or rock-climber but as a traveller of the time or a poet with a subliminal image.'Salebra' means a rut and might suggest 'rutted', a condition wearily familiar to every user of coach-roads and cart-tracks in England. To the crag's visitors the word brings to mind the parallel erosion grooves featured on these rocks, as on the climb named Fluted Columns.

None of Marvell's lines could have come from a distant view and the question arises: did he lay hands on the crag? It's clear he had ample free time at Nun Appleton and energy and activity characterise his life. He'd already spent four years travelling (or draft-dodging?) in Holland, France, Spain and Italy, seeing the sights no doubt.Ten years later he accompa­nied a two-year diplomatic mission to the courts of Denmark, Sweden and Russia. This was during his twenty years as Member of Parliament for Hull and it's recorded that he exchanged blows with Thomas Clifford on the floor of the House of Commons during his :first session. He also absented himself for two spells in Holland, during the second of which he seems to have been running a spy ring in the Hague. And this is the man who, `Had we but World enough and Time', would be willing to exercise patience -‑
But at my back I always hear
Time's winged Chariot hurrying near...


It's hard to believe he'd have spent two years or so looking towards Almscliff from Bilborough Hill — a favourite walk for him as it already was for Fairfax — without wishing to reach it. The possible clues in his other poems are slight and his movements and the mysterious gaps in his life have been so carefully examined that it seems unlikely that direct evidence will be found.

Nevertheless, the detail in the poem came from somewhere and the informant preeminently  equipped to be his authority is Fairfax himself. Crucially, he owned the crag and hits will reveals some incidental detail. In it he confirms settlements of his lands already made including those for his 'mannor or Lordshipp of Rigton'. This centred on the North Rigton a mile east of the cliff.

There is also a codicil, longer than the will itself and dated I I November 1671, the day before his death. Here he scatters bequests to rich and poor, remembering numerous tenants, family servants, and local indigents. Amongst all this he reassigns a part of the rents from four farms at Rigton. Three can't now be traced but the fourth is 'the Spouse farrne.'The name is a rarity but a Spout House exists at Rigton today. The present building looks like a modern luxury home but the occupier states that parts of it date from that time. He adds that the property was a farm until as late as 1970 and that the lands might well have reached the crag.The old field walling suggests that the summit may have divided two tenancies.


West of the crag, from northwest to south, the estates of the Fairfax family and relatives formed a semicircle. Six of these lay within seven miles, with a sister barely three miles across the valley at Arthington. The Rigton estate lapped up to it from the east and may well have extended westward. Almscliff is the only viewpoint from which all these lands could be admired. It's hard to believe that Fairfax could have resisted the impulse to enjoy the summit's overviews of his domains whenever he passed by on a fine day.
He had a passion for horses and before the war he rode with the local hunts so that this practice alone, one biographer states, "had made every inch of Wharfedale familiar to him". (From an unknown but early date the crevices and cavities in the cliff were dry-walled up to prevent foxes going to earth there.) During the war his exploits would earn him the sobriquet 'The Rider of the White Horse'. As a young man he had made the rounds of all the properties on his grandfather's business and shortly began to oversee them. On any journeys to Rigton from Scow Hall or Fewston he would have been obliged to skirt the crag. Later he had to fit in more local travel as an officer of the civil adminis­tration.

Today he's remembered as a soldier. At 17 he was with an English contingent at the siege of Bois-le-Duc in the Low Countries and sent home his assessment of the strengths and weaknesses of the town walls and defences. During the Civil War he stormed or sieged a dozen walled towns or castles. As much as any cliff in Britain Almscliff stands like a castle on a hill. It's tempting to speculate that the besieger's eye might have been sharpened by scrambling around Almscliff.
The argument has become that if Marvell didn't visit the crag then Fairfax had given him his information. The literature is as daunting as that on Marvell though it's mainly devoted to the war and its aftermath. The Fairfax Correspondence (4 vols. 1850-52) deals almost entirely with matters of state and the biographies yield nothing. The manuscript Letters and Papers are a massive archive dispersed in three main collections and are only accessible to academic researchers. At present Fairfax is simply linked to Almscliff by circumstance. Yet he had endless opportunities, ample motives, and is the only suspect we have as Marvell's source.

Almscliff is one of the marker crags of British climbing and its great test-pieces. Frankland's Green Crack, Great Western, Western Front, Wall of Horrors — are indicator climbs for the limits of achievement in several decades. It would have been gratifying to be able to install the Lord General not only as its first known visitor but also as an habitue. Clearly we can't. Nevertheless Marvell's epigram remains unique for its instant of concentration on the form and nature of a celebrated crag long before the Romantics decided that cliffs and mountains are there to be admired.



Author's note: An earlier article appeared in FRCCJ Vol XXVII (1), No 78, 2002. It was written in response to the Clark translation and looked for clues in Marvell's work rather than considering Fairfax as the source of the description.

Harold Drasdo

Wednesday, 5 October 2011

This week: Harold Drasdo on poets and crags up north


" The argument has become that if Marvell didn't visit the crag then Fairfax had given him his information. The literature is as daunting as that on Marvell though it's mainly devoted to the war and its aftermath. The Fairfax Correspondence (4 vols. 1850-52) deals almost entirely with matters of state and the biographies yield nothing. The manuscript Letters and Papers are a massive archive dispersed in three main collections and are only accessible to academic researchers.

At present Fairfax is simply linked to Almscliff by circumstance. Yet he had endless opportunities, ample motives, and is the only suspect we have as Marvell's source.Almscliff is one of the marker crags of British climbing and its great test-pieces Frankland's Green Crack, Great Western, Western Front, Wall of Horrors — are indicator climbs for the limits of achievement in several decades. It would have been gratifying to be able to install the Lord General not only as its first known visitor but also as an habitue. Clearly we can't. Nevertheless Marvell's epigram remains unique for its instant of concentration on the form and nature of a celebrated crag long before the Romantics decided that cliffs and mountains are there to be admired.'

This week,veteran climber and all round clever clogs,Harold Drasdo, looks at the relationship Andrew Marvell had with the area around the popular Yorkshire climbing venue, Almscliffe. Warning...this essay does not contain any references to slopers,red pointing,dynos,crimping and ripping RP's !