Thursday, 22 March 2012

Itching to Climb

Barbara James leading the Welsh classic Centotaph Corner-E2.5b (US 5.10c).Dinas Cromlech:Photo Ron James

By now I'd led two classic climbs, graded hard very severe plus in the Llanberis Pass. They were on a dramatic lump of rock, Dinas Gromlech, usually abbreviated to The Cromlech that stood like a vertically open book, above a steep scree slope.

The well-protected Cenotaph Corner, in the 'spine' of the book was a mixture of bridge and balance moves but Cemetery Gates, a climb on the vertical right hand wall was harder. I needed strong arms because hanging from the fingers of one hand, I needed the other to reach upwards and place protecting runner. I used my powerful thigh muscles as much as possible to move upwards.Added to this, as I moved upwards the length and weight of the rope behind me increased, making it harder to pull it up and clip the waiting karabiner above my head. I rested at the holly tree ledge before awkward moves led to a tiny belay ledge in an airy, dramatic position120ft (37m) above Barbara, my climbing companion.

Before climbing the wind had strengthened, blowing upwards the rope I'd taken in as she climbed; we were relieved to be off the crag before the weather worsened.The testing of my skill, stamina and mental strength involved in climbs like this enhanced the ordinary things of life. The well-earned pint tasted better and relaxing, tired by physical effort, was a superb feeling. Famous climber Joe Brown had done the first ascent of both these magnificent routes in the early 1950s, getting the idea for their names when he saw a bus with a destination 'Cemetry Gates'. All this was good training for our annual summer Alps trip.

Ron always spent many hours researching the next route that he wanted to climb. To lighten our weight he'd tear a page from a German climbing magazine or photocopy and translate a page from Walter Pause's book In Extremis Fels, 100 hard climbs in the Alps, that later was published in English. But no amount of fact-finding could give us success on the long north ridge of Monte Agner. Our goal was to get as high as possible, bivouac for the night and then finish the climb and descend next day. So in the heat of the rnidday sun we were walking up a dry river bed, full of boulders that reflected and increased the temperature.

The long, sweaty, uphill walk in the sticky valley heat was relentless, later, climbing up through downward pointing juniper branches was strenuous and we couldn't get as high as planned.After a sleepless night we'd drunk all our water; we turned back. Most climbers have a risk thermometer and with his priority for safety Ron's temperature reading was low; we never again tried to climb a route of this length.

Our favourite area was the Italian Dolomites with their rolling grass meadows leading up to impressive, huge rock faces; but the Sella Pass attracted me for another reason. The Treaty of Saint-German in 1919 consigned the South Tyrol to Italy and local Austrian traditions prevailed in the Val Gardena. I could assuage my chocoholic weaknesses with mouth-watering chocolate cake, Sachertorte.  It originated from Hotel Sacher,Vienna in the late eighteenth-century.

Usually we stayed in Refugio Passo Sella where the owner, Senora Capadozzi, spoke excellent English and always gave us a splendid welcome. From the nearby Demetz hut, where the LAC ladies had been feted, there was a steep slope in both directions. The precipitous, narrow descent challenged skiers because it was squeezed between rock walls. So when one winter the front of my skis touched one wall, turning the downhill ski 180" was easy. But moving the uphill ski wasn't. Somehow, eventually, I managed to complete the turn. Later these runs were closed due to the number of fatalities.

Another Dolomite speciality was the spectacular Via Ferrara, metal ladder-ways that were maintained by local guides. With minimal technical difficulty, thanks to wire hand rails to clip into, mountaineers could experience dramatic exposed positions that otherwise were the prerogative of Grade V I rock climbers. When Ron was guiding in the Brenta Dolomites, I soloed the Sentiero delle Bochette. I was enjoying the airy position when I reached a steep, snow filled gullet' whose slope not only disappeared from sight hundreds of feet below me but also the hand rail was buried. I crossed with great care!

Our evenings here were very special because at the Brenta Hut we had the pleasure and honour of meeting Bruno Detassis, a famous Italian Guide who spoke no English. Ron's good climbing vocabulary enabled them to converse while I chatted with Bruno's wife who's English was excellent. She impressed me when she said, "I have some trouble understanding old English."

Of all our wonderful experiences in mountains,five climbs were most memorable, because on each one I had different reasons to be worried.

Barbara James.

Extract from 'Itching to Climb'. Copies can be ordered direct from Barbara's website.