Friday, 27 April 2012

A visit to Crag X

This was a climb I had long admired and aspired to, ever since I slipped away from the family on a holiday to South Wales and scrambled round the headland to discover it. It was really just one buttress but there seemed to be at least 20 lines on it – many of them beyond me. The overhang on the left hand side looked particularly challenging but no doubt the Littlejohns of this world would sail up it. But Pat doesn’t know about its existence, though how he can have missed it I don’t know.

But the time is right for its first ascent. After a week of climbing with my daughter on the Gower I agree to let her in on the secret and feeling suitably prepared we embarked on the scramble to reach it. It is a warm June day and the sea rolls in onto the beach opposite Crag X dispersing its white wave tops on the bright warm sand. We need to wait a little longer to get to the platform below it by crossing the bay so we stretch out on the beach head and have some lunch. Unusually we have come prepared with rolls, cheese, pickle, pork pie and tomatoes that slide easily down the throat and fill the body with that contentment that can only come from a full stomach. The effort of digestion is great and I lie down to study the lines. I imagine myself powering over the big overhang or delicately tackling the open face in the middle of the main buttress but I cannot ignore the Central Grooves that I have come here to climb. I hope that a better name evolves as we attempt the route.

One of the best names ever is from that great poet Ed Drummond - Dream of White Horses. I was fortunate enough to climb it when the second stance was still occupied by a small white plastic horse left by an early ascentionist. The climb’s reputation gripped me, as did the abseil into its base but the climbing absorbed rather than terrified me and I regard it as a high point in my climbing activity (Career is not an appropriate word). That is until now, because today I was going to attempt a first ascent on an unknown crag.

So we are at the base of the climb – waves breaking gently on the beach but they are receding with the tide so no worries there. A real bonus is the pile of pebbles at the base of the climb to allow dry & sand less feet from the start. No teetering on small holds just off a wet sandy beach trying to dry my old EBs. A point of clarification is needed here. The younger reader will not appreciate the great advance of the 1960s that were the EB Gratton Rock Shoe. I wore out three pairs in the six years I was climbing extensively and bought two pairs for £11.95 each in 1978 at a closing down sale from Centresport in London. One pair had lasted me from then until three years ago when the second pair were brought out of cold storage for a resurgence in my interest in climbing driven by my youngest daughters growing interest. She overtook me on the wall but real rock allowed the wily old rocker to keep up. An interesting point here is that I could look at a cliff and see the lines jump out at me instantly but it takes her longer – is this the indoor wall climbing by numbers effect?

The rope uncoils tidily onto the stones and we tie on. A perfect thread round a huge rock secures her 7 stone to hold my 11 stone – if anything should go wrong. But today I know it won’t, I’m unstoppable. I take a leisurely step back to review the entire climb – the first flake, the left trending corner then the three connected grooves to the top all with small overlaps to tax the imagination. It should go in one run out but there seem to be two possible breaks if required.

Off we go then. The first flake takes a few easy jams that cause those woodlouse-like sea creatures to scuttle deeper into the crack for cover and a solid spike takes a sling for my first protection.  For years I only started to put in protection when things got difficult – sometimes ending up with all my gear unused at the top of a pitch but exposure to the fall factor school of thinking had made me a more cautious climber and I now always played the safety game.

The first few moves up from the spike are on really good jams or a nice layback – if I can see choices I must be climbing well – I go for the latter and reach the horizontal break where I find a placement for one of my new Wallnuts that I recently purchased to update my gear. Good jams and adequate footholds lead to a beautiful move using a high hidden handhold and I pass the break into the first groove. A rest and ingenious nut placement boost the confidence. Holds on the left wall and right arĂȘte allow a few bridging moves that take me to the next overlap. I stand in balance to place a bomb-proof hex and calmly survey the passing manoeuvre I am about to make. It is actually three short moves using jams for hands and wide bridging with the right foot then changing to foot jams and back to a bridge, but it flows smoothly and with another stonking runner I swarm up the steepening jamming crack to the next overlap.

Just before I get there the jams run out and the brain has to kick in. A small but solid wire protects me and I call down to H to watch me (Code for “Its getting hard”). Time seems to stop as I puzzle out the problem. Why aren’t I panicking – the holds are thin – the angle is beyond vertical but it seems so natural to just stand there and work it out. This really is heaven, I must be on top form. A tiny foothold way out left comes into view and I try it – it works so I retreat to scan for handholds. After many tries I adopt a strange overhand grip on the edge above my head and stretch out left to the foothold. Perversely as I lean left the grip intensifies like a magnetic field holding me on and my right foot follows up and out to find a small hold on the small hanging arete on the right. I am back in balance and a slot appears before my eyes that sinks a perfect Chouinard wedge that I have had for 30 years and recently restrung. I ignore an easy crack to the left and jam and bridge the final groove to the top, slotting in two more runners just for the hell of it. A small steepening near the top is no match for this old rocker and with a final mauling jam I explode over the top.

Whoops of delight embarrass my daughter though there is no audience for this outburst. Nor indeed is there any for the perfect 10:10 performance given by the climber. It is only in the minds of the protagonists. A minor irritation is the lack of a good belay until a long trek back reveals two good cracks and with ingenious use of slings and economical use of the rope there are a few inches of slack for the second to tie on.

Funnily enough I don’t remember her ascent of the climb – she must be on form as well – or perhaps my euphoria takes over.

“So what do you think? 40 metres sustained 4c with a couple of 5a moves must make it HVS and I led it”. My first new route but what to call it?

We return to our beach head and finish the lunch – malt loaf, cheese and some crisps with a can of Lucozade. I lie back and the warmth overtakes me and I doze off.

I wake with a start – got it – Feeling Groovy – the perfect name paying homage to other namers before me. It seemed so perfect that I am loath to share it with anyone other than H who fully understands the need for secrecy. Lets just go away and let others find it for themselves – I never was a new router. Or am I keeping it to myself until I can tackle that big overhang and really make a name for myself …… In your dreams!

Keith Ratcliffe