Friday, 8 June 2012

I feel rock


El Cap's East Buttress route starts high above the valley at the end of a ledge system on the mountain's right flank. It's a beautiful sunbaked route on a bulging rounded buttress of fine weathered yellow rock. If you're waiting there to start the route, it's slow-- because there are usually several Japanese teams hurling themselves at the first pitch like demented bananas. So have a look over the end of the ledge.

Below, in deep-contrasted shadow, is a tremendous corner sweeping down for 600ft. Continuous -with smooth wide walls, one overhanging and one just leaning back -the hairlike corner crack makes no secret of its challenge.

If you're into laybacks, then this is it, you've found it at last -the spiritual home of laybacks, whence came all the other little laybacks in the world. In all this climb's length there is just 10ft. of bridging on the second pitch: the rest is just pure apelike joy in every conceivable kind of layback position.

The start is ten minutes from the road and blatantly obvious. Senses are immediately stirred by the incredibly harsh light-and-shade chequer work of the corner's beautiful slabs, features obliterated by deep black shadow on brilliant sunlit stripes. It's hard to be single minded enough to concentrate on the first pitch of laybacking -but there it is, there's no other way.

Laybacking is a strangely committing kind of climbing. It always feels like that's it, once you start. You just stand there looking at it, building up for a rush, and although you know the crack will take good protection, you can't see where to put it once you're arched up in a layback position. There's always a tendency to get going and forget the protection. As the Editor would say: "Just lay back and enjoy it."

The first pitch is a wicked curved slash like a sabre scar, but it's just my size. 40ft. up, 20ft. to go, and I put a chock in. Handjam-size, number 9, pick it out on a tatty white tape and throw it in

I threw it in: it went right in, two feet in, krab and all, out of reach. I was broddling round with my longest wire, and was just pulling the tape out, when I saw one of those sights you just don't want to believe or accept. In the crack behind the nut was a hand, yes a hand. It still had chalk on, and grubby fingernails.

Not only was the sight of a hand completely unacceptable to me, but also it was dragging the nut away, my nut, into the depths of the mountain. I instinctively let go of the tape, and I remember thinking that dozens of climbers have probably lost their hands that way. best to let it have the nut and clear off. At the top of the pitch I grabbed the tree, tied on and checked to see if my feet were still there -you never know with hands in cracks what they're after.

Behind the tree was a perfect dark chimney parallel to the cliff face. Creeping out of the base at ground level was a giggling Yank with my nut.

The next pitch looked potentially even more horrific. A slab of rock weighing a few million tons had split, leaving a curly crack, then one side had slipped a couple of feet so that the curls on one side were out of phase with those on the other. Could it be a giant American meat grinder?

Our fears were allayed. The crack proved to be perfect jamming -just throw a fist or a finger in, and let it" slide down until it jams. Easy, just like that for 120 perfectly vertical feet.

The last pitch was another leap into the unknown. Run into the back of a 20ft.-wide cavernous chimney and bridge out of its roof, funnelling up into a narrowing fissure, squeezed out into space on a fist jam; layback and mantelshelf on to it, another jam for fingers only, and grab the top.

The trouble with Kilnsey is that the reasonably-angled slabs turn out to be overhanging, and the steep wall leading to the roof overhangs seriously. _

So the concept of the route was all right. The discreet wall trending to the shallow delicate groove-line -in turn becoming a cobra-headed corner, curving, poised. All right when it was a germ of an idea that quickly grew to a route that had to be done, a last great problem that we naively thought everyone was after.

But when it came to cleaning it. that's when realization dawned. Trying to reach in. Spinning on the long rope; flailing with a wire brush at the head wall; looking down at the rope shaking in space some 20ft. clear of the 'slabs' below. Bouncing around trying to get in and grab a piece of rock to clean -and that flicking rope cleaned out its own gully up above, the falling debris knocking bits off cheekbones and arms. And waking up from unconsciousness on the ground, with a red-hot figure~of·eight still melting the rope.

It was ridiculous, but too late. We'd blabbed, set it up: now we were set up.

Discreet walls were first. I never want to see another wall as discreet as that. Small hidden holds 10ft. apart with smirches, nickets and wrinkles in between, but where to go? Half lines leading to whole truths. And I follow one and see another, go again -and now suddenly I can say the climbing is unreasonable, but I think we mean the climber has lost the reason. So I hang on half a wire nut and smash hell out of my number I Clog, and make it thread a hole it wouldn't before. And I feel safe now, perhaps it's not so unreasonable --but it's too late, because Ron is pulling me down with plenty of reason bottled up in his paws.

At the thread Ron loses his reason, sees it is unreasonable, grabs the thread, rests, then spies a reason, a line of reasons leading to the groove. He likes the groove because it's hard, all go, but not unreasonable -and at the top, a perfect perch, two by one, two nuts and a peg.

Above, the cobra was wet, and to pin it down would have been too much, and the elder I was resting on broke off, so we broke off.

And we waited for the drought and with the waiting lost all reason, rushed past the thread and barely made it, strength failing 50ft. out. The elder was weak and needed tying up to a stopper thread.

I become an overhanging gardener and look for sheep to heal or pines to plant out -but there aren't any here, and I have to think about the cobra's head yet to come. I've seen this bit before, from my rope before it cleaned me off, so I climbed with confidence. Safely past the cobra's still-weeping eye, sneak left but can't rest beneath a wall that's not the one I knew on the rope. The wall has aero-bubbled rock bulging up to back-to-jugs 15ft. above. Deep breaths, nine or ten ---I like to think it re-aerates my blood, but in reality it's a simple task I can concentrate on -nine or ten, then go. Just-made-the-jugs, but perhaps it was a do-it-better-next-time move; it was, however, still the longest stretch I can do.

Up, and I persuade the second not to bother -I want it to be my experience for a year or two. I abseil down, as far out in space as possible.

There's not much to recommend Wellington Crack to the seeker of the aesthetic in climbing. The ugliness of the situation (Ilkey Quarry) is enveloping, the crack itself more of an evil unnatural slit -no comparison with the perfect Yosemite crack carefully dividing and apportioning sweeps of clean rock.

No, if any beauty is to be found in Wellington Crack, it can only be through feedback from the body and its movement.

From bottom to top the crack demands unending attention to movement that is at the same time delicate yet strenuous, dynamic yet slow and balanced. Every: foot requires something different of the climber. Every movement of every part has to be considered. Every movement is deliberate and worthwhile. A knee or an arm too far out and the layback doesn't work, or balance is lost. Too far in, and you begin to swing outwards slowly but irrevocably: in three or four seconds finger friction will be lost, and you'll be away.

You'll realise the reason at the top, take pride in rive minutes of perfectly controlled movement, and the graffiti and litter and tourists' dogs arc unimportant.


Barry Bates's routes are all alike -sort of thin cracks that split smooth walls with no footholds.

Having fingers the same shape and consistency as Chouinard 5-1/2 Stoppers is a distinct advantage on these routes. For the rest of us, it's just a 150ft. exercise in every
conceivable kind of finger jam, finger layaway and a half-a-handjam.

Feet are a kind of embarrassment: there appears to be nowhere to put them, and if you start worrying about it, your hands fall out. I finally worked out that the best scheme was to hide them away underneath your knees and hope they'd get up the route on their own.

It's not a straight-in crack. It's angled slightly and this makes the climbing a little easier, all kinds of peculiar finger jams surprisingly sticking in place.

The rock is magnificent, even for Yosemite -one of those routes where you get back down and say: "Did I do that? Let's do it again." But you don't, because somewhere in your 'inner mind is a subconscious but compelling chink of cool beer cans ---or half-gallon buckets of sherbet ice cream, if your name's Ron Fawcett.


You've not come here for a weekend's cragging. The route is II,000ft. up a mountain in the middle of the Persian desert---just getting there is about as difficult as getting into Yorkshire.

If the inscrutable Eastern customs officers don't stop you, or the swarms of Kurdish brigands brewing up on glowing camel-shit cakes don't overpower you on the slopes of the mountain, then the ten-foot tabby cats called mountain leopards will certainly have you on top.

But the route is something else ---a slender, almost vertical 1500ft. pillar of limestone, featureless from a distance but, on closer inspection, revealing a texture like Aero chocolate. Rough little bubbles that allow you to claw the rock like a cat.

Once you've learnt the clawing technique, the climbing becomes superb ---just pitch after pitch of seemingly runnerless rock, and you simply claw your way up it.

The situation is a spacewalk: 10,000ft. below, like a relief
map, lies the barren ridged desert, stretching away to the oil
rigs of the Persian Gulf ghosting up from the haze.


To the unsuspecting British climber the High Sierra is unbelievably beautiful. Gentle forest trails and the occasional road wind across an 8000f1. plateau, dark sweet-smelling pine alternating with areas of sunbleached bare granite ---acres of glacier-scoured rock sprouting the occasional lonely, twisted Jeffrey Pine.

In the distance are a dozen or so domes of brilliant white granite rising in perfect curves from the forest. The tallest is Fairview Dome, an 1800ft. sweep of granite, perfectly circular, with curves that ensure its place as the most perfect and biggest breast in the world. There's no way you can drive past without fondling its smooth slabs.

So gentle at first that it's easy walking; almost imperceptibly steepening until the slab is a steep slab and friction is not enough, and the eye is drawn to the line, the only line, a pencil-line crack .creasing the surface of that cuppable tit.

Find the line, follow it, and be drawn through the slabs to the wall, through overlaps and roofs, the line still faithfully leading to the only possible finishing point on this mountain.

Higher, the walls gradually curve back again, easing off for three pitches before the last final thrust of what one can only call a nipple, whether it looks like one or not.

Do you know what it feels like to sit up there on the biggest tit there is, looking down on a pine-chested woman with eleven more tits all around you? Outasight, man.


lf you think you've ripped off the French in Chamonix, then it's only fair to let them do it to you ---they've got a special place for it, the Saussois.

It's just Stoney Middleton with French-speaking routes; sort of smoother, more subtle, more elegant. The French will laugh at your efforts to climb the routes in English: you see, the French still regard a fifi hook for a rest as free climbing, while you end up with dislocated fingers after failing to make decent hooks out of them. It's worth being sand-bagged to climb in English, though, just for the experience of swinging up highly overhanging and improbable walls on superb hidden finger-jugs, or to be confronted suddenly on an overhang with a thread that you can crawl into for a rest.

L'Ange is the ultimate test of these techniques; nowhere is ~ there a poor hold, just steep sustained strenuosity up a highly improbable line. Protection is superb except at the start of the overhanging section, which is de-pegged.· 30ft. above and 15ft. out in space is a large jugular thread, ready threaded.

Just rush up this technical steep bit until good holds start you curving backwards up the roof. In such a haven of runners, that section is truly exciting. Next come two or three resting pegs, though it could be done without if you hadn't been to the pub the night before. That's the other place the French are out to rip you oIT -but we beat 'em.

When the landlord realises you're English and not just noddy Frogs, he produces a free round of strong green liquor from a bottle wrapped in a towel. When you've drunk it, he whips off the towel to reveal a pickled python, and you're supposed to rush off to be sick.

Not so our team -the landlord's jubilant garlic grin turning sour as John ordered two beers and another round of snake juice, s'il vous plait. The angel, it seems, is no match for the devil.


A foreboding, harsh grey cliff glowering at an equally angry-looking sea. A 150ft. sheet of smooth wall is dominated by a leaning headwall seamed with ridiculous-looking grooves [Penlire Head, Cornwall}. The start of Darkinbad does little to ease your mind ---a lurch from a boulder on to a wall of no return.

Then suddenly things change, and the whole wall is a mass of tiny twisted cracks and holds, each one containing hundreds of friendly acrobatic shrimps -it's alive. Everything is enjoyable, you're among friends -millions of climbers whiling away their time on a vast handhold sanctuary.

Just wander up that vast wall, always heading for a shallow alcove below the nastiest of the hanging grooves above. You set out up the groove; steady laybacking to a roof where you gradually realise that you're trying to layback with your feet above your hands and there's no horizon left.

The shrimps above are disturbed by a blind hand creeping over the roof, feeling around, finding a flat hold with a useful crack down the back; a body and legs follow, and all end up teetering on the flat hold with the useful crack.

The rest is a foregone conclusion, and you can lie in the sun in perfect Japanese film-maker's grass until your second gets annoyed and begins to drag you over the edge,

Pete Livesey

First published in Crags magazine 1976.