Thursday, 7 February 2013

At the Corrie of the Black Raven

My first rock-climb was on my 20th birthday, October 7 1952. My last was on May 19 2011, when I was 78 - although I'd had a gap (to put it mildly) from 1952 to 1973. I know I won't climb again and I'm not being all stoical or mellow about it. Really, inwardly, I'm groaning and keening as all that long experience of effort and delight has reached its terminus at last.
In 1952, on a moist and overcast morning on Lochnagar, I went up Black Spout Buttress, led by two good lads I've never seen since, Gavin Alexander, who looked like a colonial civil servant circa. 1910, and Ian MacPhail, who was lean and self con­tained and edited the Aberdeen student journal. As we geared up on the scree, in the enclosing gloom of the corrie, a voice said out of the air, 'Davey'" Fancy seeing you here " It was Bill Brooker; his invisible partner (I worked out many years later) was Tom Patey. They were putting up a route they named The Stack. Our route I can't quite identify. It took a mole‑like crawl through a squeeze between the pinnacle and the massif, then you stepped out into what felt like the misty air itself and crept up an exposed slab while the great ribs and faces gleamed dully all around.
The last climb was a trio of wee gems on a cragette in the jaws of Patterdale above Ullswater. The outcrop is called Oxford Slabs - unfortunately, because who wants a reminder of, say, Professor J.H.Clapham and his little circus of acolytic students when you're in the wild heart of Cumbria? The lines we found are not in any guidebook. They must be well frequented because there's an iron stake at the top and the scree is trodden through to gravel-probably by learners from the Outward Bound school not far away. Just for fun we named our routes: Sere, Slant, and Trident. The first had a single yellowed holly leaf lying at its foot; the second followed the diagonal grain of the rock (and Slant is also a distant echo of Slape and Brant); and the third was gouged near its top with a natural triple scar.

 'We' was myself and Chris Culshaw, who taught me technical climbing in the early 70s and has come with me up dozens of routes ever since. Mostly in the Lake District. He taught Remedial English at my children's comprehensive in Morecambe and has written many brilliant pioneering schoolbooks: a patient, humorous man and the best conceivable partner on rock. We put a top rope down Oxford Slabs because we know that we're both near the end of our physical tethers - and in my case have just passed it. Trident was gruelling enough: secured from above, I found myself committed to a steep, sheer passage with no resting place and I had to do a mantel which made my arms feel as though I was trying to lift a grand piano with a piece of string.
Some feelings are much worse than that and they're what has grounded me at last. Colour drains from the scene, a sparkly effect sets in like the blizzard on TV when no channel has been and all power of upward or forward movement drains away. This is because my heart, with its narrowed valve-and arteries, is failing to pump enough oxygen-rich blood to my brain. This had nearly killed me in November 2005. A daily cocktail of pills keeps me going - up to-a point. In 2009 I was climbing a route called Jomo in Trowbarrow Quarry near Silverdale (North Lanca­shire) with Dick Renshaw, now a sculptor, once a high-altitude climber until the rarefied air got to him high on K2 and the expedition doctor told him not to go up there again.

Jomo has two pitches, easy lumpy slabs up to a platform, then a delicate creep up a gangway abutting on a wall and a wonderfully precar­ious swing around a jutting beak, leaving a lay-away and using an ever-shinier limestone nodule for the right toe. I've soloed it and climbed it with my wife. Today I lead the slabby start and leave the gorgeous climax to Dick. After a minute or two, colour drains, sparkles take over, energy collapses to near zero.. I have to pause and spray clove-flavoured glycerol tri nitrate under my tongue from a little bottle I've put in my pocket for the past four years. In minutes full consciousness steals over me again; I step on up and fifteen minutes later, following Dick up the crux, I complete the route - not frightened- chastened, even humiliated. Dick is understanding and unworried - steadiness personified.
I'm left thinking what good is this, medicating my way up steep rock? where's the glory, the unalloyed delight, the sense of being at home in this fierce element, of being as equal to it as an orangutan is to the forest.?
This realization creeps over me like frost for the next two years, thawed briefly by that joyous session on the wee outcrop in Patterdale. In. the meantime I develop a fantasy with one of my climbing sons, Neil ( ascensionist, with Rick Campbell, of Thor on Shelter Stone Crag above Loch Avon) that he'll take me up a nice long mountainous Diff. or V.Diff, once I'm eighty. What a milestone that would be, what a happy defiance of old age. He and his elder brother Peter had taken me up Grooved Arete on the Rannoch Wall of Buachaille Etive Mhor for my 70th. A perfectly happy outing: technical edging up the first slim pillar - airy step out onto the face - frictioning up a huge slab with a macro-grain like sharkskin - hefty heaves up the final corner; and to end the day a feast of curried puy lentils down at camp in the stony, water-rustling darkness of Glen Etive.
Ten years later... the arteries have not magically shed their fatty furring, the valve is still too narrow (and really needs to be replaced by an artificial one that looks like an inch of complicated macaroni), my thumbs and shoulders are rusting up, my bowel is so much obsolete plumbing, my gait and balance are slow, uncertain, no longer to be taken for granted with the naturalness of an organism in its prime. I could get up to the crag (so could an aged slug) - if my partner had the patience of a saint, or a psychiatrist. I could manage the rock technically, if the spray was there in my pocket. No freedom of release in that, or revelling in wild beauty, or sense of enhanced belonging to the physical world.
The high episodes of those years from 1973 to 2011 are peaks in a range that seemed as though it would ripple on indefinitely. The elastic of the stretch through the overhangs on Haste Not (White Ghyll, Langdale), as you keep keep your fingers clutched on the point of a shield and wonder if your toes are ever going to reach lodgement in the neuk at its foot. The gibbon-like swinging from one rattling spike to another on the big traverse on Snoopy (Mainreachan Buttress, Fuar Toll, Wester Ross). The ledges on Moonshadow (Blouberg, Transvaal), eight hundred feet above the early morning polyphony of the baboons down there in the bush,while Alpine Swifts arc and whirr a few yards out from the ochre and cinnamon planes of the rockface. Even our failure on the Rock of Gibraltar, when Neil and I roped back down from three hundred feet or so (from a sling on an iron stanchion left by the British gunnery engineers in the 1780s), while cracking, bursting stones hurtled down into a scrapyard patrolled by dark-maned Alsatians - even that failure was an episode to revel in, and breathe again in relief at our escape, as we looked out from our hotel balcony towards Algeciras and Morocco.

All peaks - sunlit peaks - revisited a hundred times between 1 and 5 a.m., and their fellows in Buttermere and Wasdale, on Scafell and Rivelin Needle, in Glen Etive and Coire Etchachan, on Stanage and Mingulay and Beinn Eighe. It's a peculiar way to get to know the world, blood on the knuckles, birdlime in the hair, uncertain of your safety for hours on end, making journeys where the going is everything and arriving is an anti­climax. It's a natural way, as we see in the lives of rock-doves and ravens and peregrines. It's a wholly human way, as we alternate between the weird aloneness of yourself staring at an embedded rung of brownish rock and wondering if its upper rim juts enough to give purchase to your finger ends (the 5a pitch of Swastika, Trilleachan Slabs, Glen Etive) and the togetherness of reunion with your partner at the finish, knowing you had both.been through the same ordeal, won through it to the same contentment.

While climbing was continual, there had always been something to keep the imagination simmering: memories of the last climb, as vivid and improbable as a dream; a climb in prospect in an unexplored back dale somewhere, or even in a new country. Doing the legwork for the 1987 F.& R.C.C. Buttermere guide had me combing Newlands and Birkness Combe, Fleetwith Pike and upper Ennerdale, with eyes wide open and alert as a hunting buzzard - an earthbound raptor carrying only a pair of glasses, the old guide, a notebook, and some chocolate-covered Kendal mintcake. Three-quarters of the way up the Fleetwith Ridge, a slot opened deeply into the rock - a flurry happened - something shot out and away - a peregrine bolted eastward towards Green Crag, its image shrinking suddenly in reverse zoom as it zigzagged past Haystacks and left a clutch of olive eggs on the dust of thy, ledge. The moment could hardly have happened if I'd been rattling gear or shouting to a partner. I was alive, the bird was alive.

Such moments were always about to happen. It was like a vista that kept opening out indefinitely - always another crack to fit the fingers, another overhang to muscle up boldly or (more likely) to creep round cunningly, another gnarled cliff reaching skyward which might or might not 'go'. Climbing was always more or less there - inside us, ingrained. In the mid 70s, when all this was starting, I used to look down at my feet,, as they stepped over cobbles or setts or the patterned PVC on the kitchen floor and imagine that they were fitting themselves to edges, gauge friction, avoid unsteady rock. As experiences grew and layered themselves, it was as though the crags were one complex, many-bodied creature to which we related, with its nervous and vascular systems, its skeleton, its flesh. Or as Richard Fortey the fossil expert (author of Life and The Earth) puts it, 'The rocks beneath us are like an unconscious mind beneath the face of the earth, determining its shifts in mood and physiognomy.'

So the intimacy of connection between rock and self began to seem like molding. I was the malleable stuff poured into the contours of the rock, replicating its shape - which is what we do when we stretch an arm the exact 27 inches along a face to grip a hold, curl the finger ends 2 inches round an edge or bend the torso out and up and above an overhang.

One of the most tantalizing things about being grounded at last, and robbed of that close keeping with the rock, is that I can see the Langdale Pikes from the garden. Harrison's Stickle rises clear and salient thirty miles north-north-west across the Vale of Westmorland and the Kent estuary, across Windermerere and Grizedale Forest and Elterwater - all invisible, of course, bedded down in their leafy channels -until at last our vision reaches out to the Stickle, its left flank angling steeply up to the abrupt flattening of the summit. I last climbed there in the depth of foot-and-mouth. We had to walk up the fell between red-and-white tapes that kept people off ground they might contaminate as though we were trespassing on a crime scene. The goal was Porphyry Slab, first climbed in the middle of the Greatest War (August 11 1942). 

What will never leave me is the start of pitch 3, a step onto and past an arete of cleanest rhyolite, buffeted by a dry cold airflow from the south­west. No fear or worry, just that stride out into a racing, cleansing element, like entering the ocean for a swim. Now that jut of land has become one of the most tantalising focal points among many blue or grey skylines that I can no longer reach, except in these words - in fantasy.

David Craig: 2013. (Previously unpublished)