Friday, 19 July 2013

Northern Expressions

You know how quickly a route can assert itself upon your tied-on, racked-up and ready-to-climb enthusiasm: it grabs you when you think you're grabbing it. '6m right of a rowan', and the starting jugs of the spiky buttress satisfy your eagerness to get going in the lead for the first pitch. Then, suddenly, you're balancing on a toe-point on top of a spike facing a steep wall that has closed up its compact face and you're feeling around for the smallest of finger holds just to give you time to work out the next move. But time is what you've not got on your rack. Time is what you were supposed to have bought by regular visits to the synthetic indoors through the winter (which in my case, I had not got).

So it was back to that familiar dialogue between the 'Do something quick!' voice and the 'Stay cool!' voice. At a second stretch of a foot to the sloping ledge out on the right, I decided that the friction had to be good enough. And, at the same moment, my fingers found a little square edge that had been above my head all the time. Committed now, the most tempting holds were at full stretch, but I risked my foot skidding off before my fingers could close for a breath-held pull.

At this point the Artist arrived and started chatting to the Welsh Editor who was holding my ropes, seemingly on a bit of a 'Hiraeth'. They were joking about something. The sling around the spike seemed a long way below. There was no question of my greeting the Artist (I was too gripped), although at the back of my mind I knew it would seem churlish — especially since he was responsible for my acquaintance with the hid­den gems of Longsleddale.

Indirectly, he was responsible for my winter-long obsession with Sadgill Wall — which is only Mild Severe, south-facing, now with two stars and perfect for a first Lakes route after the snow and rain have stopped. Little did I realise that I would be dragging the Welsh Editor out of his Sunday morning bed, to do it in a day's flash from Sheffield on what was to be the hottest day of the year. 'When we were young', I remember Pat Ament telling a Buxton conference audi­ence, 'we had some scary adventures and we came back barely alive.' At the end of this long June day that's how we would feel, but without the benefit or excuse of youth.

My acquaintance with Longsleddale had begun 10 years earlier when David Craig and I had met the Artist to climb his father's route on the opposite side of the Valley. Exactly 60 years after the first ascent, we climbed Black Cleft HVD on a dry afternoon at the end of summer. Hav­ing a thrillingly bold swing right at the top, it was so much better than the name implied. Then, last year, we truanted from the newly-revived Kendal Film Festival and the Artist belayed Gill's lead on Dandle Buttress HD, whilst I took snaps. The top of the first pitch was surprisingly strenuous, so Gill belayed early for me to lead through. This brought us out onto the airy buttress up which Gill led from exposed ridge, to frictionous slabs, to a steep little corner and 'Spike Minor' (as the nomenclature of 1929 has it). The narrow neck containing 'Spike Major', that joined the buttress to the mountain, had us exclaiming in amazement and dancing along Alpine-style. Walking out that day, I looked over my shoulder and noticed someone leading across a slab below an overhang on the right of the crag: Sadgill. Wall made its mark on my mind. Next spring, I thought:

So here I was at last (actually not in the first flush of spring, but certainly flushed), and about to spring for those jugs in silent terror whilst the Artist joked with the Welsh Editor out of sight below. A little leap; a firm fist-grip: a scrabble of feet and the jagged ridge led up to a steep pull to the most solid of spike belays. 'Now, what did you have in mind for this drawing?' shouted the Artist, who had loped up the scree with the long stride of a local.
'A crag sketch like your dad's guide book drawings,' I called down. `You mean from back down there'....'Errr, yes.'

'Right,' came the nonplussed reply, and the Artist promptly slid down the steep grass on his bum, like a kid having a great time in his back garden — which of course he was.
Fortunately, the Welsh Editor declined an offer of the next lead, so I got to discover why this route has gained a star since the previous guide. The second pitch is simply stunning: steep, well-protected and needing a thoughtful approach. It begins by a swing along the edge of a slanting crack to a thread behind jammed spikes; then launches across, the slab below the overhang in a brilliant puzzle of footholds and always sharp spikes for grateful fingers. The belay ledge is one of those places where it simply feels good to balance the close reading of rock beside you and the open reading of river, and meadow, and mountain beyond.

Now a conundrum presents itself: where to begin a traverse, of the steep slab on the right? I went up to place a sling on a small spike and up again to traverse at a break. This may have been too high and too safe, but the heat of the day was taking its toll; getting up vertical heather to the rowan belay took a sapping effort. The Welsh Editor yanked on the bilberry roots into the grassy bay above and tied on to the broken wall of the bay. Here, I started up a crack, found myself stepping round to the right and up onto another eagle-eerie of a ledge below the '3 metre crack'. It's actually the corner on its left, which is climbed by foot-jams and long pulls.

As rock gave way to heather, I slumped beside the last rock on which to belay. I felt weak and whacked; taking in the rope took a dry-mouthed effort. The Welsh Editor arrived in better shape than me. The Artist was still at his post, leaning back against a boulder still sketching far below. Now came the narrow neck of pinnacles that is the top of Dandle Buttress. It should have been fun, but the last heave up the last pinnacle drained the last of my strength and I flopped down on the turf that curves over into the short descent gully. I was glad I had a helmet on to keep the sun off and equally glad I had the new boots clipped to my harness for the grueling steep descent. But I advised the Welsh Editor to keep his rock-shoes on for the first part of the under-cut descent gully, which is both tricky and loose. In the shade below it, we changed into our boots and frankly, lay back a bit in the cool breeze that always funnels through here.

Then, over another grassy col, and we were sliding down scree and steep grass seeking a seepage in the stream bed to suck at and slap on our burning necks. Below the crag, we descended slowly towards a boul­der, big enough to offer shade to two sad gits panting like sheep: the Artist popped up, not at all pooped by the heat. Re-hydrating at the pub, Julian Cooper showed us his sketchbook and Ian Smith thought he might have a photo or three. I thought I might be able to write a piece without exaggerating the heat, perhaps, and resisting the title 'Sadgit Wall'.

Julian's drawing of the route is so intensely full of information and impressions that it's the very opposite of William Heaton Cooper's economical sketches of crags for the FRRC Lake District climbing guides. "Your father really understood crag structure." said Harry Griffin to Julian when I took him to see Julian's recent paintings from his trip to Kanchenjunga Base camp. Harry first climbed Sadgill Wall in 1949 and now, just a month before his 90th birthday, he remembered that first pitch as "Feeling VS: it was steep, smooth and holdless. We were wearing clinkers on our boots, not tricounis. Eric Arnison and Tom Philipson and I each had a go at that first pitch and failed. Then I remembered that I had some black rubbers in my rucksack and succeeded. But credit must go to the other two, you know, who did the whole climb in clinkers."

I remember the interesting challenge of working out the route and feeling lonely and exposed in the upper reaches of the climb. We had no slings, just the rope that was tied round our waists. I never climbed it again, but lots of people come and tell me how much they have enjoyed it.' Well, me too, Harry. I for one am looking forward to climbing it again and perhaps feeling less of a sad git on Sadgill Wall,

Terry Gifford: First published in The Joy of Climbing