Mike Banks leads the first pitch of Wreckers' Slab:SV
Memories have been stirred recently by recent features on the Very Severely Frightened theme. I have often been frightened — of course I have, jibberingly so — but not usually on a VS route. Memorable VSs — yes plenty of them. My very first was Cir Mhor's South Ridge Direct on Arran. I was slightly apprehensive about leading the crux Y cracks but in the event I coped okay and the dominant mood was one of contentment, lapping up glorious acres of granite and savouring the thrill of using for the first time my very own rope, nuts and slings. Another beauty, but harder, was Longland's Climb on Cloggy. But for real pant-wetting, mouth-drying, leg-trembling terror, I can only offer Slape, an unfashionable little number in the Llanberis Pass.
It was a cold March day, 1974. My first climb after breaking a knee four months earlier. The crux wall on, I think, the second pitch, seemed horribly steep. I had no arm strength and no technique to compensate. Stuck too far above protection, fighting the hysterical sewing machine judder of my legs, clawing frantically with numb fingers, I hung on for ages, whimpering at the prospect of limb-smashing spikes on the belay ledge beneath, before finally dredging up some precious reserves of adrenaline to scrabble up the last moves to safety.
I'm not sure I could cope with that level of fear now. At the time it was a therapeutic opportunity to triumph over my own weakness and the victory was deliciously sweet, restoring some much needed self respect. I can remember those sensations vividly but details of the actual climb are vague and I'm ashamed to say that I have forgotten which fellow undergraduate it was who witnessed my solipsistic jibbering. In other words, there's not really an article's worth of material. So I am going to fast forward 20 years to a very different VS experience. On this late summer day in 1994 there was no epic, no cold-sweat-fear, no victorious catharsis but the route was a classic and it was made specially memorable by my companion for the day, an old friend and neighbour, Mike Banks.
At 71 he was still horribly energetic. Wrecker's Slab, a famous VS on the wild north coast of Devon, was to be his final limbering up before a charity ascent of the Old Man of Hoy. As we drove down the M5 he remarked cheerfully: "I bet Bonington can't wait for me to kick the bucket so that I don't clutter up the Golden Oldie media slot." I asked if he was going to write his memoirs: "I'd love to, but I'll have to wait until quite a few retired generals have fallen off their perch or they'll all be sueing me." Rebellious, provocative, impatient of authority, he used sometimes, like that other great iconoclast John Barry, to be a thorn in the flesh of the Royal Marines. However, after wartime service in the Far East, he found his niche in Cornwall as a climbing instructor in the cliff assault wing and became one of the great aficionados of South West climbing. One of his juniors was a young naval doctor called Tom Patey, and it was with him in 1958 that Banks made the first ascent of one of the world's highest and most beautiful peaks, Rakaposhi.
Like so many Himalayan summits, Rakaposhi was snatched at the eleventh hour, in this case on the second expedition Mike had led to the mountain. The weather was lousy and by all normal criteria the two men at the top camp should have gone down, but as Mike recalled: "I'd invested two years in this mountain. It was probably our last chance and we had to get up the bloody thing." So they went for it, boldly, and got away with it,escaping with just a touch of frostbite. "And what about The Doctor," I asked, "how did you get on?" "Oh, he was a lively, talkative, irreverent sort of bloke. We were bound to get on well."
It was the same doctor, the incomparable explorer, Patey, whose route we had gone to climb. Wrecker's Slab, in 1959, was one of the first explorations on the Culm — the unique rock of North Devon, laid down millions of years ago as mud, then squeezed, compressed and solidified to slaty consistency, folded, twisted and finally forced up into the tilted slabs which now brood over the Atlantic. Wrecker's is the largest of several overlapping slabs, faintly reminiscent of Cloggy's West Buttress, which form the headland of Cornakey Cliff. lain Peters, in his admirably idiosyncratic guide to North Devon and Cornwall, pays fulsome tribute to the first ascensionists — his grandfather, Admiral Lowder, Zeke Deacon and Tom Patey, 'who had all the necessary qualifications for success; experience on loose rock, ability and, uniquely, a robust, individualistic, almost "buccaneering" approach to climbing in the finest tradition'.Inspired by those stirring words, Banks and I left the car and headed across the fields under a darkening sky.
Rain began to fall as we geared up at the top of the cliff, so we waited under a wind-bent hawthorn. Mike ruminated about a Quaker friend: "I don't think much of religion but at least these chaps have lots of silence — very conducive to thought' while I got out my camera for some stock shots of the thinker, enjoying an all too rare moment of silence, under a crown of thorns. Then the rain slowed down to a drizzle and we headed down, seaward.
The sea was a wonderful sculpture of glistening pebbles. Fronded fins of culm stretched jagged out to sea, like Chaucer's 'grizzly, fiendish, blacke rockes' and one could imagine the wreckers at dead of night, with their deceiving lanterns, luring unwary ships to disaster. But we were there by day, the drizzle had stopped and within minutes the slab's sheen had evaporated. Banks led the first awkward step off the beach (which turned out to be the hardest move in all of the 400ft of the climb) and we were away.After the great build up of legend and tradition the route was, dare I say it, a little bit disappointing.
By the second pitch Banks was muttering: "Don't think much of that, certainly not VS. Still, it is the biggest sea cliff route in England." And even if the moves did seem disappointingly easy, the atmosphere on that great tilted sweep of culm, speckled orange with lichen, sprouting translucent remains of spring's pinks and still juicily pungent samphire, with the turquoise ocean far below, breaking white on the boulders, was truly exhilarating.And, even if time and experience has tamed the route, it is still no place for complacency; any one of the thousands of slaty tiles which corrugate its surface might break off without warning and, as the admiral's grandson warns, protection is indeed sparse.
The sun was now bright, with that special clarity of early autumn and both of us were busy photographing. Banks, ever image conscious, wished that he had left his helmet behind: "I'm making a cottage industry out being a wrinkly; my white hair is my most valuable feature," but he still looked quite striking with his bushy Asterix moustache. A moment later, with uncanny coincidence, we found a little white-haired gnome wedged in a crack. I stuck it for a moment on Banks's head, then put it respectfully back in its crack, wondering what Friendless wag had brought it up there for protection. Another long, sunny pitch and we were on top, following a final arete till it merged with the green and russet cliff top.
The rain returned so we retreated to the Morwenstowe pub, where I ordered a pint of the excellent local bitter and Mike asked smugly for an alcohol free lager. "It helps the arthtitis." I could easily have stayed all afternoon, sinking into a beery stupor but the breezy teetotaller suggested that while the weather made up its mind we should visit the church, a Culm masterpiece, fortified in places by foreign Dartmoor granite. The Saxon font, Norman dogstooth arches and intricate 16th century wood carving testified to centuries of continuity at this ancient place of worship, making a mockery of our frivolous pastime on the rocks below but we were ostensibly there to climb, so as soon as the sun re-emerged we headed back to the cliffs.
We finished the day at Oldwall's Point, on an almost Alpine arete above a huge expanse of glittering ocean, with Banks posed patiently for hackneyed silhouttes against the westering sun. A few days later he established his new age record for the Old Man of Hoy and raised a large sum of money for his Quaker friend's charity. I had longer to wait for my next climb but that seemed pretty unimportant after such a wonderful day out on the incomparable Culm cliffs of north Devon.
First Published in High 166