Monday, 20 October 2014

Falling about and not laughing......reprise

To mark the fifth anniversary of Footless Crow, a welcome republication of the very first article to appear; David Craig's previously unpublished 'Falling about and not laughing'. An article that was languishing as a forgotten typewritten essay at the bottom of a drawer in the Craig household, with another early Footless David Craig piece- 'Diamonds and Rust'-which appeared a few weeks later. David has always been one of my favourite outdoor writers and it's been an honour and a pleasure to host many of his past works-both published and previously unpublished. As with most early articles on the site, the quality of the work was not reflected in the viewing figures. Hopefully its reprise will attract a host of new readers who missed it the first time around. 

David Craig was born in Aberdeen in 1932 and is married to Anne Spillard. He first climbed rock on Lochnagar in 1952, then didn't climb again (for several compelling reasons) until 1973 when his children began climbing in the Lake District. Best known in the UK for his classic 1987 climbing book Native Stones which was quickly followed by the equally impressive Landmarks. David has written several non climbing books on Scottish history and culture as well as works of poetry and novels. David appeared in the BBC series Wilderness Walks and will appear in a BBC Scotland outdoor programme to be screened in the future. A long term resident of South Cumbria. David has contributed as a guide book area author and has many first ascents in the UK to his credit,including routes made with Cumbrian legend Bill Peascod. 
He has climbed in England,Scotland,Wales,France,Germany,
Gibraltar,South Africa and America.

It may have been euphoria. I don't think it was hubris. We'd been staying at Sennen Cove again, our mid-winter journey into that place of mild storms and epic winds. The usual gale greeted us and it blew until Pete was about to leave. He is an ideal partner, who climbs regularly in the Avon and Verdon Gorges at E3/4 6a/b, and is therefore so solid on my grade of route-VS/HVS-with occasional forays upwards) that when he's leading it makes me feel I'm wearing a parachute, or wings. But the nearest we got to a climb before he had to leave was to stand on the precipitous tussocks above Great Zawn at Bosigran so that he could eye up the line of Dream/ Liberator, which he fancies for some perfect day this summer.

After he'd left, I was humming with unexpended energy. I soloed around at Pedn-Maen Du, put up a 20-metre Severe at the southernmost end of the possibilities, on a grooved and stepped wall right of Teleology, and called it Roisin Dubh because it's in Irish Lady Cove and the rock is stained deep black.

Coming back along the base of the crags to the home terrain between Sunday Face and Demo, I spied a ladder of knobbly quartz mini-jugs edging out of the granite, which looked familiar but vertical enough to be provoking. I pulled up, it went, it was irresistible. At the finish, when I thought I'd cracked it, I frightened myself trying to swing left through mid-air on an extraordinary beak - petrified remnant of an extinct bird -integral with the crag but so slender - I retreated, sweating, tried a cleft on the right between two crystalline haunches, and got up it by means of jams so secure that they lacerated. Double Overhang, of course - 20 metres, 4b, 4b. By my standards I was going well, and when we went to Carn Kenidjack on our last day, to write and read and scramble, I felt just about ready to nip up Gneiss Gnome, which had been grinning at me for a year or two. But I took the precaution of peering down the final twenty feet of its ninety, and the cleaned slant joint was lined with a paste of winter-moist soil, and the little toe-steps to its right -facing in- were dripping, so I went on down the path with my headier impulses tightly reined in.

Down there, at the foot of the great shield of Saxon and Thane, in that lovely zone of waves swinging in blue and bursting white, I laddered up the first sixty feet of the Gnome, to confirm the no-go assessment. No, I could not make myself slink up that oozing gutter, the fear would be ghastly, the situation beyond control by strength and skill alone, and where's the good in that? So down I went again and along the shingle, looking longingly up at the subtly engraved surfaces of the Carn itself. I'd always wondered how to start Saxon. The first holds are clearly out of reach, so, experimentally, I did a few gymnastics between the giant boulder and the face and it seemed as though back-and-footing might do the trick.

But the footholds gleamed and dripped, so I dried them thoroughly on my selection of bar towels (Teacher's, Marston's, and Stone's), chimneyed up with Fires squirming as the ooze reappeared, lunged for a rim, swung up, edged left, and in no time I was strolling my hands along the flake which crescents across the face like the lower lip of a sabre-cut, feet on the positive wrinkles; eighty feet of comfortable climbing which gave me at least a taste and feel of that rearing expanse, until things became so thin and steep that further progress without a rope would have been, ridiculous and I traversed off and down the Gnome again.

I was so in tune with this pure, cold-forged, wind-scoured world by now that I leaned against the foot of the shield with my arms spread out, my cheek against the gneiss, and a poem came to me, whole lines and the clinching idea, as the gulls' shadows criss-crossed on the sunlit rock and the waves hissed and seethed behind me. Perfect contentment. I kept my Fires on, put on my ruck­sack, and walked along the shore to the little zawn on the left for a last scramble. A short wall beckoned, twenty feet on protruding biscuits but holds galore and easier-angled terrain waiting above. I pulled up, fingered and toe the biscuits; they were sound enough though thin as ginger snaps. I reached up and pinched a sloping arete on the right, bridged off its twin on the left and eased up into the valley above.

A grating and tearing, like a tooth coming out - the wall blazes up past me in a blur - utter, sudden stoppage  ‑unnatural silence, like after a car crash - a boulder to my left rears like a trapdoor falling and slams the side of my head. I've landed feet first on tilted boulders and bounced leftwards against a slab. I lie there, tingling. Black-faced rocks outstare me calmly, keeping their counsel, disclaiming all responsibility for this folly. I haven't blacked out, so no concussion. I work my ankles round and round, and they do work, although my right heel is numb.My hair is wet where my head hit but not streaming. My left haunch and right knee are on fire with grazes and my right elbow has been hammered. But I can make it up the path -with its unavoidable ten-foot Diff rock step- and back to the car where Anne is, quite rightly, as much exasperated as consoling.

So you shouldn't solo, alone, without a helmet, on unclimbed, brittle rock in winter. Of these six factors, perhaps only the 'unclimbed' one is crucial. As I looked up the twenty feet of my fall, I saw that the rock which gave way on me had been weakened by moisture collected and given out again by a tump of sea-thrift. On a frequented route the weak rock -and probably the flowers- would have long since gone. As for the risky aspects of soloing in itself, would they not,in this case, apply as well to climbing an awkward first pitch with the possibility of falling before the first protection halt been slotted home? That is when I've had my last few leader falls, for example one February day at Oxenber, near Austwick, when I skidded back down the freezing, polished chimney-crack that opens Bullroar and knackered my left ankle (I never seem actually to break). The bad thing about a February accident is that it can jeopardize the start of the real rock season. When I went. to Skye that Easter, and we walked up via Keall-Odhar to Sgurr a Bhasteir, and down into Glen Sligachan via the Lota and Harta Corries, the three miles round the shoulder opposite the Bloody Stone were hell because we had to walk continuously on the steep heather slope and it forced my ankle inwards at just the most painful angle.

When I went to Wallowbarrow in Dunnerdale that same month to climb Perseverance and The Plumb the walking up was still much more trying and crippled than the climbing. There's the beauty of rock; it is so much a matter of finesse, so little of brute shove.So healing continued, and the ankle never troubled me again till suddenly, five years later, I fulfilled an old ambition by going to lead Valkyrie on Froggatt Pinnacle. I tackled that leaning and slanting crack by forcing in cruel toe-jams, and by the time I failed to make horizontal hand-jams lodge on the traverse and went whanging down onto my well-planted Moac, I must have stressed the ankle joint too much. By the end of the day I could hardly depress the clutch. And now I have abused that ankle yet again. Will it stand up to this year's siege of Froggatt Pinnacle? You never quite recover from these traumas; they come creaking and wincing back on you years later and make you realise your vulnerability as a thing of flesh and bone. But I can't wholly regret the adventure at Carn Kenidjack: I can learn from it, and it did throw up a poem.

Under the Slab 
Death is over against us.
Stand with your cheek to the rock-face, 
Wheel through 90 degrees and let 
the perfectly hard minerals oppose
their close-packed atoms to the running
And feeling of your blood.

Rise again, look to the zawn-mouth. 
Its stone lids part,
Its blue eye opens,
Like surf the white birds seethe
And the transparent dove-grey shadows
Print their ecstatic glyphs across the slate.

David Craig © 2009