Saturday, 27 December 2014

Bad Day at Black Crag

Chris Bonington on Black Crag classic 'Prana'.Photo-Mountain Heritage

Black Crag, Borrowdale, at 4 o’clock on Saturday looks like market day in the high street. Brightly coloured groups gathered on ledges, at the top, eating and drinking at the crag-foot. Heaps of gear lie around among the birches. A mesh of ropes, green and purple, yellow and red, connects the stances. The sun reaches Troutdale Pinnacle around 2 o’clock, and a nearly freezing wind has driven everyone off the saturnine east-facing steeps of Goat across the dale - ourselves included, only we have been doing the Peeler while they have been doing things like Bitter Oasis and Alone in Space. 

We know this because they wear track-suit bottoms with twin white stripes and of course no helmets. On the whole crag only two helmets - ours. On the sheer left wall, where Grand Alliance, Vertigo, and Prana thread upwards from one invisible mini-hold to another, it looks like a gymkhana. Leggy athletes in T-shirts are spreadeagled all over it. As we start up the tortuous rearing corner systems of the Pinnacle face, aiming at Mortician, a handsome lad with a curly moustache, like an Edwardian advertisement for  liver pills, is fiddling in a wire or two to protect the crux of Grand Alliance. He’s been there a while. By the time I’ve led up the scratched slab and steep corner and taken a stance on a quaking mass of earth which supports three rowan saplings, he’s still there as I tie on, a shout of “Below!” echoes from above. 

I look up and see yellow and ochre rocks blossoming in the sunshine like fireworks. They spin past and I look down to see my mate, Neil, crouching with his hands on top of his head. luckily they miss him, and the dog and the flask. No sooner has Neil’s orange helmet surfaced below me than two track-suits start up the slabs towards us, soloing with ropes on shoulders, as track-suits will. Neil sets about ‘entering an obvious cleaned corner with difficulty’ , places a wire and rests, finds a high hidden hold, which also takes a wire, and rests again. Over on the left wall, Curly Moustache is crucified just below his crux, poised to move but doing nothing - that is, waiting for the adrenalin to flow. A pair to his right, talkative after finishing Prana in good style, are abbing volubly and leisurely past him, crossing his ropes, and are sharply advised to get on with it by Curly’s mates down beside the yew tree.

The Track-suits have reached us. They too are aiming at Mortician and we decide to let them past since we’re taking quite a while to enter the cleaned corner with difficulty. So do they. The leader (long black hair) clips into our runners in a devious way (he carries five wires on one krab), to the accompaniment of derisive ‘advice’ from his mate.....

“ What are you doing that for... Don’t you think you’ve got it twisted?”

Soon the rock bristles with gear like a bull’s shoulder full of banderillas just before the kill. Black-hair yo-yo’s for a while. Then, stung by frustration and more advice, he muscles up on the good hold and makes it into the corner, where he rests for a long time, breathing heavily like a torrid sequence in a blue movie. Chalk floats downwards.

The 140 feet above him will clearly take ages and we decide to deflect into Obituary Grooves instead. Presently Neil is calling down for yet another hearing of the book, as though its stuff about “Climb the groove above a little way” and “Go up and out to the right” will presently match the vertical maze in which he finds himself. I shout up to the pair who showered us with rock, but they are on a new route - extreme, no doubt, since the leader has been impaled on the same overhang for nearly an hour - and they can’t guide us.

Neil pokes about for protection and I chat with Track-suit Two. He’s thirsting to do Grand Alliance and is enviously watching his mates, Curly and company, disporting themselves on the wall. Curly moves delicately up.

His right leg shakes. His fingers reach, lodge, his leg steadies, he makes the move and then heads, still charily, for the sunlit beard of Heather at the top. As he ties on up there, Track-suit Two jeers pleasantly:

 “I liked your shakes,” and Curly calls back: “Nearly lost it there. I went for this better hold and it was really rounded. I was twenty feet above me wires and I thought I’d lost it. But I got control again and it was all right.” 

To his left a track-suit, who must be very strong, has been grappling with the overhang on Vertigo for more than half an hour, leaning out, reaching up, finding nothing, swearing. Below us, someone is leading up the first pitch of the Direct – a tall pretty girl with noticeable make-up, quite an apparition on this or any other crag.

When she gets to our height, she seems vague about route and protection but clambers cheerfully onwards, decorating the crag with runners from time to time. Neil has belayed, to put off the perplexities of route-finding, and I climb to join him, up a long corner on fine sharp Lakeland edges, just enough, always there when you reach up for them. The ‘belay’ is a one inch ledge, with the broken awkward groove of Mortician leering above our heads. The only way out, or along or up, is across an undercut wall to the left, quite a space-walk, making for an edge with the extreme pair’s stance just beyond it. As I eye this, psyching myself, the extreme leader finally falls and more ochre rock explodes around us. I step out, change feet, find a perfect incut slot, and reach for the ledge. It’s good and bevelled and I swing across securely enough.

This is the ‘swing lay-back’ which we thought was many feet below. The stance I now share with the Extremes, a Scotsman and his mate, is of course littered with sharp stones, trodden peaty earth, and piles of red and yellow rope. For a moment I feel the laws of nature  have come unstuck - I’m sinking – clods of earth have landslid, stopping just in time, and the Scotsman says, “Oh thanks! That was the stance!

I climb on. Trying to "move left" as the guidebook tersely puts it. Moving left means toeing precariously along a sloping waste of dihedrals and slabs and little triangular notches, looking for protection. There is none and sixty feet run out behind me. When I look back, I see my ropes have passed in front of the Extreme second and I suggest he gets in front of them in case I pendule and rive him off. You would think it has been snowing brown shit - earth cakes every hold, washed down from the evil looking gully which divides the Pinnacle from the Wall. Its cheesey. gaping innards remind me of a phrase from Apocalypse Now, “the ass-hole of the world”. Every friction hold has to be dusted off.

Insecurity reigns. It feels like Scottish climbing. Thankfully I find a peg. whose rusty solidity suggests it must have been banged home by Greenwood and Ross, the first humans to pass this way, a quarter of a century ago. Thirty dirty sloping feet beyond it I come to an oak in a corner, sturdy. Not yet quite ring-barked, with plenty yellow buds, and l tape onto it. The Scotsman has followed me now and clips into my runner on the peg, his finger pouring blood from his last explosion.

In a moment Black-hair arrives at the summit of his big corner, his nose clown-white with chalk. looking weary and remote. The bleeding Scotsman decides to abseil off the oak and protects himself with a yellow sling while he hovers over space. When he jumps off downwards. he leaves the sling on the tree, which is starting to look Christmassy. Track-suit Two arrives and climbs wordlessly past. Black-hair says, “What the hell  are you doing?" Two says. “ It's called ‘leading through’." speaking very distinctly as though to a deaf foreigner. But Black-hair has had enough and they agree resentfully to follow the abseil fashion.

Over on Vertigo the strong track-suit is doing the same. Neil arrives, and it is even more like Christmas for a while as Black- hair gives him back his wire from the bottom of the corner, where we were a day or two ago - sometime this week anyway - and I hang the bleeding Scotsman‘s yellow sling round Two‘s neck to take back down.

We follow the guide’s brief ambiguities for one more long pitch. still trusting its belief in hundred-foot run-outs round right-angles and sharp edges. Neil even believes that ‘exit right’ means you should move right and finds himself on an Extreme wall. Ten tantalizing feet below a plausible slanting finger-ledge. Balked, he retreats and belays. Being a tree-lover, I lead through past a small and well-worn holly and find a fleck or two of red and blue wool tracking upwards towards the heathery skyline. (Theseus must have felt like this in the labyrinth of Minos.) 

As we coil, Track-suit Two dances into view, jumping nimbly up the old classic, the Pinnacle itself. No rope trails behind him - he’s soloing with Curly. As they join me, I yawn, and Curly says kindly, “You must be tired," which makes me feel about 75. “I’m hungry“ I say, thinking that today everyone at Black Crag must be tired. 

David Craig:First published in Climber and Rambler-March 82