Friday, 12 December 2014

Castaways on Gritstone Island

Original Mountain Spread. Photo captioned 'Ron Fawcett on Joker's Wall at Brinham.Photo Jean Horsfall

Beyond the mainstream cliffs of Derbyshire gritstone swells the dirty grey-black sea of Yorkshire Industry. Cross the sinuous industrial fjords of the West Riding and you arrive abruptly at the heathered moors of the Yorkshire Dales. You won’t find the long lined gritstone tiers of the south here, but crags twinkling from a moorland setting, pinpoints of black light. The harsh weather, small crags and dour guides have never offered much encouragement to the Visitor.Coming here, one usually found the routes easier than one had imagined, although some gems of the dark days of Yorkshire climbing stood out. Austin’s Western Front and Wall of Horrors were morbid lures to Almscliffe aspirants more than likely struggling to capture the barely lesser jewels of Dolphin’s era - Birdlime Traverse or Demon Wall.

High Street at Ilkley, Heptonstall’s Forked Lightning Crack and Crookrise’s Shelf were all fine but rarely climbed XSs of the sixties. We’ve heard all this before, though.Austin’s nine sweaters, Whillans’s fists: we know more about them than the routes.But now, now the barriers are down. The five years that have passed since the publication of the guide have seen the internal aspect of Yorkshire climbing revolutionized; irreverent intellectuals vie with irrelevant non-intellectuals for revelationary routes. There’s a throbbing youth cult hammering away at the rock, with fingers, fists, feet, and even some head. The rock is climbed for the routes, for the moving, for the thrills: no one cares who adds what to the age-old defacements at Ilkley. Aestheticism is derived from the totally consuming difficulty of the routes, rather than from the surroundings. 

Older aspirant youth-culters try to alter their image, in order to belong once again. A fresh emergent rock group rehearses hard at Leeds University - all lead players in an innovatory band. Concrete backed brick edges wince at the bite of fingernails belonging to solid arms. Bodies revolve about those arms, gaining height with scant regard for traditional posture. The members of the band look alike: all Perrin’s skinny ape-armed type, embellished by pop-group looks. Concentrated competition drives them to perfect ever more ridiculous moves: hand-holds approach footholds as the distance to the next pair increases.

Kinaesthologists would marvel at the vertical awareness of these performers utilizing every inch of their movement sphere from two small central holds. New techniques,knee pressing, arm locking and two-dimensional movement emerge quickly in the competitive but sociable atmosphere; these are ‘friendlies’, soon to be played for real when the shrieking winter gales abate from those gritstone outcrops. On the other hand, it may be that the outcrops provide training for Leeds University’s ‘Wall’ groupie Bernard Newman- weight-trains, runs, and has even been seen climbing in the Alps- in preparation for his winter season on ‘The Wall’. Don Robinson is the man to blame; a sixty four year old lecturer at Leeds University, a skilled caver and a climber of moderate ability, he conceived the wall as an indoor teaching space for his students.

Pete Livesey:Photo Adrian Bailey.

Built for only a few pounds, its superiority over earlier and later architect-designed monstrosities was soon apparent. Today,as every day, it draws climbers from all overthe county to play on its ferociously gymnastic possibilities. The results that can be achieved on such  a training-ground first became apparent to the climbing world at large when John Syrett, non-climber, emerged from a year on the wall to tear about the country climbing everything from XS and up. His progression from nothing to a sight-lead of Wall of Horrors, inside twelve months, set the scene. The conditions of some of his ascents emphasized the inadequacies of the technical difficulties as tests for his ability.

New routes and new names soon followed, but Syrett, sober, was nigh on impossible to follow. His first ascents, often solo, were technically new, and they see little of the traffic that routes like Wall of Horrors now bear. Traditionally-trained climbers did not sit back and applaud this artificial effrontery. Old men with short hair, raggy sweaters and gnarled hands were heard panting and grunting in dimly lit corners of climbing walls. Ken Wood replied to the University challenge with two routes of his own: Chopper (XS) at Earl Crag, and True Grit (XS) at Brimham. Both are unrepeated; Chopper is off-width, and True Grit is a vicious finger-crack looking dispassionately north from the northern shores of Gritstone Island. Syrett also came north and added Joker’s Wall to the fiercely overhanging side of Brimham’s Cubic Block; you’re too high to jump off before you know it - then it gets mean.

Of all the crags offended by these forays into the impossible, none has received the continual battering nor nurtured and harnessed the energy so well as Almscliff. Almscliff  the friendly wart, no, more like a, Freudian nipple - a barometer of the state of the art. Syrett’s Big Greenie (XS) was a high bold problem on the nipple’s biggest blank, a good starter for a concentrated but prolonged attack by the University climbers. Al Manson, without doubt the first man to make the real breakthrough in climbing wall standards, brought his ability to Almscliff and linked two unrepeated problems to produce Rectum Rift (XS). The highly technical start and stretchy tenuous finish make this obscene route one of the hardest technical challenges on grit, a bold statement that someone has yet to refute. 

The weediest climber in Britain, Pete Kitson, soloed two boulder problems on Virgin Boulder. At HVS, the 35ft lengths of the Gypsy and the Virgin are shattering. In August 1973, when the inhabitants were sunning in Greece or voyeurging to the Calanques, Lancastrian Pasquill sailed in and poked out the Goblin’s Eyes. Climbing an 8ft. roof on eye-like pockets to a long, long finishing pull, he led what Syrett had failed to top-rope. Home teams could not answer. Livesey came with All Quiet (XS), a beautiful climber’s route, starting up Wall of Horrors and swinging from jug to jug across the wall to Western Front, then across again to Crack of Doom; 70ft of high quality climbing in a continuously overhanging situation.

One could almost see a tearful sorrow in the eyes of spectators at Almsclilf and other showgrounds, as they watched the passing of the Average Climber. They could see nothing familiar, nothing to identify with in the preparations of the Lean Men: the Spiny Normans with their chalky hands, deep breathing, vest and shorts, and quick-draw shortened runner racks. 

But come back after the show, you ordinary men, see when all’s quiet what they have done; look at the needle-straight cracks of Ilkley’s Wellington Crack or Heptonstall’s Hard Line; contemplate the audacity of Goblin’s Eyes or the technical beauty of Crookrise’s Small Brown. Attempts were made to strengthen the Western Ramparts: Heptonstall, first line of defence against the Invader, was fortified with Syrett’s desperate-looking Thunderclap (XS). Livesey came next with the similar Hard Line (XS). Both routes follow thin, relentless crack lines and are unrepeated. Peel and Rawlinson answered back for the invaders with Cream (XS) and Strange Brew (XS), two more steep lines.

John Syrett: Photo Gordon Stainforth
At Ilkley, the first new route for years appeared on a most unlikely blank wall in the quarry. Propeller Wall was given the joke grade of VS by Syrett. Repeated twice, it is said to be harder than the neighbouring High Street (XS). Syrett soloed it. Livesey followed with Waterloo (HVS), similar but better protected. Something bigger was brewing at Ilkley though. Someone had cleaned the rotting wedges from the painfully obvious Wellington Crack, a thin diagonal slash up an otherwise featureless 40ft. wall, slightly overhanging with an undercut base. It was going to be done soon, but by whom? Livesey stepped in,inspected it from jumars, then failed.

But still no one else came. Three months later, Livesey returned and got to within a foot of the top, where failing strength forced him to grab a nut to step down for a rest, but the route was completed. Never technically ridiculous, its relentlessness can only be compared with that of its American cousin,Butterballs.

Nineteen-year-old Ron Fawcett was quietly making his mark on the crags about his native Skipton. A narrow lad with a wide appreciation for climbing hard routes, Fawcett can stretch up and surely insert his club-like fists a foot higher than you or I. See him on Ilkley evenings; on a windy climbing wall - a wind that for some cools the heat of competition. Follow Fawcett solo round the routes; you can’t – you should have taken notice of those athlete’s shorts and vests. At eighteen he’d already done more, and harder, routes than Brown and Whillans put together. No one can repeat his free ascent of Small Brown at Crookrise, technical and strenuous in the extreme. 

The rise in standard is by no means ebbing as climbing-wall training gains  momentum. A new wall opens on Gritstone Island: at Rothwell it is bigger and better another Robinson-built effort that is already incredibly popular. Climbers perform unroped, a must for effective training; no meddling regulations here! What will it bring? Certainly routes like the Cow’s right-hand arĂ©te and Milky Way (also at Ilkley). Too hard for now, but soon to become a reality. But then, who knows when to stop?

Note: Rectum Rift and Thunderclap have both recently been repeated; the latter especially was thought desperate.

Pete Livesey: First published in Mountain 42 March 1975