Saturday, 28 November 2015

Scrambles in Yorkshire and further gritstone adventures

I was waiting at Arthington Junction, near Leeds — a station specially constructed to inculcate the virtue of patience, though it is believed that the complaints of incensed passengers have done much to modify its original useful purpose,when my eye was attracted by a singular clump of timber standing out solitary and conspicuous on a bare hillside. A gentleman in corduroys was near me on the platform, regaling the evening air with his views on railway companies. Of him I inquired the name of those trees. 'Trees! Haw, haw! Why that was Awmescliff Craag.' I was unacquainted with gritstone then, and knew not its little ways. Of course, I had met it walking down the street, with a man behind it bawling out 'Knives and scissors to grind!' and I had no idea that it lived in mills and ground up corn and things; but I had never before encountered it in its wild state on its native heath.

I did not then suspect the facility with which it can simulate the appearance of the bosky grove, nor had I the slightest idea of the amount of sport that Almes Cliff — Great Almias Cliff of maps and guide-books — would someday afford me, or of the quantity of clothes and skin I should leave thereon by way of compensation. Gritstone may popularly be described as a glorified lump of petrified sandstone. This great roughness allows of climbing methods which would be out of the question on almost any other kind of rock. You can take liberties which ordinary rock would resent; and for this reason gritstone is not good  practice for a beginner. In other words if the gritstone climbs were composed of rock of the Borrowdale or Snowdonian series, half of them would not 'go', ie...would be impossible.

On the other hand, gritstone has certain little peculiarities of its own. Without decency or warning the roughness changes to an absolutely smooth bevel, of course entirely to your disadvantage, affording no possibilities for either grip or friction.Or else the rock bulges out unexpectedly and knocks you backwards. Also, when it comes on to rain, the surface is transmuted into a nasty, mossy, greasy slime. Almes Cliff Crags give some of the finest gritstone climbing I know. In appearance they are insignificant, two escarpments of grit, one below the other, and neither more than sixty feet in altitude at the highest point. Sixty feet! What is that? Men who get killed in the Alps do the thing in style and tumble half a mile or so. All very well. Sixty feet is quite sufficient.

Anyone who doubts this has only to step off the coping of his house on to the pavement to be convinced. Happily this danger can only be obviated by sending round a friend with a rope to the top of the cliff to play you up, and this should invariably be done until you have assured yourself by frequent ascents that the climb is well within your powers. I italicize these words, because the cliff is visited by climbers of exceptional skill, and climbing of a somewhat desperate nature is occasionally indulged in.

Onlookers who know nothing of the game may be tempted to follow in their foot and hand holds (if they can find them), and may hurt themselves. One of the best climb on Almes Cliff is the Great Chimney on the High Man. It gives some fifty or sixty feet of straightforward back-and- knee-work.The climber enters the chimney right shoulder first, and with a little difficulty works his way up till his toes are lodged in the lower crack. Then comes the tug of war. The next ten feet are quite holdless and the roughness and angle of the crack something to the climber's disadvantage. The body is firmly braced across the chimney by lateral pressure of the arms, knees and feet, and is then lifted vertically a few inches by a desperate wriggle. This is repeated several times, till the hands can be reached into the upper crack, when it is usual to rest awhile. It is not so easy to get the feet up to that crack as may appear at first sight. Closer inspection will show the (proper) right wall just above it overhangs it considerably.

The finish of the climb, a long a, reach over a rounded edge, is not quite nice in a high wind. Who was the first tailor? I don't mean Adam, with his fig leaves, but the first man who took up tailoring commercially?  Because I'm sure he invented gritstone. It plays the dickens with ones clothes, especially when you back up. Once have I been compelled to depart hurriedly to the nearest village to be, like a newly paid bill,reseated. After my last day's scrambling there I pursued my homeward way with my hands pensively clasped behind my back whenever I sighted anybody. The climbing at Almes Cliff is almost inexhaustible. I could name half a hundred problems right away, and some courses are of first class severity. I know of no harder in climb in England than Parsons' Chimney. I have seen it done once, and attempted it more than once, but, like Mr. OG Jones's  friend, I do not like that 'infernal dangling'.

The Leaf Climb is quite a hard little struggle. The left arm and knee are wedged between the jammed boulder and the containing wall,and the body is levered up until the right knee and arm can be thrown across. Then a comprehensive wriggle brings the top of the stone within reach of the climber's left  hand.

The Leaf can be passed easily on the climber's right, and this course is to be preferred in heavy wind. There is a Stomach Traverse on the famous Pillar Stone in Ennerdale, Cumberland, and there is a Stomach Traverse on Almes Cliff. The Pillar Traverse is not very difficult, quite reasonably safe though in emergency sensational. The difficulty consists in hauling oneself about forty feet along a diagonal crack on the face of the precipice; the safety lies in the fact that it is possible to wedge the left arm and leg so firmly in the crack that it is something of a tussle to get them out; the sensationalism arises from the fact that a considerable portion of your frame is supported by some two thousand odd feet of the thinnest of thin nothingness, with a nice, accommodating, and entirely finishing bump about three hundred feet down to speed you on your short cut to the Liza Valley.

The Almes Cliff Traverse is somewhat different. It is fairly safe — you cannot fall more than 40ft; the sensationalism is to be found — easily — in the realisation that you are quite likely to come off anywhere between the 4ft and the 40ft. And the difficulty! There is no mistake about that. There are two points of attack curiously resembling each other, yet differing as far as the right from the left. The right shoulder attack :The right arm first, and afterwards the knee, are wedged in a crack, and the body is then forced upwards by desperate wrigglings aided by wild scrapings with the left foot (clearly shown by the white scratches) until both hands can be reached to the top of a ledge to the left of the climber. The left shoulder attack is very similar, except that the arm has to be braced, elbow and palm and rather less vigour and a great deal more delicate balance are required. On the ledge the climber generally lies on his 'tummy'

This position, however, is not the origin of the name of the climb. The next move is to traverse laterally and upwards across the face of the cliff, with the fingers in one horizontal crack and the toes in another. This would be comparatively easy were it not that the rock between the cracks bulges out like a typical alderman's corporation. The balance in places is nice enough, even for a thin man. Whence the name of the climb. The bouldering at Almes cliff is second to none. Ilkley would be another happy hunting ground were it not that it is more frequented than the Almes Cliff district. There are one or two good things on the Cow and the Calf, but the best of the scrambling is in the Valley of Rocks. The Split Rocks Climb is not easy in itself, and is specially valuable as instructive in the art of feeling at ease on a dangerous face. The Crooked Crack is one of the stiffest little bits in broad Yorkshire; and there are many others. Gritstone climbing is not mountaineering of course.

Nevertheless, much can be learnt. Balance, backing up, something of the management of the rope something of the art of climbing with the least possible fatigue, and all sorts of little things that go to make the complete climber.

CE Benson: First Published in Fry's Outdoor Magazine-1906