Friday, 5 August 2016

Classic Rock: A fanfare for the common man

The following article announced the imminent arrival of a book which has become an iconic coffee table climbing tome...Ken Wilson's Classic Rock. A sequel to the equally lauded Hard Rock.The concept was simple. Bring together many of the UK's best climbing writers and outdoor photographers who will each be given licence to produce their own unique photo essay around a classic outing selected from one of the main climbing areas within the British Isles.At the eve of the books launch in October 1978, Ken outlined his reasons why these old routes from what were then described as 'the middle grades' were worth celebrating in words and pictures.

One of the reasons why Britain has so many fine classic rock-climbs in the easier grades has to be the length of British climbing history. Look at Tremadog — recently developed, it has very few decent easy climbs— half a dozen at most. Yet if it had been discovered for climbing fifty years earlier, Bwlch y Moch would surely be criss-crossed with easy lines, linking gullies and ledges in complex permutations, on ground at present overgrown or slashed vertically by difficult climbs. It might have been possible, if one had been a pioneer of yesteryear, to have worked out a classic diff in the area near Shadrach or near the gullies below the Neb. Certainly nobody is going to bother now —today's pioneers operate at altogether more exalted levels and the classic climbs that Archer Thomson or George Abraham might have raved about, will stay hidden for ever. The point I am making is, that with few exceptions, easy routes tend to be the product of their time. In compiling Classic Rock, the forthcoming sequel to Hard Rock, this fact emerged above all others. Somehow the older routes had power, despite their lowly grades (the book includes routes up to Hard Severe).

The reason for this may be that at the time they were first done, the climbs had real pioneering importance. Take Avalanche on Lliwedd for example. It is hardly a push-over in damp conditions even today, but to Archer Thomson and his friends embarking onto the uncharted tracts of the East Buttress seventy years ago, it must have seemed a formidable project. The route beetles upwards, every twist and turn caked in history. So too, Jones's Direct Route from Lord's Rake on Scafell or the gullies Great on, Craig yr Ysfa, the Chasm on the Bauchaille or the celebrated and eventful Clachaig — all have pitches that have been grappled with, and written about, by countless generations of British climbers. The routes seem ingrained with history, like ancient carvings on the wall of a cathedral or in the depths of some castle dungeon they attest to the efforts and traumas of our predecessors.

The Direct Route on Milestone Buttress: N Wales
Most of the routes that were eventually chosen for the book come into this truly 'classic' category. Their history is well-known, though in some cases some extra appreciation of their importance emerged as the book was being assembled. A good example of this being the remarkable Direct Route on Glyder Fach, which, as David Cox points out, was initially underrated, yet represented very hard climbing for 1907. The great classics of the old days are generally well known, but the real revelation to me in compiling the book was the discovery of more recent climbs of quality in the lower grades.

These routes also seem to have the stamp of meaning and relevance about them, despite being discovered by climbers whose normal level of operation is a far higher standard. The supreme example of this must surely be Ardverikie Wall, a truly marvellous severe in the depths of Scotland, which Patey once described as the finest route (then unclimbed) that he ever walked past. It is a five pitch slab climb, on splendid rock with a simple and growing exposure. One can just imagine the S.M.C. men Hunter and Lang leaping around in delirious pleasure on the summit after their first ascent in 1967. Who would have expected such a gem to be so late in discovery? Hell's Lum Crag in the Cairngorms was another revelation — replete with "challenging" severe slab climbs it has much to offer the middle grade climber.

The crux Red Wall on Lliwedd's Avalanche

 The chosen route for the book — Clean Sweep—was first climbed in 1961 by no less a pioneer than the late, great, Robin Smith, accompanied by feisty, beasty Graham Tiso, the Laird of Leith — certainly a route of considerable pedigree in its antecedents as well as its climbing quality. Tom Patey discovered a number of classic routes of recent origin. Patey's tastes in climbing rarely included anything that could be described as overly technical. He liked to keep it simple; not too much gear, sometimes hardly any — a swashbuckling approach. Many of the climbs achieved in this idiom were hard, of course — the Meggy Crab Crawl comes to mind — but his two contributions to Classic Rock, the Cioch Nose in Applecross and the elegant Squareface in the Cairngorms, are climbs of distinction free from undue difficulty. Enough of this talk of Scotland, that untapped tourist paradise for the classic climber, too jealously guarded by the locals and difficult to penetrate. What of the climbing further south? To my mind the Classic Climbs in the Lakes are, in general, better than the harder ones. The main reason is that they seem longer, more sustained and are often better positioned. Imagine a classic severe up the middle of Cloggy for example — wouldn't that be worth savouring?

What else is Moss Ghyll Grooves to Scafell — though some have thought its grand situation demands its honorary entry into the lower VSs to give it, and the cliff, some spurious respectability—long may it remain a Severe on a big cliff. It is a climb only matched in Wales by the superb Main Wall. Wales— perhaps not as rich in classic climbs as the Lakes has three big advantages: Lliwedd, the East Face of Tryfan and the Idwal Slabs. The austere attractions of Lliwedd are not easily appreciated nut once a Lliwedd addict, always a Lliwedd addict. As far as Tryfan and Idwal are concerned, how lucky can I count myself having these two stamping grounds on my patch. I learned on them,wrote a guide about one of them and now I am able to fete them. Both areas had the advantages of being blessed with superb guidebooks-those of Menlove Edwards of course-not any latter day pastiche.

To Edwards we owe so much: his fine climbs (several are in the book), his skillfully honed essays and his tortuous and glorious guidebook writing. His Tryfan guide contains many a gem,e.g. Yew Buttress..A short severe and a good little route,harder than one would expect,more difficult than Cheek,with which it is not comparable.

Of Idwal Slabs he said....The climbing is much of the stepping up type,It favours delicacy of technique and makes excellent practice for beginners learning the balance and strategy that makes the best additions to the climber’s progress. Nowadays the routes are not so select and scratches both short and long cover the face with the strenuous abandon of the times. It is perhaps well that rubbers are more discreet.First and last the slabs are a matter of Faith, Hope and Charity.

This epithet might easily be applied to all classic climbing. In Britain we are lucky. The faith, the hope and the charity of climbers over the past 100 years has left us a marvellous legacy of classic climbs, all too easy to overlook in these days of athletic and technical preoccupation. Perhaps the ‘boots and sacks’ day is due for a revival,with packed lunches and thermos flasks and a trek to the summits after the route is completed.

That is certainly one way to lost the crowds that one now finds at every level of difficulty on the lower crags.

Ken Wilson: First Published in Climber and Rambler, September 1978