Friday, 10 March 2017

Quo Vadis Bergsteigerland

A few years ago a whole edition of the fine German magazine `Alpinismus' posed this ques-tion. Today it is of particular relevance to English and Welsh rock climbing, which seems to be on the way to becoming a football match in reverse -all performers and few spectators. Awakening from an afternoon siesta on a hot June day, the shouts eho round the cwm above Llyn du'r Arddu. They are colourful adaptations of the textbook sterilities taken from the accepted climbing manuals, punctuated by the rattle of stones in the central descent gullies. A kicker usually wears a crash hat and shouts 'Below!' after his stone has made its satisfying clatter down the middle rock. All good textbook stuff. And there is a book to tell you where to go once you know how, and even before, if you wish. The green turf below the East Buttress is swiftly disappearing, leaving loose earth and stones, although the faithful spring continues to refresh an increased clientele; even in drought conditions.

How many climbers are up there on a fine June Sunday? Fifty are apparent on the lower area of the West Buttress. There is someone on most things on the East and no doubt others lurk in the East Gully and on the Far East. No one climb seems of importance. By the lake the sun is hot, and the isolation, once out of the grey shadow of the cliff, is splendid. There are too many up there whatever the count. The cliff has lost its impressiveness and the climbing has lost its point. Perhaps Llech Ddu is quiter, but if there is new stuff to be done and the Holliwells are doing it, that is unlikely! How come there are so many of us? Baden Powell's mild equivalent of the Hitler Youth introduced many to the open air life between the wars and after. Educational entrepreneurship in the new outdoor pursuits centres has augmented the movement, in size though perhaps not in quality. Schoolteachers anxious to escape onto the outcrops are probably even more culpable. It is good to see the young on the crags, though what the climbing community will do to their characters I shudder to anticipate.

The chiselling of holds and names has reached new peaks on Gritstone. Long established problems are destroyed, or rendered impracticable by the shelter building activities of little boys (Roches). We are back to the old problem of freedom and responsibility—Baden Powell did stress that! Knowledge that climbing is possible is not enough. We can afford to do it, to spend on the vehicles or travel; we can afford the energy too, though one does question this on some Monday mornings. The vehicles crowded below popular cliffs are no longer uniformly battered vans and motor-cycles. Once the Hon Rotterslay's weekend excursion to Derbyshire in an E-Type Jaguar caused widespread gossip. It might be less extraordinary now. Basically we still seek the high drama, a contrast to a world where life is entirely conversation, while alternative tasks are obscured by the discipline of fulfilling a (sometimes not so) reasonable objective, and completion gives its own short term satisfaction. Then there is the gear, attractive looking, limited by weight (to some degrees by accepted norms), but increasingly complex and increasingly used.

Most hard climbs can be wholly or partially reduced to boulder problems. Pure practice of free climbing is widely distributed at a high standard, but the numbers of climbs resistant to new methods of protection are growing fewer. Double-think on the climber's part is probably easier now than in the past, when the distinction between. free and artificial was much more clear-cut. Now there is less dependence upon high morale and more upon technology. The degree of uncertainty when entering upon a big new rock climb is im-measurably reduced. It is exceedingly easy to over-estimate ones abilities, particularly in the margin between pretty good and excellent. Probably there are still few of the latter, for while many climb hard routes, there are few who innovate in boldness.

Thus we are many and we are likely to become more. The gear sellers, the magazine producers, the manufacturers and the press, the educators and the interests of the pubs and cafes, all these will contribute to the growth of the numbers in the future. We swarm like flies in the summer months and, at worst, climbing can become a garish cartoon-like pandemonium. Some are able to operate in the week or in winter, but most will continue to depend upon the weekend, even if it becomes an extended period. One can climb in Scotland and avoid the crowd as yet—but for how long? Often it may seem scarcely worth the candle. The aggregation problem in climbing rock will turn many to broader mountaineering or other activities' (canoeing?) which require similar psychology.

A few real misanthropes may give up and take to buttering the final jugs on a Friday evening before taking grandstand seats on the Saturday. Some will get killed, especially if they continue to rain stones on one another on crowded days and if sages gaze into the Black Cleft and pronounce it authoritatively to be Longland's. But this will offer little prospect of reducing the climbing population as more women climb now. Thus the mass is likely to increase for years with replacements outnumbering the wastage. In this situation there will also be more people doing the hard climbs and the innovators who always balance on a knife-edge will be pushed one stage further.' If climbing `extremes' is really easier because of the protection', then the protection must go.

Missing runners while leading endangers the second, so he must go. A rope makes retreat easier, perhaps it should go too. Thus on rock one can avoid aid, avoid the ennervating effects of the possibility of placing a nut every foot and being left with nowhere to put your fingers but in the slings. Thus one can climb genuinely free at the highest level of technique.' To many people this will sound foolish but it is essentially logical. It is dangerous to a greater degree than protected leading at the same grade but this alone does not make it unjustifiable. Justification must depend only upon the climber's assessment of himself, as long as he is not deranged. To solo revives the real relationship between man and rock which the insulation of protection obscures. Those who feel that modern aids are choking the sport are justified in reducing the insulation.

To solo on hard climbs may be near rhetorical, but it is the most valid way of criticising the technology which supports so many of our stuffed shirts. This question seems deeply involved with that of numbers. Crowds would not exist on hard climbs without the technology. It is noticeable that the leading climbers who have taken to soloing do so sometimes for immediate practical reasons, but often they do so because they are both actors in and detestors of the climbing circus. They wish both to differentiate themselves and to excel in an overcrowded atmosphere. Innovators not taken with solo climbing will probably go further afield more often and get involved in mountaineering—even the biggest Scottish rock climbing seems to have slightly more laissez-faire than the English-Welsh system.

 Paul Nunn image:Ian Smith

For those not developing in these ways the traditional rock climbing south of the border looks increasingly sterile. All this links with the third major problem. A few years ago the soloists would have done more new routes instead. They still are among those who do new routes, but all too often their quality is lower than the average of the early sixties. Many are quite banal. For those who cannot be satisfied by the odd holiday away from the stereotyped areas there may well be only one solution—emigration!

Paul Nunn: First Published in Rocksport-Oct/Nov 1969

References : 1. Margins of Safety by H. Drasdo, The Alpine Journal, 1969. Does improved equipment and technique re-duce accidents? by K. I. Meldrum, Accident, Equipment and Miscellaneous Notes, The Alpine Journal, 1969. 2. Games Climbers Play by L. Tejada-Flores, Ascent, May 1967; The Alpine Journal, May 1968; Mountain 2, 1969. The Game We Play by D. D. Gray, Rocksport, April/May 1969. 3. See description of the corner pitch on The Bat; Ben Nevis by J. R. Marshall, 1969.