Friday, 14 April 2017

Little Brown Jug

My first brush with Little Brown Jug was the worst. It happened on December 26th., 1962, the first day of the great freeze-up in that terrible winter that helped kill Sylvia Plath. In an excess of Christmas enthusiasm, Peter Biven and I decided to attempt the second ascent of Peter's high-level girdle of Bosigran, Diamond Tiara. In those days. Diamond Tiara seemed particularly well named; it was considered to be one of the hardest climbs on the cliff, and it was certainly the longest -nine hundred feet of Hard Very Severe. We took three days to complete it, but, for me, the first day was the nastiest since it entailed reversing part of the top slab of Little Brown Jug.

A blizzard was blowing across the top of the crag - so hard, mercifully, that none of the snow was sticking to the face. Even so, teetering with frozen fingers down the small, widely-spaced holds, with nothing but air between the lip of the slab and the wild sea below, was not quite what I had had in mind as a cure for turkey, Christmas pud and booze. 

Since then, I have climbed LBJ four times - with Peter again, with Mike Thompson, and twice with my then teenage son, Luke - and the slab has always given me a bad moment before I started up it, although each time it has seemed easier, despite the fact that, at my last ascent, I was unfit, overweight and fifty-five.  Knowing the route helps, of course, but pleasure helps even more. The top pitch of LBJ is one of the finest on Bosigran and, for me, Bosigran is the best of all possible places to climb. The granite is steep and faultless, the approach is short and horizontal, and the views are sensational: waves thundering in around Porthmoina Island, seabirds wheeling and crying, and, off to the west, headland succeeding headland, with Pendeen lighthouse sticking up like a white thumb against the horizon of the Atlantic.

Although I know, rationally, that I must have climbed on Bosigran on dull days or in the rain, all my recollections of the place, apart from that winter blizzard years ago, are of warm rock, blue sea and sunshine. LBJ combines all of Bosigran's best qualities: it is delicate, technical and strenuous by turns, and the rock is always steep and faultless. It begins at a smooth, pale wall that, at first glance, appears to be almost blank. But the line of little nicks that cross the wall diagonally to the left feel positive, even comfortable, to the fingers, and the angle is not as fierce as it looks from below. The upward traverse ends at a shallow, blackish corner below a vertical crack. The top of the crack overhangs slightly and is often damp, but it leads to a large ledge with a piton belay at its left end.

This belay is shared with three other climbs - Doorpost, Bow Wall and
Thin Wall Special - so, on a sunny holiday weekend, it can be as busy as Victoria Station at rush hour. The second pitch is the mixture as before: an ascending diagonal traverse - to the right this time - across a slabby wall that is sometimes wet. It is shorter than the first traverse, a little harder to start, but far easier to finish. It leads to a jumble of large blocks which are crossed by Doorway and Ledge climbs - another rush-hour tangle of ropes, but at least you have the belay to yourself.

The rock above overhangs and is as strenuous as it looks, as well as technical -hard for a short man to start, hard for a tall man to finish. A difficult layback up the blunt edge of the overhang brings your face level with a sloping shelf beneath an impending wall. At the back of the shelf, low down, is the little brown jug itself - a slot, like a miniature letter-box, to sink your fingertips in. The problem is to step up delicately onto the shelf while preventing the wall above from pushing you out of balance. In the wall at the upper end of the shelf, there is a piton for protection. Off to the left, and level with piton, a little lump of rock protrudes from the base of the slab above.

The lump is oddly shaped - like a stone gargoyle on a cathedral, with all its features smoothed away by the weather - and the move you have to make to reach it with your left foot is also odd - at once balancy, strenuous and committing. There are only little nicks on the slab above to help pull yourself across, while your right foot bridges out onto nothing in particular. Another nick, another pull, and you are standing on the stone head at the bottom of a steep slab. You move up the slab delicately, cautiously, on very small finger flakes. Halfway up, the footholds run out, but there is a vertical slot for the right hand which brings you to within a move or two of a large ledge and a belay. 

Above the ledge is another overhang, big and brutal and split by a rough crack. It is intimidating to start and far too steep to allow you to pause and insert pro-tection. But the edge of the crack is perfect for laybacking - up to the overhang, around it, and on up - laybacking all the way until you are standing upright in the sunshine among the mossy boulders on the top of the cliff. For myself, I can guarantee the sunshine. Ever since that first Christmas descent of the pitch, I would never again go near the route in bad weather. 

Al Alvarez