The hand Traverse.Original Image from Bill Birkett's 'Classic Rock Climbs in Great Britain'
MOST mountaineering literature had not until recently attracted me greatly. Not only were the but also the experiences recorded, unfamiliar to me. With anticipation then, I came across the description of a climb I had actually done, only to find this little more familiar than the others I had read about : each pitch was imbued with an unexpected tension or an unwarranted ecstasy. It seemed to indicate that I lacked sensitivity or the power of observation unless I too could recapture some personal experiences which possibly had become diluted in perspiration or, soon after, drowned in the evening's beer. Mur-y-Niwl : "The Wall of Mist". Here surely was stuff for romance. I was not aware of it however as we plodded for two hours over the moors from the road, up through the featureless cwm into the low cloud over the col; then down, losing a thousand hard won feet in a few minutes, and finally scrambling up the steep broken rubble into the gully to the base of the climb.
The black cliff seen at intervals through the mist swirling down the gully overhung slightly, austere and daunting. I was sure that I should remember this vividly. As I have often done in the mountains when it has been grim, I let my thoughts skip the period of the climb and rest in the future that offered a more comforting picture. I did not want to do the climb, but if I shirked it, that future would contain a dissatisfaction. There was no easy way out. It was doubtless very good for my character, making me tough and better able to face adversity with fortitude!
I was jerked out of my reverie by Richard calmly surveying the cliff for the line of weakness and suggesting that I might prefer the direct start. I did not prefer the direct start, and the cliff did not look as if it had a line of weakness. Richard's presence, though, did something to alleviate the unpleasantness. I thought of some fatuous ditty about "The Nearness of You", but I failed to burst into song. Richard was good—talented, experienced, never ruffled. The whole problem seemed different to him. There was no psychological conflict but just a sequence of moves and pitches approached with coolness and calculation—the outcome of a classical education perhaps. "How long will it take ?" I asked.
"Three hours, I should think," he replied. The prospect was about as attractive as swimming the Thames on a bleak wintry day: but I cheered myself with the hope that it might feel warmer once we were climbing. We stood up. It is always uncomfortable standing up again after a short rest. The sweat is just beginning to cool. The wind down the gully caught me. I shivered, enervated, and braced myself for the wait while Richard tried the first pitch. "Do you want to lead?" he said. "You're on form." I felt numb. I did not want a decision like this. It would have been an achievement to have led this though. Of course, what I wanted was praise; and fame if possible.
Ambition is the most powerful stimulus. . . . "All right, I'll have a try," I said, before I had time to consider it further. It was a relief to move. I urged on myself the necessity for speed, with memories of spending half an hour getting off the ground on Longland's and shivering with nervousness all the way up. But I knew my capabilities now—or so I hoped. "Came off on Mur-y-Niwl" wouldn't sound too bad an epitaph—but it was easier to say than to face in reality. The first pitch was not as difficult as it looked, but it did not fill me with great confidence—it was probably just luck finding the right holds first time. The crux would not be like that. I took some time on the first belay. I could not afford to take any risks. I was not used to this responsibility. "I hope he's quick," I thought. "I won't be able to stand waiting around or I'll get cold and there'll be time to feel frightened."
The second pitch: "a tricky reverse mantleshelf onto a small but adequate foothold." I moved off quickly again. I had to rely on the instructions: there was no point in querying them. I wondered how the leader of the first ascent had felt as he knelt down on this thin ledge and leaned out slightly to find the foothold, only to look straight down to the scree already far below. What magnificent exposure! "I'll be able to talk about that later," I thought. I lowered myself surprisingly easily onto the foothold, moved right and pulled quickly and strenuously onto a pedestal. That had been all right, and a word of congratulation from Richard spurred me on; but that was only two pitches. I moved from the small stance and looked along at the cliff. The rock jutted out and it seemed as though the whole mass of the cliff might fall into the gully as it inevitably would some day. I wondered when the last big chunk had come away.
Again there was nothing desperate—just the tremendous exposure which did not worry me, despite the greater height. I persuaded myself that I might be enjoying it. I was taking time to look about and make comments—I was coming to life. This V.S. stuff wasn't all that bad . . . . or perhaps it was just overgraded for a tall person. But the crux was yet to come. I waited again while Richard read the small piece of paper on which we were relying. This was it: a delicate move out and then a short hand traverse. I had been waiting for this all the way. (l did not think I would fail, but the tension had not disappeared yet. I was probably at my best, having reached the compromise between caution due to fear and the over-confidence that comes with doing well. Again I had to lean out to see where the route went. I was able to afford the luxury of withdrawal—I seemed momentarily to have lost my tension. I nonchalantly checked the belay and moved out again. I must not withdraw this time.
There it was—a "jug-handle" of a ledge and nothing for the feet. This was the ideal—hanging with the fingers over a three hundred foot drop. I swung round and down—a clumsy position soon rectified as my left foot gripped the rock and my right foot stretched to a small niche. I pulled up, still a little feverishly as I remembered I was leading, and I was standing up, surprised to find myself breathing heavily. Relieved of the strain, I could enjoy the last three pitches. It was worth having shivered with cold and apprehension and I was sorry the climb was not continuing.
It seemed surprising that the sun was not shining to celebrate my elation, as we added Pinnacle Wall for good measure. We trudged off over the tops, then down to lower levels, away from the grandeur and tension—the scene of this emotional catharsis.
MW Hewlett: Peterhouse
First published in Cambridge Mountaineering: 1960