Friday 30 October 2009

Never on a Sunday...Pioneers on Tryfan and The Glyders

Mike Bailey was born in Yorkshire in 1950, but his school years were spent mainly in the Midlands. Completely unmoved by rugby, athletics, or cricket, the chance offer of a weekend climbing in Wales in 1965 showed him an activity that immediately grabbed him. A traditional ‘Ogwen Apprenticeship’ followed, along with an early introduction to climbing walls, when his school installed one of the first in the country. Four years in Stafford provided frequent opportunities for climbing in the Peak, then in 1974, after marrying his wife Sue, he moved permanently to Wales.  He has climbed in many parts of the UK, in France, and Australia, and for some years fitted in fell running alongside climbing. More recently he has been involved in work on the CC’s forthcoming Ogwen guidebook. On summer evenings, if he’s not out climbing, he’s likely to be riding his bike around Snowdonia. Despite now belonging to the old fart’s brigade, he still enjoys climbing walls in the winter months. His other interests include a long term fascination with Greece, reading, and struggling to work on a historical novel.

Mike Bailey on a recent Ogwen first ascent. 'Little Red Rooster': E1-5b(US 5.10) Nant y Gors

A summer afternoon on Tryfan. Beside the two upright monoliths that crown the summit area, two friends relax in the sunshine. They take in the panoramic views, and peer down the steep rocks of the East Face to the floor of the cwm far below. Presently, one of the young men climbs to the top of one of the massive stones. Standing upright he surveys the yawning gap. He leans forward, knees bent, heels raised, weight on the forefoot. His friend watches apprehensively. He hesitates; then summoning up his resolve, the shoulders dip, the arms are thrown forward as the legs straighten, propelling him forward. For a split second he’s airborne, then touches down on the other monolith, crouching at the knee, shoulders thrust back to check his forward momentum. A broad grin lights up his face. No camera is present to capture the moment, for the year is 1801; the Napoleonic Wars are in progress, and photography lies in the future.

We know of this day because one of the men was the Rev. William Bingley of Cambridge University, who travelled widely in Wales. His published journal includes the detailed account of this, the first recorded ascent of Tryfan. His friend, who made the leap between the as yet unnamed Adam & Eve, was likewise a clergyman, the Rev. Peter Williams, and their shared interest in observing botanical specimens was the reason for their day out. The two were already accomplished mountaineers, having made an ascent of Snowdon via the hazardous Eastern Terrace of Clogwyn du’r Arddu. Their day on Tryfan and the Glyders was to be long and challenging:

I rose early one morning to undertake in company with my friend Mr Williams, by far the most laborious walk that I ever ventured upon in the course of one day. This was no less than to ascend the summits of three mountains, Trivaen, Glyder Bach, and Glyder Vawr, none of them much inferior to Snowdon.’

Nowadays anyone walking over Tryfan will take one of the established routes; the North Ridge, Heather Terrace, or the South Ridge from Bwlch Tryfan. Beyond that, we don’t give a thought to the paths and tracks themselves, or the individuals who pioneered them. In our minds we know they will take the line of least resistance and be easy to follow, being well worn through years of traffic. There are few places left in these islands that can still be called trackless wildernesses, but in earlier times, all our upland areas were just that.
We are too absorbed in the day’s activity to reflect on times before man’s presence, or to picture the mountains as they were then – trackless and unexplored, but until the 19th Century that’s how they were. Prior to that time the idea of walking in the mountains for recreation was unheard of. For aeons they stood aloof; unvisited, unexplored, places of myth and legend. Only herdsmen ranged over the uplands guarding their goat flocks, but left no record of their wanderings. The mobility we take for granted was unimagined: none but the most determined explorers, with the means and inclination for arduous travel by coach or on horse back could conceive of reaching the mountains, let alone climbing them. Which brings us back to our two clergymen.

They started early, leaving Llanberis at 7 a.m., taking a route up the north-east side of the valley. Above Nant Peris they rested, gazing down on the church, the cluster of houses, trees and meadows, ‘as on a map.’ A steady climb up the southern flank of Y Garn brought them to Llyn y Cwn, the small pool on the col between Y Garn and Glyder Fawr. Ahead, across their intended route, lay the precipices of the Devil’s Kitchen cliffs, and far below the dark waters of Llyn Idwal. The descent of the South Syncline, taken by the present-day walkers’ path must have been arduous, with loose rocks and scree lying in abundance, but their route finding skills got them safely to the foot of the cliffs. Here they paused to admire the great cleft of the Devil’s Kitchen itself. Heavy rain had fallen the previous day, and they were much impressed by the crashing of the water within the narrow confines of the chasm:

Amongst the rocks at the bottom I observed a great number of circular holes of different sizes, from a few inches in diameter to two feet and upwards, which had been formed by the eddy of the torrent from above. These holes are frequently called by the Welsh people Devil’s Pots, and from this circumstance, the place itself is sometimes denominated the Devil’s Kitchen.

Descending further into the cwm, their route took them below the great sweep of rock now known as the Idwal Slabs, then via the eastern shore of Llyn Idwal, to a point overlooking the Nant Ffrancon pass. Now they turned east, then south, ascending to Cwm Bochlwyd. From beyond the lake the cone-like southern aspect of Tryfan reared up before them: ‘Its sides appeared not greatly inclining from a perpendicular.’ The way ahead looked formidable. Bingley’s account confides his unspoken doubts, but the pair were undaunted, even noting the presence of mosses, bilberries, and saxifrage among the rocks. Then followed three quarters of an hour of continuous ascent as they clambered upwards, picking their way through the rocks towards the summit. With no cairns to guide them, no trail of worn rocks, no scratches from the boot nails of 20th Century walkers, let alone maps or guide books, they had to find their own way. Perhaps they strayed into the odd blind alley, but their skill and experience saw them through. On top, elated, they admired the view, marvelling at the precipice below them. In their exuberance they trundled large rocks over the edge:

…these continued their thundering noise for several seconds, and by their friction and dashing into hundreds of pieces, emitted a strong sulphurous smell, which ascended even to our station.

It was then that Williams leapt across the gap between the two monoliths. It’s hardly a death-defying leap, but the landing below, amid jumbled blocks, would have been unforgiving had he misjudged it, and a broken limb could all too easily have been the result – then they really would have been in trouble. Williams informed his anxious friend that a local woman had often performed this feat, and he was determined to emulate the deed. History does not record the identity of the bold young woman, but she had evidently found her way up there before them, and started a tradition that continues to the present day, as countless photographs attest. Adam & Eve, the now popular names for the monoliths, are not mentioned in Bingley’s account. Williams, being Rector of Llanberis would have possessed local knowledge of any names in use, so we may deduce the names date from after their time.

The next stage of their route lay to the south-west, over Glyder Fach and Glyder Fawr. Retracing their steps they descended the South Ridge to the bwlch. The steep rocks at the foot of Bristly Ridge present a daunting obstacle, but to the left, the scree slope below the east face of the ridge offers a less forbidding alternative; here they will have picked their way. No cairn or beaten track showed the route. Instead, a slope of loose, unstable scree lay before them. It must have been a toilsome ascent. Later they studied the characteristic piles of stones that litter the summit area, some upright, some lying flat:

In one place there is a particularly large one, laid over some others, and projecting far beyond them. My companion walked to the end, and evidently moved it by jumping on it.

Others had already passed this way. Thirty years earlier, in 1776, Thomas Pennant traversed the Glyders in the opposite direction, before descending to the Nant Ffrancon. He too stood on the Cantilever. His Tours in Wales, published in 1778, features a sketch of him on its tip, made by his servant and companion, Moses Griffiths. Bingley was familiar with Pennant’s account and makes reference to his observations on the geology of the mountain. The going across the plateau was now easier, as the pair proceeded to the summit of Glyder Fawr:

From this situation we had a grand and unbounded prospect. On one side, the immense mountains of Caernarvonshire and Meirionethshire, on the other side, towards the town of Caernarvon, we had the whole of the isle of Anglesea in sight, and at a great distance northward, we saw the Isle of Man, resembling a faintly formed cloud.

 Perfect weather had rewarded their efforts, and with no further summits to ascend, they allowed themselves time to admire the panorama. By now tiredness must have been setting in. They began their descent, first to Llyn y Cwn, and thence down to the valley, which they reached by 8.00 p.m., ‘not a little fatigued with our day’s excursion.’

* Quotations are from North Wales by Rev. William Bingley, published 1814. The original spellings of local place names in Bingley’s account are retained.

Mike Bailey 2009©:Adam and Eve photo Mike Bailey©

Thursday 22 October 2009

Ronnie's last long climb

 Ronnie Wathan playing his Irish pipes.: Image uncredited.

"Stay off the pop, lad!".....Those were Don Whillans's last words to me as we saw him off at the airport: "Stay off the pop, lad", he said. Of course he'd done nothing of the sort while he'd been here in Majorca. That's the great danger in Deia — for a small village there are an amazing number of bars.... Within two months Don was dead'.

Ronnie Wathen, Climbers Club, poet, and piper, smiled his quizzical smile. Behind his specs there was that characteristic mixture of mystery and mischief. He and I were waiting on a stance whilst Norman searched for the line, little thinking this would be Ronnie's own last climb. He did climb again at Harrison's of course, and in Dalkey Quarry as late as June, before his death from a brain tumour on September 5th 1993. But that was something else. He'd taken us with typical enthusiasm and poor memory to what must be the best VS in Majorca — 800 feet of varied, sustained climbing spiced by the need for good old-fashioned route finding, if you get up early enough to beat the queue. The soaring ridge of Sa Gubia can be seen from Palma airport. It's the left-hand skyline of a vertical scoop out of the nearest hills. Ronnie told me that Sa Gubia means, in Majorquin, (which he had learned fluently) 'the woodworker's gouge'. It is a route of continuing interest whose secrets are not given away by lines of bolts, or by my hinting that descents over the back of the mountain are usually made in the dark and finally involve passing The Three -Headed Dog to reach the road.

It was our third Alpine start for this route, from Ronnie's mountain village of Deia, where he had built a house for his family in 1968. It was Robert Graves who provided the focus for those poets and artists who, like Ronnie himself, have homed in on Deia. Where else would you find that there are two poetry readings in one week? And one of them was Ronnie's reading that night, so we'd better not hang about on Sa Gubia. Easier said than done.

We reached the foot of Sa Gubia in the cool of a New Year's Eve morning under a cloudless sky. My son Tom and Simon from Jersey opted for the bolted right-hand start up a leaning crackline, whilst Norman led off from the red-painted foot of the ridge. It's a scrambly, slightly loose first pitch to a belay in bushes where Ronnie, with his flair for the unpredictable, found behind a bush, a gift of a bottle of water. We accepted it. The second pitch passes two pegs and begins to get into 4b gear. Each belay has double pegs or bolts and is painted with a number. From P2 we should have traversed right beneath a scoop to gain the crest of the ridge, but Norman's instincts led left and back right to a double peg belay on the right of a cave where a large ledge would detain Ronnie and me plus the next team for an increasingly intense impasse.

Norman looked round to the right and returned. Not likely. He looked left and returned. A long way left a line of bolts above and below indicated what he took to be Supernova. Norman tried the cave roof. Ronnie tried teaching me my cue for coming in with a poem of my own in the middle of his reading of his long poem in which he shows Lord Byron around Deia and its inhabitants. It's written in ottava rims, the form perfected by Byron, and it's written by Ron who was quoting: " the Isles of Greece! The Isles of Greece! are calling. And he hopes that, on a wing and a prayer He'll leave this Deia which he finds appalling...' "

Cue Gifford:
" 'In the mountains they have a dance..." but Ronnie was stopped abruptly by Norman shouting down rather unpoetically: "For pete's sake shut up! I'm trying to get us out of here and you're reciting poetry!"

He returned to our ledge which was getting crowded. Friendly, but crowded. Another leader had belayed beside us and his second, perhaps motivated by Ron's Byron, looked round to the right and returned. Not likely.  "Well, I've run out of ideas!" Norman declared. So, having given up hope on this route the only alternative was any route. Norman crossed the cave to the left again and this time the rope kept moving. A steep bolted wall that Norman was ascending out of our sight proved to be the delightful 4c crux of our version of this route. At the top a delicate traverse right brought a painted belay and a helpful red arrow pointing up right as if by now you might be feeling a little lost. This was Ronnie's fourth ascent and he found it got mysteriously harder each time he did it.

"It's amazing," he said. "You don't need to work at raising your grade- You just do the same route every five years!" Norman attacked the crack, indicated by the arrow, that slanted up a steep wall. He popped in hexes and Friends, swung out off the crack's edge and disappeared again. Ronnie took off his slippers, which he called his 'chinese torture socks', and aired his horrible toes. His Majorquin shepherd's shoes were clipped in to his faded Whillans harness. From deep in his 'sack he offered me olives. I declined. He offered me garlic. I declined. So he popped the clove into his mouth and chewed on it: "Just like Don used to say, 'Don't put any of them olives or garlic in the cooking!' " He offered me a satsuma.
"Thanks." "That's alright," he said, "They grow on trees round here!" I tried to peel it whilst belaying. He popped an unpeeled orange into his mouth and chewed on it. At the top of this pitch Norman hailed Tom, asking him to wait so that we could speed up the route-finding. At P5 Tom's route joined ours. From here the route looked broken by the odd bush above and slightly easier. It's deceptive. Norman raced after Tom.

Ronnie arrived at my stance, then the next two lads, then an English girl who was leading and had to wait at the top holds of her pitch. "Are you happy?" One of the lads asked. "I'm ecstatically happy!" she replied, relaxing on her small holds. Fair enough. We all believed her. For the rest of the route Ronnie kept reminding us that people in the queue behind us were 'ecstatically happy'. Above the next belay, P6, a steep wall demanded strenuous pull ups, then a stretch left where a manky peg offered a dubious quick clip before jugs tempted sweaty grasps in a groove. To say it's 4b is to convey nothing of the way it reminds you that there's going to be no let up high on this pillar above the plain. The following easier slabs might tease you, but at P7, where there's an in situ tape round a natural thread, another wall asks the old question, 'which way ?

Norman took an airy ramp to the left, then came back right, warning about loose blocks. A rightwards slanting groove led up to a tree in a recess at P8. When Ronnie joined us here, his tale this time was about the amazing etiquette on the stances of this climb. A German had arrived on a stance and asked Ronnie: "Do you mind if I smoke?" "Here we are, 700 feet up in the air, and he asked my permission to smoke! What did he expect me to say? 'I'm sorry, this is a non-smoking stance! "So what did you say, Ronnie?" "I said, 'It's alright, if you give me one," The final pitch of this magnificent climb sustains its interest and quality right up to the unnecessary 'Fin' on the rock at P9. A step right from the alcove reveals sharp fluted rock that tears at the fingertips. Above, pinnacles finally bring into sight the 400ft ridge-walk to gain the summit. The sun may be about to set, but the day is not over yet!

We relaxed as we walked down the long winding roadway off the summit through the olive groves. The sky paled from orange to yellow to green as the moon came up. Talk turned to Cerberus, the three-headed dog that guards the farm before the road. Dave Gregory had warned us about this dog. "It rushes at you suddenly at full pelt, but its chain is just long enough for it to be pulled up with enough room for you to squeeze past with your back to the wall. That's when its neck is jerked back and its back legs swing round to kick you."

Ronnie also vividly remembered this dog and he had plenty of time to give us the gruesome details as the moon rose higher.. One by one, as we got closer to the farm, we each picked up an olive branch. It wasn't for peace. We were approach­ing some outbuildings. A vicious barking started up. Norman shouted back and amazingly the barking stopped. But that was the puppy.
Cerberus was round the corner. And here was the owner, standing by a gate across the track through his farm. Ronnie greeted him in Majorquin and asked if we might pass through. Somehow none of us appeared to be gripping sticks anymore. The owner was charming and kindly told us to keep to the wall. We didn't need telling as the huge black dog came racing out of the darkness snarling at us and doing the business.

Later that night, Ronnie gave an hilarious reading which poked fun at several members of the audience as Lord Byron was introduced to Ronnie's version of the recent history of Deia. To illustrate his poem he continued what he'd begun on the climb, producing props out of a suitcase and flinging them aside. Here he was doing what he loved best, giving his friends fun out of his magical capacity for the unexpected. That it was kindly and intelligent fun, often at his own expense, is what made him so widely loved by all sorts of people, from dons to Don Whillans. It was New Year's Eve. Ronnie took his Irish pipes to the bar and told me that once Mo Antoine had heard him playing in the Royal Vic, and had said to him: "Is it dead yet? I should get it by the throat! ' It seemed impossible that Ronnie would be struck down by the same fatal illness as Mo and that I would never see him again after that precious week in Ronnie's company. I would like to remember him playing his pipes that night when, after the grapes had been eaten on each stroke of midnight, after the firework display over the mountain, the dog's three heads became six in the re­telling and Don's advice was toasted again and again: "Stay off the pop, lad."

'Ronnie Wathen was a shaman Only he knew what it was he blew
  from the mountains of his life Through his poems and his pipes'.

Ronnie Wathen on his last long climb: Terry Gifford©

First published in the Climbers Club Journal of 1992. Thanks to Terry for permission to re-publish the article and photographs and The Climbers Club for their cooperation.

Wednesday 21 October 2009

Next week's guest writer

Following Terry Gifford's article which will be published tomorrow. Next week's guest writer is Mike Bailey. Mike is the author of the upcoming Climbers Club guidebook to Ogwen which is quite revolutionary in its structure and will be quite simply the most comprehensive guide ever to this, the CC's most popular guidebook area. Mike takes us back two hundred years to earliest explorers of the north Wales mountains. Before which time, the mountains were feared and damned as dark pagan places to be avoided at all costs!

Enter the Ogwen Valley next week

Monday 19 October 2009

Ronnie Wathen

Coming up later in the week, a lovely article by Terry Gifford on the late Ronnie Wathen. Like Mo Anthoine, Ronnie was one of climbings' characters. A larger than life personality for whom climbing was only one element within a range of interests which included poetry and the playing the traditional Uillean pipes. An extensive traveller, Ronnie eventually settled at Deya in Majorca and built a house next to Robert Graves.
Apart from Graves, Ronnie's eclectic list of friends included Paddy Maloney of The Chieftans, Don Whillans and philosopher RD Laing. Not exactly the social circle of the modern rock jock!
His attachment to the world of mountaineering was described by Jim Perrin as 'romantic rather than diligent' A true renaissance man.

Ronnie Wathen. The 'Take me to your leader' shot which adorns his privately published 'The Unwritten Mountains'.Lady Jane©

Thursday 15 October 2009

New Lands for Old Hands

Harold Drasdo was born in Yorkshire 1930 and began his climbing career on his local outcrops just after WW2. A member of that loose band of climbers from his home city, The Bradford Lads whose personnel included Arthur Dolphin and a young Dennis Gray. A contemporary of Brown and Whillans, Harold’s career in the great outdoors began working alongside the former legend at the White Hall Centre in the English Peak District, eventually moving to North Wales to run The Towers Outdoor Centre near Capel Curig. In between a full time career in outdoor education Harold still found time to ferret out classic first ascents, more especially in the English Lake District, North Wales and with brother Neville, opening up the previously unexplored 1000’ cliffs of The Poisoned Glen in Donegal, Eire. Regarded as one of the UK’s climbings most cerebral writers.His works include the influencial ‘Education in the outdoor centres’, Mountain Spirit’ and his autobiographical ‘The Ordinary Route’.
Harold and Maureen Drasdo live on the North Wales coast.
Harold Drasdo on the first ascent of Jac Codi Baw (HVS 5a-US 5.9) Arenig Fawr North Wales.
Clogwyn Du'r Arddu: The Black Cliff. Is there a classic
'Severe' awaiting discovery ? Alan Leary©

Nowadays, climbers who want to know what's going on keep up to date by reading the area surveys in the magazines. The writers of these columns keep up to date by checking new routes books, by accepting advertising, and by loitering near the known activists. Within its limits the coverage of novelties is probably pretty good. But this information focuses mainly on a single dynamic in rock-climbing, the ascent of hard new routes.
The sport has other dynamics and larger areas of activity. Here I want to propose an alternative project, as satisfying, as tricky, but admitting more of the climbing public. First, though, I have to tell young climbers about their prospects and to say a few words on behalf of those of us who've learned, with mixed feeling, that we're now categorised as a recognisable club, 'the coffin dodgers'. It's true that experienced climbers — that is, those who've pursued the calling for 30, 40, or 50 years — have found that performance hasn't gone off quite so much as they'd predicted from the airy vantage point of the age 20.
Some few, in fact, are climbing better than ever: that's probably because, in the shadow of more pushing companions in youth, they never discovered their limits. Many have learned that an undeniable deterioration has been almost offset by modern footgear and protection: that's a bonus that won't come up again without some changes in the rules. For most there's an undoubted decline, compounded for those like myself who find retirement so time-consuming that they can't get out so often as they'd like. I sometimes meet people who seem to be perfectly happy to repeat at regular intervals routes they already know well. That puzzles me. Surely the only strong satisfaction comes from climbing unseen routes and with the slightest fall in standard and with years of activity in an area these become thin on the ground.

If good climbs of lower grades are still being found they're not often being reported. Best not to speculate on that. Further, in some of our mountain areas the available guidebook record of easier climbs is actually being cut down. Looking at a couple of popular cliffs in an old guide and in its immediate successor I find what anybody would expect: that the number of routes at Hard VS and Extreme had roughly doubled. I also notice what might not have been forecast: that the number of routes below that level had been reduced by a quarter. Odd climbs have shifted through straight revaluation but the process works both ways and the main causes are clear. First, classics of the fifties and sixties which used aid points have been freed to appear at a higher standard. We're all awestruck by the achievements of that crusade.

What is remarkable is the acceptance of the new grade by those who can't achieve it. Even where a nut might stand in for the original peg and give the whole route a more consistent standard everybody seems prepared to forego that option and strike the route off the repertoire. Second, perfectly satisfactory climbs have sometimes been deleted after a high-standard variation has been found, in order to cobble together a complete and more difficult new route. That's piracy. Third, routes with a fair amount of vegetation tend to be excluded. Certainly grass isn't rock but on this ruling Great Slab on Cloggy and the Original Route on the Idwal Slabs, classic climbs both, would also have been excluded. Finally, I might add that cliffs offering only low-standard climbing are now so far outside the guide-writer's threshold of interest that they're likely to be dismissed by formula: 'here the climber is left to discover his own routes.' British climbing has a missing generation, that of the war years.

When I joined there seemed to be a few grown-ups around but many years later we did the sums and discovered they'd been hardly any older than ourselves. It wasn't until we made contact with and eventually infiltrated the posh clubs that we met the few amazing survivors of the twenties and thirties. They're mostly gone now or not dining out and the baby bulge that entered climbing in the fifties is starting to queue up for its pensions. We've got used to seeing wave after wave of young climbers appearing without considering the awful consequence. Shortly, for the first time in history we're going to see hordes of old people on the crags, if you can accommodate the thought. They'll need fields for action and I don't think they'll be content to spend their declining years on the Milestone or Middlefell since they've become addicted to more dramatic rock scenery. Maybe we should start a Tame Tigers section. So here is my proposal: that paralleling the drive to find the hardest climb on each hard crag we should put some time into finding the easiest route up each hard crag.
I can see your furrowed brow. It must have been done already, you're thinking, the first explorers grabbed it. That assumption needs checking everywhere. All crags have an Original Route but they don't all have an Ordinary Route. I'll handicap myself and take the most extreme and testing obstacle to my programme. Answer this: what is absolutely the final problem in British rock-climbing? Silence. Well, clearly, it's the working out of a V Diff up the West Buttress of Cloggy. What majesty and integrity it would have, Britain's only four-star. Now I hear the gasps of disbelief: impossible, crazy, nothing goes there below VS. What if I say Mild Severe, then? A minute's silence again, while we all think. Making an ascent of Longland's last summer I was surprised at how easy most of the climbing seemed. It was nearly 40 years since my only previous ascent.;My companion, Duncan Boston, hadn't done it for over 30 years. He took a quick glance at our old guidebook and offered to lead off. Bad at decisions, I agreed willingly, but glancing at the guide as he moved up I thought I saw the plan. He'd get the two easier pitches and I'd get the two harder. The idea disturbed me since, logging or something, I'd just wrecked an arm. However, I could always check out the variation finish if necessary. In the event he concentrated upon upward progress with such single mindedness that it wasn't until I called out the rope in hand that he realised he was halfway up the second pitch and, unable to find reverse, was obliged to belay there. From that point, by running out 160ft, I was able to anchor so close to the overhang that a preferable stance couldn't reasonably be suggested.He arrived, saw the score, said nothing, gritted his teeth and led it rapidly, well done. I followed single-handed, but only just.
So it happens I still haven't seen the slab finish, given as Hard Severe. But below that point we found only three or four moves approaching or reaching that standard. And all the old legends about seriousness, exposure and the chance of a fall into the Black Cleft were blown away by the simplest modern protection Maybe we could get it down to Hard Severe, then, without even any fiddling? (Since starting this piece I see the grading of the alternative finish described as 'an invitation to disaster'. Must get back there). It will be said that I'm just talking about an arguable regrading. But with a bit of looking around I might do better. If not, I'm going to rewrite the ethic. Throughout recorded history the do-it-yourself movement and the rewriting of ethics have been intimately linked.

Q: What is the raison d'etre of the competition ethic? A: The raison d'etre of the competition ethic is the need to conserve a sense of uncertainty of outcome. Q: What is the modus operandi of the competition ethic? A: The modus operandi of the competition ethic is the imposition of restrictions on tactics. Q: What is the cut off point for the restrictions imposed? A: The cut off point for the restrictions imposed is that at which they become severe enougf/to permit ranking of the leading contenders. Q: Why is there continuous dispute about the ethic? A: Some are bold, some are strong, and some are skilful. Each wishes to reshape the ethic to centralise his own style. And some tell lies but get found out. Q: What is the silent prayer of the originator of a hard new route? A: That his route will win acceptance into the canon of classics. Q: No. What is the silent prayer of the originator of a hard new route? A: That his place in the history will be further secured. Q: No. What is the silent prayer of the originator of a hard new route? Think carefully. A: The silent prayer of the originator of a hard new route is that those who follow will find themselves even more gripped or more bushed or more stretched than he found himself. Q: I'll accept that. How is it that experts often allow themselves advantages — inspection, rehearsal, pre-placement, and so on — which they forbid to the less expert? A: To allow these tactics to all would pull the rug from under the contenders marginalising their edge and making assessment more difficult. Q: If the ethic is devised primarily to sort contenders, how is it that the permanently relegated continue to observe it? A: Presumably they're still competing. Q: With who? A: Their ageing contemporaries. Q: And? A: Oh! Their younger selves. Q: Can they win? A: You tell. Isn't it a losing battle? Q: I'm asking the questions. And proposing alternative games with new sub-sets of rules. One being that if you're well over the hump you needn't set yourself impossible standards. I want to rid you of your sense of shame. (Or is it false pride?) If you stick at Severe now and you've climbed all Tremadog offers, you must do Scratch next, a brilliant Severe with two or three moves on nuts. There's lots more where that came from. What I'm saying is, if the ethic gets in your way, don't just stand there looking at it. You only live once. Go on, be brave, kick it over. More importantly, many hard crags might be furnished with an Ordinary Route, described by the easiest possible line and accepting the easiest possible style. It mightn't matter how it's worked out since that sort of climb wouldn't necessarily have its eye on the list of first ascents. Think of it as a community effort, improved through generations.

Of course, restrictions are still needed since satisfaction can only come from the resolution of doubt. An obvious rule would be the acceptance of an appropriate technology: you don't buy your way up a cheap climb so sophisticated and expensive gear must be rejected. But from this position we can immediately accept the use of the body, the rope, the sling and the karabiner — the pioneer skills — as ideologically correct. That is, the use of a shoulder, of lassoing, of diagonal abseils and tension moves, of a sling stirrup, is okay. (And, incidentally, we've reclaimed for ourselves an element —horseplay, pantomime, burlesque, call it what you like -­rarer in modern climbing though, surprisingly, it's been rediscovered at one frontier with the invention of the soft fall.)
Probably, by now, we have Longland's down to straight Severe. If we throw in the modest use of nut aid (since nuts, though shockingly pricey, can often be found abandoned on crags and if you're not lucky that way you can always improvise with jammed knots or pebbles) perhaps it goes down to Mild Severe. But it wasn't New Longlands I was dreaming about, it was the New West. Fifteen feet up Great Slab, V Diff, and a rope move across to the groove... Stance. Up the long groove...Severe, delightful. Stance. Up the approach to the top traverse or up towards the traverse of Bow, no problem. Already, we're nearly halfway up and only 50ft below the easier upper slabs. Unfortunately the crag has spotted us and rearranged its defences. We may have to concede or to wander round to look at Narrow or to play grass ladders and nylon snakes until we're deposited, dry-throated, somewhere near the start of Longland's. But I want you to think about it. Cloggy presents a rotten and unfair obstacle to this programme. Thousands of deeply worried leaders have looked for escapes round corners and few of their discoveries have made much difference. But I'm convinced that some of the prestige cliffs would repay closer inspection than they've had from the middle-grade climber. And any routes produced should be of high quality by definition.

At present the star system is a shambles. Different logics demand different applications based on district, area and cliff, and stars are pinned on to the newest routes for difficulty alone. Many writers have tried to say what makes a great or classic climb. McKee (1989) is sound on the basic issues but does not address the problem of difficulty itself. Drasdo (1972), usually our most reliable commentator, seems to be in some confusion on this point, listing difficulty as an unqualified requirement. He uses a doctrinaire analogy with literature. The expert reader usually finds greater value in the difficult book rather than in the simple book; the expert climber usually finds greater value in the difficult climb than in the simple climb: therefore there is a value in difficulty itself and, other things being equal, a harder route deserves a higher status than an easy route. I hope I haven't misinterpreted him.- The argument is appealing but, with respect, the present writer disagrees.
Avoiding the semantic problems of whether difficulty is a grading of climbs or of climbers, surely the merit of a Diff to a Diff man is as great as the merit of an Extreme to an Extremist. Further, there seems to be a crucial difference between books and climbs. Put a serious book by a simple book and the former is augmented; put a serious climb by a simple climb and the former is diminished. For example: if a V Diff chimney ran up four feet out from Cenotaph Corner it would draw three stars and the Cenotaph would lose one or two. From this illustration it appears that, above difficulty and above consistency of standard, inescapability and setting are more important determinants of value in climbing. It follows that the easiest route up a hard crag might even be the best. The more serious issues for the pioneer of easier climbs comes not from competition ethics, which we may rewrite as he wishes, but from environment ethics, which are not so lightly rewritten.
Generally, the easier a climb is the more likely it is to support plant life and the more open the climber will be to accusations of over-gardening. The charge is serious but is sometimes overstated or inconsistent. Years ago, a conservationist assured me that it was vital that a rock-paved path be built around Llyn Idwal in order to limit damage to vegetation. The very same week another conservationist complained to me that the climbers' descent over the Middle Rock of Cloggy was now eroded to bedrock and that the damage was regrettable and irreversible.

My own experience, both inside and outside climbing, says that nature is more resilient than some of her defenders believe. In fact, she can only be defeated temporarily with the bare hands: it takes machines or chemicals to overcome her. I'd like to have been able to call this piece 'Recent Developments in Wales' and to round it off with some good examples. But as usual theory has outstripped practice. Also, I still maintain mainline ambitions and try to climb in that style. Here's a small example, though, of what I mean.
A few months ago I paid my first visit to Craig y Llyn, above Llyn Dinas, again with Duncan Boston. (Since starting this piece I see mention of an access problem there. Must enquire further.) He'd been up Terra Nova once and something further up and we were able to work out the whereabouts of routes on the upper part of the crag. It mostly harbours Extremes. However, we weren't feeling too good and decided to begin with the easiest route, Honeysuckle Wall, Severe. It was a bit breezy, I got into some tricky moves, and then I wasn't sure whether I was heading the right way so I came down. That didn't bother me. I always feel that if I don't fail regularly I haven't been trying hard enough. (I mean that I've been picking soft touches. Successes never sustain me for very long but my imagination stores and feeds on every move on which I've failed. I look forward to going back.) Since there were no other Severes left we thought we'd better knock off one or two VSs. We were living dangerously. That is, we were still using Trevor Jones's 1970 Snowdon South guidebook but by pooling our experience, intelligence, intuition, guile and gut feelings we had so far avoided serious injury. Right may mean left, a variation may take you to the stance below pitch four on a two-pitch climb, any of his own routes from which the author had more or less recuperated by the time he reached his notebook will be graded Hard Severe. It's all tremendous fun and for the sceptical middle-grade climber we can thoroughly recommend this collector's piece for a great day out.
Unfortunately this edition is without the amazing illustrations Barbara Heatherley produced for the earlier volume.. We especially miss the expressionist pen-and-ink study of a rabbit (?) entitled Pant Ifan. We looked for Clonus which, oddly, wasn't described in .relation to the features of the cliff but was to be found only by locating 'a dead tree lying almost at the foot of the crag'. It wasn't there. It wasn't anywhere in sight. If we could have found a dead tree in the woods beneath maybe we could have got it up to the foot of the crag if the guidebook had said which part of the foot of the crag we should drop it almost at. Presently a nicely-shaped scoop covered in thick moss caught our eyes and we started to play with it. So we took turns and lifting the moss off discovered smart rock and cute holds until we had advanced to a position at which, with a sling to stand in or clip on to, we could have cleaned out a pull-out on to easier ground. No means of support was immediately apparent. Then, looking down, I saw that by stepping out of the scoop a few feet lower, I could make a delicious traverse to the left. I did that, made a short ascent, overcame some little grassy steps and was on the big balcony halfway up. A vegetated ramp led us to an airy position on the nose of the buttress and another 40ft took us to the heather forests of the summit. Good, we had a new route. Back at home I reread the other routes and consulted a later guide. At the stance we'd joined Honeysuckle Wall which had sidled right around the corner of the buttress.
Our ramp was given as an alternative 'on more dubious going' to the second pitch of that climb (which here made a lunatic excursion on the the left wall, a possibility I hadn't even noticed and completely baffling until I saw that the originator was Derek Howarth). Then we'd straightened the third pitch by a step or two. Our start looked rather like Clonus: but why make an 'awkward mantelshelf' on to a ledge we'd climbed straight past before finding a better line? Clonus: what the hell did that mean? Ah: a muscle spasm. We'd both made complaints about cramp, not a standard excuse for either of us. But, surely, even if the route hadn't been repeated in 20 years there'd have to be some slight evidence of human progress? What had we got then? Not much new climbing. But we had a natural line following a logical course through steeper surroundings and offering apparently the easiest route on the crag. The rock was excellent and beneath the grass and moss there was some sort of Crackstone Rib waiting for the masses.
If a climber who frees an aided route to give a harder climb may rename it, so a climber who links harder climbs to give an easier and more sensible route should certainly describe and name it. Honeysuckle Wall was close at hand. Near the traverse I had noticed attractive little mats of the tiny succulent leaves of a specie of sedum but the flowers were long gone and I couldn't say which. However, the English generic name would do and seemed quite appropriate for a rock climb: Stonecrop.

Harold Drasdo© First published in HIGH: May 1990.

Out there on Cloggy: Al Leary©

Monday 12 October 2009

Ageing Cumbrians in desert storm !

Chris Bonington on the crux of Cumbria Paul Ross©

They might have 146 years between them but Lakeland legend Paul Ross- a long term Colorado resident- and a little known British mountaineer, Chris Bonington who happens to live in Paul's old stomping ground, proved they are still capable of ferreting out classic three star routes. Albeit, far from the bracken wreathed, black moss crusted crags of Borrowdale and in this case, the vastness of the Utah desert near Three Fingers National Park in the San Rafael Swell area. Climbing with Lance Bateman, Paul and Chris established an 830', six pitch, US 5.9 (UK HVS-5a/b) on the impressive Triple Buttress.

Details below are from Paul Ross.


The Route was named after the part of Britain where Chris still lives and Paul used to! Starts just right of the slot canyon and left of "Mellow Yellow" P1). 4th/5th class 150' up broken rock to below a groove that is up to the right.From here the pitches and rock is of very good quality.P2).Move out left and follow an easy slab that curves up to the right to a short wall over this to a good thread (in place) below a block. 160' '5.6R P3).Up nice slab in right corner then to a groove (5.8 with pro) on the left go to left edge and double anchors.200 5.8 P4)Up the edge passed a couple of thin moves then follow the edge to double anchors. 170'5.7R P5) About a 100'of 5.6R slab to a short steep right facing corner with pro then move over to the left edge and double anchors. 200'5.9 P6).Easy slab for a 100' to a large ledge system .Junction with the top of Mellow Yellow. Descent>. Rap Anchors of M-Y are found about 30' down at the top of a groove (Mellow Y)Rap this pitch (200') to a big ledge.Here one will see another set of rap anchors that descend MY.A more direct rap can be made down a route just north of M-Y .Scramble 30'along the ledge to the north then down to the right will be seen rap anchors at the top of the long groove of the route "Lance-A-Lot" From here a 200' rap to a small ledge.then another rap to low angled slabs.These are 4th classed 400' first up to the right then left down a groove and continue to ground.(Future plan is to install other rap anchors to the gully that will avoid the slab scramble)


Park about A 1/4 mile from entrance to Three Finger Canyon. The Triple Buttress area is the steeper line of rock straight opposite ..see photos.


Cams.From 1/4" to #4 Friend. one or two medium stoppers.Slings .Two 60m ropes:
Paul Ross©

Chris Bonington on Pitch 2 of Cumbria: Paul Ross©

Knight time in the desert! Chris admires Paul's Jack Russells:Paul Ross©

Thanks to Paul Ross for permission to use his photographs and routes description details.

Friday 9 October 2009

Harold Drasdo up next !

Next week's guest writer is Harold Drasdo. One of UK climbings' true intellectuals and one of its finest writers.

Harold Drasdo at the foot of Widdershins. (VS-4c: US 5.8) Ogwen Valley.N Wales

Monday 5 October 2009

Falling About...And Not Laughing

David Craig was born in Aberdeen in 1932 and is married to Anne Spillard. He first climbed rock on Lochnagar in 1952, then didn't climb again (for several compelling reasons) until 1973 when his children began climbing in the Lake District. Best known in the UK for his classic 1987 climbing book Native Stones which was quickly followed by the equally impressive Landmarks. David has written several non climbing books on Scottish history and culture as well as works of poetry and novels. David appeared in the BBC series Wilderness Walks and will appear in a BBC Scotland outdoor programme to be screened in the future. A long term resident of South Cumbria. David has contributed as a guide book area author and has many first ascents in the UK to his credit, including routes made with Cumbrian legend Bill Peascod.
He has climbed in England,Scotland,Wales,France,Germany,Gibralter,South Africa and America.

David Craig on the first ascent of Salome on Round Howe,Buttermere in the English Lake District with Bill Peascod and Neil Craig.

It may have been euphoria. I don't think it was hubris. We'd been staying at Sennen Cove again, our mid-winter journey into that place of mild storms and epic winds. The usual gale greeted us and it blew until Pete was about to leave.
He is an ideal partner, who climbs regularly in the Avon and Verdon Gorges at E3/4 6a/b,
and is therefore so solid on my grade of route-VS/HVS-with occasional forays upwards) that when he's leading it makes me feel I'm wearing a parachute, or wings. But the nearest we got to a climb before he had to leave was to stand on the precipitous tussocks above Great Zawn at Bosigran so that he could eye up the line of Dream/ Liberator, which he fancies for some perfect day this summer.
After he'd left, I was humming with unexpended energy. I soloed around at Pedn-Maen Du, put up a 20-metre Severe at the southernmost end of the possibilities, on a grooved and stepped wall right of Teleology, and called it Roisin Dubh because it's in Irish Lady Cove and the rock is stained deep black.

Coming back along the base of the crags to the home terrain between Sunday Face and Demo, I spied a ladder of knobbly quartz mini-jugs edging out of the granite, which looked familiar but vertical enough to be provoking. I pulled up, it went, it was irresistible. At the finish, when I thought I'd cracked it, I frightened myself trying to swing left through mid-air on an extraordinary beak - petrified remnant of an extinct bird -integral with the crag but so slender - I retreated, sweating, tried a cleft on the right between two crystalline haunches, and got up it by means of jams so secure that they lacerated. Double Overhang, of course - 20 metres, 4b, 4b. By my standards I was going well, and when we went to Carn Kenidjack on our last day, to write and read and scramble, I felt just about ready to nip up Gneiss Gnome, which had been grinning at me for a year or two. But I took the precaution of peering down the final twenty feet of its ninety, and the cleaned slant joint was lined with a paste of winter-moist soil, and the little toe-steps to its right -facing in- were dripping, so I went on down the path with my headier impulses tightly reined in.

Down there, at the foot of the great shield of Saxon and Thane, in that lovely zone of waves swinging in blue and bursting white, I laddered up the first sixty feet of the Gnome, to confirm the no-go assessment. No, I could not make myself slink up that oozing gutter, the fear would be ghastly, the situation beyond control by strength and skill alone, and where's the good in that? So down I went again and along the shingle, looking longingly up at the subtly engraved surfaces of the Carn itself. I'd always wondered how to start Saxon. The first holds are clearly out of reach, so, experimentally, I did a few gymnastics between the giant boulder and the face and it seemed as though back-and-footing might do the trick.
But the footholds gleamed and dripped, so I dried them thoroughly on my selection of bar towels (Teacher's, Marston's, and Stone's), chimneyed up with Fires squirming as the ooze reappeared, lunged for a rim, swung up, edged left, and in no time I was strolling my hands along the flake which crescents across the face like the lower lip of a sabre-cut, feet on the positive wrinkles; eighty feet of comfortable climbing which gave me at least a taste and feel of that rearing expanse, until things became so thin and steep that further progress without a rope would have been, ridiculous and I traversed off and down the Gnome again.
I was so in tune with this pure, cold-forged, wind-scoured world by now that I leaned against the foot of the shield with my arms spread out, my cheek against the gneiss, and a poem came to me, whole lines and the clinching idea, as the gulls' shadows criss-crossed on the sunlit rock and the waves hissed and seethed behind me.
Perfect contentment. I kept my Fires on, put on my ruck­sack, and walked along the shore to the little zawn on the left for a last scramble. A short wall beckoned, twenty feet on protruding biscuits but holds galore and easier-angled terrain waiting above. I pulled up, fingered and toe the biscuits; they were sound enough though thin as ginger snaps
I reached up and pinched a sloping arete on the right, bridged off its twin on the left and eased up into the valley above.
A grating and tearing, like a tooth coming out - the wall blazes up past me in a blur - utter, sudden stoppage  ‑unnatural silence, like after a car crash - a boulder to my left rears like a trapdoor falling and slams the side of my head. I've landed feet first on tilted boulders and bounced leftwards against a slab. I lie there, tingling. Black-faced rocks outstare me calmly, keeping their counsel, disclaiming all responsibility for this folly. I haven't blacked out, so no concussion. I work my ankles round and round, and they do work, although my right heel is numb.My hair is wet where my head hit but not streaming. My left haunch and right knee are on fire with grazes and my right elbow has been hammered. But I can make it up the path -with its unavoidable ten-foot Diff rock step- and back to the car where Anne is, quite rightly, as much exasperated as consoling.
So you shouldn't solo, alone, without a helmet, on unclimbed, brittle rock in winter. Of these six factors, perhaps only the 'unclimbed' one is crucial. As I looked up the twenty feet of my fall, I saw that the rock which gave way on me had been weakened by moisture collected and given out again by a tump of sea-thrift. On a frequented route the weak rock -and probably the flowers- would have long since gone. As for the risky aspects of soloing in itself, would they not,in this case, apply as well to climbing an awkward first pitch with the possibility of falling before the first protection halt been slotted home? That is when I've had my last few leader falls, for example one February day at Oxenber, near Austwick, when I skidded back down the freezing, polished chimney-crack that opens Bullroar and knackered my left ankle (I never seem actually to break). The bad thing about a February accident is that it can jeopardise the start of the real rock season. When I went. to Skye that Easter, and we walked up via Keall-Odhar to Sgurr a Bhasteir, and down into Glen Sligachan via the Lota and Harta Corries, the three miles round the shoulder opposite the Bloody Stone were hell because we had to walk continuously on the steep heather slope and it forced my ankle inwards at just the most painful angle.
When I went to Wallowbarrow in Dunnerdale that same month to climb Perseverance and The Plumb the walking up was still much more trying and crippled than the climbing. There's the beauty of rock; it is so much a matter of finesse, so little of brute shove.So healing continued, and the ankle never troubled me again till suddenly, five years later, I fulfilled an old ambition by going to lead Valkyrie on Froggatt Pinnacle. I tackled that leaning and slanting crack by forcing in cruel toe-jams, and by the time I failed to make horizontal hand-jams lodge on the traverse and went whanging down onto my well-planted Moac, I must have stressed the ankle joint too much. By the end of the day I could hardly depress the clutch. And now I have abused that ankle yet again. Will it stand up to this year's siege of Froggatt Pinnacle? You never quite recover from these traumas; they come creaking and wincing back on you years later and make you realise your vulnerability as a thing of flesh and bone. But I can't wholly regret the adventure at Carn Kenidjack: I can learn from it, and it did throw up a poem.

Under the Slab
Death is over against us.Stand with your cheek to the rock-face, 
Wheel through 90 degrees and let 
the perfectly hard minerals oppose
their close-packed atoms to the running
And feeling of your blood.

Rise again, look to the zawn-mouth. 
Its stone lids part,
Its blue eye opens,
Like surf the white birds seethe
And the transparent dove-grey shadows
Print their ecstatic glyphs across the slate.

David Craig © 2009

Saturday 3 October 2009

As the Crow Flies !

In the next week or so Footless Crow takes flight with an exclusive first publication of an article by Lakeland climber David Craig. David is best known for his classic climbing book Native Stones although he has produced a wealth of written work ranging from poetry to Scottish culture and history. Following on we have articles from one of climbing's respected elder statesman, Harold Drasdo. Chair of the Mountain Heritage Trust, Terry Gifford and the author of the Climbers Club's forthcoming Ogwen area  guidebook, Mike Bailey.
Keeping the Footless Crow traditional theme going over the months will be some of the UK's most respected mountain writers. If you like what you see then spread the word !

Henry and Daisy Hobson on the atmospheric finale of Central Arete: Nant Francon. N Wales.