Friday, 27 November 2009

Diamonds and Rust

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 historical 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 is a member of the Fell & Rock Club and has contributed as a guide book area author. He has many first ascents in the UK to his credit including routes made with Lakeland legend Bill Peascod.
He has climbed in England, Scotland, Wales, france, Germany, Gibraltar, South Africa and the United States.

David Craig leads the Buttermere classic Dexter Wall (VS-5a-US 5.8) with the routes creator Bill Peascod on belay.©David Craig

The Tor shows its brown faces between flourishes of green leaves - unblemished glossy oaks of summer's second phase - no longer luminous, but not yet shredded by insects or soiled with their own sap. Foxgloves lean from clefts between jammed boulders tressed luxuriantly with grasses. Bits of crag - an end wall cut by faults into big horizontal diamonds, a weakness full of piled chunks, a top lip crenellated like a stage castle's battlements -show, and disappear, and peep through again. I'm trying to assemble them like a jigsaw into one whole picture, to see what I'm up against.

I first saw the Tor on the way to -or from?- Harthill Quarry, to climb Yellow John with Terry and Norman two summers ago, but what I'm recalling is really a mental copy of the Hard Rock picture with added colour, glimpsed across a wind-combed summer meadow, minimised down to photo size and flatness. Now the reality of it spreads and rears, dominates, bulges at us, reminding me of that gritstone bulkiness which we forget as we follow planed slabs and sharp edged crack systems in the Lakes. Here you want to grow telescopic arms that could embrace right round the mass and find something...anything, to grip when thin nearer features turn out to be unmanageably convex. A gritstone crag is all one hold, as the man- Dawes- said, or to put it another way, on much of its heftily-moulded expanse there are no holds at all.

Trevor seconded Suicide Wall twenty years ago, led it ten years ago. His memories are like that, layered historically. Their solid depth helps root me in this place, the usual cutting-edge of a fierce new crag blunts a little, the thing is conceivable ‑yes, maybe I can get up this.
"I may carry right on up," he says as he uncoils - "instead of belaying in the Bower."..."Will there be enough rope?" The doubled blue 10-mm. looks a pathetic little heap at the base of this impending, sky-filling eighty feet.
But really I'm feeling lonely already, I'd been banking on a snug reunion in the Bower, where mateyness could resume and keep that bleak drop and lean at bay.

Trevor doesn't answer;he's concentrating. His youthfully matt brown skin, under the flare of thinned white hair, is remote as a native American, his black eyes abstracted. He turns to the rock, puts a hand in a crack Slanting towards a niche with a sloping floor, sets a foot on a stunted oak whose upper trunk has been polished and mutilated by the thousands of feet that have been this way in the forty one years since Peter Harding and Veronica Lee, and insinuates himself upwards.

I'm trying to memorise his moves. Once he's shoved bits of himself into that niche, he reaches as though automatically for a Friend and fiddles it into the next crack up. I can see the crag is trying to expel him but he now sits firmly into the angular hole, leaning left, surely not at rest yet he's as ensconced as a chestnut in its conker, his face expressionless, his right foot stretching, away to edge on a pocket, ballet-elegant, above him the vertical wall, below him a kind of cellar, lobes of earthy rock, their edges larded with chalk by people who have religiously followed the line from the lowest point up. I couldn't possibly rest there, I'm thinking, I couldn't take my ease in bare equilibrium on that slippery coign. But under this first dismay I'm deeply reassured, as though he were doing yoga on my behalf - an object-lesson in poise that reaches me, stabilising and cheering.

He eases round, udges upwards, replaces the Friend with a wire. "I'll save the Friend for above." He reaches high to jam slotting his hand at fullest stretch, pulls up, places another Friend, then inches down again and does more yoga. "Got to go for it,'' he says, and stares out through leaves to the dapple of the sun on unmown hayfields in the dale below. His chin thrusts, his black eyes look focused more on a thought than an image. Is he gathering his powers? or -veteran who can do much harder things than this- is he thinking about something else entirely?

He turns again to the rock-face, reaches up for the higher jam, pulls, jams the other hand, they look perfectly wedged, he gains height and grips a horizontal slot that looks positive, his Fires friction on a vertical flake edge with one helpful rim on it where a crust of the sedimentary rock is slowly peeling. Those feet won't stick!, I want to warn him. They do, he's up, he swings round into the Bower, and a minute later I'm utterly grateful when he asks, "Will I bring you up to here? I don't think we'll have enough rope otherwise," and I  know that the respite of a little cohabitation in that homely harbour is going to happen after all, and with a good excuse...

Fifteen minutes later the respite is gone, spent, blown, finished as though it had never been, as I sit on the big oak trunk, paying out rope occasionally or not at all to the invisible Trevor, who has stepped round into space, committed himself to gravity and his own mortal arms and the unsettling blasts of a thunder wind which is belching at us from the south, mustering dense dark clouds, blinding the distances, presumably with a downpour. 

I'm sat in a cave with a roof ten feet deep. Beneath it the oak grows straight out, two feet thick, an indestructible ship's timber, not a twig or a leaf till it reaches free air and breaks out into a world of foliage. The trunk gives out an iron resonance when you slap it. It's ringed with abseil scars. It wasn't too hard getting here, the jams were the best, holding your hand as a Yale lock holds a half-turned key. "You did that beautifully," he said. "Nice to think that you've done the crux." Gratification glowed and heartened for a while - cooled - dissipated, as the rope led round that corner onto that wind-battered wall.

The oak leaves shake and hiss. The profile towers vertically and memories of the photo of Birtles curling his fingers round the lay-back flake are rudely dwarfed by the imminent actuality of all those other sections of the pitch where there seemed to be no such conveniences nothing but squared and adamantine sandstone, an environment fit for jackdaws, once we scrabbling humans have all given up and gone away.

The rope creeps outwards, stills again. A shout - what? "Resting..."  Out there? on that wall? resting!  Minutes of waiting while the sunshine pales in the thickening cloud, blown raindrops prick my arms, I exorcise fears by concentrating on a tractor snorting in a backyard down below, allow the fears back in via compulsive fantasising about that scarred trunk three feet out from the stance - if I monkeyed out on it, would I be able to swing back in to safety,, and other similar horror-comics.

"Resting" wafts down again - "strenuous... " He finds it strenuous! All I hope is that the horizontal hand jams are better than the gritty, rounded shelf on Valkyrie -Froggatt- where I tried to move along last summer, found no leverage I could use, exhausted my arms trying to place a foolish hex, and whanged down onto my runner... Vague vocal noises from above. The rope creeps off continuously. Nothing for it now but to take off the Sticht, untie from the oak (dear, solid, fatherly oak), and step out into the unstable world, the real world !
There is nothing whatsoever for the feet. Nothing but a smooth, bare wall.

The hands will have to do it all. The hands wedge and squeeze and rejoice to find themselves accepted, taken deeply in, gripped between the upper and nether millstones. They do a thing I've never thought or heard of: the right is normal, palm down, thumb curled under, braced, but look what the left's doing, it's stretched straight out at the end of its arm, palm upwards, knuckles grinding on the nether millstone, the whole hand cupped and tensed as though trying to lift the forty-foot thickness of sandstone in a Herculean effort.

This double jam feels as secure as a glued dovetail. It's almost a pity to leave it, to sidle rapidly towards the haven ten feet away where there are blocky jugs to clutch, sticking out from a fault, and a supportive pocket for one foot.

When Trevor said "Resting," he meant 'putting on another Friend'. For a mercy they all come out easily, or I've learned the knack and no longer make them crawl away from me into the rock. I whip them off, leave them dangling on the rope like ferrets on a gamekeeper's fence then collect them all and clip them onto my harness when I reach one of these unrestful resting-places. The world is now starkly divided into rock and air, air under my backside and my heels, hollow air which is the utter opposite to rock's massed density, rushing wind-driven air, the opposite of rock's fixity - air behind me, sucking my mind out into vacancy, must resist that - rock in front of me, flattening my nose, forcing my eyes to focus inside my comfortable-reading range, shoving me out as a great beast resists its captor, offering a few rough, slender means of clenching my centre of gravity inwards and hauling my body upwards.

The lay-back flake is a treat, no awful limestone polish, solid grainy gritstone leverage, and Nunn has promised "excellent jams and jughandles like battlements" to finish. Horrors: No such thing.' Above the flake a good rim for the fingers enforces a traverse rightwards but it's inconsistent, now it's sharp, now it's rounded and you can't tell where except by trial and error and every error eats more deeply into the forearms' strength-reserves. I gibbon along bunching both hands on the good bits, forced to part from them and slither fearfully past the dodgy sections until a deep mouth slants above me and I reach up gratefully for it - hoist myself into it - and that nearly finished me.
"I went right there," Trevor's voice calls down from just a few feet away now, "I wasn't quite so high." Does he think I can down climb out of here? No! I am not Ron Fawcett, nor was I meant to be. 

I crouch half-wedged in the slanting mouth while Trevor, frankly, keeps the rope tight and I ask him to move it along the lip to exactly above me. I reach up desperately. "You're nearly there," he enthuses. A bad-dream dilemma: to stop from falling I have to stay stuck in, to get fingers onto the top
I have to call for slack, back outwards into air, reach out-round-up ­over... On the firm stay of the top-rope I do just that - Nunn's jugs at last - ten feet too late but what a finish, pulling over onto the level, where we're meant to live, whose beautiful stability would be so much less remarkable if we hadn't first gone right out of it into its polar opposite.Trevor instantly debriefs, reminding me of how well I jammed, recalling how Brown taught him to jam a quarter of a century ago:

"Don't look in the crack'll see nothing - look away, and stick your hand in, feel around, and when you lock onto something, don't piss around, just go on up "

And I recall that that's exactly what Whillans is doing in the photo of him climbing The Mincer on the Roaches. Ten minutes later we've let ourselves down out of the harsh, steep realm into the mini-paradise of leaves and petals at its foot. In Fay Godwin's Land- the best photos of our actual native country that have ever been taken - there is a picture of Cratcliffe Tor which is nicely chastening for the climber. No tower, no drop, no rearing rock-faces or nerve-racked faces of rock-gymnasts. It shows the very foot of the tor, a slightly curved lower edge, a marbled surface, a small tomb-like piece embedded in the turfy foreground, and a filigree frieze of grass-heads like exquisitely refined oats, the pointed seeds printing a lustrous pattern on the black shadow under the crag. 

It could be anywhere, but if you've done Suicide Wall and you know what formidable heights and masses actually rise out of that scrap of a wild garden, threatening it, sheltering it, then you're all the more grateful for the extremes of strength and finesse, of obduracy and yieldingness, which nature offers in the one close space and for the faculties of eye and muscle which enable you to apprehend them both.

David Craig 2009©