Friday 28 February 2014

Out to Lunch

The line of Tom Leppert's HVS!!!:' Out to Lunch'
A ‘ping’ from my inbox announces Tom Leppert’s email. Glyder Fach New Routes it says. Our paths had crossed a week earlier, one sunny evening below the Milestone Buttress, when he and Pete Anderson hove into view. This chance encounter with the author of the 1982 Ogwen guidebook was too good an opportunity to miss. I knew he’d done some new climbs on the East Buttress of Glyder Fach’s Main Cliff and was keen to pick his brain. As it turned out, he and Pete had done another that very afternoon.

“Quite a nice line,” said Tom, “about HVS.” Was it my imagination or did Pete’s eyebrow arch imperceptibly? “I’ll send you the details,” Tom said as they shouldered their sacks and made for the path down to the road. I scrolled down the page: Quixote, Senile Saunter, Out to Lunch, The Deviant, Deviation. Evidently he’d been busy.

The Luncheon Stone feels cold through the seat of my trousers as we sort out the rack. It’s too early for the sun to be on the crag, and a grey overcast holds down the air temperature. I hand John the crib sheet of Tom’s route descriptions. “How about this Out to Lunch?” he says.

Out to lunch, out to lunch, I could do with being out to lunch. Breakfast was four hours ago and my stomach is rumbling noisily. I keep my fleece on as he leads off up the corner of pitch one, placing a cam and cleaning out the crack with his nut key. When my turn comes I’m cold and stiff. Clumsily I step up to reach the cam, but can’t. As so often in the past, John’s superior reach has taken him past a difficult move, where I struggle to gain height on inferior holds. By the time I join him on the ledge the circulation is returning to my fingers. Warmer now, we lead through on the middle pitches, and belay on the ledge below the Hand Traverse of Direct Route.

Above us rises a long slab with a slender flake on its left edge. Tom’s nuances taunt me from the crib sheet: a ‘step’ on the final steep nose has to be gained ‘with conviction,’ then ‘a hard final pull’ remains before topping out.“Sounds ominous,” I say to John, and it’s my lead. The slab lures me in, seductively. Above the flake, small edges entice me on, drawing me like an amorous spider irresistibly to his mate, yet sensing peril lies ahead. Now the angle steepens; the slab goes concave, sweeping up into the final faceted nose. In front of me, Tom’s ‘step’ is no more than a scooped foothold, and below, the tape on the flake seems a long way off.

 Clearly some ‘conviction’ is required. A shallow nick beside the ‘step’ takes a sideways wire, but I’m not convinced it will stay in. Just do it first time, I tell myself, it won’t be that bad – it’s only supposed to be Hard VS. Leaning leftwards, I get a foot on the ‘step’ and stand up carefully, holding myself in balance with side holds. As expected, the move isn’t bad once I commit, but I wouldn’t care to reverse it, and know at once the trap is sprung. Now the ‘hard final pull.’ Easier angled rock lies tantalizingly close. I glance down at John. The tape on the flake looks even more distant now, and my right-hand rope is pulling disconcertingly on the poor wire.

“Could do with a decent runner,” I shout, pointlessly stating the obvious. The rock defies me: compact, impassive, and devoid of cracks. It’s down to ‘conviction’ again. The way lies up and rightwards, across the bridge of the nose, but this time I need a good look at it, or three or four good looks at it, before I commit. Up and down, up and down, balancing up from the ‘step’ to the small holds on the nose, then scuttling back, like a fledgling psyching up to take to its wings. Next time. Balance up again. I can see the holds I’m going for. Now commit. Push off with the left foot, right foot on a smear, pull hard and ease my body weight across. A tinkle is heard as the wire lifts out, but I’ve got the good holds and it doesn’t matter.

“Bold little number,” John says as he comes over the top.
“You’re not kidding. Sand-bagged again. Wait till I see Mr Leppert.”

Out to Lunch-E3-5c: Glyder Fach. P 169 CC Ogwen Guide

Mike Bailey: 2014

Friday 21 February 2014

Postcard from Pembroke.....

Lentil powered Barry Owen on Midnight Express: Steve Ashton
My friend Barry Owen has never forgiven me for sneaking off to climb White Slab on Cloggy with someone else. That was 13 years ago, and like the unfaithful husband I've carried the guilt ever since. "Oh you enjoyed it did you?" he would say. "Don't worry about me, just you go off and do our routes with anyone you like. I won't be the one accused of holding you back." It was our golden age when crags were dry, summers long, and 5c lay near the edge of the known universe. Since going our separate ways he's climbed in Alaska, New Zealand, Australia, China, while for my part I've been to Windgather, Twistleton, Bochlwyd Buttress...

Yet I have no regrets. Exotic travel has aged him prematurely — he's already wrinkling up around the edges — while I've remained as fresh as a growing fruit.
This summer, for old time's sake, he offered to show me the delights of South Pembrokeshire. I'd been once before, to St Govan's, and found the routes over-graded, non-tidal and covered in big jugs. Paradise in fact. "Yes please," I said, rubbing my hands together like an innocent invited to an orgy. "I can fit you in during the first week in August," he said, flicking through his diary, "any later would conflict with Germany,and then of course there's Yosemite later in the month."' It was a good time for me too, slotting neatly between Parents' Evening and Capel Curig Car Boot Sale.We drove through Wales in afternoon rain, pinning hopes to a weather forecast of brighter tomorrow. 

At Llandissilio where we'd stopped to buy provisions, (chiefly because it was on a hill,the starter motor having clapped out) Barry put his hand on my shoulder and whispered his little secret into my ear. I was looking in a butcher's window at the time,slavering over a juicy assorted display of dead animals.) 'I'm a veggie he said'. We bought lentils, pasta, peppers and several-and I mean several-rolls of bog paper. I feared this culinary bombshell would reverberate throughout the week. Barry supplied the tent. No pegs. Was he afraid he might accidentally skewer a worm? We used screwdrivers from the tool bag instead. Barry wanted to know why I had six screwdrivers in the boot and yet a knackered starter motor under the bonnet?
Our first day began with over-graded, non-tidal routes covered in big jugs. All right. This is what we've come for. It ended with a tension traverse on the abseil rope to reach a spray spattered hanging stance below an under-graded and poorly protected fingertip wall while tide and dusk approached fast and simultaneously. Welcome to Pembroke. Next morning I fixed the starter motor while Barry listened to the cricket scores on the radio (these two tasks assume equal importance in his twisted mind). Mobile again, we drove to Lydstep and abseiled into Frontier Zawn on an ebbing tide. Among the boulders littering the zawn floor I found the partially decomposed body of a whippet. Probably an unwanted pet (most are). I also found a beach-ball, which I proceeded to punch against the wall.

"Excuse me, but that's our ball". I had hoped it might be a mermaid giving me the come-on, then I saw the face of a mature lady peering over the cliff-top. The situation demanded that I reply with cutting wit. "So?" I said, after a bit of thought. "So can we have it back please?" At that moment the little brat who had kicked the ball appeared alongside her, not without some risk of doing a whippet.
"I wish my brother Colin was here", he wailed, "he'd be able to climb down and get my ball." Yeah, you little runt, but Colin ain't here, is he? I tied the ball to the end of the abseil rope for Barry to haul up. Colin's brother cheered. Barry hauled some more. The ball got stuck. And I mean stuck; it wouldn't go up and it wouldn't go down. In his efforts to free it, he flicked out one of his contact lenses, which blew off and landed in an acre of bracken. With one final tug ball untied itself and fell into the zawn, where the whippet gave it a posthumous header into a rock pool.

Pigs on the wing: SA

Barry abseiled down promising to do what he could. Then Colin's mother had a bright idea and threw a child's pink rucksack into the zawn so Barry could carry the ball up on his back. He looked a right pillock, stemming up the dihedrels in a sun hat and shorts, a pink diddy pack over his shoulders and a myopic squint in his eye. He'll do anything to impress women.Then it was back to camp for a spare lens and a quickie to round off the evening. What better than The Hole on Trevallen Cliff? After a cracking little wall start I disappeared up the eponymous feature like a ferret up a drainpipe. Best thread runner in Wales. After that we tucked into a bucketful of lentils, courgettes, pasta and peppers, washed down with several —and I mean several — pints of best at the boozer.
It didn't rain the next day either. A pity, because I'd already used up a week's worth of stamina. Barry, conversely, was just starting to ripple. We made up for this discrepancy in performance by a judicious choice of routes. Thus while Barry bridged across a shorts-ripping gulch on to the precarious support of a greasy finger hold on his lead of Midnight Express, I wrapped elbows around jugs and threaded capstans on my lead of Malice Aforethought. Our arrangement went awry on the appropriately named Pigs on the Wing, a girdle of Triple Overhang Buttress. Pumped before the end of my pitch, I took a hanging stance under the roof in a position of maximum exposure. Barry's eyes popped out of his head when he came lurching round the corner and saw what I was up to. "I'm not happy," I said. He took this to mean the belays were rubbish and his eyes protruded so far I was in some doubt whether they would go back in.

In fact I was suspended from a Friend 2 and 3, a Rock 6, a Hex 5, and a number 4 Wallnut, all bombproof. Barry gave them an approving tug and brightened up considerably. "This is not the man I knew; do your children know their Dad has grown up a wimp?" he chided, gleefully embarking on the remaining 80ft of overhanging hand-traverse. At the end of it he hung from one hand and shouted, "Take my picture" But I was too busy working out the consequences of a 150ft pendulum should I slip and rip out all the gear...... Minced beef!

Talking of minced beef, for supper we had lentils, courgettes, pasta, peppers... Then it was down the boozer again for several — and I mean several — pints of the landlord's best, "and hold the lemonade top, my goodfellow". By Jove, he'd have us drinking from pint glasses by the end of the week. We must have had a few because on the walk back we gazed up at the stars and speculated about the meaning of life. Always a bad sign.

Next day the army were pooping off at at the day-glo practice target on the range (do the enemy really paint their tanks bright orange for ease of recognition?), so we diverted to Mowing Word where Barry had promised me Heart of Darkness and New Morning as a special treat. Barry abseiled down the tied-off spare rope. I abseiled down after him. We stood side by side on the starting ledge above the sea. Can you spot the difference? Yes, Barry had a coil of rope over his shoulder. I said I'd muddle through on a single nine. "Can't miss it," Barry said, sending me off around the arete, 'a hundred foot traverse along the break — most obvious line on the crag.' It was obvious all right: a mirror image of Pigs on the bloody Wing without footholds. I took a deep breath and launched out across the undercut, overhung wall, hand-traversing like a frantic ape, hanging from jams to place gear and deeply regretting leaving Barry with the prusik loops. After 60ft I came to a bridging rest in a corner from where I could look back across the concave wall. Whoops. Twenty feet above my hand-traverse was the true line of Heart of Darkness — a seaside saunter across a line of huge hand and foot holds. What a dick.


Barry's head appeared round the arete and the full impact of my mistake hit him square in the face: "What have you done, what have you done?" he groaned. He lunged across from jug to jug, pretending for my sake to find it difficult. "Hideous, hideous!" he cried, clearly enjoying every minute of it. After only three routes Barry unexpectedly announced that the day's quota had been filled. "Saving myself for tomorrow," he announced ominously. That night as I munched through another bowl of lentils, courgettes, pasta and peppers, I prayed for us to be struck down by a debilitating bowel complaint. Then we went to the pub for several beers — and I mean several —and on the way back we looked up at the stars and speculated on the meaning of life all over again. And after that I was ready for anything.
`Anything' was Mewsford. After abseiling from the flagpole, down and down and down, I looked up at the line of Daydreams from the sloping platform and concluded that here was a route possessed of none of the qualities that had brought me to Pembroke. I was on holiday, dammit. I could have been lying on Broad Haven beach surrounded by gorgeous girls; but no, I was cowering below Mewsford Point in the company of a wrinkly man with peculiar eating habits and a death wish.

It was hot — very, very hot — and the crux of my introductory pitch involved pulling up on a sloping pinch grip. I placed six wire runners and piled enough chalk on the pinch to turn it into a supportive, anatomically shaped knob. That was the easy bit. Now I had to watch Barry inch his way up the slanting delicacy of the main pitch while an inshore rescue boat kept station below. Were they expecting trouble? In the event Barry climbed the pitch like a well-oiled piece of machinery.
He was already celebrating when I arrived at the stance. I suggested this might be a little presumptuous given that I had one more pitch to lead. He sent me off with a cheery wave, utterly convinced of my crack climbing ability ever since the day I grovelled up Matinee at the Roaches. I got up the first crack but was stopped dead by the second —an offwidth splitting a roof. I tried everything, but still couldn't reach through to the jug above. In the end I took off my helmet so I could wedge my head inside the crack to gain a vital three inches.

Off route on Heart of Darkness:SA

I left the helmet clipped to a runner and finished with a bit of softly-softly up a pile of solidified mud and rubble. Barry came up muttering about helmets and beach-balls but inwardly enchanted with his Daydreams. Secretly I'd promised myself this would be the final route if God saw fit to spare our lives. So had Barry. We shared our secret and sat awhile on the flagpole base — he frayed at the edges like an overcooked pasta shell, me lean and wholesome like a piece of prime beef.

Steve Ashton: First published in HIGH 189.

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Friday 14 February 2014

Spirit of the Age: Royal Robbins.

 Chuck Pratt and Royal Robbins El Cap Spire,the Salathé Wall,El Capitan,Yosemite Valley, California.(September 1961)

Once upon a time a new generation of climbers saw that it had stumbled into Paradise. On every side there were boulders, crags, spires, domes and walls, mostly untouched. There was even the World's best cliff, a solid square mile of rock, and closer to the road than Dinas Cromlech. The sun hardly ever stopped shining. This was in California in the '50s.

The story of those explorers is well-known. Amongst them the most driven and ambitious, which is what counts in rock-climbing, were Royal Robbins and Warren Harding. Robbins succeeded on Half Dome and the SaIathe Wall.
Harding got The Nose and the Leaning Tower. Robbins was the more competi­tive of the two and went to considerable lengths to show Harding and everybody else just how Harding's climbs should have been done. But the two seem inseparable, really, and if Harding hadn't existed Robbins would have had to invent him. Eventually Harding produced his own zany memoir, Downward Bound. Now here is Robbins's story, as told by Pat Ament.
I'm forced to guess that Ament has great charisma, or is especially lovable or something. He's not so good a writer as Robbins himself, or as the boulder problemist, John Gill, each notable for lucidity, polish, intelligence, even wit. Yet both had chosen to put their lives in Ament's hands. Of course, a younger disciple will say nicer things about you than you could, with propriety, say about yourself.

I've never opened a climbing biography with greater interest. Ament feels privileged to have known and climbed with Robbins, and who wouldn't and he conceded that his approach is reverential. Ament is a wild, loose writer, often carried away by his extreme enthusiasm so that the language is sometimes inflated. The reader may judge for himself. In discussing Robbins and his influence upon others he uses such terms and phrases as: purity of ideal; spiritual progress; maximum personal growth; incisive mind; ideologi­cally brilliant; the power of his percep­tions; intelligence polished to the texture of granite; and so on. These words are immoderate and inappropriate to the sphere of play. Occasionally his logic, too, gets itself into fixes.
The descriptions of climbs are often surprisingly uninformative and flat. The account of the historically important second ascent of The Nose names only two features in the course of the seven day expedition. An outsider, I notice occasional mistakes of fact and presum­ably insiders will notice many more. I get the impression that the viewpoint is decidedly partisan and major figures outside the Robbins's circle tend to be dismissed or patronised. Ament remarks that Harding 'had almost always kept his resentment disguised'. That's ungracious and it's hard to see how it might be substantiated. From his own writings and from a single casual encounter, I can't imagine Harding as the type to weary himself with the burden of resentment. However, I write at a distance of 10,000 miles.

I can see the difficulties Ament faced. Robbins has a lot of climbs under his swami belt and brevity or selectivity becomes necessary. (Indeed he made interesting ascents not even named; for instance, the north arete of El Bisbe at Montserrat in Spain, accomplished, surprisingly, before any British party had climbed on the mountain). And it appears to me that he's a much more complex character than any of his great contempo­raries. He's so tightly buttoned that one suspects the presence of stress behind the cool facade.

Despite these complaints I found the book fascinating. It would be nice to see an objective history of Californian climbing written by someone unin­volved, but in the meantime all rock-climbers should read this biography. Who'd have guessed that Robbins had had such an unsettling childhood? Or that at the age of 27 he'd still be obliged to hitch-hike across America en route for Europe? Or that, quite recently, the guru of American climbing would have difficulty in getting an anti-bolt article published in American climbing maga­zines?

The text is greatly fortified by over 200 photographs, all in black and white, and stronger for that. They include some professional studies of the big walls but mostly they're revealing casual shots of climbing and people. The captions are occasionally dismaying and it will be observed that in one or two of the portraits the hero's patience is danger­ously close to snapping. However, for me, this collection brought the era to life to a degree unattainable by colour glossies.

Robbins and Harding ran into serious problems. They were too successful too young. They kept soldiering on and they produced countless magnificent climbs but none of these could have the same impact as the first great experimental pushes into the unknown. Twelve years after his first route on Half Dome, Robbins went back for an eight-day effort there, and 12 years after his first route on El Cap, Harding returned for a 27 day epic. Despite all the intervening arguments on bolting, each used more material than on his original climb. Soon, though still children really, they'd done so much climbing that they began to feel very old. And the new experts arriving looked younger every year.
So where have all the soldiers gone? Well, mostly they found themselves raising families, starting businesses and searching for new interests.
Robbins turned his energies into the first descents of rocky rivers and he joined the Modesto Rotary Club. Tom Frost became a devout Mormon, Layton Kor a Jehovah's Witness. And one afternoon in 1983, sitting in his kayak on the Middle Fork of the Salmon River, Robbins himself felt somewhere behind his right shoulder 'the unmistakable presence of God'. Everybody seems to be living happily ever after.

Harold Drasdo: 1993

Saturday 8 February 2014

In Memoriam

On a bright, breezy day in April 2000 we hovered, nois­ily, about fifty feet above the Cave on Dow Crag while, first, mountain rescue men, and then our heavy loads were winched down to the screes. Through a window in the huge yellow helicopter I had several minutes for studying the well-remem­bered neat moves on Eliminate C and the constricting pitches of Intermediate Gully, to its right, from a completely new angle – very close and just straight ahead. I could even work out why I had made such a mess of the top of the first pitch of the Eliminate the first time I led it fifty years ago.

Through the courtesy of RAF Boulmer my daughter-in-law Mary and I were watching from inside the helicopter, the lowering of the new Dow Crag stretcher-box before its bolting on to the crag at the foot of B Buttress. It was a sad day for both of us for the sturdy, bright-blue stretcher box is in memory of my son, Robin Michael Musgrave Griffin, who, inexplicably, had died from a heart attack, at only 58 years of age, in August 1998, just two days after he and Mary had walked over the Old Man and along Dow Crag ridge. Robin, an experienced climber and mountaineer, who had been proposed for membership of the Club, (Fell and Rock) and had attended several meets, had been hoping, at the time of his passing, to hear his application had been suc­cessful. In a month's time, he and Mary were to move from the Midlands, on his retirement, into a new home being built for them in Kendal, his home town. Robin had also agreed to take on the wardenship of the Glen Brittle hut in Skye, his favourite stamping ground, for some months each year.

A plaque on the new stretcher-box, with Robin's name, states: These were his first and last hills. He had first been taken, by me, up Coniston Old Man and along the Dow Crag ridge when he was four years of age, and a year later took his grandfather, my father, up the Old Man. This had been my father's first visit to the mountain – or, indeed, to any mountain and Robin, at five years of age, had been the leader. I have a photograph of him, wearing low shoes, shorts and sweater, standing proudly by the cairn. (Later I introduced my father, James Arthur Griffin to climbing and, eventually, he joined the FRCC.) Robin became an accomplished climber, all-round mountaineer and skier and had taken the trouble to acquire mountain leadership and first-aid qualifications. At the age of 18 he and I had done the traverse of the Cuillin Ridge. At that time Robin had been one of the youngest to do so and it was probably the first father and son traverse.

I still remember every detail of that joint adventure,one of the finest mountain days of my life. Four months before his death Robin completed a long‑standing ambition by travelling to the Himalaya and taking part in an expedition to Mera Peak. When the professional leader collapsed with altitude problems Robin was put in charge and succeeded in leading three of the party to the summit, the other six being unable to progress further. Robin was, by many years, the oldest member of the team and, easily, the fittest. In the year or two before his passing he had taken his wife, Mary, up all the two-thousanders in England and they were planning to complete the rest of the Munros together.

When he was living far from his homeland hills, he had become amember of the Wayfarers Club but was very much hoping that he could achieve FRCC membership on his return to. Kendal and so continue the family association with the Club.The original Dow Crag stretcher-box had been installed  by the Barrow Mountaineering and Skiing Club for the Coniston Rescue Team in 1966 but had been disintegrating due to its age.Besides remembering Robin,the new strecher-box also commemorates those  named on the original box.These were: Jim Shepherd, killed on Dow Crag in Sep­tember 1952, Ross Porteous, killed on the crag by falling rock in July 1962 and Jack Fisher who died on Helvellyn in February 1972 – all members of Barrow Mountaineering Club. It so happened that I had been the leader of the Fell and Rock meet on Dow in July 1962 and had the sad task of informing Ross Porteous' father in Scotland of his son's passing.

The tricky and hazardous task of lowering the heavy stretcher-box to the foot of the crag was carried out in two flights from Coniston village and Mary and I were invited to take part in the second of these when the main drop took place. Helmeted and securely strapped into our seats we were in radio touch with all the crew, hearing every word that was said and seeing everything that was  happening

In charge of the helicopter was Squadron Leader Peter Martin who had the delicate task of maneuvering the aircraft, with its heavy load swinging in a net, right up to the face of the crag, and then hovering, for several minutes, above the screes. Also travelling with the crew were three members of the Coniston Mountain Rescue team including its leader, Roy Cooksey, a FRCC mem­ber since 1955. They were winched, in turn, down to the screes above The Cave to supervise the assembling and bolting of the heavy box on to its prepared position on the crag. A large contingent of members of the Barrow Mountaineering Club – several of them FRCC members – also took part in the op­eration. It was a great privilege to be able to watch the pro­ceedings from the air and to study, in close-up at an unusual angle, the crag on which I have climbed since the late 1920s.

Mary recalls that when they were walking up the ridge of Dow Crag, two days before his passing, Robin pointed out to her the blue blob of the old stretcher-box at the foot of the crag, explaining its purpose. He wasn't to know that a new stretcher-box, to replace this one, was to be his memorial.
A Harry Griffin.First published as 'A Dow Crag Memorial': Fell and Rock Journal 2002.