Monday 22 March 2021

Scafell : The finest climbing ground in England


There are only a few places in Britain where you can see more rock in one glance than you can from around Mickledore—and they are nearly all in Scotland. For the great cliffs of Scafell are the biggest and most forbidding precipices in England—the best climbing ground in the country and really the place where it all started about a hundred years ago. True, there had been something like 50 ascents of Pillar Rock by the time men in deerstalkers and Norfolk jackets discovered the North Climb and Mickledore Chimney, but these were mostly scrambles up fairly easy ways requiring little knowledge of cragmanship. And, besides, the very earliest climbing enthusiasts had been accepting the challenge of an isolated pinnacle with a summit that cried out to be trodden, whereas on Scafell the pioneers were not trying to reach a summit—easily attainable by walking—but deliberately seeking out steep rock for its own sake. Pillar Rock is just as high, but perhaps not so steep, as the steepest cliffs on Scafell which embrace several crags, and Scafell became the Mecca of the climbing world long before the turn of the century. And, to a greater degree than anywhere else, it was on these unrelenting cliffs that rock-climbing became a sport in its own right. Today, the development of rock-climbing in England—especially free climbing—may be said to have reached its present peak on Scafell, but the experts declare there are still new lines to discover, still a great deal of unclimbed rock which some day may be scaled.

You can glean the story of this surge of development, from the easy routes up obvious ways by pioneers in heavily nailed boots to the delicate balance moves of today up vertical or overhanging rock, by a study of the new guide to the Scafell Group. This is the second in the new series published by the Fell and Rock Climbing Club and edited by John Wilkinson—the new Langdale guide was published last year. The Scafell guide has been written by Geoff Oliver and Joe Griffin who have been responsible for several of the new routes, and, commenting on their labours, the editor writes: "certainly nowhere in the Lake District are so many routes of such superlative quality and difficulty to be found." Something like 150 routes are listed in the guide, and half of them are in the very severe or extremely severe category, a remarkably high proportion. Of the eight routes in the highest grade, five are on East Buttress—the "Cloggy" of the Lake District. In the very earliest days development was slow indeed, When the North Climb and Mickledore Chimney were discovered in 1869 the only known way to the top of the crag was by the scramble up Broad Stand, a route which adventurous shepherds had used for years, but it was to be another 13 years before anything else happened .on the crag. Then Haskett Smith found his way up Deep Ghyll and the pioneers began to work out the obvious routes. All the great names in the first decades of British climbing—Haskett Smith, Owen Glynne Jones, W. G.., Slingsby, the Abrahams, Siegfried. Herford and H. M. Kelly—were associated with the development of Scafell Crag.

But for more than 30 years now the emphasis has shifted across the other side of Mickledore to East Buttress, the dark, overhanging cliff that the pioneers , considered impregnable. Here, and especially since the war, routes have been put up .which approach the limit of possibility and on many summer weekends climbers may be seen, high up among the overhangs, trying to force even harder routes. Perhaps the art of free climbing reaches as high a standard on the East Buttress of Scafell as it does anywhere in Europe. The pace has increasingly quickened with the discovery of harder and harder routes. By 1900 there were only 22 climbs on Scafell including Collie's Moss Ghyll, only forced after he had hurled the gauntlet at convention by clipping a foothold in the rock with his axe. Perhaps the most remarkable achievement up to that time had been Owen Glynne Jones's great lead up the Pinnacle Face in stockinged feet on an April evening in 1898. But by the outbreak of the First World War there were -78 climbs in the area, one of the highlights of this period being Fred Botterill's ascent of the slab that bears his name—in nailed boots and carrying rucksack and ice-axe. This was in 1903—the most daring lead in Britain up to that time, and even today a delicate route for experts only, still holding its very severe classification after 65 years. 


It was followed by the great climbs on the Pinnacle, Face by Herford and Sansom, their girdle traverse of the crag and finally, a few months before war broke out, their ascent of Central Buttress. This was probably the biggest single breakthrough in standard in the history of Lakeland climbing. Central Buttress is unremittingly steep and the crux is the ascent of the overhanging Flake Crack. On the first ascent the second man sat in a cradle of rope loops from the chockstone below the flake, the leader gaining the top of the overhang by standing, first on his second's knees, then on his shoulders and head, and finally reaching up to grip the tip of the flake. Nothing like this had ever been attempted in Britain before and it was many years before anything harder was achieved. Central Buttress is probably the most famous climb in Lakeland and is still regarded as a route of great difficulty and character, although there are now at least eight routes in the Scafell area alone that are today regarded as much more serious undertakings. Many years ago I climbed on several occasions with G. S. Sansom, a very neat climber indeed in rubber plimsolls, moving quickly up smooth rock with little effort and just as nimble in descent. He was a man who must have kept his form even when far from the Lake District, for on his rare visits he always liked to start with Hopkinson's Gully, still a hard severe. After the First War H. M. Kelly became the outstanding leader on Scafell, Moss Ghyll Grooves being one of his finest discoveries, and in 1931 the late Colin Kirkus began the assault on the bulging walls of East Buttress with his magnificent Mickledore 'Grooves, which involves a run-out, on its last pitch, of up to 140 feet of rope.

He was followed by others, including the late Maurice Linnell, the late A. T. Hargreaves and finally, just before the war, by Jim Birkett, the Little Langdale climber who was to dominate Lakeland climbing for nearly ten years. All these rising standards, however, were eclipsed in 1952 by the extremely difficult Hell's Groove, led by the late Arthur Dolphin, and climbs like Trinity and Phoenix put up a few years later by Don Whillans and Ron Moseley carried on the new tradition. And standards continued to rise in more recent years with remarkably exacting routes by the late Robin Smith from Scotland, Les Brown, Geoff Oliver and others, some of the new climbs being on Esk Buttress, on the opposite side of Mickledore, below the summit of Scafell Pike. Indeed, so advanced has become the climbing in the district that the "very severe" category has had to be divided into three sections and a higher grade of "extremely severe" added. Most of the eight climbs in this highest grade are on East Buttress, as I have written earlier, two are on Esk Buttress and one on Scafell Crag itself—straight up the steep wall to the left of Central Buttress. The very names of some of the hard routes on Scafell betray something of their flavour—names like Hell's Groove, Holy Ghost, Armageddon, Gargoyle Direct, Ichabod, Black Sunday and Overhanging Grooves. 


All have been put up by a new breed of climbers who seem safer on smooth, sloping holds half an inch wide or less, than some of us may be on ledges you could walk along. The writer has had no personal acquaintance with these harder routes on Scafell, but has watched some of them being climbed and has marvelled at the difference between their standard and that of the climbs we considered hard 30 years ago. Many times it has been stated that the crags of Lakeland are worked out, but more new climbs than ever are still being made and already the new Scafell guide can be said to be slightly out of date. It is still impossible to forecast when saturation point will be reached and when the limit of human achievement will arrive, and the authors of the new guide tell us: "There are still new lines to explore on Scafell, protected more by their isolated situation than their difficulty. So should the Mickledore chairlift ever become a reality, let Scafell beware." Mercifully, I'm sure there'll never be a chairlift up to Mickledore, but I'm equally sure that within the next few years several new ways will still be found on the crags of Scafell—the most challenging rock in England. And while this is happening I hope, on occasions, to be active enough to potter about the sun-warmed rocks of Pikes Crag and look across at the great face of Scafell Crag where,for a hundred years now, men have found adventure and, in some cases, rediscovered their youth. 

AH Griffin: 1968. 

First published in Climber-April 1968 


Thursday 11 March 2021

A Dream of Edwin Drummond....Reviewed


Ed Drummond was always something of a climbing hero to me. In fact I was aware of him before I had even started climbing through his well publicised ascent of Nelson's Column with Colin Rowe to protest against the apartheid regime in South Africa. An ascent since described as the first political protest climb in history. Eventually as a climber, I would become all to well aware of his unique place within the sport and for myself, his achievements and his buccaneering persona only cemented his place in the pantheon of heroes.

Now Paul Diffly and his Hot Aches team have delivered something of a late Christmas present for those like myself who remain in awe of this climbing poet, activist, explorer and all round renaissance man. In ' A Dream of Edwin Drummond' the makers have captured the essence of the man through contemporary footage and interviews shot when he was alive, and through the prism of current rock stars, James McHaffie and Robbie Phillips who are drafted in to recreate some of Drummond's more memorable chapters. Drummond's classic Dream of White Horses above the foaming Irish Sea at Gogarth-first climbed with Dave Pearce in 1968- is recreated by James McHaffie with Dave Pearce's son Alexis sharing the rope. Shot in appropriately sixties 'technicolour', James Mac and Lex shuffle their way across the classic HVS using the protection and footwear contemporaneous to the first ascent.

Before that, JM solos a knife edge arĂȘte on one of the gritstone edges of England and takes on a hard route on Cloggy's Great Wall. “ Above me the wall gleamed rainy, bald as a whale' The iconic white helmet-a JB perhaps?- clamped over his head. A counterpoint against the dark cliff which rears up and disappears into the mist. Scottish hard chaw Robbie Phillips recreates Drummond's performance art which featured at climbing literary festivals across the world, and which I believe was first performed at a Leeds mountain literature festival, organised by Terry Gifford and David Craig. Twirling on scaffold frames and flexing and uncoiling amongst the bars. Still bearing the iconic white helmet, RP elegantly recaptures the feline ballet which defined a Drummond's performance.

'A Dream of Edwin Drummond' essentially concentrates on his extraordinary climbing career. The well documented darker chapters of his life where tragedy stalked him for many years and which were at the heart of Simon Beaufoy's 1993 film 'Shattered Dream' are absent here and why should it be. For the film is a celebration of an extraordinary climbing life,not a warts and all biopic.

With the end nigh, Drummond now held in the grip of the Parkinson's condition which had defined his later years, finds himself back at St John's Head in The Orkney's. Scene of one his his greatest climbs. The Long Hope Route-E7- which he completed over several gruelling days with a fresh faced Oliver Hill. He was back with the Hot Aches film who were filming Dave MacLeod's attempt to free the crux headwall which went eventually at 8b. Poignantly, its creator looks across the bay at the route and finds himself awe struck that he could ever have climbed in such an intimidating place!. The footage and interviews at the time shows someone at peace with themselves and accepting of the place they were in.

These different elements of the film which blends the old and the new each time returns to a beautifully animated image of the man himself. Head and shoulders resting against a pillow. Eyes closed and face content. Topo lines and faint route names appear on the pillow. A red line occasionally snakes across the image. The 'throbbing red rope' or is it blood pulsing through a tired body? Whatever interpretation you make, it can't but help evoke a death bed scene. Quietly reposed,calm and accepting. Where the man at the end of his life dreams of white horses.

A Dream of Edwin Drummond is now available on Vimeo


John Appleby: 2021