Tuesday, 20 January 2015

Letter to Jeanette





Coniston Fells: Original painting-Delmar Harmood-Banner 1938

Arthritis Cottage,

Ambleside,

Cumbria.


Dear Jeanette,


I am sorry...I apologise. I feel desolate. I did not mean to make you unhappy with what I said about your soloing Hopkinson’s Crack on Dow Crag. I never imagined you would flounce out of the climbing shop as you did, slamming the door and making us squirm with embarrassment. We Brits dislike scenes. I was clearly the culprit. “She didn’t like that,” said Julia,wrapping a pair of Huecos at the till. No, clearly you didn’t. Yet I had meant well.


Jeanette is, of course, no more your name than Arthritis Cottage is my address. But you know me - or should do by now. (When was it we last climbed together on Dow- 1953 ? I simply can’t take things seriously. But I feel serious enough to want to protect your identity as I try to make up for my calamitous mistake. In those days Dow Crag was a giant place. Still is: an eyrie of the mountain gods; its ramparts the kind that make the climber’s heart skip a beat when seen from deep in the valley near Torver, or high on the footpath from Coniston. The times our bunch from Ladnek had on Dow! Was there ever a dull moment? Unlike today where the po-faced reign.


So you see, Jeanette, my memories are fond ones, treasured from an age ago when everything was sunlight and laughter, when you were a leading light. You in your shorts and long brown legs, joyfully and outrageously- for that time - soloing Hopkinson’s Crack. When I introduced you to Julia thus, I was re-living my golden and most affectionate moments of climbing innocence.

Your angry rejoinder that “Tony may live in the past but I prefer to live in the present!”, not to mention your double-quick exit through the door - saddened me utterly. Everyone looked so accusingly at me. Perhaps Jeanette, for all your success as head one of the biggest British branches of an international organisation, you regret that you’re no longer climbing. Possibly it’s too painful to bring back those days when your hair was a cap of blondest curls and when the sun blazed like a blowtorch, heating the rock on which you smeared so daringly in your Woolworth’s rubbers. If that is the case, then is it any wonder my words struck such a painful chord?


Hopkinson’s Crack rockets into the air from the depths of the Amphitheatre – an unusual feature for Dow, where many routes climb exposed battlements, busy with climbers at weekends. How different is the setting for those solos of Hoppy’s you did! Grim, silent walls surround you on either side. Just to reach the foot of the crack seemed an expedition, about that time when Everest was climbed, as we cranked fearfully up into the Amphitheatre past the massive boulder jammed in Easter Gully; or instead descended into its bottomless pit from the steep end of Easy Terrace, tricounis  grating on wet rock.


The situation of Hopkinson’s Crack graded Hard Severe but verging on VS – is galactic. On the left is the mendacious pillar of Great Central Route, while on the right is Black Wall. How your heart must have raced when soloing: especially when you drew level with the small rock stance and the crux of Hopkinson’s loomed overhead. 


You were climbing a deep cleft until then, but at this point your world fell away. I seem to remember you climbed the right wall, heart stopping in its exposure. The alternative is to climb the crack, bridging occasionally, reaching and reaching again, up past the big hex that fits so snugly in the back, to where many (including me) make an inglorious landing on the Bandstand.

Climbing solo though, you bypassed this famous haven and continued straight on up the crack, the next pitch an arrow-straight skyshot offering bridging that is exquisite. Is it surprising, therefore, you might now regret no longer doing what you once did with such elan and such prowess?



In those days,Jeanette, routes like Eliminate A and Murray’s Direct were a world away. But possibly you went on to do both before you hung up your rubbers and wet day socks. I sincerely hope so, for they are also quite magical. I climbed them first in the 1960’s. But they are the kind of routes you would so enjoy: the best sort in the world. Eliminate A, to start with, pierces the front of the great buttress on the left, its bigness on a par with that of Notre Dame. A smooth wall is shaded by a slanting roof, continuing above like a great rock prow. That any VS can breach its front is unthinkable. Yet Eliminate A does just that, with four particularly memorable pitches. The first runs out 90 feet of rope above the depths of Great Gully, leering up at the intrepid leader engrossed in placing his gear; layaways and rockovers, the kind at which you used to excel, dear Jeanette, coming at you faster than you can stop them.


The shelf below the Rochers Perchers pitch arrives as a welcome refuge, but the take-off up the next mauvais pas comes as a shock; so overhung you stay dry in the rain, you are soon above a chuteful of thin air. Here is where Neil Allinson felt himself  slipping down the crag and realised the block he was pulling on ( one of the heavy Rochers Perchers themselves) was slowly sliding down towards him. Have you met Neil? He’s the coal miner who inadvertently pulled the Rochers Perches off; said it was like the pit roof coming down in Eldon Drift Colliery, Co. Durham.


The third of Eliminate A’s great pitches is the next one, slanting up leftwards beneath the great roof and using the edge of a crack as a handrail, made all the more enthralling for its lack of gear especially as you pull through and over onto the steep slab above - which is the fourth pitch of note. And what an immaculate pitch it is! A rising traverse on the very lip of the roof which has shadowed you for so long, with nothing but outer space below.


On you climb, up and up past the steepest rock, with holds and runners always coming. There’s a further pitch above, but it’s difficult to trace. The crack of Aréte, Chimney and Crack is a popular finish however.And then Murray’s Direct, the third of this trio of three-star routes. Then, when we used to stash our Bergen sacks under the cave on the scree, bouldering on the nail-worn slab immediately behind (4b today), I never dreamed that one day I, too would climb the inexorably smooth slab of Tiger Traverse - let alone the imperial line above: a magnificent corner hooded by overhangs and the essence of perpendicularity. Yet that is Murray’s Direct.


The Tiger Traverse slab is so tilted, the climber feels about to be tipped off onto the horrific landing below, gnarly jagged rocks and all. But wait. Today’s gear saves the day. Wires and Friends fit into a horizontal break immediately above the step up from a pointed flake, the next moves up and away also being protected by a further placement before the padding starts. Then happy holds are here again.


Tiger Traverse over, the open-book corner above is positively inviting. There  are beautiful holds for bridging; everything is so steep. But this is only the link pitch. The crux is still above, the corner itself deepening and  cowled with overhangs. Glance down between your legs as you bridge out above the tiny stance and it’s spit-straight to the screes. Then the immediate climbing has all your attention. Is it a layback, or a jamming crack, or will you bridge it as well? So near the belay, yet so wonderfully poised in such an outlandish position, it has seen the drying of the saliva glands inside many a leader’s mouth - that sure symptom of apprehension. No spitting now: at least not until relief once more flows through the body as you bridge and bridge again to reach better holds and begin to feel you are winning.


Shielded from the sun after mid-day but bathed in it before, Murray’s Direct is a well-protected line, complementing superbly both Eliminate A and, dear Jeanette, that climb I always associate with you, Hopkinson’s Crack. Whether you ever return to the rock or not (and surely it’s never too late, looking as fit as you do)  I can only wish you the very best. And hope you will now realise that whenever I might have so innocently gone on about  Hopkinson’s in the past, I saw it as a landmark to cherish rather than the reverse. A beacon in the light as the years roll by. We all need them. 


Take care then, Jeanette. Fight gravity  in all its insidious forms. There are so many straight faces around today, not to mention individuals with independent “miens”. Wherever did light-heartedness go?


All love and best wishes,

Yours affectionately,

Antonio (and his ice cream kart).

Antonio Frascarti:First published in Climber April 1992 

Tuesday, 13 January 2015

Ken Wilson....The man who gave us Mountain







I first met Ken Wilson at the foot of Pontesbury Needle, at the very spot to which Drummond, like Icarus, fell. It seemed somehow prophetic. After ticking the crag, we adjourned to the pub for a few beers. Subsequently we argued vehemently for nearly three hours in an empty car park while a silvery moon threw eerie shadows across Nesscliffe. Ironically we were on the same side.

Mention the W word in climbing circles and it's likely you'll invite a peevish response, typically from those who have never even met him. He's a maniac, he's a fundamentalist, he's an iconoclast, he's visceral.  Well indeed he is all of these and more... so much more.

At heart I suspect Ken is a figure of the 1960s, that vast, sprawling decade which indiscriminately spewed out so much good and bad that history couldn't help but be changed irrevocably. Certainly he emerged from that time, this architecture student turned photographer of crags and climbers, this courtier to those who once were young kings.

In the first age where the medium could be the message, Wilson, with a single Promethean bound, transformed Mountain Craft into Mountain. It no longer mattered whether you lived in Southport or Seattle. With Mountain, you were plugged into a global network spanning continents and eras, outcrops, big walls and great ranges. If there had been a mission statement for Mountain, surely it would have read, 'mountains and men who matter'. Unashamed elitism from a didactic autocrat?

Well unsnap the ring binders and consider those first 60 or so issues from over 40 years ago and what do you find?  Classic, after classic, after classic. The great routes, the great personalities, the great debates. As Flaubert noted aptly, 'You don't make art through good intentions.' Good intentions, yes... but there must also be iron in the soul. And Wilson fashioned Mountain from a motherlode.


However much Mountain changed our lives, for Wilson it could never have been enough. I suspect that for Wilson there will never be enough, the next horizon remorselessly spurs him onward, he is perennially taunted by great ranges which he may never reach. The Black Cliff, which he co-authored with Jack Soper and Pete Crew, hinted at what was to come. Looking back, it seems remarkable that a whole book could have unashamedly been devoted to a single crag, Clogwyn Du’r Arddu, of significant interest only to climbers, and been prominently displayed in city centre bookshops. With Wilson's inspirational photographic sequence of Drummond running it out on Great Wall, modernism in climbing image triumphantly emerged from the swirling mists of the myth-enshrouded past.

A few years later, The Black Cliff's celebratory promise of word and image was fully realised when Hard Rock, the volume most likely to be found on any climber's bookshelf, appeared. At once a hymn to the visual, the visceral and the cerebral, it's 57 essays about major British routes gave us unforgettable images. Perrin's dalliance with Right Unconquerable was a paean of sensual pleasure, whereas Drummond's haunting refrain for Great Wall and its lonely progenitor rings forever in our ears. 'Lovely boy, Crew, arrow climber. Wall without end.'

Games Climbers Play, the classic anthology of mountain literature, came next. So many outstanding writers were represented that to single out any of them seems invidious. But again Perrin featured strongly and again Drummond's sporadic genius soared. Mirror Mirror, the great wall which so nearly proved his nemesis, is one of the most profound studies of  obsession ever written. It touched the essential sickness which inhabits many climbers' souls. And it depicted climbing as a fire which can purify, a rite of passage by which we may possibly be redeemed.

While Mirrors in The Cliffs, Classic Rock and Extreme Rock consolidated Games and Hard Rock, Wilson was already racing ahead with Diadem, his own publishing house. Again the mission statement might have read, 'mountains and men who matter'. Bonington, Boardman, Messner, Roskelley, Saunders, Scott, Shipton, Venables and many, many more formed a distinctive roll call of the illustrious.

Yet as essentially a one-man business, no matter how successful, Diadem was always vulnerable. Its assimilation into Hodder & Stoughton gave Wilson considerably enhanced publishing clout. Hodder Headline's subsequent rejection of mountaineering literature as a significant concern was the stuff of 1990s publishing drama. Within four days of his corporate chains snapping, Wilson had another publishing house, Bâton Wicks, up and running. His declared aim was, 'to publish the best in mountaineering literature'. Same message, different format. Again there were to be the great names, the great ranges, the great deeds. And again there were innovative writers such as Paul Pritchard and Dermot Somers. Whatever you may feel about Wilson, be in no doubt – he takes publishing risks. And we benefit.

But what are we to feel about Wilson?  Confusingly perhaps, there are so many Wilsons. There was Wilson the courtier of yore, who became Wilson the king-maker. There was Wilson the photographer, whose compositions of crags such as Cloggy and Gogarth reveal an architectural simplicity of line which has probably never been bettered. There was Wilson whose Mountain helped shape our perceptions of all mountains. There was Wilson who demonstrated the potentially infinite variety of Games Climbers Play. There was Wilson of Hard Rock, Wilson of Diadem and now of  Bâton Wicks.

There is Wilson the ceaseless archivist of climbing history. There is Wilson the polemicist, unsparing and unyielding as he grapples with the great debates. There is Wilson the climber, a soldier of the middle grades. There is Wilson the mountaineering politician, merciless in his pursuit of what seems the greater good. There is Wilson the businessman, who takes considerable risks with climbing writing, is canny with money yet meticulously pays his bills. There is Wilson the friend, unexpectedly considerate in one who possesses not a jot of sentimentality. There is Wilson the dutiful family man. There is Wilson the iconoclast, his iconoclasm consistently invalidating establishment status. There is Wilson, not an original thinker (Mountain, Hard Rock and Games Climbers Play all had their less-heralded precursors) but a consummate shaper of ideas. Above all, there is Wilson the man who delivers. That motherlode of iron runs deep and far and wide.

God knows, mountaineering has thrown up more than its fair share of quirks, maniacs and oddballs. But what in heaven's name have we done to deserve Wilson? Bolts at Harpur Hill, trees in Cheedale, guidebooks in Pembroke, lower-offs in Lancashire quarries, ethics at indoor climbing walls, something else, something else, something else...  Will Ken ever shut up?

No he won't. And nor should he. Because Ken, however much he may rant, is truly the Jonathan Swift of our time. That such an extraordinary creature should have emerged from the climbing world should be cause for celebration, not confusion.

When Ken sights along the line of truth, he has 20:20 vision. It's less easy for the rest of us, who tend to be misty-eyed with misgivings and, when we eventually manage to focus, often don't like what we see. Ken's devotion to the truth is unswerving.

When you stand back and try to add it all up, you find that Ken has given so much to mountaineering that it's well-nigh incalculable. Why does he do it?  Who knows? It's his belly and it's his rat. But for as long as we are content to live with the convenient popular caricature, we are blinding ourselves to a visionary in our midst.
Photo: Ian Smith

© Mick Ward, 1997.  First published in Climber, September 1997.
   



Sunday, 4 January 2015

How to get killed in the Alps




Getting killed in the Alps is becoming rapidly an international mania. This is evidenced by the statistics of the Swiss Alpine Club, already quoted, showing that last year 165 tourists and guides somehow managed to break their necks, while the number of wounded, those who managed only to break something,arms, legs or ribs - is quite beyond compute. The periodic massacre is due largely to the fact that alpine dangers are unseen. On the sea shore, for instance, sane persons who cannot swim would not think of bathing in a rough sea, for the sight and roar of the waves terrifies them. In the Alps it is just the contrary, for nature, it would seem, takes pains to cover the deadly crevasses with thin snow bridges and avalanches come down without warning where the novice would least expect them. The most beautiful alpine flowers, too, contrive to bloom overhanging the most perilous abysses.

Some years ago it was the elite which climbed, while the man-in-the-street stayed in the street, or looked at the mountains from his hotel window. Now it is a mad scramble of a hundred thousand souls to reach some snow-capped summit. As most of these know nothing of the techniques of getting killed, the following rules may be of service, and are easily memorized: A fascinating way is to go and pick edelweiss; To pluck it one must approach from above. Descend slowly, therefore, clinging to some small shrub. If a passing guide chances to call warning, reply that you know what you are about, and that tourists, as well as guides, have a right to pick alpine flowers. Lean slightly over the precipice- and as one hand grasps the alluring bloom, with the other hand pull on the shrub, which will come loose, roots and all! There will be a grating sound of loose,moving rock, the overhanging ledge will cave in,and one may soar, edelweiss in hand, into the void below.

There will be three lines in the newspapers about it, and a caravan of expert guides will find the body. Climbing without guides is why so many Germans and Austrians succeed – vide statistics - while English and Americans somehow, unfortunately, cannot get over the habit of choosing always the best ones. Eighty per cent of the fatalities occur to tourists climbing without guides. Signor Cumani, an Italian artist, started to climb Mont Blanc alone twenty years ago and he has never been heard of since. M. H. N. Riegel, from Philadelphia, in 1898, also attempted Mont Blanc alone, and guides found his body later on the Glacier de Miage, to which he had fallen from several thousand feet above. 

Sitting down in avalanche paths is sometimes effective. A friend of mine, dispensing with guides, climbed up above Pierre Pointue on the route up Mont Blanc and deliberately sat down quietly to lunch in a gully where avalanches come down off the Aiguille du Midi every fifteen minutes. Suddenly the air was filled with singing,flying stones and ice, the velocity making the smaller stones invisible. He failed to get hit, however, and disgusted, leaving everything behind, fled to Pierre Pointue, where he recommenced with absinthe cocktails.
Climbing without heavily-nailed boots, too, has its advantages. An American, who considered it commonplace to ascend Mont Blanc like everybody else, tried it with patent leather shoes. At the "Jonction" of the Glaciers des Bossons and de Taconnaz he slipped into a crevasse, dragging with him an English friend. Guides had great difficulty in getting them out. Hot words followed the cool crevasse, and the two Anglo-Saxons, each blaming the other for what had happened, indulged in a warm pugilistic encounter in the snow. But for being attached to the guides by rope both men might to-day be buried somewhere in the glacier.

The famous guide, Emile Rey, of Courmayeur, lost his life on the Dent du Géant by neglecting to renew some worn nails. He was descending with Mr A. C. Roberts, an English climber, and as the weather was growing bad, they unroped so as to move quicker. In descending a chimney Rey jumped to a narrow shelf covered with small pebbles, when his feet went out from under him and he fell over 600ft. His body was found and brought to Courmayeur two days later. Nothing is easier than falling over a precipice. Guides say that if a tourist has a tendency to vertigo he should confine his ascension to peaks frequented by cows. To get killed, therefore, the alpinist with vertigo should tackle the Matterhorn, Schreckhorn, or the Aiguille Verte. 


While it lasts the sensation of falling several thousand feet must be extraordinary. Dr Cauro, an alpinist, broke his neck falling off the Montagne de la Cote, a goat-frequented buttress of Mont Blanc; while a French actress, in 1902, trying to be polite, was instantly killed on the Mauvais Pas, by the side of the Mer de Glace, while attempting to pass outside when she met a party coming in the contrary direction. In case of passing beneath a forest fire on a mountain side, stop and have a look at the thick yellow spirals of ascending smoke. In an amazingly short time the roots of the trees burn, releasing the stones lodged between them, and these, falling, bombard the footpaths below. By watching the fire from an exposed vantage point the spectator will be hit squarely in the face by a twenty-pounder and his body will be recognized later by visiting-cards, which, by the way, every novice should carry in his pocket.

Do not bother about heavy underwear, double pairs of socks, mittens and dark goggles when going above the snow-line. If the sun shines one may go blind, and, therefore, more easily fall over a precipice. In case of bad weather coming on suddenly, as it often does, one can freeze in a very short time. It is said to be a delicious, drowsy death. A party of three English and American tourists, with eight guides, during bad weather froze on Mont Blanc, and ten days later, when the storm abated, watchers below with telescopes saw them sitting dead in the snow.

Making rash glissades is a method adopted sometimes even by experienced alpinists. The glissade starts in sunshine in fairly soft snow, but in passing swiftly from sunshine into shadow, where the snow is freezing, one encounters an icy crust, and there is no possible way of stopping. With one swoop one goes until he strikes the wall of a crevasse or bergschrund, and then well, it does not matter.

Persons addicted to heart trouble should undertake violent exertion and quick changes of atmospheric pressure. It may put an end to their trouble. For the same reasons those without physical force to resist fatigue and cold weather should undertake long climbs. This is a tiresome end, however, and the least desirable. Getting struck by lightning is not so easy. The unhappy porter, Casoli, who was struck on the summit of Mont Blanc and charred from head to foot, lived three days. The guide Joseph Simond, also, was killed by lightning while descending the Aiguille du Geant with the guide Joseph Ravanel and M Fontaine, the celebrated French alpinist. Simond was the only one carrying an ice-axe. Take note, therefore, tourists, and when in the midst of an electrical disturbance seize the steel ice-axe!

Breaking rope played a fatal part in the catastrophe on the Matterhorn when Lord Francis Douglas and three others were killed. Moral: Do not take old rope, for it might not break. Falling stones have killed more than one in the Alps. In the early morning, when everything is frozen tight, falling stones are rare. It is in the afternoon, when the sun is melting hot, that the silence is continuously broken by their dropping. Amateurs when amusing themselves in such places should do so in the afternoon when the sun is hot!

 Finally, in choosing a guide for excursions always take an inveterate drinker. Dr Hunter Workman, the famous Himalayan explorer, told me not long ago that when in the Alps he unwittingly was fortunate enough to get caught in a difficult passage with one who was taken with delirium tremens. Dr Workman, although he turned guide, failed to get killed, and has not yet forgotten his sensation.


For those who know nothing of the mountains, and who continue lusting for the flesh-pots, there is left always the climbing receipt of Mark Twain: Hotel veranda! Bottle of whisky! Telescope!

Frederick Burlingham: 'How to become an Alpinist' (1914)

Saturday, 27 December 2014

Bad Day at Black Crag




Chris Bonington on Black Crag classic 'Prana'.Photo-Mountain Heritage

Black Crag, Borrowdale, at 4 o’clock on Saturday looks like market day in the high street. Brightly coloured groups gathered on ledges, at the top, eating and drinking at the crag-foot. Heaps of gear lie around among the birches. A mesh of ropes, green and purple, yellow and red, connects the stances. The sun reaches Troutdale Pinnacle around 2 o’clock, and a nearly freezing wind has driven everyone off the saturnine east-facing steeps of Goat across the dale - ourselves included, only we have been doing the Peeler while they have been doing things like Bitter Oasis and Alone in Space. 


We know this because they wear track-suit bottoms with twin white stripes and of course no helmets. On the whole crag only two helmets - ours. On the sheer left wall, where Grand Alliance, Vertigo, and Prana thread upwards from one invisible mini-hold to another, it looks like a gymkhana. Leggy athletes in T-shirts are spreadeagled all over it. As we start up the tortuous rearing corner systems of the Pinnacle face, aiming at Mortician, a handsome lad with a curly moustache, like an Edwardian advertisement for  liver pills, is fiddling in a wire or two to protect the crux of Grand Alliance. He’s been there a while. By the time I’ve led up the scratched slab and steep corner and taken a stance on a quaking mass of earth which supports three rowan saplings, he’s still there as I tie on, a shout of “Below!” echoes from above. 

I look up and see yellow and ochre rocks blossoming in the sunshine like fireworks. They spin past and I look down to see my mate, Neil, crouching with his hands on top of his head. luckily they miss him, and the dog and the flask. No sooner has Neil’s orange helmet surfaced below me than two track-suits start up the slabs towards us, soloing with ropes on shoulders, as track-suits will. Neil sets about ‘entering an obvious cleaned corner with difficulty’ , places a wire and rests, finds a high hidden hold, which also takes a wire, and rests again. Over on the left wall, Curly Moustache is crucified just below his crux, poised to move but doing nothing - that is, waiting for the adrenalin to flow. A pair to his right, talkative after finishing Prana in good style, are abbing volubly and leisurely past him, crossing his ropes, and are sharply advised to get on with it by Curly’s mates down beside the yew tree.


The Track-suits have reached us. They too are aiming at Mortician and we decide to let them past since we’re taking quite a while to enter the cleaned corner with difficulty. So do they. The leader (long black hair) clips into our runners in a devious way (he carries five wires on one krab), to the accompaniment of derisive ‘advice’ from his mate.....

“ What are you doing that for... Don’t you think you’ve got it twisted?”

Soon the rock bristles with gear like a bull’s shoulder full of banderillas just before the kill. Black-hair yo-yo’s for a while. Then, stung by frustration and more advice, he muscles up on the good hold and makes it into the corner, where he rests for a long time, breathing heavily like a torrid sequence in a blue movie. Chalk floats downwards.

The 140 feet above him will clearly take ages and we decide to deflect into Obituary Grooves instead. Presently Neil is calling down for yet another hearing of the book, as though its stuff about “Climb the groove above a little way” and “Go up and out to the right” will presently match the vertical maze in which he finds himself. I shout up to the pair who showered us with rock, but they are on a new route - extreme, no doubt, since the leader has been impaled on the same overhang for nearly an hour - and they can’t guide us.

Neil pokes about for protection and I chat with Track-suit Two. He’s thirsting to do Grand Alliance and is enviously watching his mates, Curly and company, disporting themselves on the wall. Curly moves delicately up.

His right leg shakes. His fingers reach, lodge, his leg steadies, he makes the move and then heads, still charily, for the sunlit beard of Heather at the top. As he ties on up there, Track-suit Two jeers pleasantly:

 “I liked your shakes,” and Curly calls back: “Nearly lost it there. I went for this better hold and it was really rounded. I was twenty feet above me wires and I thought I’d lost it. But I got control again and it was all right.” 

To his left a track-suit, who must be very strong, has been grappling with the overhang on Vertigo for more than half an hour, leaning out, reaching up, finding nothing, swearing. Below us, someone is leading up the first pitch of the Direct – a tall pretty girl with noticeable make-up, quite an apparition on this or any other crag.

When she gets to our height, she seems vague about route and protection but clambers cheerfully onwards, decorating the crag with runners from time to time. Neil has belayed, to put off the perplexities of route-finding, and I climb to join him, up a long corner on fine sharp Lakeland edges, just enough, always there when you reach up for them. The ‘belay’ is a one inch ledge, with the broken awkward groove of Mortician leering above our heads. The only way out, or along or up, is across an undercut wall to the left, quite a space-walk, making for an edge with the extreme pair’s stance just beyond it. As I eye this, psyching myself, the extreme leader finally falls and more ochre rock explodes around us. I step out, change feet, find a perfect incut slot, and reach for the ledge. It’s good and bevelled and I swing across securely enough.

This is the ‘swing lay-back’ which we thought was many feet below. The stance I now share with the Extremes, a Scotsman and his mate, is of course littered with sharp stones, trodden peaty earth, and piles of red and yellow rope. For a moment I feel the laws of nature  have come unstuck - I’m sinking – clods of earth have landslid, stopping just in time, and the Scotsman says, “Oh thanks! That was the stance!

I climb on. Trying to "move left" as the guidebook tersely puts it. Moving left means toeing precariously along a sloping waste of dihedrals and slabs and little triangular notches, looking for protection. There is none and sixty feet run out behind me. When I look back, I see my ropes have passed in front of the Extreme second and I suggest he gets in front of them in case I pendule and rive him off. You would think it has been snowing brown shit - earth cakes every hold, washed down from the evil looking gully which divides the Pinnacle from the Wall. Its cheesey. gaping innards remind me of a phrase from Apocalypse Now, “the ass-hole of the world”. Every friction hold has to be dusted off.

Insecurity reigns. It feels like Scottish climbing. Thankfully I find a peg. whose rusty solidity suggests it must have been banged home by Greenwood and Ross, the first humans to pass this way, a quarter of a century ago. Thirty dirty sloping feet beyond it I come to an oak in a corner, sturdy. Not yet quite ring-barked, with plenty yellow buds, and l tape onto it. The Scotsman has followed me now and clips into my runner on the peg, his finger pouring blood from his last explosion.


In a moment Black-hair arrives at the summit of his big corner, his nose clown-white with chalk. looking weary and remote. The bleeding Scotsman decides to abseil off the oak and protects himself with a yellow sling while he hovers over space. When he jumps off downwards. he leaves the sling on the tree, which is starting to look Christmassy. Track-suit Two arrives and climbs wordlessly past. Black-hair says, “What the hell  are you doing?" Two says. “ It's called ‘leading through’." speaking very distinctly as though to a deaf foreigner. But Black-hair has had enough and they agree resentfully to follow the abseil fashion.

Over on Vertigo the strong track-suit is doing the same. Neil arrives, and it is even more like Christmas for a while as Black- hair gives him back his wire from the bottom of the corner, where we were a day or two ago - sometime this week anyway - and I hang the bleeding Scotsman‘s yellow sling round Two‘s neck to take back down.


We follow the guide’s brief ambiguities for one more long pitch. still trusting its belief in hundred-foot run-outs round right-angles and sharp edges. Neil even believes that ‘exit right’ means you should move right and finds himself on an Extreme wall. Ten tantalizing feet below a plausible slanting finger-ledge. Balked, he retreats and belays. Being a tree-lover, I lead through past a small and well-worn holly and find a fleck or two of red and blue wool tracking upwards towards the heathery skyline. (Theseus must have felt like this in the labyrinth of Minos.) 

As we coil, Track-suit Two dances into view, jumping nimbly up the old classic, the Pinnacle itself. No rope trails behind him - he’s soloing with Curly. As they join me, I yawn, and Curly says kindly, “You must be tired," which makes me feel about 75. “I’m hungry“ I say, thinking that today everyone at Black Crag must be tired. 



David Craig:First published in Climber and Rambler-March 82