Really it's quite weird, what we do. On Thursday I spent an hour and a half spreadeagled on a mass of wet, Mossy rock with my life depending on a piece of alloy a centimetre square and half a centimetre thick while my toes and fingers tried at full stretch to keep their grip on two-inch ledges festooned with moist plant-life. The day before I'd been quite normal shopping for cauliflower and spring onions at the supermarket, playing bowls with three other retired people. The day after I was correcting an article for a poetry magazine and phoning my son in London. On Thursday I was inching my way to bare safety on a route called Pollux at the wet end of Black Crag, Dovedale.
Usually I take climbing for granted. It's how I want to live - amongst nature - and the balancing and reaching and pulling-up are what the body seems made for. What jolted my vision of. rock into new focus was that the crucial part of the day was spent down-climbing - about ninety feet on a so-called Hard V.Diff.
The new Eastern Crags guide is jauntily positive about Black Crag: its vegetated appearance is off-putting at first sight and although the routes to the right of centre tend to be wet, they are not unduly spoiled by this. The climbing is good and the routes deserve greater popularity.
The old guide is more guarded: the ridge behind it is flat-topped and boggy and the routes at the right end take the drainage from this area... Just right of the centre, there are some more grassy routes, often wet. Is this because, these days, we go in more for promotion, and what is being written about must be presented as great, top of the range, and the consumer must be 'reassured'? At all events, after a wet spring and early summer the crag was sopping. Because it is a jungle of ferns bilberry, juniper, heather, and grass, it holds the water in the dense root-mat of all those flowers and bushes and releases it slowly down the rocks - which are blotched with lichen up to half their surface area.
So why go there? Because it was new to me and only slightly known to my climbing partner, Chris Culshaw. And because the routes are 'better than they look', etc, etc. And because Dovedale is a place of perfect 'beauty, folding between steep slopes adorned with great tabular boulders. The ashes and hazels are like flocks of furred green creatures grazing up the slopes until they give way to the darkly needled thickets of juniper. Bright threads of beck and waterfall pulse in the seams of the fellsides. And the great crag at the head of it all houses Westmorland's Route and Extol in its giant elephant brain.
The left or western half of Black Crag is made of short walls and spikes with a Pavey roughness. The rock is clean because it stands proud of the herbage. As you pull up Bilberry Rib, your fingers hook time after time onto nicely serrated edges and apexes. It's steep and the moves up the short faces are quite technical - about as comfortable and as tricky as, say, Troutdale Pinnacle in Borrowdale, so why is it graded only Diff. and not, say, Mild Severe? But never mind the grades, for the time being.
So we paddled down the steep bog that flanks the crag and went for Pollux on the right, the route the guides call 'interesting'. A slippery adjective. A slippery crag. The one clear-cut thing about it was the pedestal from which you start, a square-topped little pillar on which you pull up and from which you embark on the fine old English jungle. The 1987 guide does use this word, so why were we so cocky? It must be the elation of exploring, like Jim Fawcett in Amazonia. I knew roughly where we were aiming, an alleged groove. Grooves, I've found, are vague features which disappear as you get nearer them, leaving only their smile. And serious navigation was fading fast as I followed the only sequence of holds and protection points that seemed to offer amongst holdless bulging slabs freckled darkly with lichen, grassy joints which turned out blind when I broddled them out and exposed their glistening innards, heather tussocks with 2-foot stems which did occasionally mask small, earthy ledges.
I said 'protection points'. I found a decent slot for a small hex at 25 feet, then nothing until I arrived at a platform knee deep in bright green grass at what may or may not have been the end of pitch 2. Probably not. I may well have strayed off rightwards. The platform was a haven and I went for it in a state of edgy thankfulness. It was about 90 feet up. It would obviously provide some sort of security. Not all that much. The blind quality of this end of the crag was almost
complete. No joints deepened into cracks. No rocks separated into flakes. Any holes or pockets were insignificant dimples. I probed and delved. A growthy crack, once I'd spent ten minutes digging it out., widened downwards, not upwards, and every size of nut slithered out. In the end I established a No.2 Rock, sideways, in a rough-edged slot and yanked my hardest on it. It held. I extended it and prepared to move on up. A pair of footholds gained me six feet. Bridged, I stared upwards, and saw no groove, no positive holds, only a shallow valley between wet bulges which you might have fancied padding up in dry conditions - not today, not this year, not above that run-out and that little sideways-sprouting wire.
Hoarsely shouted conference with Chris. Should he untie, pull the rope through, and throw it me from the top (where 'Belays are hard to find')? I'm too far from the top and the crag is much too overgrown for a clear throw.
I'll have to down climb.
The moves aren't hard. And this is only Hard V. Diff. - isn't it? Each two by six inch ledge looks impossibly far away as I stretch for it with my toes. If only I could grow longer, like a slug! As I peer downwards, it's oddly hard to estimate height or distance. Gradually I discover, and don't altogether believe, that the points of rock below are always nearer than they look. Still I feel a little spider wafting into space on the end of a frail thread, or possibly a shipwrecked man as the boat turns turtle and he must crawl backwards down the hull, trying to cling by his fingertips to the rivets.
At mid-point I have to thrust my feet through springy heather clumps to rediscover the hidden earthy ledge. Further down Chris can start to talk my toes into slots invisible below little eaves. I can even adjust my one piece of protection, substituting an ordinary krab for the more expensive screw-gate - because all the gear, such as it is, will have to be left in situ. On firm - well, spongy ground again- we have a giggly reunion and I find I'm a bit shaky, as I've never been after such epics as I've had, on Harlot Face- Castle Rock, or Cascade on Pavey East, or even Snoopy on Mainreachan Buttress, Achnashellach. It was the forced downward moving that did it, the unnatural spooling backward of the film, the continuous series of moves downward during which the hands couldn't exert full leverage while at same time the feet hadn't yet lodged.
Of course I brought this ordeal, this intriguing failure, on myself. I'd like to have been prepared for it by a more realistic grading than Hard V. Diff. Pollux is roughly as hard as Stoat's Crack on Pavey, which gets Hard Severe. And talking of Pavey, why is Crescent Slabs only Severe when the 'oblique traverse into a shallow groove' on pitch 2 is delicate 4b? And why is Crescent Climb a Moderate and a 'good mountaineering route' when the guts of it is 200 feet of clean Diff rock. and the 'pleasant traverse' is thinnish for the feet and would scare the daylights out of most beginners? My point is that the guidebook sections on the easier routes often simply repeat the grades, and often the very sentences, from earlier guides. Too often this perpetuates old mistakes or misperceptions. Surely the older, easier climbs deserve as careful attention and rethinking as the newer, harder ones?
I don't think it's a case of an ageing climber starting to find things difficult. I followed an El fluently enough on Mingulay three years ago, and I wasn't fazed more recently on Dow Crag with Dick Renshaw when we got lost on the 'A' Buttress section of the girdle and had to climb out
on unknown rock. Of course grades are subjective, not measurable. They
are an agreed code, with numbers defining technical difficulty and adjectives defining how we experience the moves. On those counts Pollux should score harder on the words than on the numbers, because the moves and the angle aren't desperate while the amount of blank rock, the lack of protection, and the besetting wetness make it more formidable than Hard V. Diff. It is about as technically demanding as Dandle Slabs on Buckbarrow- Longsleddale, or Route One on White Ghyll Slabs, or Suaviter on Grey Crag, Birkness Combe, to name three Severes, and it is a lot less clean than they are. Maybe the best way to tackle the jungly section of Black Crag, Dovedale, would be to rope down from some boulder among the summit bogs and hang comfortably while enjoying its marvellous cladding of conifers and broadleaved trees, and ferns and flowers and grasses.
A potted biography of the author can be found in the October archives 'Falling Down-Not Laughing