Friday, 21 October 2011

Two Weeks in June: Graham Balcombe and Engineers Slabs

A rare shot of Graham Balcombe on the first ascent in 1934.

You could never describe the north-face of  Great Gable as appealing. Standing at the head of Ennerdale and rising above Stony Cove to a height of 2,800ft it can be a gloomy place - often wet,  its deeply cut chimneys and untidy gullies are more in keeping with the exploits of the nailed-boot brigade. First impressions however, can be deceptive for set within this confusion of broken and vegetated buttresses lies Engineer's Slabs – the name Slab is  certainly a misnomer for this  is a imposing vertical wall, of clean ryolite, nearly 200ft in height. The Crag had been climbed in the past the early pioneers seeking out  the dark and damp recesses  of Central Gully, Engineer's and Smuggler's  Chimney, but  for whatever reason, this impressive up-thrust of rock was left in its isolation until the summer of 1934 when it was decided to investigate the Crag for the forthcoming  FRCC guide to Great Gable.

And it was around this point an virtually unknown climber, called Graham Balcombe, burst upon the Lakeland scene.  He was a battle-hardened climber, but not part of the establishment, and had been recruited by FRCC member,  Astley- Cooper,  to help with the new guide, after the two met on Botterill's Slab. A couple of days later Balcombe showed his intent by pioneering Buttonhook, (HVS) on Kern Knotts so called as he used a wire to thread the hemp rope behind a small chockstone.
 At first he came up on a top rope, but found his rope had come loose and swung away. This incident is vividly recalled in his notes:-
''I was wearing a new ''Beale'' (hemp rope) which was stiff and springy and tied with a bowline and half a fisherman's. Yes we decided to top-rope as it looked rather dicey from below. First pitch was rather strenuous and I did not notice the waist line had untied and  it sailed away into space, but pendulumed back and I held it in my teeth in case I had trouble higher up. We didn't count that climb, but its memory has bitten much deeper that the formal lead that followed later that week.''
At the time Buttonhook was considered as the most technically difficult route in the Lakes - even today, after seventy-odd years and with modern protection, the first pitch, still  remains one of those a 'pause and ponder' situations - Balcombe had set the tone for what was to follow on Engineer's Slabs.
 The next day on Gable Cooper was due to lead but was injured by a fall of stones whilst gardening the first pitch so it was left Balcombe, supported by Jack Sheppard, to take the sharp end. Although somewhat shaken Cooper recorded the climb on his camera and came up on a tight rope.

Balcombe's Diary entry for that day may well be a reflection of his laconic approach to  climbing when he wrote: " Friday 8.6.34. – Met Astley on Moses Trod. On starting up the scoop as an easy variant to the first pitch Astley dropped a pile of boulders on himself hurting his chest and arm muscles. Temporarily hors-de-combat. Took over lead and removed heaps of grass and muck with a slater's hammer. A full days work – six hours approximately and made a fine climb of it.' ( At first it was called Central Route then later changed to Engineer's Slabs.)

Gable Crag, north facing, dries slowly and it is best enjoyed after a period of dry weather – come here in damp conditions and the climbing takes on a  vastly different dimension. Some consider the first pitch with its awkward distribution of holds as the crux  but in reality the route holds its grade through-out. As you make height the exposure becomes  more apparent especially on the long stride right from the safety of the sentry box to reach the twin cracks  leading to the Chimney. An enjoyable finger and toe layback at the base the overhang gives access a comfortable stance.  'There is no belay here at present', recorded Balcombe, but a chockstone can and should be fitted in the crack at the back of the sentry box now attained'

All that remains is a steep V groove, which tends to hold moisture, even in the driest conditions, can give problems, leads to the top of the crag. Unable to find any belay points Balcombe was virtually soloing – it was a truly extra-ordinary lead.   Describing the climb, in  KenWilson's Hard Rock,  Paul Nunn wrote:
'...It was a feat of considerable boldness...the climb Engineer's Slabs, must have been sparsely protected given the techniques of the time and the few stances...Yet it was neglected left to its geographical isolation and persistent darkness, the challenge of its considerable technical difficulty ignored.'

As far as is known the climb was repeated only twice in the following twenty years – in 1945 by Muscroft and Hill then in the early fifties when Peter Harding made a visit..
 Balcombe was astonished to learn that his climb went unrepeated for that amount of time and comments:-
'Surprised that a generation missed out on an interesting route. Don't think the write-up made it appear particularly formidable, but the entrance examination at the first pitch may have turned the more caution away...My second Jack Sheppard was a remarkably reliable man...and it was a second like Jack that made it possible.'

 During that 2 weeks holiday Balcombe led 7 new new climbs and variations (1) – it was without parallel in the previous decade of Lakeland climbing – this included a direct finish to Central Buttress (HVS) regarded then as possibly the hardest route in the country. Surprisingly, when the  Gable guide was published in 1937 Balcombe did not warrant a mention in the historical section. Whether the old guard were closing ranks and operating a closed shop, is debatable, but Balcombe who was not a member of the FRCC recalls, ' they could be cool with those not from their own.'  As a personality he could be very direct and was supremely confident of his ability which did upset some –  perhaps he was misunderstood but Balcombe had no time for mock-modesty.  There was an occasion during a FRCC meet at Pillar Rock when they discussing who would lead Route 1 (VS) ( now called Sodom) and without further to do Balcombe tied on and indicated, ' let's get on with it' – he would lead. This especially annoyed  senior member Bill Clegg  who went off, in a huff, to solo The North Climb including The Nose, indicating he would not climb with that man!

By the thirties, history was to record, the balance of power had swung to North Wales – Kirkus and Edwards was showing what was possible on Welsh Rock – Lake District climbing needed a resurgence and Balcombe could well have provided that. He should have been encouraged and given due credit for his achievements, but it was not to be – Balcombe came back to the Lakes only once, after that momentous holiday,  as a leader for a party of Germany climbers, visiting Britain, in 1936.
In 1933 he had joined The Northern Cavern & Fell Club and was introduced to caving.  Balcombe embraced caving with a vengence and with his natural tenacity and enterprising character he was a natural and certainly the pioneering spirit behind Cave Diving in this country.  Looking back on those times he said,' I came to recognise what I could achieve in caving could be more important than enjoying the clean sport of climbing.'

Balcombe lived well into his nineties and to the end was his own man –  as a committed atheist he  declined a Church Service and his ashes were scattered at Wookey Hole, in the Mendip Hills, where a Plaque set into the rock pays tribute to him and his contribution in cave-diving.
And if those  astonishing 2 weeks  on the Lakeland Crags  are anything to go by we can only speculate what he may have achieved, on British Rock, had his immense potential been fulfilled.

(1) Balcombe's Routes.
Rainbow Ridge; (variation); Severe – Balcombe and Sheppard.
Lucuifer Ridge; Severe – Balcombe and Sheppard.
Hellgate Ridge; Severe – Balcombe, Barker and Sheppard.
Buttonhook (Kern Knotts);Hard-Very Severe – Balcombe and Cooper.
Engineer's Slabs; Very Severe – Balcombe, Sheppard and Cooper.
Unfinished Arete;  (Gable Crags) Very Severe – Balcombe, Sheppard and Cooper.
Direct Finish to Central Buttress: Hard-Very Severe – Balcombe, Wright and Files.

Ken Smith 2011