Sunday, 6 June 2010

rock climbing: an introduction

I must apologize for the dearth of new material on this site recently. While I've been in the UK, I've not been able to arrange a regular internet connection, which I thought I'd be able to work around, but I was wrong. I have therefore decided to concentrate on longer (but inevitably less frequent) posts for the remainder of the summer and will switch back to shorter but more frequent posts when I return to Hong Kong in October.

To start with, I offer a general memoir on the subject of rock climbing. My wife says that a long essay like this requires some photographs, but I have no digital images to contribute, so the pictures included are digital photos of existing prints derived from film. I apologize in advance for the poor quality.

There can be few more singularly pointless activities than rock climbing, which involves deliberately finding the most difficult way up a mountain. This begs two obvious questions: why do people engage in this activity, and why, nowadays, is it so popular? Why do I do it?

George Mallory’s famous reply when asked why he wanted to climb Mount Everest (“Because it’s there!”) gets us little further. Indeed, it can be seen as a dismissive and condescending retort, in the same way that Cornelius Vanderbilt’s answer to the question, posed by a journalist, regarding how much his yacht had cost (“If you need to ask, you can’t afford it!”) is nothing more than an arrogant dismissal of a perfectly reasonable enquiry.

However, it turns out that there is something of this Lourdes philosophy in rock climbing. You will recall that it is often asked why people visit this small town in southwest France. The usual response is that if you are one of the pilgrims, no explanation is necessary; if you need to ask, no explanation is possible. So it is with rock climbing. If you’ve tried it, unless of course you were utterly terrified, no explanation is required, but it is very difficult, if not impossible, to explain the intrinsic motivation to a non-practitioner.

Growing up on the eastern fringe of the Lake District, one of the most popular rock-climbing venues in the country, I knew all about the activity, or thought I did. I thought climbers were lunatics! I’ve already described what eventually sparked my interest in rock climbing in Autobiography #1: Memory, but there is a big difference between messing about on ground-level boulder problems and doing the same thing with a hundred feet of air between your heels and the ground, especially if you’re at all likely to hit the aforementioned ground if you make a serious mistake.

Anyway, as a result of the enthusiasm I had shown on the then recent field trip, I was invited to try ‘real’ rock climbing by two fellow students. We went to a small but very imposing gritstone edge in the Peak District called Wimberry Rocks. I was shown how to tie the rope around my waist with a bowline and how to secure the rope while someone was climbing by running it over one shoulder, but in truth there was little to remember from my first encounter with rock. My second was considerably more eventful.

A week or two later, and Wimberry was again the venue. And there was a fourth member of the team, also about to try climbing for the first time. We repeated several of the climbs we’d done previously, and I was then asked if I’d like to lead the next climb, appropriately named Sloping Crack. I’d climbed the route before, but with a rope from above. And it was graded ‘very difficult’. However, I should point out, before anyone takes this literally, that in the inflated language of the British grading system this translates as ‘easy(ish)’.

Like the English language itself, the British grading system for rock climbs is a mongrel, with elements gathered from many parts, but it has its roots in the late Victorian middle-class England from which this pastime emerged. ‘Very difficult’ in 1900 probably was very difficult, given the equipment and mental attitudes of the time, and it would still be perceived as very difficult by anyone who does not feel comfortable climbing at this grade. However, when I started, ‘very difficult’ was deemed an appropriate level for a beginner.

Typical gritstone climbing on Stanage Edge, near Sheffield. From left to right: Christmas Crack (VS); Black Slab (VS); Inverted V (VS). Note the temporary protection devices, known as runners.

Naturally, I accepted the invitation. I do not recall whether I found the climb easy or difficult, but when I reached the top, it would be my responsibility to control the rope for the next climber. I began to wonder what would happen if the next climber fell off. And the next climber would be the beginner (notice my less than subtle attempt to move myself out of that category). There happened to be a deep fissure in the rocks several feet back from the edge of the cliff and at right angles to the run of the rope. I stood in it up to my waist and carefully took in the rope until it was tight. The beginner started climbing and almost immediately fell off. Had I not had the presence of a mind that is more usually absent, I’d have been pulled off the top of the cliff by the force of the fall, but my improvised solution to this obvious difficulty held firm. However, I made sure that I found out, for future reference, the correct way to anchor oneself securely to the rock when convenient fissures are rarer than snowstorms in Cairo, which is most of the time.

We ended the day by climbing Route 1, a prosaic name for an imposing fifty-foot right-angled corner with a grade of ‘severe’. The leader decided to climb the route by laybacking, a technique that involves walking the feet up one wall of the corner while leaning backwards, holding on to the edge of the crack with both hands. As you can imagine, this is an extremely strenuous procedure, and when it was my turn to climb I quickly ran out of arm strength and required an extremely tight rope to complete the climb. The annoying aspect of this experience, in retrospect, is that Route 1 is described in On Peak Rock, a giant compendium of all the best climbs in the Peak District, as ‘jamming test #2’; in other words, the optimum technique on this climb is not laybacking but hand jamming. It took me a long time to master the techniques of finger and hand jamming, so I’d probably have struggled on this climb anyway, but jamming is considerably less strenuous than laybacking, and less wearing on one’s mental well-being.

Perhaps because of this experience, I didn’t feel inclined to go climbing again for almost six months, but I eventually forgot that original discomfort and decided to try again. Within nine months, I was ready to attempt to lead my first climb with a grade of ‘very severe’ (VS). Now, when anyone ventures to ‘push the grade’ in this way, they invariably look for a comparatively easy example of the genre. And I thought that I’d found my example, Troutdale Pinnacle Direct on Black Crag in Borrowdale, which is widely regarded as ‘mild very severe’. Unfortunately, I had reckoned without my somewhat sketchy route-finding ability: instead of trending right up a series of easy slabs (having already completed the climb’s hard moves), I misread the guidebook and decided that the continuation lay up the steep flake crack straight ahead. This turned out to be (I discovered later) Troutdale Pinnacle Superdirect, which was graded ‘hard very severe’ (HVS), and to this day I’m not sure how I managed to lead the route without falling off.

There was a silver lining to this episode, however. My companion was a fellow student of an old school friend who’d done most of his climbing in Snowdonia, North Wales. He believed that there were no hard climbs in the Lake District, a notion derived from the difference in grading systems between the two centres. Snowdonia had embraced the grade of ‘extremely severe’ (XS) as early as the 1940s, but in the Lake District the top grade remained VS, albeit with a list that placed all climbs in order of difficulty. The difficulty of those climbs near the top of the various lists was comparable with Snowdonian standards. After struggling to second the Superdirect, my companion went away with a different impression of the difficulty of Lakeland climbing.

During the late 1960s, my friends and I climbed several very severe climbs, with evocative names like Overhanging Bastion, Communist Convert (it moved from left to right) and The Gordian Knot (the difficulties took a lot of unravelling), but during this period I acquired a reputation as a very slow climber. In fact, I’d often work out how to do the hard move on a climb within a couple of minutes, but I’d then take twenty or even thirty minutes to summon the courage to actually make the move. This state of affairs persisted until August 1969.

But first a word about abseiling (a German word; confusingly, the Americans call it rappeling, which is French); this involves using the rope to descend a rock face quickly and has become a popular activity in its own right, especially in outdoor activities centres. However, it should not be forgotten that this is an emergency procedure, and in real-life situations the anchor point used to secure the rope is unlikely to be bombproof, as those used by outdoor centres are required to be.

In August 1969, I’d just been released from hospital (Near-Death Experience), and a friend and I thought we’d spend a few days camping below the frowning cliffs of Scafell, without doubt the most spectacular and impressive mountain in England. Late in the day, we decided to climb Botterill’s Slab, first climbed in 1903 and still meriting a VS grade. Like many climbs first ascended at this time, Botterill’s Slab finishes not at the top of the cliff but at the end of the main difficulties, leaving almost 100 feet of ‘very difficult’ ground to reach the top. However, the light was fading rapidly, and we decided that it would be prudent to abseil down instead of continuing up the easy section.

We were able to secure the rope around a huge block of rock, and I set off down. After a while, I found myself standing directly above what appeared to be a huge overhanging corner, which meant that I would soon lose contact with the rock. I considered this a bad idea, given that by this time it was almost completely dark, so I tried to direct my descent down the wall to the right of the corner, bracing my feet against the rock to counteract a natural tendency to swing back towards the corner. This worked well enough for thirty or forty feet, but eventually I lost my footing and swung back left into the darkness beneath the corner. I was swinging in space, and when I looked down, I discovered, to my horror, that the rope came to an end no more than ten feet below me. And I couldn’t see the ground! There was little chance of regaining the rock face, so I inched my way slowly down the rope, expecting at any moment to reach the end and with no real plan of what to do when I got there. However, I suddenly, and surprisingly, found myself on the ground, and there was at least twenty feet of spare rope on that ground. The ‘end’ of the rope had been an optical illusion.

This wasn’t the end of the saga. When my friend reached the top of the corner, he saw what was below and shouted down that he was off-route. I replied that it was possible to get off-route on a climb (see above), but when abseiling you have little or no control over your descent route. In other words: “Get on with it!” The idea behind abseiling is that you can pull the rope down afterwards. However, it had become jammed behind the large block of rock, and we were forced to leave it for the night. The following day, it was pouring with rain, and in order to retrieve the abandoned rope we had to climb to the top of the cliff. I climbed down with some difficulty, protected by our second rope, until I reached the jammed rope, which I tied to my waist belt. The ascent turned out to be particularly arduous, because it involved climbing up a credible imitation of a waterfall in spate.

Having set out to explain the attraction of rock climbing, I seem to have related a number of tales that would put off any rational person. And my next story will not alter this tendency. A couple of weeks after the abseiling incident, my friend and I decided that we were now ready to attempt our first ‘extremely severe’ climb. As described above, we carefully selected our target. The XS grade had first appeared in the Lake District in 1967, in the new Langdale guide, but we were still using the guidebook published in 1959 for the eastern Lake District, complete with graded list.

A few days earlier, we’d climbed a route that was rated the second most difficult in the area, albeit graded merely VS, and we noted that our target route was quite a few places below this in the list. What we didn’t know then was that at the time the guidebook was published in 1959, it had not had a second ascent, mainly on account of its difficulty, so its position in the graded list was entirely arbitrary. After a long slog up from the valley, during which time both our courage and our confidence were subjected to many doubts and uncertainties, we finally arrived at Dove Crag. We quickly identified the impending line of Dovedale Groove, and we tossed a coin to decide who would lead the first pitch, a hugely intimidating crack in a vertical wall. I won (or lost, if you prefer).

The crack turned out to be difficult almost immediately, and it took me some time to work out the next sequence. When I was finally ready to make the move, it was not really with the intention of continuing. I reasoned that if I completed this first sequence, I could retreat with honour satisfied, having made a ‘good’ attempt to climb the route. However, I quickly discovered that I was unable to relieve the strain on my arms, and I couldn’t reverse the moves I’d just made. In order to rest, I’d need to reach a small niche in the rock face about ten feet higher. This I did, with considerable difficulty, only to find that I’d underestimated the angle of the rock, and my arms were tiring rapidly. I saw a second niche, and I made for that, but with the same result: it was impossible to rest. Finally, I was able to flop, exhausted, onto a large ledge, and the pitch was over. The second pitch, which my friend led, was much easier overall, but it had one move harder than anything on the first pitch. With almost no arm strength left, I required a tight rope on this move, and I was unable to raise my arms above my head for the next two days. We got very drunk that night.

Moving on, I was originally attracted to Hong Kong by an advert for climbing instructors at the colony’s Outward Bound School that was circulated around the UK’s Outward Bound schools in 1973. Among other things, it referred to “miles and miles of unexplored sea cliffs” and stipulated that successful candidates had to be capable of leading VS. Given that few Outward Bound instructors at that time met this criterion, I was keen to give it a try. I didn’t know that the author of the advert, the Hong Kong school’s principal, had a penchant for exaggeration. Cliffs that seemed impressive from a distance turned out to be anything but on closer inspection. We named one inlet Weetabix Zawn because the imposing cliffs had the mechanical strength of the well-known breakfast cereal. However, I did discover a few outstanding routes, and as the first to climb them I exercised my right to name them: Wuthering Heights, Our Father, Frontier Justice, Nightmare. This last climb owes its name to the comment made by my second on reaching the top:

“What are you trying to do? Give me bloody nightmares?”

Having lived in Hong Kong throughout the 1980s, I returned to the UK in 1989, where I took my wife, Paula, climbing. Because I was 43 years old by this time, I assumed that I would be restricted to relatively easy climbs; however, on our third climbing trip my wife, asked whether we could do something harder. I managed to meet this request, with difficulty, and the result was that, two weeks later, we were able to climb a route that I’d done previously in 1969 and had not expected to climb again. Kipling Groove on Gimmer Crag in Langdale (so-called because it’s ruddy ’ard) remains my favourite climb, and I climbed it twice more during the 1990s, which turned out to be the most prolific period of my climbing career, with my son Siegfried.

Another word about the grading system: by the 1970s, it was widely accepted as inadequate. Because the intrinsic difficulty of many modern climbs appeared to require a new grade, it was decided to subdivide the ‘extremely severe’ category into five, from E1 to E5, each spanning a range of difficulty comparable to that of lower grades. The system was always intended to be open-ended, and there are now routes graded E10, which I couldn’t climb even with a top rope stretched so tightly that if plucked would produce a note beyond the normal range of human hearing. However, this did not solve all the problems, because it is impossible to distinguish between a pitch that is technically difficult but relatively safe and one with a long runout that is technically easier but is sufficiently devoid of points to which temporary protection can be attached that a ground crater is a likely result should you happen to fall off, at least where both routes are assigned the same overall adjectival grade.

The solution adopted was to assign a purely technical grade to each pitch, which at the time of writing goes up to 7a. This means that if the hardest pitch of an E1 has a technical grade of 5a, you can be sure that the difficulties are psychological rather than technical, while if an E1 has a technical grade of 5c, it will be much harder, but the possibility of a long fall is very slight. I mention this because in 1997, Siegfried and I climbed what is widely regarded as the best E1 in the Lake District, Nimrod on Dow Crag, near Coniston. This route has three pitches, with successive technical grades of 5a, 5b and 5c.

An example of how steep climbs can be. This is Razor Crack (E1 5a) on Neckband Crag, Langdale.

We’d climbed only a handful of 5c pitches previously, and they’d all proved to be extremely troublesome. On Bleak How Buttress (E2 5c) in Borrowdale, I’d spent 40 minutes trying to work out the crux moves, retreating every few minutes to a resting place several feet below the crux because I couldn’t hang around any longer. I’d been on the point of giving up, but my ‘one last try’ was successful. Although he had the benefit of a top rope, I’d still have been pissed off if Siegfried had managed to climb the hard part at the first attempt, but I needn’t have worried. I couldn’t see him climbing as I took in the rope, but you learn to feel what the other climber is doing via subtle vibrations in that rope. Siegfried made short work of the first part of the climb, but eventually he stopped. This was it! And then I felt the rope pay out again as he retreated to the resting place. He, too, required several attempts.

However, on this occasion I was able to execute the 5c moves quite easily, and on returning to the bottom of the climb Siegfried uttered a few words, the irony of which sticks in my memory:

“I think we’ve got the hang of 5c now.”

Unfortunately, I’d been feeling discomfort in my knee for several weeks, and this turned out to be the final straw. Although I was able to walk down to the car, with some difficulty, I couldn’t walk for several days subsequently, and we did no more serious climbing that year. I took up cycling, mainly as a way to rehabilitate, but I’ve never since reached a standard where I could feel confident attempting any climb that carried a 5c technical grade.

So I pose the question again: why do I do it? It is certainly not for the satisfaction of ‘reaching the top’ or because I’m a masochist. However, I gain a lot of pleasure from being able to move up or across steep rock in complete mental and physical control. This is much harder to achieve when a long leader fall is the penalty for failure, but the satisfaction, in such situations, is proportionately greater. And the greatest satisfaction of all is to be had by dispensing with the rope entirely, but Paula won’t let me climb solo nowadays. Given that at the age of 63 I can no longer rely on my body to perform as required, she’s probably right.