Friday, January 4, 2019

the nostalgia project: Right-Hand Crack, UK (1999)

The route

Right-Hand Crack at Brimham Rocks in Yorkshire is a short unexceptional crack climb graded VS (~YDS 5.7 or 5.8). It is the second-from-the-right of a quartet of crack routes on the buttress. The route to its left is called Central Crack and is a tad harder. The route to its right is not called Even-Further-Right-Hand Crack. Guidebook length for these routes is forty feet or about thirteen metres, but I suspect that is slightly exaggerated. Brimham is a pleasant area of moorland, trees and eroded gritstone blobs, popular with tourists as well as climbers.

unknown climbers on Right-Hand Crack, Brimham © unknown
The fall described was from the wide section of the crack to the left

The context

In August 1998 Shoko and I spent a long weekend in Yorkshire intermingling gritstone climbing and sight-seeing (primarily the spooky ruins at Fountains Abbey). Shoko was pregnant with Leo but not yet showing it. The diary records that we stayed in a "nice" B&B in Grassington. We visited Ilkley on Saturday then Brimham on Sunday.

The ascent

I don't remember why we picked Right-Hand Crack as an objective. Perhaps I wanted to introduce Shoko to hand jamming - often a fraught exercise with new climbers. I also don't remember anything about climbing the route. I do know that I belayed from the top, despite the route's modest height, as is normal for trad pitches in the UK.

As Shoko began following the route, I noticed a middle-aged male climber advancing up Central Crack, just to her left. He had all the characteristics of what the Brits unkindly call a "bumbly": mildly-overweight, uncertain in his movements and possessing a rack of gear apparently chosen with little forethought. He was belayed by a younger man that I guessed was his son, who was standing too far back from the base of the cliff. It may have passed my mind to say something about this, but there were other climbers at the cliff-base and I probably felt that it was their responsibility.

Near the top of his route, the leader paused below an awkward-looking wide crack section, which I guessed was the crux. I watched him place a classic bumbly protection piece: an ancient hexentric nut threaded with an absurdly-long rope sling. Even before he attempted the hard moves, the carabiner on the sling was level with his ankles. I began paying more attention to him than Shoko, who was roughly level with him. They were both just three or four metres below me. It was soon clear that the guy was having trouble. He tried to reverse his last move but slipped. I had a bird-eye view of the arc of his fall. First the long hex sling snagged one of his feet and tipped him out horizontally. Then his belayer was catapulted forward, creating enough slack for a possible ground impact. The rope went tight as the guy hit a slab at the base and inverted completely. His head, thankfully in a helmet, hit a boulder with a loud bang.

The next few moments were very ugly. Shoko was in shock at what had happened and was almost unable to finish the last easy moves of our climb. The victim began making animal-like groaning noises. People rushed over but could do little as it was obviously unwise to risk moving him. The son was understandably distressed. It passed my mind that his father might die in front of us. Rescue services were called. The victim went quiet.

Wanting to help, but lacking any better role, I rappelled their route, cleaned the gear and coiled their rope. It seemed pointless but somehow respectful - signifying unrealistically that all might be well and that they could soon be climbing together again. The rescue team came quickly and thankfully confirmed that the otherwise-unresponsive victim was still alive. For reasons that were not explained - proximity, I assume - the stretcher was carried to an ambulance pick-up location different to the regular car park. However the son felt that he needed to retrieve the family car, which was parked there. Shoko and I walked him to the car park. I want to believe that we then offered to help him find the hospital where his father had been taken but that he declined - but I am not sure if that is actually true. For some reason, whenever I think about the incident, this detail troubles me. Could we have helped more? Was the boy safe to drive himself in his shocked state?

We never learned what transpired next, how serious was the victim's injury or whether he made a full recovery. 1999 was still a year or two before it would be normal for climbing accidents to be discussed on internet forums. The incident remains the worst climbing accident that I have witnessed. As my description demonstrates, I can rationalise it as a combination of avoidable errors - the poor belaying and the outdated poorly-placed protection - and so have shrugged it off. I even climbed the next day. For Shoko, the effect was more disturbing. She has only climbed a few times in the nineteen years since.

Subsequent ascents

I have been back to Brimham once, in 2003. I did not climb Right-Hand Crack.

And another thing ...

My impression is that this kind of climbing accident, a bad fall while climbing, is fairly rare these days; in Squamish, anyway. Protection and belay devices have improved and knowledge of how and where to use them seems to be better disseminated too. Anecdotally, the most popular way to kill yourself climbing now is to lead sport routes with a newbie or - less forgivably - a set-in-their-ways ageing traddie, especially an american. They will take you off belay when you reach the anchors, making the assumption that you are planning to rappel rather than lower, guaranteeing a ground fall unless you spot their error. (Famous example.) I try to make a habit of always checking tension in the rope before committing to being lowered. This actually saved my life about three years ago.

Saturday, December 29, 2018

the nostalgia project: Lai Bab, Thailand (1998)

The route

Lai Bab is an overhanging 7a+ (YDS 5.12a) sport route on the Tonsai Beach cliff at the karst limestone peninsula variously known as Tonsai, Railay, Phra Nang, Laem Phra Nang, Krabi or "that place in Thailand". I believe Laem Phra Nang is the accurate name but TripAdvisor and Lonely Planet use Railay, so I will too. Quicker to type, anyway.

Tonsai beach (left) and Railay West beach (right) in 1998 
Railay East beach in 1998
The growth of sport climbing in the 1980s and 1990s, especially at sunny venues in southern Europe, helped redefine the "climbing holiday" from a typically uncomfortable experience, unsuitable for family or less-committed climbers, to something more hedonistic. The final evolution of this concept would be one-stop climbing "resorts" like JoSiTo in Turkey but an important milestone along that road was the development of sport climbing in genuinely glamourous locations that almost no-one would need persuasion to visit. Railay, with its four white sand beaches, mandatory boat access, jungle backdrop, monkeys and giant surreal rock architecture, was the original, and perhaps still the best, example.

I first became aware of the place in the early-90s, possibly from magazine articles but also possibly from the eccentric 1994 book "Exotic Rock". Though effectively a humble-brag by the author, Sam Lightner, showing off just how extensively he had travelled, it was also quite inspiring.


Exotic Rock's world map. I have still only visited four of these areas.
The context

In January 1998, Shoko relocated from Tokyo to London to live with me. Before her arrival I had suggested that it might be best if she started rock climbing, as I was unlikely to be giving the sport up. With that in mind, I organised a series of trips to aesthetic overseas climbing venues that I hoped would sell the sport better than grotty British cliffs. Over the next two years we sport climbed in Tenerife, Mallorca, Railay, Smith Rock, Red Rocks, Siurana and Buoux, bouldered in the Seychelles and put up new trad routes on Inishturk island in Ireland. It helped that my career trajectory was in good shape at that time and money not a major constraint. There was no camping or similar hardship involved in any of these trips.

That said, when researching a one week visit to Railay for March 1998 I did have a brief dilemma. The area had a luxury hotel (then part of the Dusit group, now The Rayavadee). I guessed Shoko would feel cheated not to stay there but the price was outrageous. We compromised by booking a standard backpacker hotel for the first few nights then the Dusit for the remainder.

This worked out well, though it quickly became obvious that the Dusit was not used to hosting climbers. Right from our arrival we confused them by marching into reception with our bags rather than being dropped off on their boat shuttle from Krabi. Then we raised their eyebrows further by setting off out of their compound with backpacks and a rope to re-join the proletariat and climb.

The accommodation itself was quite fabulous. We had our own two storey villa with a little private plunge pool outside. Phra-nang beach, the prettiest of the four beaches, was a short stroll away on manicured lawns through palm trees.

Whether the Dusit was worth the price I was less sure. We had also enjoyed staying in our OK hotel room with its quasi-functional plumbing and noisy ceiling fan on the previous nights. I have been lucky to stay in quite a few fancy hotels over the years, also flown first class several times and eaten in some famous restaurants (Le Manoir, four different Nobu's, etc). These experiences have left me undecided as to the actual value of luxury. I have noticed that there are several ways in it can disappoint. An obvious one is if expectations are set unrealistic high. Then there is the anxiety brought on by the excessive choice which is often a feature of high-end travel; pillow menus, for example. Arguably, luxury only becomes truly luxurious once it becomes routine, and you are able to, say, sleep all the way through your first class flight and not over-order champagne and fiddle with the movie channels. Overall, I think it is good to sample this kind of thing a few times in your life then convince yourself you don't need it.

Queen Shoko in our private pool at the Dusit
And slumming it on the backpacker beach
On that theme, I had a bizarre encounter during our Dusit stay. We were walking back along Phra-nang beach in the early evening after climbing at some cliff at its far end. A european guy in a Dusit uniform yelled at me to ask - not very politely - for help. It turned out that he needed to move the Dusit's wooden shuttle pier higher up on the beach away from the tide line. It was a four person job and he was one short. For some reason, I agreed. It was a brief task - we only had to stumble a few metres - but the pier was brutally heavy and, sans warm-up, felt like a back-strain risk. When the job was done, Shoko and I stepped off the beach into the Dusit's compound. Uniform-guy started yelling again, this time warning that we were on private property. "I know", I replied, waving our room key, "We are guests". His face fell satisfactorily but we didn't hang around to see what he would say next. It dawned on me that he had only targeted me for help because he had assumed from my climber clothes that I couldn't be staying in the hotel.

The next evening we were eating in the Dusit's main dining room when uniform-guy came over to apologise. With hindsight I realise that this would have been an excellent opportunity to fake great outrage and a stiff back, and insist on compensation, or, at least, many free drinks. Instead I made a pious little speech about stereotyping, and suggested he treat climbers with more respect going forward.

The climbing, of course, was pretty good. Diary notes aren't very detailed, but I remember that Shoko had fun and was solid on the routes we tried up to ~6a (YDS 5.10b), including Massage Secrets, a cool three pitch route with amazing tufa stalactites. This was so good that we did it again on our departure day to get more photos.

Shoko following Massage Secrets
... and at one of the belays
The ascent

We did not venture over to the Tonsai beach cliff until late in our stay. The hike from the Railay West beach passed over an area of low-angle rock which I remember being sharp and awkward. At that time, there was just one beach bar and some very rudimentary huts at Tonsai. In my memory, it is populated by the sort of hairy German stoners who were a fixture at cliffs like Siurana in the 1990s, but that's probably totally inaccurate and unfair. I didn't intend to try anything "hard" but ended up watching someone on Lai Bab and thinking "I could do that". To my surprise, I flashed it. Not an onsight as I had observed the previous climber use a non-obvious undercut which proved to be essential beta. I was reasonably accustomed to flashing routes at that grade but not so often that I wasn't really pleased. It was very cool to climb smoothly on something so steep. The wall was around 45 degrees overhanging.

On the way back to the Dusit we got waylaid at a beach bar, first watching the sunset and then sitting on the sand while hippy firedancers performed to Leftism - that ubiquitous soundtrack to the mid-90s. A very clichéed experience but great. If someone entrusted me with a time machine to revisit moments from my life, I'd probably set the dial to that day in 1998 first.

My flash ascent of Lai Bab
Subsequent ascents

I have not climbed in Thailand subsequently. Shoko, Leo and I did spend about a week in Ao Nang, a few kilometres west of Railay, in January 2007. Though it was a strict "non-climbing" holiday, we did day-trip in a boat over to Railay. One change was immediately evident: the whole Tonsai beach area had been developed. Presumably as a consequence, what had been an empty crescent of white sand and blue sea was full of moored boats and the water had become brackish and unappealing. I made a mental note that the place was now "spoiled". But then I remembered that before we visited in 1998, some friends, who had been there a few years earlier, had warned that the place was too popular and "ruined" - which had not been our experience at all. In the same vein, while researching this blog post, I noticed a commentator on Mountain Project complaining that the place had been "discovered" since his first visit - which had been in 2009! It is all relative.

Leo on Railay West beach in 2007

Monday, December 10, 2018

the nostalgia project: Twinkler, UK (1997)

The route

Trwyn Llwyd is a vowel-free gabbro  sea cliff in the esoteric Welsh climbing area of North Pembroke. Twinkler is a two pitch HVS (~YDS 5.9) that wanders across the cliff finding the easiest line between much harder routes. In the 1990s it was graded VS.

The context

For all sorts of reasons best left undocumented, 1997 was a chaotic year for me. The frequency of my weekend climbing was about the same as usual but I was very distracted and did little of note.  In grade terms, the highlight was a trip to El Chorro in Spain in January where I redpointed a 7b fairly easily. One unusual feature of the year was that Dan (mentioned twice before in this blog and likely to recurr again) rented a room from me in the north London flat that I had just bought. Inevitably this meant that we climbed together more often.

In May we spent a long weekend in the North Pembroke. I believe the  motivation was that a new guidebook had just come out. Photos show that we dossed two nights in a pub car park; a typical strategy in those days. On Saturday and Sunday we visited four cliffs, roping up for several routes in the E1-E3 range, most of which seemed somewhat less worthwhile than the guidebook promised.

(fresh) Airbnb - 90's style

The Economist and the Financial Times - essential accessories for the travelling Londoner
The ascent

On Monday, the diary notes that it was "scorchingly hot" and that we climbed unroped most of the day, mostly on very easy short pitches. To end the day Dan suggested a "convoy solo" of Twinkler. It had been several years since I had last soloed a multi-pitch and I remember feeling some concern. However VS was comfortably within my limit so objectively the risk was low. Dan soloed often at that time. I acquiesced.

Convoy soloing - two or more people climbing unroped on the same route at the same time - was something I had done a few times prior to this. Especially ten years before at Arapiles, when I and most of my regular partners were very young and foolish. Aside from moonlight idiocy on D Minor, mentioned here, I got notably scared onsighting the 100m slab classic Brolga unroped. Both I and my friend Pete found it much more delicate, insecure and irreversible than we had anticipated. A unique aspect of this dumb activity is the potential opportunity to be private witness to your partner's death (or vice-versa) as a section is tackled which the other has already completed. I still remember Pete and I's nervous banter, wide-eyes and various "what the fuck are we doing" philosophising on that ascent.
Dan starting Twinkler
Twinkler lured us in gently with a traverse above the sea that was easy and unexposed. In fact, I recall absolute no issues with the route until the very end where a short overhanging crack connected a small ledge with the top of the cliff. Dan did this quickly as I waited on the ledge. As I followed, it dawned on me that the crack was awkward and would be a challenging down-climb. The final move was a pull over a bulge on to gently-sloping terrain. I recall some dependence on a shallow unsatisfactory hand jam. I paused and looked at Dan who I think mumbled something like "it is OK" but looked worried. I paused a while longer. It was a bad place to stop; fatiguing eventually. The fall would have been 30m or more toward the sea, possibly into water of uncertain depth, possibly on to boulders. I doubt more than a few seconds passed in total, but as the cliche goes: they were "long" seconds. Finally I pulled the move, there being no other options and of course it was fine.

Researching this blog post, I stumbled over notes on a 2017 ascent of Twinkler that may shed some light on why the route felt so marginal: "[pitch] 2 felt hard even for HVS 5a as per the 2013 guide to finish up the steep final crack though i might have done the finish to "Better Led than Dead" climbing up a steep crack above a small step down in the ramp, either way this was excellent and well protected but felt E1 5b."

Subsequent ascents

I have not been back to North Pembroke.

I have also not soloed anything substantial since 1997. Where we live now in Squamish, there is an abundance of solid moderate climbing, moments from our front door, that is very well-suited for unroped climbing. But I don't do it. I believe I could run many laps with the required focus but in time complacency would be inevitable. Best not to start.

A case in point: in September this year I slipped off the final 5.4 pitch of a ten pitch new route that I had helped establish a few months earlier and had already climbed five times. I was seconding with far too much slack in the system, so fell the length of the pitch to ledges, bruising a few ribs and opening a spectacular though unserious scalp wound. No big deal but it could have been much worse. If anyone had asked me in advance how many times I could climb that pitch without falling I would have estimated thousands, not five ...

Wednesday, December 5, 2018

the nostalgia project: Pumpido, Italy (1996)

The route

Bassiano © unknown
Bassiano is a limestone cliff about 60 km south-east of Rome, with a nice selection of single-pitch sport routes on pockets and tufa. Not world-class but definitely worthy. The sort of cliff residents in limestone-deprived areas would kill to have on their doorstep but locals take for granted. Pumpido is one of the more obvious lines. Once graded 7b+ (YDS 5.12c) it seems to have settled at 7b.

The context

In November 1996, I flew out to Rome to climb for three days. My frequent climbing partner, John Zangwill, had recently relocated there from London with his girlfriend - now wife - Pina. John (or "Z" as he was generally known) was the most enthusiastic of a group of north Londoners who I climbed with in the mid-90s. They were an older and more affluent crew then the climbers I had hung out with previously. They owned property, ate in proper restaurants during climbing weekends and had opinions on things like dishwashers. Despite these peculiar traits, they were strong climbers. Z, in particular, always out-climbed me.

Over the three days in Italy we climbed at three different cliffs. On the first day, Grotti, about 100km north of Rome. The rock was a weird conglomerate-limestone hybrid, similar to Margalef in Spain, with many small painful pockets. Grades appeared to start at 7b which made for a harsh warm-up. I achieved very little but recall Z coming close on a 7c.

The next day we visited Sperlonga by the sea about 100km south-west of Rome. Only 6's were climbed. The diary notes "v hot, topless girls sunbathing" - obviously challenging conditions.

Z, lunch stop somewhere near Rome
Climbing above the beach at Sperlonga
The ascent

On the third day we went to Bassiano. I liked the cliff immediately. Friendly red-hued rock with obvious holds. I did some warm-ups then tried Pumpido, which looked like the best line on the cliff and at that time still held the (for me) magic 7b+ (5.12c) grade. I had come very close to sending two routes at that grade at Rifle in Colorado earlier that year so motivation was very high. I was able to reach the chains with a few hangs on my first try. The diary mentions "superb pumpy sequence of deadpoint crux between pockets, steep pockets to tufa, then very crimpy finishing moves". I managed the redpoint on my next attempt. I was quite pleased with myself, and managed not to draw the obvious conclusion: that the route was over-graded.



My ascent of Pumpido
Subsequent ascents

I have not been back to Bassiano.

As a temporary local, John did of course return often. I recall that he was trying an 8a there and eventually succeeded. At that time, almost no-one I knew had climbed in the 8's. Furthermore, Z was well into his 40's. This made his achievement really inspiring. Then in my early 30s, I pessimistically believed that my best climbing years were already past. I filed Z's 8a send in my brain as an important reference and reason not to give up hope. In fact, it has stayed in my mind ever since, especially when I quit work to climb "full-time" six years ago.

Ironically a mutual friend recently told me that he did not think Z had ever climbed 8a. I was reluctant to believe this but in a way it no longer matters; whether myth or reality the idea has served its purpose.

And another thing ...

As I have got older, I have become increasingly impressed by people who have managed to combine climbing hard with high achievement in an unrelated area. To my mind, the outstanding example is Jim Collins. In the late 1970s he was one of the best climbers in the US, pushing standards with routes like Genesis and Psycho Roof in Eldorado canyon, and making the first solo of the Naked Edge. Mountain magazine published a sensational article about him around that time. These days he is better known as a pre-eminent management researcher and author, responsible for classic airport-bookshop titles like "Good to Great". However he has never stepped away from climbing and often references the sport in his writing. He even has a significant cameo role in Tommy Caldwell's autobiography The Push.

Amongst climbers I actually know, Z comes closest to Jim Collins status. I probably don't have the facts absolutely correct, but I believe his story runs something like this: studied maths to doctorate level at Cambridge and Bristol universities; shared a rope with some of the best British climbers of the 1970s and even had a route in Llanberis Pass named after him;  briefly worked for BP where he spotted a niche opportunity in software for oil exploration; quit to found a start-up with one partner; twenty years later their firm's database product had become the global standard for well logging data (in other words, most of the oil industry depended on it); sold out to a much bigger firm in the late 1990s but remained engaged with his product rather than retiring. I am in awe of all of this. 

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

the nostalgia project: Kumo no Ito, Japan (1995)

The route

Kumo no Ito at Ogawayama © unknown

And the line from below
Kumo no Ito ("The Spider's Thread") is a classic 5.11b crack route on the Yane Nihou formation at Ogawayama. One of Japan's longest-established rock climbing areas, Ogawayama is a cluster of granite towers and domes deep in the mountainous interior of central Honshu. It has also become very popular for bouldering.

The context

Japan has played a large role in my adult life, from both career and personal perspectives. Initially my relationship with Japan was a straightforward infatuation.  After spending about two cumulative years in the country, spread over a quarter-century, I have a more nuanced opinion. Regardless, in my view, everyone should visit Japan at least once.

The origins of my interest in Japan probably date back to my brief hippie phase at university, when I read books like The Way of the Zen and imagined Japan as a land of ascetic minimalists alternating meditation on tatami mats with raking abstract shapes into gravel. Then there was the movie Tampopo in 1985, which made Japan look sexy and fun, and the massive Japan Festival in London in 1991, which made Japan look cool and technologically-advanced.

My first actual visit to Japan was in April 1992, for a week-long MBA elective in Tokyo, studying Japanese business culture. I extended my departure so I could explore the country for an additional two weeks. Before the trip I wrote to Hiro, who I had met in Australia in 1986, asking whether he could climb with me. He couldn't but instead put me in contact with a younger friend, Katsu, who had just quit his job to climb full-time. Katsu and I spent a fun week climbing in Shosenkyo (old-school granite) and Hourai (bolted pockety tuff). At Hourai, we got caught in a rainstorm and had to make a tenuous crossing of a swollen creek to regain the trail head, making ninja-leaps between wet boulders with appalling potential consequences from any slip. The diary notes the jumping as "Czech grade 4" and that we then recovered in a nearby onsen. Quite the bonding experience.

Coincidentally Katsu and his friend Yasu had a european trip booked the same year, so I had the chance to return the favour (with less drama), teaming up with Dan to take them on a one week tour of UK climbing spots.

Yasu and Katsu (climbing) watched by Dan's penguins at Malham Cove, UK
Three years later I was making regular business trips to Japan and spotted an opportunity to carve out some time to climb in August. Katsu and Yasu made themselves available. The diary is not specific on the number of climbing days but I believe it was three or four. I took a train out of Tokyo to Kofu city, Katsu's home. We climbed some sport routes at a minor volcanic cliff, Tachioka, for one day, then drove further into the mountains, tailed by Yasu on a motorbike, to set up camp at Ogawayama.

Ogawayama campground, 1995
Katsu and Yasu at Ogawayama
Katsu bouldering (pre-pads) at Ogawayama - possibly on Pocket Boss V8?
I forget what expectation of Ogawayama I had before our arrival. Probably something grander than the reality. Compared to other classic granite areas, it is certainly not a Yosemite or a Squamish. None of the routes are longer than three pitches and most are single-pitch. However it is quite extensive, with granite blobs poking out of the forest in all directions from the campground. And the rock quality is excellent.

Spider's Thread seemed to be the route they primarily wanted me to try but the warmups included a route on the Mara Iwa formation (translates as Penis Rock, I believe), which involved some chasm-crossing trickery to get started. Katsu demonstrated the craziest of these, a hanging arete called Blues Power.



Katsu contemplating then executing the start of Blues Power at Mara Iwa
The ascent

According to the online English language guidebook (an amazing resource), Spider's Thread has a 5.8 approach pitch, but I have no memory of it. I do remember the big pitch. A shallow groove in slick polished rock leads to an impasse where you must stem delicately past a bolt into a thin finger crack. I think I botched the move initially then lowered off and tried again. Above is a very long pure finger crack which eventually twins with a wider crack to the left. Not knowing the "rules", I used both cracks. Years later I would learn that the grade drops to 5.11a if you do that, but Katsu and Yasu were too polite to spell that out at the time. Anyway, a fabulous pitch.

Subsequent ascents

In 2006, my friend Andy Donson in Denver emailed me in Abu Dhabi noting that he would be attending an oncology conference in Tokyo in June. He asked whether I could contrive a business trip there at the same time, so that we could climb. I could. We planned on a three day visit to Ogawayama. Shoko helped me rent a car to get there - a small but funky Nissan Cube.

An obvious challenge was that the 4 hour drive to Ogawayama would have to be self-navigated. Anyone who has spent time in central Tokyo will know that the city is very easy to get around by train or foot, because most signage is bilingual Japanese-English. However, outside central Tokyo the situation is very different. Signs have Japanese kanji only, even on the thundering freeways that snake out of Tokyo toward the mountains. The only English language description of the route to Ogawayama mentioned numerous junctions on ever-smaller country roads, once the freeways were left. Stir in the fact that we would be trying to leave the world's largest conurbation during Friday rush-hour, from the very centre of the city, and some kind of adventure or even outright failure seemed very likely.

Remarkably, despite these concerns, we onsighted the drive. A fine piece of teamwork. Admittedly  the Cube came with satnav but all of its controls were in Japanese also. I recall that I just about figured out how to keep it in basic map mode and operate the zoom in/ zoom out. These days, an app like Google Maps on a smart phone would do the same job, but that was not an option in 2006. (In fact, few overseas phones could roam in Japan at all until quite recently because of their stubbornly-different network technology.)

Andy with the Cube
Back in Ogawayama, 2006
We spent the first night in a small tent of Andy's. June is early season for Ogawayama and it was very cold. After one day of climbing, Shoko's sister Tomoko and her husband Atsushi appeared from Yokohama. They had arranged a cabin for the four of us. We were plied with hot shochu, fed endless barbeque and challenged to jenga. Very kind of them.

Serious Jenga action
The next day we checked out the classic Imjin River 5.11d, whose direct finish Super Imjin 5.12c, was the sought-after testpiece in Japan in the early 1980s, much featured in magazines at the time. Andy flashed Imjin River and had a tentative look at the direct. I just managed the River with some rests. A beautiful route, which I would like to try again one day.

Andy on Imjun River
On day three Atsushi and Tomoko joined us at the Yane Nihou formation to watch us. We climbed a stunning 5.10 dike traverse,  Jetstream, that conveniently ends above Spider's Thread. This gave us a chance to rappel down and then run a roprope on the crack. This time I tried to climb the 11b version properly. The diary suggests that I succeeded but my memory is otherwise. Hmmm. Anyway it needs to be lead. More unfinished business.

Tomoko and Atsushi up at the Yane Nihou base
Andy on Jetstream
Me on Jetstream
Andy TR'ing Spider's Thread - just past the crux

Friday, October 26, 2018

the nostalgia project: Mean Mother, UK (1993) and England's Dreaming, UK (1994)

The routes

My redpoint of England's Dreaming at Blacknor North, 1994
Throughout the 1980s and the 1990s (and, for all I know, right up until yesterday) British climbers have been tearing each other apart over the right places to allow sport climbing. Once, trying to make a semi-serious point in a climbers' web forum, I tried to detail the "rules" as I understood them:

"Bolts are absolutely not allowed on mountain crags, except at Tunnel Wall, and in the slate quarries, because they are quarries ... bolts are absolutely not allowed on sea cliffs, unless they are limestone, though not at Pembroke or at the parts of Brean Down that can be seen from the car park, or at some parts of Swanage ... bolts are allowed in quarries but not gritstone or sandstone quarries, unless they have been there for a very long time ... bolts are allowed on inland limestone, except at parts of High Tor and parts of Cheedale and at Blue Scar and parts of Cheddar and a whole lot of other places which are differentiated from the cliffs, where bolts are allowed, by ... fuck knows ..."

Part of the problem is that Britain does not have that much rock. And British climbing has a long history. The first E1, Javelin Blade, (low 5.10?) was led in 1930. By the time the dastardly idea of establishing fully-bolted climbs migrated up from France in the early 1980s, almost every notable rock face climbable up to ~7b had already been climbed, or at least honourably attempted on natural gear (or in its absence). The first "sport" routes were typically free version of aided climbs on which the bolting could be blamed on someone else. When people dared to begin adding bolts to wholly new lines, there was all kinds of push back. In the worst cases, routes suffered a decade or more of bad-tempered bolt placement, removal, replacement, removal ... ad nauseum. Another legacy is a significant collection of terrible "mixed" routes protected by cruddy decaying aid-climbing remnants, suspicious threads or allegedly-natural-but-probably-drilled pitons.

Amidst this chaos, a couple of areas have managed to acquire a large stock of bolted climbs without much controversy: Portland in southern England and the Great Orme in North Wales. Though a long distance apart, they share a few similar characteristics. They are adjacent to grim Victorian seaside towns; they are limestone peninsulas with limited connection to mainland Britain; the rock rarely takes natural protection; very few routes had been established before the sport climbers arrived, so there was less reason for traditionalists to complain.



Development at Great Orme led Portland by about a decade. For a brief period in the early 1980s, many of the strongest climbers in the UK made the area their temporary dirtbag home. There are good accounts in all three of the major climbing autobiographies from that era: Jerry Moffat's Revelations, Ron Fawcett's Rock Athlete and Ben Moon's Statement. The signature event was Ben Moon's bolting of Statement of Youth in 1984. With seven bolts on previously virgin rock it was effectively Britain's first pure sport climb. (Below is a great ~10 minute video of Ben attempting to reclimb Statement thirty years later, while talking about its history.)


The crew who developed Portland were less well known and more local to the Dorset area, but arguably their development philosophy was more radical. Their greatest gift to British climbing may have been cheekily bolting routes right down to the lowest grades, creating a climbing venue with something for everyone. There is even a route at Portland provocatively named Trad Free World.

This blog post focuses on two routes, one each from the two areas.

Mean Mother is a 7b (5.12b) overhanging face route on the tidal cliff, Lower Pen Trwyn ("LPT"), on the Great Orme. In the 1980s and early 1990s it had a mandatory gear placement above the crux: a wired nut in a flake. It seems to be fully-bolted these days.

England's Dreaming 7a+ (5.12a) at Blacknor North is one of Portland's most classic routes, being longer and more sustained than is typical for the area, having interesting tufa features and being situated in the most dramatic location on the island, with a long view over Chesil Beach. It is close to the sea but non-tidal, raised above the shore line by a grass and scree slope.

The context

MBA graduation event, 1993
After completing my MBA in February 1993, doors started opening to me and I became a proper London yuppie, accessorised with the Modern Review, a job in the City and Timothy Everest suit. This phase of my life lasted almost ten years. Though I never took a break from climbing, it became harder to integrate with my life. Weekend trips away diminished in favour of single day-trips, as did trad climbing vs sport.

I had visited LPT for the first time in August 1992. I had found the cliff really inspiring and so took every opportunity I could to visit in 1993. However, from 1994 the five hour drive to North Wales began to feel daunting and I focused attention on the more accessible Portland, which could be reached in a couple of hours with an early start. My main partners during this period were Steve Moore, a long-haired Kiwi eco-warrior who was excellent company but never seemed to wholly approve of me, and the extraordinary John Zangwill, about whom I intend to write more in the 1996 installment.

Steve, party in Camberwell, ~2014

The ascents

According to the diary, I top roped Mean Mother in June 1993 and found it "OK". A month later I was back with Steve and managed the lead. It was my first 7b. From the diary: "Got very frightened on Mean Mother as critical Rock 4 placement seemed wobbly and I was very, very pumped." The next day I also redpointed the excellent Night Glue, 7a+, a crag classic and more conventional fully-bolted climb.

In August 1993 I redpointed my second 7b, War Games at Chapel Head Scar in the Lake District. Both 7b's went down on my first redpoint try, implying, I now realise, that I could have climbed much harder if I had focused on specific objectives and invested more time in them. Instead I remained plateau'd at that grade for about fifteen years.

At Portland, England's Dreaming succumbed in a similar style to the LPT routes in May 1994. A few tries one weekend then success the next. I did another 7a+, Wurlitzer Jukebox, on the same day, first redpoint try. More evidence that I really should have been trying harder stuff.

Another scan of an old photo - higher on my redpoint of England's Dreaming
Steve on Wurlitzer Jukebox, 1994
Subsequent ascents

I continued visiting Portland regularly for the next six years but never went back on England's Dreaming. I tried a few 7b's there but only sent one of them.

Dave Macleod's excellent book "Nine out of Ten Climbers Make the Same Mistakes" has a long section devoted to big picture "lifestyle" obstacles to climbing success. I tend to blame my lacklustre 1990s climbing trajectory on living in London, but in hindsight there were changes that I could have made. Buying a van would have been one, to make weekend trips less irksome. Or living close to one of London's better climbing gyms, so I could visit more often. It pains me in retrospect that I instead led such an indeterminate life.

Sunday, August 19, 2018

the nostalgia project: Black Magic, UK (1992)

The route

Climber about halfway up the big pitch of Black Magic, which ends below the obvious skyline corners
© Grant Farquhar

Few hikers on Cornwall's Pentire Point coast path, gazing out across the Atlantic, are aware of the Great Wall beneath their feet. The cliff's summit is an unexceptional grassy bump, a few metres below the path. You have to scramble steeply down to the shoreline to appreciate the cliff, which abruptly reveals itself as a huge sweep of near-vertical blank rock crowned by steep angular corners, about 100m high in total.

For me, the Great Wall, generally just referred to as "Pentire" by climbers, may be the best cliff in the UK, in the sense of distilling all the unique aspects of British climbing into a single compact package:

  • By the sea.
  • Melancholic celtic vibe. 
  • Lonely runout face climbing. 
  • Decent pubs and cream tea shops nearby. 

Some British climbers will scowl and mutter "Gogarth" in response to this, but when I was last there - admittedly a very long time ago - that sprawling Welsh seacliff was a clear fail on the fourth criteria.

Pentire's main limitation is that there are not many routes. When I first visited in the mid-1980s there were only two, both established in the 1970s by Pat Littlejohn, the great pioneer of South-West English climbing. Eroica follows the only continuous crack line on the cliff while the brilliant Darkinbad the Brightdayler wanders across the huge blank face to the right, finding subtle areas of weakness. In 1987, Bristol climber Steve Monks added Black Magic, taking a more direct up the tallest part of the blank face via a 50m long first pitch. Black Magic is rated E5, with consensus at the high end of the grade and some thinking it deserves E6. In YDS, maybe 5.11d X?

The context

In the spring of 1992 I resolved to give up computer programming work, focus on my (part-time) MBA course and not work again until I could score a finance job. The actual effect of this was unemployment for most of the year, as the banks and investment firms that I pestered with job applications universally spurned me. On the positive side, this meant great swathes of climbing time. Additionally I was single so not subject to many constraints at all. Except lack of money which became more of a concern as the rejection letters piled up.

My most frequent climbing partner at that time was Dan Donovan, also London-based and also under-employed. Dan would go on to greatly surpass me as a climber, notably in the boldness/ adventure dimension, but in 1992 we were still at a similar level and shared many climbing objectives. We were especially keen on climbing in the South West, possibly because of new guidebooks to the area but possibly also because it was the one place in the UK that London climbers weren't disadvantaged in reaching, relative to climbers from further north; in other words, it was a long drive for everyone.

Dan climbing Fay at Lower Sharpnose, North Cornwall in 1992
Dan on the Moon at Gogarth in 1992
Dan owned three puffin stuffies (intended for juggling?) that accompanied him everywhere. I had recently acquired a camera, after many years of mostly-undocumented climbing, but regrettably in 1992 took few pictures of people on rocks and rather too many of his puffins in staged poses - a sort of proto-meme that seemed funny at the time.

Dan's puffins at Pentire
The puffins enjoying a celebratory cream tea, probably on the weekend in question, very likely here
In May we spent a three day weekend in the South-West, moving between three different venues from the western tip of Cornwall to the North Devon coast. The diary records proudly that the trip was "Totally awesome" and that we accumulated "36 E points !!!". E points being a bragging system based on notional points awarded for the grade of the routes climbed, one for E1, two for E2, etc.

On the Saturday we had climbed the West Face, Dream/ Liberator and Desolation Row in Bosigran's atmospheric Great Zawn, then the more obscure Burning Gold at Carn Les Boel. I had never done so many "hard" pitches in a day. Confidence levels were high.

On Sunday we were at Pentire. There were no other climbers. I had led Darkinbad before, with Noel the previous year, so it was Dan's turn to try it. To my quiet satisfaction he fell once - from the only safe part of the route, a short finger-crack. This raised the question of what to do next. We had a new guidebook that listed Black Magic, but had little information except that many "RP"s (small wired brass nuts) were needed. Moreover we had not heard of an ascent by anyone we knew. On the blunt end of the rope my second time up Darkinbad had felt easy and the little crimp edges that littered the face welcoming. Black Magic crossed the same kind of terrain. It seemed reasonable to have a go.

The ascent

I don't remember much about climbing Black Magic. The diary states "a real E5 ... lots harder than Darkinbad" and "ultra-scary" but I don't recall overwhelming fear at the time, more a constant unease. I do remember that the pitch felt very long and that I placed many RP's, but that most of them seemed cosmetic. I also remember pausing at a tenuous rock-up on a small lichenous edge near the end of the pitch and thinking "must absolutely not fall here".

The significance of leading Black Magic became more apparent a few years later. Some time in the mid-1990s my friend Duncan Critchley belayed a rising star amongst London climbers, Alison (by coincidence, the only person I know to have been born on the same day as me) on the first pitch of Black Magic. She slipped near the top, ripping out most of her gear in the fall and ending up close to the giant boulders at the base of the wall. Impacts during her fall badly damaged her ankle, which eventually had to be fused. There is no doubt that I would not have gone near the route had this happened before my ascent.

Even without that future insight, 1992 marked the peak of my not-very-ambitious onsight trad career and I have never again (intentionally) climbed anything as serious as Black Magic. I don't think that was an especially conscious decision, more that my interest in sport climbing began to crowd out everything else and I got out of the habit of bold climbing, which - like most things - benefits from practise.

Subsequent ascents

I have not been back to Pentire but I have spent significantly more time on the Atlantic coast of Devon and Cornwall, sometimes just in tourist mode. I took Shoko to Bosigran, St Ives and Tintagel, a few km north-east of Pentire, on her first visit to the UK in September 1992, and we got married in Crackington Haven, a little further up the coast in 1998.

Shoko at Bosigran, Cornwall, 1992