Sunday, May 6, 2018

the nostalgia project - Starosta, Czech Republic (1987)

The route

The Mayor and Mayoress, Adrspach © unknown
Starosta and Starastova are a pair of prominent sandstone rock towers in the extraordinary Adršpach-Teplice region of the Czech Republic, about 150km north-east of Prague. In English, the names are "The Mayor" and "The Mayoress". The classic route up Starosta is the four pitch Stará Cesta, graded Czech VII (perhaps YDS 5.10a) and first climbed in 1928.

The sandstone of Czech and eastern Germany has a strong claim to be the birthplace of modern rock climbing. Free climbing up to 5.10 was accomplished as early as 1906. The area is notorious for a very strict climbing ethic: no chalk, no camming devices, protection only from from rope knots placed in cracks or very spaced bolts.

The context

Some time in mid-1987 I stumbled over a small item in a climbing magazine mentioning that the BMC were looking for people to join a British delegation to Czechoslovakia (as it was then). Specifically the focal point was a climbing film festival taking place in Adrspach in September. I had seen images of the sandstone climbing in eastern Europe a few years before and had already logged it mentally as somewhere I would like to visit one day. The climbing style and rock architecture seemed unique.

I was also interested in seeing life on the other side of the 'Iron Curtain". The Cold War had been a major backdrop to my childhood. For my parents, who had both served during World War II and kept Winston Churchill's speeches in prized place in their record collection, the Soviet Union was unambiguously the enemy and an existential threat to liberty. I was raised to think the same. The unexpected rise of the Solidarity movement in Poland in the early 1980s had caused great excitement in our household. Somewhat for the same reasons I was a fan of the émigré Czech author Milan Kundera's books, all of which I had read at university. Ditto Kafka.

I sent a short letter to the BMC applying to join the one week trip, then thought little more about it. Invitations would only be extended to "known" climbers, I reasoned. Wrong. Or, more accurately: wrong in my case. There would be four of us, the others being Dennis Gray, the middle-aged boss of the BMC, and two guys whose names I knew from magazines, Craig Smith and Tony Ryan.

The flight to Prague from London was short, which makes sense if you look at a map, but somehow seemed disrespectful of the great fault-line of late 20th century geopolitics that we were crossing. At our destination my luggage was missing, including all my climbing gear. Not a great start but our minders from the Czech national climbing association assured me they would find it. As far as I remember, we spent a night in Prague then were driven to Adrspach. We spent most of the rest of the week based there aside from one short road trip to the Elbe region. In Adrspach we mostly drunk excellent Czech beer in bucolic country pubs and climbed, often in that order. I don't recall that we actually spent much time at the film festival itself, though I think I sat through one animation in which not much happened, then a character died violently and the audience laughed; Czech humour is notoriously dark.

Craig and Tony were really friendly, which was a relief, as I didn't feel remotely worthy to be travelling with them. Both of them were amongst the strongest climbers in the UK at the time. It was especially interesting to meet Craig as he was also a genuine climbing celebrity, in a period when that was still a rare phenomenon. Craig (and his lycra tights) had been on the cover of all the climbing magazines over the previous couple of years, notably in photos taken by the US photographer Beth Wald at Smith Rock, itself probably the most fashionable cliff in the world in the mid-80s. It would be too generous to say that he wasn't aware of his status but he was constantly entertaining and never arrogant. There was only one moment during the trip when he crossed the line into rockstar petulance: our hosts had taken us to a cliff quite early in the morning, where Craig insisted that he was insufficiently caffeinated to climb so we all got back in the cars and drove for about twenty minutes back to the nearest town so he could have more coffee.

Craig posing for Beth Wald's camera on Darkness at Noon, Smith Rock, mid-1980s
© Climbing magazine (from this article)
I wanted to like Dennis, as I respected his work with the BMC, but he was not the greatest company, prone to long monologues about his glory days in the 1950's Brown-and-Whillans era of British climbing or any other story in which he could name-drop famous climbers. Over time, we became curious about his frequent absences in the late evenings. Years later Dennis came out, authoring a book "Todhra", billed as the "first gay climbing novel" and apparently densely populated with casual homosexual encounters. It is a reasonable inference that the book is based on personal experience. Reflecting on that, it is quite impressive that Dennis had the balls (so to speak) to set out on cottaging missions on "enemy" turf.

The ascent

Dennis and I climbed The Mayor with several Czech guys sometime in the middle of the week. The diary records that I led most of it. In practise this meant soloing short cracks between large ledges with giant ring bolts to belay from. My luggage still hadn't arrived and I was climbing in carpet slippers (an actual substitute for climbing shoes in eastern Europe at that time). They were less useless than I expected. Perhaps someone in the slipper factory was a climber and was secretly optimising the fit and sole rubber?

It being festival week, a tyrolean had been rigged from the Mayor summit to the Mayoress, so we crossed that too, swinging around about a hundred meters above the trees. Then we rappelled the Mayoress. A nice feature of the Adrspach towers is that all of them have summit logbooks; we duly wrote in our names. I suppose it is very slightly possible that we were the first Brits on the summits of these two towers, but I doubt it.

Subsequent ascents

I made a second visit to Czechoslovakia in the summer of 1989. The only real link with the 1987 trip was that Craig had kept in touch with a young'ish Czech climber, Jiri, who was offering us accommodation back in Adrspach. After meeting briefly in London, we set off in two cars, Craig with Al Manson, and I with Dan Donson. As far as I recall, we didn't re-unite until Adrspach. Crossing the border into Czechoslovakia from Germany was quite daunting. I remember an interminable wait and long queues of stationary trucks. Unlike our flight two years before, the transition from capitalist west to communist east felt much more tangible.

In Adrspach, Jiri was amazingly welcoming and kept us fed and out of trouble for a couple of weeks. I was climbing much more confidently than in 1987. I even took a fall on a knot. According to the diary, Dan and I repeated The Mayor, but I have no memory at all of it. No tyrolean, for sure. The best thing we did during our stay was the Letecka Cesta route on the Milenci (the 'lovers') towers at about E3 (5.10+ R). Several high quality chimney and crack pitches lead to a final crux face up to the extraordinary twin summits. We also jumped the gap between the summits. Czech tower jumping is a sub-genre of the sport with its own grading system. We were told the Milenci jump was a grade three, which seemed a solid achievement given that the top grade is five. I wondered then (and now) whether we had subtly done it wrong - perhaps jumping in the wrong direction?

Milenci towers, Adrspach © unknown
(We jumped from left to righthand summits)
On the way home, Dan and I stayed in Prague for a few days with Matej Holub, a young Czech student who we had recently befriended when he was on some kind of exchange study program in London. We had a couple of memorable evenings exploring the city's nightlife; knocking on giant medieval doors in dark corners of the city in order to be admitted to secret beer halls. There seemed to be no other tourists. I remember crossing Prague's famous Charles Bridge while drunk one night, noting our absolute solitude and being shocked that we could be experiencing so much extraordinary historical architecture in such a private and exclusive way.

Charles Bridge, Prague © unknown
One day we also drove out to a limestone area south of Prague with Matej (possibly Srbsko). On the way back it was raining hard. The winding road had several corners with negative camber and on one of them I briefly lost control and slid across the centre marking, clipping the side of an oncoming vehicle. Remarkably no-one was hurt and both cars still driveable but Matej warned us that the bureaucratic consequences could be significant.

Back in Prague and after several phone calls to my insurers, I learned that I would not be able to "re-export" my damaged vehicle from Czechoslovakia without police sign-off, which could only be obtained from one senior officer somewhere in Prague's central police station. Matej offered to take me, but was clearly terrified by the prospect. It seemed our destination was very much the epicentre of the country's dictatorship and not somewhere Czechs visited lightly - the kind of place you might enter but never leave. Inside it did indeed fit the stereotype: many floors, harsh lighting and long echoing corridors with numbered doors. The office of the man controlling the destiny of my vehicle was distinctive. His large desk was entirely covered in explicit pornography, apparently glued to the surface and protected by a glass sheet. The message seemed to be "in this office I can do whatever I want." I awkwardly passed over various documents, evidence of the accident and some cash, Matej and the man spoke at length in Czech, a piece of paper was stamped and out we went. No big deal really, but disconcerting.

And another thing ...

Just after Dan and I left Prague, reforms set in motion by the last Soviet president, Gorbachev, led to eastern Europe countries like Hungary begin to open their borders with the west. Czechoslovakia had its own Velvet Revolution, and, by the end of 1989, a new government was in place, headed by the much-imprisoned dissident, Vaclav Havel. The Soviet Union imploded a couple of years later. Czechoslovakia fragmented peacefully into two countries in 1993.

The end of the Cold War, and Deng Xiaoping's de-Mao-ification of China around the same time, made the 1990s an optimistic time, at least as I remember it. American academic Francis Fukuyama rashly declared "the end of history", believing that western ideals of economic and social freedom were permanently entrenched. Seems quaint now. It is easy to make a case that freedom is in retreat globally. Xi Jinping abolished term limits for the Chinese presidency earlier this year, Putin long since corrupted Russian democracy and there's an authoritarian idiot in the White House.

A few months ago I had a fascinating conversation with a guy, now in his sixties, who grew up in Prague. He described his childhood experience of watching Russian tanks enter the city in 1968, crushing demonstrators who blocked their path. His father had been associated with the pro-democracy movement that preceded that event. By association, that led to him being denied university admission and other basic opportunities under state control. For a while he worked in the paper sector, trying to make sense of the constant shortages and surpluses in supply that were an inevitable consequence of the Soviet's inefficient planned economy. He described how he and his colleagues would buy time when surplus shipments threatened to overwhelm their warehouses by re-routing trainloads of paper bound for Prague back east to Siberia. He eventually concluded that he had to leave the country; an exercise that required he and his friends to roam unauthorised through several eastern bloc countries, be frequently thwarted by armed border guards and eventually succeed through an asylum application to Canada. It is shame oral records like this are not more frequently shared, especially as ever-fewer people remain alive with first-hand experience of communist dictatorships, and there are worrying signs that the ideology is becoming fashionable again.

Sunday, March 18, 2018

the nostalgia project - Milk Blood, Australia (1986)

The route

Milk Blood is a grade 23 (YDS mid-5.11, Brit E4) route in the Yesterday gully at Mount Arapiles, in Victoria, Australia. The line is a curving thin crack, but the crack is only used for protection; the route's style is sustained face climbing. Arapiles is a four kilometre wide quartzite lump rising incongruously out of the absolutely-flat farmland of the Wimmera plain. The Pines campground below the cliffs has been a fixture of Australian climbing for many decades. In the 1980s it was free; these days it costs AU$5 per night.

Arapiles from the wheat fields
The context

From November 1985 to March 1986 I was almost constantly on the move. I took a bus from Kathmandu to Delhi. Visited Rajasthan by bus. Left Delhi for Mumbai by train. Toured south India by bus, train and backwater ferry. Flew from Mumbai to Jakarta. Visited obscure cliffs in central Java by bus and motorbike. Flew from Jakarta to Sydney. Took a bus from Sydney to Canberra. Finally: hitchhiked 1000km from Canberra to Melbourne to Arapiles. On arrival there I pitched my tent and barely moved for three months.

It seems strange now but, at that time, there were only a handful of places around the world where an itinerant rock climber could live in the dirt and be guaranteed to find climbing partners. Camp 4 in Yosemite had held that status for a while, along with a few other areas in North America (possibly including the base of the Chief in Squamish). In Europe, away from the classic alpine towns like Chamonix, rock climbing was still a very “local” sport. In Britain the climbing scene was essentially urban, revolving around a few distinct climbing towns; arguably it still is.

In the early 1980s, this mysterious Australian place, Arapiles, had appeared out of nowhere and seemingly overnight became an international destination. Mountain magazine anointed it “the best cliff in the world”. A big part of the Arapiles story was Kim Carrigan, who had pushed standards there several grades, then set off on a global tour, demonstrating that he was one of the best climbers around. In turn, big name European climbers came to Arapiles, especially Wolfgang Gullich, who established Punks in the Gym, one of the world’s first 8b+/ 5.14’s. Another attribute of Arapiles, that made it perfect for that period, when sport climbing had just emerged but was controversial and ill-defined, was that the cliff neatly straddled both worlds. Most of the routes are naturally-protected but the quartzite takes nuts so well that almost everything is really safe.

Inevitably, by the time people like me started showing up there, Arapiles’ moment at the cutting edge of climbing had already begin to pass. During my stay, the glamorous German climber, Stefan Glowacz, the Chris Sharma of the time, was there for a few weeks to repeat Punks in the Gym, but otherwise the campground was occupied by nobodies. I fitted right in.

The only surviving photo from my first Australia trip
At Frog Buttress campground, June 1986. Hiro, Pete and I.
When I arrived, the Australian summer was still in full operation. The ground was hard, barren and dusty. A hot wind blew through the campground as if from a giant hair dryer. By the time I left, rains were frequent, and the land greened over. Looking back, I can rationalise my period there as “just the autumn season ” but at the time it felt much longer. Long enough that I started to feel ownership.

The permanent campground population, perhaps thirty climbers in total, almost all male, self-organised around a number of groups that each shared a campfire. Very few of us had a car. About once a week, we would somehow find a ride to Horsham, 30km away, where we would do some laundry, take showers and buy our groceries. The rest of the time we would sit around the campground, stare into the fire, and talk climbing or big ideas about “life”, rarely based on any useful experience. We were detached from reality to an extent that is impossible in the internet+cellphone age. For a time, we all wore bathrobes, bought from a Horsham thrift store, which perfectly suited our leisured limbo state. The drug of choice was alcohol. For some, this had long since eclipsed climbing as their primary interest.

Every Friday evening, to our great resentment, convoys of weekend warriors would drive in from Melbourne. Once, memorably, a Kiwi climber, Mike, a man whose drink problem had become chronic, rose up half-naked to confront them, blocked their path magnificently silhouetted in headlights and issued this incoherent but unforgettable command: “Fuck off you bumbly bastards. You come here to masturbate in front of your Subaru's ....”. Unfortunately, he had nothing to add to this, so sat down; protest made but ineffective.

The only facilities in the campground were a payphone and a concrete toilet block, some distance from the tent sites, whose lights were always switched on. In the middle of one dark night, I ventured down there sleepily and inattentively, passed the outer doors and into a cubicle. Then I looked up and saw a moth perched on the cubicle wall near to me. Not a normal moth, but a monster at least the size of my hand, even with its wings furled. Then I saw another. And another. And realised the ceiling was covered in the things. I have a phobia of normal-sized moths, especially in flight, so this was a cue to end my business abruptly and leave.

I exited the cubicle as quietly as I could, only to discover that the entire toilet block was full of the things, covering almost every surface. It had the feel of the final scene of Hitchcock's "The Birds". Thankfully I managed to get back outside without disturbing them. No-one else in the campground had seen the moths at all. It seemed they had been attracted to the toilet block - the only bright light for many kilometers - during the night and had descended en masse. They were gone in the morning. Thanks to Google I now know they were "rain moths", a weird phenomenon specific to south Australia. Apparently they only live for 24 hours.

Another local animal was a regular fixture of campground life: the "stumpie" lizard. Cursed to be both entertainingly-shaped and slow-moving, stumpies were often abducted from sunny ledges under the cliff and brought back to camp to be subjected to various indignities. The stumpie-poking-out-from-trouser-fly was one classic, the stumpie-sandwich another.

Stumpie abuse © Glenn Tempest/ Alpinist
One evening, someone spotted that there was a full moon coinciding with a clear sky. Apparently Pines' tradition required that a classic route, D Minor, on a detached tower, should be "convoy soloed" whenever these conditions occurred. About half the campground set off on this mission. Head torches were forbidden. The route is not very hard (Aus grade 13 - equivalent to 5.7 or Brit VS) but the crux is at a committing overhang 30 metres off the ground. Group banter kept the mood light for most of the way, but when I reached the steep section, the bubble burst temporarily and I had time to consider what a stupid way it would be to die.  Over-gripping and adrenaline saw me through.

Of course, there was also plenty of opportunity for conventional daylight-hours climbing. Oddly we tended to squander that. Looking at the diary I averaged one route per day during my stay. This seems remarkably lazy now. I recall that there were a few complicating issues. One being a tradition of discussing options for the day for an extended period over breakfast, often including a renouncement of booze-fuelled ambitions stated the previous evening. Another was that we often headed out in a big group to a single objective, so there needed to be consensus. Also, as far as I recall, the concept of warming-up, whether on one route or several, had not yet evolved. Or if it had, no-one had told us.

Very gradually, once I had ticked a number of the easier Arapiles classics, I drifted into a mode of behaviour somewhat similar to modern "projecting". This was a new and very helpful experience for me. Back in Britain, it had been generally required that routes were attempted onsight and ground-up, unless on a new route, but here on the other side of the world, it seemed "working routes" was fine. Even more helpfully, the prevailing style was the now long-forgotten "yoyo" in which you are allowed to leave your rope clipped through the highest protection piece that you (our your partner) had placed, if necessary overnight.

The ascent

Milk Blood was my first grade 23 route but is also significant to me because it was my first real experience of a hard "project", learning moves and managing the pump. Success was satisfying but I was also surprised how engaging the process had been and how much I liked clinically-executed, rehearsed climbing compared to the spontaneous sketching-about which I was used to. Arguably it was the biggest inflection point in my climbing.

Unfortunately I remember very little about the actual ascent. I believe that I spent three days trying the route. Progress was steady but slow. I recall that an american girl, Karen, was my belayer and that some other friends were nearby, as two of them were attempting the harder Arapiles classic, Yesterday, so we would alternate climbing on Milk Blood and watching them. Not much else.

I had planned to fly onwards to the US after my Australia visa expired. I sometimes ponder a  counter-factual version of my life, in which that happened, then I somehow stumbled over the beginnings of sport climbing at Smith Rock or American Fork, and my climbing continued to improve on the same trajectory. Instead I learned that my father was ill and flew back to Britain in July to be with him. I didn't climb anything substantially harder than Milk Blood for several years.

Subsequent ascents

I have returned to Arapiles once. In 2002 I was jobless but reasonably solvent. Leo was two years old. It seemed a good opportunity to travel. Shoko, Leo and I spent several months in Australia then Japan. We toured in a campervan from Sydney to Alice Springs via Melbourne and Adelaide, then flew to Queensland. A fantastic holiday. Along the way I negotiated two weeks at Arapiles.

Returning to the Pines after sixteen years was an odd experience. The passage of time had turned it into a mythic place in my mind. Unsurprisingly, it had changed. The campground had better facilities and seemed a lot cleaner. More people than in the 1980s but they looked wholesome and less neurotic. The gender ratio was much closer to parity.  After a few days climbing with random partners picked up in the campground, I discovered another interesting detail: average climbing standards were lower! It was my first experience of a phenomenon now often talked about: that climbing gyms have created climbers who are stronger and more technically-proficient, but less comfortable when leading, and especially when leading trad routes, than the pre-gym generation. Bizarrely I found myself in demand as a rope-gun. Indirectly this led to me re-climbing Milk Blood. I was pleased to manage a "retro-onsight": couldn't remember the beta, didn't fall off.

#vanlife #marsupial

Leo at the wheel
Leo exploring the Pines on foot
No photos exist of either of my Milk Blood ascents. Instead, this is me on the uber-classic Kachoong in 2002 
During our 2002 visit, I was also delighted to find a stumpie. Naturally I brought it back to camp. There I learned another lesson in changed attitudes. In the new millenium, Pines campers didn't find it funny; in fact, it was suggested strongly that I return the lizard to where I had found it. Before doing that I thought that I should at least pose Leo with the stumpie for a photo. Unfortunately this act just cemented everyone's opinion of my idiocy as the stumpie proceeded to bite one of Leo's fingers and not let go. A true Jurassic Park moment, only resolved by pulling hard on the lizard. Considering the obvious comic-book precedents (Spiderman, etc), I assumed Leo would eventually acquire super-hero lizard powers because of this incident. So far the evidence is slight: in his mid-teens he was quite lethargic; he often has an extra heater switched on in his bedroom. Perhaps when he is older ...

The stumpie that bit Leo

Monday, February 12, 2018

the nostalgia project - Ganesh VI, Nepal (1985)

The mountain

Ganesh VI (6480m) is one of the seven peaks of the Ganesh Himal, a mountain range in Nepal between Manaslu and the Langtang. The peak may also be known as Lampu. The summit lies on the Nepal - Tibet border. Climbing is not allowed and the peak may still await an ascent. The Nupri region surrounding the approaches to Ganesh VI (and several other peaks in the range) was closed to most foreigners until 1991, unless on an expedition with Nepalese climbers.

Ganesh VI from the west © "John"
The context

During my last year at university, a friend and I decided that we would go mountaineering in the Himalayas after we had graduated. "John" - not necessarily his real name - had some free time in the autumn before starting officer training at Sandhurst in January 1986, while I had inherited a few thousand pounds from my grandmother, which I planned to spend traveling overseas until it ran out.

John and I had somewhat similar backgrounds: unusually-old parents, much older siblings and had been pushed too young through dysfunctional boarding schools. We had bonded over the previous two years through rock climbing and that clichéed affectation of pretentious students: psychedelic drugs. Memorably we had bought and taken LSD at the last ever Stonehenge Free Festival, then a year later involuntarily participated in the Battle of the Beanfield when the police closed that event down. Though I had made my trips to the Swiss Alps, and John had climbed in Peru,  the only mountaineering we had done together was a slushy "winter" ascent of Tower Ridge on Ben Nevis in December 1984. Very optimistically, we considered this adequate preparation for the world's highest mountains.

At the time, it had started to become fashionable to climb "alpine style" in the Himalayas, rejecting the fixed ropes and multiple fixed camps used by big expeditions. Peter Boardman's book "The Shining Mountain", about climbing (sort of) in that style on Changabang in India in 1976, was very influential. By default, this would be our style, as no-one was likely to invite us on a proper expedition. It also meant that we didn't need much extra equipment. A cousin's husband, Rob, lent me an elderly but very functional down jacket. I guessed that adding a fleece inner to my existing sleeping bag would suffice for bivouacs. We both owned gore-tex bivy bags. I recall that the only major purchases were plastic mountaineering boots (a new concept, much lighter than leather double boots), a massive new backpack and quite professional-looking matching goretex jacket and gaiters.

New goretex plus Rob's venerable puffy. Packed for Nepal, September 1985
We also wanted to go somewhere unusual. John’s first suggestion was that we should try to enter Afghanistan - at that time occupied by the Soviet Union - and attempt a mountain somewhere in the Hindu Kush. He also mentioned, in passing, that it would be great to arrive at Sandhurst having already “killed a Russian”. I want to believe that he meant this metaphorically rather than literally; anyway, I thought it more likely that we would be killed. My counter-proposal, that we should “just” visit Nepal and climb in a restricted zone, was adopted instead. This idea was eventually refined further to visiting the Ganesh Himal. The key input was a two-minute conversation with the legendary Doug Scott after a mountaineering lecture. He had mumbled something gruffly about the Ganesh then added: "take care, youth!"

A few months later we were in Kathmandu. Our budget hadn’t extended to shipping any gear, so we just took all we could with us on normal scheduled flights. Mountaineering boots, gaiters and down jackets wore worn onto the plane. We spent a week or so in the city looking for a trekking firm that had the resources to take us to the Ganesh yet was dodgy enough to somehow obtain a permit for our objective. Their method was simply to obtain a legal permit that would allow us to the edge of the restricted zone, then casually hand-write "Ganesh Himal". It seemed unlikely to work.

The twelve day approach trek up the Buri Gandaki valley
This photo and all below © "John" 
Night at a guest house early in the trek
Terraced fields 
Drinking rakshi
The porters stopping for yet another meal 
The approach hike took twelve days. There were leeches and rain. On the positive side, we saw no other westerners. Our porters stopped often, for long periods, to cook dhal bhat (rice and red lentil gruel), occasionally augmented by potatoes or a scrawny chicken. Around day eight, the topography changed from wet green river valleys to drier steeper and more recognisably sub-alpine terrain. There was a checkpoint. Astonishingly our permits got us through. Beyond that point the people looked conspicuously different: harder, more angular faces. Hindu imagery was replaced by Tibetan prayer flags.

Entering ethnically Tibetan territory
First sight of the Ganesh Himal 
One evening our guide announced, apparently in all seriousness, that we should not sleep that night, as there was a guerrilla group in the area who would kill us. John was tremendously excited by this and assumed watch, sharpened ice axe to hand. I did my best to take this seriously but eventually fell asleep; human threat was hard to conceptualise in such an underpopulated place. (In the 1990s the western news began reporting on Nepal’s Maoist insurgency and I found myself re-thinking this episode.) In the morning, most of our lowland porters announced that they were abandoning us and heading home. Our guide managed to recruit some locals to replace them. 

Two or three days later, via a brief but mesmerising visit to an ancient near-abandoned buddhist monastery, our crew dropped us in meadows by the toe of the glacier that entered the Ganesh from the west. We had not  budgeted on retaining a cook, or other basecamp support, so they all left. We asked our guide to return in a month. We had no means of communication nor any kind of backup plan, but as far as I recall, never worried about it.

Once alone, an obvious and urgent task was to check our food supplies. “Low” turned out to be the answer. Unknown to us, the porters had eaten most of the rice and lentils on the way up. Once again John’s military instincts surfaced and he eagerly instituted a rationing plan. From then on, hunger would be a constant background issue, at least for me, and would influence some key decisions for the worse.

It snowed heavily for the next couple of days, which didn't matter much as we both felt headachey and nauseous from the altitude - Google Earth suggests about 3800m, but we had no idea at the time - and couldn't summon energy for anything. My tent poles collapsed under weight of snow. Fortunately there was an abandoned goat-herder hut nearby with stone walls and rudimentary roof. I blocked the open doorway with a stick to keep out yetis. 

Showing off my broken tent poles outside "my" hut 
Our "base camp" with Ganesh 1 behind 
On day three or four we felt well enough to stagger up the glacial moraines for a few hours to inspect the mountains. Several 7000m peaks surrounded us. At some point during the day, the entire west face of Ganesh 1, on the opposite side of the glacier, slid. Years later, during an AST course, I studied photos of avalanches of varying intensity in the course book. Anything above a two is rare; I am fairly sure John and I witnessed a four. Oddly, knowing nothing about snow stability or avalanches, we observed with interest but didn't make the association that we ourselves were in a risk zone.

Around this time was my 21st birthday. I recall this earned me an extra plate of dal bhat and some slugs of rakshi. We also made a brief overnight recce toward Ganesh III, the closest 7000m peak on our side of the glacier. Snow was deep and we found ourselves wading at an early stage. At our highpoint we had made negligible progress so struck that peak off our list. More successfully, we spend two nights out climbing a small pimple, perhaps 5500m high, on the ridgeline between Ganesh VI and Ganesh I. From the summit we could look into Tibet.

Ganesh III
5500m pimple on ridgeline
Me snowplodding up the pimple
Me on the pimple summit, Ganesh I to right
Emboldened by summiting something, we set our sights on Ganesh VI, which we had been able to examine from new angles from the "pimple". But before we could set off to try it, we found we had company. An apparently-endless procession of porters, sherpas and mysterious other asians (Koreans, we eventually discovered, almost certainly this expedition) passed our little base camp, en route to somewhere further up the glacier. Their liaison officer, a Nepalese army chap with an officious moustache, correctly guessed that we should not be there, but to his great irritation could not evidence that from our permit. Thankfully satellite phones had not yet been invented, so there was no way for him to contact Kathmandu to check. We probably upset him further by cross-referencing his map with ours, and pointing that his expedition were intent on climbing the wrong mountain (they had Ganesh I and II confused). He left us with a stern warning not to leave camp and certainly not to climb anything. Naturally, we chose to ignore him.

The actual Ganesh map we brought. Our only information about the area.
The attempt

Ganesh VI with our route
A day or two later we crossed the glacier toward Ganesh VI, which helpfully, was out of sight of our new neighbours' basecamp. We had picked out a meandering route avoiding overhead hazard from some large seracs (that seracs and cornices were dangerous was more or less the only useful thing we knew about snow and ice). We bivouacked twice, once in an uncomfortable but sheltered rock cave and again on a much more exposed snow shelf. On the third day, it looked possible that we could reach the top. We climbed a steep snow-filled gully up on to an easier angled spur that looked quite close to the summit ridge.

Bivy sac "campsite" on the shelf
At this point, we made a decision which seems crazy in retrospect. John had started to feel a little unwell, had diagnosed altitude issues and decided he should descend. But he felt strongly that I should continue, so at least one of us could bag the summit. To which I agreed! Shamefully all I can remember of the decision is that I knew this would entitle me to the lion's share of our "hill food" - dehydrated meals, powdered eggnog and other treats - which was by far the best stuff not eaten by our porters on the approach trek. So we parted company.

Me at John's high point
A few minutes later the enormity of my situation suddenly hit me; that I was alone in the Himalayas venturing into the unknown. A couple of hours later I topped out the spur on to the ridge. Oddly I have no memory of the topography there, even though visibility was good. Google Earth shows very gently-angled glaciated slopes on the Tibet side of the ridge. I could see an uncomplicated line up the ridge to the summit, perhaps another 200-300m higher to the south. I set off in that direction - then almost immediately fell in a crevasse!

More accurately, my legs and torso had vanished into a narrow slot but my shoulders and backpack had saved me. It wasn't too hard to extricate myself. It seemed odd that a ridge could be crevassed, and I think this realisation - that I did not understand these mountains much at all - made it very clear that my summit bid was over. It was still quite early in the day, perhaps 3pm, but I decided to bivy there and review in the morning. Anyway, I had a lot of food to eat. There were no clouds and the view sensational. I could see hundreds of Himalayan peaks in all directions. Certainly Manaslu quite close by to the west, and I imagined perhaps Everest a long way to the east. I stayed awake studying my world in wonder (and, strangely, in no real fear) until long after sunset.

In the night the wind picked up. I surfaced at sunrise to find myself in the clouds. Somehow (I don't recommend this) I managed to light my stove and brew up inside my bivy sac. Then I set off down. I was able to follow the previous day's footprints quite easily at first but lower on the mountain, near John and I's last camp, winds had redistributed the snow and I was reduced to following tenuous scratch marks that I believed to be from John's crampons during his descent. At some point, I tripped and fell on an icy slope that I was traversing. It took several attempts to manage a successful ice axe arrest. Had I failed I would have slid several hundred meters to cliffs. I don't remember much of the day after that, except that it was stressful and tiring. I had to bivy again, at the cave that we had used three nights before. In the morning I stumbled down to the glacier - and was greeted by John. He had been watching out for me from moraine ridges above the glacier and had set out to meet me when I came into sight.

The sun came back out the next day. I wandered aimlessly around our base camp suffused with bliss at being alive. John, on the other hand, had recovered fully from his alleged altitude problems, was itching to get back on a mountain and had a plan. So began the final and most surreal episode of our Nepal adventure ...

John had taken a walk on the glacier beyond the Korean's basecamp and had stumbled over an unattended "advance base" tent packed with edibles. He had returned with a few "borrowed" samples; spicey instant noodles and glorious sugary biscuits are what I mainly remember. His plan was complex and wholly insane. We would get up early the next day, take climbing packs and all our emergency supply of US dollars, sneak past their basecamp again, help ourselves to more of their presumed-inexhaustible food supplies, attach ascenders to their fixed ropes rising above the glacier, climb to their high point, then offer them our dollars to join their team and attempt their (incorrect) mountain with them. Really! However, all I registered was the part about scoring more food.

Remarkably we executed all of the plan as far as "attach ascenders to fixed rope", and then climbed up a hundred meters or so. At this point, a very irate sherpa, who I guess had been watching us from somewhere above, descended the fixed ropes, obstructed our path and escorted us back to their base camp. Along the way, inexcusably, one of us (possibly me) scrawled "anarcho-alpinists rule OK" with a trekking pole in the snow beside the glacier trail. We met the liaison officer again. He was apoplectic. We would be arrested and charged, he assured us, though it was unclear how, and he indicated that we should return to our camp. He added a short speech on the theme of anarchy being no joke in his country (obviously someone had found our snow-graffiti). Somewhere in my brain, the much-suppressed and malformed neurons that handled guilt and respect for others flickered; it was possible, I realised, that we were annoying immature jerks.

The next day was spent intermittently worrying that we might actually be in trouble while feasting on Korean ramen (no-one had thought to check our packs). Then our guide and porters reappeared. Our month was up and it was time for our return trek. We were saved!

Me during the return trek - I had not washed or looked in a mirror for a month
Subsequent non-attempts

John and I talked a few times over the next few years about going back to the Ganesh Himal, though never seriously. Thanks to the anarcho-alpinism in his resume (or perhaps not?), John spent almost all his time in the army packing boxes for well-funded expeditions to big peaks like Shishapangma and Everest then not quite summiting them. A few years later, in the early 1990s, he would find his true calling in sport climbing and become one of the first Brits to climb 8b+/ 5.14 (though receive no attention in the UK climbing media for it).

Meanwhile, for various reasons, I had soured on mountains and in fact wouldn't do anything resembling alpinism for almost thirty years. In late 1987 my resolve on this was tested by some London friends who I discovered had a permit for Ganesh III for spring 1988. By then I had become a working stiff, programming for a software house specialising in very dull insurance applications. Not-coincidently (it probably accounted for me getting the job) the founder of the firm was a climber. He said I could take the time off but pointed out that I might eventually need to take a career more seriously. I didn't go. Possibly a pivotal moment in my life.

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

the nostalgia project: Rosy Crucifixion, USA (1984)

The route

The 300m Redgarden Wall, Eldorado Canyon. © Mountain Project
Rosy Crucifixion starts high on the ramp to the left and traverses right into the middle of the face
Rosy Crucifixion is a classic three pitch route on the Redgarden Wall in Eldorado Canyon, Colorado. Though relatively short by Eldo standards, it is famous for the intimidating exposure on its crux first pitch, which traverses horizontally to a hanging belay above large overhangs. The top two pitches are not much easier. The YDS grade is low or mid 5.10, sometimes with an "R" or "PG13" to signify the fear factor. Perhaps an E2 or soft E3 for Brits?

Unknown climber finishing pitch 1 on Rosy Crucifixion, October 2004
The context

In the summer of 1984, I visited the US for the first time. During the preceding winter, several second and third year students in the university club had discussed a group overseas trip but had eventually failed to decide on a common objective. The majority set their sights on Peru, to climb alpine peaks, while the then-president of the club, Phil Baker, and I were the splinter-group, favouring Boulder in Colorado. I guess we were heavily influenced by the book "Climb! The history of rock climbing in Colorado", published in the late 1970s and still circulating amongst UK climbers in the early 1980s. It was one of the first coffee-table style rock climbing books, with wild imagery of giant sandstone and granite faces that made UK climbing seem very tame. A similar book, Yosemite Climber, was also widely shared and made a persuasive pitch for Yosemite. We may have known that it would be too hot in Yosemite, though I suspect not (more on "conditions" in future posts); anyway, we chose Colorado.

President Phil, left. I forget the proud minibus driver's name
UBMC in the Lake District, December 1983
In August Phil and I flew to the US on Virgin Atlantic, which had just begun operating two months before, with a service between London Gatwick and Newark. It was by far the cheapest way to cross the Atlantic. To get to Colorado from New York we had $10 per day bus tickets with Trailways. We had worked out that if we sat on the correct buses for 48 hours, we would make it to Denver for just $20 each. The only flaw in this plan was that the flight arrived in the afternoon and the bus left early the next morning. Spending money on a hotel was unthinkable, so we just walked randomly around Lower Manhattan with our large backpacks for hours until finally giving up and bivouacking inside the Port Authority bus station. New York had a bad reputation for street crime in those days and I later learned that the bus station was regarded as some kind of epicentre of sketchiness. Perhaps we looked too poor to mug?

The two-day bus journey was a great experience. The bus stopped periodically at fabulous old-school diners with wholly-un-British features like countertop grills and free coffee refill. I remember pulling out of downtown Chicago at dawn on the second day and being astonished by the vast skyscrapers around us. Then, as the bus gathered speed on the freeway, I looked back and saw the Sears Tower, then the world's tallest building, dwarfing them at twice their height. A moment of genuine awe.

From Denver, we used a regular bus to reach Boulder. It was, I guess, mid-morning. Initial impressions were very favourable: the sky was clear, sun shining, beautiful people roamed the sidewalks and the downtown streets lined with exotic cafes, bars and stores. I remember especially Alfafa's, a giant wholefood supermarket; a commonplace phenomenon now but then at least a decade ahead of its time. We walked into the first climbing shop we could find and asked the staff whether they knew anyone with floor space, who might like to accommodate us for free. I forget now if our budget was actually dependent on this massive assumption about Boulder generosity? Whichever, it worked, a name and phone number was suggested and we headed back outside to find a payphone. The initial call resulted in another referral.

Two guys, Strappo and Crusher - I assumed not their real names - collected us in a pickup truck. They were expat Brits, in their mid-20s, I guessed, working construction, or, at least, so the detritus in the truck suggested. Strappo had rockstar looks, perhaps Steve Tyler from Aerosmith; Crusher someone who might be nicknamed "Crusher". Both exuded cool and a confident air that they "owned" the town. Yes, we could stay in their apartment for a night or two, though they wouldn't be there as they were heading to Rocky Mountain National Park that night to bivouac then climb the Diamond the next day, in fact, they thought we should join them, but, before that, we should get lunch - vast quintessentially-american stacked sub sandwiches (how do you eat them?) - then drive to a friend's house, Phil and I riding in the truck bed - a first for both of us - then drink beer and smoke pot by the swimming pool for an indeterminate period. Plans seemed (literally) fluid. The diary mentions another semi-legal stimulant.

At some point in the afternoon, jetlag combined with exhaustion, from the cumulative nights sleeping badly in a bus station, then a moving coach, started to kick in hard for me. I mentioned quietly to Phil that perhaps attempting a route on the Diamond, on our second day, at altitude with a long approach, was ambitious, possibly insane, and that staying in Boulder would be wiser. He acquiesced but I think that, swept up in the flow of this entertaining day, he was disappointed. Strappo and Crusher duly relocated us to their place, then disappeared to RMNP. The apartment was on the ground floor of a three or four storey building. I slept quickly but was woken in the middle of the night by what sounded like a fight erupting above us. A couple were arguing, then breaking windows, then hurling furniture into the street. It was too much to process; I went back to sleep.

In the morning, we remembered that we had a contact in Boulder, Pete, a post-doc chemist from Bristol who had found a job at University of Colorado. We tracked him down at his lab. He seemed reassuringly duller than Strappo and Crusher. We twisted his arm to let us stay. Accommodation resolved, we thought, it was time on focus on climbing some rocks.

In fact, accommodation was far from resolved and would remain an issue throughout our trip. Pete was in the middle of being evicted from his apartment. I had a notably challenging encounter one evening, about a week later, when I fell into conversation with a stoner on Boulder's downtown Pearl Street, smoked far too much of his pot, lost Phil, somehow found my way back to the apartment and ran into the landlord, who was significantly nonplussed to find an incoherent nineteen-year-old Brit in residence. Thankfully we were in liberal Boulder, not somewhere more redneck, so there were only stern words and no Second Amendment action. By the time I left Colorado, a week or so after Phil, nights had also been spent in a locked ski lodge, a disused goldmine, the south rim trail of the Black Canyon and a mesa-top llama ranch. In the interests of brevity, I'll omit the related stories ...

Phil wrote an article about our trip, which was accepted by a British climbing magazine but, strangely, not published until 1991! I kept a copy for years but couldn't find it when I started to write this post. Phil very kindly sent me a scan. This is especially helpful as my diary notes are terse. For example, for our first round of Eldo climbing I have just: "Yellow Spur - Green Slab Direct - Werk Supp - 1st pitch Tagger - Outer Space - Genesis - Rosy Crucifixion". Especially inadequate as some of these route names reference long multi-pitch climbs. Phil excelled himself on Yellow Spur, leading the massively-exposed and thin 5.10 fifth pitch. My big moment came on the equally exciting Outer Space, on which I somehow made a clean lead of the final 5.10+ pitch. Phil took a photo of me starting that pitch which made the magazine.

Leading the top pitch of Outer Space, 5.10+ in 1984  © Phil Baker
Scan of a photo in the article Phil wrote for Climber and Hillwalker magazine 
The ascent

Of the Eldo routes we did, Rosy Crucifixion left the strongest memories for me, and also received the longest description in Phil's article. Of the first pitch Phil wrote:

"After some soloing the first hard section is reached, a 40 foot traverse above the very lip of the overhang, providing 200 feet of instant space below. Unfortunately, the first move is very committing involving a fingertip layaway, left foot smeared out to hold the balance. Once accomplished, wild swings on good handholds (but no such luck for the feet) lead to a jug. I was so impressed with my position at this point that I posed for a photograph leaning out into the void. However, by the time I had explained the fundamentals of photography and the operation of a camera to my second, my arms were objecting and the rest of this superb pitch was accomplished with much cursing, lunging, sweating and shaking."

I don't remember the camera incident - sorry Phil! He continues:

"As I hung limply from the belay pegs I vowed to stifle my vanity for more important matters in future. Toby joined me in a similar style and we sat in harnesses swapping gear, enthusing wildly."

What I do remember is being very scared as I following the pitch - it may actually be more intimidating to second than lead - grabbing much of the gear to rest and arriving at the hanging belay in a frayed state. Phil's talk of gear-swapping infers that I led the next pitch. Maybe, but I am fairly sure I didn't do it clean. He definitely led the last pitch. Overall I came away quite frustrated by a flawed ascent of a route which the guidebook described as one of the "most aesthetic in Eldorado".

Subsequent ascents

Early in the 1990s, a climbing friend from Bristol University, Andy Donson, was offered an oncology research job in Denver, close enough to Boulder that he could live there and commute. I was extremely jealous but psyched to be able to visit him in Boulder in 1996 (en route to sport climb at Rifle), 2000 (heading to the Utah desert) and 2004 (ditto).

By coincidence, in between the second and third visits, Andy had become a lodger with Crusher, still resident in Boulder. He in turn had become a respected climbing writer and had married Fran, an astrophysicist at University of Colorado. So, twenty years on, I met Crusher again; reasonably enough, he didn't remember his fleeting encounter with Phil or me. However, it was really helpful for my climbing partner, Duncan Critchley, and I to have the opportunity to talk with him, as we had an ambitious project in the desert - climbing the Titan - and we knew he was a guru of that area. In fact, Alpinist magazine had just gone to print with a large article on the Titan, which Crusher had authored.  (In 2010, Sharp End published Crusher's large-format book "Desert Towers: Fat Cat Summits and Kitty Litter Rock", about the history of climbing towers in Utah and other western states; an extraordinary and scholarly work which every climber should own.)

For many reasons, some weather-related, some climbing-deficiency (mostly mine), our foray west was not hugely successful. We returned to Boulder two weeks later via a nerve-wracking snowstorm on the I-70 highway through the Rockies. On the positive side, we had two days available to climb in Eldo. From the diary, Saturday 23rd October:

"Went for breakfast at Lucilles (excellent spicy sausage and hash browns). Set out quite late to Eldo. Had some queue issues with people for Rosy Crucifixion ... Route was very straightforward for me though Duncan uncharacteristically climbed badly on the higher pitches. A 20th anniversary ascent for me. Easier than when 19."

Duncan following the first pitch of Rosy Crucifixion in 2004
"Uncharacteristically" is an understatement in relation to Duncan. I don't know any other climber as capable of pulling amazing performances out of a hat, even after months of alleged injury. Too many hash browns for breakfast, perhaps? More Duncan (and Andy) in future posts.

And another thing ...

A notable occurrence in the lead up to the trip was finally graduating from the EB rock boot. From the diary in May 1984: "Physiology shock today. Bought Firés as compensation.". I had skipped a full year of Physiology lectures on the mistaken assumption that there was no need to pass the end of year exam. The "shock", which required retail therapy, was that I had just learned that this was incorrect, that I would have to repeat the entire academic year if I failed and that I only had three weeks to cram the syllabus. I still have occasional nightmares about this. Boreal's Firé was the first climbing shoe with a sticky rubber sole. Radical at the time; now standard. 

Sunday, January 7, 2018

the nostalgia project - Limbo, UK (1983)

The route

Limbo follows a shallow groove on the left side of the Suspension Bridge Buttress, a limestone cliff in the Avon Gorge. In the British grading system the route rates as "Extremely Severe", or, less dramatically: E1.

As the name suggest, the buttress forms one end of the dramatic Clifton Suspension Bridge; a masterpiece of 19th century engineering and one of Britain's most easily recognisable landmarks. The river Avon, which runs through the gorge for several kilometres, connects the old Bristol city docks with the Atlantic-facing port of Avonmouth. There are cliffs all along the east-side of the gorge, up to about 100m high. Unfortunately, most have been quarried in the past. The Suspension Bridge Buttress is an exception: natural limestone well supplied with pockets and natural threads.

Clifton Suspension Bridge from the south
Climber on the second pitch of Hell Gates, directly under the bridge, mid-1980s © James Ayres
Last few moves to the bridge parapet, mid-1980s © James Ayres
Climber topping out on the bridge parapet (no longer allowed!), mid-1980s © James Ayres
The context

I attended Bristol University between October 1982 and June 1985. In theory, to study Biochemistry. In practice, like many undergraduates, my attention was primarily focused on the awkward larval transition to adulthood. I chose Bristol because it was the only occupant of the intersection of two sets: universities regarded as a respectable backup choice for "Oxbridge rejects"; universities with local climbing. The Avon Gorge was genuinely close. From the medical school, where lectures and lab work took place, I could bike to its base in 15 minutes. The university climbing club was well-established and quite popular, so there was no shortage of partners. Bristol's climate was also mild. Rain fell often but temperatures rarely got prohibitively cold. It was just about possible to climb all year around.

On the negative side, most of the climbing in the Gorge was on the old quarried faces; very unusual in character and needing specific technique that was not obviously transferable to other climbing areas. Main Wall, the largest expanse of rock, was all about crab-like shuffling with weight mostly on the feet. The Sea Walls, further north, were more sculpted, with blank corner and arete features, requiring tenuous low-friction moves. Aside from the Suspension Bridge Buttress, the only recognisably "modern" and steep'ish cliff was the Upper Wall, but the routes there were all hard.

Protection was also typically poor: rusty pitons in horizontal breaks backed up by cams or sketchy horizontal wired nuts. Adding to the challenge, the prevailing UK ethic in the early 80s was to climb ground-up, and never top-rope or "work" routes. Attempting to climb harder always seemed to go hand in hand with taking more risk. Consequently we failed on routes often, and rarely by taking falls - far more common was a tactical retreat ("wimping out" was the usual expression).

The lineless intracy of Avon's Main Wall, mid-1980s © James Ayres 
As mentioned before, useful climbing gyms were still well in the future. The only training I recall anyone doing was traversing on any accessible bit of architecture made from stone blocks. The gorge itself had the "Bog Wall", a circular toilet block directly under the Main Wall. Later a similar but steeper wall, closer to town, The Hotwalls, became fashionable. Some people say that I have reasonable crimp strength and finger stamina. Conversely I don't feel that I have ever had much power for big upwards moves. If that's accurate, I probably have the 1980s traversing fad to thank/ blame.

The Bog Wall, mid-1980s © James Ayres
Me at Hotwalls, mid-1980s. © Owain Jones
Bizarrely the photographer made this into a commercial postcard,
sold for several years in gift shops around Bristol! 
In the British grading system, there is an obvious discontinuity from the adjectival grades ("Hard Very Severe", etc) to letters and numbers (E1, E2, etc). I believe the history runs something like this. In the 1960s the top grade was "Extremely Severe", but, inconveniently, standards continued to rise and climbers scratched their heads for grander superlatives. In the 1970s, "Exceptionally Severe" was toyed with, also prefixing "Extremely Severe" with "Mild-" and "Hard-" qualifiers, but neither stuck. Eventually, the E-grade appeared: an open-ended system of "E" plus a number, to be applied to all "Extremes". This system was in widespread use by the early 1980s. Inevitably, E1, the first rung on the Extreme ladder, became seen as a "magic grade" and rite of passage. For most of my first year at university it mattered hugely that I should do one.

In 1983, standards in the university club were fairly low. The best of the students were managing E1 and perhaps an occasional E2, and were quite proud of this. Standards were higher amongst the older "town" climbers. Most Bristol climbers gathered at a pub, The Port of Call, on Thursday evening every week. Some mythical heroes, who were climbing E5 and even E6, could be seen there - but they never spoke to us. (Amongst them a fierce-looking guy called Steve Findlay, these days famous as "Hazel's dad".)

In my first few months at Bristol I climbed several "HVS" routes and seemed poised for the E1 breakthrough. The diary records that I tried one: Catholics in late November 1982 but "wimped out ... abbed off a minute thread". Then there was a hiatus for several months. Miraculously, I had found a girlfriend: Kathleen, an elfin half-french girl, approximately as shy and peculiar as me. Fortunately (not really ...) by June 1983 she had dumped me and the E1 quest was back on.

Half-french elf-woman. The climb is Terriers Tooth in Cornwall

The ascent

I don't remember much about climbing Limbo or why I chose it. There is no earlier mention in the diary so it must have been an onsight ascent. I recall one or two abrupt pulls on pockets and a strenuous effort to pass a sling through a natural thread in a hole for protection. I imagine it would now feel like a warm-up route (6a'ish?) at a european limestone sport climbing venue, but without the bolts. The diary is silent on the actual climbing, devoting more text to the girlfriend crisis and that before the climb we had visited the Avon Gorge Hotel, a posh pub near the bridge, where we had "Nicked one of their umbrellas".

Leading Limbo, possibly in 1983 (or a later ascent?)
No more E1's were climbed until October, after which they started to become fairly routine. Notably, in early-November, I led all the hard pitches on the 130m Coronation Street in Somerset's Cheddar Gorge, "probably the best limestone E1 in the country".

Subsequent ascents

I climbed Limbo several more times while at university and during the next few years when I was still loosely in orbit around Bristol. It eventually became very familiar; the diary records that in June 1987 I seconded it "in bare feet".

My next two or three E-grade progressions were also at Avon. In April 1984 my first E2: The Preter, a multi-pitch on Main Wall. Later in the same month I then (unknowingly) notched up an E3: the runout Krapp's Last Tape, also on Main Wall, then only graded E2. In July 1986 I led Them, on the steep Upper Wall, in my opinion the best route at Avon, sometimes considered E4. However, by then, I had climbed two or three routes in Australia that were probably at least as hard, so quantifying the progression becomes more blurry. (Them was also the last route I climbed in the Gorge, on a fleeting and chilly visit to Bristol in January 1989.)

It would have been nicely ego-stroking had these higher grades been achieved in isolation. However, from 1984 onwards there was a sharp increase in competiveness amongst the younger Avon climbers and less complacency about the standards being achieved. I felt more that I was falling behind than getting ahead.

Amongst the newer university intake, the previously-mentioned Crispin Waddy was climbing E4's and E5's soon after his arrival. Similarly, several strong student climbers appeared in the Gorge from Bristol Polytechnic, an institution I had not known existed. Amongst them, I climbed a little with Guy Percival and Phil Windall, who were both keeping pace with Crispin. Another local student, Jamie Ayres, was diligently documenting the scene with his camera. He maintains a great album of 1980s Avon climbing on Flickr (and kindly gave me permission to use a few for this post).

Snarly young punks at the Bog Wall, Crispin second from the left, mid-1980s © James Ayres

And another thing ...

It used to be traditional that students performed annoying stunts and pranks from time to time (presumably that is still true, or are the current generation too busy waxing their moustaches?). In the 1980s, the surreal redeployment of common objects was especially popular. A 19th century civic statute modified with a traffic cone on its head, or condom on an appendage, would be a lame, entry-level undertaking. Or planting a pub umbrella in a grass-topped platform above a road tunnel entrance; as we did with the one we had stolen before climbing Limbo in 1983.

My only really significant contribution to this genre occurred in February 1984. One evening I walked past a builders' refuse skip, near where I lived, which contained an undamaged and apparently-clean toilet. On a whim, I contacted my friend John to suggest that we install it somewhere in the Gorge that night. We spent several hours messing around dangerously with headtorches on rappel ropes in order to secure the toilet to the hanging belay at the end of the first pitch of Malbogies, Main Wall's most classic route.

I suppose it could have been construed that we were making some sort of scatological comment on the route (personally I did think it was over-rated) but, frankly, it was just spontaneous silliness. For good measure, I did the first Malbogies-plus-toilet ascent the next day. Weirdly it then stayed there for at least a decade; either local climbers must have decided that they liked it or - more likely - no-one could be arsed (pun unintended) to take it down. Even more strangely we never received any flack for it, though our involvement was an open secret.

Phil Windall with the Malbogies belay toilet, mid-1980s © James Ayres