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

Friday, July 13, 2018

the nostalgia project: Motorhead, Switzerland (1991)

The route

Eldorado, Grimsel Pass © gipfelbuch.ch
Eldorado (no relation to the Colorado canyon) is a 600m glacier-polished granite face rising above the Grimselsee reservoir in Switzerland. Along with the nearby Handegg Pass cliffs, it was one of the first cliffs in the Alps developed purely for rock climbing. Motorhead (6a+ or about 5.10c, 14 pitches) is the best known route there, following a series of crack systems. It was established in the early 1980s by the prolific Remy brothers. (Owners of Arnaud Petit's amazing guidebook to world free-climbing classics, "Parois de Legendes", can find it on page 37.)




The context

1991 was a fairly settled year for me. The house was no longer a building site. I had a programming contract with my old employer from 1987/88, in offices that I could reach easily by bike or bus. I started a part-time MBA program at what is now Cass Business School, also an easy commute. Most classes were in the evenings and were typically followed by lengthy pub sessions. It was the first time I had voluntarily socialised with non-climbers; probably a healthy development.

As the summer approached, a plan took shape for a climbing road trip in Europe. A good friend and regular at the Mile End wall, Noel Jenkins, had recently moved to the same area of east London. Noel, Catherine and I spent a lot of time together, especially in the "lesbian cafe", a coffee-and-bagels place in a repurposed 19th century warehouse with communal seating and studiedly-unfriendly counter staff. (Only Noel and I called it the "lesbian cafe"; in fact the cafe itself was too cool to have a name at all. In the 1990s we Gen-X males believed that politically-incorrect humour was OK if it sounded plausibly-ironic; wrongly, of course, we now know, looking back in time from the scorched earth cultural battlefield of the 2010s.)  Noel had visited Handegg earlier in the year, and was keen to return. I wanted to clip bolts at sport cliffs. With optimism, and a lack of attention to drive times, we concocted an itinerary in Germany, Switzerland and Italy that should offer something for everyone.

A doodle from the diary: a very approximate map of our 1991 roadtrip ...  
... and a more accurate version! Who knew Spain was so big and that Italy slants east?
However, we needed a fourth person. Catherine had been working with an Italian climber, Edoardo, who  had occasionally been joining on us on weekend trips and even on a short visit to Finale in Italy. He liked our idea, not least as he needed to spend some time in Italy during the summer. Unfortunately this introduced some challenging group dynamics. Edoardo, an investment banker with strong opinions and an intolerant streak, and Noel, a state-school geography teacher with an intolerant streak and strong opinions, did not get on very well. Meanwhile, Catherine and I, with less than a year left in our relationship, were becoming quite fractious. To make the trip happen, it was tacitly agreed that Noel would not climb with Edoardo, ditto I with Catherine.

So one day in early August, we crammed climbing gear, tents and four adults into my Vauxhall Nova hatchback (a bit smaller than a modern Toyota Yaris) and set off for the channel ferry. On the way to Switzerland we stopped in the Pfalz region, an un-recommendable area of sandstone cliffs surrounded by impeccably-neat German farmland. Another half-day of driving took us into Switzerland and up to the Handegg Pass, where we set up in a campsite for a few days. For the first couple of days we tried routes at Handegg. The style was predominantly low-angle granite friction: very alien for me at the time. The diary is ambiguous as to whether we completed any routes. The next day we planned to climb at Eldorado.

The ascent

The hike into Eldorado takes about two hours, walking along the top of the massive Grimsel dam, then along the shore of the reservoir. We must have woken early that day as the diary records that Edoardo and I started up Motorhead at 6:30am.  Catherine and Noel were climbing the nearby Septumania, a route similar in length and grade to Motorhead, but more of an open slab climb.

Perhaps unfairly, Edoardo had a reputation for climbing slowly. This concerned me, as I did not want to get benighted on the face. I was uncharacteristically assertive as to how I thought we should tackle the climb: alternate leads, minimum gear placements and no stopping until we were past the 8th pitch crux. Fortunately we discovered that the climb suited this style. Much of the route was easy jamming or laybacking on low angle rock on which long runouts were not too scary. I got to lead the crux pitch, some cool face moves on a steeper wall with sudden exposure.

The crux 8th pitch © unknown
Looking down pitch 11 © unknown
We topped out the route at noon; almost laughably ahead of schedule. As it was hard to judge where the other routes exited the face, we decided not to wait for Catherine and Noel. As far as I recall, the descent was easy enough to navigate but lengthy. At one stage there was an awkward crossing of a small watercourse. As we neared the base of the wall, we realised for the first time that the weather was deteriorating. We had been so focused on moving fast on the route that we had barely looked at the sky.

Almost exactly as we reached the shoreline, it began to rain. No big deal, I thought initially. Then the rain got much more intense. Within half an hour, it became clear the situation was quite serious. Like many granite cliffs, Eldorado has a dome-like shape. The convexity makes it hard to see beyond the first few pitches of the routes. What we could see were waterfalls appearing on all the drainage lines, followed quite rapidly by rockfall. As time passed, a few rappelling climbers started to appear, drenched and desperate. Unfortunately none were Catherine and Noel. I began to think the worst. It seemed inconceivable that they could have finished their route in the conditions, and rappelling amidst the rockfall looked lethal. My mind began considering how best I could explain to Catherine's belligerent father how his daughter had died (or whether it might just be safest to go into hiding for a few years).

Eventually, I suggested to Edoardo that we hike back up the descent to look for them. Pointless perhaps but at least would get us moving. Neither of us had any rain-gear or warm layers, and I was becoming very cold. I forget whether Edoardo joined me or stayed at the cliff base. I jogged up the descent as fast as I could. No sign of anyone for a long time. Finally, I saw them. On the wrong side of the watercourse we had crossed earlier. It had swollen with rain and was no longer a benign easy crossing. In my memory, Noel and Catherine were huddled-up and no longer trying to descend, but that may be inaccurate. Whichever, I was able to help them get a rope across and move on down safely.

By the time we got back to the car, we were all shattered, starving and close to hypothermic. We drove straight to the nearest town, at the base of the Handegg Pass. Bizarrely, the skies cleared at the same time. I have a strong memory of the four of us seated at a restaurant terrace, surrounded by happy diners enjoying late afternoon sun, while we shivered and could barely speak.

We drove out of Switzerland the next day in search of warm sport climbing in Italy. We visited Erto (too steep, too polished) then Arco (better ...) in quick succession. Perhaps because of residual fatigue, or perhaps because of too much time together in a small car full of wet stuff, the group dynamic worsened. Edoardo bailed on us in Arco - departing rather grandly on a Lake Garda ferry. Noel, Catherine and I returned to London via Donautal (pretty but unmemorable) and Freyr (not even pretty).

Subsequent ascents

I have not been back to Eldorado.

Saturday, July 7, 2018

the nostalgia project: Right Wall, UK (1990)

The route

Dinas Cromlech © Mountain Project. No prizes for identifying Right Wall.
About ten years ago, when I lived in the UAE, I shared a long morning drive out to a climbing area with my friend Nick. His conversation topic, for at least an hour or more, was the word "iconic". He thought it had become massively over-used. As he worked in advertising, a business where adjectives matter, I paid some attention. At the time "iconic" was not a word that I used much, but, perhaps as an unintentional consequence of his rant, it has crept into my vocabulary.

Avoiding "iconic" or other cliched language is especially difficult when writing about Right Wall, not only as the route itself is iconic, but so are many of its neighbouring climbs and, indeed, the entire cliff: Dinas Cromlech in Llanberis Pass in North Wales. The Cromlech looms above "The Pass" like a medieval castle re-imagined by Frank Gehry, with big planar features rendered at intriguing angles.



At its centre is the Cenotaph Corner, E1, obviously sustained for most of its forty metre length. The legendary Joe Brown made the first ascent in the 1950s, notoriously using a few pitons despite his peer group, and preceding generations, considering that unfair. Focus then shifted to the two huge adjoining flat walls. Left Wall, E2, which is a few degrees less steep than the right, was climbed as an aid route in the same decade then free climbed in 1970. For modern climbers with strong fingers it is probably easier than the corner.

Right Wall was regarded as one of Britain last great climbing challenges in the early 1970s. It fell to a top British climber of that era, Pete Livesey, in 1974. Like Joe Brown, he used questionable tactics for the time. In this case, starting out onsight but tying off his lead rope at a ledge at two-thirds height, then soloing off sideways to arrange a rappel inspection of the final moves, before returning to the sharp end. Livesey would have graded Right Wall something like "Hard Extremely Severe" but once Britain's E-grade became generally adopted in the late 1970s the route was recognised as a benchmark at the then-highest grade: E5. In YDS grades it would probably rate as low/ mid 5.11 for difficulty but R or possibly X for seriousness. Most of the climbing is very runout.

The context

1990 was a tough year for me. Overshadowing everything else, my father died in April, from myeloma originally diagnosed in 1986, after a remission period of about three years.

During the 1989/90 winter I had earned some reasonable money from a programming contract but the commute to the client's office was long and the work tedious. I opted not to renew the contract. (The client was actually a subsidiary of a US investment bank, originating mortgages in Britain that could be securitised by the parent firm. Had I know that two decades later this type of activity would grow in size and complexity to a level that would almost crash the world financial system, I might have taken more interest.)

Gentrifying 150 year old floorboards
Meanwhile Catherine and I unwisely bought a small terraced house together in a sorta-bohemian but mostly-shit corner of east London. The house needed a lot of immediate renovation work to be liveable, for which we had limited money and no useful skills of our own. At an early stage there was a cartoonish, but not actually funny, moment when the ancient horsehair-and-plaster ceiling of a ground floor room collapsed while we were sanding floorboards above. We were storing all of our stuff, including clothes, in the fall zone. On another occasion, I ventured into the dusty roof void and discovered a crack in the side wall wide enough to reach right through into the neighbour's property: unrepaired bomb damage from the Blitz.

However I was in reasonable climbing shape. One reason was the Mile End climbing wall, which was only a few minutes drive from the house. This facility in abandoned industrial space near a canal was originally the headquarters of the "North London Rescue Commando", a sort of urban sea scouts group run by one of those elderly batchelor eccentrics who stereotypically involve themselves with such things. Somehow it had been infiltrated by climbers who had installed steep bouldering panels that were cutting edge technology for their time. It was by far the best indoor climbing available in London for several years.

Mile End was also a good place to meet other London climbers. Previously I had been feeling pressure to join one of the London climbing clubs, which seemed to involve a lot of forced socialising and other BS. A loose group of Mile End regulars were climbing regularly together from 1989 onwards. Most Fridays we would set off from central London for weekend trips to areas like the gritstone (2-3 hours), Pembroke (3-4 hours), North Devon/ Cornwall or North Wales (both 4-5 hours). We were starting to learn how to go sport climbing around Europe more frequently too, though that became exponentially more easy from the mid-1990s onward when low-cost airlines like Ryan Air and Easyjet began expanding. Sport climbing was good for stamina, which in turn made British trad climbing easier: fewer moments of pumped terror and more time to fiddle in decent protection.

Thanks to these factors, I was gradually progressing into higher trad grades, notably the "magic" E5. I had climbed my first E5 in 1988: Track of the Cat on gritstone, though as a solo after top-roping. In October 1989 I had managed another, Just Another Day, in Pembroke (since downgraded). This raised the question of trying Right Wall. There were rumours that it was "soft" for E5, though still serious. It was hard to get reliable information, as no-one in my immediate climbing circle had done it. (Being able to research routes online still lay a decade or more into the future.)

The ascent

A small group of us went up to Wales for the May holiday weekend. One guy belonged to a  Manchester-based group which the diary refers to "the misogynist Rucksack Club". I believe that referred to their then policy of not allowing women in their Llanberis Pass hut (yes, really, in 1990!) where we intended to stay. Unfortunately I don't remember whether Catherine and I camped outside or raised a finger to the rule entirely. I hope the latter.

On Saturday the weather was perfect. We headed straight up to the Cromlech. I remember a few things from that day. I had planned to warm up on an easier route but all the available options were already taken. So I started up Right Wall. The first few metres are unprotected and quite thin, but I almost immediately realised that the style of climbing suited me and that I wouldn't be falling off. The holds were all positive, either incut or well-textured flatties. I don't remember the middle section of the route at all. At about two-third height, a ledge runs across the face wide enough to allow a full no-hands rest.

About seven metres above is the final crux at the "porthole"; a recessed circular feature. I had heard of people taking long falls from there. For me there was no drama there either. I have a vague memory of rocking up into the porthole using an undercut, but I may have invented that retrospectively. Similarly placing some small RP nuts close to the porthole and wondering how people managed to take long falls there. At the top, I yelled down "E3!" to Catherine, no doubt to the irritation of other people at the cliff. But the climb had felt straightforward.

climber on the middle section of Right Wall © unknown
On the rappel descent I swung over to inspect the top part of Lord of the Flies, E6, the direct line left of Right Wall, next on the list of Cromlech classics and immortalised for my generation by a TV program (below) about Ron Fawcett's first ascent (25:08: "Come on arms, do yer stuff"). "Lord" was damp at the top so my massive overconfidence did not flow into making an attempt; almost certainly a good thing. Catherine led Left Wall cleanly, which was a new tick at her highest grade.



Subsequent attempts

I never climbed Right Wall again but did revisit the Cromlech a few times. In 1993 I hiked up there twice and climbed three more routes left of the corner: Resurrection, E4, the slightly-contrived True Grip, E5 and the dangerous Memory Lane, E3. I also have vague memory of climbing Foil, E3, left of Memory Lane, but can find no record in the diary.

Lord of the Flies is high on the list of British routes that I wish I had done. 1990 could have been my moment, when I was still young enough to summon the boldness/ stupidity. In those days the route was also better protected. (Subsequent years have seen Fawcett's original pitons rust away and break, then some critical nut placements disappear also. These days people are using skyhooks and even foot-placed slings for protection!) Unfortunately, about a month after climbing Right Wall I fell awkwardly at the start of a limestone climb in Derbyshire, landing on a boulder at ground level with an outstretched arm. I broke the ulna on that arm completely so it had to be set under anaesthetic. Though it eventually healed up fine, I was out of climbing for most of the rest of the year.

Saturday, June 30, 2018

the nostalgia project - T.C.F., France (1989)

The route

Turbo Cibi Facho:  no I don't know what it means either
T.C.F.  is a 7a (YDS 5.11d) sport route at Buoux in the Luberon region of Provence. Composed of an unusual sandy limestone riddled with pockets, Buoux was the epicentre of global sport climbing in the 1980s. Pocket-pulling trickery, like the "Rose move", was in vogue (and a whole generation of climbers learned about tendon injuries).

The context

In the summer of 1989 I "quit work" for the first time.  A year early I had made a bad career move, swapping an easy and emotionally-unengaging job as a programmer for a slightly-better paid but stressful client-facing job with a start-up subsidiary of the same firm. Worse, the subsidiary's base was in Gants Hill, a depressing hell-hole deep in the suburban badlands of east London. I set my departure in motion by demanding a large pay rise that I was pretty sure would be unacceptable. My judgement was right although they tested my resolve by making a counter-offer that came very close to my number. (Ironically, a year later I was back there again, working freelance for about 50% more than the last salary they had offered me.)

Catherine and I had already planned a climbing holiday in the south of France. As I suddenly had time on my hands, I decided to drive out ahead of her. I don't recall whether I had actually envisaged doing this alone but close to my departure date I found a partner: at the Mile End climbing wall someone called "Mo" had pinned up a note asking whether anyone could drive him to Verdon.

Mohit was still in his teens, visiting Europe from India and - impressively - somehow surviving on a budget close to zero. We meandered south over four or five days, checking out various cliffs around Dijon and in the Vercors and camping discreetly at various roadside spots. However, once we reached Verdon we realised that we had been wasting time with those lesser cliffs, as the gorge was so much more inspiring. A few days later I drove down to Nice to meet Catherine's flight. On the way back to Verdon, we had some drama when a tire blew out on a lonely road during a thunderstorm. I had never changed a wheel before and struggled accordingly. Catherine was not impressed.

Over the next couple of weeks, we alternated time between Verdon and Buoux, with various combinations of people including Mo and some London climbing friends. I was more drawn to Buoux as the climbing was predominantly single-pitch and more of a pure exercise in difficulty than the committing multi-pitches in Verdon. Also it was hard to escape the summer heat on Verdon's big open walls.

At Buoux, Catherine and I spent a couple of nights at the fabulous Auberge de Seguins, which is directly under the cliffs. The diary records the price as being about £15 per night, which must have seemed a good deal even then.


Auberge des Seguins (photos taken in 1999)
Most of us were still learning about steep limestone technique, French sport grades and the redpoint style. As far as I recall, we rapidly gave up trying to compare the local grades and British grading. More than any other factor, we found the new element of sport climbing to be managing the forearm pump. 'Ledge-shuffling" on British trad routes never felt so sustained.

Me on Pepsicomane (6b) in 1989. Scan from a damaged print.
Routes up to about 6b (YDS 5.10+ or low 5.11) seemed to go down reasonably easily. 6c was more of a challenge and needed a few tries. Beyond that was the magic grade of 7a (YDS 5.11d). I really wanted to climb one. Looking around the options at Buoux, T.C.F. seemed a good candidate. The route is not too long, maybe 25m or so, and follows an obvious line on pockets of various sizes.

Climber on T.C.F. © unknown
The ascent

T.C.F. took me two or possibly three days - the diary isn't specific. Successive days, for sure, as we had yet to really understand the importance of rest. Near the start is a distinct crux move - a long throw between big spaced pockets. Initially it felt too far but with more effort and precision I started latching it. After that, I assumed success would follow quickly. Instead I found that the "easy" climbing higher up became prohibitively hard with pumped arms. I had to refine the sequence and get more efficient. Then start dealing with the mental strain of making repeated attempts. All of which would later seem like a blueprint for every redpoint siege subsequently, but it felt very novel at the time. In some ways my experience on Milk Blood three years before was similar but T.C.F. was steeper and more sustained, and of course, purely on bolts.

On my redpoint burn, I found myself having that out-of-body experience, detachedly watching myself climbing, that some people call "flow state" (which, ironically, I have not experienced many times since). So began a mild addiction to sport climbing that I still have almost thirty years later ...

Subsequent ascents

I have been back to Buoux five times since 1989. Twice in 1990 then once in 1992, 1999 and 2004. The diary records various re-encounters with T.C.F. but no actual clean ascents. I guess that my excuse would generally have been that I was focused on other routes. For example, the beautiful exposed face of Les Diaments sont Eternaux (7a), the big roof Camembert Ferguson (7a) above T.C.F., the amazing pillar of Rose de Sables (7a) and the pumpy then slopey No Man's Land (7a+). By 2004 I had also become a father. The diary records some drama that may be familiar to other climbing parents: "... had to leave as L had wet trousers [from] having a poo ... had to lower L down approach scramble wearing my underpants!"

Aside from the climbing, the Luberon region is a gorgeous part of France. Less obviously spectacular than the Mediterranean coast or the Alps, but also less touristy and "bling". I especially liked Bonnieux, a hill village of spiralling cobbled streets and terraced stone houses with big views west toward the Rhone valley. Inevitably we developed fantasies of owning property there and - equally inevitably - did nothing about it, not least as in the early 1990s few of us had much money. I remember on the second trip in 1990 that Catherine and I visited a Brit climber, John Hart, who had actually bought a small place east of Apt near Buoux. But he was a noted over-achiever who was managing to combine careers as a full-time doctor and art gallery owner, as well as being one of Britain's strongest climbers at the time. These days Brit climbers owning property in European climbing areas, or even building lives in those sorts of places, are a much more common phenomena. I flirted with the idea of the south of France or Catalonia as a relocation option in 2012, when we moved from the UAE to Squamish. I don't think it would have worked but ...


How it might have been - Leo in the Luberon, 2004

Sunday, May 27, 2018

the nostalgia project - Bears on Toast, Croatia (1988)

The Route

Bears on Toast is a four pitch sport route taking a central line up the Stup pillar on the Aniča kuk face of Paklenica canyon in Croatia. Paklenica is a classic limestone karst area close to the Dalmatian coast of the Adriatic, the sea between Croatia and Italy. The route seems to be regarded as a local classic and is on the front cover of the current guidebook. It features outsize examples of the classic karst erosion feature that the French call "cannelures" - self-explanatory in these photos. The first two pitches are 6c+ (about 5.11c), the rest much easier.

French crusher Charlotte Durif on the second pitch of Bears on Toast © unknown
In her blog she describes the route as "magnifique" 
Bears on Toast second pitch, front cover of the current guidebook
© unknown but looks like a shot from the same photoshoot as the image above
Aniča kuk face at Paklenica with the Stup pillar obvious on the right
The context

In August 1988 I spent three weeks in what was then Yugoslavia: an awkward federation of Balkan communist states which blew apart violently in the 1990s. It was an obscure destination for a European climbing trip, but I suppose was motivated by a couple of reasons. One being to experience another communist country, following on from the Czech trip in 1987. And also to climb in a Mediterranean limestone area, as the magazines at the time were full of glamorous photos of those sorts of venues, especially the Verdon gorge. I had read an article that described Paklenica as very similar to Verdon.

When we were very young - Catherine and I, late 1980s. Scan from a damaged print. I still have that shirt!
My then-girlfriend Catherine agreed to come too, despite having just started a job at a posh City of London investment bank. Generally those are not the sort of firms that grant three week holidays straight after joining but she was (and still is, when I last checked) a very persuasive woman. Reaching Paklenica required a couple of days travel. We flew from London to Split then took a sweaty crowded bus to a coastal town, Zadar. There we spent a large slice of our funds to stay a night in a small sea-front hotel. Our room had a big window which opened to let in a refreshing breeze and exotic street noise. This would prove to be the only conventionally-enjoyable part of our Croatian "holiday". The next day we made a shorter bus ride to Paklenica and checked into the only accommodation option, a stoney shade-free campground. 

There we discovered a few major errors in our planning. We had no stove, assuming there would be cafes nearby that would feed us. In fact there was just one store, selling not-very-nice bread and little else. Some distance further was a dismal pizza restaurant. Both seemed to open at very erratic hours. Ironically the campground was the other side of a fence from a large nudist beach complex, full of sunburned rotund Germans swinging their bits and enjoying too much all-inclusive buffet.

As to climbing, we discovered the gorge was several kilometres inland from the coast. We had no car and there was no public transport so each day began with a stiff hike. Modern day climbers might also question what possessed us to be there mid-summer. The answer is that we knew no better. Generally, the whole notion of optimal "conditions" for climbing had not yet been invented.

On the positive side, the gorge itself met expectations. Close to its seaward end were short cliffs which had recently been developed with modern-style sport routes. There was no topo so we just tried them all, chasing the shade. As far as I remember, none were harder than 6c (mid-5.11).

In theory, we also wanted to do one of the very long routes on the Aniča kuk face, but the prospect of a whole day exposed to the sun was too much. We compromised by climbing a moderate four pitch route on the Stup pillar, possibly "Utopija 85". While we were doing this I noticed that the very front of the buttress was unclimbed, perhaps because of a large body-length roof about 30 metres off the ground. Above the roof the rock looked very featured and climbable.

The next day I persuaded Catherine that we should take a closer look. We climbed back up the same route until above the steep part of the pillar, tied our two half-ropes together and rappeled to the ground. I was very excited to see that the roof had large sharp flake holds running right across it.

The ascent

I had bought a "bolt kit" just before our trip and brought it with us, along with a hammer. The kit was designed for cavers, with short self-driving one-inch bolts; an important detail wasted on me. I don't remember whether I had really thought we might encounter a new route opportunity, but suddenly it did seem we had one. I had hand-drilled holes for a few bolts in Australia two years before so very approximately knew what I was doing.

The diary has no detail on the preparation work. Catherine sensibly stayed in camp. I have a vague memory of hiking in to the gorge alone and feeling small and nervous (at no time during our trip did we see more than a handful of other climbers). I think that the job took two full days, swinging around on the bouncy half-ropes and pounding on the drive-in's. I have no idea how I retrieved the ropes without her help. Perhaps there was a nearby established route that I was able to rappel?

Looking up at the stacked roof section of pitch 1 © unknown
Then we both headed up to climb the thing. The roof went fine. I had installed a belay straight above, which was exciting - in retrospect even more exciting considering that we were both weighting twin 1" bolts. The second pitch started off with something close to chimneying, wedged between the giant cannelures. Higher up these features dwindled to nothing. The crux was a slab move, stemmed between the last remnants of two cannelures, stretching for a good hold. I fell once but managed it on my second try. We joined an established route for two more pitches.

Final moves on pitch 2 © unknown

As it seemed unlikely that we would do anything more substantial than this route and the heat and starvation diet were wearing us down, we then took a "holiday from our holiday": returning to Zadar, catching a boat over to Italy and taking a train to Rome. We spent three or four days there in the cheapest hotel we could find central to the city, doing standard tourist stuff and eating a lot.

After we got back to the UK, I sent a letter to a mountaineering club in Zagreb, listed in the guidebook, giving details of our route. The weird name, I think, had a two-stage origin. Earlier in the year I had been climbing on the UK gritstone and had managed a competent lead of The Rasp, a somewhat notorious and very classic overhanging crack. There were some old local guys at the base. One exclaimed - this needs to read in a northern English accent - "what do they feed these lads on these days - beans on toast and no sex?". Catherine found this very funny and repeated it often. Around the same time and in the same area, we often had breakfast in a cafe, Longlands, in Hathersage in the Peak District, after driving up from London. One day they had a typo on their chalkboard, rendering the British staple as "bears on toast".

As mentioned before, Yugoslavia spent much of the 1990s as a war zone. It seemed exceptionally unlikely that any record of our route could have survived. But, sometime around 2000, I stumbled over a Paklenica guidebook in a bookshop and there we were: correct ascent date, names spelled accurately and route name exactly as conceived! Hopefully someone has also replaced the caving bolts.

Subsequent ascents

I have not been back to Croatia.

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 Donovan. 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