Tuesday, October 30, 2018

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

The route

Kumo no Ito at Ogawayama © unknown

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

The context

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

Subsequent ascents

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, October 26, 2018

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

The routes

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

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

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

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



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


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

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

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

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

The context

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

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

Steve, party in Camberwell, ~2014

The ascents

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, August 19, 2018

the nostalgia project: Black Magic, UK (1992)

The route

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

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

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

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

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

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

The context

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

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

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

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

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

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

The ascent

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

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

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

Subsequent ascents

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

Shoko at Bosigran, Cornwall, 1992

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.