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A Veteran Rock Climbing Novice

by KANGY    Sept. 1984.

I gave up trying to read climbing magazines when I could no longer understand the pictures.  I just failed to relate to them any more.  I tried.  I lay on my back and peered up at them.  I squinted at them round the edge of the page, I moved in close and I tipped them sideways.  I honestly tried.  No way could I imagine being there.  So I gave up climbing magazines, though not what I called rock climbing.

Dave Radmore B.E.C. in nails I954.  Avalanche Route and Red Wall, Llewedd, Snowdonia.

Note: 3/4 weight cable laid nylon rope, Simpson’s mountaineering boots nailed with Brigham Plates (Ellis Brigham Ltd).  These had replaceable teeth.  The heels are nailed with soft iron clinkers.  It was vital not to move the boot once it had been placed on a foothold.

I detected too, a fundamental difference in concepts.  I said rock climbing, they said rock climbing, but that was the end of the conversation.

I had led V.S. climbs classically in nails or, later, vibrams, or when the going got rough, in well worn Woolworths cheapest black rubber gym shoes (the only brand).  With widening interests I enjoyed severes.  My equipment changed but not my attitudes. I was still happy to tie the climbing rope around my waist and lead out long (20m!) pitches in vibrams, placing one or two runners.  The runners had become inserted chocks and I enjoyed the feeling that I was using modern equipment though I forgot a helmet because---well I don't know really.

Hugh Banner U.B.M.C. on Desperation, Avon Gorge, 1953.  H.V.S.

Note: 3/4 weight cable laid nylon rope, nylon line and ex-W.D. karabiner used as a runner through a piton.  Tarbuck knot joining rope to karabiner clipped to multiple turns of nylon line as a waist belt, stylish carpenters hammer, and footwear - Woolworth’s black rubber plimsolls.   A technical modification used by Hugh were shoe laces or string through a hole pierced in the heel and tied around the ankle to stop the plimsoll rolling off!

The photograph comes from the first edition of 'Limestone Climbs in South West England published by the University of Bristol Mountaineering Club, 1954.

Photographer probably Mike Harvey, who put up ‘Suspension Bridge Arête’, and other classics, arrayed in similar fashion.

I have seen the light!

There is, I see, a fundamental difference between climbing philosophy then (1950’s) and now (1980’s).

I think what was happening to me when I tried to understand those photographs, was, that I would expect anyone falling from such a position to die.  We expected, when I started climbing in 1950, that a falling leader would do himself a right nasty and spoil the day for the rest of us.  It was generally agreed that leaders were expendable. My loneliest moments were spent on crux moves well above the second and a long way from a rope sling around a spike of rock.  With luck I just hoped that any fall would end right next to the second so that he would be in no doubt about what to do next.   The 'high', experienced after surviving, was usually enjoyed belayed on a large ledge.  We didn’t fall.  That is to say I once did and spent six summer months hobbling about on a badly sprained leg, grinning because I hadn't died.

The last couple of years have been a revelation to me.

Pete, down the road, became keen to climb.  He needed someone to hold his rope and as his friend I got elected.  I bought some rock boots.  Rock boots!  I was very doubtful about the expense but persuaded myself that even if was only a fashion then at least I could pose.  Reluctantly I admitted to myself that because of the amazing sticky boot adhesion, severes had become too easy.  Climbs which had stretched the limits of my finger strength became reasonable because I could take weight on my feet.  Gradually I lost the habit of mentally checking my footholds and forgot to worry about my feet.  It allowed Pete in his adventures and felt comfortable.  I developed an appreciation and respect for Pete's climbing because he got up things which as I followed I felt myself too near to being unable to reverse the move, and feared to fall.  I admired too his craft skill at selecting placements for protection.

The next insight to add to my understanding came during a really successful family cum climbing holiday in Pembroke.  Our supportive wives organized things so that Pete and I could explore a new climbing area.

Our first experience was that we were not going to be given anything.  T'Northern lads were forthright. "Well," they said about their climbing holiday, “H.V.S.'s on Cloggy, extremes at Tremadoc, and now a struggle on severes in Pembroke."  Leaders were phrenetically stuffing "pro" in every two feet, resting on tight ropes on their "pro", or abseiling from "pro".  In fact I admitted to myself that it looked as if a leader could take a fall on the most insubstantial looking "pro" and immediately try, try, try again!  (They do! Strategic falls, my life!)

The significance of this to me was profound.

Psychologically I have been unable to accept the risk of a fall.  I knew when I started climbing that to fall was the ultimate disaster, extending ones self, making ones mum unhappy and ones mates late for the pub. It was not on.  One simply did not do it and one ceased to push climbs to the point where one hit the deck.  That is not to say that progress was impossible.  Obviously the '50's climber improved with practice if he survived, and I miss those of my friends who did not survive.

Being able to fall off and expecting to live puts climbing in a different light.  In fact I see that the considerable gymnastic attraction to climbing has been enhanced now that the risk is similar to falling off parallel bars.  Learning progress is astonishing rapid with smart ass beginners starting when I finish. Falls are accepted as part of the learning process.


Pete and I encountered 'Sister Europe' (remember the name!)

We had adapted to the absence of flatness arid Pete's climbing had/become increasingly bolder. We had set our sights on a wall which fascinated us as we realised that there were routes.  It would have seemed totally impossible earlier, but the law which predicts that things fall jammy side down had allowed a minor queue to form at its foot when our moment came.  To while away the time until the crowds went home Pete suggested "Sister Europe". graded v.s., next to another climb we had enjoyed.

The first pitch, ambiguously, seemed to offer a choice but circumstances pushed Pete to pick his way to the left up an impending wall on tiny holds to a ledge belay in a corner. As I joined him I sensed nervousness. "Could you belay down there?" Well no, I couldn't.  "Come on up to me then.”  I nearly didn't because a large flake swayed away as I pulled and swayed back as I hastily reacted and glided over its swaying mass. Heads down, totally concentrating, two twittering climbers lobbed chocks into anything that didn't move and swathed in a web at protection felt their tension ease to the point that they felt able to speak. "Bloody Hell Pete.  It's a young scree slope!"

Pete with infinite care eased himself upright and into a position to start the next pitch. Straining to see, I had the impression of an overhanging crack set a hundred feet clear above the beach against which waves crashed.  Pete almost out of sight danced up and down for an hour or more.  I may exaggerate.  My nerves - were at full stretch and I had rather too much time to rationalise about our shaky belay.  I had designed several self rescue schemes should the corner drop away. I conscientiously admired the um, oh yes, the view.  Several times.

Judging by the grunt, and the disturbing lack of light conversation, Pete's last little effort was a supreme one as he lunged, placed a runner ("pro") and once again stepped down.

I gazed moodily at the receding tide and wondered why I'd come.  I examined each chock placement in turn and hastily rationalised some more. Nothing much to say really. Perhaps his jambing techniques needed taking to bits, polishing, and putting hack again.  Perhaps he'd become excessively keen on little up and down movements.  PERHAPS IT WASN'T THE ROUTE!  More grunting and rapid rope movement broke my reverie and seconds later he said "I'm up!"  Blessed words.  "Good old Pete" I thought as I got the hell out of it in well rehearsed order .. "Goodbye stance - whoopee!"

Ten feet higher I became totally engrossed in staying on.  Yes, there were the jamb holds in the crack overhead but to get there I needed to climb a too wide crack between smooth walls.  The crack was filled with subsoil.  I performed the Pete pantomime or trying everything else.  Like Pete I didn't find anything.  Unlike him I had a top rope and decisively dug into the back of the crack.  Heaving up, I felt a cannonball sized piece of Pembroke rolling gently onto my chest. It would not be stuffed back.  If dropped it would make a mess of one of my beautiful boots, the foot would mend.  Intuitively I went for the jamb, kneeling on the boulder in passing.  The hand jambing was delightful and so was the sight of a grinning Pete sitting on horizontal grass in the evening sun.

Gymnastics can't grip you like that.  Current climbing still involves risk, real or apparent, and I'm still allergic to falling and the fitness exercises necessary to do young men’s climbs.