Climb de Rock: A Climber’s Guide to Bermuda is available from the Bermuda Bookstore and on Amazon in paperback and ebook versions.
19/10/20: CLIMBING THERAPY
Here is a great article from Outside online about the current status of climbing therapy
by Ula Chroba
For Miriam Pracki, a 36-year-old from Germany, taking up climbing was an essential step in overcoming years of mental health hurdles. In 2000, when she was a teenager, she developed an eating disorder. By 2010, she’d been hospitalized three times, and regular patterns of depression and self-harming behavior led her to put her university coursework on hold. But when Pracki, who had always been active and outdoorsy, heard that a new climbing gym was opening nearby, she decided to give it try.
The skills she learned climbing eventually paved the way for her recovery. “While you’re climbing, the only important thing is the now,” she says. “You can’t think about your body weight, or your job, or whatever.” The sport made her feel strong; she recalls with excitement the tension in her core as she completed her first boulder problem on a steep horizontal roof. “That was such a cool feeling,” she says. “Being strong in climbing made me stronger in general. I was able to transfer that success and positivity into everyday life.”
In the four years following her first trip to the climbing gym, she recovered, returned to a healthy weight, was diagnosed with and treated for ADHD, and finished school. Now she’s married with kids—her husband is also a climber—and works as an interior designer. She continues to boulder and sport-climb both at the gym and outdoors.
The sport holds therapeutic promise for many reasons. Climbing can bring about mindfulness, the in-the-moment focus that Pracki experienced, which is key to treating depression, explains Katharina Luttenberger, a psychology researcher at the University of Erlangen in Germany. It’s also objective—you either top out or you don’t. That makes it harder for those struggling with self-esteem to discredit themselves, as you can’t simply send a route because you were lucky. The sport is loaded with metaphors, too. “A depressed patient needs to find a hold again in life, or you have to climb out of your depression, you have to let go to move on,” says Luttenberger.
In a movementcurrently centered in Germany and Austria but gaining traction around the globe, practitioners like Luttenberger are evaluating bouldering psychotherapy—which typically involves a combination of talk therapy and climbing—in controlled studies and applying it in hospitals and private practices. With a growing body of evidence and support from experts, these psychologists hope to persuade health officials that this therapy is a valuable alternative to more traditional talk-therapy approaches.
Luttenberger and her colleagues have developed a ten-session curriculum over nearly a decade of research. Each of the sessions starts with a meditation. Next, the instructor talks about the theme for the day, such as self-esteem, trust, or social relationships. The therapist then leads a climbing exercise that illustrates that theme. For example, patients might boulder blindfolded with the guidance of the instructor or other patients to explore fear, which usually dissipates once they learn to rely on others’ guidance. The exercise is then followed by a discussion and another meditation or relaxation exercise.
A paper published in March in BMC Psychiatry found that a climbing-based therapeutic program was a more effective treatment for depression than other exercise regimens that did not involve therapy, and it was as effective as established methods of talk therapy. The trial followed 240 patients: one-third participated in bouldering therapy, another third did cognitive behavioral therapy(a common form of talk therapy), and the final third initiated an exercise program at home. The group that received the climbing treatment improved significantly more than those in the exercise program and similarly to the group that received cognitive behavioral therapy. “CBT is powerful and has a long history,” says Luttenberger, who led the study. “And we could show that bouldering therapy was not inferior to CBT, which is great.”
Creating a control group for physical activity without a therapy component was critical to the study, because exercise, in general, has been shown to have positive effects on mental health. Luttenberger and her team’s first study, conducted in 2012 with 47 participants, found that depression levels dropped significantly among participants who got to boulder, compared to a group placed on a waiting list as a control—but it didn’t prove that bouldering therapy was any better than simply getting your heart rate up and your body moving. The 2020 study expanded the parameters and made a better case for climbing therapy having real-world potential.
“The way people approach a boulder problem is very similar to the way people approach life outside of bouldering,” says Lisa Vigg, a psychologist who assisted with Luttenberger’s research and who led her own patients through bouldering-therapy routines in Germany. It reveals behavioral patterns that therapists and patients can then work through in the climbing gym, which serves as a safe place to practice new skills.
Alexis Konstantin Zajetz, an Austrian psychotherapist, has been exploring climbing therapy since the early 2000s and founded the Institute for Climbing Therapy in Salzburg in 2005. A dedicated climber himself, he saw potential in the sport because of the intense focus it requires and the strong emotions it can bring up, and he began to incorporate bouldering sessions into talk therapy with certain patients. In one session, when Zajetz instructed one of his patients to pick an easy route to climb, she refused to climb below a moderate grade. “She was demanding so much from herself,” says Zajetz, because she was afraid of what others would think if she didn’t climb at a certain difficulty. After that, he was able to work with her on her struggles with self-judgment, both in and out of the gym.
Compared to other adventure sports, bouldering is relatively approachable and affordable—all you need are shoes and chalk, and gyms are plentiful these days, with the cost of a day pass usually under $30.Plus, it’s fun and intuitive for many people, adds Zajetz. Even on their first day, most people can complete a route with minimal instruction, bringing a sense of accomplishment, with little time spent refining technique. Advanced and beginner climbers can practice side by side, working on separate routes, making the sport particularly inclusive, says Vigg.
“Anything that gets people who are suffering from depression active physically and socially is a good thing,” Catherine Forneris, a psychiatrist at the University of North Carolina, says of the research team’s findings. She adds that there are a lot of “unanswered but intriguing questions” about the approach. What the existing studies can’t tell us is which aspect of the therapy is most powerful: Is it the bouldering itself? Is it exercising with a group? Is it the mindfulness lessons? Perhaps all contribute, but for now it’s unclear to what extent the different parts of the program are beneficial. Forneris adds that future work should seek to replicate the studies with different patient groups outside Germany.
The other goal is to get more widespread recognition. In January, the first conference on climbing therapy was held in Germany, with about 200 attendees. It featured workshops on mental conditions like addiction, depression, anxiety, and PTSD. Pracki also gave a talk on climbing’s role in her recovery. “The participants were so happy to meet other people working with climbing,” says Zajetz.
In Germany, several clinics and hospitals have climbing walls, so therapists can prescribe a bouldering exercise as part of an intervention. Outside that setting, however, it’s harder for patients to access bouldering psychotherapy. Zajetz’s patients pay him privately for bouldering sessions. Luttenberger hopes that situation will change in coming years so that bouldering treatments are eventually officially recognized and covered by health care systems. As she points out, it could be a good alternative for people who may otherwise be wary of the stigma of conventional therapy. In the next few months, she plans to publish a manual for therapists based on the program she’s refined through her research. Zajetz also holds regular trainings at the Institute for Climbing Therapy for instructors and psychologists interested in the approach.
After leading sessions for Luttenberger’s research, Vigg, who lives in England, says she’s now planning to switch her entire practice to bouldering therapy. “It is so worthwhile to get up from the therapy chair and get active with patients,” she says. “I’ve worked with psychotherapy, both inpatient and outpatient, with groups and individuals, and I would say from experience that this is the easiest and most joyful way to do therapy for patients and therapists alike.”
22/9/20: BROUGHT TO HEEL
The route I climbed earlier, Teddy Boy, was actually an escape from the real line I was attempting which was going to take a left-hand exit from the seam rather than following it all the way. I could see some enticing jugs in the steep wall on the left but these were guarded by a fierce move – a boulder problem in the sky.
So the day after the hurricane had passed I went to try it on a 1.3m spring tide. First go I did the move on crimps to reach the first jug and then moved onto the next hold. I was chalking up on this when it snapped off without warning depositing me in the sea. I touched down on the reef but not too hard. Thirty minutes later I was back and did the crux to the first jug which promptly snapped off too. Now here, I think, is my mistake – I failed to take into account the waves that remained from the passage of the hurricane with their peaks and troughs.
When I touched down on the reef this time, it was with a very hard and painful impact directly on to my heel – I had fallen into a trough in the waves which meant that I was falling into waist-deep water from 40ft. I immediately knew that I’d done something really bad to my foot and took my rock shoe off – there and then – in the water. Exiting the water without further injuring my foot was very tricky due to the very rough swell surging and swirling around the sharp exit rocks.
Back on dry land, I found that I couldn’t put any weight on my foot. Thirty minutes of crawling later, I had collected my gear and got back to my bike. A sketchy one-footed ride and then X-Ray and CT at the hospital confirmed a fractured calcaneum and a premature end to the DWS season for this year. Don’t mess with the Teddy Boy.
19/9/20: HURRICANE TEDDY
With Hurricane Teddy knocking on our door and creating massive swells on the south shore I climbed a new route today in Hogfish Bay.
Checking the surf at midday it wasn’t really coming together as being surfable due to the massive swell and the onshore wind. Full moon spring tide today happens to be the highest of the year at 1.4m but peaked at 10:30am while I was busy. So I pegged it on my new ebike to the cliff at midday where the water was already streaming out and at a borderline height for this project at nipple-deep above boulders. In my enthusiasm to climb I turned a blind eye to that and climbed the initial section to no-hands ledges. When I got to the second ledge I realised that the water was now too shallow to fall or jump off and that I was committed. The finish while not hard was totally gripping as I tested and pulled on brittle pieces of the planet that had never before been touched by human hands. Another mini-adventure in my back yard.
TEDDY BOY 5.10d X 15m
The most obvious feature of this route is the diagonal crease in the right-hand side of the wall right of the window. From the starting ledge traverse left over the cave then climb up and right up the line of a vertical seam to jugs on the lip of the bulge. Continue via ledges and step left to the crease. Follow this up and right to finish. The water underneath is shallow and you need a tide greater than 1m. Falling off the upper section could result in striking ledges at half-height and at the base but jumping off would probably be OK. Grant Farquhar 19/9/20. Climbed while Hurricane Teddy was literally pounding the south shore.
15/8/20: THE HISTORY OF ADMIRALTY HOUSE
The History of Admiralty House
August 13, 2020
Written by: Margaret Worth
This article was taken from our archives. It first appeared in the November 1956 issue of The Bermudian. It appears here exactly as it did originally.
The history of Admiralty House is a record of vicissitudes and conflicting hopes and opinions. It has been a bone of contention between resident admirals and their Lordships of the Admiralty at Whitehall on many occasions; it has been condemned to demolition, reprieved, patched up, added to, excavated and modernised in accordance with the demands or whims of its occupiers, some of whom have been men of decided views and strong individuality. It has emerged as a residence, artistically formless perhaps, and of little account by architectural standards, but in its very formlessness posting a charm and character of its own that make and immediate appeal.
It became the official home of the Admiral in 1816 when the Bermuda Legislature voted a sum of £3,000 in local currency (the equivalent then of £2,000 sterling) to buy the estate at St. John’s Hill and presented it as a freehold gift to be “…vested in His Majesty, his heirs and successors for ever, as, and for the residence and use of the Naval Commander-in-Chief on this station…”
Previous to this deed of gift, the house at St. John’s Hill had been rented by Admiral Sir J. B. Warren for £60 a year because the one allotted to him by the government was in St. George’s and the establishment of the dockyard at Ireland Island required much of his attention. This was in 1810. Two years later he was given Mount Wyndham on Bailey’s Bay, commanding a view of both Grassy Bay and St. George’s. During this time, St. John’s Hill was used as a Naval Hospital. In the Cove garden can still be seen the grave of a midshipman, dated 1813, presumably that of one of the patients in the hospital, though legend has it that he was the victim of the mis-directed revenge of a betrayed husband who hid himself near the trysting-place of his wife and her lover. With a pair of pistols cocked in readiness, the tale goes, he awaited the approach of his wife’s seducer. A figure loomed up in he darkness smoking a cheroot, whereupon the infuriated husband shot him dead, realising his mistake only when it was too late to rectify it.
It was during the tenancy of Mount Wyndham that Admiral Cochrane sailed with his fleet to attack Baltimore during the war of 1812. On this occasion he performed the hitherto unprecedented feat of taking the whole fleet through the nine miles of dangerous reefs which constitute the North Rock Passage, and it was an American prisoner of war on board one of his vessels that was inspired to write a rousing song in praise of his country’s flag. The name of the prisoner was Francis Scott Key and he called his song “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
Sir David Milne, who was Admiral at the time when St. John’s Hill was presented to him, evidently preferred Mount Wyndham, for he continued to live there and sent his Flag Captain to the newly-acquired residence. Although much had been done to improve the property on its purchase, it is on record that a committee was appointed in 1819 to carry out repairs and further necessary improvements, and two years later, Admiral Falise, relieving Admiral Griffith-Colpoys, ordered the construction of a wine cellar, the paving of the paths and passages around the house and to the outhouses, “for the preservation of the health of himself and his suite,” and the fitting of jalousies and glass sashes to the verandahs.
There are reports of surveys held in 1822 and 1824, in reply to the first of which the Navy Board expressed a definite wish that the annual repairs to Admiralty House should not be in excess of £50. The second of these surveys was much more emphatic in its report. It condemned the house in no uncertain terms as being unstable for its purpose, adding that nothing short of rebuilding could make it fit for residence by the Commander-in-Chief. An offer four years later by the Colony to add some reception rooms to the house led to several meetings, after the first of which the Clerk of Works, a Mr. Smith, who was responsible for the dockyard railway scheme, wrote a rather plaintive but determined letter to Sir Charles Ogle, the Admiral. In it he stated, “I am a man of few words and apt to be talked down by those possessing volubility of language… Four years ago I reported on the bad condition and decay of the house. I object to the proposal to build a new dining-room as the house is not worth it; it has cost in the five years gone by and will const in the next five years as much as will build a a good new house requiring no repairs for the next forty years. Sweep the ground clear, Sir Charles, have a plan of a villa for the summer residence of a gentleman’s family in England. It will do for a winter residence here. The Colony will, no doubt, give the stone in lieu of their present offer to enlarge the old house.” The “voluble” members at the next meeting evidently won the day, for a new reception and dining-room were added.
Plans for a new house were drawn up in 1844. Sir Francis Austen, then Commander-in-Chief, described it as “about to be a very handsome building,” and applied to the Colony for a grant of another acre of land. The ground was levelled and materials for the building provided; the hulk Resolute was moored in Boss’s Cove with 30 convicts on board who were to be engaged on the new building, but for some reason the whole scheme fell though and there is no trace of the plans.
Whether poor Mr. Smith was talked out of his post as Clerk of Works we do not know, but in 1848 his successor, a Mr. Anderson, proposed that a new house be built for the Admiral “in the early English style, to which the mode of building pursued by the natives has some affinity; this will also admit of external experiences and of every comfort and convenience required by the rank of the Commander-in-Chief.” He suggested that native labour could be employed cheaply for the work and the soft stone of the island used in the construction. But he had a formidable opponent in the person of the Admiral himself, Lord Dundonald, who in no uncertain terms inveighed against the proposed extravagances. “It has been proposed,” he wrote, “to spend £11,000 on a new Admiralty House. Don’t sanction it! Look at the Commissioner’s House. It has cost by the Dockyard books £56,000 … It is scarcely credible that there is an eleven-stalled stable and two coach-houses attached to this mansion, and that on an island only a mile long and unapproachable except by boat… Send out from England a house in frame saturated in sulphate of iron, a cottage also for the staff; both house and cottage should be of the simplest plan, no paper, no drapery but ample ventilation and roofed with blue slate.” What a blow to Mr. Anderson’s high hopes of “external experiences” – it is interesting to cogitate on the form they might possibly have taken.
But Lord Dundonald’s austere suggestion met with no better luck, for about this time a new building was put up to replace the dilapidated house and office of the Secretary, and the main house stood on with its numerous additions clinging to it like molluscs.
The ingenuity and forcefulness of Lord Dundonald found a fresh outlet in the tunnelling and excavating activities in which he indulged. He was responsible for the building of the pier, dredging Clarence Cove, making the underground passage that leads to the kitchen garden and paddock on the opposite side of the road and for digging out the extensive caves and galleries in the rocks facing the sea. The ostensible purpose of these excavations was to assist in the landing and disposal of stores from ships, as well as to supply a temporary storage place for perishable goods in a low temperature. It is reported that the Admiral celebrated the completion of the work with a magnificent ball, during the course of which the guests were led down stone steps into a tunnel from which they emerged into a great circular room some 40 feet in circumference, cut out of the rock itself, and proudly displayed by the originator of the scheme.
In the course of the years a kitchen, a dining-room, a room adjoining it, a ball-room and some bedrooms and bathrooms have been built on to the original structure. Additional plots of land have been acquired to extend the grounds, neighbouring cottages have been bought in and adapted as quarters or offices for the Admiral’s staff, (including the one that later became the mess for the secretarial staff which had to be purchased because it was a “a haunt of bad character”), and stables and outhouses have been erected. In 1931 a new entrance was constructed, there having been no main entrance to the house before this, the drive was widened, the electrical circuit was overhauled and a salt water sanitary system installed. World War II brought about a number of changes, when the ball-room was converted for use as a combined Base Cypher Office and Operations Room and several annexes built for the use of the increased staff.
The gardens owe much of their beauty and originality to the work of Admiral Sir Cooper Key, the contemporary of Governor Lefroy, and like him, a keen horticulturalist. He it was that imported the first red bougainvillea into Bermuda from the West Indies, and developed the cultivation of oranges and strawberries to a high degree of perfection. Like the house itself, the gardens possess that special charm of casualness that is so much more attractive than studied formality, and they have been the setting for many delightful parties. Overlooking Clarence Cove (formerly Abbott’s Bay, renamed after the Duke of Clarence, afterward Lord High Admiral, at the time St. John’s Hill became Clarence Hill) is the great figure-head of the old Irresistible, an enormous figure of Neptune, which has watched many an Admiral come and go under his benign gaze. Now the Admiral has departed for the last time; the parties and balls are all over; a focus of social life over many years has disappeared; and the house that has been a beloved port-of-call and a haven of rest for numberless weary mariners awaits the official ruling that will decide its future fate.
14/8/20: TAIPAN WALL BANNED FOR CLIMBING
It’s hard to believe that climbing just got banned at one of the best crags in the world. Not only here but Bundaleer too. Arapiles is surely next? A very sad day for not only Victorian but also world climbing.
5/AUG/20: THE PALE RIDER
When the Lamb broke the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth living creature saying, ‘Come’. I looked and beheld a pale horse, and he who sat on it had the name: Death.
Revelation 6:7 – 8
The first route I ever climbed was on the obscure Angus venue of Black Crag in the Sidlaw Hills with my school classmate and later-to-be Professor Simon Stewart. Along with later-to-be climbing guide Graeme Ettle and other climbing friends such as John Fitzpatrick, Stewart Tawse and Lee Delaney we attended the appropriately named Craigie High. Although unlike gang warfare and glue sniffing, climbing was not on the curriculum of the second worst school in Dundee. In a recent email to me Simon mused:
‘The three most experienced climbers I ever climbed with all died in climbing accidents in their 60s and 70s: Andy Nisbet, Martin Moran and Doug Lang. Might senior climbers relax their risk management in a proactive selection of the warriors death? Is that the same as suicide?’
Well, I thought, that is a very good question: what, exactly, is the risk of death in rock climbing and is it affected by age? And what, exactly, is a warrior’s death?
Back in the 80s, we were male teenagers and entirely self-taught which means that we had a few near-misses that horrified our parents, at least the ones that they found out about because we required medical attention for those. One early experience with Simon was attempting the route Apocalypse in Ethiebeaton Quarry, Dundee when we were about 15 years old. This appealing groove was in a working quarry and was unclimbed but had already been named by local Seven Arches Bridge climbing guru Bruce Strachan.
Apocalypse, we estimated, was 50ft high; we had a red 50ft, 11mm rope, so no problem we thought. We had only one runner that would fit in the crack: a Tricam 4, the one with the green tape. The only camming devices available at the time were rigid-stem Friends and we simply couldn’t afford the 20-pound price tag. Later on I did all my first E5s with only one Friend: a rigid-stemmed number 2 1/2, coincidentally also with green tape, that my mum gave me for my birthday. I did have a full set of Tricams though and continued to carry the 0.5 pink-taped one for many years after I had a full set of cams as it fitted into narrow slots, for example a two-finger pocket, where no camming device at the time would.
One evening after school, I led up the groove which was quite a fierce overhanging layback. I placed the Tricam and then ran it out to the top. Triumphantly – and about 20ft above the Tricam – I began pulling on the top of the flake which formed the right wall of the groove. In slow motion, and with horror, I observed from seemingly outside my body the top of the flake disintegrating as I pulled on it. Of course we had neglected to tie Simon in before I started climbing or even tie a knot in that end of the rope. So, as blocks rained down on Simon’s head, I took a 50 footer onto the Tricam; the only runner. We were both wearing Troll waist belts without leg loops as was our practice at the time. Simon had, literally, the bitter end of the rope in his hand on the ‘dead side’ of his belay plate. If he’d allowed the slack to pass through the plate then it would’ve been the ‘death side’ for me. We looked at each other in shock and then he lowered me the last foot to the ground.
With fortitude, and teenage luck, he’d held me and that wasn’t the last time a Tricam saved my bacon; thank you Jeff Lowe. A few days later we went back and finished it. We graded it E1 5b because that was the hardest grade that we had climbed at that point. Apocalypse, in retrospect might be E1 or E2; it could also be E4. We’ll never know because the route is unrepeated and no longer exists – the buttress has since been blown up with explosives.
There are other stories of a similar nature some of which had a lucky outcome and some of which resulted in ambulance trips which, at least, provided us with some route-name material such as 999 (the UK emergency number) and DRI (the now defunct Dundee Royal Infirmary). I pity my poor mother suffering through this high-risk episode of her teenage son’s ‘hill walking’.
Unlike us, for the Vikings death was nothing to be feared. Death in battle was a glorious and desirable end. To die with your sword in your hand was the only way to gain entry to Valhalla where you would drink ale, feast etc forever. The Bushido code of the Samurai warriors is comparable and a bastardised version of this was a driving factor behind the self-destructing actions of the Kamikaze pilots of WW2. This philosophy was usually not shared by the pilots themselves who were ‘volunteered’ at pain of death rather than being genuine volunteers. Those poor bastards were mostly virgin teenagers. What a destiny to be born into.
These are extreme, but enduring, examples of the warrior’s death. Do climbers share the attributes of the viking, the samurai, the kamikaze? Do we indeed drop our guard as we age, somehow desirous of the glorious death of the warrior rather than fading away with dementia and incontinence?
‘He died doing what he (or she) loved,’ said no one about anyone who died of dementia. However this statement is a common source of comfort following the premature bereavement of a loved son, brother, sister, parent who has been taken when climbing. Yes, they might simply have been a victim of circumstances but they might also have fucked up badly. Yes, they were doing what they loved, but they probably would have loved to do it again the following week. They couldn’t because they were busy attending their own funeral.
They knew the risks and they did it anyway. Of course, ‘he’ or she has already lived and died and is therefore beyond pain. Their life is over and should be celebrated. But, the pain is felt by the ones who are left behind and who have to deal with survivor guilt and the endless what-ifs of the bargaining phase of grief which inevitably leads to the question: is the flirtation with death worth it?
‘Crossing the road is more dangerous than rock climbing you know.’ Is what my 16-year-old self informed my long-suffering and unconvinced mother. I probably plucked this statistical example from the place where most 16-year-old boys derive their cocksure opinions: out of my arse. But, how else can we quantify this risk of death that we run when we are rock climbing?
One useful concept – which was not simply plucked out of his ass – is that of Stanford University Professor Ronald Howard’s ‘micromort’. This is a measurement of risk defined as a one-in-a-million chance of death. One commonly-cited example of such a one-in-a-million chance is that of tossing a coin heads 20 times in a row (1/2 to the power of 20 = 1/1,048,576). Based upon collected historical data of the death rate of participation micromorts can be used to enumerate the riskiness of day-to-day activities. For example according to the UK Office of National Statistics there were 530,000 deaths recorded from any cause in 2019 in England’s and Wales’s combined population of 59 million.
This annual death rate of approximately 1% = 10,000/million which when divided by the 365 days of the year works out to be a roughly 25/million or a 25 micromort risk of death from any cause per person per day. That is the chance of death of the average person on the average day in England and Wales simply from being alive in those countries on any one day. The 2020 statistics during the Covid 19 pandemic will be much higher and possibly double this figure.
Further calculations based on the accident statistics gathered for various sports inform us that the risk of death for scuba diving is 5 micromorts per scuba dive, skydiving 10 micromorts per jump (which is the same as a general anaesthetic), and base jumping a whopping 430 per jump (which is three times the risk of giving birth in the UK).
Rock climbing data suggests a more pedestrian micromort of only 3 per rock climb. Speaking of pedestrians, how does this compare to the risk of crossing the road? Using data gathered by the UK’s Automobile Association and dividing the annual risk of dying by the number of daily road crossings gives a fatality risk of about 1 chance in 300 million or 0.003 micromorts for each road crossing, and 5 micromorts per year. This data clearly confirms that my 16-year-old self was indeed talking out of his arse when he was claiming that crossing the road was more dangerous than rock climbing. It turns out that the risk of death per rock climb is 1,000 times higher than the risk of death crossing the road. However this is still relatively low when compared to the other sports mentioned above.
Nevertheless, this calculation is only as good as the data that it is based upon for example the NASA’s earth observatory website informs us that, ‘as of March 2012, there had been 5,656 successful ascents of Everest, while 223 people had died – a fatality rate of 4%’. This works out as 37,932 micromorts per ascent. Contrast this with Indian Face, an E9 on Cloggy in Wales. This is one of the most coveted and dangerous and therefore potentially lethal rock climbs in existence – it is hard and insecure and if you fall off the crux you will most likely die. It was first climbed in 1986, by Johnny Dawes, and has had only a handful of ascents since but no one has died on it, yet. Therefore for an ascent of Indian Face the micromorts are zero which is clearly ridiculous, especially when compared to an ascent of Everest.
I was standing at the west side of the Perth Road/Kingsway junction which I had spent two hours walking to in order to hitchhike to Dunkeld. Thumb out a few cars, including my English teacher from the second worst school in Dundee, passed (she later said that I wasn’t standing in a good spot). Eventually a lorry stopped and after another two hour walk from the south side of Perth to the Dunkeld Road I got picked up and made it to the A9 exit to Dunkeld. Two hours later I arrived at the crag: Craig a’ Barns. I was the archetypal – to paraphrase Point Break, ‘young, dumb and full of come,’ stupid, teenage climbing boy and after the 6am and start and prolonged approach I was dermined, as I remember, to do ‘something dangerous’. Uh oh. However, never mind the climbing, getting picked up by sex offenders was probably the biggest danger a teenage boy could run in those days. Thankfully, I only had to bail on those a couple of times.
After fighting off the paedos, I arrived at the base of Polney Crag and soloed a few of the VS to HVS staples, but where were my friends? On the upper tier it seemed. So, I scrambled over and found them on a route called Left Hand Crack, an E1. Borrowing a guidebook I found a route called Left Hand Edge, purportedly the left arete of Left Hand Crack at HVS 4c. Piece of piss I thought and set off up the arete. It turns out that my idea of where that route went was somewhat incorrect and after about 30ft of soloing I ran into trouble. My memory says that I pulled two handholds off at the same time (unlikely). Next instant, I was shouting: ‘Fuck!’ and flying through the air down the route over the path beneath and down the gully below for about 100ft before I finally bounced to a stop. Sorry Mum.
The goal of all life is death. Sigmund Freud.
Sigmund Freud postulated in Beyond the Pleasure Principle that in contrast to the sex drive which he called ‘Libido’, humans have an opposing, in German, ‘Todestrieb’ or, literally, death drive. Later disciples of Freud associated this with Thanatos, the Greek god of death.
Thanatos is often invoked when humans engage in risky and self-destructive acts that could lead to their own death such as climbing and other ‘extreme sports’: thrill seeking and aggression are viewed as actions which stem from this ‘death drive’.
However, there are other more possible and prosaic explanations: immediate pleasure outweighs long term pain, the increase in status and reproductive success outweigh the risk of injury or death and/or humans are notoriously bad at assessing risk.
So, getting back to Simon’s question, are climbing deaths more common in older climbers or not? Am I more likely to die climbing now, in my 50s, than I was as a teenager? My instinctive response – and having read the above you might agree with me – is one of: no. You want the phlegmatic, grey-haired pilot driving your jumbo jet, not the smart-arsed testosterone-fuelled teenager. I could not find any climbing data on this subject but data from equestrian sports shows that experience is inversely correlated with risk of serious injury.
So, in conclusion, I don’t think that there is an increased risk of desiring the warrior’s death as you age. You are more likely to die in rock climbing when young and stupid with poor judgement rather than old and, hopefully, wise. But similar to Russian Roulette as you repeatedly expose yourself to the objective risk this accumulates, and one day the odds might catch up with you. But then we’re all going to die anyway so you might as well go climbing.
19/7/20: MOTIVES IN THE MOUNTAINS
Dr Jeremy Windsor posted a short interview with me on his Mountain Medicine Blog last week.
Motives In The Mountains (Part 2)
Posted by Jeremy Windsor on Jul 10, 2020
The reasons why we choose to climb are sometimes hard to fathom. As we were reminded in Part 1 the urge to spend time in the mountains can often come from a need to cope with the difficulties of day-to-day life. Whilst this time can provide respite and help heal wounds, there is the potential for mountains to be nothing more than a distraction and in some cases lead to a path of unhealthy risk taking behavior. These thoughts were never too far from me as I read Crazy Sorrow by Grant Farquhar. Subtitled “The Life And Death Of Alan Mullin” the book pulls together the subject’s own writings and those of the wider climbing community in an attempt to understand the suicide of one of the country’s leading winter climbers at the age of just 34. Despite being abused in childhood and suffering the disappointment of injury and a medical discharge from the army, Alan was able to climb at the very highest winter grades within a couple of years of soloing his first grade 1 gully. The journey, carefully described in the book, picks out many of the factors that motivated Alan and the impact of his actions on those around him.
Alan Mullin (Photo: Ian Parnell)
Alan was perhaps best known for his audacious solo winter ascent of Rolling Thunder (VIII 8), an overhanging and poorly protected E3 rock route on Lochnagar. Summing up his effort, Simon Richardson, one of the UK’s leading climbers and a former president of the Scottish Mountaineering Club, wrote,
The impact of his routes on the Scottish winter climbing scene was electric. Mullin had arrived on the scene with very little climbing experience. It would normally take years of experience to acquire the spectrum of skills necessary to climb high standards winter routes, so how could a relative newcomer operate at the highest standards of the day? The answer partly lay in Mullin’s fitness and rigorous training regime, but mainly in the total focus and unswerving determination he applied to his routes. Other climbers soon realised that they could push their own standards too. Within a couple of seasons, average standards had jumped a level and grade VII, which was previously held to be the preserve of the elite, quickly became accessible to many.
We asked Grant, a practising psychiatrist and accomplished climber, to tell us a bit more about the origins of the book and the life of its extraordinary subject. Can I start by asking you what it was that led to you writing “Crazy Sorrow”?
About 5 years ago I was crippled by a flare up of psoriatric arthritis and wasn’t able to surf or climb so I was seeking a creative outlet. This led to me writing a book about Gogarth called The White Cliff which was an enjoyable process and then I was looking for another project. Crazy Sorrow was a good fit for me because it combines two of my passions: climbing and psychiatry.
What do you think it was about winter climbing that drew Alan to the sport?
He experienced it in the army in South Georgia and realised that he was good at it, and in his words: ‘It’s pure fucking mental’.
Simon Richardson talks about Alan’s “total focus and unswerving determination” that allowed him to make such a swift and extraordinary progression through the climbing grades. What do you think underpinned that?
Climbing provided, for a time, the meaning of life for him. For me, the cardinal problem in people like Alan who have borderline personality disorder (BPD) is what the DSM describes as ‘chronic feelings of emptiness’. It doesn’t sound that dramatic in DSM, but this is the precursor to suicidality: life has no meaning, what’s the point etc so I might as well kill myself…
Alan on the first ascent of Crazy Sorrow (IX 10). He described it as, “a poorly protected 35m trad E4 6a in summer. In winter it transforms into thin mixed climbing on a steep 80 degree slab with rubbish gear in flared grooves filled with thin ice. It is the most committing climb imaginable and a fall from the difficult crux would undoubtedly have resulted in a broken back” (Photos: Steve Lynch).
As medical professionals we tend to place a lot of importance on someone’s diagnosis, but clearly there’s a lot more to a person than just their disease. Did Alan’s BPD play a large part in his decision to devote so much to climbing or were there other factors at play?
Great question: when we are engaging with our clients we tend to be focused on the diagnostic relevance of the psychopathology – the form – whereas the clients are focused on the narrative – the content. We have to be careful to ensure that we are having a conversation with the person rather than their mental illness. Alan’s endless and fruitless search for meaning, due to BPD, took him on a journey through many places including the army, family life, drugs, fighting and climbing. Of course, climbing is great fun and a therapeutic activity for mental health and Alan was also exceptionally talented at it. Not everybody who climbs is mentally disordered, apparently, but Alan was driven by his demons to the extreme degree that he would actually vomit through fear on routes which is highly unusual. So, yes, I think that it was a driving factor in his climbing.
We often think of those with a BPD as lacking a degree of emotional empathy but we see in his writing real insight and thoughtfulness. Did this surprise you? Were you surprised by how well he wrote?
One of the features of BPD that I have observed in my clients, that I have never seen described in the medical literature, is hypergraphia – many of them tend to diarise and write about themselves a lot and bring or send me the writings to read. This is described in the literature in connection with Temporal Lobe Epilepsy as Geschwind Syndrome but has not been documented as a feature of BPD. I cannot place much validity on my anecdotal observation, but I was not surprised when I managed to unearth his writings. However, what you read by him in the book has been heavily edited. The original manuscript, I suspect, was written during a state of hypomania and is difficult to read.
You write towards the end of the book that climbing was a “therapeutic activity” for Alan. How did it help?
Research into the benefit of climbing as an experiential therapy for adults and children with mental disorders including, but not only, mood disorders, anxiety disorders, ADHD, trauma and addiction is growing. This will probably come as no surprise to many climbers who have already found these benefits for themselves. I’m providing climbing therapy as an experiential therapy in Bermuda. More information can be found here.
Andy Kirkpatrick’s revealing portrait of Alan Mullin. Andy’s fascinating tribute to him can be found here
You describe in detail the final months that lead up to Alan’s suicide. This includes the impact of chronic injuries, episodes of substance misuse and the new diagnosis of bipolar affective disorder. There is a real sense that many feel that Alan was let down by mental health services in Scotland. What would it have taken to prevent Alan’s death?
One of the problems with mental health services is that they become focused on secondary risks ie the risk to the organisation of reputational damage or legal action if there is a negative outcome rather than focusing on the primary risk (to the client). So they become risk averse and focused on risk assessment which is something that the science tells us is something we cannot do reliably and is therefore a waste of clinical time. Instead we should be using our clinical skills and time to provide excellent care and treatment for: Every. Single. Patient. Who is in distress and seeking treatment.
At times your book describes a man who seems remote and difficult to get to know, perhaps even hostile. After writing the book do you think it’s easier to understand him through his writings than face-to-face contact?
Although we were contemporaries, I never met Alan. However, we have many (climbing) friends in common and I suspect that he and I would have got on very well. Or maybe he would have battered me. Who knows? At least it wouldn’t have been boring!
Grant has produced an incredibly poignant book that deserves to be widely read. By revealing the very complex nature of one of the UK’s finest winter climbers he also helps us understand the very complex relationship we all have with the mountain we love.
Crazy Sorrow – The Life And Death Of Alan Mullin can be bought here.
Part 1 of Motives in the Mountains can be found here.
1 thought on “Motives In The Mountains (Part 2)”
David Hillebrandt commented 6 days, 4 hours agoTwo fascinating articles on our motivations and why we need to Feed the Rat with much appreciated comments from Jim, Tony and Grant. I have ordered Grant’s book on Allan Mullin and if it is half as good as the White Cliff it will be exceptional. It will join other books with insight into our motivation in my Library. Other books in this section are Samson. the writings of Menlove Edwards compiled by Sutton and Noyce, Menlove by Jim Perrin and Feeding the Rat by Al Alvarez about Mo Antoine. The more I ponder our mixed motivations the more I know I know nothing about such a variety of emotions and personalities. Dave H
29/6/20: THE GREAT PLAGUE
Think the Coronavirus is bad (which it is)? At least it’s not the plague. Count your blessings. Check out this amazing piece on City Life by Dr Anthony Cox.
Dundee and ‘the Great Plague’ of 1644-8
‘Between Sidlaw and the Sea,
Pest or plague shall never be.’
The last great plague epidemic to hit Scotland erupted during the 1640s, with the country already struggling to cope with the chaos and loss sustained by war and catastrophic harvest failures. It came north concealed in the knapsacks and on the breath of Scottish soldiers returning home from their capture of Newcastle in November 1644. Within weeks, it was circulating in the wynds and closes of Edinburgh, and had crossed the Forth into Fife.
In early 1645, many Dundonians were growing increasingly anxious. Not only was the pest advancing on them from the south, but their gaze was also being drawn to the north, where the Royalist insurgent Montrose and his rag-tag army of Irish and Gordon highlanders had cut down every Covenanter army sent against them. Large areas between the Tay and the Great Glen were left as wastelands by Montrose’s ‘scorched earth’ tactics leading to an ‘unparalleled season’ of dearth when the crops were ‘frosted and blasted’ in the ground. Then, at mid-morning on the 4th April, the worst fears of many Dundonians were realised when Montrose suddenly appeared before the town’s western walls. The ensuing siege left substantial parts of Dundee as smoking ruins – just as an even more deadly enemy was approaching from the south.
‘Dundee from the East’ by John Slezer
By late spring of 1645 the plague was in full spate in Edinburgh, and the Committee of Estates was forced into a hurried and unceremonious flight to Perth, where the Scottish army had also been sent to avoid the oncoming pandemic. With 40% of its population concentrated in towns and villages, Edinburgh and the Firth of Forth was Scotland’s most densely populated region, and quickly became the epi-centre of the Scottish plague. When it had finally burnt itself out in 1646, the pest left 12,000 corpses strewn across the region, and in Leith alone over half the port’s population, amounting to 2,736 lives, had been taken.
Hans Holbein’s ‘Danse Macabre’ (The Dance of Death) (1523–5). A reminder of the inevitability of death for all, no matter one’s station in life.
As the plague continued its steady advance on Dundee from the south through June 1645, alarming reports were received that it had also reached Meigle, not far to the west of Dundee, and by September it had advanced even further into Fife.  The Dundee magistrates responded by immediately closing the Tay crossing, and despatched the town’s captain of artillery to seize ‘all boats from the Fife shore’, and to bring them over to the north shore.
Every ship entering the Tay estuary was barred from the harbour, whilst ‘the merchants, skipper and sailors’ were subjected to quarantine for forty days. Townsfolk were strictly forbidden from boarding any quarantined vessel, and crews were directed to ‘handle their lint and open their packs each day in the presence of certain of the Council’, in order to ‘test whether there was infection amongst it, by exposing all on board to risk’.
These measures, though harsh, proved timely and so effective that when the pest finally reached the Tay it found all ways to ‘cross over the water’ barred to it, and instead was forced to creep ‘westward to Perth and beyond.’ It now appeared to be readying for a final advance on Dundee along the Carse of Gowrie from Perth, but actually moved further west before turning back on itself and eventually ‘descending the valley of the Tay by the Braes of Gowrie’. To many Dundonians, the pest seemed, like a cat with prey, to be stalking them, as it advanced on their town from the west, only to suddenly circle ‘round to swoop upon the burgh from the other side.’ Dundee was, though, spared on this occasion as the pest’s advance seemed to grind to a halt in the very shadows of the town walls.
The respite proved all too brief, as, within a year, the pest had returned: in October 1646, the burgh was ‘much alarmed be the sudden death of twa children in John Fithie’s house, who….was found [to have] some blue spots upon their corpses.’ The discovery of the Fithie bairns acted like an electric shock on the town authorities, who hurriedly enacted emergency measures to prevent a full-blown epidemic. These measures, which all Scottish burghs adopted, were based on legislation first enacted by the Scottish parliament in 1456, sixty years before similar legislation was first passed in England.
Scottish plague legislation was based on best practice from Italy and France, and included policies that aimed to control the movement of people, and particularly to stop or to apprehend those attempting to flee the towns during the plague lockdown. Other policies aimed to provide support for poor folk who were placed in quarantine with few means of support, whilst another clause sought to control the practice of ‘clenging’, or burning of a plague victim’s housing and the fumigation of their belongings.
The Wishart Arch in St Roques Lane, Dundee
Once plague was within the town walls, Dundee’s plague regulations aimed at complete suppression, principally through separating the infected from the healthy by sending them to the ‘Sick Men’s Yards’: the name given to the town’s quarantine area that stretched from the Cowgate Port to the so-called ‘sklaitheughs’ (slate quarry). Perched on the raised shore, around two miles distant from the town’s eastern walls, the sklaitheughs supplied stone slates for export to Edinburgh and Fife, as well as providing for Dundee’s needs. Here also, at the ‘Sick Men’s Yards’, was the town’s Leper House (close by the Wishart Arch in St Roques Lane), and the ‘lodges to sick folks in time of pest’. At the eastern end of Sick Men’s Yards was the Roodyards, the former medieval chapel of St John’s, which now served as a plague cemetery. It would later inspire Mary Shelley, who drew on adolescent memories of summers spent on ‘the blank and dreary northern shores of the Tay near Dundee’ when she later came to write Frankenstein. It still exists today as a picturesque and atmospheric cemetery on the Broughty Ferry Road.
In the cemetery on Roodyards Road
Whilst anti-plague measures recommended practices such as quarantining and cleansing, the importance of contact tracing was also well understood, as demonstrated by the response to the discovery of the Fithie bairns, when the;
Council having considered this “late accident”…. thocht fit that there be some honest men nominat to oversee every quarter of the town…. and if they find any appearance of danger or sickness, to close up the houses and put sentries thereto….’
Despite showing no signs of plague, John Fithie was still ‘sent to a shed at the Sickman’s Yards’, and with other households becoming infected it was also ‘found necessary ‘to cause build ane other lodge apairt from it, and to appoint ane watch to stay there’ to prevent communication with the town. The town also engaged John Dickson, a man of some substance and described as a Baillie of Potter Row in Edinburgh, who had gained extensive experience in fighting the plague: he was representative of a certain class of men who, in the absence of any national systems of public health administration, made their skills available to towns and cities throughout Europe. Dickson acted immediately, ordering his servants to take ‘the gear’ from John Fithie’s house to cleanse in the meadows, whilst Fithie, himself, was granted ‘liberty in respect of the sufficient trial he hes suffered’, and was admitted back into the town.
By Spring 1647, John Dickson’s efforts had effectively stopped the pest in its tracks, but constant vigilance was required to prevent a second wave of infection: three watchmen were permanently stationed at the ports to inspect all goods brought into the town, whilst those found guilty of trading in infected goods were ‘unlawed’, fined or put ‘in ward’, and could even face permanent banishment. These measures, though deeply resented and ignored by some traders, ensured that Dundee remained free of plague when it was devastating many other Scottish burghs. But, the pest still lurked around the edges of the town and in its hinterland, and whilst many Dundonians were, no doubt, offering up prayers of thanks for their continued survival, some would also have been aware of the probable trials that still lay in wait for them and their town.
PPE 17th Century Style! – The uniform of the plague doctors; the beak-like mask was filled with aromatic items and designed to protect them from putrid air.
In April 1647, the plague epidemic reached Aberdeen, and by the end of the year had claimed 1760 lives, or around a quarter of the combined population of Aberdeen and the neighbouring villages of Torry and Futty (present day Footdee). As the epidemic escalated, the Aberdeen magistrates grew so alarmed that they erected a gibbet at the Castlegate, as a grim warning to any townsfolk tempted to flout the plague regulations. Brechin fared even worse, with around 600 folk, comprising two thirds of the population, carried away within four months, and the local ministers were, as in many other places, forced to ‘preach in the fields’. In mid to late 1648, as the epidemic was burning itself out in Brechin, nearby Montrose was suddenly pitched into battling a new and serious outbreak, a situation the town authorities only succeeded in making much worse when they reduced a large portion of the burgh’s poor quarter to ashes, following a disastrous attempt to ‘clenge’ or fumigate plague affected housing. Meanwhile, Perth lost 3,000, or nearly half its population between 1645-8; and in Fife, Crail, Dunfermline and St Andrews were also seriously affected.
Despite being increasingly surrounded by towns and villages that were being devastated by the pest, Dundee, through a combination of luck and good judgement, had managed to avoid the worst of the now nearly four year old pandemic. In August 1648, however, the town’s luck finally ran out ‘when there came a visitation – the last happily, which it had to undergo’, in the shape of a footman recently arrived from Aberdeen, who was lodging in the house of Andro Nicol, stabler, when he sickened and, like the Fithie bairns, suddenly expired.
Faced with this new threat, the Council’s response, was, as during the previous year’s outbreak, prompt and decisive: Andro Nicol was ordered to be ‘put furth with his family in the fields to abide ane trial’, and the town treasurer was instructed to ensure payment for a lodge to be put up for him and his family. After a few days, a further death within the Nicol family confirmed that the town was now dealing with a new epidemic, and the quartermasters were ordered to ‘visit the haill houses and families of the town daily.’ And, as more new cases appeared, ‘it was ordained that the ports and lodges be continually watched’, to prevent intercourse between the infected and the healthy.
When large towns and cities were put in lockdown, families with suspected plague cases were commonly, as with the infamous example of Mary King’s Close in Edinburgh, shut up in, often unhealthy and unhygienic, single room dwellings. Dundee, with around 11,000 inhabitants, was, despite being Scotland’s ‘second city’, relatively small and less congested when compared with Edinburgh, and its population of around 35,000, which allowed infected Dundonians to more commonly be sent to the Sick Man’s Yards. Council officers were also acutely aware of the great hardships that quarantine caused for the poor, as well as the danger that these measures might collapse if folk were left without food, and so a voluntary financial contribution was organised ‘from the neighbours’, and enough was collected ‘to meet these pressing wants and leave something over.’
Sick Men’s Yard (through the Wishart Arch)
Despite these wide-ranging measures, the pest, which was now ominously described as being ‘very fatal’, raged through the town. In response, panic broke out, many townsfolk fled, taxes could not be collected, and trade ground to a halt;
‘From the twenty twa day of August to the end of November, the merchants booths were closed up, and no mercats were keiped or fleshes bocht’.
The fate of the town appeared ominous as the ‘fearful pest’ was reported as hanging ‘heavy upon Dundee, and the burgesses themselves could not cope with it’. At this critical juncture, John Dickson again stepped forward ‘to grapple with the enemy and give them effective aid.’ He threw himself into the work of overseeing ‘the cleansing of the houses and the ordering of the sick people, and ordained that the quartermasters shall attend, assist, and obey his instructions’. He organised the ‘separation between the sick and the whole’, whilst also ‘enforcing sanitary measures, and generally [reduced] chaos into order.’ The quartermasters were instructed to remove all those they suspected of being infected ‘to the fields’, whilst an inventory was taken of their household goods, which were returned when the all clear was given. If, however, they succumbed to plague, their household goods were often ‘taken furth and burnt without any favour’.
Headstones in the plague cemetery on Roodyards Road
These measures, as drastic as they may appear, saved thousands of Dundonians who were either not able to flee the town or who had nowhere to flee to. In October 1648, even Andro Nicol, patient zero of the current epidemic, was removed from Sick Men’s Yards to the top of the Law, where his health was further tested before being allowed to fully return to the town when ‘the height of the moon – “that time of occult influence” – was passed over’.
By the end of November 1648, the pest had finally spent itself, which led to the cautious re-opening of the merchant booths. It still lingered in the surrounding villages and towns, and in the following months new cases were discovered, but these proved to be isolated cases. During the plague outbreaks of 1647 and 1648 John Dickson had demonstrated vast reserves of knowledge, courage and determination, and, in the process, ensured that the town probably sustained losses in the low hundreds rather than the thousands of deaths experienced by some other Scottish towns. Dundee gratefully acknowledged their debt to their saviour with a specially commissioned ‘sylver mayser’ as ‘ane token of the town’s kindness’.
By the time the plague had completely burnt itself out, in December 1648, it had claimed somewhere around 3% of the Scottish population, of just over one million, which barely registers when set alongside the devastation experienced by many other European countries. With its relatively smaller and more dispersed population, and lower rate of urbanisation, Scotland was better placed than other larger and more urbanised countries to weather the worst of the 1644-8 outbreak. But, whilst the national death toll was, indeed, relatively modest, some local areas and particularly the towns were much more severely impacted, with around 20% of the urban population succumbing to the plague.
Collecting the dead for burial in London during the plague in 1665
It is also important to underline that the Scottish death toll would undoubtedly have been much worse without the prompt and decisive decision making of countless administrators and activist citizens such as John Dickson. In the decades that followed, the pest continued to ravage large parts of Europe, but Scotland was spared any further major outbreaks, most notably during 1665-6, when successful quarantine measures again saved the nation from an English plague epidemic that claimed upwards of 75,000 lives in London alone.
Plague burial – London – 1665
Article written by Dr. Anthony Cox, a lecturer with Life Long Learning Dundee.
22/6/20: A HUNK OF COLD METAL
Here is an excellent article by Andy Kirkpatrick on his blog about roped soloing.
A Hunk of Cold Metal
The death of the Silent Partner & alternatives
Hello Mr. Kirkpatrick,
I hope you doing well.
I´m a climber from Germany doing a lot of rope soloing as well.
I have read lot´s of your books. They are really inspiring and funny!
I write this email because I have a question to you.
I do all my rope soloing with a Grigri 1. It works out very well, but I’m looking for a silent partner from rock exotica.
My first question: are they really better for rope soloing then the Grigri 1.
I never used one. But it seems the rope feeding is much easier. And it looks much safer to me.
Falling with the Grigri was never fun for me. I never learned to trust in it. What is funny because always when I talk with my wife about rope soloing (she hates it) I explain to her how safe it is. 😉
My second question: do you have one to sell? They are really rare!
At the moment you can buy two on Ebay but this guise don’t like to send them to Germany. Maybe they don’t like this grumpy germans!
If you own a second one I would be really interested in buying it.
Thanks for your answer in advanced!
This is probably my number one question, so I’ll try and answer it in a way that’ll hopefully make sense to others:
Was the Silent Partner the best soloing device?
Is the Silent Partner better? Well the answer is yes it was, with the emphasis on the ‘was’. The SP was designed from the ground up as a rope soloing belay device, which means it was both overbuilt, so very strong, and designed to have the highest degree of ‘catch’ in any and all types of falls (sideways, upside down, the ropes set incorrectly). It also tried to design out problems such as cross loading, which could result in a device that locked, but a locker that broke; doing this by having a two karabiner clip in point, which also locked the plates together (it was impossible for the rope to escape from the device). Having used my SP for nearly twenty years, and having taking significant falls on it (including 100+ foot), and done both aid and free, when you put all the aspects of the device together, then it was the best device on the market.
What has happened to the Silent Partner
There is a very good pierce in Climbing (Rock Exotica Silent Partner sells for $1400 on eBay) about the background to the demise of the Silent Partner (as well as the Soloaid and Soloist), but basically Rock Exotica lost money on the device, which I think retailed for $200 yet only sold about 100 a year. I think this issue maybe highlights how lucky climbers are – or how we take these things for granted – that often the gear we complain about being expensive, such as a carbon fiber axe or portalege – is really the deal of the century. In any other sport, such as road cycling, gear as specialist as what’s on offer to climbers, would be ten or twenty times more expensive. It’s also true that the mindset that the customer views any expensive climbing gear (like BD Superlight cam) is a ‘rip off’, means companies either just don’t push the design envelope (they think there’s no market), or really niche gear just dies on the vine. If the Silent Partner had cost the same as an iPhone 10, which is made in the millions, then it would still be manufactured, and could well have been worth the cost to those 100 customers a year. When I bought my SIlent Partner it seemed like a very expensive piece of gear, but really it was almost a one of a kind, and it allowed my to repeatedly experience adventures money could not buy, and now it’s potentially worth ten times what I paid for it!
But the device is dead, and although Rock Thompson at Rock Exotica says he might come up with a new design, unless he rethinks the pricing and customers buy them, I’d not hold my breath. This means the only place to get an SP is eBay.
What’s wrong with the GriGri?
Before I continue I must state that the Petzl GriGri is not designed for rope soloing, it is an assisted belay device designed to be used by experienced climbers. Petzl, and all manufacturers, have to remain with a very strict legal boundary in terms of their equipment being used improperly, modified or any anyway misused, because when you do this, people can and do die. Personally I cannot recommend anyone use anything but a Silent Partner either, as it was the only device designated for rope soloing, but I can share my experience of using the GriGri, and its use by others.
An imperfect solution
The problem with the GriGri is that lacks what makes the SP so good, in that is is not 100% reliable in all fall vectors (sideways, upside down), and even if the cam was to lock there are many other things that can fuck you up (handle depressed by a sling or your body, fifi hook jammed in the mechanism). You also only have one connection point, which has led to at least one failure (Tom Randall – yes that Tom Randall – took a huge whipper rope soloing and broke the HMS krab connecting him to the GriGri, but was saved by his back-up knot). Further more pilot error has lead to many accidents with the GriGri, with the rope being put in the wrong way (I’ve done this several times myself), or just poor basic belay skills. Does this mean the GriGri is out? No, it just means:
- You need to be 100% proficient in using a GriGri, to the point that it’s second nature.
- If you have not put in hundreds of hours using a GriGri you should not be trying to rope soling with it.
- You must understand how it works and its limitations, and how it functions with different rope diameters.
- You must understand the effect of twisting and levering and cross loading forces on the device and its connectors.
- You must have realistic expectations of how well such a device will cooperate with your ambition
Not the system, but only one part of it
Just as no one looks at a Swiss watch and imagines it functions because of a single cog, safe rope soloing is undertaken using many different pieces, from belay set up, ropes, knots, rope bags, connectors, back-up systems, no one part more or less important as the whole. To fixate on say the Silent Partner, and pay $1400 on one, may indicate that someone views the device as the linch-pin, when really you’re the pin, and before embarking on some rope soloing escapade, you need to have tried and learned all techniques and all devices you can.
So can I use a GriGri or what?
The GriGri has been used very effectively by many climbers, often doing very impressive things, including Keita Kurakami’s free roped solo of the Nose and on one day speed ascents of El Cap and many solos. But for every wad whose questing up El Cap, there are fifty who have flayed around at the base and local crag and given up, as to achieve mastery over your GriGri requires a very high degree of competency, which requires a great deal of skill, which requires a great deal of training. This means climbing really easy routes to begin with, lots of them, then easy multi pitch routes, learning as you go (how big does the loop need to be between you and the back up knot, what rope moves best through the device etc). Rope soloing is not something you do because you’ve not got a partner for this weekend, just as sailing around the world by yourself is not because no one wanted to come, it is about mastery, which includes knowing you could get killed doing it.
A great place to start is to watch the videos on Yan Camus YouTube channel, as he talks a lot about rope soloing devises and rope soloing tech, and covers a lot of the problems in a way that’s easy to understand (upside down falls for example). All assisted breaking belay devices should work, but often there are variations on the spring or frame strength that make then less effective, and I think the Edelrid Eddy is the only other device worth trying out. I get a lot of questions about the Wild Country Revo, which I suspect came about due to Pete Whittaker’s use of the Silent Partner, and although I’ve never used it, my ‘spider senses’ tell me to avoid it, mainly due to its construction, and that unlike a cam, you’re not really sure what strength criteria was built into the device, and so going out of bounds of normal use might be more dangerous than with a standard meat and two veg device (or two slabs all alloy and a steel cam). On the GriGris side of things, I think the GriGri+ has some advantages for rope soloing over the standard GriGri, such as being able to adjust spring strength, and a handle that releases if pulled too hard (important if the handle gets caught in a sling).
This is not intended as an instructional piece (check out the rope soloing articles on this site, or my book on the subject), but I need to stress the use of the correct connector, as this is the weak link in the system. I would advise use a 10mm steel rapid link (very heavy, but VERY strong and resistant to cross loading), that is designed to hold the device in the correct ordination on your belay loop, either using rubber bands or something like the Petzl Tanga. Put finger tape on the collar of the rapid-link to make it easier to tighten (having a small alloy spinner, multi tool or second rapid-link to act as spanner for undoing the rapid link is handy, but don’t tighten it with a spanner when leading, as it should be removable with your fingers). One style of rapid-link worth looking at is the 8mm twisted rapid link, as this allows the device to sit flat against the body, so it catches less.
The increasing use of Micro Traxion to adjust the dead rope has meant more climbers are climbing without a real back up. With a Silent Partner you can guarantee to some certainty that the device will lock, and so no back up – in extreme cases, such as speed climbing – people have taken the risk. But for roped soloing with any other device having no back-up is suicidal, as failure for the device to lock would see you just zip off the rope to your death. This fact demonstrates again that the device is only part of a system, a system that you must understand is very close to free soloing in reality, in that fall should not be part of the game, so as not to test the system, but staying on the rock!
Final piece of advice
Rope soloing is the cave diving of rock climbing. It is both a highly skilled and highly dangerous endeavour, and unlike free soloing easy routes down the local crag to feel good about yourself – often to make up for a lack of actual skill or ability – rope soloing is not for the novice or the have a go hero. Undertaking highly complex techniques, high off the ground, without really knowing what you’re doing is neither fun or the pathway to old age. So my advice is always to not do it – don’t solo period – as it’s always best to climb with another human being and not with a lump of cold metal.
13/6/20: MURDER AT ADMIRALTY HOUSE
This is an interesting article in The Bermudian which details the history of the seaman’s grave behind the beach at Clarence Cove, formerly know as Abbot’s Bay, which is the number one DWS spot in Bermuda and hence somewhere that I spend a lot of time.
Abbot’s Bay, 1931
Murder at Admiralty House
June 13, 2020
Written by: Ronald John Williams
In 1813 a young midshipman off the Spartan, was the innocent victim of a jealous and demented lover. His gravestone can still be seen at Abbots Bay. Here is the story. This article was taken from our archives. It first appeared in the October 1931 issue of The Bermudian. It appears here exactly as it did originally.
Just below Admiralty House on the North shore of Pembroke, this little bay makes a pleasant break in a line of fantastically pitted coral rocks. When his Royal Highness, the Duke of Clarence, was naval commander-in-chief at this station early in the nineteenth century, the bay was re-named Clarence Cove in his honour.
One of the most famous Admirals to occupy the official residence, that stands on the hill which rises behind the cove, was Lord Dundonald. It was he who built the pier and dredged the bay, and built the galleries that run from the water’s edge to cliff top.
Close by Clarence Cove is a group of cedars, and a fenced-in grave which excited the curiosity of the uninformed. It is a very beautiful spot, and the impression it leaves is accentuated by the tiny pool, with pond-lilies floating on the surface, that is found near the flat tombstone. One of the trees symbolizes the memory of H. M. S. Good Hope which was lost with her gallant commander, Sir Christopher Craddock, early in the Great War.
The gravestone that lies in the shadow of the cedars bears and inscription that is now barely decipherable. It records the death of one Francillon, a young mid-shipman off the Spartan, who was the innocent victim of a jealous and demented lover. The scene of the tragedy might be reconstructed, and the clock turned back one hundred and eighteen years to the April of 1813.
It occurred one night when an elaborate ball was being held at a house in the vicinity. The young midshipman, either deeply affected by the beauty of the scene which lay silvered beneath a full moon, or weary of being the unresisting prey of dancing dowagers, strolled down through the trees towards the cove.
Also aboard that lovely night were a pair of menials, one a philandering house-maid and the other, a footman, her most ardent lover—for Love, it seems, unlike ennui and appendicitis, was never the monopolized malady of the leisured classes.
The footman’s passion had attained such a heated pitch of intensity that rather than share the girl’s favours with another man, he swore he would kill him. He had excellent reasons for suspecting her of infidelity, and even openly accused her of enjoying secret love sessions with a handsome young stable groom.
Francillon, roving aimlessly down to the water and absorbed in the vagrant dreams of sixteen, was suddenly surprised by a fair apparition which stepped out from the shadows within a few feet of him. The girl was pretty, and the moon showed romantic expectancy in every feature of her face.
At precisely the same moment, the footman, searching hungrily for his beloved, saw her among the cedars. He paused to experience in its fullness the exquisite thrill of anticipation, and to watch, unseen, the creature who meant more to him than breath itself.
Then, with a paralysing revulsion of feeling, he discerned another figure, a male figure, almost at her side but lurking behind a tree as though fearing detection. Lacerated with jealousy, he leaped to the obvious conclusion. It was the good-looking groom who had followed her, reluctant to let his lover go warm and radiant from his embraces to the arms of another man.
Experiencing all the agonies and mortifications that assail the betrayed lover, the wretched footman crouched in the darkness of the trees. Presently, brooding miserably over the actual and imagined wrongs, his fingers crept to his knife.
Meanwhile the young middy stood motionless, his eyes on the girl who stood, unaware of his presence, almost within reach of his hand. He dared not move lest she hear him. Having no desire to speak to her, he decided to wait until she moved on. Minutes passed while the girl waited for her lover, and the lover, in his turn, waited for his rival to depart.
The inaction had the worst possible effect on the footman. Pain and humiliation gave way to a murderous rage born of a gentler but thwarted emotion.
Finally, the faithless one stamped her foot with annoyance, and turning to go back to the house, beheld Francillon in her path. They stood there, the midshipman and the housemaid, without voice or movement for a breathless moment. Then they were both startled by the sound of running feet on the grass.
The girl turned back and cried out in bewildered terror, for she saw her lover’s face inhumanly convulsed and a thin strip of polished steel flashing in the moonlight.
It was the footman, who, misconstruing the girl’s movement as an impulse to return to her other lover, had lost all reason and self-control in his desire for revenge on the handsome groom.
Francillon, quite mystified, did not stir until he saw the girl who was standing in front of him roughly thrust aside. Then it was too late. The footman lunged at him with his knife. The blade entered beneath the heart of the man he believed to be his hated rival.
The young midshipman staggered back, collapsed, and fell out in the open where he lay inert but still breathing, his face clearly illumined by the moon’s rays, so clearly that with an appalling shock the assassin instantly recognized his victim. It was too much for the unfortunate man, and completely unhinged by his frightful mistake, took his own life within the hour.
On the 12th day of April, 1813, so the inscription informs us, Francillon died at the Naval Hospital, which at that time stood on the present site of Admiralty House.
BLOG ENTRY 12/6/20
Here is a poignant essay on the Footless Crow website by Paul Pritchard about Trevor Hodgson who died of cancer this year. This reads like a long-lost chapter from his book Deep Play.
Paul Williams classic shot of Trevor Hodgson on The Rainbow of RecalcitranceI’m writing this on the other side of the world from that Welsh mining village. The sun is rising up over the Bridgewater Jerry – a curious temperature inversion that follows the river out of the mountains at dawn around these parts. Carlos, did you know the only time you can look straight into the sun is when it’s on the horizon. That’s got to be an allegory for something. Sunrise is the best time to study the sun.
I had never met you, Carlos. (Your real name was Trevor but it never suited you. So, we called you Carlos).
You were the reason I travelled to that god forsaken valley. There you were – a Paul Williams photo in a magazine. At the end of that fabulous runout on The Rainbow of Recalcitrance… Miles out… Not a runner in sight… Mantle-tipping on matchstick edges in your blue dancers’ tights… Attempting to put your feet were your fingernails were. Legend had it that you fell from that stance into the land that time forgot. Jules Verne wouldn’t have known what to make of you in your getup, but he would have found inspiration in the holes of Dinorwic I am sure.
Rain doused the smoke-filled Pete’s, rivuletting down the windows. We watched the dark quarry holes through clearing mist from the sanctuary of the cafe. Forsaken by God. Forsaken by government. We were left to our own fearful devices. Petty crime and petty sponsorship were the order of the day. Days of fearful hangovers and fearful overhangs. Nothing a few pints of tea wouldn’t sort out.
The same sun glowing on my face like an ember will glow for you. In about twelve hours the same sun will be rising on Flying Buttress.
We were lucky to live through those days. I don’t mean because of all the adventures we had that made us smile. No, I mean survive. It wasn’t a normal youth. Young lads like to gamble, I know that. That’s why insurance premiums are so high for the under 25s. And, without having lived through a war I had better not draw that comparison. But,day in, day out, taking untold risks above tiny fragments of brass, jokingly called ‘protection’. Loose blocks… Shelling sea caves… bombarding echos… strafing hillsides like bullets. Heads filled with drugs… Huge falls onto shit gear… Heinous lockins… Unprotected climbs… Unprotected sex… Partying ’til dawn… Break in and enter.
Do you remember Flying Buttress? ‘Course you do! My dad was dying in Lancashire. I took a break and came down to Llanberis. We climbed Flying Buttress on the Cromlech on Menlove’s 100th birthday. 18th June 2010. It must have been a loose and scary solo in 1931. He took cyanide a couple of years after the war. But why am I telling you this? Now you have left us.
1. 60ft/18mClimb the crest of the ridge on large holds.
You came from the same town as me and had my mother’s maiden name, Hodgson. At the base of the climb we laughed at how we could have been related. Well, I feel like I’ve lost a brother.
I was on postal signing and sleeping in the women’s toilets in Vivian Quarry carpark. The ‘Merched’ had a hand dryer that you could tape over the button on cold nights, and the floor was not swimming in piss. You were toing and froing between Prestatyn and Llanberis, only returning home to sign on.
We started climbing together. You had this animal power about you that not many could match. However, it soon became clear that you were not interested in making a name for yourself as a climber, as were many of our tight group, myself included. Your passions went far beyond the insular world of rock climbing. And that was one of the things that was so special about you. You never gave a toss what anyone thought.
You laughed that infectious Kookaburra laugh as you put your rock shoes on. You wandered onto the heather-filled ledge and then up a wall past some vivid green holly. Then it was my turn to follow. I was always following – you or others I looked up to. Trev, you didn’t feel the need to be the best at this or that, though you clearly could have been. You didn’t feel the need to be recognised. You just concentrated on making others feel great about themselves and lifting them up with you.
2. 60ft/18mContinue up to the pinnacles top of the ridge. Belay.
We found a house with The Lentil (he came from Tydyn Sian, The Lentil Farm), Gwion and The Harms. Together we held the infamous Ty Du Road parties and made a hell of a lot of mischief: some of it more legal than others. I remember it like the house off the 80s TV show The Young Ones, semi-derelict and always a riot going on… All rejects together.
You were troubled and would oftentimes go into a dark place. Then you would push your friends away. But we could all see the hurt. The wounds. You littered the steep streets of Llanber’ with the fragments of shattered hearts… Like broken teacups. But, given time, all those you loved with a passion, and rejected with a passion, still believed in you.
In the absence of a climbing helmet I was wearing a bike helmet. It wasn’t ideal headwear, but at least my head was well ventilated on that scorching June day. We were never ones for following blanket rules eh?
3. 20ft/6mClimb down over the pinnacles to belay on the L wall of the gully – Castle Gully.
Climbing rocks began to interest you less and you established a string of businesses – mostly on the ropes. All great ideas. But with each venture you seemed to find yourself on the ropes, for one reason or another. Yet, after each failure you just rebounded. After each fall you would brush yourself off and climb out of that particular hole. We both moved on… You to the North Sea, I escaped to Australia. We saw less of each other, but when we did I found myself laughing around you like in past-times.
4. 50ft/15mClimb the large rock steps on the L wall, then step around the corner crossing a little groove (or reach this point from below) to a traverse line. Take this easily L-wards to an exposed stance by a large flake.
“You could climb this blind-folded Trev, I say. “Oh wait, you’re nearly blind so you might as well be blind-folded!”
“Hey, you, watch it.”
You reach the stance. ‘OK Paul’.
I traverse towards you as you collect the rope in neat loops over your feet. I keep seeing your mustachio’d chops, even though you haven’t worn that style for more than two decades.
You started a family with Emma. Leo and Eira, you are so lucky to have had such a remarkable dad. Whenever I want to remember you Trevor I just have to visit Ty Du road again in my head and there you are, raucous behavior …Cheeky downturned smile.
I am studying the sun as it rises. It is as if I am watching you being reborn.
5. 65ft/20mClimb the steep wall behind the flake to gain a gangway. Follow this R-wards past a ledge to belay below a chimney.
As you led up the lovely sculpted pockmarked slab, you remarked on how incredible it was to be grasping the same holds as Menlove did in 1931. “This route is like living museum piece.” Not like other museums were everything’s behind glass… Don’t touch the exhibits. Here you are invited to climb all over the artefacts.’ “I’m making the very same moves as Menlove… Look.” The whole of the Pass is a museum and each creator of a new climb donates that climb to the gallery of the Pass.
See, the Eckenstein Boulder where Oscar taught Archer-Thomson the art of bouldering. Just out of sight is Cenotaph Corner were Brown placed the Chock Stone which is still used. Over to the left is Nea where Menlove went second to Nea Morin. Over the other side you can see Kirkus’s Direct Route on The Mot. And Boysen’s spacewalking Skull… Evans, Ingle, Whillans, Birtwistle, Livesey, Banner… Names of legend.
But king of all of The Pass in his day was Menlove Edwards.
“And don’t forget Marlene On The Wall by Trevor Hodgson.” You cast back a downturned grin.
Then you cakewalked up the rising traverse and out of sight to a belay…
…And now you’re gone.
The rope comes tight. We forgo all the usual rope commands “Safe,” “On Belay,” “Climb When You’re Ready.” We instinctually know what the other is up to. Even though we haven’t climbed together for years. As I climb I look down through my legs. The road is right below my heels. I continue to a huge loose block. I could have reefed it off but there were people everywhere down below. And, besides it might have bounced all the way down to the road, a thousand feet below, just like the Cromlech boulders had thousands of years ago. They are now sat in the car parking bay.
I am having the time of my life. Thank you Carlos. As I round the arête. I ponder on the word. Arête does’t just mean ‘edge’. It also means the realisation of one’s potential, or living up to yourself in true existential style. Sartre would have been proud of us. We were certainly fulfilling our purpose on this earth that day.
As I scupper round the arête you come back into view. There, at the belay, you snap a pic with your phone. I teeter up the ramp traversing over ‘the polish of thousands of passing climbers’. I unclip the one solitary runner. I couldn’t contemplate a fall now. I would have taken a massive pendulum. But, you knew instinctively what ground I was likely to fall off. What I would find difficult, or easy. This ramp was easy. I was with you in no time.
6. 50ft/15mEnter the chimney, crux, and continue more easily to the top.
This climb saves the biggest challenge for high up. The crux is at the end. But you faced the final pitch with grace and bravery I’m told.
Do you recall, you led the chimney without putting in a single piece.“So you won’t have the added stress of taking runners out.”I didn’t mind as there was no way I could swing with you holding the rope.
I had to have a tight rope here, on entering the final leg.You were playing the opening rift from “Why Dya Do It? by Marianne Faithful on the rope (it was so tight).“Do you remember I played this all the time in Ty Du Road?”You were laughing and singing, “Why did ya spit on my snatch.”And you were just about keeping it together.“Are we out of luck now, or is it just a bad patch.”I came to you. I collapsed on my back, arms out in the sheep nibbled meadow.
After, on the descent you spotted me every few metres of that loose gully. And by the time we got down to your heap of a car, I was well and truly shagged.
That night at the party you were enthusiastically telling Johnny, Emily and Ann of our day climbing together. I was in no state for conversation. My leg was shaking violently, and Johnny was attempting to ride it (we all dissolved into laughter).
And that was the final climb we ever did together.
What do you think Trevor? (funny how that name suits you now).
You are gone.
Route descriptions from Paul Williams’s Rock climbing in Snowdonia 1990.
Paul Pritchard: 2020
31/5/20: HIGH DIVES
Deep water soloing: how high can you go? At what point are we no longer deep water soloing, but simply soloing? Incidents at Durdle Door in Dorset yesterday in post-lockdown England illustrate this.
Two, and possibly three, youths were seriously injured and required helicopter evacuation after jumping off the top of the arch which is in the region of 25-30m above sea level depending on the tide.
Without considerable experience of jumping from heights into water and being able to orientate your body, correctly, in space these guys would have had close to zero chance of avoiding injury.
Although you can be lucky: San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge is 75m above the water and is probably the most well studied suicide method in the world. The data suggests a 98% death rate from jumping off it. Most of the lucky 2% who survived reportedly changed their minds about their decision on the way down.
My friend, Mike Robertson, has deep water soloed Riding to Babylon which climbs to the apex of Durdle Door. He is an extremely experienced deep water soloist – in fact one of the main UK pioneers – but even he donned a wetsuit to theoretically minimise the potential impact and had a safety swimmer, Gav Symonds, in the water to fish him out if he was incapacitated.
10-15m is safe. 20m is approaching the limit and above 30m is death. The highest jumps we have in Bermuda are ‘peak’ at Spanish Point, which is 20m, and Mike Wilson’s unrepeated 30m jump at the Great Head which is pretty insane. The video below shows me jumping off the exit known as ‘peak’ which is 60ft above five feet of water depth.
30/5/20: LARA CROFT
29/5/20: LOCKDOWN CLIMBING FILMS
Here is a great article from the Climbing magazine website with links to climbing films available to watch for free.
13 Great Climbing Films You Might Not Be Familiar With (And 5 of the Worst)
CAMERON M. BURNS MAY 26, 2020
Author’s note: In this time of quarantine, I thought a few movie suggestions might be in order. While most readers will be familiar with films like Free Solo and Dawn Wall, I thought we could take this space to suggest a few less-known films that are also excellent. Climbers Steve Bosque and Jim Disney suggested a few for this list. The ultimate selection was mine, and one important criterium was that the films be available for free on the internet—where possible.
Grit Kids won Banff’s Best Climbing Film in 2008. It’s a terrific little film by Paul Diffley, a Brit filmmaker who runs Hot Aches Productions. In this film, we meet two siblings, Pete (17) and Katy Whittaker (19), trying some very bold leads on Yorkshire gritstone. Pete starts with Warm Love (5.13b) and takes a near ground-fall. Then another. Then another. And another. That’s just the opening scene. Then, Katie decides to try Nosferatu (5.12a X)—onsight. Mum, a climber herself, watches on contentedly.
British Climbing Team coach Dave Binney points out that the two siblings don’t have an agenda for their climbing; they just want to have fun. He also believes a lot of Katy and Pete’s success is due to the fact that climbing is a family affair and there’s no pushiness, just encouragement. Makes sense.
Next, Pete puts up a new route: Captain Calamity (5.12c X). Then we watch videos of the kids when they were really little. Then Katy climbs Kaluza Klein (5.12c X)—“a classic gritstone frightener,” as British guide Jack Geldard puts it. You think?
“They’ve both got pretty good heads when they’re trad climbing,” Mum explains. “It’s always been very controlled.”
Pete puts up Grandad’s Slab (5.13a R/X), then a 5.13c X direct start to Braille Trail, which is hard to watch. Mum, who belays, tries to figure out which way to jump if Pete falls, thereby taking some of the slack out of the rope and hopefully catching Pete before he goes splatter-cakes on the cliff. This is a nutty family.
Trivia moment: “Top-rope” is a state of mind. You see Seb Grieve saying the same thing in Hard Grit.
Statement of Youth: The Birth of British Sport Climbing
As the title suggests, this film is about the origins of sport climbing in Britain. Not mentioned is the fact that this is also a film about gorgeous squalor.
This story starts with the summer of 1983 in Pen Trwyn in Wales when dozens of young climbers from Sheffield and other places move into in Parisella’s Cave and live there, cheek to cheek, ’nad to ’nad while they climb dozens of new routes.
This was in the Thatcher years. When she came to power there were two million unemployed people in the UK. During her reign that number doubled. Young men were happy to be on the dole so they could concentrate on their climbing.
Said young men whip off to the Grand Hotel in Llandudno, sneak in the back door, grab a bath, then go back to the filthy cave to sleep. (You can smell this scene through your laptop.) All the while, they push British climbing standards higher and higher.
Cave living is bad, but later we see the beloved gang of Sheffield-based misfits move into their infamous digs on Hunter House Road, a more squalid existence than thought possible. Dogs shit all over the house, people sleep in rubbish, and Syph the cat (named after the disease of the nether regions) one day eats a huge stash of psilocybin mushrooms. All good fun and games and no OSHA anywhere to be seen. Towards the end of the war on cleanliness, one resident even starts putting bottles of urine on the kitchen table to see if anyone will clear it away. Nope. The environmental health department eventually closes the house down.
The movie settles in on the relationship between Jerry Moffatt and Ben Moon, several years his junior, whom the former takes on as a protégé. They travel to France together. Then they come back and Ben bolts a climb in an overlooked part of Pen Trwyn (Lower): Statement of Youth. It’s worth noting that a lot of the climbers are wearing swami belts in this video.
Antoine Le Menestrel and Jean-Baptiste Tribout arrive in England and our lads show them around. One highlight is Le Menestrel soloing Revelations.
From 1984 to ’86, Jerry’s out injured and the friendly (mostly) rivalry between Ben and Jerry intensifies. Finally, Jerry comes back, poaches a traverse from Ben, and the lads head off to France where they knock off three 8b+s. We also see Ben succeeding on Agincourt (8c) a few years later (to see him on these routes 30 years later, click here). Climbing in the UK went from 7c to 9a during the 1980s. “It will never happen again,” notes Ed Douglas in the film.
So, pull your neon tights (or super short shorts) on and get ready to pogo around the living room. You’re about to see some of the smallest woodies ever erected.
Trivia moment: Mostly good dentistry in this film.
This is based on the true story of Toni Kurz and Andreas Hinterstoisser and their 1936 attempt on the north face of the Eiger. There’s a great tension in the beginning of the story: Hinterstoisser wants fame and adulation for the first ascent. Kurz climbs for his own personal reasons and thinks the Eiger’s a death lottery. In between these two is a woman (Luise Fellner) they’ve both known since childhood who is given the task of writing about them and their likely ascent for a big Berlin magazine. Kurz gives in.
Of course, Kurz and Hinterstoisser bicycle the 700 kilometers to Switzerland while Fellner and her magazine publisher boss, Henry Arau, take the train.
Kurz and Hinterstoisser meet the competition in the field below the Eiger, where a crew of first-ascent hopefuls are camped, including Austrians, French, and Italian climbers. The French and Italian teams think conditions are bad, so they opt out.
The Germans and Austrians (Willy Angerer and Edi Rainer) start climbing, simultaneously, up different routes.
Angerer takes a rock to the head. Then a fall. He’s bleeding out and Kurz decides that he and Hinterstoisser should help him down. It’s a mess. Half the film is an epic and very sad retreat. Hinterstoisser carks it. Kurz is left to himself. Rescue attempts fail. He snuffs it.
The great dichotomy of this film lies is the lavish lifestyle of the wealthy in the hotels below the mountain and the absolute deprivation of basic comforts going on, on the mountain. We can all relate to this.
There’s even a scene in which a hotel manager presents a three-foot-tall cake to the guests in Kleine Schiedegg celebrating the first ascent of the north face, which will surely happen on the morrow. The cake is shaped like the Eiger, but it looks more like a pointy overgrown blackhead. The climbing scenes in this film are excellent, all done in the real locations where these guys operated and climbed and croaked. This film also shows you why you don’t wanna get into alpine climbing; the morning starts are brutal.
This film seems to be available via Kanopy, a film service many libraries and universities use. You should be able to log in with your library card or student ID.
Ghosts of K2
Most of the 8,000-meter peaks of the Himalaya are associated with a European nation, typically the nation that achieved that mountain’s first ascent. Everest is English, so to speak. Annapurna, French. Nanga Parbat, German/Austrian. Makalu, French. K2 was nearly an American mountain.
Fritz Wiessner is the early star in the film, via his 1939 expedition. This is the expedition made famous in the book K2: The 1939 Tragedy. This film helps by recreating that infamous attempt and explaining how Dudley Wolfe died.
Next, we get the story of the 1953 American expedition, put together by Bob Bates and Charles Houston. Bob Craig, George Bell, Dee Molenaar, Art Gilkey, Tony Streather, and Pete Schoening also appear in interviews. The team arrive in Pakistan a week after Everest has been climbed for the first time. They make good work up the mountain, but one morning Gilkey falls down, struck down by blood clots. They start lowering Gilkey down the mountain. George Bell falls and the tangle of ropes brings down all eight climbers. Somehow, Pete Schoening arrests all the tumbling men with a single ice axe.
The first ascent was made by Achille Compagnoni and Lino Lacedelli in 1954, making K2 an Italian summit. Compagnoni and Lacedelli appear in the film.
Trivia moment: I once edited the obituaries section of the American Alpine Journal. While working on Bob Bates’s obit, Charlie Houston told me his neighbor and he would often share a beer at the end of the day. The neighbor? Trey Anastasio of Phish. No kidding.
The Lorax Project
Frenchmans Cap is a stunning mountain in western Tasmania. It has a 350-meter wall on its southeast side. The Lorax is a route established on this face by Garn Cooper and Peter Steane in 1988. It has been climbed only a few times. In this film we follow Peter Wyllie, a doctor who grew up near the Blue Mountains west of Sydney. At a young age, Wyllie caught the climbing—then base jumping—bug. In 2015 he landed a year-long job in Launceston, Tasmania. There he started exploring the island’s incredible landscapes. These landscapes are shown via stunning aerial footage.
Wyllie befriends a young German traveler Martin Buchauer, and they start planning an ascent of The Lorax and a subsequent jump off Frenchmans. They rope four others into the project: Kamil Sustiak, Lee Jackson, Jared Irwin, and Simon Blair. Somehow, they get a clear weather window, an elusive blessing in Tasmania’s west.
The climb is well recorded via several angles and helmet cams, as well as at least one drone. The quartzite looks incredibly bad, and Wyllie admits he was more scared during the climbing than during the jumping. A very rewarding adventure.
Trivia moment: The Lorax is a book by Doctor Seuss about the destruction of the environment. The incredibly bitter logging debate currently raging in Tasmania began heating up when Cooper and Steane made the first ascent of, and named, the route.
This is not strictly a climbing film but there’s quite a bit of climbing in it. It’s about our need for danger and the way in which mountains supply that. Essentially, narrator Willem Dafoe explains that a few hundred years ago humans saw mountains as the abodes of gods and monsters. No one in his or her right mind would go there. Certain death awaited. But as the centuries progressed, humans became curious about mountain regions and began exploring and mapping them. The mid-19 century saw the evolution of mountain climbing a sport. By the middle of the twentieth century (after the Wars) mountain climbing took off and has today become a sport that millions of people from around the globe pursue. This film examines the reasons we are drawn to high places and looks at the downsides of all this human attention. Ultimately, a lot of us seek out the mountains for risk, the kind of risk our day-to-day lives don’t offer. The film is highly critical of commercial mountaineering, especially the kind of commercial climbing found on Everest.
The film was a collaboration between the Australian Chamber Orchestra and Australian director Jennifer Peedom (she also made Sherpa) so the music is as powerful as the exceptional photography, most of which was shot by Renan Ozturk (some of this is obviously stock footage). Think Koyaanisqatsi for climbing.
Trivia moment: Mountain is the highest grossing (non-IMAX) Australian documentary of all time.
El Capitan, Sentinel: The West Face, and Freeclimb: The Northwest Face of Half Dome
These three are older films about Yosemite that are still fun today.https://www.youtube-nocookie.com/embed/PNRq0q2pqn4
El Capitan is the original Yosemite film. Made by Glen Denny and Fred Padula during May and June of 1968, it follows the story of the three climbers (Gary Colliver, Lito Tejada-Flores, and Dick McCracken) as they go up the Nose (Denny goes up with them to film, but is not seen in the film).
This is really a visual diary. The shots are artful and abstract and bring the wall to life. It’s edited with a running stream-of-consciousness-type dialogue, which is eerily effective. The pendulum off Boot Flake is a sweaty-palm maker; it’s filmed from across the Valley with a long lens.
The white-throated swifts and cliff swallows are amazing. There’s a six-minute night scene, which is curious and strangely worrying.
Trivia moment: The old joke about having a watermelon strapped to your butt while climbing originates with this film (but these guys actually bring one up).https://www.youtube-nocookie.com/embed/3m3no8H711o
Sentinel: The West Face was made in 1963 (not 1967 as it states on Youtube) and it stars Royal Robbins and Yvon Chouinard, climbing the 1960 Chouinard–Frost west face route on Sentinel Rock in Yosemite Valley. Another visual diary which shows the techniques and equipment of the day. The amount of freeclimbing with 30 pounds of chrome-moly pitons strapped to the waist in impressive.
Freeclimb: The Northwest Face of Half Dome is the story of Jim Erickson and Art Higbee’s 1976 tenth attempt to free the northwest face of Half Dome. The film was directed by Bob Godfrey, who also co-authored Climb!, the classic book on Colorado climbing history. The interviews around Boulder in the mid-1970s (when houses cost $60k) are fun. The film can be watched in full at Archive.org, though sometimes loads poorly. It’s also available via Amazon Prime.
I read someplace that this 1998 film was quite out of date. That might be true, but the climbing and more importantly the falling are eye-popping. A must-see film for Americans who wanted to get some of the flavor of British grit climbing. It features some of the most frightening and dangerous rock climbing leads ever captured on videotape.
Hard Grit follows a year in the activities of some of the UK’s greatest rock climbers, including Neil Bentley, John Dunne, Johnny Dawes, Seb Grieve, Leo Houlding, Jerry Moffatt, Ben Moon, and Sam Whittaker.
From literally the first scene (French climber Jean–Minh Trinh-Thieu on Gaia), the film shows crazy belay techniques, micro pebble-pulling, and heart-stopping falls. All without helmets.
Then we march through a long list of routes, each seemingly scarier than the previous, the falls growing longer and longer. The music gets more ominous. The climbers are clearly nervous.
It depicts mostly repeats of routes like Parthian Shot, New Stateman, Samson, End of the Affair, Braille Trail, and Gaia. Seb Grieve’s repeat of Parthian Shot is especially rattling (the only good gear being a cluster of RPs behind “a shipwreck of a flake”) as is his final route, the first ascent of Mesuga.
I couldn’t find Hard Grit free online. Director Richard Heap asked that anyone interested in buying Hard Grit contact him directly at email@example.com and he’ll organize Paypal details.
Also, check out this list of the climbs graded by “fall survival chances.”
Watch a clip of Seb Grieve going airborn off Parthian Shot below.https://www.youtube-nocookie.com/embed/0YGePHW5wG8
Brave New Wild
Many readers will know Valley Uprising, but you might not be familiar with Brave New Wild, a more personal and offbeat look at the events as they transpired in Valley climbing history. It’s told through the eyes and lens of Flagstaff filmmaker Oakley Anderson-Moore, whose father Mark Moore was a pioneer in Red Rock during the early 1970s.
The film starts with Warren Harding and Dean Caldwell waving off a rescue from the Wall of the Early Morning Light (aka the Dawn Wall). Then we get some instruction in what was going on economically in America for climbing to take off—and for counter culturalism to take off. Anderson-Moore starts out with the Vulgarians and their plight (lots of nudity, sheep, cuss words, etc.) as they visit the Tetons and meet Western climbers. Then we get to Yosemite and we meet Royal Robbins and Harding.
As with Valley Uprising, much of this film centers on the relationship between Robbins and Harding. But she also weaves the story of her own interest in climbing, which came via dad. He travels around on freight trains, working as an itinerant fruit picker to support his climbing. It’s a heartwarming story that Oakley tells.
Some of the more endearing parts of the film are the sections of footage shot by Mark Moore. Nearly every time Moore starts shooting his daughter the camera gently pans away from the little girl and fixes on whatever mountains, cliffs, or boulders are nearby. “I began to notice a pattern,” she comments.
Like Valley Uprising, Brave New Wild is worth seeing for its superb visual recreations of the climbs mentioned, with moving still pics (yup) and route lines crawling up black and white photos. Some footage from El Capitan and Sentinel: The West Face get repurposed in both films. Sheridan Anderson’s cartoons are brought to life in Brave New Wild (worth the price of admission alone).
Trivia moment: The interviews in this film were done using a light that flickered; the goal was to mimic a fireside chat.
Trivia moment two: The guy pulling the car out of the ditch on the Amazon Prime page is yours truly. That was near Buena Vista, Colorado.
This film is about five French climbers (Arnaud Petit, Stéphanie Bodet, Toni Arbonès, Nicolas Kalisz, and Evrard Wendenbaum) and one Venezuelan (Igor Martinez) who set out to climb a 1,000-meter overhanging wall to the left of Angel Falls in Venezuela. Getting there takes two days in boats. Basecamp is a nasty place with mosquitoes, coral snakes, and giant spiders. They get on the wall as quickly as possible. For the first 300 meters they’re doused with water drifting from the falls over to their line. Above most of the moisture, the climb starts to gain a rhythm. Pitch after pitch of scary loose rock fly by as the team reach the summit of the tepui.
There are some interesting things in this film. For one, there is a food czar (Igor) who decides if or when they should ration food. They also explain how one goes to the bathroom and point out that diarrhea would not be a good thing up there. Thanks for that.
The English narration is laughable at times, but quite good.
A Dangerous Alternative
This modest film was made by English climber Mick Burke in 1971. It’s about eight climbers going to Baffin Island and climbing a big face. It sat tucked away out of sight until a filmmaker (“Cap Expé” on Youtube) who knew one of the climbers (Canadian Rob Wood) was invited to Wood’s house and shown the film. Cap Expé was blown away. With permission, Cap Expé put it on Youtube.
Besides climbing, the film offers a discussion on the ills of modern society and what wilderness is and how it should be protected. We are shown what’s wrong with human systems and the sickness of our contemporary predicament: pollution, crowded cities, traffic, stress. (The formal narration reminds me of a Monty Python skit, but this narrator is dead serious.) “We’ve got cities, we want alternatives to cities,” one climber says. So they go on a big old road trip.
They head to Baffin Island where the climbers discuss encroaching development and the potential for a hotel in the Mount Asgard area, which seems ludicrous but concerns like this were rife in early 1970s UK. After a three-week wait for clear weather, the climbers take on a mountain called, ironically, Boulder.
The climbing is mostly straightforward, but the narration is a long, thoughtful discussion about protection, adventure, self-rescue, friendships, sleeping, surviving, and why people climb.
We are then treated to the climbers return to the city, which leaves them wondering once more about modern life. It’s not the greatest cinematography (actually it’s pretty crap), but it’s an interesting film from an interesting time, especially in Britain where the green movement was coming on strong.
Trivia moment: Friends of the Earth was established in Britain by American climber and environmentalist David Brower in 1970, a heady time in the environmental movement in Merry Old. Brower was part of the first ascent of Shiprock in 1939.
Spider Thieves (Niñas Araña)
Okay, this is marginally a climbing film, but I liked it. In it, three 13-year-old girls—Avi, Estefany, and Cindy (who is pregnant)—from a shanty town in Santiago, Chile, climb buildings and rob homes. The film starts slow, and they don’t figure out their MO until 30 minutes into the story. Then all heck breaks loose as they go from high rise to high rise across Santiago, getting into tall buildings and moving around them via the exterior walls’ features. It doesn’t take too long before a security camera catches them, and they’re on the local television news.
Suddenly, everyone in the shanty town knows it’s them.
They keep climbing into apartments, stealing shit, and then get caught. They escape, climbing down the side of a building, then get caught again. Then they go to the Chilean version of juvey. And two of them escape by, you guessed it, climbing. Then they’re pretty much shut down in the shanty town, hiding from authorities and generally lying low. Then, the pregnant girl, Cindy—who looks like she’s about to pop—suggests they go “climbing” one more time. And they end up in an apartment where a girl who dates Avi’s crush lives. Then they quit stealing. Unbelievably sad stuff.
This film seems to only be available via Kanopy, a film service many libraries use. You should be able to log in with your library card.
Better than Chocolate
I’m not a fan of bouldering films but this one caught me because the people in it are so wonderfully low key. This is what modest European climbing looks like—the antithesis of the uber Huber-bahn.
The film opens with Thomas “Steini” Steinbrugger talking about the Magic Wood and how he found it and started cleaning blocks for bouldering.
Then, the filmmakers follow various groups of kids as they boulder in a variety of Swiss venues: the Magic Wood, Chironico, Cresciano, Brione, San Gottardo, and Valais.
We see what Europe’s best unknown (to me, anyway) boulderers are doing (in some instances, American climbers’ problems) and how they dodge the weather, injuries, and motivational issues. There are quite a few first ascents recorded during the filming. Robert Leistner brings his baby to the crag and nearly lands on him. Julie Winter and Juliane Wurm are strong heroines.
What’s apparent about Swiss bouldering is that the undersides of boulders in the Confederation are all razor-cut and clean. The tops of Swiss boulders are mangy mush piles of lichen, moisture, and worm poop. And every Swiss boulder problem is above either a lumber yard of deadfall or a dozen super-pointy rocks.
The film’s score is atrocious. I recommend turning the volume down and streaming Rick and Morty through your headphones. Or stream this.
Some of the other star climbers are Michele Caminati, Paul Robinson, Chris Webb Parsons, Anthony Gullsten, Olivier Mignon, Anton Johansson, Antoine Eydoux, Fred Moix, and the legendary Fred Nicole. This film will make you realize how bad you are at bouldering. It’ll also make you wonder why humans do the stuff that they do.
This film starts out with actor Chris O’Donnell on a climb with his dad and sister, Annie, who is belaying him…or maybe dad is belaying him. Who can tell? Then another climbing party comes ripping off the sandstone of Monument Valley (off-limits to climbing, of course). Suddenly, everyone is falling, regardless of whatever roped group they’re a part of. They all end up on one rope, swinging like chile ristras or that dangler you couldn’t pinch off. Cams rip, more pinching, more scariness. Dad dies, Annie blames Peter. Much regret.
Next thing we know, Chris O’Donnell is in Asia, photographing animals for National Geographic. His porter has an accident, so they are choppered to a Pakistani army base then K2 basecamp.
Annie, who is now a pro climber (and on the cover of Sports Illustrated like most good climbers), is there, prepping for K2. Typical Himalayan basecamp scene. Billionaire Elliot Vaughn arrives with his team of people.
Ed Veisturs is in this film. Man, incredibly embarrassing for him. I used to get socks from him at OR trade shows. No bueno, man. I’m going to Walmart for my socks now. Fucking A, Ed, man. I’m in a sad space now.
The best part of this film is around the 21-minute mark where the rad climbers have a giant party. Booze, brats, and babes (there’s even a bonfire with logs and two guys with a rasta flag have set up a still). Everyone’s getting wasted. Some smoke cigarettes.
Speaking of the 21-minute mark, I couldn’t stand it much longer. I watched this film when it first came out. I watched it again to 30 minutes and that’s enough for any human. I’m cutting off my Youtube-finding fingers and feeding them to rats.
Rotten Tomatoes reported: “The plot in Vertical Limit is ludicrously contrived and cliched. Meanwhile, the action sequences are so over-the-top and piled one on top of another, they lessen the impact on the viewer.”
To correct my Tomato colleagues, this film is a beautiful lesson for all film school students. Both what not to do and how not to do it, piled one on top of another.
The director of this film, Martin Campbell, seems to think he’s a clever sausage. I wish there were laws in the creative world. Martin would easily warrant a lifetime ban from directing.
Voted in by no one. Liked by no one. This film is a classic.
Trivia moment: At one point the subtitles actually say “Urdu continues” while there’s no English translation. Genius.
I spent $4 to re-watch this film so I could report to you, the unsuspecting public. Please donate to my venmo account (Cameron-Burns-23). Now go take those cold meds.
Martini ranking: You’ll need 150 to get through this film.
This is the Gräfenberg Spot of the genre from Hollywood. The Big Kahuna. The pièce de résistance. Two climbers are stranded high atop a tower in the Italian Dolomites, which they call the Rocky Mountains in this film (I’m guessing because blowing up crap and smashing stuff all over the Dolomites was OK with the Italian government; the National Park Service in this country would never condone it). Anyway, Rocky Mountain National Park ranger Sylvester Stallone solos up to the stranded climbers just as a helicopter arrives. Sly and the folks in the helicopter set up a zip line from the tower to the chopper. The first climber zips over to the helicopter. As the second climber, Sarah, is zipping across her harness buckle both breaks and unravels at the same time. She hangs on to a couple of straps as Sly zips out to get her. Sarah drops the teddy bear she is carrying. Then she falls. Much rugged guilt flows.
Next we’re treated to the mid-air robbery of a U.S. Treasury plane via—you guessed it—a zip line between the Treasury plane and the crooks’ plane. The cases of cash fall out of the plane. The crooks call for a rescue, and Sly and his pal Hal go out for them. They kidnap the two rugged rescuers.
Then there’s a long running cat-and-mouse story of the baddies versus the goodies, and so on.
One interesting tidbit is the selection of ropes in this film. One minute they have a hawser-laid sailor’s rope, the next a skinny strand of hemp rope. At one point they actually have kernmantle ropes. It’s more random than your next sleep-over in college. There’s one scene where Sly sleds downhill on top of one of the baddies. At one point, Sly and his lady friend start a campfire with thousand-dollar bills. There’s a cave scene with loads of (presumably vampire) bats. This is the kind of film Donald Trump will star in once he’s done presidenting. And he’ll be bigly. You absolutely have to see the snow bollard at 1:09:20. That could hold a truck. A tiny plastic one.
This film has it all: racism, sexism, elitism, sloth, coveting your buddy’s girlfriend, rage, thieving, misogyny, mindless brutality, OSHA infractions, and loads of the f-word. I’d call this a non-stop roller coaster of thrills, but it’s more like that version of the roller coaster ride where the vodka-drunk 15-year-old gets on and we know how that ends: chunder country. There’s even a scene where a baddie reenacts a footballing scene as he kicks Hal’s face in. And don’t forget the now-infamous bolt gun. This is the granddaddy of climbing films from Hollywood, and it’s required viewing if you’re a real climber. Or want to be. The climax of this film is more climactic than any high point I’ve ever reached. Quoting Wikipedia, which is always true to life: “The film has been criticized for its unrealistic portrayal of rock climbing. One example is the feature of the piton gun which fires pitons directly into rock, forgoing the usual rock-drilling and piton-hammering used in rock-climbing.” Uh-huh. I’m checking REI and Neptune’s for piton guns tomorrow.https://www.youtube-nocookie.com/embed/Dcpg3zZCRzg
Trivia moment: Michael Rooker is much better in Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer.
Trivia moment two: Sly Stallone was much better in The Party at Kitty and Stud’s.
Trivia moment three: This film was nominated for three Academy Awards; it should’ve won about three thousand.
Quote: “Gravity’s a bitch, isn’t it?” Hal, when talking to the baddies.
Martini ranking: Forget martinis; you’ll need to drink bleach to get through this.
Star Trek V: The Final Frontier
I watched this film when it first came out and I’ll be hog-tied and batter-schnitzeled if the editor of this rig is gonna make me watch it full-length again. So, I’ll touch on highlights.
The guys from the Enterprise are on leave, which means going cragging in Yosemite Valley, a place known for its rock climbs. Birds chirp, the sun rises, and we all feel good as we are introduced to “Yosemite National Park: Planet Earth.”
We are immediately presented with Captain Kirk soloing (is that the Free Blast?) on El Capitan, which is what most intergalactic space captains do on their days off. There’s a chimney in this sequence—remember, we’re on the Free Blast, so that makes no sense. That’s followed by soloing a route on the Cookie (can’t quite tell which one) and Separate Reality. Then he’s soloing around Boot Flake. Then Spock shows up on rocket booster boots or whatever they are. He says: “I don’t think you realize the gravity of your situation.”
Then, distracted by Spock, Kirk falls. It’d be wonderful if this film ended here, but it doesn’t. There’s another hour and 25 minutes’ worth of logic inanity, clever expressions, and colorful retorts. This is cold medicine country. Eat a bucket’s worth.
This film shoulda been the final frontier for whoever wrote and/or directed it. Launch that goober into space, huh? Watching this is like watching a headache. Impossible. But not here. No no.
Slate magazine said this about this flick on the film’s 25 anniversary (which I’m sure you all celebrated): “Today marks the 25 anniversary of a dark day for Star Trek fandom, the release of Star Trek V: The Final Frontier.”
It was also a dark day for basic human intelligence. Zero thumbs up, all thumbs into the dirt.
Voted in by CB.
Trivia moment: What is a Gulf + Western Company? Go here.
Quote: “As a reviewer, I’m as speechless as I am flattened by bad news on an ugly day.”
Martini ranking: There is no final frontier for the number of martinis you’ll need for this one.
The Eiger Sanction
Along with Cliffhanger, this is the pinnacle of Hollywood’s involvement with climbing. It actually belongs in both the best and worst categories. The film begins with some bad spy juju, and Jonathan Hemlock (Clint Eastwood), a former spy turned art professor is pulled out of retirement to deal with a spy mess in Europe. His boss is an albino named Mr. Dragon, who can’t stand light or cold and has a nurse who monitors his visitors. Dragon threatens to reveal Hemlock’s collection of rare paintings to the IRS if Hemlock doesn’t take the job. They arrange a deal. Hemlock goes to Europe, kills a couple of bad spies, and launches one out a window. He lands on someone’s lunch. Then Hemlock meets Jemimah Brown on a plane. She mentions the idea of climbing gear being used like S&M gear. They crash the custard truck together.
Hemlock then trains in Zion and Monument Valley, Arizona, like most spies. At one point he’s turned over to an indigenous local lady named George (played by Brenda Venus) who puts him through a work-out. They crash the custard truck together. The magic of Hollywood really comes together when he and sidekick George Kennedy climb the Totem Pole and drink a six-pack on the summit. An old gay enemy (Miles Mellough) shows up and tries to kill Hemlock. Hemlock dispatches him by driving—according to his speedometer—30 miles around Monument Valley but ends up near where he started. He dumps Miles off for a long hike home.
So, they get to the Eiger, and start up. Jemimah Brown learns that the whole thing is a farce—tit for tat spy stuff. But Hemlock’s already on the hill. They climb awhile, then everyone falls off the mountain in a big climax (real custard-truck business).
Hemlock survives and learns the bloke he was supposed to kill is his buddy, the “ground manager” for the climbing team. Then he’s back on the ground with Jemimah Brown. More delivery-van-with-dessert action.
The one-liners are to die for in this film. There are dozens of websites devoted to them.
There’s some great piton nailing footage. It even shows Clint placing an ice screw in snow.
Anyone who’s ever wanted to go nail a crack in Eldorado Canyon should watch this film for tips before they head out. Oh, and bring your RURPs.
This film has it all: racism, sexism, homophobia, elitism, sloth, coveting your buddy’s girlfriend, rage, thieving, misogyny, mindless brutality, OSHA infractions, and loads of the f-word. Jack Cassidy as Miles Mellough is the best role ever performed in the climbing-film genre.
Trivia moment: There’s an exclamation point at the end of every sentence of dialogue in the script.
Trivia moment two: My old pal Eric Bjørnstad and Ken Wyrick did the rigging for this film, and in 1992 Eric gave me a handful of bongs used for the rigging. Anyone wanna buy them?
Trivia moment three: “You saw he was dead and then you made a pot of tea?” “Drink it before it gets cold.”
Martini ranking: You’ll need 20 Wild Turkeys on the rocks.
Take It To the Limit
This film begins with a bloke named Rick—in a sorta hoods in the woods-type program—on a bus. The bus goes into a tunnel, and when it comes out the other side there’s a guy rappelling onto the road. Actually, there are three guys and a girl. They’re jumping around celebrating because they just did the rappel. Then the leader of this crew walks all over his rope while celebrating his rappel.
Then, Rick arrives at his uncle’s wilderness home to escape the rat-bagging he’d been up to in LA. Rick doesn’t like it. He walks. Meets the rappellers again. And they’re tough with him. “We don’t wanna be attracting any attention” as they rappel off water tanks and the like.
They challenge him. “You climbing or talking?”
“Climbing” he says. Then the lead rappeller dude Batmans up the doubled-over rope he’d just rappelled down. Rick spends the night on the water tower that they all climbed.
Next day he’s rescued and gets climbing gear so he can hang out with the pricks that left him on the water tower.
There are several scenes where Rick goes all handbags with his uncle because Rick is from the city and is as lame as the film he’s in.
There’s loads of Rick versus locals stuff. And a scene where his uncle is training on a woody with leather gloves on.
Then Rick and the lead girl go cragging. But they have an accident then have to bivouac. And there are wolves. There is more of the Rick-versus-the-local-rock-jocks stuff. It’s terrifically bad.
I watched to 50 minutes and am appalled at how awful this film is. If you watch past 50, please let me know. You’ll go into the wall of shame.
Even if you watch this movie with the volume off, you will stick a garden tool through your eye.
Watch this film with the volume on and you will gnaw your limbs off.
This film is beyond messed up.
Take It to the Limit should be taken to the plastic DVD recycling center immediately.
Martini ranking: You’ll need Lake Tahoe–sized adult beverage to get through this film.
Mission Impossible II, which has Tom Cruise performing a scary-looking piece of soloing on desert sandstone. Until he leaps for a hold about 30 feet away and sticks it. Ya ha. Then slips and catches himself until ultimately he’s facing away from the cliff, both hands on an edge he can’t see because its behind him. He then does a moment’s worth of meditation then makes a giant swing for a better part of the edge and pulls himself to the top of the formation. I’ve soloed that route a few times and Tom has the sequence wrong.
27/5/20: JOHN ALLEN
A brilliant essay on UKClimbing today by Graham Hoey remembering his friend John Allen who died last week.
The Day the Music Died – Remembering John Allen
27th May 2020
Graham Hoey remembers friend and gritstone legend John Allen, who died earlier this month in a climbing accident in the Peak.
John Allen 10th October 1958 – 18th May 2020
On Monday 18 May 2020 John Allen tragically lost his life in a fall at Stoney West. He was a well-loved legend within the climbing world and well on his way to becoming a National Treasure – a title which would have amused him but one I feel he would have accepted with his usual humility.
John started climbing around the age of 10, being mentored by family friend and experienced gritstoner Les Gillott. On their early forays from his home in Sheffield, John would imagine he was his hero Joe Brown and when he was just 12 years old he led what was arguably Brown’s hardest gritstone route, the Dangler (E2 5c) at Stanage. A year later he was adding his own routes and went one step further than his hero by leading Soyuz (E2 5c) at Curbar Edge, a line attempted by Brown some twenty years before. These were pre-Ondra days when climbers didn’t step out of nappies onto a climbing wall and for a schoolboy to be working his way through the hardest gritstone climbs of the day was simply unprecedented. Then, in 1973, Allen stunned the local climbing fraternity with his ascent of the ‘impossible’ east wall of High Neb Buttress at Stanage Edge. Old Friends (E4 5c) was a serious route with poor protection and a strenuous, technical, committing crux an uncomfortable distance above the ground. Along with his equally demanding climbs, Constipation (E4 6a) and Stanleyville (E4 5c) also done that year, Allen had added three of the hardest routes on gritstone at the age of just 14. Only Green Death (E5 5c), Edge Lane (E5 5c) and Linden (E5 6a (aid)) were harder. The following year, Allen demonstrated his increasing maturity as a climber by making the first free ascent of The Moon (E3 5c, 5b) on Gogarth. He was clearly no mere crag rat and more and more climbers began to take notice.
But the best was yet to come as the ‘Shirley Temple of British rock’ (as Crags Magazine dubbed him) went on to set gritstone alight over the next two years. His best routes from this period are amongst the finest outcrop climbs in the country and took gritstone climbing to new levels. In 1975 he added (amongst others) Moon Crack (E5 6b), Reticent Mass Murderer (E5 6b), Hairless Heart (E5 5c), White Wand (E5/6 6a), Profit of Doom (E4 6b), and London Wall (E5 6b), the last four of these being climbed within a two week period!
London Wall …
He also found time to pop across to Cloggy to make the (credited) first free ascent of Great Wall (E4 6a, 6a), although, as Mountain magazine laughingly qualified, his ascent did use chalk!
In 1976 the assault continued; Artless (E5 6b), Moon Walk (E4 6a), Nectar (E5 6b, 6b), Strapadictomy (E5 6a) and Caricature (E5 6a) – all simply stunning climbs. Of Caricature it was written that “Allen stepped over the threshold of the possible” and in a way this summarised John’s attitude to climbing which made him and other pioneers before and after him so visionary. He was completely unfazed by the apparent difficulty of a line, nor by any reputation it may have acquired from the efforts of earlier ‘greats’ or his older rivals. He revelled in the challenge they represented at the time. Even today with cams, sticky boots and ‘modern fitness’ these routes from 1975-1976 still present a considerable challenge and on-sight ascents are rare.
Then, late in 1976 John left with his parents for New Zealand. First ascents here and impressive repeats of hard routes at Arapiles in Australia kept John ticking along. During this period he also proved his worth on big walls with a phenomenal (non-jumared) ascent in 1981 of The Nose on El Capitan with Simon Horrox in a day. Between them they lead and seconded every pitch; the first time this had ever been achieved, the locals were amazed.
In the early eighties John developed a recurrent dislocating shoulder which was so lax it could pop out when he rolled over in bed awkwardly. He eventually had surgery on it early in 1982. The recovery from this was quite slow, especially as the surgeon didn’t believe in physiotherapy! He had difficulty trying to regain flexibility, but typically he didn’t make a fuss about it despite it affecting his climbing for a number of years. After surgery, John returned to England to find that things had moved on somewhat.
Beau Geste had been climbed by Jonny Woodward and the grades were increasing. He found it hard to catch up. E7 was the new top level and the heir apparent Johnny Dawes was about to push standards even higher. Nevertheless, John carried on new-routing, adding a plethora of routes all over the Peak. Although no longer at the cutting edge, he was actually climbing technically at his best during the mid-eighties and produced some superb climbs including Chip Shop Brawl (E5 6c), West Side Story (E4 7a), Shirley’s Shining Temple (E5 7a), The Fall (E6 6b), Boys Will Be Boys (E7 6c), The Children’s House (E6 7a), Feet Neet (E5 6c) and Concept of Kinky (E6 6c – his last hard route on grit, in 1989). Some of these have become classic highballs whereas the others have yet to receive even a handful of repeats. Boys Will Be Boys is modern hard while The Children’s House has in my view one of the finest technical sequences on grit.
Eventually John’s business commitments and, it has to be said, increasing girth, led to a slowing down of his climbing activity, but he never lost the bug. Along with most of us he came to embrace sport climbing and regularly holidayed in Spain. More recently he had become enamoured once again with new routing and had been enthusiastically developing a number of sport climbs on the limestone quarries in the Peak District. This was not without excitement, however. On one occasion, to avoid being caught trespassing by the local farmer, John quickly threw himself to the ground and lay as flat and as still as possible in the long grass just metres away!
As a young grit-obsessed teenager climbing in the early 1970s I had heard of John Allen, “the next Joe Brown”, but it wasn’t until 1975 on Millstone Edge that our paths crossed. A young man walked up to Edge Lane, put on his helmet, tied on to his rope and promptly soloed it. It was a captivating sight as the climber calmly and smoothly made his way up one of the hardest routes in the Peak – I had never seen anything like it. “That’s John Allen” my friend said. Allen was just 16, unbelievably a few months younger than myself, but looked considerably older with his strong physique and confident climbing style.
On his return from New Zealand in 1982 I got to know him through our shared love of gritstone climbing. We were kindred spirits, both ‘children of grit’ who had learned the subtle nuances of gritstone climbing and we both loved talking about it! On one occasion we came across each other in Chee Dale and spent ages discussing in minute detail the holds and sequences of some routes we had done on Stanage. After some considerable time John’s climbing partner, Mark Stokes looked at us despairingly “Oh come on, that’s enough ‘Pockets and Pebbles’ for today!” he said.
John had a wonderful, calm temperament and would always treat you as an equal, whereas I always saw him on a higher pedestal than myself, feeling the warmth and joy you get when talking to someone who is a master of that which you are passionate about. He was always a pleasure to climb with, wonderful to watch with superb balance and technique. I remember doing a first ascent with him on Rivelin Edge. I was going well on the grit, managing 6c (English!) pretty consistently. He was not in the best physical condition, but casually stepped up to a break, rocked into it using a pebble and stood up. Looks OK I thought, standard grit move, but it was only when I got on it I realised the sheer steepness of the face. On a slab I might have managed it but … I needed a bit of tight on that one!
John also had a fantastic sense of humour and a mischievous streak. We were once climbing on Ramshaw Rocks with the gritstone jedi Martin Veale. Coming up as third man on John’s new route, I was astonished to find my car keys buried at the back of a break. It was obvious how they must have got there but when I accused John his absolute denial along with a completely deadpan face was so convincing that I was left flummoxed. It was over 30 years later that he admitted, amongst fits of laughter, that he’d put them there – still found it funny even then – lovely man. However, despite his mild nature and patience John didn’t suffer fools gladly, which meant most American climbers he met in Yosemite! On one visit to the USA he fashioned a pair of aerials from coat hangers, attached them to his head and wandered into a local bar. Eventually someone was ‘hooked’ and asked him what they were for. “Communication with Aliens” he said matter of factly. Most people would have got a punch, but John had the charisma to get away with it.
He became in the course of his life a rich man, but no one would ever have known it to see him out and about or to hear him talking; John was never ‘flash’, he was always a warmhearted, generous man. He was also very modest about his achievements but he was understandably quite proud of them; when interviewing him for Peak Rock he jokingly said he rather hoped one day to see a chapter in a book entitled ‘The John Allen Years’!
I regret I was not in the traditional sense a closer friend of John’s. We would bump into each other at parties, at guidebook launches, out at the crag or go climbing together occasionally but we had a strong bond and respect for each other born from our love of climbing on gritstone. I will never forget his smile, his soft, lazy Sheffield twang, his childish mischievousness, his grace, poise and strength. I will miss the “Pockets and Pebbles” greatly. He leaves behind a fine legacy of climbs; “So Many Classics, So Little Time” (E4 6b John Allen 1984).
I will think of him as I solo along Stanage on warm summer evenings with the rising sound of the curlew behind and he will be there. No longer an old man but the young man I watched all those years ago floating effortlessly up a gritstone arête.
BLOG ENTRY 24/5/20
21/5/20: THE VECTOR GENERATION
This is a superbly written article by Mick Ward that appeared on UKClimbing today. He should develop this into a book.
The Vector Generation
21st May 2020
Mick Ward shares another retrospective, this time of the 1960s climbing scene: The ‘Vector Generation.’ (With very many thanks to Geoff Birtles, Ian Campbell, Chris Harle, Chris Jackson, Tony Marr, Reg Phillips, David Price, Dave Smith, Rod Wilson and the late Ken Wilson for help and kind permission to display photographs of this unique period in British climbing history.)
The 1960s was arguably the coolest decade ever. ‘If you can remember it, you weren’t there…’ The UK reeled under the concurrent influences of sex, drugs and rock & roll. Out on the crags, the bravest of the brave were making climbing history. This is their story.
In 1960 Joe Brown turned 30. For almost half his lifetime he had been the predominant British rock climber. Only Whillans had challenged his supremacy. The first ascent of Kangchenjunga in 1955 had secured his acceptance by the establishment. Conversely it had given Whillans yet another chip on his shoulder. Their famous partnership was no more. Whillans aside, by 1960 Brown knew that other, stronger climbers were starting to come through. But the hard years weren’t yet over. In fact the best was still to come.
In the long hot summer of 1959, Cloggy came into condition for weeks on end. Jack Soper and Dave Gregory formed one team among many, securing early repeats of then-feared Brown routes. It seemed as though the mantle of invincibility might be slipping. Bonington recalled having once been spooked by Cenotaph Corner’s intimidating aspect but then realising that, when you actually embarked upon it, the crack bristled with holds and hand jams. A teenage Martin Boysen casually remarked to Nea Morin, “It’s OK – you can get a runner every 10 feet.”
Rod Wilson on first ascent of Troach, Cloggy, 4 Oct 1959© wilson582
It looked as though the pack might be catching up with The Master. There were also a few ominous portents of things to come. Hugh Banner made the first ascents of The Hand Traverse and Troach. The Hand Traverse takes a stunning line above a vastness of space, while Troach demonstrated that Cloggy walls were not as devoid of holds as might be imagined. Look up and Troach appears blank. Look down and it’s a ladder of jugs and little ledges.
Further along the crag, Boysen relatively easily seconded Brown on the first ascent of Woubits Left Hand, musing whether the top peg was really needed. Many years later, Banner would reflect that climbing was about ‘jousting for crowns’. Brown must have realised that Boysen – more than a decade younger – was a likely contender for his crown.
Les Brown high on Vector. April 1966.© Tony Marr, Apr 1966
Brown’s riposte was inspired
In March 1960 Brown made the first ascent of Vector. If Cenotaph Corner and Cemetery Gates had looked unlikely in the early 1950s, in 1960 Vector must have seemed utterly ridiculous. As Bonington noted, after watching him on Tramgo, Brown had far more than superb technical ability. He also had the boldness to go where no-one else dared. He was a master at hanging on in highly dangerous situations and patiently inserting pebbles for protection. He could break down the most demanding unclimbed lines into sections and painstakingly piece them together.
As with Cenotaph Corner, Vector is a masterpiece. But whereas, with Cenotaph, the line is painfully obvious, with Vector it’s anything but obvious. Vector is three-dimensional and multi-directional. It vectors all over the place, constantly probing for the line of least resistance. It’s perfectly named (courtesy of Claude Davies, who had been studying vectors for an exam). Vector seems quintessentially 1960s: an utterly stylish name, for an utterly stylish route, in arguably the most stylish decade in history. It’s almost unimaginable that it could have been climbed in the 1950s. And yet the first ascent occurred a mere three months into the new decade.
Brown had thrown down the gauntlet. Any serious contender would have to repeat Vector. One by one, they came. Whillans repeated it. Crew repeated it. A young lad named Barry Brewster repeated it, allegedly in bendy boots. Many aspirants fell from the top crack. On the first ascent, Brown had uncovered a jug, then craftily replaced a sod of grass over it, to obscure it. Gamesmanship personified! Even today, with the sod of grass long gone, arms can tire, as you hang on just below, not knowing how close that comforting jug is.
Second ascent of Great Wall Reg Phillips, Aug 1962© boje
The 1950s Brown-Whillans hegemony had given testpieces such as Quietus, Rasp, Erosion Groove Direct and The Thing. As with Vector, all these routes are E2. But to think of them in terms of climbing E2 today is to miss the point utterly. Pre-cams, pre-wires, what was your protection? A sling over a spike? Not many of those around! A pebble threaded, à la Brown? No certification and not so many kilonewtons, I’m guessing. How good would it be if you took a 30 foot lob onto it? In 1964 Dave Sales fell off Quietus; both runners ripped and, tragically, he died.
In his beautifully evocative autobiography ‘Rope Boy’, Dennis Gray mentions a climber using garage nuts for runners on Brant Direct, I believe, in the early 1960s. The poor guy was derided as ‘Whitworth’ and laughed off the crag. If you led VS, then the hallmark of a skilled climber, you took your life in your hands (hardly any runners). If you led Severe or V Diff, or even Diff, you still took your life in your hands (hardly any runners). Most routes were death routes to lead. Above all else, a leader had to be steady. Once people left their carefree youth, married, had families, it became increasingly difficult to muster the commitment for hard climbing.
Vector became the gold standard for hard climbing
But there were outliers (there are always outliers). From Whillans came Goliath, Sentinel Crack, Forked Lightning Crack and Carnivore Direct. From Allan Austin came High Street, Western Front and the futuristic Wall of Horrors. Sure, Austin used combined tactics on the boulder problem start of the latter. But going past the second crux, the horizontal break, solo, must have required an almost insane level of commitment.
For sheer physicality came another outlier, curiously one which would remain almost unknown for more than half a century. In 1962 Vulcan, at Tremadog, was pegged. With the pegs in place, Barry Brewster led the pitch free. Today Vulcan is regarded as a tough E4. With some of the holds probably obscured by pitons, heaven alone knows how hard it was for Brewster’s ascent. F7a would be one guess. It can’t have been much easier and it may well have been even harder. At least it would have been relatively safe.
In 1960 a teenage Pete Crew announced himself to the climbing world by falling off The Mincer and landing almost literally in the arms of the newly formed Alpha club. Barely had his feet touched the ground than he was proclaiming to all and sundry that his mission was to burn off Brown. Predictably this went down like the proverbial lead balloon. In the words of Al Parker, “We liked Joe…” While the Alpha males may have viewed themselves as successors to the Rock and Ice, there was still a line to be drawn.
With Vector, Brown had gone onto a seemingly unclimbable area of the crag and succeeded. He did the same on Carreg Hyll Drem (‘the ugly crag’), with the superbly named Hardd (‘beautiful’). He did the same (Tramgo) at Castell Cidwm, an inspired discovery by Claude Davies. And he would go on to do the same at Gogarth, with routes such as Mousetrap, Red Wall, Rat Race, Dinosaur and Winking Crack.
The greatest prize in Welsh climbing
In the early 1960s Brown made a series of attempts on the tentatively entitled ‘Master’s Wall’ on Cloggy. Who came up with the name, I wonder – some wag in the pub or maybe an aspirant? For more than a decade, Cloggy had pretty much been Brown’s personal fiefdom. Now, for the first time, he faced serious competition from a host of climbers such as Hugh Banner, Martin Boysen, Barry Brewster, Ian Campbell, Frank Cannings, Pete Crew and Dave Yates.
Famously Crew beat Brown and everyone else to the first ascent – but only by gamesmanship. If aid was needed, Brown parsimoniously allowed himself no more than a couple of points. Sure, you could peg your way up all manner of stuff – but was this a game worth playing? With a couple of points of aid, you gave yourself some leeway. Given that, back then, nearly all routes had ground-up first ascents, cleaning as you went, a couple of points of aid really weren’t such a lot.
Boldest, first ascent© wilson582, Sep 1963
The first ascents of Great Wall (1962) and The Boldest (1963) marked the apex of Crew’s climbing career. He peaked very quickly indeed, barely into his twenties. Both routes utilised what some regarded as cheating tactics: several points of aid on Great Wall and a bolt, hand-placed on lead on The Boldest. Nevertheless both routes will always stand as iconic masterpieces. As with Vector, The Boldest, a direct line on The Boulder, was exquisitely named. With Great Wall, Crew could have stayed with the original name, Master’s Wall – but he didn’t. Maybe he felt uneasy about the extra aid, knowing that Brown could undoubtedly have done it in this style. Maybe he didn’t feel such a master after all. Maybe he felt unwilling to provoke Brown. Only two years previously, he’d vowed to burn him off. And arguably he had. But sometimes victory is accompanied by pangs of regret.
Barry Brewster had harboured ambitions for the first ascent of Great Wall. As a consolation prize, he went for the first British ascent of the North Face of the Eiger. Hit by stonefall, his dying words to his companion were heartrending: “I’m sorry, Brian…” Bonington and Whillans risked appalling stonefall to reach Brian Nally; it must have been like going through the gates of hell. Ken Wilson always reckoned that both should have received the George Cross, the civilian equivalent of the Victoria Cross, for their outstanding courage.
Perhaps the greatest ever Crag X
In 1964 Craig Gogarth was discovered. Sea cliff climbing was still in its infancy. A handful of routes were done and unbelievably the crag was thought to be worked out. Once again the perils of ground-up exploration were all too evident. Today the route Gogarth is an amenable E1. But when Boysen led the top pitch on the first ascent, huge, disposable flakes abounded. It must have been terrifying.
In the same year, back in the Pass, Eric Jones and Rowland Edwards beavered away, reducing the aid on Left Wall over several weekends. In the end, Rowland soloed it. Working routes is normal today; back then, it wasn’t the done thing and Rowland never made any claims for his ascent. However it’s only fair that, however belatedly, he should be credited both with the first free ascent and the first solo of a route which is, for many people, among the finest in Britain. Both Eric Jones and Rowland Edwards would push themselves hard over the next five decades, having adventures that most of us can only dream about.
In the mid-1960s, John Cleare began taking a remarkable series of photographs of some of the leading activists of the day. The upshot was the superb ‘Rock Climbers in Action in Snowdonia’. Cleare’s photos have triumphantly stood the test of time. Black and white, superb composition, epiphanies of commitment. The star was a bespectacled figure in a white pullover. Although Pete Crew had passed his prime as a climber, he still enjoyed cult status.
Gogarth… Crew had never quite forgotten about the place. He went back and was astounded by the range of possibilities. Gogarth became perhaps the greatest ever Crag X. The mountain crags of Snowdonia were increasingly being regarded as worked out. Maybe the future of Welsh climbing was by the sea.
Once the cat leapt out of the proverbial bag, development was fast and furious. Brown visited and, with his almost uncanny nose for undeveloped rock, found Wen Zawn. Several teams vied for the aptly named Rat Race. Famously Brown and Crew teamed up for the first ascent of the even more aptly named Dinosaur (Brown, apropos of Crew: “Long neck and no brains.”) The pair were on the crag for something like ten hours on a scorching day. Tottering blocks were prised off, hurtling into the sea. Finally deeply deserved success came to ‘probably the strongest team ever to set foot on rock in this country’, in the words of Ken Wilson. Although considerable aid was used, going ground-up on such an intimidating and loose line was inspired. The technically much easier Mousetrap (‘an instant classic’) must have been almost as nerve-wracking.
Much as he was liked, Brown had reduced virtually all of his climbing partners to seconds (the sole exception is Whillans). And this is exactly what happened with Crew. The ‘old man’ became the boss. To Crew’s great credit, he pushed Brown into tape-recording what became his autobiography, ‘The Hard Years’.
It must have been galling for Crew. To the climbing world – and to the public generally – he had inherited Brown’s crown. In reality he knew that, even with the psychological masterpieces of Great Wall and The Boldest, his routes really weren’t any harder than those of the Brown-Whillans era. And by 1967 there was a vibrant new breed of even younger climbers such as Ed Drummond, Lawrie Holliwell and Tony Willmott. Holliwell made the fourth ascent of Great Wall, Drummond the fifth. Crew must have felt hopelessly trapped between generations.
The new aspirants came from all over the country. From 1965 onwards, the then Edwin Ward-Drummond pioneered a remarkable series of new routes in the Avon Gorge. At around the same time, the Cioch club, comprising people such as Geoff Birtles, Chris Jackson, Jack Street, Al Evans and Tom Proctor were developing Stoney Middleton. Going ground-up on limestone first ascents, clearing loose rock as you went, made for bold, forceful climbers.Pete Crew and Al Harris on the first ascent of Zukator© Ken Wilson Collection
In 1968 Proctor and Birtles made the first ascent of Our Father at Stoney. This was the first route comparable in physicality with Brewster’s Vulcan. But, unlike the pegged version of Vulcan, on Our Father protection is decidedly indifferent. With arguably F7a climbing in a highly committing situation, Our Father was almost certainly the hardest route in the country. For more than a decade afterwards, hopefuls would make the pilgrimage to Windy Ledge to attempt it. Most found themselves back on the ground again within seconds.
It was unsurprising that places such as Sheffield and London would yield strong climbers. Less obvious was the seeming backwater of Exeter, which surprisingly boasted quite a few highly capable activists in the mid-1960s. A young Pat Littlejohn rapidly went from beginner to XS leader. Together with Pete Biven, Frank Cannings and Keith Derbyshire, he went on to make adventurous explorations of many South-West sea cliffs. However, it was Cannings who grabbed the biggest prize of the day with the outrageous Dreadnought.
Back on Cloggy, yet more blankness beckoned. If Troach was possible and Great Wall was possible, then what about the space to the right of Great Wall? In 1967 the supremely bold Lancastrian climber Ray Evans made a ground-up attempt on what in 1986 would become Britain’s first E9 – Indian Face. Although Evans was understandably forced to retreat, I’m sure we can all applaud outstanding audacity. Similarly Evans attempted Right Wall ground-up, before Pete Livesey’s first ascent. On this occasion, he was forced back down again by his concerned second’s refusal to give him any more rope!
Boldness. If you wanted to climb hard in the 1960s, you simply had to be bold. You had to be steady. You couldn’t slump on a wire and shout, “Take!” One of Britain’s more unstable crags is Yorkshire’s Langcliffe quarry, poised above the council rubbish tip and conveniently adjacent to the local graveyard. In the foot and mouth epidemic of 1967, most crags were out of action and Langcliffe enjoyed a brief bout of popularity. A relatively unknown climber named Pete Livesey repeated the existing death routes and added another, even harder one, Sickler. At the time, Pete was caught between the competing attractions of high-standard running (years earlier, he’d come cruelly close to a four minute mile), high-standard caving, high-standard kayaking and high-standard climbing. A few years later, when he focused his formidable energies on climbing, standards would rocket.
In 1968 a young Al Rouse began training on The Breck, a tiny, finger-shredding outcrop near Liverpool. A similarly aged John Syrett began training on a climbing wall in Leeds university. Tom Proctor was training on the walls of outbuildings in a Derbyshire farm. Lawrie and Les Holliwell were training on southern sandstone. Each would have been unaware of what the others were doing. In every case, the training yielded significant results.
(“Anything he could lead, I could second – in winklepickers and mortar board!”)
The birth of modern climbing media
In the winter of 1967, Martin Boysen, Mick Burke, Pete Crew, Peter Gillman and Dougal Haston staged an expedition to Cerro Torre. Although unsuccessful, it was an attempt to bring hard, technical climbing to a super-Alpinist environment. As such, it was well ahead of its time.
The Cerro Torre expedition coincided with the birth of modern media in climbing. Until the late 1960s, most information (e.g. about new routes) had to be gleaned from journals put out by leading clubs such as the Climbers’ Club and the Fell and Rock. But suddenly there were not one but two vibrant climbing magazines. Rocksport catered for domestic rock climbing while Mountain took a worldwide view of both mountaineering and rock climbing. Mountain was edited by Crew’s friend, climbing photographer Ken Wilson. Quizzing Crew on his return to Britain, Wilson was bemused to learn how slowly an all-star team had moved on Cerro Torre, versus the supposed first ascensionists, Maestri and Egger. Unsurprisingly Maestri later received the full Wilson interrogation – a harrowing experience, as some of us can attest.
Closer to home, scandal erupted in The Sunday Times with a well researched article by Peter Gillman. This alleged that a considerable number of new routes in Snowdonia were bogus. While nobody wanted to risk pushing the perpetrator over the edge, equally there was a duty to inform prospective ascensionists that these routes were almost certainly still unclimbed and the grades little more than guesswork. Televised spectaculars (e.g. the Old Man of Hoy) had brought climbing into the living rooms of the nation. Now we had climbing exposés as well.
At the end of the 1960s, there was a sense almost of ennui in the climbing world. It was well summed up in an article by court jester, Al Harris, in Rocksport. Were all the crags worked out? Was climbing in a cul de sac? One reaction was hard soloing. Both Cliff Phillips and Eric Jones excelled in soloing Extremes. (The then XS covered what’s now E1, E2 and E3, together with outliers such as Our Father, E4. You took a chance on how hard your route would turn out to be.) In the event, Richard MacHardy made the coveted first solo ascent of Vector. Others, such as Ron Fawcett and Jim Perrin, would follow him. Earlier MacHardy had demonstrated his expertise with a rapid first ascent of The Vikings on Scafell – probably the hardest route in the Lakes.
1958. Harry Smith on Right Eliminate, Curbar, with Don Whillans showing scant interest.© wilson582
(Don Whillans indulging in an impromptu spot of performance climbing coaching)
Itchy-fingered upstarts waiting in the wings…
Back in the early 1960s, poor old ‘Whitworth’, with his garage nuts, had been laughed off Brant Direct. But of course once a technological genie escapes from the proverbial bottle, you can never quite get it back in again. However crude by modern standards, garage nuts pre-threaded with nylon slings, could be placed with far less skill and a hell of a lot faster than Brown’s pebbles. The obvious next step was machine-made nuts for climbing. Many climbers came to love MOACS and baby MOACS. For the first time ever, good runners could be placed swiftly.
Training would have an effect (e.g. Rouse, Syrett, Proctor, the Holliwells). Protection was slowly getting better. Brought together, training and better protection would take climbing out of Harris’s cul de sac. But the time wasn’t quite ripe.
To my mind, the 1960s Vector generation was the boldest in all of British climbing history. Climbing first and early ascents of E2s, with a dodgy runner every thirty feet, was no mean feat. Often routes were littered with loose rock. Earlier hard routes had often been easier-angled – so at least you could hang around, contemplate your fate and attempt to compose yourself. But some 1960s routes are pretty steep; back then, you really did have to go for it and failure might be distinctly painful, if not downright terminal. Although climbers in the 1970s climbed much harder, they generally had far better wire protection. And when the first cams became available in the late 1970s, many cracks became more amenable.
In 1970 Brown turned 40. Although he would carry on exploring for nearly another four decades, for him the hardest years were over. He will always be widely respected as the greatest ever British climber. Whillans had a last blast of glory on Annapurna, then faced a protracted decline. Crew drifted away from climbing, discovered archaeology and poured all of his formidable intellect, energy and focus into it.
At the beginning of the 1960s, Boysen, with his amazing talent, had seemed set for climbing stardom. Near the beginning of the next decade, he went up to Suicide Wall and, with Dave Alcock, did several new routes in a weekend. Wilson’s verdict, “Go anywhere at Extreme…” was uncannily prophetic. Soon people would be going pretty much anywhere at Extreme.
In the early 1970s, Dave Cook broke the quasi-Masonic code of the dark Satanic mills with a celebrated Mountain article entitled, ‘The Sombre Face of Yorkshire Climbing’. It ended with a tantalising mention of itchy-fingered upstarts waiting in the wings, biding their time, with swathes of as yet unclimbed limestone about to come within their grasp.
Dave Cook couldn’t have been more right. But not all of the itchy-fingered upstarts would be content with merely changing the sombre face of Yorkshire climbing. Some had their sights set on much further horizons. Those itchy-fingered upstarts were indeed waiting in the wings, relentlessly training, knowing that their time was fast approaching. Soon not only British climbing but world climbing would be changed forever.
BLOG ENTRY 19 MAY 20
More sad news. Gritstone legend John Allen was killed in a fall at Stoney Middleton yesterday. I never climbed with him; I only met him in the pub, but his climbs will stand forever as mute testament to his talent and are revered testpieces.
BLOG ENTRY 8 MAY 20
Sad news from Wales: Trevor ‘Carlos’ Hodgson lost his battle against cancer today.
I’ll never forget that mad surf-trip to Morocco in the nineties that we schemed up at the bar in The Heights one night. One evening after surfing one of the locals pulled a knife on Trev during a heated confrontation about something or other. Trev simply laughed and the knifeman sheepishly put it away.
BLOG ENTRY 2 MAY 20
Lockdown in Bermuda ended at 6am today and it was a delight to be able to go and climb at the crag where I bumped into Eli who was on the same mission. Fittingly, it was Beltane yesterday and the water is now 72 degrees and warming up nicely.
BLOG ENTRY 22/4/20
Sad news from Llanberis last week: Joe Brown passed away at home aged 89. Here is Jim Perrin’s obituary of him in The Guardian. Photos are additional and are amongst those gathered for The White Cliff.
The decade that followed the return of Joe Brown from national service to Manchester in 1950 was a crucial one in the exploration of Britain’s rock outcrops and mountain crags and brought him a heroic status in the sport. Brown, who has died aged 89, was involved in the Rock and Ice Climbing Club, founded in 1951 by a group of Manchester climbers.
He developed a partnership with Don Whillans that was to become the most significant in modern climbing history. As a team, they were formidable, the boldness and physical strength of the slightly younger Whillans balancing Brown’s inspired improvisations and innate rock-sense.
The stages for the Rock and Ice advance were the Derbyshire outcrops and the range of cliffs along the north side of the Llanberis Pass in Snowdonia. On the August bank holiday of 1951, Brown joined forces with Whillans in an attempt on the right wall of Cenotaph Corner on Dinas Cromlech in the Llanberis Pass. Their first attempt ended in retreat as a cloudburst soaked the rock.
A month later they were back, and this time succeeded on a route that was a psychological breakthrough in its acceptance of unremitting steepness and exposure, loose rock and poor protection. They called it Cemetery Gates, after a name Brown saw on the destination board of a bus as he returned through Chester that night. That October, the pair fought up Vember on Clogwyn Du’r Arddu – Brown’s second attempt after a near disaster two years previously – and the Rock and Ice revolution was under way.
The activities of this group – and Brown in particular – expanded to include the French Alps, where British climbing had scarcely advanced for 50 years. On their first visit in 1953 the Brown-Whillans team made the third ascent in a very fast time of the recent Magnone route on the West Face of the Petit Dru – then deemed the hardest rock-climb in the Alps; they went on to climb an even harder line of their own on the West Face of the Aiguille de Blaitière that very soon gained and long retained a reputation for extreme difficulty.
As a result, Brown was invited to join Charles Evans’s reconnaissance expedition in 1955 to the 28,169ft Kanchenjunga, the world’s third highest peak and its highest unclimbed one at that time. Brown’s acceptance, and apparent refusal to press for Whillans’s inclusion – something he was in no position to do – was seen by the latter as a betrayal, and the two men, who had never been close friends, climbed less frequently together thereafter.
The climb was far harder, more arduous and committing than the 1953 ascent of Everest. Brown led the final difficult rock pitch to the top, minus four feet, as an undertaking had been given to the King of Nepal not to tread on the actual summit of this holy mountain. His fame thereafter was assured. He followed up this success in 1956 with the first ascent of the Mustagh Tower, a 24,000ft rock spire in the Karakoram.
By 1956 Brown had established himself as the most considerable all-round mountaineer in the history of the sport in Britain. His first ascents on Pennine, Welsh, Cumbrian and Scottish rock had significantly advanced the concept of the climbable; in the Alps and the Himalayas his record was no less impressive.
He continued to climb into his old age and the list of his achievements grew longer with the years. His last recorded new climbs, on Welsh slate and in the Anti-Atlas of Morocco, were accomplished in his late 70s. But after those two great Himalayan ascents of the mid-1950s, his climbing involvement was more relaxed.
In 1957 he married Valerie Gray. The horizons of his activity broadened. He began to be in demand for TV work, where his flinty, humorous commentary, phlegmatic even when in extremis, acted as anchor to outside broadcasts from places as far apart as the Valley of the Assassins in Iran, Welsh sea and mountain cliffs, Alpine aiguilles, Scottish sea-stacks and a wintry Ben Nevis.
In 1967 he was one of those climbing the Old Man of Hoy, off Orkney, in an ascent televised by the BBC. In 1984 he repeated the experience with his younger daughter, Zoe, whose character came over as being as amused and engaging as his own. He even made a quirky series of television shorts about fishing in inaccessible places and acted as Jeremy Irons’ double in the waterfall sequences of The Mission (1986) – the fact that Irons towered over him by almost a foot was concealed by careful camerawork.
There was a measured wit and gravity and a light mocking touch about his screen persona that held true in all the relationships of his life. He instructed for a time at White Hall Outdoor Pursuits Centre in Derbyshire, where he found time to master canoeing. He loved to fish, alone or with close friends.
He had new phases of intense exploratory activity on British rock. In the early 60s he combed the secretive valleys of southern Snowdonia for small, steep crags on which he sketched out the early masterpieces of climbing’s modern age: Vector, Pellagra, Dwm, Hardd, Ferdinand. In 1965 he moved to Llanberis and opened the first of a small chain of outdoor equipment shops.
He had significant climbing partnerships with men of younger generations. With Peter Crew, he developed the awesome sea-cliffs of Gogarth and South Stack, in Anglesey, producing an extraordinary series of routes: Mousetrap, Mammoth, Red Wall, Doppelganger, Wendigo. He continued to produce classic and teasing climbs long after Crew had failed to keep pace with his zeal, and made significant ascents of difficult peaks in the Andes.
In the Himalayas he forged an alliance with Mo Anthoine and enjoyed trip after light-hearted trip – many of them unsuccessful in reaching their objectives and that did not matter to him one iota – to difficult peaks in Garhwal and elsewhere. Even in his 60s he took part in an expedition dogged by bad weather to Everest’s then unclimbed north-north-east ridge.
Born in Ardwick, Manchester, Joe was the seventh and last child of a poor Roman Catholic family. His father died when Joe was eight months old. Thereafter, his mother provided for the family through cleaning work and taking in laundry.
Joe left school at 14 to work for a jobbing builder. From Manchester, the Pennine moors were no more than a bus-ride away: “By my 12th birthday, I knew that going into the country was more satisfying to me than anything else,” he wrote. At first it was just playing around, then it gravitated to mine exploration in the abandoned copper workings at Alderley Edge and pot-holing in the White Peak. Inevitably, the progression was to climbing. For Brown this began among the arctic conditions of early 1947 in hobnailed boots at Kinder Downfall, above Hayfield, Derbyshire.
The rapidity with which Brown became perhaps the most significant figure in British climbing history was astounding. Within weeks this short, slight 16-year-old had begun to lead mountain rock-climbs at the highest contemporary standard. His native talent needed an educated and organisational ability to lead it on to fame and achievement. He found it through a chance meeting at Kinder Downfall in the spring of 1947 with Merrick “Slim” Sorrell.
Sorrell, three years older than Brown, was a pipe-fitter from Stockport whose solid and knowledgable company underpinned the first phase of Brown’s pioneering on rock. That their ability was notably higher than the prevailing standards of the day was established on a visit to North Wales. They had viewed the climb known as Lot’s Groove on the cliffs of Glyder Fach – alleged to be one of the harder climbs in Wales – and accomplished it on sight.
On the same holiday Brown made an ascent of the Suicide Wall in Cwm Idwal – undoubtedly the hardest climb of its time in Britain. “I didn’t find it too bad,” he told me many years later. By the summer of 1948, having mastered the most difficult of the existing climbs, he began turning out his own repertoire. Initially these climbs were on Derbyshire and Yorkshire gritstone edges – brutally steep outcrops of abrasive rock in the ascent of which Brown displayed a suavely rhythmical and relaxed genius.
His ability was now bolstered by being right at the centre of a group of climbers from the Manchester and Derby areas, the Valkyrie Club. On crags such as Stanage and Froggatt Edges, Wimberry Rocks and Dovestones, the routes that marked British rock-climbing’s postwar revolution and were to bring it in line with prewar continental standards were forged.
Long-standing problems feared and revered by the sport’s elders were vanquished beneath the insouciant plimsolls of a ragged and humorous 17-year-old youth. As a young climber myself in Manchester at the start of the 60s, I was intensely aware of his presence and how much he had achieved by then.
I could understand how the other greats of the period climbed: fitness, physique, supple gymnasticism or sheer application. With Brown, there was something else at work. He was quite short, not heavily built, his movement smooth and deliberate.
When I climbed with him, sometimes I would watch the way he made a move, copy it when I came to that point, and his way, that he had seen instantly, would be the least obvious and most immediately right. He was climbing’s supreme craftsman, unerringly aware of the medium. That instinctual rock-sense never entirely left him.
And with him, too, came a character generous, playful and straightforward. His mind may not have been academically trained, but he was sharp, informed, argumentative, and I think very wise. He loved the contest, be it physical or intellectual; he loved to wrestle.
Once, after a first ascent on the Pembrokeshire sea cliffs with a lot of crumbling rock, I followed him and found him sitting on the cliff edge. He pulled me to the ground and boxed me about the ears for risking his life and limb, scolding me for what he called the loosest route he had ever done. But he was laughing, and we ran back in perfect humour across the unmarked beach.
He needed the simplicity of that conflict and he was still generous and endearingly funny as he endured with dignity the ill-health of his final years.
He is survived by Valerie, their two daughters, Helen and Zoe, and four grandchildren.
• Joseph Brown, mountaineer, born 29 September 1930; died 15 April 2020
BLOG ENTRY 9/APRIL/20
OK so now we are under lockdown in Bermuda which means we have to get outside climbing fixes virtually. Here is a video of Steve McClure onsighting Nightmayer, E8 6c, on Dinas Cromlech in Wales. This is, literally, the best route I’ve never done. In 1991 when I was a Junior House Officer in Ysbyty Gwynedd I tried this several times but never made it through the crux which is the move where he brings his left foot onto his left handhold and then uses a sidepull to reach the skyhook placement. There is also a poor number 1 wallnut placement in that left handhold that he misses, although this might have since disappeared. The wire placement that he does place, below this, hadn’t been unearthed when I was trying it and my next gear was on the girdle ledge.
The line had been tried by Paul Pritchard amongst others and I knew it was on the radar of the strongest climber operating in Wales at the time: Steve Mayers. I felt like I’d got close but there was no cigar and when I returned from a two week overseas trip I immediately went to the Cromlech and soloed up Spiral Stairs. My heart sank when I saw the wet seeps were bone dry and there was lots of fresh chalk on the route. I quickly discovered that Steve had done it. He initially named it ‘Altared Images’ and then changed his mind, and the route name, to the much better Nightmayer.
Here is the text, plus additional photos, of what I wrote about Steve in my book The White Cliff:
The Crankinator by Grant Farquhar
It Doesn’t Feel Pity, Or Remorse, Or Fear, And It Absolutely Will Not Stop, Ever, Until The Route Is Conquered
Back in the early 90s I read some route descriptions written up in Pete’s Eats by a guy called Steve Mayers. He had burst onto the North Wales climbing scene, seemingly out of the blue, with a string of impressive first ascents of hard sport routes on the Little Orme. Who is this guy and where had he come from? My suspicions were first aroused when I observed the way he climbed. How did he climb?
Like a machine. A climbing machine.
If A Machine Can Learn How E Grades Work, Maybe We Can Too
I came to know him, and after climbing a bit in Wales, we went to the Alps. We warmed up on The Brandler-Hasse and proceeded to climb routes like The Fish, Hannibal’s Alptraum, the American Direct and Gulliver’s Travels. He systematically crushed all the pitches with ease and seemed bulletproof and invincible. I rarely saw him struggle, he never seemed to have a hard time and hardly ever fell off seconding. The bastard.
‘How did he climb so well?’ I wondered. The first clue came when he divulged that his home town happened to be Plymouth. A city that also happens to be the home of the biggest nuclear military naval base in Europe. A coincidence? I think not. My imagination conjured up a fiendish scenario: could there, perhaps, be a top-secret military climbing-android division? We’ve all seen the likes of Blade Runner and Robocop. Born in Plymouth? Manufactured in Plymouth more like.
I Need Your Underpants, Your Rockshoes, And Your Transit Van
Unleashed on the local cliffs at Berry Head, he had laughed in the face of the measly offerings there and produced Cocoon, a towering E8. Invading North Wales next, the half-man, half-machine did the first ascents of the ultimate remaining unclimbed lines on the prized, precious cliffs: unfeasibly hard and magnificent superhuman routes like Nightmayer, Overlord and Extinction. Could this hypothesis explain why these climbs have seldom been repeated?
Come With Me If You Want To Climb
Further signs emerged over the years. For example, in Pakistan where we climbed on a big wall at 6,000m; unlike the other members of the team, Steve was strangely immune from altitude sickness. Additionally, I noticed he never seemed to need to crap off the portaledge. Constipation? Well, has anyone ever heard of an android needing a shit? I don’t think so. More likely powered by dilithium crystals, or something.
No wonder he managed to get up that desperate final F7c+ pitch on that wall in Madagascar and all those onsight E7s in Pembroke. No one saw him build that climbing wall in The Beacon. It’s not surprising that it went up so quickly, probably he built it superfast, in a frenzy of blurred arms and legs, like the Six Million Dollar Man on Crack.
Putting the pieces of the puzzle together, you don’t have to be Sherlock Holmes to draw the inescapable conclusion: Steve Mayers is The Crankinator. He’ll be back.
BLOG ENTRY 28/3/20
We’re not in lockdown in Bermuda (yet) but people are urged to forgo all non-essential travel. So I’ve been at home all day and already completed my finger board routine. If you are in a similar position and looking for a long read then here is an essay I wrote around 2002 and which, I think, was published on the now defunct Planet Fear website.
THE MYTH OF SISYPHUS by Grant Farquhar
This universe henceforth without a master seems to him neither sterile nor futile. Each atom of that stone, each mineral flake of that night-filled mountain, in itself forms a world. The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart.
Albert Camus. The Myth of Sisyphus, 1955.
I. WHY CLIMB?
Chris Bonington called his autobiography I Chose to Climb. This choice was one that shaped and effectively defined his future life in a fundamental way, determining his profession, passions and friendships. I’m interested in how much of that choice arose from the exercise of his own will as a free agent at liberty to choose, and how much of his choice was determined by outside circumstances beyond his control such as genes, parents, upbringing, peers and cultural pressure? Was his perception of a choice the truth or an illusion. If he was incapable of choosing any other path then this was not a choice. If he was indeed able to choose, then why did he make this choice? Do we choose climbing or does it choose us. I would like to know why exactly does anyone bother pursuing such an absurd sport.
Patch performing a skidmark of the beast. Photo Grant Farquhar.
Absurd? Climbing is absurd. It seems absurd to me, on face value, to spend your leisure hours dangling by your fingertips from a cliff face in a position where you risk injury, sometimes serious injury and even death. Why on earth would anyone choose this? What makes the suffering on those cold alpine bivouacs worthwhile? Why risk death? The most elegant answer came from Mallory when referring to Everest: ‘Because it is there’. But this is merely an elegant smokescreen. After all, what makes an 8000m peak more valuable to have climbed than a 7999m peak when they are both ‘there?’ It is not that extra metre. Why are first ascents more enjoyable and considered more important than the hundreth ascent of the same route even though the moves and the physical act are one and the same?
To put it another way, have you ever wondered why you are so fucked up that in order to enjoy yourself you have to go and scale a cliff when other, presumably more normal and better adjusted people can go to the garden centre on a Sunday? Why can they enjoy beach holidays and you could not? What makes you different from them? Or that is maybe an arrogant assumption on behalf of myself and there really is no qualitative difference between climbers and non-climbers, merely one of degree like comparing the hero of Homer’s Odyssey to the one of Joyce’s Ulysses.
Returning to the original question; Why climb? Familiar responses to this question include the following:
I simply enjoy the exercise that climbing involves.
It is the movement over the rock.
I like being outside.
I enjoy being in the natural environment.
I meet all my mates at the crag and down the wall.
The satisfaction derived from performing at one’s limit and mastering a difficult problem.
I like the feeling of going where no-one else has been.
In my opinion, climbing whilst incorporating all of the elements described above transcends them, being more than the sum of these parts. It is more addictive than heroin for reasons more complex than those described above. After all, none of the reasons given so far really explain why we should want to head-point an E9 rather than go for a nice walk along the top of the edge. Or climb a harder rather than an easier route, or a dangerous over a safe climb.
I am fascinated by my own motivation to climb. I have asked myself time and time again: why do I want to climb? There is no doubt that climbing is massively enjoyable and gives me tremendous pleasure but why do I derive my enjoyment from this pursuit which is so addictive and takes up all my time. It even governs where I live, who my friends are and interferes with my career and relationships. Why couldn’t I have been into something safer and more convenient, say netball? This issue becomes particularly acute when someone is injured, or worse killed whilst climbing. What is the value of pursuing a sport in the face of such extreme risks. There must be some considerable reward. But what exactly is the nature of this nebulous reward and how does it influence our will? As in the rest of our life, we frequently do not know our own motivations and are prisoners to what we cannot understand.
Seb Grieve on the first ascent of Moscow Mule, Cuba. Photo Grant Farquhar.
I am interested in considering why we climb at all, but in particular why we are driven to climb harder and more dangerous routes, particularly first ascents and the role of the magazines and media. For example, no one would deny that doing the first ascent of a climb is more enjoyable than repeating it. I am interested in what contributes to making it so. The factors involved could be from inside the person; genes, personality, brain chemistry and so on. Or imposed through external pressures that are social and cultural like the media. I will attempt to outline some of these factors in the next three sections.
Psychology would have several angles on attempting to explain the motivation for climbing. Freudian theory would focus more upon our unconscious motivating factors and instinctual drives which would be considered more powerful than the exercise of our conscious will. Basic psychodynamics would attempt to make links between our early childhood experiences and our later adult behaviour. An example of this from popular culture is the film Vertical Limit. In the opening scene, the Father is climbing in a rope of three with the son and daughter. They are involved in a fall and the son is forced to cut the rope between himself and the Father. Besides demonstrating the popular cultural penetrance of Touching the Void, this killing of the Father by the son is a modern day re-enactment of the Oedipus myth. Something that is elaborated on at length in Freudian and post-Freudian theory. In response to this, the son rejects the paternal role model and shuns all future climbing, becoming a wildlife photographer, whereas the daughter over-identifies with the Father to the extent of becoming and living her life as a professional climber.
Freud said, ‘where there was Id there shall Ego be,’ meaning that the deep unconscious processes of the mind need to be brought into conscious awareness in order to effect a change in behaviour. Through understanding the deep seated and underlying personal reasons for pursuing a particular behaviour then greater awareness and control of this could be exercised. Having a greater understanding of the reasons behind the pursuit of an activity could lead to a closer examination of one’s own motives. Having more insight into these may lead to a greater exercise of caution and discretion in the face of pursuing a goal that carries extreme risks. This may mean that someone could be “cured” of doing death routes before either maturing out of it or in fact dying. It is of course a vexed issue and a parallel is that if the mental illness of Vincent Van Gogh was treated then he may not have shot himself dead but he also may not have produced those painted masterpieces of the last two years of his life which were his most prolific.
Anarchy in the UK, 2002. Photo Grant Farquhar.
Inadequate Paternal Role Model
Returning to the Oedipus complex, a common feature of men who are drawn to adventure sports such as climbing, adventuring and exploring, especially polar explorers does seem to be a poor relationship with the Father. It seems to me to be very common when reading life histories, interviews or obituaries of such men to read about a strict Victorian cold and distant Father who gave no praise and for whom they were never good enough. Or for there to have been an absent or somehow inadequate Father figure. An explanation for it may be that the son, who never received praise from the Father, is driven to increasingly extreme performances in adult life in an attempt to win that approval from his peers. This individual feels compelled to publicly demonstrate their personal worth and esteem through the pursuit of extreme exploits. The gaining of recognition through the sport could be equated at some level with winning the love they never received as a child. Their self-esteem is bound to that activity. However, they may never feel satisfied with their performances or valued as a person.
Against this theory is the hypothesis that a temperamentally strong minded, individualistic and defiant child could lead through a circular process (of the child affecting the parent affecting the child) to the parent behaving in a cold and distant manner. Therefore the perceived parental inadequacy could be a product of the child itself or more likely a combination of the two acting upon each other. Unlike Freud, we should perhaps not be so quick to blame our parents and in contrast, in sports less dangerous than climbing, research indicates that high achievement motivation in kids in sports is associated with parental praise, encouragement and rewards. I do think though that climbing is fundamentally an anarchic enterprise conducted by rebels who have found a cause. Oedipus was also a rebel.
A further theory worth considering is that of the inferiority complex. Overcompensation in one area of life e.g. excelling at climbing could be a result of the individual perceiving themself to be inferior in another area of the personality. It does not matter that you are ugly, lacking in social skills and repellant to the opposite sex as long as you can climb E7. Ring any bells, the bells?
The secret of knowing the most fertile experiences and the greatest joys in life is to live dangerously.
Nietzsche. Thus Spoke Zarathustra.
Kelvin Briscall about to fracture his spine. Photo Grant Farquhar. There was a doctor on the scene but unfortunately for Kelvin he was a psychiatrist.
Freudian theory depends a lot upon the elaboration of instinctual drives. One such drive is the death instinct or ‘Thanatos’. Climbing with its inherent risks could be seen as an enactment of the drive towards death. In muslim countries climbing is seen as a suicidal pursuit. In the same theme is the idea that through climbing and the flirtation with death, one is rebelling against biological inevitability and exerting inverse control over one’s own mortality like Achilles or James Dean.
Life is impoverished, it loses in interest, when the highest stake in the game of living, life itself, may not be risked.
Freud. Our Attitude Towards Death.
As climbers we are indeed building our houses on the slopes of a volcano. We never seem to feel so alive as when we are close to death.
Perhaps climbing provides us with those savage and primal experiences that we crave and that are lacking in our modern sanitised world with its comforts, insurance policies, seat belts, traction control, air bags, ABS, television and conservative western attitudes to risk and death.
Religion, spirituality and post-modernism
In the modern period, our increasingly secular civilisation has experienced the death of God and the substitution of science with its own fathers such as Darwin, Marx, Freud and Einstein. The failure of those scientific meta-narratives and the advent of post-modernism have led to the spiritual crisis in the 21st century. At the risk of sounding like I’m talking bollocks, in (post)modern man’s search for a soul and the quest for a meaning to existence could we perhaps be worshipping at the altars of the god of climbing as our transcendental object? For atheists anyway, it is possible that climbing and pursuits like it have taken over some of the role previously played by religion in our society. The obsession of climbers for climbing does often equal a kind of religious devotion and self-sacrifice. Maybe you should put ‘climber’ in the religion slot of the next census.
Charlie ‘Barnburn’ Woodburn versus Caveman. Photo Grant Farquhar.
Evolutionary theory attempts to explain human behaviour according to Darwin’s concepts of natural and sexual selection and in terms of the survival advantage of particular traits. Climbing in our society is comparable to the oft-quoted example of The Peacock’s Tail. How can such an obvious survival disadvantage as the tail of the peacock be explained by evolutionary theory? The tail is a serious pain to the peacock. It is large and unwieldy. It reduces his chances of escaping from a predator. It makes it more arduous for him to forage for food. It does not make it easier for him to survive. Why then do the genes that code for an impressive tail get passed on successfully? The answer is that the peahens dig it. They just love that sexy big display. The more impressive the tail, the higher up the pecking order and the greater success in the mating department. The genes that code for an impressive tail get passed on preferentially. Natural selection disadvantage but outweighed by the huge sexual selection advantage. They are sexually selected. Climbing could be seen as a similar display of genetic fitness. The message is; not only can I survive in this hostile world but I can also find the time to go and dangle from my fingertips off cliffs in my spare time. The harder the climb, the higher up the pecking order of social ranking, closer to alpha male and presumably access to higher quality totty. This operates at an unconscious level of course and it’s all a bit sad because ‘chicks’ don’t dig climbing at all. They think it’s weird, anorak-wearing and a bit sad, kind of like train-spotting with ropes. In addition, in the real world, women should dig ambition, material wealth and employment status in a man more than climbing ability, however in the climbing subculture, grade is how social rank is measured. As far as I can tell, Darwin had no idea how far this theory was applicable to female climbers.
No evolutionary account of behaviour would be complete without considering cheating. Cheating is a common strategy in competitive situations and confers an advantage when it is pursued by the minority. Does this or at least does the question of it exist in climbing? Anyone who favours a negative answer to this question may have impeccable personal ethics but should consider the Maestri controversy, the Cesen controversy, the John Dunne situation and Gary Gibson, amongst others before giving a definitive answer. The rewards for successful cheats should theoretically betray some of the motivations to attempt those goals in the first place. They do not include the physical or mental act of climbing, personal satisfaction or mastery. They include the rewards of having done a particular climb in the eyes of others, the kudos, but not the rewards reaped whilst actually doing the climb. Not the movement over the rock or the exercise or being in a wonderful place etc. Our achievements whether genuine or not are never purely personal. There is no such thing as a purely personal goal or achievement. They are always within the public domain. We never act without reference to or in isolation from the greater cultural sphere. No man is an island. Otherwise why would it matter to us whether someone else cheats or not? If you still disagree then consider this. You make an on-sight flash repeat of a new E10. Fantastic. Next day all your mates do it as well. Great. Later, all your mates’ girlfriends, their mothers and grandparents also complete ascents. Far-fetched perhaps but how much of a personal achievement would you still consider that ascent to be for you. As USA chess grandmaster, Bobby Fisher said in an interview: ‘it is not enough for me to win, everybody else has to lose as well’.
Charlie ‘Barnburn’ Woodburn having a Coronary. Photo Grant Farquhar.
E6 6b, 7b+, IX-, 5.12c, 26, A2, Scottish VS, Font 7a, V3 etc.
Have you ever wondered what the purpose of grading systems in climbing really is? Look at the plethora of grading systems, grade comparisons, graded lists etc. There is endless controversy over the grade of a particular route with overgrading, undergrading and savage downgrading. No country exists where people climb without a standardised and objective system based upon consensus opinion for directly comparing one person’s abilities against the other. Can anyone state with any kind of credibility that climbing is not a competitive sport, that they are not competing against other climbers, or that they are competing against themselves or laughably ‘the rock’? No magazine photo exists that does not caption the grade of the route depicted. How would an anthropologist regard this? Is this not a naked competition for social ranking and status? An alternative but far weaker explanation could be that people who are very motivated to achieve tend to be preoccupied with their performance and their level of ability. They prefer tasks that have clear outcomes and the grading systems in climbing provide a clear and quantitative measure of this. This may be true but only grades provide a standard for comparing one individual against the other, that is unless they actually climb on the same route, as in a climbing competition.
But what about the differing sub-specialities within the climbing genre? What possible differences could there be in motivations between them. The spirit of adventure and exploration is awakened during first ascents which have a romantic appeal. Alpine and Himalayan Mountaineering and Big Walls are examples of the art of suffering. A strong masochistic vein runs through these climbing disciplines. Climbers just love to suffer, or so it seems. This does beg the question that if it were not for the sublimation of our perverted desires into climbing would we all be down the local torture garden having nails hammered into our penises because we have been naughty, naughty boys. Haven’t we? Dangerous, serious traditional routes are specialised in by weak climbers who are not strong enough to be competitive at safer forms of climbing such as bouldering and sports climbing. To assert that strong climbers do not climb dangerous routes would be wrong, especially when you consider headpoints on grit but it does seem that the strongest climbers do not climb serious routes. Because they do not need to. Soloing, whilst undoubtedly the purest and most free form of climbing is also the most dangerous. Many renowned soloists have died climbing. It has the highest rewards and the highest risk. A criticism could be that this is the most blatant example of the peacock phenomenon in climbing. Is it not an amazing coincidence that whenever a dangerous solo happens to be undertaken for whatever deep personal reasons, there often seems to be a photographer lurking about ready to immortalise the ascent for the magazines. It is the kind of climbing most notorious amongst the lay public. How often have you been asked; “you don’t do that free climbing do you?”
Mikey Weeks enjoying Lobster, Mallorca. Photo Grant Farquhar
In sports psychology, the commonest given explanation for the motivation to climb is that climbers possess a Sensation Seeking Personality Type. People who score highly on certain dimensions of personality inventories are wait for it………..sensation seeking! And attracted to adventure sports.
The Big Tick
Personality traits that also seem to be associated with climbing are obsessional or anankastic traits. How many climbers have been stamp collectors, trainspotters, or birdwatchers? Like climbing they all involve an obsessional ticking mentality. There seems to be a male preponderence in this. Look at how many people lovingly tick or underline the routes they have done in the guidebook. Anyone who ticks their guidebook is probably obsessional in this and other areas of their life. Anyone who uses a ruler to do it definitely is
In the decade of the brain, it has been fashionable in scientific circles to explain all human behaviour in terms of genetics and neurochemistry. Climbing is no exception. There have been many articles in scientific and climbing magazines with complex theories usually involving serotonin, noradrenaline, dopamine, reward circuits etc. At the time of writing there remains a not inconsiderable explanatory gulf between chemical events at a brain level and conscious states or behaviour that may or may not be associated with them. The decoding of the human genome has not shed any light either. One thing that seems clear is that exercise releases chemicals such as adrenaline and endorphins which make you feel exhilarated and naturally high and result in exercise becoming addictive. Adventure sports arguably result in more intense and addictive experiences than others.
Climbing is a drug. Photo Grant Farquhar.
Cultural influences and social learning shapes motivation and varies strongly from culture to culture depending upon what is valued e.g. group goals vs personal distinction. Climbing as a sport has only really existed in our culture since Victorian times. Climbing as a means to an end has presumably always existed but not as an end in itself. Climbing as a sport would seem to be rare in so-called primitive cultures. Presumably, people are too busy surviving to bother with climbing up rocks for fun. Climbing does seem therefore to be a product of increased leisure time and was initially a bourgeois pursuit, being followed more by the upper classes rather than the lower classes in contrast to other more popular and proletarian sports such as football. Even today, it seems to me that the middle classes are over-represented and the lower classes under-represented in climbing.
There is no doubt that climbing is a male dominated sport, in fact I’m thinking about taking up netball. But why is climbing male dominated and why do women climb? Are female climbers in touch with their masculine side, animus dominated, gender role dysphorics, lesbians or what? Many of the arguments so far outlined apply mainly to testosterone-fuelled men. What about the feminist perspective? Is this yet another example of the suppression, discouragement and social and economic prejudice against women? Gender differences in achievement-motivation are said to appear at an early age. Many cultures with traditional gender role stereotypes discourage a need for achievement among women. These stereotypes may portray the pursuit of a sport like climbing as unfeminine and threatening to men. Whatever the role of testosterone, XY chromosomes etc, there do seem to be strong cultural reasons why less women climb than men.
Men Behaving Badly. Photo Tim Emmett.
As we move through the stages of life our personality (hopefully) develops and we hold different values at different ages. Worrying about your mortgage at the age of 40y may take precedence over climbing that E8 at the age of 18y, or vice-versa in some cases. A useful tool for examining the life story comes from structural linguistics. This attempts to reduce a narrative to the common structure that usually links it to a mythical archetype such as that of The Hero. Another example is the incest/patricide taboo alias Oedipus, which I have already quoted. In mythology and other literature, the hero myth follows a pattern similar to that of Homer’s Odysseus. These patterns recur so commonly throughout ancient and modern civilisations and cross-culturally that structural anthropologists such as Claude Levi–Strauss debate whether they represent instinctual patterns within the mind or are imposed externally by culture. The hero myth follows a predictable structure along the lines of the following. The hero has to leave his loved ones. The hero sets out on an adventure. The adventure involves all kinds of dangerous tasks which are completed with difficulty, eventually. The hero has a perilous journey home. The hero dies. Examples include Homer’s Odysseus which James Joyce’s Ulysses renders into everyday life. Che Guevera, Bruce Lee, Russell Crowe in Gladiator etc. The stage I am particularly interested in is the death of the hero. If you view your own personal climbing career as heroic then through climbing you leave the comfort and security of home and set out on your own little adventure and have all sorts of epics on the way. You continue on your climbing adventures but at some point the hero of your own personal voyage dies and you stop pushing the boat out and kind of retire or semi-retire. In your personal life narrative, the death of the hero is necessary in order to move on to the next, more mature stage of life. The hero may not die without a struggle which could represent a mid-life crisis. However, for some people the hero of their own personal adventures has nine lives or is indestructible. The hero never dies. They are compelled to carry on with their adventures and continue obsessing away on climbing when they really should at this stage be worrying about their mortgage.
For some people, climbing seems to be in their blood and they carry on enjoying climbing regardless of grade, first ascents etc. Perhaps they have achieved some kind of mystically enlightened zen state where the journey is valued over the destination. Everyone knows people like this, but they tend not to appear in magazine photos.
Charlotte Obhrai, Rainbow Bridge, Devon. Photo Grant Farquhar.
Man’s ideas, views and conceptions, in one word, man’s consciousness, changes with every change in the conditions of his material existence.
Marx & Engels. The Communist Manifesto.
Some of the commonest and most powerful motivations in our culture are economic. In the film, Vertical Limit, the Richard Branson style entrepreneur is motivated to climb a dangerous mountain for marketing reasons. Whilst professional climbers have chosen their career from the love of climbing, it must be difficult for them to ascertain to what extent financial incentives affect their decisions about which goals to focus on in climbing. With the advent of sponsorship, photo-incentive deals, magazines and advertising etc, this has become big business with vested interests. Whatever achievements are used for promotional purposes by the industry will inevitably colour the ambition of future generations who will aim to emulate these role models. Whose picture did you have on your bedroom wall when you were a teenager?
Homo-Erotica or Male Bonding? Photo Grant Farquhar.
Climbing as art
For those with an artistic temperament, climbing may be seen as an ongoing conceptual or performance art-form and a direct expression of the creative drive. There is a strong artistic process within climbing, consider the aesthetics of the movement, the parallels with more choreographed pursuits like ballet dancing and some martial arts. Climbing has inspired a massive literature. The photographing of climbers approaches pornographic proportions. Homo-Erotica? Check out all those muscles and bare chests. And these are in magazines that you hide from your workmates and read in the toilet! Whilst we are on the subject of masturbatory fantasies, John Redhead is the most obvious example of the artist as climber. Only an artist could get away with those route names at any rate. In terms of conceptual art then the act of climbing could be considered as art, the rock to be a canvas and the climbs to equate with artworks. I suppose if the lights going on and off can win the Turner Prize then Manic Strain should be in with a chance. If it is difficult to conceive of art without being within a frame or a gallery then I have also seen an installation in a contemporary art gallery in Sydney which consisted simply of a climbing wall and a video of people climbing up it. Through climbing and in our everyday life we are all artists and yet none of us are artists.
Deep water soloing in the Bermuda Triangle. Photo Grant Farquhar
Climbing is therapy
I have attempted to look at some of the reasons why we climb. Some or all of these factors as well as a myriad others that I have not thought of will affect us to a greater or lesser extent depending upon the person. For me, probably the single most important reason for continuing to climb is the powerful escape from the stresses of everyday life that climbing provides. It provides a place of asylum from the madness of modern existence, an outlet for pent up aggression and a source of reward and relaxation. Although, for most people, television does the same thing with a lot less danger. Hence the reason for writing this garbage in the first place. Some states achieved within climbing have been compared to those obtained through meditation. There is a Zen aspect to the focusing, self-hypnosis, automaticity and quiet mind obtained through climbing up rocks. Climbing can provide the meaning to existence that a person is searching for in their existential struggle with meaninglessness. To put it more prosaically, an obsession with climbing I would argue is far from unhealthy and brings with it considerable benefits in terms of improvements in mental and physical health through reducing stress, lowering blood pressure, keeping physically fit, avoiding obesity, reducing the chances of having a stroke or heart attack, avoiding osteoporosis etc.
Returning to Sisyphus, in Greek mythology, he was condemned by the Gods to the ceaseless task of rolling a big stone up a big hill over and over again. In a parallel with everyday existence that seems to be particularly applicable to the climbing way of life, the existential writer, Albert Camus imagined that instead of finding this a punishment that Sisyphus actually enjoyed this labour and the sense of purpose that it provided:
This universe henceforth without a master
Seems to him neither sterile nor futile.
Each atom of that stone, each mineral flake of that night-filled mountain,
in itself forms a world.
The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart.
We must imagine Sisyphus happy.
BLOG ENTRY 22/3/20
Working from home eh? Twid’s recent Facebook post about when he met Patrick Edlinger got me thinking about…
The day I met Twid by Grant Farquhar
It was that long, hot blue sky summer of 1986. I was 18-years old and camping in the Llanberis Pass below Dinas Cromlech. That day, resplendent in my navy blue Ron Hill tracksters with the red stripe down the side I was on Right Wall. Pete Whillance was my hero so I was wearing my Troll waistbelt – yes you heard that right: no leg loops. My second hand Scarpa Cragratz were on the wrong feet as the inside edges were completely worn through. The outside edges would do instead, I thought. Yes, I was young and dumb.
I was standing on Right Wall’s first resting ledge, which is below the crux, having just placed the only Friend I owned: a rigid stemmed number two and a half with a green sling. Little did I know that the crucial runner on the crux above was, in fact, a two-and-a-half Friend and my little friend should have been saved for higher up.
I made forays off my ledge up to ‘look’ at the crux which was a pockety wall in which every single feasible hold had been chalked which made for a bewildering sea of, mostly crap, chalked pockets hiding the crucial holds which I was failing to find. Inbetween forays, a girl with blonde hair – who I now know as Kath Goodey – led Cemetery Gates and her boyfriend at the time – who I now know as Twid – came seconding behind her. He made some light-hearted conversation, but probably had me, correctly, pegged as a clueless punter who was about to fail on the crux of Right Wall. Flail, fall and fail I did, needing to return the following year to settle the score when I stormed up it placing only four runners to prove a point. The point being that I was, indeed, young and dumb.
Later on I was to climb quite a lot with Twid in Wales and elsewhere. I think I only sandbagged him on a couple of occasions. Once on La Boheme at LPT when I told him that he didn’t need any wires for the crack at the top. Well – you don’t need any wires but there are placements for them. ‘Bastard!’ he shouted before mantelling the topout 15 feet above the last bolt and with a bomber, but empty, number 8 wire placement in front of his face. The other time was on UPT on a Ron Fawcett route called Body Torque which has a very frustrating final move to join Axle Attack. You fall off, pull on, do the move, think: that’s piss, only to fall off it next go. ‘Hey Twid that’s a good route,’ I said and then watched him red-faced and, indeed, frustrated lobbing off that final move repeatedly. He became one of the UK’s most accomplished expedition climbers and continues to pioneer high standard multi-pitch routes around the world. Here’s how I described him in The White Cliff:
Mike ‘Twid’ Turner lives, sweats, breathes, etc, climbing. A professional mountain guide for his entire working life, his working day is spent… climbing. Once he knocks off work he goes… climbing. His holidays are spent… climbing. He has pioneered many, many big walls ranging from the Arctic to Africa with everywhere else in between. His wife, Louise Thomas is also a mountain guide. Almost every route was already ticked in his Gogarth guidebook back in the mid-80s. He has since added numerous new routes and variations that make good use of the available spaces. In the process he has fondled more of Gogarth’s stone than anybody else.
The day I met Patrick by Mike Twid Turner
There are a few iconic images in your life that inspire you to greater things. For me this image was one of the first climbing shots/posters ever I put up on my wall. It was this shot of Patrick Edlinger climbing one of the first hard routes at Ceuse, in France. The clean wall, edge pulling, steep sports route inspired me to climb such routes. It optimised the pureness of climbing. At that time Patrick was probably one of the best climbers in the world. Certainly the most famous climber. The first real cragging books covered him climbing in places like the Verdon, Cimai and across the US.
So it was to my surprise at the ripe old age of 15 that I came across Patrick at The Breck. The Breck was my local bouldering area on the Wirral. One hot summer’s day, on a school lunch time, I was doing a spot of bouldering on the hallowed walls. Trying mostly not to get too much chalk on my school jumper and avoid landing on the previous nights broken alcohol bottles! When I came across a French man the spit of the man in this poster. I had done a spot of French, with Mr Geuarmour at school, so started a spot of friendly banter. So after a while he told me he liked croissants, which way to the nearest magazine shop and that he didn’t like escargot. He then told me his name was Patrick. Bloody hell it’s Patrick Edlinger I thought. His long straight hair, head band, perfect un-British tan, WB vest, a big pink chalk bag and some funny looking rock boots with a strange French sounding name, obviously all this gave the game away. We bouldered a wee bit together and I showed him around some of the best problems. He wasn’t bad but I was on top of my game and blew him away on the hardest problem on the Bluebell Traverse! I was a bit surprised by this (as I was only a sprog) and seriously thought him not quite as good as our local climbing hero, Lou Brown. But perhaps a bit better than Mike Owen, King of Pex. Still The Breck was the centre of world climbing, as far as we were concerned, and why not come all the way from sunny Haute Provence for the climbing experience of a lifetime.
After picking up my school bag, I waved goodbye to the world’s most famous rock climber and I headed off for some double maths and RE. I couldn’t wait to get home after school and dial all my chums up to tell them that Patrick had visited The Breck. It certainly made more of an impression on the gang than if the Queen was holding up the climbers on the Granny Rock lower 5b traverse. Well the news was passed from phone to phone, the smoke signals on the Wirral brought every pair of EBs out of all the broom cupboards on the local estates.
That very same evening it was shoulder to shoulder standing on the wet grass below the bouldering. I’ve never seen so many headbands on British climbers (till the first time I went to Sheffield and partied at the Lead Mill). The excitement was at fever pitch. Every Scouser was practising their party pieces and polishing up on all the sandbags. A chance to outclass the world’s best was on the cards. Unfortunately Patrick had moved on and didn’t appear at The Breck. Probably on a road trip of the great British bouldering venues we thought. Still he had been to The Breck. Why not!
Folk never believed my story, but it’s true as The Breck is the finest climbing venue on the Wirral. It was many years later when eventually I went to Buoux to see what all the fuss was about. All the Brits were lined up looking with binos and pulling on the bolts while shitting themselves at the next huge run out. I was generally puntering around, like most of the Brits, on some 7c+/8a on the Bout de Monde area. Struggling with the steepness, sunburn and heat. Watching the top climbers of the day do amazing things was pretty impressive. Didier Rabatooth, Stephen Glowach, Marc le Menstral, Ben go to the Moon and the Jerry Moffat show. All there climbing, posing and pulling like a tractor.
When suddenly Patrick walked around the corner (the real one) and stood next to my knackered old 40m Blue Water sport rope. He looked at me and with his best Franglaise asked if he could use my rope. I almost choked and said, ‘Of course mate’, if he felt he was up to it, ‘But please don’t fall off on it as it’s never taken any lobs before.’ Anyhow as expected Patrick floated up the route I’d been projecting for the last few weeks and with the occasional ‘formidable’ and ‘sacre bleu’ clipped the chains and casually lowered off. I think we chatted a bit about croissants and how fresh the bananas were that day ( the limit of my improved French).
Struck me he was a top chap, who took time to chat to the mere mortals like us unlike, I might say, many of the other superstars of the day. But the thing that struck me was his style on the rock. He looked the part; he just climbed effortlessly.
I used the very same rope as a washing line for many years after, hoping some of his magic would wash off onto us. I would like to think his style did, but his climbing definitely never made it.
BLOG ENTRY 21/3/20
Conditions were not great at The Great Head today, but with a Coronavirus lockdown and the end of the sport climbing season looming I managed to bluff my way up the Dead Man’s Hand.
The dead man’s hand is a legendary ‘cursed’ poker hand usually depicted as consisting of the ace of spades, ace of clubs, eight of spades and eight of clubs with an undefined fifth card, has appeared or been referenced in numerous works of popular culture including One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest. It is thought to have been the hand which Old West folk hero, lawman, and gunfighter Wild Bill Hickok was holding when he was shot in the back of the head by Jack McCall on August 2, 1876.
DEAD MAN’S HAND 30m 5.10d
The protagonist of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Randle McMurphy, has a dead man’s hand poker hand tattooed on his shoulder which foreshadows his fate at the end of the novel. Follow Johnny Rotten to the Roost. Walk rightwards along the ledge to two threads. Clip into these and pull your rope through. Climb up and rightwards through the bulges past two threads with a long move to gain a handrail on the lip of the roof. When you clip the final thread, above, you will realise that you have been dealt the Dead Man’s Hand. Will this thin natural thread hold or will it blow if you fall? The gamble is yours to take. Climb the crucial headwall leftwards in a spectacular position to the top. Step left to the Root of Evil’s final two threads. Lower off these.
Grant Farquhar, Eli Cagen and Sam Shadbolt 21/March/ 20.
BLOG ENTRY 20/3/20
Happy Equinox. This is the time of year when it becomes increasingly unpleasant to sport climb due to the conditions and we switch to DWS. Here is an interesting post from the climbstat blog mining the 8a.nu database. From a personal perspective, when I was climbing well I would onsight 90% of 7b+ routes and 50% of 7c routes but the 7c+ onsight always eluded me despite coming close a few times and actually onsighting a couple of routes graded 7c+ that were subsequently downgraded.
My hardest redpoints were 8a although I rarely spent more than two days trying a route. So the difference between my hardest redpoints and onsights is two grades compared to the average of four grades at that redpoint level. Does that make me a good onsighter or a bad redpointer?
Every rock climber knows that a successful onsight is much harder than an ascent with perfect beta after rounds of projecting. An onsight means climbing a route successfully at the first attempt without prior information or rehearsal on the route. During an onsight, we might not know where the crux lies or how long the route actually is. In contrast, being able to learn about a route, to mentally accommodate to the hard sections, the rest points and footholds, allows us to reach our maximum performance during a redpoint ascent.
Most of us also have a good sense of the routes we typically can climb in a first attempt with or without prior knowledge or in a second or subsequent attempt. But it is much harder to guess how much more difficult, let’s say an onsight ascent is, compared to a successful redpoint ascent. We might know that Adam Ondra did Silence (9c or 5.15d), currently the world’s hardest route, after weeks of practicing specifically for that route. Adam was also the first to flash a route of the grade 9a+ or 5.15a (a flash means a successful ascent of a route in the first go with prior information, for example from other climbers), and he did three 9a or 5.14d onsight. Alex Megos, however,was the first to onsight a 9a or 5.14d, he climbed up to 9b+ (redpoint). Up to today, no one onsighted a route harder than 9a. But is the difference between 9b+ redpoint and 9a onsight an meaningful estimate of how much harder an onsight is? A first attempt without beta might be easier among lower-graded routes compared to the elite level. Here, we want to investigate this question in a quantitative way.
As in previous posts, we will therefore access the data of the website 8a.nu which provides climbers with the opportunity to save their climbs and view personal scorecards. A scorecard is simply an overview about routes achieved, the respective style and the grade among others. In this post, we look at the maximum onsight and the maximum redpoint grade of 8a.nu users who made their scorecard public. We focus here on climbers who climbed redpoint at least 6a or 5.10a or higher. The available dataset covers entries up to September 2017. This leaves us with almost 18,000 climbers.
How do the results look like? First, we take a look at the overall difference between the maximum (redpoint) performance and the maximum onsight performance. The following graph shows the distribution of maximum performance for each climber in our dataset by style. This kind of graph is called a violin graph. The wider the violin, the more climbers there are with a certain maximum redpoint or onsight performance. The average maximum performance by style is illustrated by the black point in the middle of the violin. The average maximum redpoint performance is slightly above 7b+ or 5.12c. This is partly due to the fact that we disregarded climbers who do not climb above 6a or 5.10b. Apart from that the average ability of active 8a.nu users is quite high. Climbers who do not climb very often don’t bother much about creating and maintaining a public scorecard. The corresponding maximum onsight performance is slightly above 7a or 5.11d. This indicates that the average onsight level is approximately three grades below the maximum performance.
Next, we want to investigate whether the results differ across the performance spectrum. For this purpose, we group all climbers together by their maximum (redpoint) performance on their scorecard. Now we look at the average maximum onsight performance within each group.
How does this grouping work and how did we finally calculate the average onsight performance? Let us take those climbers who sent 9b+ or 5.15c as maximum (regardless of whether they are included in the 8a.nu data). These are Stefano Ghisolfi, Alexander Megos and Chris Sharma (Adam Ondra is not included in this list despite the fact that he did three 9b+ because of his 9c redpoint). Alexander Megos did an 9a onsight while Stefano Ghisolfi and Chris Sharma onsighted up to 8c at maximum, according to Wikipedia. The onsight average of this group is therefore slightly below 8c+.
The following graph shows how the redpoint-onsight performance gap across all grades. On the x-axis, we have plotted the maximum (redpoint) performance. The y-axis shows the maximum onsight performance. If climbers onsighted grades similar to their redpoint performance, we would see a straight 45 degree line (indicated in red). The onsight performance is as one would expect, lower than the maximum performance and this is why the blue points are below the red line. It is apparent that the difference is small for climbers with a relatively low maximum performance and it widens for higher able climbers. This indicates that an onsight becomes harder the harder you climb. The average onsight maximum is 2-3 grades lower for climbers who climb up to 7a or 5.11d redpoint but it increases to almost 4 grades for climbers with a maximum grade of 8a or 5.13b (and still widens further). Interestingly, the gap again seems to be a little lower for the few climbers who can climb 9b or 5.15b or higher.
We have not considered flash ascents in this post. The reason is that there is almost no difference between the maximum onsight and flash performance in the 8a.nu data. The highest flash grades are higher than the average onsight grades but the difference is very small (ca. ⅙ of the difference between one grade or between 7a and 7a+). Personally, we think this seems surprising since a good beta might indeed give you valuable information.
BLOG ENTRY 18/3/20
Recently there was an interesting controversy around Said Belhaj’s ascent of Action Direct. This type of situation crops up every so often in climbing. My book The White Cliff has a section dedicated to this topic under ‘Ballpoint Ascents’. Andrew Bisharat’s commentary on his Evening Sends blog (pasted below) is well worth a read.
THE PURGE: LIES AND CALL-OUTS IN CLIMBING
December 16, 2019
When should we stop taking climbers at their words? It’s complicated …
If you spend enough time on social media—and, I can’t say this enough, you shouldn’t—you might be forgiven for thinking that our digital lives are subject to a version of the rules outlined in The Purge, the crappy dystopian horror film in which society permits all crime, no matter how heinous, so long as it’s done throughout a single night.
Whereas the Purge takes place just once a year, there’s a sense that our online lives are at risk of being destroyed at any moment. You could go to bed one night laughing about the last cat video in your feed and wake up to find yourself utter-fucking-ly canceled for being a sexist, bully, liar, or worse—all because someone decides to CALL YOU OUT for something that may or may not warrant such serious accusations, let alone the ensuing guillotine that’s swiftly administered by an undiscerning social media mob.
A call-out could be based on hearsay, misunderstandings, or secret vendettas. But it doesn’t matter because the effect is the same. We now live in a world where any person with a large enough social media presence can weaponize their following to turn their enemy’s life into a clickbait vortex of pain and shit, whether it’s deserved or not.
And if you are the target of this kind of attack, the vortex will swallow you up and turn your life into a passion play to be performed on one of Zuckerberg’s platforms. Act one is making the mistake of reading—or, god forbid, responding to—the comments. It only gets worse from there.
You will find that every one of your friends, people who you thought might stick up for you, are now too afraid to say anything at all on your behalf for fear of getting sucked into the vortex themselves. Fair enough. Employers will want nothing to do with this, of course. Hell no. You’re fired. You’re gone. At the very least, you’ll find yourself in diminished standing.
And soon you will realize that you are now brutally alone, abandoned by a community you had thought might come to your defense. But no. Turns out you’re just a cheap bit of entertainment for everyone else, who might protest in private, but who in practice sits back, thumbs through their feeds, and renders themselves gifs who eat the popcorn at your expense.
Climbing’s latest call out concerns Said Belhaj, a Swedish climber who was accused by the German photographer Hannes Huch of not sending Action Direct.
I wrote a profile of Said a few years ago for Rock and Ice magazine. We have taken trips around the world together over the years, to places like Spain and China, as well as a memorable trip to the Grampians with Chris Sharma. Since then, Said has stayed at my house on several occasions as he was passing through Rifle.
It’s hard to describe Said as anything other than eclectic. His interests are eclectic and go well beyond just climbing. Our conversations are never dull. He likes to talk about art, culture, and music. He speaks six languages fluently. He plays several really rare African instruments and is a particularly great percussionist.
His friends are eclectic, too. In Australia, one night we had dinner with Margaret, a sweet elderly lady who lives alone out in the bush, who Said had met years ago and whom he has kept in touch with as a pen pal for over a decade. (Who does that?)
Said is funny. He’s intelligent. He’s interesting. He’s different. He’s eclectic. I like Said a lot.
Of course, it was painful to see these accusations, based on nothing more than hearsay and conjecture, arise. There’s nothing worse than being called a liar—especially if you’re telling the truth. My first reaction was that it seemed out of Said’s character to lie about something like climbing, for which I know he has so much respect and passion. After all, Said is a damn good climber. I’ve seen him, belayed him. It’s not preposterous to think he can climb as hard as he says he has climbed.
And yet, it strains one’s credulity to read Hannes’ damning blog post or hear the questions raised concerning some of his other ascents, or even read Said’s own dismissive, somewhat self-immolating response and come away feeling confident that Said sent Action Direct.
Why would he do that?
Lying is a form of theft. It steals the truth from others. In climbing, lying not only robs us of the truth, it sometimes robs others of records they may hold. Mostly, liars rob everyone of their ability to be believed without question.
And yet, just as not all thefts are morally equivalent—e.g., being poor and stealing food vs. being rich and stealing because you’re greedy—not all lies in climbing are equally bad. Some lies are bigger than others. Underlying motivations matter, somehow. Does this impetus to lie spawn from a place of deep inadequacy? It’s hard to not feel sympathetic to a person like that.
I’ve often noticed that the biggest liars are often some of the most talented and best athletes—people who are perfectionists, who have achieved incredible things, but for whom their accomplishments are never quite enough. Their world-class abilities are their very alibis in the stories they tell. No one questions whether Ueli Steck, for example, could climb Annapurna’s South Face in 10 hours. But… did he?
Is the lying done to advance professional opportunities? It’s a bit harder to conjure sympathy here. In this situation, the liar is potentially taking a spot that someone else might deserve, who may be equally if not more deserving. People who lie often don’t see how their lies may hurt others. The worse liars are the ones who do and don’t care. There are certainly climbers like that.
I know that one of Said’s major sponsors stated something to the effect of, “We don’t even sponsor Said because of how hard he climbs.” In other words, Said is sponsored by this company not because he’s putting up 9c+ first ascents. It’s because of all of the other gifts he offers: his warm, interesting personality; his eclectic interests; his ability to inspire climbers of all backgrounds and diversities. It’s the whole package, not the singular ticklist.
I wonder if Said knows that his sponsors even feel this way about him? I know from our conversations that losing his sponsors was always a source of anxiety and concern for him. It’d be ironic if that anxiety, seemingly unfounded, caused him to make decisions that would jeopardize his professional career.
After Hannes Huch made his blog post and Instagram campaign raising questions about Said’s claimed ascent of Action Direct, media outlets began accurately describing his post as an accusation that Said was lying. Huch, however, took exception to this characterization and he posted a second Instagram with a felt-cute-might-delete-later smiley selfie in which he tried to characterize his call-out as being somehow more charitable and gracious than he was. That he didn’t actually just call Said a liar, and merely raised “reasonable doubts,” a distinction without a difference, if you ask me.
In other words, now that climbing media was reporting that Huch had accused Said of lying, Huch was somehow starting to feel uncomfortable being the guy who was willing to destroy someone’s reputation and career over what amounts to hearsay and conjecture.
This is bullshit of the highest order. When you decide to call someone out, you should stand by your accusation and not waffle and act as though you’re just gently and tenderly raising questions. Huch’s social media campaign to pose his “reasonable doubts” about Said’s ascents are nothing short of attacks on Said. He’s feeding the social media mob red meat, fanning the flames of doubt, and allowing the mob to do what it does best: destroy lives. That he seemingly wants to wash his hands of this and take no responsibility for the destruction of Said’s reputation and career is something I’m not willing to let go.
Because the bar for calling people out has never been lower, I think there maybe should be a consequence for the person who does the calling out, too. In this sordid mess, Huch reveals his character, too—as a guy who is willing to ruin someone’s life over conjecture and hearsay. Huch might be lauded for his courage to say what others have been thinking and whispering about over the past year, but perhaps in the long term, fewer pro climbers will want to work with him for fear that he could turn on them too.
Is this unfair and wrong? I don’t know. I’m not so sure it’s a bad thing that there isn’t some level of risk and blowback for a person making a call out. Due to the nature of social media today, in which an online mob often judges and sentences a person before they’ve even been given a chance to respond, and for whom no apology, however sincere, would ever even be enough to restore a reputation, having a higher bar for making an accusation might be a really good thing.
There are at least a few climbers out there who I can think of, with far bigger careers than Said, who are likely misrepresenting their accomplishments in unethical ways. Another way of saying this is that there are a lot of liars and bullshit in pro climbing. But these are just stories I hear, stories that other pro climbers tell me in whispers, in private.
People have suggested that I should be the guy who takes the leap and names these people publicly. But I’m not willing to do that because I don’t think hearsay, conjecture, and whispers are strong enough reasons to risk maligning someone’s character and career.
More than that, I want to live in a world where we take climbers at their words. Every time a lie is committed and even every time a call-out is made, it becomes a little harder to do that.
Daniel Woods and Carlo Traversi suggested on an 8a.nu forum that the bar for all professional climbers is set at uncut footage of any ascent—not just groundbreaking ones. It’s hard to argue with that, given that we all now carry 4K video cameras in our pockets. Perhaps team managers will demand that their athletes provide proof of their ascents as part of their sponsorships.
I really want to believe Said. In Australia, I belayed him on Punks in the Gym, the world’s first 5.14a. His first couple of times on the route, he hung all over it, and it looked like it wasn’t going to come together. Then, next go, he magically pulled an ascent off. It went from looking impossible to suddenly being done. There’s very good reason to believe that Said has sent every route he says he has sent.
But, if Said is lying about Action Direct or any other route, he should just say so, apologize to the climbing community, and go climb these routes with uncut footage of his ascent. He’s certainly capable of doing that.
I just wonder if the climbing world would be willing to accept an apology and offer a truly valuable member of our community a chance at redemption.
BLOG ENTRY 11/MARCH/20
The clocks sprung forward this weekend and we now have enough light to DWS after work. It was a beautiful evening on the north shore today.
BLOG ENTRY 7/MARCH/20
In the aftermath of a cold front it was 60% humidity today and good conditions at The Great Head. I had equipped the direct start to the second pitch of Three Sheets to the Wind which takes a steep, leftward slanting crack. The handholds, above the crack are in good, orange rock, but the footholds tend to be in the soft, unreliable grey stuff which makes for a somewhat strenuous and spooky lead. The name comes from the 1968 civil unrest in France and was suggested by Kyle Kaptain as a name for the route that became Johnny Rotten. The rock on these routes is suspect with a hard, brittle patina and an underlying sandy matrix. Don’t pull too hard on the holds.
SOUS LES PAVéS, LA PLAGE 25m 5.10c
This route takes the right-most equipped line and is a direct start to the second pitch of Three Sheets to the Wind. Climb past ten threads to the two-bolt belay. Grant Farquhar and Rob Sutherland, 7 March 2020.
BLOG ENTRY 29/2/20
These are the Titanium bolts that I have been using in Bermuda for the past few years.
BLOG ENTRY 1/FEB/20
With a cold front approaching and humidity at 50% (unusual for Bermuda) there were good conditions at The Great Head today. The 20 knot SSE wind was wetting the cliff with spray but this was being dried by the wind as fast as it accumulated.
I had my sights on the project that I’d equipped a couple of weeks ago which goes through the roof below The Root of Evil. First go, I fiddled nervously with my knot and climbed Johnny Rotten to the Roost. I then headed rightwards along the ledge to the threads marking the start of the new line. I pulled the rope through to reduce rope drag and then ventured above.
This part of the crag is high up and exposed. With spaced threads, it feels more like deep water soloing than sport climbing – you are simply going to fall into space – deep air? and then lower to the ground as there is zero chance of getting back on the rock from the rope.
So, figuring out the moves from the ledge, I clipped the first thread and then continued over the bulge to the next roof. A flake in the back of the roof was a tempting option to clip the next thread. It seemed OK as I hung off it as I pulled up the slack to clip. With full slack out and my finger about to push it through the gate of the krab, there was a SNAP! and I was airborne, stopping headfirst 40ft lower but still miles off the deck.
Loose hold? Actually, I suspect that Nurse Ratched jumped out and stuck a Thorazine injection into my butt. Next go, though, it was Nurse Ratched’s butt that got kicked.
NURSE RATCHED 30m 5.10b
Nurse Ratched, literally, overlooks The Cuckoo’s Nest. Follow Johnny Rotten to the Roost. Walk rightwards along the ledge to two threads. Clip into these and pull your rope through. Now aren’t you ashamed of yourself? The best thing we can do now is to get on with our routine. Climb diagonally leftwards through the roofs past two threads. Watch out though – your filthy hands are making my holds dirty. Crank the lip in a spectacular position to join The Root of Evil at it’s final two threads. Lower off these. Now, if you don’t want to take your medication orally then I’m sure we can find another way. Grant Farquhar and Rob Sutherland 1 Feb 2020.
Nurse Ratched is the antagonist of Ken Kesey’s 1962 novel One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest. She is the embodiment of the evil that institutions can become when they are not subject to sufficiently independent scrutiny and migrate to a position of operating in the best interests of the staff rather than the patients. This remains as relevant today as it was in the 60s.
ROOT 666 30m 5.10a
A left-hand finish to The Root of Evil. Follow Johnny Rotten and The Root of Evil past three threads to the ledge. Step left on the lip and finish up the groove above. Grant Farquhar and Rob Sutherland 1 Feb 2020.
BLOG ENTRY 18/JAN/20
With a biting northerly wind there was very good conditions at The Great Head today.
BLOG ENTRY 15/JAN/20
There was plenty of activity at The Great Head last weekend.
Kyle Kaptain on Johnny Rotten. Photo Pebble.
JOHNNY ROTTEN 15m 5.10a R
For me the best rock is not what you play. Johnny Rotten.
The rotten canine on the left-hand side of the cave could do with a root canal. Unfortunately the rock in the first 20 feet is very fragile. Climb the rounded pillar left of the cave, steeply past three drilled in-situ threads, to The Roost. There are numerous spikes upon which it is advisable to place additional protection slings.
Grant Farquhar, Pebble and Kyle Kaptain 11 Jan 2020.
Kyle also checked out a number of the bouldering areas.
BLOG ENTRY 6/JAN/20
Marco sent me some pics of his and Laura’s recent visit to Bermuda.
BLOG ENTRY 4/JAN/20
Happy New Year. It was a beautiful day at The Great Head today. I met up with visiting climbers Kyle and Pebble who sailed in yesterday from Palm Beach, Florida.