Climb de Rock

Climb de Rock: A Climber’s Guide to Bermuda is available from the Bermuda Bookstore and on Amazon in paperback and ebook versions.

21/2/23: Drapetomania

Spittal Pond bouldering. Photo: Climbderock.

I have been bouldering at Spittal Pond which was an area developed by Timothy Claude. There is a lot of rock here but not much of it hangs together as making worthwhile problems. It’s still a cool place to visit and climb though. I knew Jeffrey’s Cave, a stop on the African Diaspora Heritage Trail was in Spittal Pond somewhere and that it was hard to find. So it proved: I couldn’t find it. Which is why, I guess, Jeffrey – a runaway slave – successfully hid out in it for a month. But one day after wandering back from a boulder cave that I, mistakenly, thought might be Jeffrey’s Cave I found the real deal. This cave is so well hidden that I couldn’t immediately find it the next time.

Looking into Jeffrey’s Cave. Photo: Climbderock.

Sitting in the cave I tried to picture myself as the legendary Jeffrey. Sure there is a nicely framed view of the turquoise water, but the front of the cave is open to any south wind and the floor, being made of rock, was hard and would probably not make for a comfortable night’s sleep. I was, literally, sitting in his position but I was in reality a million miles away. Here was I: a free, privileged white male, investigating the cliffs and caves for rock climbing potential whereas Jeffrey would have been born into chattel slavery and faced a life of brutal work and threat of punishment. I don’t think he would have been eyeing up the cracks in the ceiling of the cave as potential challenges for the frivolous pursuit of rock climbing. I decided to find more about Jeffrey.

The earliest source I could find for this story was in the Royal Gazette in 1923 where it was recounted under ‘Tales and Traditions of Old Bermuda’ by Winslow Manley Bell. It tells how ‘a negro named Jeffrey’, of Smith’s Tribe (Smith’s is the parish that Spittal Pond is in) ran away and could not be found despite extensive searching. It was supposed that he had escaped by ship.

Looking out of Jeffrey’s Cave. Photo: Climbderock.

The story goes on to describe how, after about a month of Jeffrey’s absence, ‘the master of the plantation’ observed, one day, the 15-year-old mulatto girl who served in his kitchen slipping away at nightfall with a package towards the south shore. He presumed that Jeffrey was lurking somewhere nearby and that she was bringing him food. After ‘a long and tedious search’ the next day he discovered Jeffrey sleeping in his eponymous cave. The story does not give a date for the story or recount the fate of the unfortunate Jeffrey.

In 1616, chattel slavery was already in use in Bermuda. By decree of Governor Henry Woodhouse’s Council it became law in 1626 and continued throughout the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries until emancipation on 1 Aug 1834 when the act to abolish slavery was passed in Great Britain. In Bermuda, the annual Cup Match public two-day holiday still marks this historic event.

One of the sources that I was able to use to research Jeffrey was the Bermuda slave registers. In 1819, the British Government formally asked all territories of the British Empire to prepare such registers. Bermuda submitted three slave registers and the second and third from 1821 and 1834 are available online via the Bermuda College website. The 1834 slave register (which listed 1,858 males and 2,319 females, totalling 4,277 slaves) lists ‘Jeffry’ owned by Mary Ball and ‘Geoffry’ owned by Benjamin Patty. There is also listed ‘Geoffrey’ owned by Samuel Trott of Verdmont, but he was five years old in 1833, so we can exclude him as a candidate for the Spittal Pond Jeffrey.

Assuming the name Jeffrey is correct, we have two candidates for the elusive Jeffrey. According to the slave registers, Mary Ball of Smiths owned three male slaves (including ‘Jeffry’) and Benjamin Patty of Pembroke owned two males, ‘Geoffry’ and Syke; and two females, Clary and Nancy. According to information gleaned from the Royal Gazette, Patty’s land was in North Pembroke near the Parsonage so while he had female slaves that fits with the 1923 story, his land being quite far away from Spittal Pond does not fit (Google Maps quotes one hour and 14 minutes as the time taken for walking between the bit of Parson’s Road that is on the border between Pembroke and Devonshire). Lynne Winfield, however, proposes that this would have been ‘an easy 45-minute walk in those days as the crow flies’. 

Mary Ball, however, did live in Smith’s – according to the genealogy websites she was connected to the Peniston family and her land in Smith’s was adjacent to the south shore close to Spittal Pond. However all her slaves are documented to be male.

Grafitti inside Jeffrey’s Cave. Photo: Climbderock.

The Royal Gazette from 15 July 1834 contains a report about Benjamin Patty’s slave ‘Jeffery’, who along with another of Patty’s male slaves, Syke, was sentenced to 10 days imprisonment including hard labour on the treadmill and solitary confinement. Their crime was reported to be an attempt to rescue a runaway slave called Daniel, property of Charles Taylor of Smith’s Parish. This rescue attempt was said to have occurred in Hamilton. Both ‘Jeffry’ and Syke are also listed in the 1821 slave register. At that time ‘Jeffry’ was 10 years old and was owned by Thomas Tuzo of Hamilton. Syke was owned by Thomas’s brother, Captain Henry Tuzo and the Tuzo family had multiple slaves, both male and female, but their lands appear to have been in the Hamilton and Point Shares areas, so not close to Spittal Pond.

Royal Gazette archive.

So which one was the Jeffrey of the legend? Is the Jeffrey in the above two stories one and the same? I consulted Lynne Winfield of Citizens Uprooting Racism in Bermuda (CURB), researcher and editor of CURB’s publication Black History in Bermuda: Timeline Spanning Five Centuries, who was very helpful with information and suggestions for research. She believes that the real Jeffrey is the one owned by Benjamin Patty and he certainly had form in this particular area on the basis of the 1834 report. Cyril Packwood’s book, Chained on the Rock, also details both of the above stories of ‘Jeffrey’ consecutively. He doesn’t make a direct connection between the two stories although this is implied.

The records of the Slave Compensation Commission, set up to manage the distribution of the £20 million compensation for slave owners following emancipation, provide a more or less complete census of slave-ownership in the British Empire in the 1830s. According to the centre for the studies of the legacy of British slavery, Benjamin D Patty of Pembroke was awarded £78 compensation for his three slaves in 1836. Of course, the newly-freed slaves received nothing financially in compensation, and emancipation was followed by Jim Crow-type laws, segregation, and the structural racism that persists today.

Jeffrey could have come from an earlier time or his name might have been something else. Folklore legends are based in reality but facts become distorted in the re-telling of the story over the generations. In the course of my research, one of the Bermuda archivists thought that the story of Jeffrey of the cave coincided with that of Sally Bassett, a female slave who was executed by burning at the stake in 1730, but the historical material in the archives from the 18th century is nowhere near as detailed as the 19th, so there is no written evidence (that I could find) to substantiate this.

Delving into the online resources, especially the Royal Gazette archives and trawling through the records at the Bermuda National Library and the Bermuda Archives was an eye-opening experience as to the legacy of slavery.

Probably the most famous slave narrative to come out of Bermuda is that of Mary Prince. Her autobiography, The History of Mary Prince, A West Indian Slave, was the first such account to be published in England by a female slave in 1831. Every time I drive along St John’s Road in Bermuda (usually to go to the hardware store) I look up that blue house on the hill and think of her. This was the house that she describes in her book: 

‘The house was large and built at the bottom of a very high hill… the stones and the timbers were the best things in it; they were not so hard as the hearts of the owners.’

School Lands Lane in Pembroke. Photos Climbderock.

Mary’s book drew public attention to the continuation of slavery in the Caribbean, despite an 1807 Act of Parliament officially ending the slave trade, and was a powerful rallying cry for emancipation which eventually occurred in 1834. In her book Mary describes the punishments inflicted on her: 

‘To strip me naked – to hang me up by the wrists and lay my flesh open with the cow skin [whip], was an ordinary punishment for even a slight offence.’ 

She also describes the brutal flogging of a fellow pregnant slave, Hetty, who subsequently delivers a still born child and then herself dies after further floggings. Mary ran away from her owners to her mother, who had joined Richard Darrell’s household at Cavendish:

‘After this I ran away and went to my mother, who was living with Mr Richard Darrell… She dared not receive me into the house, but she hid me up in a hole in the rocks near, and brought me food at night, after everybody was asleep. My father, who lived at Crow Lane, over the salt water channel, at last heard of my being hid up in the cavern, and he came and took me back to my master.’

According to Lynne Winfield, research carried out by Dr. Margot Maddison MacFayden points to the cave Mary Prince hid in as likely being located on what is now the property of Cavendish Heights condos: ‘The original old house on the property has been converted into a townhouse but the hillside has been cut into and only a small part of the cave remains… more like a substantial indentation in the rock, what was probably the back of the original cave.’


I cycle around the landscaped and manicured grounds of the condos and try and picture it back in Mary’s day. I don’t find the potential new bouldering area that my imagination had conjured up, and there are no caves visible. There are some obviously quarried rock outcrops and ‘indentations’, many of which could be the remnant of Mary’s cave.


It was, apparently and unsurprisingly, common for slaves to run away from their masters. There was even a medical diagnosis for this behaviour: Drapetomania. This was coined by American physician Dr Samuel Cartwright (1793–1863) whose middle name was, appropriately enough, ‘Adolf’.

Samuel Cartwright.

According to Google translate ‘drapetis’ in Greek means ‘runaway’ so I presume this is from where he derived the name and shows that, at least, he knew his Greek. Cartwright was charged with investigating ‘the diseases and physical peculiarities of the negro race’ by the Medical Association of Louisiana. His report was delivered as a speech at its annual meeting and published in the New Orleans Medical and Surgical Journal in 1850.

Cartwright’s hypothesis centred around his belief that slavery was such an improvement upon the lives of slaves that only those suffering from some form of mental illness would wish to escape. Cartwright invoked mainly biblical arguments to buttress his opinion. His recommended treatment was, ‘whipping them out of it, as a preventive measure against absconding, or other bad conduct. It was called whipping the devil out of them’.

The historical ‘diagnosis’ of Drapetomania is intensely interesting to me as a psychiatrist and shows how supposedly scientific medicine can be hijacked by cognitive biases such as racist beliefs. They are of course a product of their time and culture. For example homosexuality was once included in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders published by the American Psychiatric Association. We still use this book as the basis of our diagnostic systems in psychiatry today although it is now in its fifth edition.

Thanks to: Bermuda library, Lynne Winfield@ CURB, Jane Downing@ National Museum of Bermuda, Karla Ingemann@ Bermuda archives. References: Bermuda Slave Registers, RG archives, The History of Mary Prince. A West Indian Slave Narrative by Mary Prince, 1831, Chained on the Rock by Cyril Outerbridge Packwood, Slavery in Bermuda by William E Smith.

17/2/23: Fort William Mountain Festival

Great to see the Scottish Mountaineering Press team representing at the Fort William Mountain Festival this weekend. The Tom Patey book is, of course, taking centre stage, but you can see my book, A’ Chreag Dhearg, on their table too.

SMP team at the Fort William Mountain Festival. Photo SMP.

14/2/23: Life on the Rock by Dreas Ratteray

With his permission I have reproduced here the excellent essay that Dreas recently published on his website.

Life On ‘The Rock’ by Dreas Ratteray

The geology of Bermuda is iconic. While the photographer’s lens usually centres on pink sand and turquoise water, their images are customarily framed with limestone pinnacles written in a thousand shades from black to white. Bermuda’s limestone is as variable in its form as it is diverse in its services to natural ecosystems and human communities. Our limestone stands as a bulwark against the relentless gnawing of the Atlantic Ocean; it supplies an indispensable building resource; it provides nesting habitats for a variety of seabirds; and it serves as one of the last refuges for the endangered flora and fauna of the islands. While Bermuda limestone enjoys considerable attention in brochure covers and celebrity instagram posts, it lacks formal recognition from a cultural or legislative perspective—a challenge we must address if we are to conserve the beauty and services of this natural resource. Why are rocks such a critical part of sustaining life in Bermuda? What threatens the preservation of rocks and what can you do to help? Why is a marine biologist with no professional prospects in geology so bent on writing about them? If any of these questions occurred to you, read on!

Before discussing the nuances of Bermuda limestone, it helps to clarify exactly what it is. Though our island’s rocks take many forms, they are all made of the same basic material: calcium carbonate (CaCO3). This calcium carbonate was created by marine organisms, and any who has seen the extent of Bermuda’s coral reefs can easily grasp the capacity for living organisms to contribute to the creation of vast quantities of rocky material. But how does material created by marine organisms end up on land? Did the sea level once reach the 79-m summit of Town Hill, Bermuda’s high point? Geologist and explorer Angelo Heilprin beautifully describes the transition of Bermuda rock from the marine to the terrestrial world in his account of his visit to Bermuda in the year 1887, an excerpt of which proceeds:

“The first process toward the forming of this rock must necessarily be the pounding up of the material out of which it is constructed. Wherever the polyps build close to the surface their habitations are attacked by the surf which they themselves create. The long white line of foam which meets the eye of the observer gazing southward from any eminence, and parts the blue waters of the outer world from the more nearly green within, is but the line of battle between the organic and the inorganic forces. It is here that life asserts her supremacy over the sea, and it is here that the sea maintains her right of domain as an inheritance of prior birth. Blocks of coral and coralline are detached and broken, their parts are rocked to and fro in the withering crest, and ultimately, when the fragments have been sufficiently punished by the sea, they are handed over for further chastisement to the action of the wind. In this way the particles are ground finer and finer, a true sand is formed, and dunes begin to rear their heads above the ocean level. Traveling in the line of the wind the dunes pass onward, climb over one another’s backs, and comb the gently flowing crests ; from pigmy hillocks they rise into well-fashioned knolls, and ultimately stand as the eminences which to-day are the Bermudas. No one who, on the south shore, has watched the great tongues of moving sand,—the sand glaciers of Tucker’s Town and Elbow bay, for example—stealthily encroaching upon the hill-tops of the interior, and burying everything, in the manner of the locusts of South Africa, beneath their mantle of destruction, can have failed to be impressed by the character and the magnitude of the work that is being accomplished. It is truly but the music of the sea and wind, but there is enough of it to turn water into land.”

While I cannot possibly add more colour to this description, I can perhaps repeat Heilprin’s words in a 21st Century register. The ocean is full of chemicals, including calcium (Ca2+) and carbonate (CO32-) ions, the main ingredients for calcium carbonate. Marine organisms, specifically invertebrate animals like corals and molluscs, take these chemicals out of the water column and use them to build their skeletons. The action of waves and moving water breaks up this skeletal material to form sand (erosion). Biological processes also break up this material (bioerosion) and if you have snorkelled in Bermuda or other coral reef systems, you may have observed fish consuming material from the surface of the reef and later excreting it into the water—pooping sand! The sandy material is deposited on the submerged Bermuda Platform where it accumulates in vast quantities. This is when things get wild. Consider that the sea level is not constant and actually fluctuates up and down by about 300 metres throughout geologic time. At some times in the past, the entire Bermuda Platform was submerged and at other times vast areas that are currently underwater were exposed to air. During these latter periods, wind blows the sand into dunes which reach several hundred feet in height. At the bottom of these dunes, time and pressure contribute to the gradual compaction and hardening of the sand, producing eventually the rock we call limestone. 

In even simpler terms: marine organisms make rock, physical and biological forces erode the rock to form sand, eventually the sea level goes down and this sand gets blown into sand dunes and these dunes cement over time to form limestone. The origin of Bermuda’s limestone as sand dunes is plainly evident in the striation seen in road cuts across the island (Figure 1). This process did not happen all in one go but rather over the course of millions of years. In fact, the Pleistocene Epoch, a 2.5 million year period of repeated glaciations which ended about 10,000 years ago, was responsible for raising and lowering the sea level around Bermuda numerous times. When the sea level was high, corals and other organisms overgrew the platform, creating a ‘carbonate factory’ of sandy deposits. Then, at times when the sea level was low, this sandy material accumulated in dunes beneath which formed limestone. This cycle played out at least seven times in Bermuda and is represented by five distinct limestone formations. In other words, different blocks of Bermuda limestone formed at different times in our island’s history and the quality of each formation tells us about what was happening on the island at the time. (Dr. Mark Rowe gives a spectacular overview of Bermuda’s geology on his website: We are now ready to know Bermuda’s rocks by their full name: aeolian limestone. “Aeolian” (from Aeolus, the Greek god of wind) means deposited by air and limestone is a calcium carbonate rock of marine origin. At this, Heilprin’s words ring louder: “It is truly but the music of the sea and wind, but there is enough of it to turn water into land.

Figure 1: Layers in the rock indicate accumulation of wind-blown sand. The inclination of the layers indicates the direction of dune progression, in this case west to east (right to left).

While the origins of Bermuda’s geology are complicated and call on us to reckon with many different aspects of the Earth System, a brief overview is crucial for us to understand the major qualities of Bermuda rock: it is delicate, it is immensely beneficial to plants and animals and it is non-replenishable (on human time-scales, at least). First, its delicacy: as Bermuda limestone derives from the compaction of wind-blown sand, it is only loosely packed together. This makes the rock extremely weak. If you have walked our island’s roads or waited in our iconic limestone bus shelters, you might have noticed that a fingernail is quite sufficient to scrape away material from the surface of Bermuda limestone. And abrasive forces are not the only destructive power at play here. Rainwater is weakly acidic and readily dissolves limestone on contact. Yes, you read that correctly, Bermuda limestone dissolves in water! Dissolved calcium carbonate is slowly redeposited elsewhere, filling the pore spaces between sand grains and leading to the gradual hardening of limestone over time. However, truly hard limestone is only to be found in the island’s oldest deposits, which have experienced multiple dune-building events and thousands of years of hardening through redeposition of calcium carbonate, and occur in a few isolated patches throughout the island. The majority of surficial limestone is from more recent dune-building events and is consequently weaker and more water-soluble.

The delicacy of Bermuda limestone facilitates its second quality, that it is extremely useful for both humans and the native flora and fauna of the islands. The early settlers quickly discovered that the limestone was soft enough to work with a handsaw, and used their tools to establish the iconic style of Bermuda architecture that layers individual blocks of limestone together. Plants and animals have likewise made their homes in the rock, taking advantage of the dissolution of limestone caused by rain which has created intricate matrices of perforated rock on a smaller scale and vast networks of hollow caverns on a larger scale. The smaller cavities readily become the refuge of native plants and animals, such as the endemic and endangered skink and the white-tailed tropic bird or ‘longtail.’ The larger caverns, which in the absence of sunlight might be supposed to lack in biodiversity, are actually the biodiversity hotspot of Bermuda. In fact, Bermuda’s caves are home to over 50 endemic species (mostly crustaceans; Figure 2). Many of these species are associated with only a single cave, and with over 200 caves we can confidently state that there are more species to be discovered. Cave entrances also host a variety of ferns, many of which are also endemic to Bermuda and critically endangered. The combination of these two factors—first, the delicacy and, second, the value of Bermuda limestone—helps us to understand the importance of the third: that our rocks are a non-replenishable resource.

Figure 2: (Left) Each summer, 2,500 – 3,000 pairs of longtails (Phaethon lepturus catesbyi) nest in the shoreline cavities of Bermuda, making Bermuda the home of the largest nesting population of this subspecies of tropic bird. (Right) Examples of organisms from a Bermuda cave system (Iliffe and Calderón-Gutiérrez 2021) 

As we learned earlier, Bermuda limestone forms during periods when sea-level is lower than at present, exposing the sandy deposits of the Bermuda Platform to wind and allowing for the formation of dunes. While there has been documentation of dune formation since human settlement (in particular, a few 19th Century recordings of sand encroaching on cedar forests and burying entire houses!) there is no mechanism that allows for the formation of Bermuda limestone in the modern era. As Bermudians, we are familiar with the importance of protecting native flora and fauna which run the risk of exploitation. But even species like the Bermuda skink, the cedar tree, the queen conch, land snail, blue bird and endangered ferns can, with sustained effort, be cloned, propagated or otherwise grown in order to replenish wild populations. There remains, however, no conceivable way of generating new limestone, at least not on a time scale relevant for humans, as these rocks take tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands of years to form. It is important for us to bear in mind the rarity of our rocks when making decisions about how we use them, especially as the changes we make to Bermuda limestone are largely irreversible.

My obsession with Bermuda’s rocks began early on in my childhood. Contrary to millions of years of human evolution, I thoroughly enjoy enclosed spaces. The smaller, the better. Bermuda was therefore a paradise for me growing up as I never had a shortage of caves to climb, crawl and swim through. I loved exploring the rocks of our island, and seeing thousands of people laying in the sand on South Shore or dozens of kids lining up for cliff jumping at Admiralty House, I came to the conclusion that everyone else appreciated the rocks as much as I did. But at the end of the day, they were still just rocks to me—dead, grey and permanent. There was no geology, no sense that the chemistry, physics and biology I was studying in school applied as equally to the rocks as they did to the coral reefs and water cycle. It was not until I moved to California for university that I finally understood the importance of geology in influencing human communities, and it would be several years more before I achieved a similar understanding in Bermuda.

My revelation came (as so many often do) during a trip to the desert. I was on a weeklong expedition with a class, traversing through Death Valley National Park and the east side of the Sierra Nevada mountain range in California. The days of the week seemed to be in competition to see which could present the most impressive spectacle: a volcanic crater; a salt flat 100 metres below sea level; the rock that a native tribe regarded as the “Centre of the Universe.” Nothing, however, struck me as directly as the view from Father Crowley Point. Our professor, Dr. Gail Mahood, pointed to a mountain in the distance and asked us to observe that the top hundred metres or so was a distinctly different colour from the rest of the mountain. Never one to answer a question with anything but another question, Dr. Mahood slowly worked us around to the conclusion that this mountain was once an island and that the line between the lighter colours of the base and the darker colours of the top was a sort of primordial high-tide mark. “Then the water used to come up this high?!” we demanded with bulging eyes. “Not water… Ice,” she responded. I was dumbfounded. Bear in mind that I am coming from an island that does not even rise 100 metres above the sea. Now here I am, standing well over 1000 metres above the sea, looking up at a mountain and I’m finding out that this entire area was previously covered in ice. This was the moment I started to fully reckon with the temporary nature of my existence. I saw the Earth taking mountains too big for me to climb and covering them with ice, then uncovering them, covering them again and then crushing them up into tiny bits of sand. I started to see the world through what geologist John McPhee calls Deep Time, and rocks became the medium for me to do so. I do not know if the purpose of that trip was to make students obsessed with geology for the rest of their lives or just to prevent students from falling into typical spring break debauchery, or perhaps there was some third motive. In any case, the effect on me was evident: obsession.

I lived in California for the next five years and as I continued to learn and explore the geology of the state I developed a deeper understanding of why my world looked the way it did. I no longer saw mountain ranges, valleys, bays and hills as generic landforms but saw each as their own individual works with their own stories. When I moved from the flatlands of Silicon Valley to the towering hills of Marin County, it was not just a change of scenery—it was a change in the fundamental composition of the landscape. Moving from the muddy deposits of the South Bay to the volcanic mountains of Marin meant trading the endless sprawl of perfectly level sidewalks for the gravity-defying steep roadways of the North Bay. I learned how the movement of tectonic plates created the epically steep hills in Marin and San Francisco, and that I could even follow the boundaries of different rock types throughout the city in order to find the best hills for skating (gotta go faster!!). I learned how certain rock types were more stable during earthquakes and how higher-income communities were preferentially constructed on these rocks and subsequently faced less significant damage during seismic events. I learned how the draining of lakes and river basins to supply water to Los Angeles County exposed toxic salt deposits that cause respiratory problems in neighbouring communities. I learned that there were rocks throughout the state that were covered in plate-sized dimples because indigenous communities used them to grind acorns for thousands of years. Everywhere I looked I saw a living geology, a patchwork of different rocks types each with their own influence on the cultures humans built around them.

During this time, I also became an avid hiker. I bought my first pair of boots and quickly fell into an addiction with 4 AM wake-ups, steep terrain, peanut butter sandwiches and commanding views of land and sea. I spent (still spend) hours pouring over the satellite view on Google Maps, looking for unmarked summits and hidden coves. My growing fluency in California geology was invaluable to my hiking and made me confident navigating off-trail. I learned that the quickest way from A to B was often not a straight line but rather a meandering course following the natural inclinations of the landscape. I looked closely at the rocks beneath my feet and figured out how to deduce which rock types could support my weight and which would break under stress. I started to think about how much sunlight fell on a route, whether the rocks would absorb or reflect the sun’s heat and how that would affect the rate of snow melt: would a river be passable in the afternoon or would the flow from snow melt be too high? I accumulated this knowledge through countless errors, missteps, bruises and wet trousers. The more comfortable I got in a wilderness setting, the more I met other people who were equally addicted to eating sweaty blocks of cheese in the shade of withering pine trees. But no matter how many adventures I went on, no matter how many outdoor enthusiasts I met, there was always one invitation that I would perpetually decline: “Want to go rock climbing?”

I never liked being told what to do. In school, I would intentionally disregard instructions in favour of finding my own way of learning. I never meant it as disrespect, though I am sure it came across that way a lot of the time. It was more about me proving, to myself and to others, that there were always multiple possibilities in problem solving. So many times teachers and classmates would tell me, “You’re making this harder for yourself than you need to,” and in my head I would reply, “You might be right, but I won’t know that unless I try.” I am thankful for my not-so-humble beginnings because that approach to learning and creativity is what made me gravitate to the hobbies I still enjoy today—skateboarding, music, video editing, dancing. All of these activities are most fun in those moments when I get to break the rules, to go against dominant notions of what is good and bad. At the same time, as I have progressed in these disciplines I have discovered what people were trying to tell me the whole time: learning the rules actually makes it easier to step outside of them. Today I have swung to the opposite side of the pendulum from my school days. Now when I am learning something new, I try to learn all the rules; the history of the rules, who came up with the rules and when and why. I have transitioned from overt-carelessness to overt-caution. But as careful as I aim to be, I still try to reserve for myself the possibility of disregarding the rules and doing something however feels the most natural to me: turning my brain ‘off.’ Then considering rock climbing, an activity where disregard for rules leads expediently to death, I was content to spend the rest of my days without ever putting on a rope and harness.

I injured myself ollying into the hill behind the fire station in Sausalito, California (very fun hill, good and fast). It was 12 March 2020, the day before we all got sent home from work at the start of the pandemic. As much as I would have loved to spend those first couple months surfing and skating, I spent that time at my house which had become my de facto artist’s retreat. It was a beautiful time of cooking, painting and planting, but everyday I was craving to be back on the trail and back on my board. Slowly but surely my condition improved and I was able to join my mates on hikes or calm skate sessions in our little cul-de-sac. Then one day some of my mates invited me to go climbing with them. Maybe it was all those weeks I had spent nursing my injury and wishing I could be outside exploring or maybe it was the sense of impending doom that prevailed throughout the pandemic—I don’t know because I did not pause to think. My response was reactive, “Hell ya.” We went up to the top of the hill behind our neighbourhood where there was an outcrop of radiolarian chert (an epic rock which deserves its own blog post!). My friends set up a rope and we climbed up the 4 metre face of a 100 million-year-old rock. I definitely enjoyed it, but I did not think it was anything spectacular. I thought I would like to do it again, but to me the cool part of rock climbing was still the rocks, not the climbing.

Fast forward a couple months and I am in the mountains of Western Maine. I was in Maine to visit family when some friends who I had met in Joshua Tree earlier that year invited me to go on a weekend climbing trip. I thought of every excuse, but when they said they had a spare harness, shoes my size and a sleeping pad, I figured I might as well give it a go. We went to Shagg Crag which I later found out was the premiere spot for hard, overhanging granite climbing in New England (tied with Waimea at Rumney, New Hampshire). We spent about 45 minutes walking the wrong direction then another 45 walking the right direction but still fielding the sensation of being lost, until we finally heard the tell-tale grunts of exertion and jingling of metal carabiners that accompany most climbing crags. My first climb that day felt similar to the climb I did earlier that spring. Fun, but not remarkable. I had climbed these two routes on ‘top-rope’ which means I was tied into a rope that ran through an anchor at the top of the route—I was protected from falling the entire time. My friends suggested that I ‘lead’ the next route, which means climbing up a rock and clipping your rope into fixed bolts as you go up—I would be protected, but if I slipped or let go I would fall as far as the last bolt I clipped, plus whatever length of rope was between me and that bolt. This was the exact situation that made me hesitant to start climbing: there were rules, hard rules and the consequence for failing to follow them was potentially severe. My friends assured me they would walk me through the entire process. I remember looking at them and saying something along the lines of, “Do you promise me that if I follow your instructions I won’t get hurt?” They nodded, giggling to each other at my superstitious caution. I wanted to scream, “C’mon girls, this is my life we’re talking about!” But I trusted them. I trusted that they were weighing the different factors—my lack of experience, the difficulty of the climb, the probability and consequence of failure—as much as I was, if not more. “If they say I can do it,” I thought, “then maybe I can.”

That was the climb when I found out I am afraid of heights. I cruised up about two thirds of the route through alternating soft and jagged bumps of granite and mica. About this point, the route shoots out left to an arête. An arête is an acute angle in the face of a rock (Figure 3). A rough analogy for climbing an arête might be climbing up the side of a ladder—you can reach around to the rungs on either side, but your main point of reference is the thin rail of metal in front of you. It is a pretty secure way to climb, but the tricky part is getting into it. Imagine climbing up the face of rock to the right of the arête in the photo below (indicated by the red line). If you go to reach out left to the arête, all you can see is a sharp outline of rock and beyond that nothing but empty space. It is like looking over the edge of a cliff. Picture me, first time leading a route, high enough off the ground that I see leaves instead of trunks and the people who talked me into this are shouting, “Just reach out to your left!” In retrospect, they were giving me completely sound advice… but at the time! I remember burying my face into the rock in front of me, like I was a barnacle trying to cling on in a flooding tide. The option of lowering down to the ground truly never occurred to me—my fear left me paralysed. I felt stuck, I thought that I was stuck, gripping desperately to the rock as the sweat building on my palms made it harder to hold on.

Figure 3: The red line marks the arête on a climb called “Cracked Up” in Camden Hills, Maine, USA. This was not the climb I did for my first lead, but I would have a go at leading this route later that same year.

After a couple minutes leaking silent tears and ruminating against the side of the cliff, I started to make slow, certain moves toward the top. I do not know what gave me the motivation to resume my ascent, but as each move brought me slightly closer to the top a quiet confidence came over me. It was not long before I reached the top of the cliff and took in a view that is still burned into my memory: the hot white light of the sun glistening off the surface of a pond; boundless hills of emerald green trees; the horizon dotted with wind turbines; birds flocking like clouds of dust in the distance. When I clipped my rope into the anchors at the top of the route, heard the reassuring metallic rebound of the gate closing on the carabiner, suddenly the fear and anxiety that I had soaked up poured from my body like a bucket getting tipped over. It was like taking a breath of fresh air after being stuck underwater. It was there, in that moment, that I knew I was hooked. I lowered off the route with a cheeky grin and the sudden idea that the rest of my life was about to change.

Over the course of the next year I climbed outdoors about 15 times, mostly in Maine and back in California. I continued to experience the exhilarating joy and paralysing fear that came with each climb. Every route was different. The more I climbed, the more I imagined I was learning to forecast the physical and emotional demands of a new route, but time and again the rock would reveal to me just how little I understood about the internal and external processes of climbing. I am deeply indebted to the partners I climbed with that first year for the patience they had when climbing with me. Some days I wanted to go fast, climb hard; other days I dragged my feet lethargically up the routes, manoeuvring through pockets of volcanic rock while simultaneously navigating a landscape of emotions equally intricate—a mixture of emotions I had felt at different times throughout my life but which seemed to come crashing together all at once whenever I put on a harness.

I find it interesting that my climbing career began during the pandemic, a time when people around the globe were also struggling with the intensity of their emotions and self-doubt seemed to be at an all-time high. Why was I climbing cliffs, putting myself in situations that fiercely exacerbated my anxiety at a time when I was already so anxious about my place in the world? I still do not know. But one thing is for sure: I am glad I did. Climbing was how I learned to breathe through my fear, to increase my focus at times of uncertainty, to communicate calmly under pressure—and learned the commensurate consequences of failing to do so. Usually when you’re freaking out about life, people will say, “Don’t worry, it’s not the end of the world.” True, but if you freak out while climbing, it just might be the end of your world. I was lucky in that the only unintended consequences I experienced from climbing that first year were a few clearly avoidable scrapes, minor falls and emotionally-charged verbal exchanges. I owe my safety and success that first year to the risk management and leadership skills of the climbing partners who taught me.

The following summer, I moved back to Bermuda. Of course, my climbing shoes came with me. I knew there was something in the way of a climbing community in Bermuda because my friend Sophie used to be keen on it. During a snorkelling excursion along the cliffs at Admiralty House many years ago, Sophie encouraged me to climb out of the water and up through the inverted roof of the cliff, pointing out pockets of chalk which she said indicated a history of people climbing there (a route I would later learn was the go-to introduction to deep water solo climbing on Bermuda). I also remember going past St. David’s head on my way to the east end SCUBA dive sites and occasionally seeing small parties congregating in the Great Cave, staring magnanimously up at the goliath of black and white limestone. Beyond my hope of finding a climbing community in Bermuda, however, I was filled with the relentless desire to climb as much as I could, and I knew there were limitless exciting rock features to satisfy my hunger because I had already been obsessed with Bermuda’s rocks from a geological perspective for several years. It is difficult for me to describe how stoked I was to start climbing. Imagine growing up in a mountain town and being obsessed with snow. Imagine pouring through literature about snow, learning about its formation and effects, spending your days exploring its intricacies, learning its secrets. Then one day someone taps you on the shoulder and shows you for the first time what skiing is. That is how it felt to return to Bermuda with a knowledge not just of the specificities of our rock, but with a deeper understanding and appreciation for the process of climbing rocks in general. I was the kid in the proverbial candy store.

Once I began climbing in Bermuda, I formed a connection with our rocks that went beyond the textbooks, beyond the brochures, guidebooks and route descriptions. The intimacy of the experience was driven forward by the fact that most climbing in Bermuda is ‘solo’ meaning that you are ascending above water or sand without the protection a rope or belay partner might offer. You either successfully climb to the top of your objective, or you fall back down into the water or sand below (not a far fall—hopefully). I was enamoured with the experience of it. Just me and the Rock. I would arrive at a climbing area alone, bringing with me all sorts of emotional states and worries about the tiny little slice of consciousness I call my life. Climbing alone, I felt like I could move without embarrassment. I did not feel compelled to leave my emotions on the ground; I would carry that emotional baggage with me through the movements of the routes. Sometimes it would propel me through difficult sequences, other times impede my motion. One thing I especially enjoyed about climbing in Bermuda was that the rock too felt emotional; it would change texture and character depending on the season, day or even the hour. At high tides, waves lap up against the foot of the main climbing area, leaving the holds in the rock wet and cold. On windy winter days, the fresh air gives the rock a coarse, dry finish. After a midday rain shower, water seeps down through the cliffs leaving the holds icey slick. And on scorching summer afternoons, moisture from the humid air congeals on the rock surface, making it hot and slimy. In these and other ways, the cliffs are continuously changing in nature and appearance, shifting like the mental and physical states of the humans careening through their limestone pockets. I could perfectly dial in sequences of movement to get through challenging sections of rock only to find that a particular hold would be unusable for a day due to being covered in algae. Suddenly a rock I had climbed a dozen times, and had come to expect to appear before me in a certain way, would demand from me an entirely new mode of movement and expression. 

I have fallen ever deeper in love with rocks since I started climbing in Bermuda. One of the greatest blessings has been the opportunity to connect with new people in old environments; to take a seemingly mundane chunk of limestone that every Bermudian has seen a thousand times and turn it into an arena of physical and social discourse. In fact, the ease of access to climbing areas in Bermuda is one of the reasons I believe this activity has so much potential on our island. As with many (if not all) outdoor activities in the United States, rock climbing entails a fair amount of red tape. There are logistical constraints (e.g. number of parking spaces at a climbing area), physical constraints (the difficulty of established routes, with most climbing areas prioritising more challenging climbs), knowledge constraints (you have to actually know where the climbing areas are), cultural constraints (certain groups have less freedom to roam outdoor spaces than others) and financial constraints (“Thank you for visiting your public lands, that will be $30 payable at the kiosk”). I do not believe the socioenvironmental constraints around climbing in the US are unjust in their own right, but rather are the reflection of the nation’s broader societal values (the problematic nature of which warrants its own reflection). In fact, these constraints can in some instances contribute to a greater sense of wilderness and isolation that further augment the physical and emotional rush of climbing. But climbing in Bermuda takes place at the complete opposite end of the accessibility spectrum. For better or worse, Bermuda’s road network is so extensive that you can access almost any climbing area by a sub-five minute walk from wherever you park your scooter or car. And once you get to the climbing area, as most routes are directly over sand or water, you do not need any technical climbing equipment to get started except for a sturdy pair of shoes and a bag of chalk. Most climbing areas in the States and internationally require the purchase and understanding of a rope-based protection system and even a modest climbing setup is going to set you back around $300 when all is said and done. In Bermuda, on the other hand, it was so cool to have friends asking, “Hey, what do I need to bring for climbing today?” and to be able to respond, “Oh, just comfortable clothes to move around in!” (Figure 4). These days even my climbing shoes rarely leave my backpack as I have taken an even more ascetic approach to climbing—shorts on my legs and chalk on my hands, I am good to go.

Figure 4: (Left) Karim setting out on the traverse of an unnamed boulder. (Right) Miles celebrating his first send!

I do not want to make false promises about the ease of climbing in Bermuda. To be frank, the climbing itself is far from easy. From a non-climbers point of view, one would say the climbing in Bermuda is very difficult. Even judging from an experienced climber’s point of view, one would have to admit that most of the climbing in Bermuda begins at the intermediate difficulty level and any increases in difficulty convey you rapidly to advanced physical and technical climbing movements. But what I love about this arrangement is that the limitation is entirely internal. There is nothing in the outside world saying that you lack the appropriate gear, knowledge or cultural standing to begin a climbing career in Bermuda. On an island so clearly divided by race and socioeconomic status, with divisions that manifest chiefly by the types of spaces and activities available to different groups, it is a beautiful thing to have an activity where your participation and success depend solely upon your own mental and physical preparedness and dedication. The rocks in Bermuda are brutally honest. If you want to climb them, it does not matter how much money you have, what your last name is, when and how you came to Bermuda, what you do for work, what colour your skin is. All the rocks care about is if you are willing to put in the time to learn them in their many permutations. (This has been my experience and I remain entirely open to considering new points of view and finding ways to destroy whatever external barriers may exist in order to get more hands on rocks).

In addition to relating my love of rocks and climbing in Bermuda, I need also to submit a cautionary note. Bermuda limestone is principally a limited resource. Although it is regenerable through extensive periods of dune formation, this process takes thousands of years. On our human timescale (~100 years), our limestone resources are unequivocally unreplenishable. Yet most natural processes (e.g. erosion) and human activities (e.g. extraction) only contribute to the removal of limestone, not to its conservation and enhancement. As climbers, we are humbled regularly by the remarkable beauty and utility of Bermuda limestone as a natural resource. And yet, there is this feeling that to care so deeply about our rocks is to depart from the cultural norm. In spite of many cultural icons being lost to erosion—the destruction of Natural Arches during Hurricane Fabian; the complete erosion of the hillside that used to separate Baby Beach from Horseshoe Bay; the steady disintegration of North Rock—rocks are wholly absent from discourse surrounding environmental change, save for a token mention when sea level rise is on the table, though even then the conversation is about how close the water might get to our houses rather than how rising seas are already causing erosion of waterfront limestone. I am compelled to mention this because I grew up in a Bermuda where I was always told that the ‘natural ecosystem’ had already been lost. I grew up envious of early settlers, oh what it would have been like to see an old growth cedar forest or to see reefs replete with tuna and grouper. But as I have weaved together my own perceptions of our island’s ecology, I have come to understand that many of our limestone crags are intact remnants of that ancient, pre-human system. Monoliths of rock, carved by wind, waves and time, encrusted with all sorts of native plants and animals. What I want to make clear here is the double offence of disregarding rocks from the popular discourse on Bermuda’s environment. Not only are our limestone cliffs left out of the conversation, but they are one of the only ecosystems of the modern era where Bermudians can actually interact with the species and processes that we are ostensibly hoping to restore. Geology is not excluded from public discourse through any malintent, so far as I know anyway. But without a deliberate strategy to bring geology into greater public awareness, it is difficult to imagine protecting our rocks, in spite of the evident and critical role they play in life on our island.

Geology has afforded me a unique view into life in Bermuda. 60,000 people crammed onto a water-soluble rock in the middle of the North Atlantic is not a paragon of sustainability. And yet life found a way to persist in Bermuda for hundreds of millenia prior to human settlement and may likely continue to do so long after humans have fled its shores. In the meantime, however, we are faced with both a challenge and an opportunity. The challenge is to find a way to live better, to show greater appreciation for the natural wonders of our island and to curtail our activities to better promote their health. The opportunity is that rocks themselves furnish an excellent space for Bermudians to congregate and have the experiences that inspire conservation ethics to begin with. With remarkably easy access, our limestone crags have the potential to become congregational areas where people from all ways of life on our island can learn from each other and learn from the rock itself. While the climbing is hard, there are ample opportunities to train and get better and an ever-growing pool of local and expat climbers with whom new climbers can connect and learn. Although our island is marked by social division, I truly believe our cliffs can be a safe harbour where all Bermudians can be equal. There is a lot of rock in Bermuda and much of it is unclimbed. Whatever the future may hold, I look forward to seeing more hands on rocks.

Beautiful Rocks And People!

This is my friend Grant. He came to Bermuda from the UK and has established most of the island’s documented routes. Grant really pushed me outside of my comfort zone with challenging, exposed routes and I am grateful to him for that. Check out his website for more info on climbing in Bermuda! 

This is my friend Eli. A native of Colorado, Eli came to Bermuda to teach music and was my climbing partner for the 2021/2022 winter season. We can only climb on ropes during the winter months because during the summer the routes get humid and slippery and climbs that start at 5.11 and 5.12 quickly jump up a grade when friction is lost. Here Eli is working through the traverse out of the Great Cave in St. David’s. It is a short section of 5.7 climbing on good rock but there is no protection and a fall would be an epically bad time.

This is my friend, Dara. She taught me the basics of rope management and how to rig an anchor system. She was also one of the people who encouraged me to send my first lead climb. I am grateful to her for that. She had the chance to visit me in Bermuda where we sampled a bit of all the different varieties of climbing on offer: sport climbing, beach bouldering and deep water solo.

This is my friend Mollye. She taught me how to lead multi-pitch climbing (climbing through multiple belay stations to reach areas and elevations further than the length of your rope). We tried our skills together at Pinnacles National Park in California, a difficult place to learn climbing due to the wandering routes and fragile nature of the rock. Mollye is a great teacher and I am glad she taught me to climb here because it gave me the confidence I needed to start doing multi-pitch climbs in Bermuda and emboldened me to teach other people how to climb.

Me and my friend, Dom, approaching the Great Cave in Bermuda.

Dom taking a rip on “Crackhouse.”

Eli belaying me through the opening sequence of “Crackhouse.”

Dom putting up a hangboard at the office.

Chris thinking about his dry pants.

Where’s Waldo?! Climbing with Grant helped me build confidence in climbing with greater exposure.

Working my way up through the cliff at Stag’s Bay. Grant says there is no record of climbing here and that the moves I made were likely the first time this rock was “touched by human hands.”

12/12/22: Kurt Albert

A recent essay by Ed Douglas on the Climbing magazine website about Kurt Albert got me thinking about him, the Frankenjura, and redpointing.

The first time I climbed at Millstone Quarry in the English Peak District (in the 80s) I encountered two German climbers top-roping Master’s Edge. One was the obvious ‘hot shot’ of the two and was wearing stripey tights – I now realise, in retrospect, that this was Wolfgang Gullich. The other one resembled an older professor of climbing, the obvious ‘mentor’. However, the mentor was giving the hot shot a run for his money on the moves and this was, I now realise, Kurt Albert.

I next ran into Kurt in Llanberis when I was calling round for Adam Wainwright to go climbing. He wasn’t in, but Kurt and Jerry Moffat, who were staying at Adam’s, came wandering down the road.

‘Have you seen Adam?’ I enquired.

They hadn’t, so I went off and found someone else to climb with. This was also in the 80s. I didn’t at the time appreciate Kurt’s talent and influence on climbing, especially his invention of redpointing.

But, in the 90s, when I climbed in the Frankenjura, I did.

Me on a grade IX, or F7c, route in the Frankenjura in the 90s. I can’t remember the name of this particular route or crag I’m afraid. I loved the Frankenjura but it took it’s toll on my finger tendons – as you can see from the amount of tape on my fingers in the above pic.

That trip was very enjoyable. I managed to onsight a lot of IX- and IX graded routes including Chasin’ The Trane. I fell off the neighbouring Hitchhiking the Plane but did it next go. We were camping behind a pub with excellent Weisse beer for rest days and the crew included the somewhat enigmatic Jon Gaskins, who didn’t climb many routes but was attracted to the hardest moves like a one-finger pocket on Action Direct that he claimed was ‘a jug’. Ian Vickers on the other hand was onsighting everything he was pointed at.

Car camping in the Frankenjura. Photo Grant Farquhar.

John Dunne was also there. I never climbed with him, or even saw him climbing, but he appeared to be climbing well and had lots of stories for the pub especially about Yorkshire. But the star of the show was Mike Owen. When I saw him climbing on that crag in the Frankenjura that has Kurt Albert’s route Sautanz, I’ve never seen someone, before or since, climb with such delicacy. Every movement was silky-smooth. He touched the rock like you would a lover. There was no cranking, slapping or dynoing. It was fondle, adjust, fondle adjust – and then he was at the top.

Mike Owen on No Chance With Galoshkies. Kurt’s route, the well-named Sautanz (Slow Dance), is the chalked line to the right. Photo Grant Farquhar.

Mind you, on that wall there is a IX route, the hardest on the wall. Mike fell off it and then I had a go. While lowering off from one of the other routes I ‘d looked across and saw a crap sloper. Better not use that, I thought. So when I got to that point I reached higher – to find an even more crap sloper. I tried to step through but fell off in the process.

When I lowered off Mike wanted to look at my fingers to see if they were fatter, or thinner, than his digits. I didn’t twig it at the time but he was looking for an explanation as to why I’d gotten to a higher point on the route than him. Ha! Well the ‘bold bastard’ is defintely a better climber than me as I hope you will discover in my book, The White Cliff.

29/11/22: Pegbolts

The way we climb is as important as what we climb. Over the last few years, I’ve come to realise there’s more to climbing than simply reaching a summit or topping out a route. Climbing is more than just a physical act or mental fight. Style is all we have. Otherwise, why not just take a helicopter to the top? Tom Livingstone.

This blog post is in response to a recent thread on  that I have posted on which concerns bolting on Gogarth. Bolts on Gogarth? I hear you say? Fuck, unfortunately, yes, I’m horrified too.

Gogarth is the best and most adventurous sea cliff in the world. I have climbed there a lot and like the place so much that I edited a book about it.

What has been happening over the past few years is that a self-appointed crag custodian called Chris Parkin has been placing bolts on the crag. These have been called ‘peg bolts’ but please refer to the cat in the picture above for my opinion on whether they are pegs or bolts.

In the thread I stated that I don’t know the answer to this issue and that there won’t be a solution that everyone agrees on. However it’s important that in order to move forward in a way that is acceptable to most we should try to devise a framework for making decisions on this issue. 

Andrew Bisharat raised a similar predicament in his recent, excellent essay about principles for bolting when it comes to routes like Snake Dike in the wake of the recent accident on that route and the ensuing knee-jerk reactions.

When bolts were first introduced in Scotland in the 80s the governing climbing body at the time did devise a set of guidelines which although vague did appear to stem the flood. Nevertheless bolting has continued in Scotland but mostly occurs on designated sport crags or sport areas on sections of crag eg Loch Maree Crag. Convenience bolts have appeared eg Diabaig and no doubt bolts will continue to proliferate in Scotland.

This contrasts with the situation in Pembroke and Cornwall where a clear line was drawn: no bolts. This was at the expense of exisiting bolted routes eg Carn Vellan that were therefore ‘sacrificed’ to the greater good of preserving the trad ethic. This position, of drawing a clear line, has been successful in that these areas remain unambiguously trad with pretty much no sport routes or bolts appearing on trad routes for various reasons.

Regarding those reasons, or principles, for when bolts are argued as being justified in specific cases on trad cliffs eg Gogarth, the arguments for bolting logically fall into various categories:

1. Historical – eg maintenance of pre-existing, usually ancient, metalwork in the crag.

2. Convenience – eg trad belays are time-consuming to build or it saves walking off.

3. Safety – eg bolts are more reliable than trad gear.

4. Aesthetic – eg tat looks unsightly compared to bolts which are harder to spot.

5. Environmental – eg saves trees.

6. Popularity – eg routes not getting traffic and returning to nature because the metalwork has corroded so no one wants to climb them.

When you read internet threads like the UKC one, people are often rehashing arguments which fall into one of these categories or they are attempting to rebut an argument from one category with an answer from a different category. These threads are interminable and not a pleasure to read.

For me, the biggest issue with making exceptional case-by-case arguments for when bolts are justified in trad areas is where does it stop? As someone said in a previous thread – look down the road, not just at what is in front of you. When you make a case for placing bolts in a certain route or belay on the basis of one of the categories above it may seem logical, and you might be convinced that it is the right thing to do for that route. But it only strengthens the case for more bolting, or sanitisation, of the crag further down the road.

It would be nice to retain those exceptional routes where bolts seem justified such as on the Painted Wall if it stopped there. But I suspect it won’t stop there and cases will continue to be made for more and more bolts on Gogarth. The position taken in Cornwall is clear and has been successful so far in preserving the adventurous nature of trad climbing there. 

I, personally, would much prefer to see Gogarth remain the wild, adventurous place that it is without having that adventurous nature diluted and sanitised by bolting which is what is happening now. My own personal opinion about where to draw the line – no bolts on Gogarth – does not contradict my suggestion that a consensus framework for guiding future decisions about where and what fixed gear should be placed on Gogarth is desirable.

I can, of course, be accused of being hypocritical because I’ve climbed routes with pegs on Gogarth, but that was in the 90s when pegs were accepted protection, and we didn’t consider their longevity. Climbing has evolved and progressed since then.

The type of wild, adventurous trad climbing found on Gogarth gives us something rare that nourishes our soul. This type of climbing needs to preserved and celebrated, not tamed. Gogarth will be a pretty mediocre sport crag which will be the ultimate destination of this one-way road.

29/10/22: The Southport Sockmen

I did an unexpected new route today. Conditions have not been great with high humidity and rain. I checked out Ladies Chambers first, but it was dripping, and then headed to Clarence Cove where I was thinking about how to connect Foot Fetish and High Heels with an independent high level traverse. Before I knew it one thing led to another.

THE SOUTHPORT SOCKMEN 5.11c 15m traverse

A contrived high-level traverse of the middle section of Clarence Cove. Start up Barotrauma to gain the round cave of the finish of Petra. Traverse leftwards at this level across Sycophant to gain the niche of Enema of the State with hands on the lip of this. Continue leftwards across The Enema Bandit to join Scottish Mating Call at the moves into Atlantis and finish as for this. Grant Farquhar 29/10/22.

Steven Bain and Steven Gawthrop, later notorious as ‘the Southport Sockmen’, would approach patrons of bars and clubs in Southport, England, in the late 90s and ask them for the socks off of their feet, claiming to be collecting them for charity. When the men’s flat was raided, the police found approx 10,000 socks in deep piles, such that one officer commented that it was, ‘like an explosion in a sock factory’. Legend has it that whilst in prison the pair of foot-fetishists managed to wangle a job working in the laundry – cleaning prisoners’ socks.

In other news an 8-year-old child has just been dragged up El Cap as Tom Evans reports in his El Cap Report website: The Big Hoax is supposed to start climbing today.  CNN reports that Joe Baker says that his kid, Sam, is a “world class climber,” at the age of 8 years old!!  CNN, of course, and other media are buying into this lie.  Would a world class climber choose to jug fixed lines instead of actually climbing the rock itself?? Of course not!!  The parents of this child are shamelessly exploiting this little boy, exposing him to a dangerous cliff where 29 “actual climbers” have perished and countless have been injured.  Why would a parent do this when most would make climbing ElCap a long-term goal, involving training, body development, years of experience, and other smaller wall climbs, before sending him out on ElCap.  What is the hurry that justifies doing this now, instead of when he is not a small child as he is now?  What is so important?  I will tell you what…. A supposed “World Record”, is so important for the parent’s greed for publicity and social media fame, that they are will willing to risk the child’s life to get it.  They are spraying all over any media that will listen to their lies even before the event begins.  Who is advocating for the child, if the parents are not?  We are!  Why is our Climbing Ranger silent about this?  World Class… my ass.

26/10/22: Kink

Clarence Cove is the undisputed queen of the deep water solo crags in Bermuda. Over the years the crag has been admired, wooed, fondled, groped, and then pumped stupid in every possible position, both dignified and undignified. So now all that’s left is the kink. For this she is not always a willing partner. It started off with a foot fetish and progressed to the latest defilement: High Heels. 

This route traverses the lip of the crag and on pretty much every move it would be easier to pull over than continue along the lip. But like a little leg-shagging dog you keep on going. The wind was out of the south and it was, therefore, humid. I knew conditions would not be good but I was keen to do the route. The forecast was for rain so I headed over early. The conditions were not good but not terrible as I climbed Atlantis for my warm up. I then chalked up all the hand holds over the lip for later use. 

The mantra as I downclimbed to the start was: this is just for training, I’m not likely to do it in these conditions. I set off up Romantic Pottery to where the traverse starts and set off. I made sure to keep a heel on and avoid cutting loose which saps energy, and before long I was at the Xavier exit. Keeping the heel on I kept on going, looking down into the spider-webbed pocket on Leukosia direct that will one day host a route, not just a spider. 

I knew that keeping the heel on would be crucial for turning the arete into Lara Croft and this proved to be the case. No pressure, just training remember? I got there and made a few constipated moves, almost fell off, and thankfully topped out just as the first drops of rain started falling.

Now we have to swap places and do it all again in reverse. I already had a name for this one: The Pump Pimp. On my first day of attempts I got pimped and then, on the second go, I was just too pumped. So a few days later I was back and bumped into Caleb, a visiting climber from Virginia, who arrived on one of the two cruise ships parked up at Dockyard. We did a few routes in the greasy conditions and then it was time for a rematch with the Pump Pimp.

I groped and slapped my way along the lip to the flat holds between Lost City and Atlantis which is where the pump turned ugly and the pimp turned nasty. I realised I didn’t have a plan for this section and was coming unstuck. Some skin of the teeth moves landed me – just – at the knee scum prior to the top out of Atlantis and I made sure to milk this enough to be able to crank the final few moves.

Jake Marchant wearing High Heels. Photo climbderock.

HIGH HEELS 5.12a 8m

A contrived lip trip in the Foot Fetish mould. Follow Romatic Pottery to the junction with Atlantis just before the top out. Heel hook all the way leftwards along the lip to the finish of Lara Croft. A lite 5.11d version (Grant Farquhar 17/10/22) follows the same start to the Xavier top out . Grant Farquhar 19/10/22.

THE PUMP PIMP 5.12a 8m

Essentially High Heels in reverse. Start up Sinister Sister to the exit of Lara Croft. Hand traverse and heel hook the lip rightwards all the way to the finish of Atlantis. Grant Farquhar 26/10/22.

6 Oct 22: Climbing Should Be Dangerous

This is a superb article on the Climbing magazine website by Francis Sanzaro about the inherent risks in climbing:

‘The climbing game is not about managing danger, it is about managing our consciousness in the presence of danger… You cannot 100% manage danger, because if danger is 100% managed, it ceases to exist… Climbers through the ages have found value in confronting danger, in intentionally courting risk, whether it is strongly felt but practically minimal (such as in the gym) or existentially threatening, such as on Snake Dike… Hundreds of millions of dollars get spent on counseling and therapy to help the general population rid themselves of fear…

‘The better you get at climbing, the better you get at understanding and managing fear’s various manifestations. And what a magical feeling it is when fear is replaced by performance. We start to move with facility, without needless anxiety. Our heartbeat calms. We start to climb.

‘That’s the climbing game. That’s why climbing is dangerous.’

1 Oct 22: Hurricane Jake

‘There are steps around the side!’

Was always the joke shouted at us when honing our climbing skills traversing the side of the engineering building when we were students at Dundee University in the 1980s. Of course, there were no indoor climbing gyms in those days.

‘Ha ha,’ we would respond sarcastically and then proceed to ignore whichever joker happened to be chancing by that day. Most thought it was hilarious and would repeat this phrase ad nauseam not understanding why we didn’t ‘get’ the joke. However some of them, it seemed, were earnestly not joking and really did think, somehow, that we were trying to access the building by climbing up the wall rather than taking the steps ‘around the side’. Those got ignored too and eventually went away somewhat nonplussed.

What the jokers, and especially the ones trying to be helpful, didn’t understand is that rock climbing is a contrived pursuit with its own rules defining what is and what is not allowed. Our traversing of the wall was the end in itself rather than a route to any particular destination other than getting stronger and better at climbing on vertical walls. You can easily walk around most cliffs and therefore the majority of rock climbing routes are to a greater or lesser extent contrived. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the sub-sport of bouldering where certain features and even individual holds are ‘in’ or ‘cheating’ if used.

Which brings me to the two newest additions to the crags in Bermuda. Clarence Cove is a perfect deep water solo crag, steep, about 20ft high; above deep water; covered in holds and containing several long traverses. Those traverses had mostly ignored the extreme right-hand side of the cliff due to two factors: 1. There was vegetation growing in the break below the top and 2. You would be using the top of the crag as a handhold for a lot of the traverse which seemed a bit too contrived. However all of the routes at Clarence Cove are contrived because, guess what? There are steps around the side (or in this cave through a cave).

This year one of the hurricanes removed a triangular block in the lip which caused some of the plants in the break to die and then Jake Marchant decided to garden the remaining section. Several hours of work from Jake resulted in a pristine new section of traversing.

Jake Marchant on his route, Footloose, 5.11d, which he climbed prior to gardening the remainder of the break. Photo Grant Farquhar.

I remember reading an essay by John Gill about the feeling when you go back to a problem you had previously tried which now felt easier. He seemed to be suggesting that one had actually entered a parallel universe and it wasn’t that you were simply stronger and fitter. He seemed to be suggesting that the rock had actually physically changed; those holds were bigger. When I tried to go back and find the article recently I couldn’t find it so maybe that was another example of the same phenomenon. However, in this case the rock had actually been changed and cleaned by Hurricane Jake.


Takes on the challenge of the lip traverse rightwards from the finish of Petra. Follow Petra to the final moves and then continue rightwards along the lip to a triangular notch. Continue with campus moves and heel hooks to finish at the same point as Captain Caveman. Jake Marchant and Grant Farquhar 13/9/22. This route supersedes The Ming Dyno Nasty which moved rightwards from the round pocket of Petra/Petrafied to a horizontal slot and topped out directly above (Grant Farquhar 29/9/11) and Footloose which pulls over at the triangular notch (Jake Marchant Aug 2022). 

FOOT FETISH 5.12a 7m

Essentially The Foot Bandit in reverse. Start from the small ledge immediately east of the point. Follow Captain Bastard up and left to join Emperor Ming at the finishing moves. Campus and heel hook leftwards along the lip to join the finish of Petra. Continue leftwards to finish above the small round cave as for Barotrauma. Grant Farquhar 18/9/22. Second ascent Jake Marchant 19/9/22.

Jake Marchant at the Cookie Crag. Photo Grant Farquhar.

13/9/22: Who Ate All the Cookies?

White Grunt Hole is the name of the crag which faces the dock in Clarence Cove. It is the highest deep water solo crag in Bermuda at 60ft and contains the notorious local test piece, Spicy Times, along with the most notorious cliff jump which is called ‘Peak’. The climbing on the wall is very demanding of good climbing technique as the rock somehow manages to be severely overhanging and fragile at the same time. So you can’t jump or snatch for holds as they will break, and in order to use them successfully you have to spread your weight and make very deliberate, controlled static moves. Jake Marchant and I have been trying the obvious line left of Spicy Times which Jake has dubbed ‘The Cookie Monster’.

Jake Marchant versus The Cookie Monster. Photo Grant Farquhar.

The name for this project is because the holds are mainly fragile wafers that resemble biscuits in consistency and, well, it’s a bit of a monster. The meat of the route is the crack/groove left of Spicy Times but this is guarded by a bulging section which I’d overcome once but then broken off the hold that I had used to do it. So we were facing a motivation-sapping impasse at this point. After yet another failed attempt resulting in the same high point I noticed another possible line to the left which would be a right-hand start to Enema Territory, joining it in the mid-height no-hands resting niche. Like the other routes, it starts along the sea-level traverse.

First go I climbed out of the starting niche to an obvious large jug up and left which you can match. The next section is the crux and looked like it would succumb to a high left hand plus high right foot rockover combo. However the hand hold broke off when I tried this. Next go I selected a different wafer for my left hand and rocked over to gain some crappy pockets. More pockets were above but I fell off trying to use them. Nevertheless this was exciting because I was making progress rather than being repeatedly shut down on the same move on the Cookie Monster.

The water is shallow and so you need high tide for these routes; my next chance was not until a Sunday afternoon when I had a small window between dropping off and picking up my son at a play date. I only had an hour so wasted no time in getting there. It was already mid tide, but while shallow the bottom is sandy and I figured it was deep enough. I got the pockets and used the ones above and soon found myself stepping left into Enema Territory. It was then just a matter of not falling off the upper section of that and making it back to the pick up with five minutes to spare by which point there was no cookies left.


A right-hand start to Enema Territory. Traverse rightwards at sea level from the dry ledge for 20ft to a niche. Climb directly out of the niche to a large jug up and left. Tricky moves gain pockets above and continue to step left into the scoop of Enema Territory. Finish up this. Grant Farquhar 11/Sep/22.

22/8/22: Kernow Krambla

For the past two months we have been staying at our farm in Cornwall. Penwith is encircled by crags so there was no shortage of places to explore, especially for DWS during the heat wave that the UK experienced over July and August. Highlights were the deep water soloing at Gurnard’s Head and nearby Carn Gloose, multi-pitch trad on Carn Gowla and the sea-level traverse of the north section of Carn Gowla.

Chris Hall following my chalk on Leviathan, E4 6a. Photo Grant Farquhar.
Max Dutson traversing from the abseil to our chosen route on Carn Gowla. Photo Grant Farquhar.
Max Dutson on Magic Fly, Carn Gowla. Photo Grant Farquhar.
Looking from the base of America buttress to the Coastguard Station point in the distance which was the finishing point of this sea-level traverse of the north section of Carn Gowla. Photo Grant Farquhar.

19/7/22: Bryan

Two weeks ago I received the news that Bryan Caldwell had died in a climbing accident in Washington State. Climbing magazine have published a well written tribute to him on their website. I met Bryan when he was working as climbing instructor at the, now defunct, climbing gym in Bermuda at The Olympic Club. The climbing wall is still there but you can’t access it as the building is now a dental practice – Smiles Inc (not Climbs Inc). For a while the gym was the hub of climbing activities in Bermuda and many adventures would start, finish or happen there. Alongside his colleague Ward Byrum, Bryan was always up for whatever adventures were going especially if it involved climbing which it usually did. Bryan always seemed happy and was great fun to be with – he is clowning around in 90% of the photos you will see of him which accurately reflects the way he was. He will be sorely missed by a lot of people.

Bryan Caldwell on Lara Croft in 2008. He regretted wearing the T shirt because Lara dumped him in the drink. Photo Grant Farquhar.

17/6/22: Thor

The Shelter Stone crag with the Central Slabs in the middle of the image. Photo Grant Farquhar.

Thor is one of those ‘best routes I never did’. In that category I would also include Nightmayer on Dinas Cromlech, which I tried several times but never got up, and Mark of the Beast at Lulworth – I could get all the way to the last sequence OK but never got through that final crux without a splash down.

The Shelter Stone is without a doubt one of the finest crags in the Cairngorms. It has everything: size, amazing architecture, outstanding rock quality and a savagely beautiful remote setting; it is not a roadside crag. In the 80s Thor was an old aid route taking a compelling slanting corner line through the heart of the Shelter Stone’s Central Slabs. Although other high standard free climbs had been done there already, Thor remained as the most obvious unclimbed free-climbing challenge in the Cairngorms.

To my eternal shame I have only climbed on the Central Slabs twice: both times were attempts on Thor and both times I got my arse thoroughly kicked. The first time was in 1988. I got the bus from Dundee to Perth to meet Kim Greenald who picked me up from the bus station and we drove up to Aviemore. This was on the 17th June 1988: exactly 34 years ago to the day as I write this. After a few beers we kipped in the Coire Cas car park in his Ford Capri 2.8 turbo (it was the 80s) and then walked in at first light. Some other teams were already gearing up at a snowpatch at the base of the central bastion. We said hello and continued on to the slabs. Being keen, young and stupid I led the first pitch without putting a single runner in, which prompted a few adverse comments from Kim.

Kim Greenald is an English climber who was working in Scotland at the time. I first met him at Lawrencefield Quarry in 1986 and then bumped into him again on Upper Cave Crag where he was, uncharacteristically displaying an ‘Elvis leg’ on the classic E3 Squirm Direct. At the time Kim was one of those unsung heroes who was climbing at, or near, the top standard of the day but flying below the radar of the climbing magazines which were the main source of information about cutting edge ascents in those days. 

Kim Greenald on Instant Lemon at Creag Dubh. Photo Grant Farquhar.

In contrast, I wasn’t flying below the radar. I was a wannabe rock star and in fact I was the ‘Scotland correspondent’ for On the Edge magazine at the time with a monthly column. But I wasn’t as good a climber as I thought I was, which is a good example of the Dunning-Kruger Effect. I read the other day that this applies to ‘idiots’. Now I was then and, in fact, still am now an idiot. But this, like all other, cognitive biases applies to all of us, not just idiots. So at the time I was, looking back, overgrading my first ascents and generally full of shit. Later on I did get a bit better and then, also with the benefit of hindsight, tended to undergrade my routes. 

Back in the 80s, Kim, fuelled by beer and cigars, would generally cruise hard routes in style and without much fuss. He had a lot of experience in the Peak as well as granite climbing in North America. Kim is a much better climber than me, and his granite experience would come in very handy for him on the Shelter Stone.

Around that time a letter came through my door in Dundee with an Aberdeen postmark from someone called Julian Lines complaining that Aberdonian ascents were under-recognised in OTE magazine. That’s because you are a bunch of miserable bastards who never provide any information about your routes, I thought, but didn’t say that. I responded more diplomatically by asking whether he wanted to take over the role from me (he didn’t).

After the first pitch of Thor, the next pitch takes a thin slanting corner and has since turned out to be the crux of the route. The first section, common with Cupid’s Bow was easy enough and soon I was into the meat of the pitch. I was climbing reasonably well (for me) at the time, but my inexperience on hard climbing on this type of rock showed and I wasted time and energy essentially trying to climb the slab on little dinks rather than using the corner itself. I reached a high point and lowered down. Kim then made a superb flash of the pitch in about five minutes demonstrating his considerable skill and mastery on this type of rock. 

At the top of the corner a thin traverse past an old golo bolt leads to the hanging belay on ancient rusty pegs behind hollow flakes. Kim watched nervously as I unclipped the golo and commenced the thin sequence, obviously not keen on a potential swing onto the poor belay if I fell off seconding. I had a look at the next pitch but it was dirty, there were no runners off the belay, which was poor, and we were stopped. Maybe we should have carried pegs along with the regular trad rack, I thought. While we were on this a lanky beanpole called Rick Campbell turned up and led Run of the Arrow which, according to my climbing diary, was the fourth ascent of that (after Kev Howett and Owen Hayward). I had a grandstand view of him on the crux and it looked very good indeed. We abbed down to the previous stance which is where the Run of the Arrow exits the corner. I was feeling demoralised at this point and handed the lead over to Kim (again) who then produced another blazing lead of this. If you want to see a great portrayal of the run of the arrow then watch the movie Apocalyptica which features this at a pivotal moment in the plot.

Kim Greenald flashing the crux pitch of Thor. Photo Grant Farquhar.

I seconded wearing the rucksack to find that Kim had finessed a reasonable small nut into an unlikely slot to protect the section of 6a climbing on hollow flakes at the start of the pitch. The climbing was then fairly easy to Dougie Dinwoodie’s stuck old wires. Looking left I could see an obvious small polished foothold that was obviously the key to the crux and this proved to be the case. The only belay at the top was a single, old peg. ‘I’m heavier than you so we will back it up, and if it holds my weight you can bring the back up with you,’ said Kim and then set off down the ropes. I watched the peg closely for movement but it seemed OK so when it came to be my turn to abseil I duly – and naively – removed the back up wire and abbed off. Ah the naivety of youth. I didn’t die but that doesn’t make it a sensible thing to have done. Now there is no way that I would trust my life to abbing off a single, old peg 400ft off the deck.

Next year I returned with Gary Latter. It was June but nevertheless cold and miserable on the crag – it felt like standing in a giant refrigerator. This was also immediately after my end-of-year exams and I had not done any climbing for a while, so attempting Thor was quite optimistic. Mind you, that year I’d spent more time climbing than attending lectures so my last minute cramming was woefully insufficient and I failed the exams anyway.

Gary also forgot his rock shoes so we only had one pair between us. This time we both got nowhere-near leading the crucial pitch. In our defence it was so cold we didn’t give it much of a go. Gary led The Missing Link to escape in my Boreal Aces and I seconded it wearing his trainers.

Gary Latter when he still had hair on Thor. Photo Grant Farquhar.

I spent a lot of time at home looking at the picture of the crag in Extreme Rock and dreaming of ascents of not only Thor but also the obvious unclimbed lines neighbouring it. Alas I never climbed on the Central Slabs again but Rick did, and so did Gary and Jules and others and all those routes which existed as hand-drawn biro lines scribbled on my copy of Extreme Rock became reality: Aphrodite, Realm of the Senses, Icon of Lust and the rest.

25/5/22: The Jazz Master

Jaz Watson on White Dielectric. Photo Grant Farquhar.

There is no such thing as bad conditions only weakness. Alexander Megos

In a video where he is trying the route Perfecto Mundo Alexander Megos said the above when referring to the bad conditions that were plaguing his attempts. It was, I hope, a joke. But that was the scenario facing Jaz Watson at The Great Head when confronted with the mid-summer dripping and slime conditions in the back of the cave.

The project here had been bolted by Rob Sutherland who was working in Bermuda as a teacher. Due to the severely overhanging nature of the line it’s necessary to bolt ground-up, on the lead, and because the rock is soft, long glue-in titanium bolts are required which meant that Rob was only getting in one bolt per session. So it took him an entire winter on the lead with his patient belayer Ruth to get the line equipped with its nine bolts, two threads and belay by which time he was scheduled to move back to Canada and he had no time to actually make the first ascent. So the project languished for a while patiently waiting for him to return and send it.

A year went by and still no Rob but then out of the blue I got a message from Jaz who was back for a week and furthermore Rob had been in touch with her and had not only given her his blessing to climb it he had actively encouraged her to do it. So Jaz and I found ourselves at The Great Head on a late-May day in the cave. The wind had gone round to the north and some was even getting into the crag but it was still 24 degrees C with 85% humidity and the holds felt slimy. Some were caked in pigeon shit which was where Rob had got the name of the route from; ‘White Dielectric’ is apparently a technical name that NASA uses for pigeon shit. Highly appropriate as it turns out.

The route starts next to the only other equipped line in this section of the crag which is a 5.13c established by John Langston in 2011. On that occasion John was belayed by a 14-year-old Jaz. Since then she has finished school and college and has been working in Canada as a professional route-setter in a climbing gym. Jaz was back except that she was no longer the pupil and now the master.

The first five bolts are very steep. The holds are big, but spaced, and because of the slime factor it feels like you could ping off at any time. It’s difficult to trust your feet on smears so you end up sticking them to the inside of bigger features rather than in the ideal spot so it’s fairly pumpy. There is a good knee-bar at the halfway point where Jaz was able to spend a couple of minutes recovering before the final section. From there to the belay it’s practically horizontal climbing with lots of toe-hooks and heel-hooks to the no-hands rest and belay in a cave.

First go, Jaz made it all the way past the final bolt to get her hands on the ledge below the belay but the ‘white dielectric’ and general slime saw her off on that occasion. Next go she was tired and fell at the final bolt. So we returned the next day when conditions were similar. Mindful of the previous day she dogged up and cleaned the final ledge with her T-shirt to try and reduce the slime factor. And then, without much fuss, she sent it. Due to the less than ideal conditions the route was probably two grades harder on the day that Jaz sent it than it would be in good conditions so she was uncertain about the grade. But, it’s definitely harder than the other 5.12c routes here so she decided to give it 5.12d although it could be hard 5.12c and 5.13a is possible too. Whatever the grade it was a determined and inspiring performance from the Jazz Master.

This is the unedited footage of the first ascent of White Dielectric.

8/May/2022: The Outsider

The Outsider takes the discontinuous lighter coloured streak through the dark grey rock. Photo 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.      

The Myth of Sisyphus by Albert Camus.

If you’ve ever wondered what The Cure song ‘Killing an Arab’ is all about then read The Outsider by Albert Camus. This is probably Camus’s most famous work although The Plague certainly gained currency during the recent pandemic. In terms of a philosophy to live and die by Camus’s writings come the closest, for me, to a manifesto for climbing. Camus got it dead right in The Myth of Sisyphus when he described finding meaning in futile tasks involving rock and transcending the absurd meaninglessness of life with a rebellion against mortality. Climbing does all of that – it provides meaning and like smoking, tattoos and comedy plastic tits, rebels and sticks two fingers up to mortality in the process. 

‘There is only one really serious philosophical problem,’ Camus wrote in The Myth of Sisyphus, ‘and that is suicide.’ This was a problem that I was, indeed, grappling with as the thoughts came unbidden into my brain:

Kill yourself. You are an arsehole. Kill yourself. 

Now, it’s not at all unusual for me to regard myself to be an arsehole, but it’s definitely not normal for me to be having suicidal ideas. I’d been feeling depressed and miserable since giving up smoking cigars and these thoughts were, presumably, another symptom of the nicotine withdrawal. Except the problem for me on that day was that I was on a cliff with a highly effective and lethal suicide method at my immediate disposal. All I had to do was unclip from the rope and let gravity do the rest. Lower down on my project the thoughts had been easier to dismiss as, peering down, I could conclude that falling from 40ft would just be extremely painful and not fatal, unless I went head first, but, from 80ft? That would do it.

Listening to clients with suicidal ideas at work almost every day for the past 25 years, or so, has given me a lot of experience with assessing these sort of ideas and I have experienced them previously myself during personal crises. There is a section in my book The White Cliff about climbing and suicidality in which I pontificate that you probably shouldn’t go climbing if you have suicidal ideas. What that fails to take into account is that during crises going climbing is highly therapeutic and one of the things a climber most wants to do, so I’m not sure if that advice is of any practical use in retrospect.

I knew that my thoughts on this occasion were what you would call ‘ego-dystonic suicidal ideas’ and I was not going to actually act on them, but they were extremely intrusive and disconcerting, especially with 80ft of fresh air and a big ledge beckoning underneath. I conjured up thoughts of my kids to chase the suicidal ones away, which they did, and carried on.

This project was one that I’d just finished equipping at The Great Head in Bermuda which lies just outside the main cave. I’d walked underneath the line many times previously but never thought it looked particularly steep or hard and the rock looked a bit dodgy although there was a pink and white-ish discontinuous vein of obviously good rock running through it.

At the top you anchor off guns, big ones, in the fortifications above that guard the deep water channel through the reefs. One can honestly say that this anchor is bombproof. After an initial look I decided that the route actually looked worthwhile and much harder and steeper than it appeared from below.

So, I spent several days over a couple of weeks abseiling down and placing the titanium bolts and threads necessary to create a sport climb. Due to the steepness I was generally only adding one glue-in bolt per day but eventually I had four bolts, three threads and a lower off. The route was ready to climb. The problem was that I didn’t have anyone to climb with.

The climbing scene in Bermuda waxes and wanes in size but tends to be small and in the late-spring most people were already focused on deep water soloing rather than sport so I was short of partners. This had been a problem for most of the winter so I’d already embarked on a lead-rope-soloing journey. I’d only done roped-solo aid climbing previously and most of this had been done while equipping sport climbs ground up because they were too steep to abseil down – the usual situation in Bermuda. So free climbing lead rope soloing was not a technique I had even tried let alone become competent in.

It turns out that there is quite a lot to it – lead rope soloing is to rock climbing what cave diving is to scuba diving. These activities are extremely gear intensive and gear dependent. Both are highly unforgiving of mistakes and easily potentially fatal. They use mostly the same equipment as their siblings but are only distantly related in terms of the necessary competence. Both require highly redundant back-up systems to be used and both have the Donald Rumsfield ‘unknown unknowns’ factor. You don’t know what you don’t know and in these cases what you don’t know can kill you.

I started with a 5.10c on Tsunami Wall. My first attempt with my ‘death-modified’ Gri Gri finished at the first thread because I simply could not clip it; I couldn’t pull any slack through the Gri Gri. Humbled, I climbed back down to the ground and retreated to the drawing board of the internet to figure out where I was going wrong. I concluded that the rope I was using on that particular day was too thick and I needed a thinner rope that would feed better through the Gri Gri. This assumption proved to be correct, but when I led the route it still felt desperate – much harder than 10c – because of the unfamiliar way of extracting slack to clip while also managing the back up knots and generally not dying.

Gri Gri set up for LRS. Photo Grant Farquhar.

Next up was a 5.11d which went better with the thinner rope and more acquaintance with the technique, but I was still finding lead rope soloing somewhat terrifying. I was not trusting the system (a good thing) and worried about the unknown unknowns.

So these preliminary steps lead me to The Outsider. This route turned out to be quite old school in that it has a crux that is much harder than the rest of the route at about half height. It’s on much bigger holds either side, but still pumpy. While equipping the route I’d felt the thin holds and had been thinking about how to do the crux. On my first day on it turned out that the imaginary sequence that I’d concocted was, indeed, correct –  from hands on the big hold on the lip of the roof, left heel hook next to hands, reach up with left hand for a crappy crimp and then take a poxy pinch next to it with the right. These are not good but in combination they were enough to permit taking the heel off and swinging the right foot up into a rockover on the lip of the roof. A snatch for a distant edge up and right leads to better holds.

First go, on the lead, I got an unexpected and insane warm-up pump clipping the first two bolts above the initial ledge on what, I thought, should have been relatively easy ground. I attributed this to my poor lead-rope management skills and guessed that I didn’t have the system dialled and was taking too long messing with back-up knots and slack etc. I was also still not relaxed with the system, which, again, was maybe not a bad thing. 

Next go I made it through the crux and clipped the next bolt but then unintentionally cut loose and wasted time getting my feet back on. Setting up for the next move the left-hand hold broke and I was off taking my biggest lead-rope-solo fall so far – a 20-footer. It was totally unexpected and the Gri Gri caught me fine. The fall was over too fast to have time to have gotten scared.

Two days later, on the Monday after work, I was back. I’d been excited all day about the prospect of getting back on the route. Part of the crucial edge was crumbling under my fingers as I used it and the rope, clipped into the bolt in front of my face, was in my way but I held it together. I climbed past my previous high point to the final thread which was now below my feet. I had a good hold with my right but had extended too far from the foot holds to reach this. In retrospect I should have just made one more move to easy ground, but I guess I hadn’t mentally prepared for the possibility of climbing past the thread without clipping it. 

As I tried and failed to clip, my right arm was giving out. There was nothing for my left hand and I was beginning to barn-door off. I abandoned the clip, pawed ineffectually with my left and then I was off. In the air I twisted around to see the wall flashing past so that I could orientate my feet for the swing-in which happened 40ft lower. ‘Fuck!’ I shouted. I was so close. I should have clipped from the knee-bar lower down or simply climbed through but I ended up with the worst of both worlds – I failed to clip, didn’t climb through, and took the fall anyway. I didn’t feel like having another go as I was knackered and conditions were not brilliant. There was no wind but the humidity was only 50% so it wasn’t terrible and I was aware that this may be the last day of the sport season with reasonable conditions before the onset of the summer humidity . Next go made it through the crux (for the fourth time) but didn’t have the beans to climb to the top. 

The next day I was feeling battered and planning on leaving the next session for the day after when I had more time. But when I got home from work the weather forecast was saying that the relative humidity %, which was now in the 70s, would be in the 80s the next day so I decided to go for it. Walking into the crag along the sea-level ledge system I admired the spectacular outlook over the turquoise water and saw three of the biggest squid I have ever seen hanging out in a row shortly followed by a massive eagle ray cruising by. 

It was, indeed, more humid than the day before so I wasn’t fancying my chances. I decided to just have a ‘quick look’. This would be my fifth redpoint attempt, but due to my low expectations I felt less pressure on this one. First off I dogged up with a knee pad (a xmas present from my wife and the first time I’d ever used one) to find out that the knee bar at the final thread was still not a no-hands rest but, unsurprisingly, much better with it. And after the 40-footer the previous day I was pretty comfortable with the fall so I could, literally, cut myself some slack with the back-up knots. 

I quickly climbed through the crux and got to the knee bar. The final thread was within clipping distance, but I was pumping out and had to have a few words with myself: ‘You are in the knee bar, relax and clip.’ Which, this time, I did and then wobbled past my previous high point to the top with surprise and relief. 

Life had meaning – at least for that day.

THE OUTSIDER 5.12b 30m

The Outsider lurks on the margins of the main cave contemplating the meaninglessness of existence. It’s a bit of an old-school existentialist with a hard, crimpy crux but the rest of the route is still absurdly pumpy. Start below the pink streak of good rock in the very steep wall left of the main cave. Climb past a thread to another thread on a ledge. Step left and continue past four bolts and a final thread to the lower off. Grant Farquhar lead rope solo 3 May 2022.

28/3/22: Yet more Tsunami Wall action

I’d always wondered if you could climb directly underneath the ceiling in between the seaward lip and the hole in the roof at Tsunami wall so I set out to investigate. To start I used a line that I’d started equipping a couple of years before but never finished. This starts back in the bowels of the cave and heads up into the apex crossing Journey to the Centre of the Earth (which starts further right and eventually finishes through the hole in the roof).

After spending a few days swinging around putting the gear in I was extremely keen when the appointed day to climb it arrived so arrived half an hour early and rigged a spare rope above the cave to construct a means of lowering off should I prove successful on the route. Dreas duly arrived and I tied on. The route gave very steep stalactite-wrestling across improbable ground but provided lots of no hands rests using the stalactites. The rock was a bit slimy especially in the back of the cave and although none of the holds were small it felt insecure. Once I got up into the apex the terrain turned horizontal and the stalactites were a lot smaller and tapering so body tension was crucial to make them usable.

First go I managed to make the tricky swing to transfer across from one wall of the cave to the other in the apex. I was feeling nauseous with the effort but I was there. The footholds at that point were good but slippy – presumably having been polished by birds sitting on them and doing whatever birds do. 

Glancing out of the cave to the sea, the lip was actually lower than where I was – I would have to climb down to it. Wide bridging led to some back-and-footing or more appropriately neck-and-footing as I could just suspend myself in a core-pumping body bridge with my feet on the hideously steep left wall and my neck against the right-hand cave wall. More tenuous bridging led almost to the lip from where I could reach down to my foot and clip the thread on Kanagawa which comes up from below at this point. Almost there. A few more pumping moves during which I got my leg stuck over my arm led to jugs on the lip and the top with relief.

At this time of the year it’s coming to the end of the sport climbing season so although I had no one to climb with after work today I went out and lead rope soloed the right-hand finish which surfs the rightwards exit under the lip to finish through the window in the roof as for La Cucaracha.

PIPELINE 5.11d 15m

This route gains the apex of the cave via the leftmost equipped line and then exits via the seaward lip. Start in the bowels of the cave and wrestle with stalactites up and rightwards to cross Journey to the Centre of the Earth. Continue out the horizontal roof on smaller stalactites and swing across to a boss of rock on the other side of the cave. Wide bridging and back-and-footing leads horizontally leftwards to exit as for Kanagawa. Three titanium bolts and five threads. Grant Farquhar and Dreas Ratteray 23/3/22. 

BACKDOOR 5.11d 15m

This is the right-hand backdoor exit to the above route. Start up Pipeline to swing across to the boss of rock on the other side of the cave. Delicate smearing rightwards gains the last bolt and finish of La Cucaracha. Four bolts and four threads. Grant Farquhar lead rope solo 28/3/22. 

15/3/22: Tsunami Wall action

Tsunami Wall does not receive a lot of traffic. Tucked away on the north shore in Hamilton Parish it is often overlooked for the larger and more alluring Great Head. A major factor in this is that it is highly condition dependent. In order to climb here you need low humidity and a light northerly breeze otherwise it will be, literally, dripping. So I was slightly surprised when some visiting UK climbers hit me up on WhatsApp for directions. I didn’t think much more about it until later in the day when I received the message:

‘Two bolts failed and my partner ended up in the water’.

My response was: ‘Fuck!’.

Fortunately there were no injuries but it was very lucky that the tide was in because it probably would have been a different outcome at low tide. The details are as follows. Two visiting UK climbers decided to climb Subsonic Wave which is a 5.7 on Tsunami Wall. As I said before this wall does not get much attention and the Fixe marine-grade stainless steel expansion bolts had not been replaced since Davie Crawford placed them prior to the first ascent in 2008. In fact this route and its neighbours were the only remaining routes in Bermuda on which the expansion bolts had not been replaced by glue-in bolts. Some routes have marine-grade stainless steel glue-ins but since titanium glue-ins have been manufactured by Titan Climbing these have been preferred.

The leader started up Subsonic Wave, which had two expansion bolts in the initial pillar, and asked his belayer to take him on the second bolt which immediately sheared off, rapidly followed by the second bolt and he fell past the belay ledge to land in the water, approx 20ft below. These routes have been deep water soloed but the water underneath this crag is shallow and it’s a good job the tide was in. They then had a minor epic getting out of the water and retrieving their gear.

The dangers of stainless steel corrosion on expansion bolts in sea cliffs, even ‘marine grade’ bolts specifically designed for such environments are well known with numerous examples of bolt failures in places like Thailand which increased awareness and formed the impetus behind replacement with titanium glue-ins e.g. the ‘Thaitanium Project’.

I’m very relieved that no one was hurt in this unfortunate incident which serves to underline the dangers of in situ metalwork, especially expansion bolts, on sea cliffs. It also reinforces, for me, the responsibility of the route equipper to ensure that all fixed protection is adequate and that all bad in situ pieces are removed.

So, with that in mind, I spent some time down at Tsunami Wall cleaning up Subsonic Wave and its neighbours. I removed all the old expansion bolts, most of which could be sheared off with a single hammer blow, and replaced them with threads and the old threads on the routes with new threads.

There are no longer any routes in Bermuda that rely on expansion bolts although there are still a few redundant ones in situ here and there that need to be removed so that no one ever mistakenly uses one.

While I was on the crag I was reminded of the gap between Cumbrae Vieja and Auricle Wall which I was aware of but had never bothered to equip for a route. It turned out to be an excellent little climb which I climbed lead rope solo using a ‘death modified’ grigri with knot back ups.

ROGUE MALE 5.10c 15m

This excellent route climbs the golden wall between Cumbrae Vieja and Auricle Wall. Step through the window behind Cumbrae Vieja to the starting ledge. Climb steeply past three threads and one titanium glue-in bolt to the final crack. Grant Farquhar lead rope solo 15/3/22.

During all of this Dreas showed me a new crag that he had discovered near Tsunami Wall which provided us with some shallow water soloing on a day when Tsunami Wall was too greasy to climb.

11 March 22: Another ACD Review

Great review of ACD from Adrian Trendall of All Things Cuillin posted today:

A’Chreag Dhearg. Climbing Stories of the Angus Glens. Compiled by Grant Farquhar.

These glens may not be a must visit climbing destination but have proved a testing ground for many leading Scottish climbers for decades.

The book is a collection of short stories, climbing folk lore and photos which should appeal not just to local aficionados who have made their mark, ticked some well ‘ard routes but to anyone interested in a good read, a potted climbing history served in bite sized chunks.

Despite covering a very small geographic area, the book is diverse and includes not just a century of climbing but the history before that. It’s a highly readable book, written by various characters at the epicenter of this area’s history.

In many ways, it reads like a Stephen King novel. A coming of age tale, of adolescence, booze and sex and a grail like quest involving extreme personal danger/risk of death. There are tales of adolescents learning for themselves and not just about climbing but life. Tales of dodgy drives and hitched lifts, of climbing routes with names such as “Guiness” and “Heineken”, “Special Brew” and “The Whoremistress.”

The initial chapters deal with the history of the area and includes one of the earliest access disputes which went all the way to court in Edinburgh. This became known as the battle for Jock’s Road. Interesting reading but more gripping is the emergence of “The Men of Steel,” the name adopted by a bunch of urban teenagers making their entry into the world of hills and mountains.

Perhaps the last generation of self taught climbers, the Men of Steel adopted a kill or cure strategy and hard won lessons followed from horrific accidents and mistakes. No courses, no instruction no internet, no climbing walls, their learning was of the suck it and see kind. Their base was the Carn Dearg MC hut but they probably spent as much time in the local pub.

Some chapters stand out not just for their names but also the writing. “Redemption on Creag Death” and “The Pale Rider”sound like the title of westerns. The chapters are linked; “Redemption” kicks off with Simon Stewart pushing his luck on a poorly protected E4. It’s a story of bad luck and good luck. Simon falls, hits the deck and suffers multiple horrific injuries including breaking all his ribs, puncturing a lung and rupturing his stomach. The good news was that a MRT team was training relatively nearby and a helicopter was on the scene pronto to whisk Simon to Raigmore Hospital.

Very philosophically, Simon sees the accident in terms of redemption. Climbing had previously been his raison d’etre but post accident he didn’t climb for 30 years and knuckled down to his university studies, subsequently becoming a professor.

Indeed, Simon triggered one of the best named and most thought provoking chapters, “The Pale Rider.” In suitably apocalyptic fashion, Grant Farquhar kicks off this chapter with a biblical quote;

“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.”

An email from Simon to Grant prompted this chapter which speculates on how dangerous climbing is and are you more reckless as a testosterone fueled teenager or as an aging climber. This was fueled by Simon noting that three of the best, most experienced climbers he’d known had died in climbing accidents at relatively old ages. There’s some great anecdotes and philosophical musings but Grant sums things up well; “I don’t think there’s an increased risk of seeking the warrior’s death as you age. You’re more likely to die rock climbing when you’re young and stupid with poor judgement than when you’re older and, hopefully, wiser. But, like Russian Roulette, if you repeatedly expose yourself to objective danger, the odds might catch up with you. But when you’re going to die anyway, so you might as well live well before then and go climbing.”

Not solely focused on the Angus Glens but of great interest is the chapter with the self explanatory title, ‘The Naming Of Routes” by Sophie Grace Chappell. Indeed, it was this chapter that provided a Cuillin connection. I hadn’t expected any Cuillin links so to get to the end of the book and read this chapter was a real bonus.

There are some great stories behind route names. For example, “One Armed Bandit,” celebrates a climb “that starts below a dodgy looking block the size of a fruit machine and which one of us ended up climbing with a single axe.” Perhaps, better are still are route names that might have been. Sophie was “bumbling with gear and because we’d been discussing transgenderism, I wanted to call our route ‘Lost Nuts’; unfortunately, this was vetoed.”

Finally, on to our Cuillin connection and it involves two ATC members. “A route name can align with a private joke. Jamie Bankhead told Mike Lates and me that we had no chance of new routing in the Cuillin in mid November. ‘But sure, give it a try if blunting your axes on hoar flecked rubble is your thing.’ So, after a sensational day…when we tracked fox prints in knee deep snow in Coire Lagan….Mike quite rightly dubbed our new route The Silver Fox.”

Although not about an area I know well, this is a wonderful book combining climbing tales and history but also a story of people, real characters coming to life through their nick names and epics. The full gamut of hill activities are covered, hill walking, rock climbing and mountaineering. It’s a good book to read cover to cover but also one that can be dipped into, a random chapter or two devoured. The idea of getting so many of the leading protagonists to write a chapter or more works really well and the selection and editing makes the book a seamless experience. Above all, the book involves the reader. It’s no dry historical tome but one of exciting tales of derring do and the consequences. It’s a very humanocentric book and whilst it covers a limited geographic area, the characters and stories will be ones that many readers can relate to.

The SMP have produced a real winner here. The format works really well and it would be good to see future volumes covering other lesser (or well) known climbing areas the length and breadth of Scotland. Perhaps Mike Lates could write one for the Cuillin….…/a-chreag-dhearg/

It would be great if people could buy direct from the link above since the SMP ploughs profits back into many aspects of Scottish mountaineering and the environment.

Many thanks to the Scottish Mountaineering Press and  Robert Michael Lovelll for producing this volume and providing a copy. Apologies that the review has taken somewhat longer than expected.

12 Feb 2022: Climbing Therapy

This is an interesting article just published on the Climbing mag website about climbing therapy, something that I am providing in Bermuda.

Why Experts Are Exploring Climbing as a Form of Therapy

Bouldering psychotherapy is gaining traction because the sport is unique in its easy access and ability to draw out emotions.


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 movement currently 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.”

11 Feb 22: ACD Review

Here is a review published today on the Footless Crow website by Dennis Gray.

A’Chreag Dhearg. Climbing Stories of the Angus Glens: Reviewed

Simon Stewart climbing in Glen Clova; Image-Simon Stewart

 A’Chreag Dhearg. Climbing Stories of the Angus Glens. Compiled by Grant Farquhar.376 pages, paperback, drawn on cover, perfect bound. Scottish Mountaineering Press. £20. Ilustrated throughout by black/white, colour photographs.

‘They shattered the spell of the mighty Dr Bell, they were all good men and true’

From a song by Tom Patey

When I lived in Scotland in the 1960’s the southern aspect of the Cairngorm massif was hardly known to my Edinburgh companions of the Squirrel’s. Although I used to go to Dundee regularly on business, climbing on the Arbroath sea cliffs on occasion en route, I had not then heard of the climbing revolution that was under away in the Angus Glens. I stayed in nearby Broughty Ferrry where the big attraction was the Folk Club, highlighting Ewan MacColl (I was to learn later that he was from Salford where he was known as Jimmy Millar). So this book, compiled by Grant Farquhar is revelatory and was a joy to read by this old timer.

The first articles in this compilation illustrate the story of the area, that Dundee used to be the centre of the manufacturing of Jute, and that in the First World War, its denizens were very much the recruiting City of the Black Watch regiment, which suffered many number of deaths and injury. We also learn a little of the family history of the compiler of this volume, a local boy; a Dundonian who now resides in the Bahamas but who has a track record of difficult ascents around the UK, and an equally impressive CV as a climbing writer.

Also surprisingly related in this book, there was one of the first access battles, when the regular route, through all the way to Ballater and Braemer from Forfar (the name by which the whole Angus region is known) was blocked by the Landowner. This ended in the Court in Edinburgh, and the claimants won one of the most important cases, in the history of the outdoor movement. This known as the battle for Jock’s Road, so well recounted by Des Hannigan, a local climber who made his name further south on the Cornish sea cliffs. In January 1959 occurred a terrible tragedy following the route from Braemar, along the Jock’s road to Forfar, a distance over 18 miles, and which goes over the 3,000 foot contour. The party of five became lost in worsening conditions and eventually perished; there was wide publicity at that time and led to the present day mountain rescue in the district.

The early mountaineering in the area was at the initiative of the SMC, meets were held at the home of Hugh Munro (a baronet no less) whose family seat was near Kirriemuir, whose name is now so aligned with his list of peaks in Scotland over 3000 feet, published in that clubs journal in 1891.There is a photograph in the book of a five strong party roped together, in winter conditions on the Forfar hills. Whatever global warming is affecting our winters now, in the latter years of the 19th century, the snow and ice could be counted on by these stalwarts. Another famous figure who lived close by was J M Barrie author of the Peter Pan stories, although he was not a climber, inevitably quotes from his work appear with some regularity within this book. 

Simon Stewart belaying Grant Farquhar on ‘The Fuhrer’- E4-5c, Craig Dubh: Photo Graham Ettle

One of the outstanding pioneers to emerge from this area was JHB Bell, who pioneered some of the great climbs on Ben Nevis, besides local classics in the Angus Glens like Maud Buttress. He was also a writer of some distinction. I can remember how his book, ‘Bell’s Scottish Climbs’ published by Gollancz was well received when it appeared in 1988.

And so the scene is set for what must have been one of the most action packed groups to emerge from a big City to find their way into climbing, winter and summer. A group of teenagers, none who had been on any kind of course, who came into the sport a traditional way, learning by their mistakes, but from the first keen to explore, to new route, but most of all to enjoy themselves and find out what the boundaries were to their lives. They came together and tongue in cheek, called themselves; ‘The Men of Steel’, and many appear in the mss as only their nick names; Dr Evil (Grant), Pot, Hendo etc. One without a nick name but one of the keenest new routers was Simon Stewart. In his writings he claims that he was never the best climber of the group but his new routes on the cliffs of Glen Cova bear a witness to his abilities at that time.

They based themselves in the Carn Dearg Mountaineering Club hut in Glen Clova, and they also became regulars at the pub in that valley. This was in the mid 1980’s, and illustrates how much climbing is now changed with the popularity of indoor walls, diets, training, fitter, stronger, faster. At a later date some of the Men of Steel found places in Dundee; buildings they could climb on notably the walls of the Engineering Department of the University, but they were probably amongst the last groups to find out what climbing was all about by themselves?

We are brought up short by the chapter on the ‘Life of Reilly’, this tells of the story of the twins Ged and Ian Reilly. By this date some of the Angus climbers were travelling further afield. 21st January 1978 Ian Reilly and 19 year old Brian Simpson fell from off a route in the inner corrie of Creag Meagaidh. Ged who was in the area on that day went looking for his brother. By the time they were found it was too late, and both had succumbed to their injuries and the cold. Ged despite this terrible accident still climbs.

In a book of such length there is only space to concentrate on articles that give the feeling of the work, so I will only highlight the ones which I think were typical of the whole.

The first is by Grant Farquhar himself and is titled ‘The Pale Rider’ and goes out on a limb deciding how dangerous climbing really is? This thoughtful article had its genesis, in an e-mail from Simon Stewart. In that he noted that the three most experienced and oldest climbers who he had ever climbed with, Andy Nisbet, Martin Moran and Doug Lang had all died at great ages in climbing accidents. This posited the question do climbers become more at risk as they grow old?

Grant is a psychiatrist so well able to pontificate on risk taking, and he comes to the conclusion that climbing is not as dangerous as some would believe, and for instance other activities like Base Jumping are much so. As someone who gave some lectures on this subject I would say that there are now different levels of risk involved in the activities. Sport climbing should be safe, trad rock climbing less so, winter climbing even more so, with the most dangerous being greater range mountaineering with Himalayan the most demanding in this respect. Freud inevitably is included in Farquhar’s musings, with both, Libido, the sex drive and Thanatos the death wish mentioned. His conclusion that we are all going to die in any case is true and though most of us try to avoid facing up to this, his advice is to enjoy our lives and to get out climbing.

This leads on to the terrible accident on Creag Dubh, under the title Redemption on Creag Death which befell Simon Stewart in the early part of 1987. Pushing his grades he set out on a route on the main wall, Acapulco a badly protected E4. When I lived in Edinburgh it was a favourite haunt of the Squirrels. Bugs McKeith and I even soloed the frozen water course which splits the crag one winter, and with Dave Bathgate I made one or two first ascents. It is a difficult cliff protection wise and unfortunately when Stewart fell off Acapulco what gear he had pulled and he hit the ground and was badly injured. Fortunately a mountain rescue team were training nearby and he was lifted by chopper to Raigmore Hospital in Inverness, somewhere that has poignant memories for me for it was where I first met my future wife, who on her way to ski in the Cairngorms was involved in a road accident. It was to be thirty years before Simon climbed again. The accident had the outcome that he concentrated on his University studies, and much to the surprise of his lecturers he became an outstanding student which led him to eventually become a Professor. Much of his early climbing and first ascents was with fellow female student, CAMS. In 1992 his reverie was to be interrupted by a ‘phone call from fellow Men of Steel member, Graeme Ettle informing him that CAMS, Cathy had died in the Himalaya.

The final article I would like to highlight from this book is by Sophie Grace Chappell on the naming of climbs. Many climbers have previously used this has a theme for such, but Sophie has an unusual take on this with the titles of many pop and wider musical pieces, even old music hall favourites. How climbs are named is often the source of much discussion, usually it is up to those making the first ascent to do this, but in the case of Glen Clova it is revealed in this book that many of the new routes are named in keeping with already existing challenges.

Andy Nisbet in his natural environment

 The book almost finishes with a poem by Sophie in memoriam to Andy Nisbet and Steve Perry, two leading Scottish mountaineers who died on Ben Hope in February 2019, and ends with a list of the sources from where some of the articles originate. The work involved in putting together such a compilation is impressive and Grant Farquhar is to be complimented on that. All profits from this are to go to the Scottish Mountaineering Trust, a Scottish charity whose task is to make grants to organisations that promote recreation, knowledge and safety on the mountains, especially the mountains of Scotland. 

Dennis Gray: 2022 

2/2/22: Holy Sheet

Beautiful crisp conditions at The Great Head today with a NE wind. Dreas and I climbed the counter-line to Sheet Your Pants to give another excellent multi-pitch outing in Bermuda.

HOLY SHEET 5.10a 65m

This route is the counter-diagonal to Sheet Your Pants and has the advantage of starting and finishing at the top of the crag which means the walk-in from the car park is about 60 seconds. Start from the top of the cliff above Bogeyman. Scramble down (roped up) to belay on the large white ledge below the large overhang above Bogeyman. Two-bolt belay.

  1. 5.10a R 30m. Traverse leftwards on the lip of the cave, as for the final pitch of Three Sheets to the Wind, past two bolts and two threads to a no-hands rest in a niche. Clip the third bolt and make tricky moves around a rib to more ledges and another thread. Three Sheets to the Wind exits at this point up the vague groove above. Continue at the same level to a final thread and climb diagonally down and leftwards to an exposed two-bolt and thread belay on the lip of the cave.
  2. 5.10a R 20m. Continue traversing leftwards, reversing Roots Manuva to the large belay ledge of The Roost.
  3. 5.10a 15m. Finish up The Root of Evil.

Grant Farquhar and Dreas Ratteray 2/2/22.

30/1/22: Redemption on Creag Death.

Here is an essay that was published on the Footless Crow website today to promote A’ Chreag Dhearg.

Redemption on Creagh Death by Simon Stewart

Hermless, hermless,

There’s never nae bother frae me.

Naeb’dy would notice if I wasnae there,

And I didnae come hame for ma tea.Hermless by Michael Marra

If you are prone to frustration getting the better of you, watch out.It can kill you.We’d climbed a lot already on the imposing walls of Creag Dubh. The routes werenotorious for their seriousness and there were often fallen, exploded sheep carcasses at the bottom, so it was also known as ‘Creag Death’. But, I liked the style: steep with positive holds, and we ticked classics like Inbred and The Hill without much drama.The Great Wall of Creag Dubh could only be surpassed, I thought, if it was relocated to Glen Clova.

By early 1987 I was going quite well on rock, technical 5b already in my rearview mirror. The guidebook to Creag Dubh seemed bursting with a ladder of routes that,literally, just needed climbing. A next-level standout for me was Acapulco, listed as an E4 6a roof pitch above a short 5b entry to the main event. Bruce, Graeme and I got dropped off one rather damp, grey Friday evening and pitched our tents in the trees below the crag.

Saturday morning dawned as grey as the night before. As was the case with my new routing enterprises, the prospect fully occupied my mind, visualizing obstacles and solutions based on whatever knowledge I had access to – the guidebook description in this case. As I lay in the tent, awake from first light, I’d already climbed the route 20 times in my mind when I gave up the fight to stay quiet and I went to the other tents rousing the team. Bruce was not inclined for immediate action. He was never bound by fashion or ethics of the day and would climb in his own time and his own way, following his own route. To his credit he never gave a damn what anyone thought of his approach to rock climbing but it is certain that you’d have to compromise on something, possibly a lot, if you wanted him to partner on one of your own missions. This was a mutual understanding so I didn’t linger outside Bruce’s tent and moved to Graeme’s which was also silent.

Some one-sided commentary on the conditions and options for the day aheadeventually raised some groans and, finally, acknowledgement that he was getting ready. I wandered back to my tent, crammed my rack and rope into the rucksack then embarked on the process of waiting, withdrawing into my layers from the damp and chilly air. Graeme’s approach to climbing is steady, methodical, and as he demonstrated in winter, often unstoppable. But this careful, stepwise approach clashed with my anxiety to jump to what I felt was the point. That morning I was unusually exasperated, fuelled by nervousness about taking on an ambitious route while coping with the energy-sapping damp chill in the air. After some time, that in truth wasn’t so very long, we were trudging up towards Waterfall Wall, the ground giving way to an awkward boulder field steepening up to crag.

Simon Stewart climbing Mental Crack in the Sidlaws: Photo Simon Stewart

It was difficult to locate the first pitch of the route, which wiggles up a short, blocky lower tier. The boulders below it are large and jagged, reminiscent of fractured sea ice and not conducive to comfortable seating for gearing up. Graeme unpacked and laid out his gear like a masterchef, examining everything and rearranging with precision required to underpin his customary success. Meanwhile I’m geared up, booted and pawing at the initial moves, looking for a first runner. Of course we haven’t done any warm up, the ascent to the crag produced a mild sweat but that is now cooling us off. At last the belay is on and I can go. I give up on the first runner, all the cracks being thin and blind and set off up the first couple of moves, heavy rack jangling around my waistbelt. The moves pass fairly easily but they are on sloping hand and foot holds, and are surmounted by momentum and belief that good holds are to come. But they don’t.

I wriggle in a tiny RP, barely enough to resist the gravitational pull of its quickdraw. Another move up, even more sketchy,that one felt irreversible,going from a sloping undercling to an extended position without any positive holds, the rock steep and bulging. Looking down, the scene looked bad, the ground consisting of a jumble of sharp, multimetre scale boulders that you couldn’t walk on without twisting an ankle.

The cold air was getting to me, making my fingers and toes numb, even though they were clammy with the realization that I was getting to be stuck. Logic told me to continue, I’d read so many times of climbers heroically facing a crunch and climbing through it to success. But it’s a biased dataset – the climbers who fail in these situations don’t write their stories because they’re dead. Opposite logic said that the higher I climbed, the worse it was going to be if and when I came off, given that I had, basically, no runners. I hesitated too long, trying to muster the clarity to proceed or at least make the best decision, eventually reckoning the least worst option was to descend. But I was pumped, numb and the rock was greasy. I made one move down, my feet back at the RP. Now came the move that had been difficult to climb, I knew it was 50/50, at best, to reverse it; I was still 20ft or so from the ground. I didn’t have the courage to make a jump to a controlled landing on the jagged rocks because broken bones were guaranteed. At least downclimbing offered a chance. But it didn’t work. My foot slipped and I was off, out of control, falling in a sitting position without a chair. I went straight down with no arrest from gear and landed back-first on a pointed shark’s fin of a boulder, the first two points of contact being my lower back and left hand. I remained conscious. Graeme and Bruce were there immediately asking if I was alright. I knew I wasn’t – I could move my toes which was good news, but I could only take shallow breaths. Vaguely aware of conversation I heard Bruce ask if he should get the mountain rescue.

‘Yes. Please. Now.’

It was obvious from what he could see that this was the real thing. I saw Bruce, man of the family, sprint down the hill and off towards the local hotel and the nearest phone. If you have a minor injury you get over the initial shock and work around it. More major and that initial shock is difficult to surmount. Add significant internal damage and you are getting worse with time, possibly without ever turning the corner. After a few minutes it was clear I was in the latter category. It was getting harder to remain conscious. My vision would go in and out of focus, the colours from regular to a yellowish monochrome. Graeme was right besideme, doing what he could but this was a personal struggle; my main injuries were unseen.

It took a supreme effort to remain conscious, I could feel myself getting weaker. I had to force myself to breathe, something was preventing my chest moving. I felt that if I went unconscious, no longer in control, that could be it. Nonetheless I was close to that point and would snap to, having been somewhere, aware that I wasn’t breathing. Graeme held my head; I couldn’t hold it up. In moments of lucidity after I’d snatched a few breaths, I could see, and accept, that I might not make it, that’s how it is when you face unknown odds. I wanted to survive and was fighting with all my will power but I was losing.

My thoughts in those clear moments were sadness and self-pity: here I was 18 years old and now I’d miss out on all the things, whatever they might be, that I my future once held. Friends and family? They’d be just fine without me. Then, I died. At least, that large part of me that was the forceful, impatient climber, left, taking one if not more of my nine lives with him. He left behind a wrecked body clinging to life with an unknown but surely profound set of broken bones and internal injuries.‘There’s a helicopter coming, you’ll be OK,’ said Graeme.I was annoyed by this seeming fabrication but couldn’t talk anymore. Then I heard it, the sound of a Wessex chopper, familiar from so many times I’d seen the mountain rescue practising and operating in the hills. For me? I couldn’t understand how it could have appeared so quickly, even in that state I could compute that a straight line from Lossiemouth or Leuchars would be more time than I might have left.

In a supreme, unwarranted stroke of luck It happened that the mountain rescue had been on training that day within a few miles of us. A medic appeared and laid me out on a back brace, broken spine being an obvious possibility. Next I’m being winched up into the chopper. It’s loud and the medic is giving me shots. It’s a familiar trip for these guys to Raigmore Hospital, Inverness and at that end it’s a well-oiled machine into A&E. Someone’s asking, ‘Road traffic accident?’ But I can’t reply and realise they’re not really interested and are focusing on the job that they’re trained to do.

Grant Farquhar on Colder than a Hooker’s Heart-E5-5c on Creag Dubh. Photo-Graham Ettle

I get shuttled endlessly between the A&E bed and an X-ray machine as they put in chest drains, IV fluids, shots and whatever else they need to do. I remain conscious throughout, presumably through chemical support. I’m hooked up to an increasing number of machines and when I asked, ‘Am I going to make it?’ I didn’t get a straight reply which was a little depressing.The staff crowding around began to thin out, which was difficult to interpret but soon I was wheeled out; the immediate crisis apparently over. I didn’t know the details at that moment, but the fall had been slightly buffered by a chunky krab on my chalk bag, now badly bent but saving direct impact on my spine which got away with a chipped vertebrae. 

My ribs were not so lucky and took the rest of the force of the impact, each breaking in a diagonal line from the base of my spine up and leftwards, the broken ends getting forced into my left lung, which was handsomely punctured and collapsed, the void filling with blood. My stomach also ruptured. This was basically remedied by draining everything out into glass demijohns while blood was poured into me from bags above. Other thanthis I was actually unscathed apart from a broken thumb, a result of the impact being concentrated on my back.

Since this isn’t being ghostwritten, I obviously recovered in the end. The following days and weeks could support a whole separate story of in-hospital adventures but a highlight that sticks with me is that the sole visitor from the climbing community outside my immediate family and friends was the late, great Andy Nisbet, who I’d walked and climbed with a couple of years before. I was blown away that a hero like him would make the time to visit. In fact Andy got two for the price of one from that visit because a couple of days after my incident, another climber that he and I knew, George Reid, fell off exactly the same moves on Acapulco pitch 1 and also ended up in Raigmore. He was in a different ward, though, and we had to communicate by notes that we’d persuade the nurses to pass. In the long run the whole episode proved a redemption of sorts for me sinceI was on the verge of flunking out of my degree due to the amount of climbing I was doing. 

Bed-bound over the following weeks I resolved to fully review my entire coursework in preparation for the mid-degree ‘sorting’ exams that the departmentkindly deferred in my case. After spending every waking hour for two or three weeks reviewing the course material, I aced the exam to the bewilderment of my course mates who barely knew me, such was my absenteeism. So it turned out to my surprise that an aptitude, or maybe curse, of being able to single-mindedly pursue a vision, could be applied to any challenge. Climbing focuses this ability and any climber is well placed to harness it. I’ve sprayed it around liberally ever since, to the dismay of countless colleagues who no doubt wished the crazy bastard would just go away.

Bruce Strachan, Simon Stewart, Grant Farquhar,Stewart Tawse and Lee Delaney, setting off from Dundee, heading for the crags. Photo Simon Stewart

But it must always be seasoned with acute awareness of the moment – since it could be your last – and the value of the people around you. They may be all that stands between you and an untimely end. And you may be required to perform that role for them. It’s amazing how many non-climbers seem to have no vision or sense of their mortality and the consequences of their actions.

Simon Stewart 

Photos supplied by Grant Farquhar


This essay is taken from A’ Chreag Dhearg which was recently published by the Scottish Mountaineering Press.

Compiled and co-authored by veteran climber Grant Farquhar with contributions from a range of voices within Scotland’s close-knit climbing community, A’ Chreag Dhearg traces the rich climbing history of the Angus Glens.

Although less frequented than the forbidding ramparts of Glencoe or Skye, the crags and gullies in this unique area of the Cairngorms harbour classic summer and winter lines that have attracted some of Scotland’s most respected climbers over the course of a century. In this engaging collection of vignettes and photographs, the origins of many of the glens’ best-loved routes are described in intimate detail in an entertaining style that will appeal to both local climbers and those seeking new venues to explore. The authors have woven the distinctive dialect and humour of this corner of Scotland into the narrative, imbuing it with a quality that is, by turns, both edgy and wistful.

Despite the deceptively narrow scope of this story, the breadth with which it is considered here captures the way that climbing has developed in Scotland over time, and how this history is often exceptionally localised. A’ Chreag Dhearg is both a tribute to Victorian pioneers and latter-day trailblazers and a poignant reflection on formative, youthful endeavours.

The book can be purchased from the SMP website.

27/1/22: White Gold

This is a fantastic piece by Wil Treasure published today on the UKClimbing website.

White Gold – A Cultural History of Climbing Chalk by Wil Treasure

In the autumn of 1954, John Gill did several things that were considered a little eccentric.

For one thing, he was bouldering for the sake of it. Not training for ‘proper’ climbing on long faces or showing off at the campground, but for the beauty of movement and the exploration of his body’s potential. Widely regarded as the ‘godfather’ of bouldering, Gill left his mark on the sport both metaphorically and literally, because the other eccentric thing he did was use chalk—convinced as he was by its sweat-absorbing and friction-enhancing properties.

“I had begun rock climbing about a year before becoming a freshman at Georgia Tech in 1954, and had very little knowledge of the history and ethics of the sport,” Gill says. “I began reading about European climbing and learned of the I-VI rating system used in the Alps. It was clear that climbing was seen as a logical extension of hiking.”

But Gill had also taken up gymnastics. It quickly became apparent to him that climbing, especially short challenges, could just as easily be thought of as an extension of gymnastics, and so he approached it as such. 

John Gill doing a lever, c. 1970.
John Gill doing a lever, c. 1970.

Gill’s arrival at climbing from left field meant that environmental or ethical considerations about using chalk simply weren’t on his horizon. If he would chalk up to climb a rope – his specialist gymnastic event – then why not do the same to climb a rock? He began taking a small block with him on climbing jaunts, and wasn’t concerned about what others might think. “I was just a kid having fun,” he says. In time, climbers would see the telltale dabs on the rock as a sign that The Master had visited.

It’s hard to imagine a time when chalk use was so uncommon that a dab could be pinpointed to a single hand. But chalk’s acceptance as a tool in climbing wasn’t straightforward, and for many years no-one else was using it. Only the French Bleausards, with their penchant for ‘pof’, or the sticky resin that eventually spoils climbs with a glassy residue, had experimented with improving friction. 

What Gill brought wasn’t just a new weapon to the arsenal, it was a shift in emphasis towards movement and dynamism; concepts which were rare in climbing at the time, with the limited safety equipment on offer. Three points of contact and steady movement were the dogma, while lead falls and what Gill called ‘controlled dynamics’ formed the new wave.

To some, this new direction for the sport threatened the core of what climbing was about for them. Climbing represented adventure and exploration, discovery, the unknown and danger—at this time Everest had only recently been summited, and big wall climbing was in its infancy. Big, bold and obvious new routes were the prized objectives for those loyal to the more adventurous side of climbing.

Chalk represented the Climber As Athlete, driven instead by physical goals, numbers and training. To the objectors, bouldering was a soulless new sub-sport and chalk was the handprint that caught the burglar white-handed.

The Clean Hand Gang

Chalk use spread very slowly following Gill’s first experiments. It wasn’t until the early 1970s before other climbers seriously started to regard it as a means of advancing standards. Ken Wilson, then editor of Mountain magazine, saw them coming and he didn’t like it: “It would seem that this one-time stronghold of climbing purism and sensitive aesthetic awareness has veered alarmingly off course,” he wrote in an editorial in the ’70s.

Wilson was famously a motormouth, full of opinions and bluster, not always likeable, but generally respected as having his heart in the right place. He also knew how to sell magazines. Mountain was published in the UK, but it was a worldwide success, with iconic front covers, brilliant design and engaging commissions. Wilson was no stranger to a bit of controversy – people want to read about it after all – but his noise about chalk wasn’t all hot air. In the UK, opposition to chalk use was becoming particularly common in Bristol and the South-West, with climbers such as Pat Littlejohn, Ben and Marion Wintringham, Dave Viggers, Arnis Strapcans and Steve Findlay being prominent opponents of its use.

The Clean Hand Gang on their visit to Fair Head in 1979 taken from Mountain 72 and Graham Desroy's article. From left to right: Graham Desroy, Arni Strapcans, Gordon Jenkins, Martin Barrett and Nick Buckley.
The Clean Hand Gang on their visit to Fair Head in 1979 taken from Mountain 72 and Graham Desroy’s article. From left to right: Graham Desroy, Arni Strapcans, Gordon Jenkins, Martin Barrett and Nick Buckley.

“Ken believed passionately in adventurous climbing (and mountaineering) and the ‘clean climbing’ ethic of trying to leave no trace,” Pat Littlejohn says. “He was one of the great climbing photographers and the aesthetics of rock meant a lot to him. So no, it most definitely wasn’t controversy for the sake of it. It was a philosophy of ‘reverence for the rock’ which many climbers share and which characterised Mountain magazine throughout his editorship.”

Wilson’s attacks on chalk use may have been rooted in serious concerns, but there was still a tongue in cheek element to some of them. He dubbed chalk users the ‘Powder Puff Kids’ and wrote about them in several other editorials. John Allen’s 1975 first free ascent of Great Wall, at Clogwyn Du’r Arddu, was famously reported with the caveat “but uses chalk.” The ascent was praised, but the sentiment was clear: “Chalk may well be necessary on the few crucial moves, but there would be no excuse for powdering a white stripe up the middle of the best wall in Wales.”

That white stripe is now a common sight in the summer months. In 2013, a spate of ascents meant that the line of Indian Face E9 6c was clearly visible from across the lake, too. Perhaps the moves on that route would be hard enough to satisfy Wilson et al.

A T-shirt design showing Arnis Strapcans stamping out chalk.
A T-shirt design showing Arnis Strapcans stamping out chalk.

The Clean Hand ‘Gang’ was really nothing of the sort, but a moniker can lend credibility to an idea, and it caught on. Steve Berry and Arnis Strapcans even designed T-shirts to promote the cause. “You either used chalk or if you didn’t, you were Clean Hand Gang,” Steve says. All the same, the strength of feeling among ‘gang’ members was strong. “We ridiculed anyone using chalk, shouted abuse at them if we saw it being used, that sort of thing. No fisticuffs, but heated debate I would say.”

“I wasn’t that comfortable with being part of a ‘gang’,” Littlejohn continues. “It wasn’t what climbing was about for me. I was more into trying to set an example for others to follow, but of course this ultimately failed. Climbers, like anybody else, find it very hard to resist anything that makes life easier!”

Despite being part of a new generation pushing climbing standards in the 1970s and ’80s, Littlejohn resisted using chalk for a variety of reasons. “It was ‘aid’ in that it improved every handhold of the climb and just as importantly marked the holds,” he explains, “so that the most cerebral part of the sport – working out technically difficult moves – was in danger of being lost on any chalked-up climbs.”

The Clean Hand Gang felt they were fighting a change that would remove an essential romance from the adventure of climbing. “It seemed to some of us that climbing was in danger of being changed from an adventurous ‘outdoor pursuit’ into something more like a ‘normal’ sport—a change which many didn’t want to see happen,” Littlejohn says.

Another Clean Hand Gang t-shirt design.
Pete Livesey is given a talking to by the old guard about his chalk use.© David Lambert

This resistance coincided with another major change, at least for the UK: the construction of the M5 motorway. It opened up Cornwall as a weekend destination for many more climbers, somewhere that had previously been a two-day drive from many of the climbing hubs in the UK. An influx of new visitors bringing different tactics and priorities to the area was a threat to the adventurous nature of climbing on the coasts of Devon and Cornwall, as far as many local activists were concerned.

Pat Littlejohn reported on some of the more significant ascents in the Climber’s Club Journal in 1976, which included a couple of those northern raiders:

“The cliffs of North Cornwall remained in a state of equilibrium apart from flurrys [sic] of activity at Pentire centred around Darkinbad the Brightdayler. Pete Livesey climbed the route using one aid point, plus chalk. Ron Fawcett bettered this by using chalk alone. Having made an ascent in the past utilising all the aid points, Ed Hart, not a habitual chalk user, found a chalk bag at the top of the crag and proceeded to put it to use. Finding it made a “phenomenal difference”, he was able to reduce his aid quota to three points. Since chalk is not an accepted form of ‘assistance’ among the South-West based climbers (not being used on any of the climbs so far mentioned in this item) the validity of these as free ascents is open to question.”

As usual in British climbing circles, there was an element of regional rivalry at play. “At the start there was a lot of talk about Pete Livesey and many of the Sheffield and Leeds crowd using [chalk],” Steve Berry says. “Hence, one of our T-shirts showed a picture of Pete looking sheepish and being given a talking to by an old-school climber straight out of the days of the Raj.”

Changing Times

Wilson’s rhetoric did at least include one caveat. He wrote that chalk users “must be barracked remorselessly when they attempt to use chalk on ordinary routes.”

There’s a certain irony, then, to chalk’s route into the UK. The success of Mountain meant that British climbing came on the radar for American climbers and vice versa—and Mountain made climbing look extraordinary.

Rab Carrington – founder of the Rab clothing brand – made a visit to Yosemite in 1972. He wrote sardonically about the changing culture in the valley for the Scottish Mountaineering Club Journal the following year, which Berry’s T-shirt would echo years later:

“The old-timers come back to Camp 4 on occasion and sadly shake their heads at the Olympians working out on the boulders or the rings, walking the slack chain or just doing a spot of Yoga … muttering about how glad they are not to be caught up in the turmoil of the Valley, how glad they are not to have had any form of rivalry, how glad not to have prostituted the sport with working-out and chalk, how glad to have found true happiness among the new ranges.”

Despite his high-altitude ambitions, Carrington brought the chalk habit back to the UK with him. He also climbed with loudmouth American Henry Barber, no ordinary climber, who was inspired by Mountain to make two headline-grabbing visits to the UK in the early 1970s. He dusted up many classic UK lines and partnered up with some of the most influential climbers of the day. Chalk was beginning to creep into UK climbing culture, stuffed into pockets and used surreptitiously. John Gill had demonstrated its use to British climbers as early as the 1950s, so it was a very slow creep towards mainstream use.

In the 1970s, free-climbing standards were increasing and equipment had moved on, too. Hawser-laid ropes were on their way out, with nylon kernmantle ropes, the type used today, making their first appearances. Hardware had also improved, with the first curved nuts, and 1978 would see the introduction of the active camming devices – Wild Country Friends – which revolutionised climbing protection and opened the door to more routes going free. The early 1980s would see the first sticky rubber boots and harnesses becoming more common.

Among these advances were other cultural factors. As Pat Littlejohn says: “In the late ’60s and early ’70s there was a huge drive to reduce piton use and free-climbing previously aided routes. There was some pride in the fact that not only were young climbers improving on the performances of previous generations, but that they were also ‘cleaning up’ the sport by reducing/eliminating piton use in favour of removable protection, thus leaving the rock in its natural state. Chalk use seemed to fly in the face of this.”

Clean climbing meant a lot more than avoiding chalk, although one of its main advocates, Yvon Chouinard, certainly felt chalk was cheating. He had climbed frequently with John Gill over the years, including trips to the Tetons. He had made his feelings about chalk clear to Gill, but he was polite about it and the pair were good friends.

Chouinard Equipment had started out life in 1957 making chrome-moly pitons, which had opened up the possibilities on Yosemite’s big walls. Their hard-wearing design meant they could be placed and removed multiple times, and the damage was becoming evident in the form of scarred cracks and flakes.

Routes were changing over time and the impact of climbing in this way was becoming apparent – something that was addressed in the Chouinard Equipment catalogue in 1972. “Mountains are finite, and despite their massive appearance they are fragile,” Chouinard wrote. The catalogue also contained an essay from Doug Robinson explaining the new tactics and equipment, including Chouinard’s recently released Stoppers, and encouraged climbers to think of those who follow them.

These advances in protection had many effects besides clean climbing; it was quicker and easier to find protection on routes. With dynamic ropes and reliable protection, falling off became more and more acceptable. Ironically, the piton scars often opened up cracks as free-climbing possibilities, and the clean climbing ethics that encouraged the new protection meant that climbers could push the boat out further. All of this helped to nudge climbing towards a world where Gill’s ‘controlled dynamics’ became much more than just a campground party trick—it became a mainstream free-climbing reality.

The new targets for climbers were the aid points and as standards rose, these were eliminated. The modern game of climbing as we know it today was in evolution and in hot summers on smooth Yosemite granite in particular, chalk was becoming a key tool for the new breed of free-climbers.

Means and Aims

Unusually, Chouinard’s 1972 catalogue also quoted Einstein. “A perfection of means and a confusion of aims seems to be our main problem,” Einstein had written, meaning that solutions in search of a problem were futile.

Perhaps this is how Gill’s bouldering activities could be viewed. The frame of reference for other climbers was so different that his problems were a solution to nothing. Chouinard wrote about some of Gill’s ascents and how the American Alpine Club simply wasn’t interested. It felt a little closer to home since Chouinard had also made an ascent of Satisfaction Buttress, the hardest line in the Tetons at the time, which was also considered irrelevant. ‘If it didn’t have a summit, you didn’t really do a climb,’ Chouinard wrote. ‘Gill was getting even more ridiculous and was doing things for the sake of pure climbing, going nowhere. These were absurd climbs, as far as the American Alpine Club was concerned.’

There were several arguments being contested at once: the relevance of short climbs, the visual impact, the removal of discovery for the following climbers and the conviction that chalk constituted aid. Chalk was tangled up in all of these ideas about movement and athleticism.

The Influencer

Some early chalk users were gymnasts like Gill. Some were influenced by him and some started using it independently. Pat Ament, who wrote a biography on Gill, started using it before they had met. He claimed, as late as 1967, that he never saw any other climbers using it.

The pace of development, news and ideas across the climbing world was very different at the time. Big Wall routes were still being routinely nailed, bolts were little more than hand-drilled stumps, more often than not placed on lead. Ideas about training were in their infancy and undeveloped rock was available everywhere.

Those ethical arguments which might now appear on an online forum or social media post often create a lot of noise, and then disappear. When the only avenues for those debates were the crags, campgrounds, pubs and magazines, debate moved more slowly and wasn’t accessible to everyone.

John Gill on the Ripper Traverse (Pueblo) in 1987.
John Gill on the Ripper Traverse (Pueblo) in 1987.

As a prodigious talent in the sport, Gill’s influence here can’t be understated. He might not have set out with the specific aim, but he did become an influencer of sorts. Those telltale dabs of chalk on hard problems around the country (Gill moved States and travelled frequently and had soloed 5.12 as early as 1961 and climbed V9 in 1959) meant that a growing mythology around hard moves, dynamism and strength began to emerge, and the common denominator was that white powder.

For most climbers of the time, bouldering was little more than a diversion, so they could dismiss Gill’s efforts. He met some resistance, but also climbed with many of the leading lights of the day: Royal Robbins, Walter Unsoeld and more. They might not have shared his passion for movement and minutiae, but he earned their respect for an activity that was a long way from being considered a legitimate sport. Gill was a talented athlete, but even he describes some of his antics as “juvenile”. Although they surely pointed the way to others, perhaps presenting an ego at times hurt his cause:

“I … recall an incident in the games being played at the time: The Direct Jenson Ridge on Symmetry Spire in the Tetons was considered the most challenging route in the park, having a crux pitch established by Barry Corbett. I went up and climbed the crux pitch four different ways.”

Gill climbing Blacktail Butte in the Tetons in 1959.
Gill climbing Blacktail Butte in the Tetons in 1959.

Over time, Gill moved between different universities as a mathematics professor. While at The University of Chicago, he trained with their gymnastics team and described it as a learning experience. He also started to experience a level of mastery in his gymnastics that helped him to experience flow states, which transferred to his experience on the rock. He could to perform tricks such as one-arm front levers and single finger pull-ups. He also started to experience a more spiritual connection to his climbing; after reading Carlos Castañeda’s books, he had begun to practise ‘The Art of Dreaming’ and incorporated it into his approach to the sport.

“We would drive to Devil’s Lake on weekends when the weather was suitable. One member of our group was Mihaly Robert Csikszentmihalyi, who became world renowned as an expert on the psychology of flow. I like to think our times at the Lake influenced him. I experienced this flow on wired boulder problems and the lengthier excursions on bigger rocks. One time, climbing a nearby granite pillar, I felt I was weaving in and out of the rock.”

Climbing, for Gill, was an experiment in aesthetics and movement. Chalk was simply a tool that helped him to experience these things, and his ability on the rock had become renowned.

Chalk and Change

Resistance to cultural change is common, but the acceptance of it can be equally all-encompassing. Climbers often struggle to separate personal ideas of what climbing means from what are considered to be meaningful goals within the social framework. Sometimes the changes are obvious: bolts, chalk, pitons, headpointing. At other times those changes are more insidious: the creeping change of tactics in free climbing, new techniques and equipment, or what constitutes a hard move or route. A climber’s ideas and ideals can be deeply internalised, but that’s not to say that pushbacks are a purely emotional affair. Gill may have been obsessed with his own ideas of aesthetics, but others were concerned about a different kind. They were often chasing the same thing at a deeper level.

Chalk also started to be woven into climbing literature, creating an additional mythology that aided its acceptance. “Tuolumne is a spiritual place,” wrote Alan Nelson in his 1984 essay, ‘The Path of the Master’, for the American Alpine Journal. “The blue skies, pine-scented air, and mountain splendor create a temple for all who visit. Many are the climbers who’ve been inspired on the golden granite domes that dot the region. Their prayers are recorded in white puffs of chalk, glinting bolts adrift in a sea of knobs, and the unique traditions of those who make their annual pilgrimage.”

Chalk was here to stay. Almost all of the top climbers of the day began to use it. Littlejohn left the UK for America and on his return found that most of the Clean Hand Gang had succumbed too. He realised that he might be holding himself back. In 1984, shortly after a chalk-free first ascent of Terminal Twilight at Huntsman’s Leap in Pembrokeshire, he made this position public, calling his next new route White Hotel and using chalk on the often greasy limestone.

Wojciech Jerzy Szymanowicz on Terminal Twilight.
Wojciech Jerzy Szymanowicz on Terminal Twilight.© James McHaffie
Ed Morris on White Hotel.
Ed Morris on White Hotel.© Stefan Morris

The battle over chalk, such as it was, was lost long ago. By the 1980s its use was completely normalised. David Roberts would write in his 1986 book Moments of Doubt that ‘Chalk has become so vital to the sport that entrepreneurs peddle it like marijuana at campgrounds.’ These days it may well be the first climbing-related purchase you make as a beginner. Its use is no longer controversial, in fact it’s quite the opposite. Any well-used crag will be covered. Tick marks adorn the footholds and donkey lines mark some hard-to-see handholds, and often the easy-to-see ones too.

How many climbers view chalk as an eyesore, unnecessary aid or as spoiling the onsight game these days is anyone’s guess. But climbers aren’t alone in the world, and as the sport’s popularity increases, its impact couldn’t be any more obvious than those shining white marks on the crags. It’s come to a head in some areas already—notably, it’s one of the reasons cited in the recent banning of climbing in the Grampians in Australia. Other areas shun its use, such as the Elbe Valley in Germany. There are mounting concerns that chalk’s negative impact stretches beyond the visual to the ecological, in both its extractive production process and pH disruption for rock-based vegetation.

While the battle over chalk use may be won in climbers’ own minds – and for new climbers it’s probably surprising that there even was a battle – it’s worth remembering that climbing takes place in some beautiful places, and the solipsistic existence of those who practise it occasionally causes them to justify things which, to an outside observer, are not really in anyone’s best interests: bolting that face, chalking that hold, pulling off that loose flake or cleaning that crack. 

Climbing culture has moved far beyond the boundaries of the sport in 1954. John Gill was pushing them in his own direction, with a little resistance and certainly some onlookers wondering what the hell was going on. Perhaps he was lucky he had talent; a prolific punter spreading ideas about movement and leaving chalky handprints around the place might have been remembered differently in history.

Gill may have brought a different way of thinking, and he may have converted a few others to that, but one man’s influence can only extend so far and nothing happens in a vacuum. Others had to take up the baton; they had to recognise that he was right and they had embodied those ideas of movement and training and marginal gains.

Chalk is a symbol, a delible mark of progress. A sign of what was to come, as well as who had come before. Chalk is the climber as athlete, but it was also the climber as dreamer, as romantic and full of the contradiction of being an individualist within a culture.

As Gill told Lynn Hill, “beware of the strong pull of the mainstream – go out and try something novel, something that will forcibly broaden the perspective of the climbing community. Be an individual.” 

27/1/22: The Pale Rider

Here is my essay just published on the UKClimbing website to promote A’ Chreag Dhearg.

The Pale Rider

The first route I ever climbed was on the obscure Black Crag in the Sidlaw Hills with my 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 later-to-be Captain Lee Delaney, we attended the appropriately named Craigie High. Although, unlike gang warfare and glue sniffing, climbing was not on the curriculum of the officially second-worst school in Dundee. 

In an email to me, Simon mused; ‘The three most experienced climbers I ever climbed with all died in mountaineering 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 warrior’s 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 teenage boys and entirely self-taught, which meant that we had a few near misses that horrified our parents—at least the ones they found out about when we required medical attention. One memorable early experience with Simon was attempting the route Apocalypse in Ethiebeaton Quarry, Dundee, when we were about 15 years old. This beguiling yet unclimbed groove was in a working quarry and had already been named by local Seven Arches Bridge climbing guru, Bruce Strachan.

Grant Farquhar on Apocalypse  © Simon Stewart
Grant Farquhar on Apocalypse© Simon Stewart

Apocalypse, we estimated, was 50 ft high; we had a 50 ft, 11 mm rope, so it’d be 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 price tag. Later on, I climbed my first E5s with only one Friend: a rigid-stemmed number 2.5, 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, even after I had acquired a full set of cams, as it fitted into narrow slots like two-finger pockets, where, at the time, no other camming device could.

One evening after school, I led up Apocalypse, which turned out to be a fierce, overhanging layback. I placed the Tricam and then ran it out another 20 ft to the top. Triumphantly, I began yarding on the flake that formed the right wall of the groove. With horror, and from a place seemingly outside my body, I observed the top of the flake disintegrating in slow motion 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 waistbelts 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, it would’ve been the ‘dead side’ for me. We looked at each other in shock as he lowered me the last foot to the ground. With fortitude and teenage luck, he’d held me, and it 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 we had climbed at that point. In retrospect, it might be E2; it could also be E4. We’ll never know because Apocalypse is unrepeated and no longer exists—the buttress was in a working quarry and it has since been blown up with explosives.

Graeme Ettle on Cauldron Crack (HVS 5a), Glen Clova  © Simon Stewart
Graeme Ettle on Cauldron Crack (HVS 5a), Glen Clova© Simon Stewart

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 material for route names, such as 999 (the UK emergency number) and DRI (the now-defunct Dundee Royal Infirmary). I pity my poor mother suffering her teenage son’s ‘hillwalking’ exploits.

Unlike us, the Vikings didn’t fear death, and indeed, 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 and feast forever. The Bushido code of the samurai warriors is comparable, and a bastardised version of this was a driving factor behind the self-destructive actions of the kamikaze pilots of the Second World War. This philosophy was not usually shared by the pilots themselves, who were ‘volunteered’ on pain of death. Those poor bastards were mostly virgin teenagers. What a destiny. 

These are extreme yet enduring examples of the warrior’s death. Do climbers share the attributes of the Viking, the samurai, the kamikaze? Do we drop our guard as we age, somehow desirous of the glorious death of the warrior, rather than fading away with dementia and incontinence?

Graeme Ettle on West Side Story (E2)  © Bruce Strachan
Graeme Ettle on West Side Story (E2)© Bruce Strachan

‘He died doing what he (or she) loved,’ said no one, ever, about anyone who died of dementia. Yet this statement is a common source of comfort following the premature bereavement of a loved son, brother, sister or parent who has been lost to 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. 

Unfortunately, they couldn’t because they were busy attending their own funeral. They knew the risks and did it anyway. Of course, their lives should be celebrated. But, the pain is felt by those left behind and who have to deal with survivor guilt and the endless what-ifs of the bargaining phase of grief. All of 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, unconvinced mother. I probably plucked this statistic 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 rock climbing? 

A useful concept—which was not simply plucked out of his ass—is Stanford University Professor Ronald Howard’s ‘micromort’: a measurement of risk based on a one-in-a-million chance of death. One commonly cited example of such odds is tossing a coin and landing heads 20 times in a row (1/2 to the power of 20 = 1/1,048,576). Based upon 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 and Wales’s combined population of 59 million. This annual death rate is 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. 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 show that the risk of death for scuba diving is five micromorts per scuba dive, skydiving is 10 micromorts per jump (which is the same as a general anaesthetic), and base jumping is a whopping 430 per jump (which is three times the risk of dying while giving birth in the UK). Rock climbing data suggests a more pedestrian micromort of only three 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 one in 300 million or 0.003 micromorts for each road crossing, and five micromorts per year. This data clearly confirms that my 16-year-old self was indeed talking out of his arse when he claimed 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.


I was standing at the west side of the Perth Road/Kingsway junction, which I had spent two hours walking to so I could hitchhike to Dunkeld. Thumb out, a few cars, including my English teacher from the second-worst school in Dundee, sped by without stopping (the English teacher later claimed I wasn’t standing in a good spot). Eventually, a lorry stopped, and after another lengthy walk from the south side of Perth to the Dunkeld road, I hitched another lift to the A9 exit for Dunkeld. Some time later, I arrived at the crag: Craig a’ Barns. I was the archetypal stupid, teenage climbing boy, and after the 6:00 am start and prolonged approach I was determined, I recall, to do ‘something dangerous’. Uh oh.

Never mind the climbing, getting picked up by dodgy lorry drivers was probably the biggest danger a teenage boy could run into those days. Thankfully, I only had to bail on those a couple of times in my hitchhiking career. That day, I arrived unscathed at the base of Polney Crag and soloed a few of the VS and HVS staples, but it seemed my friends were on the upper tier, so I scrambled over and found them on Left Hand Crack, an E1 I’d already done. Borrowing a guidebook, I found a route called Left Hand Edge, purportedly the left arête of Left Hand Crack at HVS 4c. Piece of piss, I thought, and set off up the arête.

Grant Farquhar on The Whoremistress (E4)  © Graeme Ettle
Grant Farquhar on The Whoremistress (E4)© Graeme Ettle

It turns out that my idea of where that route went was incorrect, and after about 30 ft of soloing, I ran into trouble. My memory has it that I pulled two handholds off at the same time, which seems unlikely. Next instant, I was shouting, ‘Fuck!’ and flying through the air down the route, over the path and down the gully below for about 100 ft before I finally bounced to a stop. Sorry, Mum.

Sigmund Freud postulated in Beyond the Pleasure Principle that in contrast to the sex drive, which he called the ‘libido’, humans also have a ‘death drive’, known in German as ‘todestrieb’. Later disciples of Freud associated this with Thanatos, the Greek god of death, who is often invoked when humans engage in risky and potentially self-destructive acts, such as climbing and other ‘extreme’ sports. 

Thrill-seeking and aggression are viewed as actions that stem from this ‘death drive’. However, there are other more prosaic explanations: immediate pleasure outweighs long term pain, the increase in status and reproductive success outweigh the risk of injury or death, and humans are notoriously bad at assessing risk.

Grant Farquhar on Time's Arrow (E6), Glen Clova  © Grant Farquhar Collection
Grant Farquhar on Time’s Arrow (E6), Glen Clova© Grant Farquhar Collection

Getting back to Simon’s question, are climbing deaths more common in older climbers? 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: no. You want the phlegmatic, grey-haired pilot driving your jumbo jet, not the smart-arsed testosterone-fuelled teenager. I couldn’t find any climbing data on this subject, but data from equestrian sports shows that experience in that field is inversely correlated with the risk of serious injury. 

Mind you, as I’m writing this, at the age of 53, I’m on crutches with a broken calcaneum (heel bone) after decking out into shallow water while attempting a new deepwater solo route in Bermuda. Despite that inconvenient truth, I don’t think there is an increased risk of seeking the warrior’s death as you age. You’re more likely to die rock climbing when you’re young and stupid with poor judgement rather than when you’re older and, hopefully, wiser. But like Russian Roulette, if you repeatedly expose yourself to objective danger, one day the odds might catch up with you. 

But you’re going to die anyway, so you might as well live well before then and go climbing.

This essay is taken  from A’ Chreag Dhearg which was recently published by the Scottish Mountaineering Press.

Compiled and co-authored by veteran climber Grant Farquhar with contributions from a range of voices within Scotland’s close-knit climbing community, A’ Chreag Dhearg traces the rich climbing history of the Angus Glens.

Product NewsA’ Chreag Dhearg – Climbing Stories of the Angus Glens

Read more 

Although less frequented than the forbidding ramparts of Glencoe or Skye, the crags and gullies in this unique area of the Cairngorms harbour classic summer and winter lines that have attracted some of Scotland’s most respected climbers over the course of a century. In this engaging collection of vignettes and photographs, the origins of many of the glens’ best-loved routes are described in intimate detail in an entertaining style that will appeal to both local climbers and those seeking new venues to explore. The authors have woven the distinctive dialect and humour of this corner of Scotland into the narrative, imbuing it with a quality that is, by turns, both edgy and wistful.

Despite the deceptively narrow scope of this story, the breadth with which it is considered here captures the way that climbing has developed in Scotland over time, and how this history is often exceptionally localised. A’ Chreag Dhearg is both a tribute to Victorian pioneers and latter-day trailblazers and a poignant reflection on formative, youthful endeavours.

The book can be purchased from the SMP website.

15/1/22: Pretty much any piece of rock will do

This is a great interview of Gerry Lopez by Alexander Haro that was published on The Inertia website. For me the key quote is this: ‘The longer you surf, the more you begin to appreciate that pretty much any wave will do. It’s not so much the actual ride as it just being there.’

It’s the same in climbing, pretty much any piece of rock will do. Just like you can have a 5* day while out in 1* surf you can have life changing experiences on crappy bits of rock and I’m talking about positive experiences rather than life altering accidents although they happen too. This is particularly applicable to places like Bermuda where a lot of the cliffs are small with less than perfect rock but, crucially, they are highly accessible and are situated in a stunning natural environment. I’m not sure if there is a word for that place on the waterline of a cliff where the rock meets the sea but it is a special place to be. Anyway here is the interview:

“I like men who have known the best and the worst, whose life has been anything but a smooth trip. Storms have battered them, they have lain, sometimes for months on end, becalmed. There is a residue even if they fail. It has not been all tinkling; there have been grand chords.” – James Salter, Burning the Days


Gerry Lopez by Art Brewer.

Gerry Lopez speaks very slowly.  You can tell that he smiles through his words. Each is measured carefully before spilling out. He pauses mid-sentence often, and, in the course of a 45-minute conversation, I interrupt him a few times, thinking that he is done speaking. He isn’t. He is merely thinking about his words before he speaks, something that, surprisingly, is very rare. And although his words are slow, the content of them is not. His words have a presence – a quiet confidence bolstered by the fact that he knows exactly what makes him happy, and he has spent his life living the way he wants to.

His influence on surfing is almost beyond comparison. One of the first to master the Banzai Pipeline, Lopez’s style and casual approach to one of the most dangerous waves on earth struck a chord, and continues to do so today. Years spent searching for – and finding–  perfect waves opened up the public’s eyes to whole new horizons. And yet, through all of it, his easy smile and quiet cadence remained the same.

He is quick to impart the knowledge he’s gained on the road he’s traveled, but quicker to explain that there is more than one road for each of us. Here is some of the wisdom from his road.


Jeez, in the early ‘60s, the Pipeline had already killed a surfer from Peru, so there was this specter about it. But, you know, a good wave is a good wave. If you had the chance and the space that we had back then, then you got to enjoy it. I had a long affair with the Pipeline. Twenty-five Pipe Masters events. I got to surf against guys that hadn’t even been born when I surfed in my first one. It was a spot that, I guess, I was intimidated with at first, but I got to know it, and eventually became pretty comfortable there.

In the ’80s, if it hadn’t happened in the last two years, none of the surfers knew, or even cared, that it had happened. Now there’s been a trend, as time’s gone on, for a lot more interest. Guys want to know what it used to be like and who used to be there. I’m surprised that I’m more well-known now than I was in the ‘80s. My surfing was kind over then, you know?

I’ve been married for thirty years. The key to a happy family is respect and appreciation for everything that they do. Life is all about relationships with people, and when you choose someone to spend your life with – if you really choose to do it – then you’re going to make it work. A lot of people, like in everything, don’t put the time or focus into making that happen. It’s a mutual thing. It’s a team.

I surf as much as I can, but not as much as I used to. The longer you surf, the more you begin to appreciate that pretty much any wave will do. It’s not so much the actual ride as it just being there – just being able to get out there and go through the whole experience. If the waves aren’t that good, it’s still good fun. I still enjoy it as much as I ever did.

I don’t think surfing’s ever boring. I’ve gone through different phases in my life, like when windsurfing came along. I mean, there was a while there where I didn’t even throw the surfboard in the car. I’d just throw the windsurf stuff in and go windsurfing all day. That gradually faded, and I’d start surfing more. With snowboarding, it was kind of the same thing. When we first moved over here to Oregon, I thought, “Man, this is better than surfing. There aren’t any crowds and the bottom turns are endless.” Eventually, the surf thing works its way back into my consciousness, and I realize that surfing is, always has been, and probably always will be, the foundation of who I am. It always comes back and reasserts itself.

The first twenty years of surfing was just a test to see if I was really interested. Then the wisdom of all the lessons that I was learning started to reveal themselves. Surfing is one of the best metaphors for life. Out in the surf, everything’s moving; everything’s happening. It never holds still, and life’s the same way. It doesn’t hold still for you, either. If you don’t move with it, life, just like the wave, will pass you right by. You have to be paying attention; you have to be spontaneous; you have to be able to go with the flow. If you can’t… I don’t know, maybe you better find something a little more static.

Everybody was a hippie. There was a lot of pot being smoked. There were guys that were making money by selling drugs. That’s because there wasn’t a surfing industry, really. I had an epiphany one day when I went to the beach, and the surf was really good. The only guys out were us – a bunch of kids – and a bunch of old guys. The best guys weren’t there, because they were all working. I didn’t want to be like that. I didn’t want to miss all the waves. I figured if I got a job in the surfing industry, I could surf when the waves were good, but the surfing industry was basically just a few guys who were making surfboards in California. A bunch of guys like me could go and strip down an old surfboard, reshape it, glass it up, and sell it to somebody. So we kind of had jobs, at least a little bit. But there were more and more people that were getting interested in surfing, and they had to get creative about how they wouldn’t have to work a regular nine-to-five job. Most of the jobs like that at the time were illegal.

As far as surf companies being founded on drugs – I don’t think that’s true. There are always two sides to every story. Depending on who you’re talking to and which side of the story they’re telling, they could sound like two totally different stories. I think that any company is founded on guys with vision and hard work, being lucky, and being in the right place at the right time. There are always circumstances that surround what happened, but the interpretation of it, depending on who’s doing the telling, can sound like two totally different stories. I guess, you know, the real truth is probably somewhere in the middle.

I guess if you’re alive, that’s a pretty great thing.

I got to work on Big Wednesday in the late ’70s. That was the first time anyone from the ’70s generation got to really see Hollywood. It was kind of a good thing. It was better than when Gidget came to beach in the ‘60s. That was totally bogus. You know, even though at the time Big Wednesday was kind of rejected by surfers, anyone who looks at it now thinks, “Oh man, that’s pretty authentic.” In a way, that’s kind of how it happened. That was best and most authentic try that Hollywood made at surfing. Everybody thinks surfing is the coolest thing in the world. In some respects it is, and in other respects… well, it’s not.

Gary Busey is fabulous. The funniest guy in the world. Every once in a while, he’ll call up and leave a message. I wish I kept them all, because they’re hilarious. It’s a tough existence. Being a professional surfer is hard, but being a professional actor is even harder.

12 Jan 22: A’ Chreag Dhearg

My new book is now available from the Scottish Mountaineering Press.

A’ Chreag Dhearg

Compiled by Grant Farquhar

‘Like a wreck that once held high office, the fine corner of Monster Crack suffers from a lack of grander context. If it were set like the Hoodie Groove amidst Carn Dearg Buttress, fame would be assured. But tucked in a shady recess of Lower North-West crag in Glen Clova, it is a connoisseur’s pitch. Bridging, stemming or laybacking with good technique or bad it is possible to imagine, just for a few moves, that you are poised in one of the great corners of Britain’s crags, with the walls of the Cromlech stretching out on either side, or the sweep of Shelter Stone Crag falling away ten pitches below. Refocusing with a shake of the head and a sigh, you wipe damp mud off your fingertips, wiggle some loose flakes and continue.’

Compiled and co-authored by veteran climber Grant Farquhar with contributions from a range of voices within Scotland’s close-knit climbing community, A’ Chreag Dhearg traces the rich climbing history of the Angus Glens.

Although less frequented than the forbidding ramparts of Glencoe or Skye, the crags and gullies in this unique area of the Cairngorms harbour classic summer and winter lines that have attracted some of Scotland’s most respected climbers over the course of a century. In this engaging collection of vignettes and photographs, the origins of many of the glens’ best-loved routes are described in intimate detail in an entertaining style that will appeal to both local climbers and those seeking new venues to explore. The authors have woven the distinctive dialect and humour of this corner of Scotland into the narrative, imbuing it with a quality that is, by turns, both edgy and wistful.

Despite the deceptively narrow scope of this story, the breadth with which it is considered here captures the way that climbing has developed in Scotland over time, and how this history is often exceptionally localised. A’ Chreag Dhearg is both a tribute to Victorian pioneers and latter-day trailblazers and a poignant reflection on formative, youthful endeavours.

About the author

Grant Farquhar was born in Dundee and began his climbing career in Glen Clova. At the time of publication, he is a Bermuda-based psychiatrist who sees clients both in person and remotely via Psychiatry-UK. He offers climbing therapy via deep water soloing in Bermuda and has previously published three books about climbing. You can read his blog at and contact him at

11 Jan 22: Not so random fucks

Here is an excellent piece by John Redhead that was recently published on Footless Crow in which he touches on the religious aspect to climbing. In the 21st century God is dead at an intellectual level but humans retain a fundamental need for transcendence that science cannot provide. However climbing can meet this need; the cliffs are our temples, portals to other domains. Every climb is a ritual journey from the profane to the sacred that occurs mentally on a different plane from simply moving over the rock. The druids were onto something when they worshipped stones.

Give us this day

I woke up the other morning and found my teeth chattering. I wasn’t cold, far from it, still warmly embraced in half-sleep. Mornings are not my thing and it can take a morning to realise I am not dead. The chattering was just a nervous impulse. I tried to control it, and of course I could by closing my mouth. But something intrigued me and I concentrated on the tapping. It seemed significant, like messages sent by Morse code. Perhaps my organs could decipher the language innately and let the message roll as I rolled into the day with thoughts of what made me…and for sure what made the universe also made me…and the day is in!

Seems obvious that we humans are out of control and a little mixed up. And yet everything we really need is arranged before us as if we are dreaming and wishing in a fantasy world. We are totally dependent and supported by the air and water provided, the earth’s soil and the distant sun for food and survival. Somehow, by chance, it all worked for us. As wriggling creatures wrapped warm in the female womb after sperm and egg have done their juicy bit, we all wrestle in self-importance, in the culture we create, oblivious within the elements of nature that brought us here. And for that we don’t have a clue. And for sure, this life before us, we didn’t ask for it. We have not chosen the direct bus to human central. We cannot. It is an unknown timetable and destination. As we have zero control over that which our basic premise began, we sure as hell gonna demand attention for the lifeform wriggling before us, that is us, in the stories we tell and enact. From the sacred roots of myths of the planet and the pushing and pulling of faith, legend and folklore, some explanation of birthright and essence is sought and needed. But, as essential as the earth, the galaxy, the universe and multiple universes are to this ‘human central’, abandonment to other stories have been fixated and dwelled upon. Sometimes when I dwell on this randomness, the way we appear to be, the multitude of stories that attempt to fix a belonging, a genesis, a rationale, the fairy tales, a moments succour to that awesome void called creation… I glimpse why I entered climbing the way I did. The culture that we order and enter and rule and the nature in our bones are thus separated and defined? It wasn’t the heroes or guidebooks that drew me into movement on rock…perhaps only Crowley throwing himself at K2 was remotely interesting!

From the third eye perspective with its resident objective view, a bizarre world emerges. As climbers, we can argue the ethics of working a line and discuss the grade of a route, say, The Indian Face on Cloggy. And for the sake of this story, we can argue and discuss the sacramental validity to the making of ‘altar bread’ for what is called ‘Mass’. Both seem utterly ridiculous from this third eye, although a progression from climbing trees and seeking a vantage point seem more natural than ‘drinking’ the blood and ‘eating’ the flesh of a cult hero…? Or is it?

Eaters of their hero need assurances that this bread is prepared properly, as regards to the symbolism of Christ’s sacrificial death on the cross, its ‘valid matter’, the bread, being the body of the victim and ‘correct form’ and the liturgical text being required. Now, sit back in the company of everyone, and I mean everyone who cannot say who they are, and tell me the joke…?

I took a near ground fall, climbing to my own naive parameters on Tormented Ejaculation, and others, more motivated than I, who practiced, fiddled gear and top-roped this piece of rock. Sit back in the company of everyone, and I mean everyone who cannot say who they are, and tell me the joke…? Likewise, we discuss the ‘valid matter’ and correct form in the terminology of ascent as if biblical. We need the assurances to prove the story. If this valid matter and explanation do not meet these assurances, does it really count in the game?

Wheat bread with gluten is judged to be the valid matter for the catholics. These flat discs of wheat are known as ‘hosts’ and ‘hostia’ is Latin for victim. Victimhood and bread are synonymous ingredients of this weird cult of idols. The perfect duo for a perfect chronic poison. That bread is a powerful drug leading to repetitive cycles of cravings for more bread has consequences for how we view the world.

‘Give us this day our daily bread…’. No one can worship God on an empty stomach, it seems to say. Or, more likely, keep eating this shit and collude passively to the scam…

Descartes called the pineal gland the ‘principal seat of the soul’, the master-gland. Tucked into a groove near the centre of the brain, this organ, the size of a grain of rice has a massive blood flow, has become known as the ‘third eye’. It has been proven that this organ of alternative vision and spirit cannot function correctly when the body is fed wheat bread on a daily basis. Perhaps this is why the Pope insists that bread is the sacramental ‘valid matter’ that in reality clogs up our ‘true’, alternative sense of perception?

As I refer to Cloggy for climbing’s ‘valid matter’, I quote a leading exponent and friend indicating that for him this rock is an idol…

For me the Indian Face came as the final realisation of a dream held solid and perfect some years ago. A purity of expression that was able to be so personal that it could transcend the obvious cosmic futility of life; friendship and activity are some compensation for a deep seated hopelessness, but only climbing appeared to have a germ of profound depth in all its excited little plays of life and death. Cloggy’s east buttress was the idol. So the beauty of the Indian Face lies not in enjoyment or achievement, but in the rejoicing of the exorcism of a self-made destructive cage…’. Johnny Dawes.

For me, Cloggy is more like a cauldron where you gather around the rich brew and feel the heat in your belly. I have my own account of this Face, written for ‘…and one for the crow’.

Dave was insisting that we climb. Climb and become fit for only one line. There are no routes I want to do. I cannot climb. The line seems not to be a climb? Why paint pictures for the sake of? Did the ancient hunters kill for its own sake? But what about preparing for the work? The ‘work’ seems to already exist. Sketched beyond me. Pre-empting training. Mileage is not training for this type of operation’.

Of course we differ and the concept of ‘futility of life’ is a difficult and sensitive one. I think Johnny’s comments are interesting and brave, coming as they did in the soul searching introspective-melee for his book, ‘Full of Myself’. In being honest in his cry for help, and the cathartic potential that climbing offers, he has transcended ‘himself’, to become ‘full’ in the searching that others also do. He was not alone in this dream, just more talented, visionary and driven. ‘Give us this day our daily climb’ could have been his mantra…and is the valid matter that makes climbing a sport…and for me its greatest difficulty, and bete noire. If climbing is seen as a prop can you metaphorically ever walk again? If climbing is a medicine you better watch the dose… or become ‘full of others’.

I would rather be gnashing my teeth on the sidelines, faithless and Godless and in grave doubt than be a convert to some religion, some system, to some brethren where every question can be answered and every answer brings a warm and cosy, complacent, self-satisfied smile’. ‘…and one for the crow’.

It is my opinion that if climbing can be construed as a medicine or indeed a religion then keeping a distance, keeping the joke, keeping its ‘hosts’ at arms length, staying almost hidden behind the life-affirming and/or crippling addiction, behind the conquests, makes sure that this perfect chronic poison doesn’t speak of conversion, or instil into more potent aspects of human activity.

And of course the third eye often fails and after forty years since moving through Cloggy’s mystic rituals, the joke wears thin. It is as if one lives as if already dead, indifferent to the moves of success or failure. But what connects Johnny to myself are those moments when the playful-self, the ego, the group persona, the character were naturally eliminated in the unconscious, effortless, almost entranced connection to the rock as if another being were doing the moves. Perhaps this is what is called ‘satori’? What you choose to do with it, or how long it takes to register, depends on how you relate to the language of the joke…?

My ‘principal seat of the soul’, when not acting ‘sticky’ and silly in a yeasty sketch after scoffing two croissants and a pain aux chocolat, can often see that climbing and indeed all sport can be a unique attempt to ease and relieve suffering, ominously sanctioned in the manner, the vital matter of religion and belief. Hilariously, when the wheat has been totally binned from my diet and the ‘penny drops’ and the pineal ‘blings’ into action, the mystical verbiage becomes more intense and the artist overdoses as if suddenly being free. Here, my perception feels that the training for achievement further inflicts the core values of a redemptive belief in suffering as a destructive and addictive tool – for self and for self it is.

From here I can only assume that the commercial rise of ‘sport’ has greatly increased what I see as the casualty rate of the human soul…but life goes on and despair becomes brave and for the artist who tweeks the ‘moving parts’, sensing this anomaly becomes manifest. They go to ground.

But who can say? Crisis, despair and alienation seem to be major players in the quest to excel and be creative. The outsider role of the artist fills this space. It is this ‘excel’ business what inspires folk to do more and more, which strangely provokes me to do less and less. I took my experiences and worked them through in the studio to my own restless need to create some ‘other’, some rationale, from the chaos. For chaos it is. Art comes from alienation.

For the catholics, a munch of their ‘host’ is quite honestly born from chaos – that God is a sham and we are throwing dice as a desperate act to reason. For a climber, the use of chalk and top-roping is quite honestly born from the same chaos – and that its goals and achievements are inadequate. For an artist to immerse in the ‘inadequate form of existence’, in shams and destructive elements is quite honestly also born from chaos. That the Anthropocene is upon us is effortlessly portrayed, the human impact irreversible.

The difficulty of the wall is not physical but emotional and so the ‘voyage’ remains substantially intact though to have frayed edges on something so beautiful is perhaps to have not so much…’ letter from Johnny.

The shape of my paintings, the connecting of forms, present an atavism as inherent as the shapes, buttresses, slabs and walls that constitute Clogwyn Du’r Arddu. Its black bulk floats through pools, amassed for the soul’s release…I cannot climb…too many hours in the field…too many negotiations…I need to paint’. ‘…and one for the crow’.

I can’t say I wasn’t attracted to the ‘gibbet’ side of climbing, cos that’s the interesting bit, the trigger point that says something more than the moves and moves onto something else. But the bigger part of me knows the flaw. Joining bits of rock into movement can be fluid and beautiful, and Johnny was a devotee and master, and with training and time the language develops grows into an art. And here we are, a person playing with a ball or a person behind the wheel of a racing car can develop the same process. When your health depends on the chosen activity, you are sure as hell to take it seriously…to succeed at the game even though we are defined by a total lack of belonging. When death features as a construct in the game, it is little more than denial of a death already taken place. 

My particular grain of rice is the bastard, dwarf organ that tells me of the futility. I call it the Gnostic chip. It converts ‘normal’ into the ridiculous. But don’t get me wrong, this is also the joy and hope we obviously so desperately need. As ridiculous as eating victim bread to symbolically devour the flesh of one who has apparently suffered to save mankind, to continue the suffering and persecute and kill for the sake of, progressing to ultimate species annihilation. So when I have stated in the past that E9 6c, the given grade of Indian Face and its valid matter, is being enacted out on the streets every night in Liverpool, believe me, it is the knowing, groaning of the possessed, the savage spin-off…We are such random fucks.

John Redhead. Lous Maners, Costoja. February 2020.

29/12/21: Merry Yule

Here is an excellent essay by Will Gadd published on Mountain Life Media about risk in climbing.

Risking It All: Are the Mountains Worth Dying For?

One of the Rockies’ best-known adventurers riffs on life and death in the mountains. Words :: Will Gadd.

We go into the mountains to find meaning. Deep, all-absorbing meaning, the kind where you don’t think about anything but the here and now, and the world makes sense in a way it doesn’t in normal life. The mountain air is a ZEISS lens for what often seems like an out-of-focus, out-of-sense existence. That clarity is gorgeous. Some call the mountains their temple, the divine in rock, snow and ice. Up high the light is brighter, skies bluer, emotions and friendships stronger. 


Then someone dies, and in the cold, sterile, fluorescent light of the aftermath we look into the void and have a different problem: the lack of meaning. Why did they die, and what does it mean? Why did I live, and they died? What does death mean? Was that climb worth it? Of course not. Each death is a tragedy. But is it a tragedy when it’s a reasonably expected outcome of going to dangerous places? And if it is a reasonably expected outcome, that must mean it will happen again. And, most of us at the trailhead aren’t comfortable with that and don’t want to believe it will happen to us, so we call each new death an anomalous “tragedy” and move on, comforted by the belief it probably won’t happen to us. 

Hope is not a plausible risk-management strategy. To admit life hinges on hope is to admit we don’t control the outcome. And that reality won’t do in our, risk-managed, twenty-first-century minds; we like to think we’re behind the wheel. In Europe, the Himalaya, South America, Asia, death is expected both in life and in the mountains—shit sometimes just happens. People don’t seem to have the same North American belief that we control our own destinies.

Every year dozens die in avalanches, but when someone close to us dies in a slide it’s a “freak accident.” If it’s possible to die either through human error or galactic happenstance at any given time, it means we are out of control, and that notion is unacceptable to the modern mind. But they are all freak accidents. And it is a tragedy to those left behind, especially the kids, whether the person was “doing what they loved” or not.  

Every year dozens die in avalanches, but when someone close to us dies in a slide it’s a “freak accident.”  

The instant and final razor of death doesn’t split mountain odds neatly into the heads and tails of a spinning coin. A beating, warm pulse and cold, flat skin cooling with every minute of CPR were both always there, the same odds, spinning in the air. Are you a Buddhist or a Christian or an atheist or an agnostic? Reincarnation, heaven, nothing, no idea, respectively. You’ll get your answers on death when you die. What is clear to me is those who believe humans are fallible and the divine is infallible deal more gracefully with death. They have a ready-made explanation for it. Yet, most mountain people are atheists, experientialists, and don’t have a plan for being “taken too soon.” I’m not saying turn to God, but if you believe, then belief might make random seem organized, and “everything happens for a reason,” a comfort. 

I don’t have that comfort, but I envy those who do. I think shit happens. I’ve seen so many wrecks and smart people die I don’t believe I’m superior. That means I can die out there too. And that is a very cold and pointy truth to hold in a warm, soft mind. Hello, dissonance, my old friend.

Why this matters, beyond perhaps encouraging examination of our high-risk mountain pursuits, is that how we treat mountain death depends on our perspective on all of the above. I don’t think many of us are truly honest about our relationship with, or closeness to, death in the mountains. Me, I’m with Reinhold Messner, who doesn’t get the credit he deserves for saying: “Mountains are not fair or unfair, they are just dangerous.” 

Mountains are chaos. Messner, who lost his brother and multiple partners to the mountains, is right—they are just dangerous. I try to find the calm places where death’s razor can’t reach me while I race across the halls of the mountain kings. I dance between safe spots in the mountains and find meaning in moving well amongst the ambiguity. I welcome it all: bluer skiers, crisper air, a fuller heart, a stronger bond with my friends, family, and friends that become family. My kids are better outside. Trail rage isn’t a thing.


Fragile specks blowing in the wind shouldn’t expect fair or unfair in chaos. Humans resist anarchy. Religion and politics are both a quest for order. Tame the untameable. Buy insurance. Wear your seatbelt. Vote. Invest. Control. 

Before heading out, when I check the weather forecast on my screen at home, I see a list of 25 dead friends hanging on the wall next to my computer. Not one died in a car wreck. They died in the mountains. But here I am, bag packed, again. Poetic skies and relationships are one thing. Is this lifestyle… are these moments worth losing it all? Is everything enough to counterbalance nothing? 

Is it danger that provides meaning for us mountain folk? We could play Russian roulette if all we wanted was adrenaline. No, for me it’s facing and avoiding the danger, seeing it for what it is, and dancing for all I’m worth in the most intense places in the world. Now that is meaning, and that’s what it fucking means to be alive. For me. It also means I may die, no, will die, either in the mountains or not. No one gets out alive. I’m not okay with that, and that’s where I find my meaning, the spaces where I can live while death sits over there sharpening its razor with the click of rockfall, the buzz of lightning and the silent accumulation of plaque in my veins. 

But that’s me. What’s your answer?  

17/11/21: Time to sheet your pants

With a northerly wind and low humidity today conditions were perfect at the Great Head. Dreas and I climbed a route that I have been meaning to do for ages which gives a three-pitch expedition that feels much harder than 5.10a, although there are no hard moves anywhere. It has a great line, mostly good rock, big holds and wild exposure; it climbs through territory usually reserved for 5.12s and must be one of the best 5.10s I’ve climbed in Bermuda – Bermuda’s equivalent of A Dream of White Horses.


Don your brown trousers for this superb spacewalking expedition. There is no hard climbing but it is a traversing route that is run out in places and you will fall into space if you come off. 1. 15m 5.10a R. Follow Johnny Rotten to belay on the large ledge at half height (The Roost). 2. 20m 5.10a R. Traverse rightwards under The Roots Wall (as for Roots Manuva) clipping threads and bolts to belay on the ledge on Roots Controller on the lip of the cave. 3. 35m 5.10a R. Climb up and right as for Roots Manuva to join the final pitch of Three Sheets to the Wind and reverse this all the way to the large ledge with a two-bolt belay. 4. 5m. Scramble up and right to finish. Grant Farquhar and Dreas Ratteray 17/11/21.

15/10/21: From Glen Clova to Bermuda

I did a ZOOM talk yesterday for the NEMT to promote my forthcoming book A’ Chreag Dhearg. You can watch it here:

7 Oct 21: Nanga Parbat Pilgrimage

Nanga Parbat from the Karakoram Highway. Photo Grant Farquhar.

There is a lot of stuff on the internet at the moment about Tom Ballard who died on Nanga Parbat in winter in 2019 aged just 30 years. This has mainly been generated by the recent film The Last Mountain which documents his story. There is also an earlier film, Tom, about his winter solos of the six north faces which gives some insight into his outstanding climbing abilities. I had thought that some of his achievements such as the solo first ascents on the Eiger were too good to be true but this film dispels any such doubts. He resembles a climbing Spartan warrior. Regions of the Heart by David Rose and Ed Douglas is a very well written biography of his mother, Alison Hargreaves. Finally there is this thread on which discusses some of the controversies that have been generated and mainly revolve around Tom’s father, Jim Ballard. The films and the book are well worth looking at and they raise some uncomfortable questions about the forces that drove him – ultimately to his death.

22/9/21: Redemption Song


Stop upsetting people and redeem yourself on the right-hand finish to The Upsetter. Follow The Upsetter to gain Bonsai Pipeline. Continue up The Upsetter to the crux move off a crimp to a good hold up and right. Match this and head up and right to join and finish up Verdigris. Grant Farquhar 22 Sep 2021.

15/9/21: The Upsetter

This route fills the last remaining gap on the wall. First go my left hand pinged off the crux crimp depositing me in the drink but next go I made sure to chalk up for that move and it went down. On another note two climbers died deep water soloing in Mallorca yesterday. No further details as yet however something catastrophic must have happened to them.

THE UPSETTER 5.11d 11m

Now it will be tough
For you it will be rough
I promise you the right and the left
And there’ll be the uppercut
I am the avenger
This is the upsetter  

The Upsetter. Lee Scratch Perry   

The direct on Pidgin Politics is the last major up route to be climbed on the wall. Start along Death by Bongo Bongo and then follow Fungus Rock to join Bonsai Pipeline at the good pockets. Continue directly above to join Pidgin Politics at the final moves. Grant Farquhar 15 Sep 2021. RIP Lee Scratch Perry (1936-2021)

28/6/21: Romantic Pottery

26/6/21: Bad News

Unfortunately, according to today’s Royal Gazette, the natural beauty of John Smith’s Bay is threatened by a proposal that would also completely destroy the climbing area. I’ve read the, limited, information on the Dept of Planning website and the reason given is for prevention of erosion. Ironically this is one of the most stable cliffs in Bermuda. I have been climbing there for 20 years and it has not changed in the slightest – no bits of rock have fallen off it. So if there has been no erosion at this spot whatsoever for the past 20 years, why the concern now?

There are very few good bouldering spots in Bermuda and this is one of the best and certainly the most easily accessible. Beach bouldering is an uncommon and sought after type of climbing and one of the major attractions of Bermuda climbing which brings in a regular stream of climbing tourists every year from the US and elsewhere. Destroying this venue would be a disaster for the natural beauty of Bermuda and also Bermudian climbing.

It’s difficult to see the point of this proposal:

  • There has been no erosion for at least 20 years.
  • No bits of rock have fallen off and landed on anyone, so there is no significant safety issue for the public.
  • Artificial Longtail nests surely would be better sited on any of the many remote sections of coastline rather than on a busy public beach.
  • There would be massive and irreversible impact on the natural environment.
  • It’s going to defile the natural beauty of that part of the beach which, by the way, is unique – no other public beach has flowstone caves like these.
  • It’s a waste of public funds which could be better spent elsewhere.
  • It will destroy one of the most popular and accessible climbing areas in Bermuda.

Here is the RG article:

‘Environmental groups have balked at a plan to fill in a cave at John Smith’s Bay as part of a coastal protection effort.

But Government has defended the project, arguing that it will reduce potentially hazardous erosion.

According to the application, submitted earlier this year, loose sand and debris would be removed from the “severely undercut” areas.

The caves would then be filled in with concrete backfill with “shotcrete” used on the outside to give the new rock face a natural appearance.

The project would also include the installation of at least seven longtail nests in the new rock face 8ft above the high water line.

The Bermuda Audubon Society filed an objection to the plan yesterday questioning the need for the project.

Janice Hetzel for the BAS wrote: “The application does not provide any indication as to why this project is necessary.

“The caves that they intend to fill are an interesting and iconic feature of the John Smith’s Bay park and part of Bermuda’s natural heritage.

“They are the only areas on the beach that offer shade and beach goers often enjoy setting up in those locations. It is also a popular spot for our rock climbing community.”

Ms Hetzel questioned if any studies had been done on the state of erosion on the beach or the safety of the caves as no such studies were included in the application.

She also said the application did not include an environmental survey or an impact assessment.

“If public safety is the issue, then a simple and cost effective solution would be to rope off the area and post appropriate warning signage. This could be done in a way that is sensitive to the natural appearance of the area.

“If in fact structural protection is necessary, then creative measures need to be considered that provide the required stabilisation with the least impact on the visual beauty and environmental features of the area,” said Ms Hetzel.

The Bermuda National Trust said that an environmental impact assessment was needed in a letter of objection yesterday.

Myles Darrell, conservation officer with the BNT, said: “All applications for work on the coastline and coastal reserve are required to include an EIA.

“This property is particularly sensitive considering its proximity to the coast and our understanding of the future effects of climate change.

“Ultimately, we want to be sure that decisions are appropriately informed so as to avoid the need for mitigation of potential adverse effects associated with this development.”

Mr Darrell said the rock face was “iconic” and that the proposal would threaten a popular spot for recreational bouldering – a form of free climbing.

He said the application should be rejected until further investigations can be carried out.

“It is reckless to place a valuable coastal area at risk without following the very process which is designed to ensure we protect our coastal areas,” Mr Darrell added.

“As a small island, we cannot afford to take risks with the safety and security of our coastline.”

In a letter of concern dated June 24, Kim Smith of the Bermuda Environmental Sustainability Taskforce raised concerns about the proposed work, which will take place in a cave protection area and coastal reserve-zoned land.

Ms Smith said: “Unfortunately, we don’t have the technical expertise to adequately assess what is being proposed for this coastal protection work but we do understand that concrete and limestone behave very differently.

“Add this to the fact that John Smith’s Bay is severely impacted by hurricane-force winds and seas, we are concerned that the concrete will fairly quickly be broken, dislodged and become veritable missiles resulting in further destruction of the coastal environment.”

Last night a spokesman for the Ministry of Public Works said the project was necessary to stop erosion and protect nearby properties.

The spokesman added: “As a standard practice, the department of planning is involved in ongoing environmental consultations with stakeholders.

“The ministry will take steps to minimise the impact on the environment as much as possible. For example, the existing rock face will be replaced with a textured cement face with longtail nesting boxes to recreate their natural habitat.

“Lastly, the ministry is working with the Bermuda National Museum and other stakeholders to preserve the area’s unique characteristics for the future enjoyment of all.”

26/6/21: More Sycophancy

14/6/21: Inklination

Betsy Kline on Sycophant. Photo Grant Farquhar.
Alan Kline on Olga. Photo Grant Farquhar.

Alan and Betsy Kline have been visiting from New York this week and spent a fair bit of time at Clarence Cove. They repeated a load of 5.11s and 5.12s including Persistence is Futile and Xavier. Alan climbed a new route in the gap between Barotrauma and Sycophant as he describes:

‘Hey Grant, Great to have been able to run into you yesterday. You have a great venue and a great local crew here. We had a fantastic time sampling the DWS at Admiralty. We did get out again this morning for a quick session. We couldn’t say goodbye! I got on that line again to try and get pictures for you, but I ended up messing up the beta and falling at the crux move. Betsy happened to snap a couple photos before the fall. Note: this beta is bad as the right hand I am using I didn’t use the first time and kinda throws off your body position. I think I’m gonna name it after my son, whose middle name is Danger.’ 


Start up Barotrauma to the hold over after the triangle jug on the lip. Bust a hard move left to another small triangle crimp and climb straight through the bulge to the top.

Alan Kline 13/6/21

Alan Kline on Danger in Paradise. Photo Betsy Kline.


Another beautiful day at Clarence Cove.

Clarence Cove. Photo Grant Farquhar.
Xavier Farquhar on Point Counterpoint. Photo Grant Farquhar.
Sam Shadbolt on Night Dive. Video from Sam.


Great day today in Bermuda. The water is 21 degrees C and conditions were perfect for DWS 🙂

11/April/21: The Great Head

As Bermuda prepares to return to lockdown Sam Shadbolt sent me the above video of his late-season redpoint of Power Junky this weekend.

27/2/21: The Great Head

Devin and I caught a dose of the crabs at The Great Head today. Great conditions with a 15 knot SE wind. A very impressive triple-masted old-school pirate-type sail boat came out of the cut with the pilot boat while we were climbing. Once in deep water it put the sails out and then disappeared eastwards beyond the sea horizon so I guess they are heading to the Azores and beyond. Meanwhile, Rob and Ruth were beavering away on Rob’s project in the Great Cave.


The right-to-left girdle traverse of Nereids Wall.

1. 10m. 5.8. Climb the first four threads of Typhoon Arete and belay on the half-height ledge.

2. 40m. 5.8. Traverse horizontally leftwards past multiple threads to the large ledge on the opposite arete. Finish up Hagridden past two threads.

Grant Farquhar & Devin Page 27/Feb/21.

27/2/28: Here is a great article about climbing therapy from the Climbing magazine website

How At-Risk Youth Are Building Emotional Intelligence Through Climbing


Rock climbing cultivates emotional intelligence. When we climb, we must have confidence in ourselves and in our partners, trusting that our toes will stick to the miniscule foothold and that our belayer won’t drop us when we fall. Escalando Fronteras (EF) uses these lessons to develop self-confidence and social skills in at-risk youth.

EF was founded in 2014 and is based out of Monterrey, Mexico. Monterrey is the industrial capital of Mexico with some of the wealthiest families in the country living there. This sect of the population is a stark contrast to the vast number of families living in poverty—Monterrey has one of the most severe wealth gaps in Latin America. Over 50 percent of children and teens live below the poverty line in Mexico, and 48 percent of teens ages 14 to 17 dropout of high school.

“The mission of Escalando Fronteras is to contribute to the development of children and adolescents in vulnerable contexts so that they become happy and socially responsible adults,” writes Alejandro Medina Fuentes, director of EF.

Confidence in oneself and in others, the ability to control one’s emotions, and the ability to work collaboratively are all invaluable life skills, which in turn leads to a lesser likelihood of drug abuse and other destructive activities. In the six years since its inception, EF has seen definitive results with the children and adolescents they work with—marked changes in their demeanor and general social skills.

In September of 2020, EF interviewed eight mothers of children in the program, seven of which said that they have seen improvements in the emotional behavior of their kids. The only outlier was one mother whose children had been in the program less than a year.

Alicia Flores is the mother of 9-year-old Brisa. The most important shift that Flores has seen in her daughter is a boost in self-confidence:

“It took Brisa’s grief away, because usually everything was painful for her. The first days I sent her [to climb] she told me it was difficult for her… Now she greets the girls and talks to them, and then she comes home and tells me the names of the girls. Brisa is now more able to ask for what she wants. Before she just shook her head, but didn’t tell you what she thought.”

Brisa went from being a hyper-reserved child, barely able to speak to her own mother, to someone who can make eye contact and speak openly after regular climbing outings with groups of kids from similar backgrounds.

Jéssica Ávila, mother of Jonathan age 10 and Jennifer age 13, said:

“Since Jonathan started attending Escalando Fronteras, he began to develop a lot, he has more friends, he lives it up and talks… Jennifer has always been very cheerful. She feels calmer. Escalando gave her ways to understand that there are certain ways to co-exist.”

While climbing, these kids are faced with intense and very real emotions such as stress and fear, but in a controlled setting. They learn to manage these feelings in a healthy and meaningful way, thus building the emotional intelligence necessary to develop into well-balanced adults.

To find out more, visit You can help the organization through monetary donation, or you can become a part of EF as a volunteer, ambassador, or supporter.


26/2/21: Climber magazine

I had a six-page article about DWS in Bermuda published yesterday in the latest edition of the UK-based Climber magazine.

6/Feb/21: THETIS

Great weather at The Great Head today. Eli and I girdled Nereids Wall. Thetis was a Nereid who was the mother of Achilles.


The girdle traverse of Nereids Wall.

1. 10m. 5.10a. Climb the first three threads of Succubitten and belay on the half-height ledge.

2. 30m. 5.8. Traverse horizontally rightwards past multiple threads to belay on a ledge on Typhoon Arete.

3. 10m. 5.7. This pitch has no in situ gear but there is natural protection available from natural threads, spikes and a tree. Traverse rightwards from the belay then climb up and right to a small tree. Step left past this and continue up and leftwards to the belay at the top of Typhoon Arete.

Grant Farquhar & Eli Cagen 6/Feb/21.

Eli and Dom on Crackhouse today. Photo Grant Farquhar.


Today I climbed at The Great Head with Rob and Ruth. I only climbed one route, Shelter from the Storm, but it was a special day because it was the first time I have touched rock since my accident four months ago. Not so special was having to pedal my ebike which is a big heavy bastard and had run out of battery all the way back from St Davids.