30/11/18: MISSION IMPOSSIBLE
Mission Impossible article on UKClimbing.com to promote The White Cliff.
Mission Impossible: British Climbing’s Great Challenges
30th November, 2018This has been read 7,896 times
In 1984 Geoff Birtles wrote and published an article in High magazine #18 which described some of the hardest routes of the day and speculated on things to come. In this essay, I will start with Geoff’s article, and then take a closer look at some of his predictions and outline some of the challenges that remain 34 years later. This essay has been written to promote the recently published Gogarth coffee-table book: The White Cliff and is written in the same style.
“I wish some day to make a route and from the summit let fall a
drop of water, and this is where my route will have gone.”
1984: SUPER ROCK, a he-man’s guide to the bicep boom by Geoff Birtles
Identifying the hardest climb in Britain at any given time is a debatable issue. It might well have been that Livesey’s ascent of Right Wall was a new level which climbing would reach, as was Proctor’s Our Father before that and any number of Brown/Whillans routes well before either of them. But, occasionally a new route does capture wide acclaim and reasonably indicates a new level of achievement.
It could be argued that the free ascent of The Prow by Ron Fawcett was a culminating point in the history of British rock climbing, a new plateau that other climbs would reach, the result of scores of technical smaller problems, pull ups, press ups, climbing walls, even a high fibre diet – all built on achievements of the past. A dodgy sweeping claim you might say, but no matter.
It was obvious for years that rock climbing would develop in Britain towards steep rock and sustained strenuous free climbing which would require a fitness approaching that of an Olympic athlete. And that is precisely what has happened.
Various other factors have contributed to the high standard of climbing in Britain. Oddly enough, a shortage of rock close to the mass of population has been one of the biggest factors. The mass of Pennine outcrops, for example, has provided a potent boiling pot of activity. But, having lured the masses and sifted out the overweight discards, we have then been left by natural selection with a solid
And so we have just enough easily accessible rock for mass activity, but no longer enough to cater for the pioneering spirit at a modest standard. Thus we have a volcano situation where a contained pressure is forced upwards and eventually outwards to the mountain crags.But where to now? Where will the next generation of climbs be? Certainly we will have a consolidation period with similar climbs to The Prow being achieved. But what is there beyond that? With the modern high-friction boots, slab climbing is unlikely to offer a high standard of climbing; quite the opposite, if anything. And where is there a crack or corner not already well fondled? All right, there is the Scottish wilderness with its acres of untouched rock. But that is about raw adventure which is not the point of this article.
Overhanging rock, dear boy, that’s where it’s at. Leaning walls and giant overhangs are where the next generation of climbs will be. Interestingly enough, while the Peak District has often been at the centre of new development in the past, it is a fact that it has little to offer for the next generation. It has the odd overhang and the odd bit of steep rock, but basically it’s elsewhere that the true E7 will come to be. And it will begin in Yorkshire, at Gordale on the walls adjacent to Cave Route; on Kilnsey’s leaning buttresses and its magnificent Main Overhang; on Malham Cove with its impending blank central wall, capped by the seemingly impassable Main Overhang.
All the scratching of last year on the wall beneath Kilnsey’s Main Overhang were signs of increased activity in the area; fine steep climbs ending where the vertical became horizontal. The young baboons are creeping in on the real action, getting ever closer to the edge of the existing physical and psychological barriers.
And what of elsewhere? Surely some adventuring spirit will take a pot shot at Strone Ulladale, probably the most impending piece of rock in the British Isles.
And what of Parliament House Cave on Anglesey, a hundred feet of tottering overhang. Is there really a single move on it that cannot be climbed in a bouldering situation? That is the real question because if there isn’t, it will only be a matter of time and fitting the pieces together.
The same applies to The Curse at Berry Head, 140ft of impending horizontal doom. And then, when you’ve done all that, look abroad to the big overhang of the Cime Ovest: climb the wall for 500ft to the overhang (belay); now climb the overhang for 100ft. Spooky stuff and not for the faint-hearted.
Stamina has been the key to recent progress and looks likely to be so in the foreseeable future. Climbers will continue to develop great strength, improving their training programmes on climbing walls, in gymnasiums, on boulder problems and on real climbs.
None of these future routes will be climbed without some form of bad style, in the traditionally accepted sense, but then again is there a genuine worthwhile route above E4 in existence now which has received its first ascent in pure style? And by pure I mean no preinspection whatsoever. The answer is no, except possibly for some prattling little technical problem that is not much more than bouldering. So why pretend with pious preachings when bad style is already with us and has been for some time – and for purely practical reasons.
Even so this is, has been and will be no reason to abandon good style. Bolts will be used wisely for protection, toproping and hang dogging will be unacceptable as will the unholy practice of leaving long slings in place. The British climber will certainly pursue the best ethic possible. He will certainly not stop climbing new routes just because of some out-of-date code.
Quite simply the leading routes of the future (and of late) will be done at some cost to the pure concept. Many will take advantage of existing bolts and pegs on old aid climbs. All will have some form of prior knowledge. Anybody who thinks otherwise is out of touch with reality.
2018: 34 Years Later
Most of Geoff’s predictions have, indeed, come true; especially regarding the Cima Ovest and the sport climbing explosion on Peak and Yorkshire limestone which has resulted in the ‘unclimbed’ walls to be spider-webbed with free climbs and variations.But, what about the mighty Strone Ulladale? Doug Scott described the first ascent of The Scoop in Hard Rock: ‘It may not be everybody’s cup of tea, but as an exercise in imagination and ingenuity, as on swings high above the moor and the lake, it is a unique experience in fear and fascination.‘
In his article, Geoff opined that ‘surely some adventuring spirit will take a pot shot’ at it but commented in the photo captions that it ‘may be more than one generation away for the free climbers‘ and that was a perfectly reasonable statement in 1984; the Strone just seemed too remote and futuristic. After all, it was infamously included in Ken Wilson’s Hard Rock in order to hinder climbers from ticking the whole book. But, only three years after Geoff’s article The Scoopwas audaciously free climbed by Johnny Dawes and Paul Pritchard. Dawes recounted the ascent in Full Of Myself:
The Scoop by Johnny Dawes
Now the make or break moves of the route. A fall from here will launch a 60 footer. A fall had already cut my ropes to the core from half that distance. Retreat was now unthinkable. The top was so near. We had released the fixed lines. With 1,500ft of exposure, terrifying gear and uncleaned terrain above, I had to be determined.
Moves flow together well, and before knowing it a final rub of the rock with my frayed ‘Wendy Lawrence’ jumper reveals the last smears for
my feet. I contort in a crouch to rest and compose myself for the final hand traverse. The end of difficulties is a class act: a jug positioned right on the very rim of the scooped face of Strone Ulladale. It seems almost a shame to take it, and there it is. Slow, careful… fingers curl around the trophy jug.
“We got it Paul.”
“Nice one,” in Lancashire, floats up.
We cruise a long delightful pitch on perfect black rock to the summit tufts and unimpressed sheep. We have a team photo and celebrate with a sesame snack Pritch has squirrelled away in his jacket. Next morning it is overcast. In a cloak of mist, the Sron regains its aura of impregnability.
Parliament House Cave at North Stack, Anglesey, with its 100ft overhang.© John Cleare
Brian ‘Henry’ Palmer during the first ascent of The Big Overhang.© Doug Scott
Thoughts swing to Knucklehead (A5), The Nose (A4) and Sidewinder (A4). If The Scoop goes, maybe they will. This was to become a long obsession, this big cliff with its stupendous unclimbed lines and aid routes waiting to be freed. We’d be back one day to rob more Hebridean treasure from the ravens.
“‘Impossible’: it doesn’t exist anymore.The dragon is dead, poisoned, and the hero Siegfried is unemployed. Not anyone can work on a rock face, using tools to bend it to his own idea of possibility.”
Reinhold Messner, ‘The Murder of the Impossible’ in Mountain #15, 1971
Many of these aid climbs are examples of the ‘direttissima’ philosophy of aid climbing. The concept of the direttissima (Italian for most direct) coupled with the use of expansion bolts to facilitate climbing blank rock resulted in major controversy as climbing challenges were, seemingly, reduced to exercises in engineering. Geoff Birtles (again) recounts below the experience of aid climbing in the ’60s.
A Lousy Job by Geoff Birtles
Artificial climbing was very much an accepted activity in the 60s, not just on limestone but also on the gritstone quarries. It was a way to keep active during winter and to practise for the Dolomites and the Alps.
Because of its very fine grain, we made wooden wedges from beech. These were never really trusted, but they were all we had for wide cracks. Then we would make our own etriers, either with wooden or alloy rungs, and usually about three rungs each made into a rope ladder with 5mm line. Whilst this form of climbing has always been looked down upon from free climbing, it did have its own skills and dangers and was painful and hard work.
The routine was to have three etriers, two of which to either stand on or sit in, depending on the steepness of rock, and having placed another peg and attached the third etrier, you then had to make the transfer across, often assisted by a tight rope. This transfer was the apprehensive bit where you would find out if the new peg would hold or fall out. The second’s duty was to sit at the bottom for hours in a duvet freezing and then, in that immobile state, second the climb removing the pitons in order to make the leader look magnificent. It was a lousy job.
The next route described in Geoff’s article has yet to be free climbed. Another Doug Scott route, The Big Overhang, is located at Gogarth and was produced by him over the winter of 1967/1968 as he describes below in an excerpt from The White Cliff which originally appeared in Up and About. It takes an uncompromising line across a massive roof.
“The cave under North Stack is called Parliament House Cave on account of the great concourse of nesting seabirds making a disagreeable gabbling noise, as if in some mighty debate concerning their civil policy, the better regulation of their fishery, or of some other affair of moment. It has been observed by some wit, or other, that the cormorants represent the bishops, the peregrine falcons the lords, the razorbills the commons, and the gulls: the people.”
Gogarth. Peter Crew, 1969
The Big Overhang by Doug Scott
The first weekend, we checked the line of the route and removed a mass of loose, slimy rock from the back wall to reach the start of the roof. Over the next two weekends we took turns out front, eventually reaching the top after 22 hours of climbing and some 40 pegs. The roof in profile is in the form of a saw blade with several protruding teeth of rock that we had to climb down, and then back up. It was all very strenuous, especially as we did not have harnesses, only an arrangement of loops of tape.
With the back wall at right angles to the roof, keeping the ropes moving required great care. Hanging from the roof, we watched a litter of seal pups being born in the zawn below. At the top, John Carey, superintendent of the warning station, walked across with cups of hot sweet tea as I belayed Henry on the final pitch.
The route, which we called The Big Overhang, became quite popular, especially as more pegs were left in. I later did it again with Bob Wark in just four hours, the two of us moving together about 20ft apart; it was an indication of the difference between making the first and subsequent ascents of an aid route.
The Climbers’ Club 1990 Gogarth guide threw down the gauntlet, describing a free ascent of The Big Overhang as: impossible. That gauntlet has been languishing on the ground for almost 30 years.
Geoff’s next challenge, The Curse at Berry Head, was described as ‘140ft of impending horizontal doom’. It was put up in March ’71 by Nigel Gifford, Martin Chambers and Frank Hayton on the Old Redoubt Cliff in Torbay. Pitch 3 was free climbed during the first ascent of Lip Trip by Mick Fowler and Andy Meyers in 1980. Pitch 2 was free climbed with a rest by Martin Crocker and Ian Parnell 1996 and then completely free as Cro-Magnum by Bob Hickish and Dave Pickford in 2011. The first pitch, which tackles an outrageous 90-foot ceiling, has yet to be free climbed.
Gifford and Hayton on the second pitch of The Curse© Martin Chambers
Curses by Nigel Gifford
It’s a 140ft roof from the very back of the cave. I’d just got back from climbing the Grand Wall at Squamish and was one of the few Brit climbers who had experience of artificial routes, so I got recruited by two Royal Marine Commandos: Frank Hayton and Martin Chambers. They did the first pitch; Martin led most of it and Frank cleaned it, but all the gear fell out when he got part way along the roof and shook the rope.
There are two bolts in the second pitch. It’s so steep that my feet were higher than my head when I was drilling the first bolt. Somebody told me that a block might have fallen away here since. Chouinard Lost Arrows fitted perfectly, but in vertical placements that your body weight was pulling directly out.
It took four or five days; every day we abseiled off and tied off the ropes. We stayed in a Marines’ hut near Plymouth. I got a nasty surprise one day when I jumared back up. When I got to the stance, I pulled the peg, I’d just being jumaring on, straight out by hand. I hastily bashed it back in again with my peg hammer.
The route was called The Curse because it entailed a considerable amount of bad language… something servicemen are well versed in. We also had a radio to listen to Jimmy Young’s show on Radio 2. The two commandoes would take the piss out of me when ‘Jim’s recipe of the day’ was read out as I was an officer in the army catering corps. Great fun times.
In the mid-70s the BBC asked Joe Brown to look at it as a potential TV climb, but he didn’t want to climb it.
The Curse by Rolfe Sterratt
My friend climbed the first pitch around 2006 with the intention of climbing the full route. Unfortunately I was belaying and got spooked – not helped by the car-s
Another aid route in the same ‘direttissima’ mould, but not mentioned in Geoff’s article, is Giant on Cilan Head.Giant XS A2 300ft 5 pitches
A very impressive route with hard free and artificial climbing. It tackles the wall right of Vulture and the massive roof above. The roof and the final overhanging wall are particularly impressive. An ethically difficult situation has now arisen; the aid bolts are no longer of much use and to replace them would be frowned on. The climb is in effect obsolete. Keith Myhill, Ken Jones, Al Evans and Chris Boulton 15/11/70.
Slaying the Giant by Ken Jones and Al Evans
On our initial explorations into the depths of Cilan Head in October 1970, Keith Myhill and I made the first ascent of The Crow. However, it was very obvious that the most impressive piece of rock and greatest challenge on the crag was the enormous roof to the right. Fresh with success on The Crow we decided to return as soon as possible and force a direct line over the intimidating overhang. Keith and I realised the route would necessitate a great deal of bolting, so we enlisted two other local climbers, Chris Boulton and Al Evans. This created what we considered to be a cutting edge Sheffield climbing team to share the work.
The following week I set about making the bolt hangers. The only ones available to buy at the time were expensive and made of aluminium which quickly corroded in the sea air. As I was studying art at Sheffield College at the time I made productive use of the workshop facilities to painstakingly cut angle-iron into numerous two-inch lengths which I then drilled out; all under the pretext they were for a new sculpture. On the first weekend, Keith and Al climbed part of the lower wall on the Saturday whilst Chris and I sunbathed.
Giant is one of the most adventurous routes south of the Scottish border. It has aid but you still need to lead E4, at least, to do it. None of my pitches except the roof had any aid. I think Keith may have used one point. In the early days on Cilan ‘outsiders’ couldn’t believe what we were doing, and I think that’s how so much aid was described. I really think a maximum of 20 hand-drilled-on-lead bolts were used on the first ascent, including the roof. Keith and I had been saying how much we hated bolts, and especially drilling the bloody things while hanging on with one hand.
On the Sunday we exchanged places. Chris and I climbed a little further up the wall whilst Keith sunbathed and Al took photographs. Chris and I moved slowly on his section as it involved very unstable rock which was the cause of a leader fall on the later first ascent. We all departed on the Sunday evening with the roof as yet untouched. I don’t think Chris was over impressed with events as that was the last part he played. Not surprising as the route contained difficult climbing on loose rock on both a small and large scale with precious little natural protection making it a most serious undertaking. Our protection comprised of an archaic, rather basic set of nuts without any of the micro-nuts and range of camming devices available today. Even peg placements were scarce as the cracks tended to be blind. This felt like climbing in a different dimension compared to the more traditional crags of the day.
As I was unable to make the next weekend, it only left Keith and Al to continue the route further. Keith systematically bolted the roof which was a tremendous act of dedication, whilst Al encouraged and patiently belayed him throughout.
Steve Mayers on the first pitch of Terrorhawk with the Giant roof looming above.© Grant Farquhar
Cilan Main. © Grant Farquhar
On the roof, Keith worked his way out in the shade while I wilted on the stance in a heatwave. About 40ft out, Keith suddenly pulls out of his etriers and hangs free from a flake in the roof. ‘Al, it goes free from here.’
Rapidly locking off the belay, I replied, ‘Oh no, it bloody well does not!’
They successfully gained the lip of the roof at the base of the impending headwall on the Sunday. However, they got no further and were forced to retreat by a memorable free 150ft abseil into the sea and back to Yorkshire.
The 80-foot roof and how you get round it is a spectacular part of the route, but not the main part – that is reserved for the headwall. An abseil from the lip lands you in the sea; we should know, we did it then had to climb the route again to get back there and finish the headwall.
Actually Keith went down first because he was the stongest swimmer (he used to swim in the Windermere long distance race, once swimming Windermere there and back). I brought all the gear down and Keith pulled me clear of the waves.
On the next visit Keith and I returned alone to complete the final ascent. We steadily re-climbed the lower wall, made more interesting by Keith pulling off a loose flake and taking a 30ft fall. In 1970 there was no such things as belaying devices so it was down to my trusty waist belay to hold him. For once I was paying attention rather than watching the seagulls, so I checked his fall, luckily with no injury to Keith or my hands.
We quickly continued across the roof and gained the dramatic belay on the lip where Keith and Al had previously retreated from. Keith then boldly led the headwall which provided the most difficult and technical free climbing in a spectacular position throughout. Fortunately it succumbed without major incident and we completed the first ascent of a most serious and sensational route. Travelling back to Sheffield I proposed the name Giant which we agreed was suitable.
In conclusion, the Giant was climbed over a number of days. Keith, Al, Chris and myself shared leads to varying degrees during the first two days on the lower wall. Over the next weekend Keith and Al gained the roof which Keith then led, belayed by Al, to the lip of the overhang. On the final visit, Keith and I made the first complete ascent up the lower wall, then across the roof and up the headwall. I don’t know if the route was repeated or who was involved if it was. However, as Mick Fowler has been mentioned, I can recall talking to him in 1978 on Curbar Edge when he was contemplating his free ascent of Linden. He said he’d recently climbed Crow and considered it ‘unjustifiable’. However, he did not mention climbing Giant. I think the date of our first ascent was 15th Nov 1970 (and not 1971 as incorrectly recorded). This later date was not possible as details and photographs of the route had already appeared in the Feb/March 1971
edition of the legendary Rocksport magazine.
Mick Fowler: I tried Giant once, around the time we did Crow, Vulture etc. , but we didn’t do it; the first bolt crumbled away.
Looking at the concentration of hard and bold routes on the nearby but more accessible Craig Doris, Cilan Head offers massive potential for new routes. The exact, bolted, line of Giant may or may not go but there are definitely feasible free lines close by.
One of the steepest bits of rock in the UK, Carn Vellan hosts another yet-to-be-free climbed route: The Lid.The Lid A3 140ft 2 pitches. A spectacular route, taking a direct line over the great overhang to finish up the obvious corner. Start just right of the corner, under the roof. Gain the crackline by a 15-foot traverse leftwards from the back of the roof. Follow this to a short wall with small roofs and move left to the large corner which leads to the top. P. de Mendel, A. Mahony Aug 16, 1972.
Like many other crags in Cornwall, Carn Vellan was caught up in the controversy which started during the 1980s and persists to the present day surrounding the, unquestionably talented, father-and-son team of Rowland and Mark Edwards. The duo pioneered a host of routes in Cornwall and elsewhere, some excellent. However, they could be described as modern examples of the ‘direttissima’ philosophy; their achievements on the iconic granite crags and the killas slate of Carn Vellan were accompanied by power-drilled protection (between them they established at least 130 drilled placements on over 43 routes on 18 cliffs: mainly protection and belay bolts, but also drilled pegs and drilled slots for cam protection). Their routes also featured chipped and manufactured sika holds.
In 1980, Rowland and Mark climbed Ziggurat, E5, which finishes by free climbing up the final corner of The Lid. In the early ’90s, Mark established a number of bolt-protected sport routes either side of The Lid including Blue Sky Lightning(F8a+) and Monster Munch (F8b+). A few years later due to the controversy around the bolts, the sport routes were chopped. In 1999 Mark headpointed Blue Sky Lightning on trad gear to produce Rewind. This route was given the grade of E10, the first claimed in the UK. Rewind remains unrepeated; the first confirmed E10 in the UK was Neil Bentley’s ascent of Equilibrium on 24th February 2000.
Mark Edwards on Rewind.© Edwards Collection
Mark did have the advantage of having already worked the route with bolts in place: ‘I had the climbing wired at that point having climbed the line a bunch of times.’ And, it should be mentioned that many of his routes have been subject to down-grading after repeats including another purported E10 in Cornwall, Academia, which appears after repeats to be more like E6/7. Nevertheless, if Rewind is indeed F8a+ on trad gear then one would expect it, at least, to be in the region of E8/9. In 2012, Alexis Perry headpointed another of Mark’s defunct sports routes, 1025, at E8. There are other climbs to be done there, including the complete free ascent of The Lid, that will certainly be very difficult.
So where else shall we find the ‘super routes’ of the future in the UK? I expect that we will see ‘more of the same’ on the mountain cliffs in the mould of Echo Wall i.e. technically desperate and serious routes in remote locations. Sea cliff venues like Pembroke’s Mount Sion and the far north Scottish sea cliffs host acres of steep, unclimbed rock.
Hybrid swim/ deep water solo/ trad route techniques may tame difficult-to-access areas on sea cliffs that top-out too high for a simple DWS approach.
Finally, there are eliminates to be climbed, making the most of already well-travelled crags with the hardest possible link ups of exisiting routes. Scraping the barrel? Yes, but why not? New and challenging ways of climbing pieces of rock are the life-blood of the climber’s motivation to climb. And there is still a lot of hard, unclimbed rock out there for those who are seeking the challenge.
Thanks to Geoff Birtles, Ian Smith, Johnny Dawes, Doug Scott, Nigel Gifford, Rolfe Sterrart, Pete Saunders, Dave Pickford, Ken Jones, Al Evans, Mick Fowler and Mark Edwards. The White Cliff is available via Cordee and Amazon.
BLOG ENTRY: 12/11/18
First reviews of The White Cliff
Friday, 24 August 2018
The White Cliff….Review
The term ‘coffee table book’ is generally used to describe an A3 sized doorstop which is brim full of seductive images but sadly lacking in solid writing. However, within the climbing/mountaineering field there have of course, always been exceptions to the rule. Works like Crew, Soper and Wilson’s The Black Cliff; Tony Smythe and John Cleare’s classic Rock Climbers in Action in Snowdonia- recently republished as a Paperback- and of course Ken Wilson’s series of weighty tomes with Classic/ Hard/ Extreme Rock at the heart of the series. With the recent publication of Grant Farquhar’s The White Cliff, The aforementioned The Black Cliff now has a worthy companion within the genre. A diligently researched, skilfully edited and beautifully produced work which features a contributing cast list which appears to include just about everyone who has contributed to north Wales’s post 1950’s climbing history.
John Redhead on a recent addition to the Gogarth route list with a first ascent of The Golden Fan with Martin Crook It is fitting that Ynys Mon -the land of the druids- should cast a spell over climbers who were drawn to these complex, intimidating cliffs of Ynys Cybi relatively late in the century. Although the RAF had used the cliffs around Gogarth since the 1940’s and local activists had dabbled thereabouts in the 50’s, the true birth of climbing on these pale cliffs above the Irish Sea began in the 1960’s as word leaked out that a stone El Dorado existed way out West. No surprise then that the procession was led by north Wales’s leading activists and new routing pioneers . Hard chaws like Pete Crew, Joe Brown and Martin Boysen in the vanguard. To be quickly joined by just about every ‘name’ in the UK climbing scene and beyond. All magnetically drawn to this fabled climbing terranova.
This explosion of activity in the swinging sixties is described by many of those who were part and parcel of the scene. Both the living and through the words of the dead. David Dukan, Geoff Milburn, Les Holliwell, Trevor Jones and Ken Wilson included. One of the more fascinating episodes in this period is ‘The Great Gogarth Hoax’ as described by Peter Gillman. Then a young non climbing Sunday Times journalist.. It recalls a bizarre case of the climbs that never were. A collection of state of the art routes written up by a climbing Walter Mitty character-Keith McCallum- whose activities quickly aroused the suspicions of fellow activists. Not least the Holliwell Brothers and Pete Crew who were in the vanguard of developments at Gogarth at the time. As the 1970’s brought in great advances in equipment and footwear, standards continued apace and essayists including Henry Barber, Martin Crook and Al Evans describe the relentless drive which delivered classic routes like the 3 star E5 ‘The Ordinary Route’, Positron E5 and the 3 star Moran/Milburn/Evan’s E3, ‘The Assassin’. With The White Cliff now cooking on gas, the clear blue sky certainly was the limit and as the punk era ended, the 80’s New Romantics in the form of Johnny Dawes, John Redhead, Ron Fawcett , Jimmy Jewel and Andy Pollitt took The White Cliff by the scruff of the neck and recorded increasing audacious first ascents. The old master’s like Brown, Crew and Boyson could only look on admiringly as routes like Conan the Librarian E7, The Big Sleep quickly fell. By the 90’s it was open season on The White Cliff and editor Grant Farqhar opens ‘The Raving 90’s and the Naughty 00’s with Sex and Religion, his serious E7 route at the heart of his revealing essay, Bouncing Czechs’.
Henry Barber and Al Harris looking suitably intimidated!:Photo John Cleare But before I give the impression that The White Cliff is a mere chronological procession, detailing hard routes and their creators, let me quickly confirm that far from being a dry historical account of climbing on the Gogarth cliffs, The White Cliff ranges far and wide across the the entire Gogarth spectrum. Covering developments on every cliff- including Rhoscolyn- but including a broad area of interest with every aspect of climbing covered by over 100 trailblazing pioneers. Contributions ranging from a brief paragraph to lengthy essays and describing the characters, the epics, the exploration, the failed projects, the accidents etc etc. Fascinating and inspirational in equal measure. It would be unfair to single out any single essay from such a qualitative field of work, or indeed, mention stand out photographs from such a stellar cast of image takers which include John Cleare, Leo Dickinson and Ray Wood. Suffice it to say that the editor has used the whole range of the photographic spectrum to illustrate the essays herein. A worthy project which like the aforementioned tomes mentioned at the start of this review, is destined to be a future classic within the field of climbing literature. The White Cliff; Editor Grant Farquhar is available at £35.00 from Cordee PublishersJohn Appleby; 2018
Tuesday, 9 October 2018
This is a review of the White Cliff, read it and fucking weep, read it and laugh, read and feel your fingers digging into the cover. Just read it!
What Martin Farr did for Cave Diving with the Darkness Beckons, Grant Farquhar does for one cliff in a forgotton part of Brexit UK. Mind you it is perhaps the best cliff in the world!
This is not Gogarth but the Underworld, Christina coming down to pay the Ferryman. You must pay him otherwise he never lets you go. People who climbed on the magic cliff of Gogarth were never let go.
Mandy landing in the Underworld. There must be so much of me that is actualy Gogarth, I eat the rock, bit the fucking dust and gave it my blood. The cliff came flooding back when I picked up the parcel, thanks Grant. My sweat came back, thanks guys who shared your stories and grip ups! This book on Gogarth is an anthology, and for me it is the best collection of writing that portrays climbers and climbs. Buy it!
My own Private Idaho, my own private Gogarth.
The magic munchkin Dawes on his and Craigs fab route, Onan the strong fingered.
I thought this a bit silly and overdone, but then I read my own bit of writing in it and nearly cried!
As I said before ….unfinished routes there for me…
Desroy, one of the actors, more characters than in a hundred picaresque novels.
Two old mates , this book is full of old mates, some dead, “brown bread”. There are un wholesome tales, there are sweet tales..
BLOG ENTRY: 31/7/18
The hardback version of my book, The White Cliff, will be available tomorrow.
BLOG ENTRY: SUMMER 2018
Great article about cliff jumping http://tahoequarterly.com/features/legends-of-the-fall
BLOG ENTRY: SUMMER 2018
BLOG ENTRY: SPRING 2018
Hot on the heels of Henry’s visit, we had the privilege of hosting Charlie and Gilly Woodburn who were joined by Dave and Claire MacLeod. Repeats of John Langston’s 13c, the hardest sports route in Bermuda, ensued.
Dave MacLeod on the second ascent of (One Flew Over) The Cuckoo’s Nest, 5.13c. Photo Gilly Woodburn.
Dave MacLeod on the second ascent of (One Flew Over) The Cuckoo’s Nest, 5.13c. Photo Gilly Woodburn.
Charlie Woodburn on the third ascent of (One Flew Over) The Cuckoo’s Nest, 5.13c. Photo Gilly Woodburn.
Charlie wasn’t done after a day on the crag: he brought his Beastmaker 2000 with him.
BLOG ENTRY: SPRING 2018
This piece was published on Footless Crow on 6th April 2018.
Full Hot: 1 adj. Archaic English: Heated; Fiery; Hotter than hot. 2 adj. /fuhl-hah t/ Bermudian: A person who has had too much alcohol to the point of complete inebriation. ‘Aceboy is FULL HOT ummaa take mi bredrin home.’ See also: half hot, hot, full hot & foolish.
Henry Barber on Full Fathom Five Ten. Photo Grant Farquhar.
I had gotten in touch with Henry Barber, from my home in Bermuda, to obtain permission from him and Chip Lee to include an excerpt from Chip’s 1982 biography of Henry in the forthcoming Gogarth anthology: The White Cliff. Henry made several trips to the UK in the 70s climbing in many different areas, including Gogarth, and forging friendships in the anarchic climbing scene.
At the time, ‘Hot Henry’ was, arguably, the best climber in the world. He climbed 300+ days a year and travelled the world to climb in diverse places, often barefoot or solo, amassing a string of first-free and onsight solo ascents that redefined style and ethics on a global scale. In 1972, Henry pulled into Yosemite for the first time; coming from the east coast, he was not made to feel welcome: ‘They would give me the stinkeye. It could have been a jealousy thing, or I could have been an asshole, I don’t know. It just got worse over the years.’ The following year, Henry onsighted the outstanding project of Butterballs (5.11c), a route that was, according to John Bachar, ‘way over everybody’s heads’. Henry then soloed the Steck-Salathe, onsight, and climbed The Nose of El Cap 75 percent free in a day and a half.
Henry returned to Yosemite in 1975: ‘I wasn’t liked, flat out. I was a gun walking into town. I was like a lone gunslinger walking down the street and there were five guys lined up at the other end of the street ready to draw their guns.’ Fish Crack was the Valley’s biggest prize at the time, and a project being worked by Bachar and Ron Kauk. Barber climbed to the poorly-protected crux near the top of the route and fell onto a lone, sketchy nut that – had it pulled – would have ended his bold career: ‘I fell off the chicken head after the crux when my feet slipped as I was climbing in a light rain. The next day Kauk and Bachar yo-yoed the route but didn’t get to my high point. I completed it, in one go, the following day.’ At the time, the 5.12 grade had yet to be established in Yosemite. Henry gave Fish Crack 5.11 because: ‘They would have hated me even more if I’d given it 5.12.’ It now is graded 5.12b and regarded as one of Yosemite’s, and the world’s, first routes of that grade.
Henry Barber soloing The Strand. Photo Edgar Boyles.
In 1976, for an American Sportsman TV show episode, a 22-year-old Henry onsight soloed The Strand, an E2 5b on Gogarth’s Upper Tier. This ascent turned into a gruelling one-and-a-half-hour epic. Once past the crux, Henry was totally committed: ‘Under the circumstances, I realised that I could not down-climb the difficult moves. It’s one of the only times in climbing that this has been true. There were just too many things working against me.’ He was very relieved to, finally, reach the top: ‘I was hot, I was tired, and I was beaten. It was an incredible mental challenge for me, but I wouldn’t do anything like it again because it was too close to death.’
While corresponding about his Gogarth days for The White Cliff, Henry revealed that he had been to Bermuda around Nov/Dec 1972, and climbed: ‘I did three routes in Horseshoe Bay and three at the quarry near Fort Scaur.’ I wasn’t particularly surprised that Henry had climbed in Bermuda before, but I was surprised when he accepted my invitation to visit this year.
‘Who’s Henry?’ enquires my wife. I explain who ‘Hot Henry’ is. ‘So what’s his nickname now that he’s older? Half Hot Henry? Tepid Henry?’ she asks. I had met Henry once before, in Melbourne after he gave a lecture at the climbing shop. Waiting at the airport, in Bermuda, almost 20 years later, I’m wondering how much he has changed in that time. Some old guy with a moustache emerges. Is that him? No. Time passes, I start to wonder whether he made his flight or not. Just as I sit down, Henry comes through the sliding doors. His moustache is whiter, but otherwise he looks remarkably similar to my memory of him.
Henry is in a good mood, but having got up at 2am and made a 6-hour drive through driving snow into the teeth of a New England Nor’easter to make his flight, he wants to head to my place to regroup a little before hitting the crag. Afterwards, I take him to Clarence Cove, and we do some mellow deep water soloing. The second day starts off well when Henry lands a 10 pound+ bonefish on his fly rod in our bay. Notoriously difficult to hook and land, the local bones experts are suitably impressed and the resulting conversation about casts, bites, lures, flys and the size and weight of fish goes on for a while.
Henry with his Swami Belt at The Great Head. Photo Grant Farquhar.
Henry is a purist, an exponent of ‘clean climbing’ which means that his climbing equipment consists of simply a bandolier of nuts and a swami belt. No cams. No harness, and sometimes no rockboots. At least he has a belay device and a chalkbag. Oh, and he is wearing rock shoes. Barefoot climbing on the sharp rock in Bermuda would be painful. We hit the Great Head; at 100’ this is Bermuda’s biggest cliff and home to many good routes from 5.8 to 5.13. We start off on 5.8 and progress steadily to 5.10. Henry is 64 years old and not suffering from anorexia nervosa, but he climbs surely and steadily with no dithering. The steepest sections cause him to pause and there is some down climbing, but he is always in control.
Henry Barber on Xantho. Photo Grant Farquhar.
I’m interested in picking Henry’s brains about free soloing. There are sections of The White Cliff that touch on this topic in relation to climbers such as Jimmy Jewell and Derek Hersey; who soloed frequently, and who died doing it. In his superb essay about soloing with John Bachar, The Only Blasphemy, John Long defined this as ‘ – to willfully jeopardise my own life’. If this is, indeed, the only blasphemy then to blaspheme on a daily basis; to be willing to pay the ultimate price, like Jewell and Hersey, can only be described as heresy.
The rewards for indulging, repeatedly, in such behaviour appear to lie in the feelings arising, at the time, from doing it and, afterwards, from having done it. Regarding the former, Derek Hersey said: ‘There’s nothing that makes me feel so alive. You’re thinking – but not in words. You’re thinking in movement, in rhythm… You have to almost say there is no probability of falling. Subconsciously, you just have to go with that.’ In his book, Rock Athlete, Ron Fawcett outlines: ‘The strange mixture of feelings you get while soloing high above the ground, of being calm but utterly focused. I see myself totally absorbed and living intensely; it’s what I love about the sport.’ Both appear to be describing the highly focused mental state of complete absorption in an activity that has been labelled ‘flow’.
Regarding the ‘high’, Ron Fawcett concedes in his book that he did get ‘a buzz’ from the danger. In an interview in 2008 Henry Barber said: ‘Another reason I loved soloing was for the euphoric feeling afterwards. I remember soloing the North Face of Capitol Peak [a 5.9 in Colorado] and coming down and making love to my girlfriend. Unless I was Carlos Castaneda, I couldn’t describe what that’s like, but that’s what really almost addicted me to it; not the struggle and focus during the climbing, but the release afterwards. I’ve never done drugs, but it’s got to be like that, because it’s intense.’
Everybody has experienced flow states, during, and highs, after, climbing. According to the theories of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, to achieve a flow state a balance must be struck between the challenge of the route and the skill of the climber. If the climb is too easy then it’s boring; too difficult it’s frustrating, and in both cases, flow cannot occur. Skill level and challenge level must be closely matched. In order to maintain the mental state that the protagonist seeks, then there will – have to – be an inevitable escalation of challenge over time, otherwise the activity will become boring: unrewarding.
The implications of this for someone whose chosen activity is highly potentially lethal, such as solo free climbing or, say, proximity wingsuit BASE are that unless, at some point, the individual consciously decides to retire from the flow-driven inexorable escalation of challenges, then the activity will, eventually, kill them. For the solo climber, the margin for error on a route of high difficulty will eventually become too thin for that unexpected occurrence: hold failure, gear failure, weather failure; or, perhaps, most insidiously, when soloing routes of lower difficulty has become insufficiently challenging – mundane – to generate the mental state necessary to survive. It doesn’t matter if you fall off a hard or an easy solo, the rock does not care, and the outcome is the same. When I question Henry about this, he says gnomically: ‘You retire it, or it retires you.’
On our second full day climbing, we head to Tsunami Wall which, unfortunately, is living up to its name and being deluged by waves, so we visit The Pump Room. Henry’s knee is playing up, but he gimps his way manfully down the steep approach scramble before sending a couple of steep lines. Later I take him to an obscure deep water solo venue located in Tom Moore’s Jungle which also happens to be Bermuda’s premiere cave diving spot. Embarrassingly, I wander around the jungle, lost, and fail to locate the crag. I have an idea where it is but the trail has grown over, and I don’t want to lead Henry on a bushwhack from hell to try and find it. So we go bouldering on the beach and repair to the pub.
Henry, I have to say, was a highly entertaining guest. During our drives to the crag and mandatory debriefings, in the pub, Henry while frequently incoherent with laughter regaled me with tales from his time in North Wales in the 70s with luminaries such as Al Harris, Pete Minks, Al Rouse, Cliff Phillips et al. I should have recorded him as the stories are the stuff of legends, hilarious, but also dark and borderline sociopathic. There is a tale about four naked climbers in the bathtub with Pete Minks delivering the punchline as he comes up from between womens’ legs with grey bath water streaming off his beard: ‘It’s all right, I’m a plumber.’
Another story is of repeated restaurant food hijacking with Al Harris pleading to an enraged mob: ‘Do you think somebody like me would do something like that?’ On another occasion North Wales arrives, without warning, in a restaurant in Boulder, Colorado with Pete Minks demonstrating the ‘Dance of the flaming fairies’ involving a naked man and a rolled up newspaper that was inserted in a specific anatomical location and set on fire. Chip’s biography of Henry, On Edge, was written when Henry was 29 years old. Surely only pop stars and footballers produce biographies before they are 30? Henry is still ‘Full Hot’, and with stories like those above, it might be time for him to think about On Edge Volume 2.
Henry Barber soloing in Scaur Quarry in 1972. Photo Barber collection.
After Henry leaves, I find the quarry that he climbed on in the 70s. It’s 20ft high with vertical walls, corners and arêtes. I solo the cracks and corners and then a nice 20ft arête. It’s like a mini-Millstone so Veg Lane has to be the name, or maybe On Edge would be more appropriate? The jungle at the top resembles Vietnam and is impenetrable. With a nasty looking squall blowing in from the ocean, I hastily downclimb another, easier, arête. I get home and look at Henry’s photos. Wait a minute that looks like a different quarry? Still it was a nice arête.
Henry Barber in Wild New Brave (film).
‘Henry Barber – Free-Climbing Pioneer, Free Soloist, Trad Climber, Motivational Speaker, Purist; North Conway, New Hampshire’ by Mark Synnott in Climbing magazine, 2008.
‘Soloing at the Limit’,an interview by Annie Whitehouse in Climbing magazine, 1992.
On Edge, the life and times of Henry Barber by Chip Lee.
Rock Athlete by Ron Fawcett (with Ed Douglas).