Saturday, September 10, 2011

A Dream of White Horses

It only lasted two summers, well one really, but hell, it was good. Born in Kent in 1967, flowering nicely in 1968, the glorious 1969, the fleshpots of London rearing their definitely not ugly heads in 1970 and killed on Portland Bill in June 1971. My rock climbing career was over by the time I was nineteen.

I‘m not sure if it was the 22nd Wimbledon Scout troop that gave rise to all this but I think it probably was. They took us pony trekking (as naff as it sounds), gliding (quite amusing if a little chilly in an open cockpit glider) and then rock climbing. This was it. One trip to Harrison’s Rocks at Groombridge just outside Tunbridge Wells and I was hooked. This is what I wanted to do. I left the Scouts, much to my mother’s consternation, and put my lot in with Mark Lee from school. Mark was a climber. A proper climber who, even at the age of sixteen had been to the Alps. I was never really interested in Chamonix other than gazing at black and white pictures of Joe Brown and Don Whillans smoking whilst belayed to bits of alpine rock and wishing I were just like them. But I had zero money and Chamonix might just as well have been on the moon as in France. I started bouldering (although I didn’t know that is what it was) at Harrison’s as often as I could which was most Sunday’s of the summer of ’67. Mark was older than me and had three things - a motorbike license, a scooter and a mate who also had a scooter. The mate was Richard Borysiewicz (Borrie) who was to become my climbing partner for the next couple of summers. Borrie was a mod (hence the scooter) and liked dreadful music and Ben Sherman shirts but the possession of the motorised transport far outweighed his awful musical taste.

Harrisons Rocks is a collection of sandstone outcrops no more than thirty feet high and was but an hour by multi headlamped Vespa from home. All the climbs were done using a top rope so it was as safe as houses. You walked round to the top of the climb you wanted to do, put a sling around a stout tree, attached a karabiner, threw both ends of your manky ‘Harrisons rope’ to the bottom and tackled the route of your choice in absolute safety; and with the option of a bit of ‘tight rope’ to ease you over tricky moves. The doyen of Harrisons was Trevor Panther who had written the guide and was known as ‘Tight Rope Trev’. As well as telling what was where, Trev’s guide also introduced me to the concept of grading climbs. All single pitch and so they only got a numerical grade. 1A was scaling a phone book – laid on its side. The highest grade circa 1967 was 6B which I regarded as very difficult but not impossible. A look at the internet now reveals that grading has gone up to about 17F. The first climb I ever did once the nannying of the Scouts was removed was a thing I later learnt was called Long Layback and was graded 5A. Easy peasy. Borrie and I settled into a steady diet of 5C-6A fare with a side of 6B now and then.

We’d soon done all the ‘hard’ routes at Harrison’s and most of them repeatedly. We had heard of ‘proper’ rock climbing but it was all a long way away; certainly too far for the Vespa. To us the Peak district was not really very appealing and North Wales beckoned. Not for us the old school Ogwen Valley, all tweeds hobnailed boots and climbs graded difficult - which meant they weren’t. Climbs on proper cliffs had several pitches and lost their numerical grading and now had descriptive labels ranging from moderate (a 1 in 12 on tarmac) through difficult, hard difficult, very difficult, severe, hard severe, very severe (VS), hard very severe (unsurprisingly HVS) to extreme (XS). Individual pitches weren’t numerically graded in that summer of love. It would appear they now are and XS has gained grades up to E8 or something. Back then there were standard XS, f. difficult XS and no thanks. The Ogwen Valley was all diff and hard diff and this appealed not at all. Borrie and I wanted the real deal and for that you went to the Llanberis Pass; Dinas Cromlech was where we wanted to be. But how to get there? For the rest of 1967 we were marooned in Kent.

Borrie was a couple of years older than me and had a job (apprentice toolmaker) that bought in money. He bought an ex Metropolitan Police minivan in the winter of 1968 and our anticipation of the start of the 1968 cricket season was only heightened by the purchase of climbing magazines and scraping together some proper equipment. The manky Harrisons’ rope patently would not do as the stakes were about to go up big time. Where we were going we could die if we fell off onto a bit of mum’s washing line. This was brought into sharp relief when Mark Lee returned from an early season trip to the Alps on a stretcher. Big peel somewhere high and foreign and lucky to escape with two broken legs courtesy of one of these new fangled German kernmantel ropes. I scrimped and saved every penny I could for months and took it all into the YHA shop in Sutton to emerge with 150 foot of 11mm yellow kernmantel. I remember to this day that it cost me £12 17s 6d and was my most prized possession. Ever. As we tackled more complex routes we graduated to using two 9mm ropes to cut down the friction - all very modern. All the various chocks and nuts and things we need to set protection were not a problem as Borrie made them at work. We also bought one of those little plastic covered pocket guides to crags and pored over it during the winter months. I knew what Dinas Cromlech looked like in intimate detail months before I ever saw it in the flesh.

The Llanberis Pass in 1968 was my idea of heaven. For openers the best climbing shop in Britain was in Llanberis; the one owned and run by Joe Brown. You often had a chance of actually being served by him. I would go and buy half a crown’s worth of sling just to interface with the great man. You see, Joe Brown was a climbing God. He and Don Whillans (and a few others of the Manchester based Rock and Ice Club) had turned British climbing on its head just after the War and Brown style climbing was still the thing in the mid sixties. Don Whillans appealed to me almost as much as Brown. Don was short like me and climbed in a flat hat. I obviously had to do the same and routinely left my helmet in the van and took to the rock in an ‘orrible cheese cutter from a second hand shop. At the time one of Joe Brown’s principal claims to fame was Cenotaph Corner, the iconic route on Dinas Cromlech. More of that later. Llanberis had all the ‘hard’ crags that were the domain of EB and PA rock boots (I preferred EBs) and jeans and not the hobnails and tweeds of Capel Curig and the climbing 'establishment'. Do I look like a bloke who listens to Perry Como? Llanberis had crags with great names; Craig Ddu, Clogwyn y Grochan, Carreg Wasted, Dinas Mot, Cyrn Las and Dinas Cromlech itself. The summer of ’68 was spent polishing off all the HVS and ‘easy’ XS we could find on all these crags. It seems now we drove up the A5 every weekend for months and slept in the van in the Cromlech car park but we probably only made half a dozen trips. But it was up at dawn and climb until we dropped.

Every time we were on the Cromlech we stood at the bottom of Cenotaph Corner and thought of an excuse not to have a go. 'It is going to rain'. 'Oh, look there’s already someone on it'. 'You left the third MOAC in the van'. All bollocks; we were scared of it. Its aura was such that although it is not exceedingly hard (it is certainly not easy, I can assure you) it was getting a place in our minds where it was impossible. Just standing at the bottom and looking up does not give lie to this notion. Writing this now it is sobering to note that it was first conquered sixty years ago but in the mid sixties the route was only seventeen years old – a heartbeat considering the rock had been there for millennia. Cenotaph Corner in 1968 was a real benchmark. There were those who had done it and those who hadn't and I didn't reckon I would be anything until I had done it. It seemed important, no vital to my continuing existence, then. I put a tentative hand on its first couple of moves once and was terrified only three feet off the ground.We didn’t dare have a proper go in ’68.

If it rained (and this happens a lot in Snowdonia) we would take Plod’s van down to Tremadoc. There is a cliff here that is in Snowdonia’s rain shadow and you could climb bathed in sunshine when it was pissing down in the Pass. Routes here were short (two pitches the norm) but could be quite hard and there was a good (I’m not sure I would call it that now) cafĂ© attached to the petrol station across the road. Petrol was very important to us as it was expensive, our biggest outlay and probably our biggest constraint to progress as we were seriously hard up. If we didn’t have enough money to get to North Wales we would go and climb the sea cliffs at Swanage that were only three hours drive from SW London.

Autumn ’68 arrived and A levels took the place of cliffs as winter approached; I had no interest in winter climbing anyway. 1969 was my last year in school and with exams finished in June and University not starting until October we had four months. All we needed now was some weather. I recall the summer of 1969 as being a pearler; but then aren’t all the summers of your youth blessed with endless blue skies when viewed through the retrospectoscope? By this time we knew our way around the Pass and were determined to have a good go at Cenotaph Corner. Over the winter we had also come to hear of Clogwyn d’ur Arddu – Cloggie.

This was the new Holy Grail of British rock climbing. A massive complex of cliffs near the summit of Snowdon which were protected by their remoteness from the road (as I recall it took about three hours to walk in from the top car park) and their greater than fair share of inclement weather even for Snowdonia. The reputation of the place was that all the routes were big and they were all bloody hard. Not far wrong, but to me at a bulletproof seventeen going on eighteen this was what I wanted. We went there only once but had an epic day doing Cloggy Corner and White Slab in a day. Even now I reckon that was a bloody good effort. Cloggy Corner was not my style, all grunt and jamming but White Slab was a ripper. Easily the biggest climb we had done to date and we were probably out of our depth. But, hey, we were under twenty and could do anything. I don’t really remember much of it except that you have to lasso a rock spike at some point and use a rope to get across a seemingly holdless bit. I think we lassoed the spike on the first attempt but I really can’t recall the details.

Cenotaph Corner still loomed over us and I now cannot recall the mindset that got us to the foot of it where neither of us could think of an excuse to back out. The crux is at about 25 feet and I found this very hard. Once I had done it I was absolutely certain I couldn’t reverse it even if I wanted to. No choice, carry on. The fact that the worse was behind me didn’t seem much comfort when I looked up and the top seemed miles away and its just vertical and both the left and right walls look vast and I know getting out of the little cave at the top is also hard and I’ll be knackered by the time I get there and….. Can I really remember this in all this detail over forty years later? I think I can. We knew there was already a peg in situ for aid at the top (I think there might have been a couple and I think they both looked manky) for which I was very grateful. I was crap at putting pegs in, we had a very poor selection (no money) and by the time I got to the place where it was needed I hardly had enough remaining strength to think let alone wield a peg hammer. Well we did it. Great feeling of triumph, knackered, elated (but not overly so) and I can’t remember what we thought the future might hold for us.

At this point we had done most of the stuff we wanted to do in the Pass. We weren’t interested in anything under HVS and there was, even then, a load of stuff that we knew was beyond our abilities; we were good (well above average of those climbing in the late sixties) but we weren’t that good. Using footballing parlance we were nowhere near Premier League but might have given most First Division sides a good game. If Brown and Whillans were the mega stars of the fifties, new names were the ones to watch in the late sixties. The only names I can now remember were Pete Crew and a bloke called Ed Drummond. Drummond had been climbing on sea cliffs on the North West coast of Anglesey. In particular we had heard of an ‘amazing’ route of his called Dream of White Horses. This was a sort of traverse that you had to abseil into and then the final pitch was supposed to be the most exposed thing you could imagine. And it wasn’t that hard – honest.

Back in the Minivan at the end of September 1969 to drive right to the end of the A5. You drive to the car park by, I think, North Stack and then walk over a sort of cliff top moorland bit and then you see Wen Zawn and Drummond’s creation. You have got to be joking. The moment I saw it I just knew this was all I ever wanted out of rock climbing. I was absolutely gobsmacked. The first three pitches across this vast white slab were obvious and magnificent. But the final pitch; deary me. The traverse took you to the bottom of a series of hanging buttresses that, well, just hung there. 200 feet, maybe, straight into the sea; fall off here and you would just be dangling above the puffins in the middle of nowhere with any rock tens of yards away. Totally mindboggling. How the hell Drummond ever saw a way up the seeming maze to the top was beyond me. We looked at it from the other side of the zawn and it was obvious that it had to be done. Abseiled in and then the only way out is to climb out or prussic back up your abseil rope. I insisted that I led the final pitch. If I can remember little of climbing Cenotaph Corner forty two years and a few weeks ago I can remember virtually every move of Dream of White Horses forty two years ago. It was what I went rock climbing for. It was hard but not too hard and it was exposed – shit it was exposed - and it was absolutely the best climb I had ever done by the length of the straight and then some.

And that was it. Dream was the last proper climb I did and from forty years away that is just the way it should have been. I can think of nowhere I would have wanted my climbing career to progress from there. It couldn’t have got any better and it, therefore, could only be downhill from there. And it was until I put it out of its misery, because that is what it became. I went to University a couple of weeks later and that was in the middle of London. London had no cliffs but it had members of the species who had no Y chromosome and it had beer. Neither was conducive to proper rock climbing. I joined the University Mountaineering Club (it was already going wrong; I was never a mountaineer) and doodled pictures of karabiners on the side of my biochemistry notes for a term. I fell in with a new mate in the Mountaineering Club who thought a good day on the crags was a gentle v diff in the morning and then repair to the pub for a few beers and a game of darts. I started to agree with him. The Mountaineering Club had females who wanted to walk the Pyg Track. Borrie was still setting tool heights in South London but was long gone; the bloke with whom I repeatedly trusted my life (literally) I now wouldn't recognise if I tripped over him. My climbing summer of 1970 was shameful. V diffs, beer and darts.

I started playing water polo and the Tour every year was to Dorset. You played in the evening so had the day to play the goat, eat crab sandwiches and drink beer. In June 1971 Fisty Palmer made a guest postgraduate appearance on tour. Great water polo player (played for British Universities) and sometime rock climber of the v diff variety I was now moving amongst. We set off to mess about on some inconsequential cliffs at Portland Bill to fill the day before playing Bridport in the evening. I had a filthy hangover and was sweating like a pig. Hands like dish mops. I was about twenty feet up a bit of limestone with no protection in and lunged (I shudder to think of it even now – I never lunged for anything. I was never very strong but I managed what I did by economy of movement and balance) for a sort of bosselated lump the size of a baked bean tin. It was poor technique in spades and I paid for it big time. Inevitably peeled off backwards straight onto the rocky beach. Shit it hurt. I had obviously broken something in my back and I had to be winched off the beach by helicopter. This was quite good fun as I got some morphine prior to the flight. A crush fracture of L1 and a smashed left scapula – and I was bloody lucky at that. First my Mum knew about it was when it was reported on the TV News that a 19 year old holiday maker (holiday maker – how embarrassing is that?) had been rescued by helicopter……Not amused. A week in Portland Navy Hospital with my mates visiting me daily. What decent chaps thought I until I realised that I was the only one on tour that had any money left and they just came to win it off me at three card brag at which they knew I was useless.

This episode just confirmed the bleeding obvious; give it up – you’ve done the Dream, there is nothing else you need to do. So I did. Got to be quite a good darts player and put on weight.

(Of necessity none of the pictures in this post are mine - no digital cameras in the late sixties. I think all the pictures are in the public domain; if they are not I will happily take them down. None of the people in the pictures is me or Borrie - but the places where they are pictured are where we were. To the millimetre. It was just a very long time ago)

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