Monday, April 13, 2009

Like chalk and choss



The British revel in eccentricity and nowhere has this been allowed full rein than in the sport that to outsiders appears completely dotty, namely climbing.

For evidence of this think of everyone from George Mallory and Andrew Irvine plodding up Mount Everest in their tweeds, to Don Whillans smoking cigars at high altitude, to stubbornly refusing to allow gritstone and bolts to co-exist, thus creating the sport of roped soloing.

Nowhere has the spirit of British climbing been better captured on films than on the new film Hard XS (Slackjaw Films).

From the team that created the legendary Hard Grit comes this crop of 10 short climbing films, each featuring on a different aspect of the game.

There includes the more familiar aspects of climbing including the understated and talented Steve McClure working and red-pointing his lengthy project Overshadow 9a (approximately grade 35) at Malham Cove.

It also includes youngster James Pearson describing his ascents of run-out gritstone routes like Knocking on Heaven’s Door and The Zone, both E9 6c or roughly 32/33 and Gaz Parry hanging off the ceiling of some dreary cave in Llandudno to create a series of 8a/8a+ routes (roughly grade 30).

But the real fun lies in watching the weirdness.

The first of these is the sheer terror on the second’s face as an ice axe-wielding Dave Thomas leads a quaking Martin Perry up a crumbling North Devon seacliff route called Breakaway HXS 5c/5b/5c/5a (about 18-21).

Perry: “It’s wrong”.

Thomas: “It’s a tottering pile of shale. You can’t get any decent protection in, the belays are shot to pieces. It’s how you cope with the journey which is the really interesting part”.

Perry: “I’m speechless to be honest. It’s rubbish, we shouldn’t be climbing on it”.

Four pitches later and the irrepressible Thomas is on top smiling as the blood slowly returns to Perry’s wan face.

Perry: “I’ve never been so stressed seconding”.

No less terrifying to the viewer, and at least one of the climbers, is Ian Parnell
and Chris Cubitt’s ascent of Great White Fright HXS (19/20) on the white cliffs of Dover.

Using ice axes and crampons the pair ascend the multi-pitch route in contrasting states of anxiety.

Parnell comments that “there are going to be moments when you’re going to have to
give yourself a talking to” and “who’s sane any way, who’s normal”.

Cubitt, who seemingly unwisely chose to do the route while on the road to mental recovery after a climbing accident, admits “I’m quite frightened now”.

When he tops out he’s more emphatic: “I did it on top-rope and I was fucking scared”.
Later Parnell returns in another short when he decides to again push his luck, this time tackling a long-standing unclimbed line in the Cairngorms when it is covered in two foot of ice.

Elsewhere there’s more dry-tooling madness when another pair launch themselves up another crumbling seacliff. We later hear that the route “fell down”.

There’s also the trickiness of climbing on slate in abandoned Welsh quarries, Neil Gresham indulging in the relatively sane sport of DWS and a funny and scary insight into one of Britain’s most successful mountaineers Andy Kirkpatrick in the tellingly entitled documentary Suffering Andy.

On being scared

By Rod Smith

The scariest lead that I can remember was about five years ago and it was my first trad lead after eight years away from climbing.

The pair of us rocked up to Secret Swinger (16) at the Wolgan and I was given the first pitch which, after an awkward start, is cruisy and well protected. I wobbled my way up and with great relief downed the rack in the sandy apocalyptic cave that is the belay.

After finding some attached sandstone amid the sand and blocks, I built an anchor and brought the other bloke up. When he got there he announced that he wasn’t interested in doing the second pitch and I’d have to.

Despite my protests I found myself climbing out under a roof, over a small rooflet and into a flaring corner. Nervous as hell I dropped three of the guy’s larger Camalots – he racked them in threes on one ‘biner which I hate – and watched as they hit the deck.

After stitching the first few metres with my remaining gear, I found myself horribly lacking in gear for the rest of the flaring corner crack and simply had to run it out for the last four or so metres to the top.

Feeling frightened and alone and buffeted by a stiff breeze that increased my feeling of isolation, I tentatively made my way upwards. I remember screaming gibberish, my mouth feeling like sandpaper as I wished I was somewhere else.

I also remember random, ridiculous thoughts like reassuring myself that my handjams would not involuntarily spring open like a boiled clam, that my harness buckle was still doubled back and that the knot wasn't untying of its own accord.

I also remember glimpsing my tent back at the Capertee campsite and wishing I was down there with a beer watching someone else doing this...

Then I mentally slapped myself and returned to the situation at hand which demanded that I shut the hell up and continue climbing...

After I eventually topped out and tied myself into a bomber nut I sat for a little while. I felt exhausted, and then the endorphins kicked in and I was exhilarated.

I’ve since been back twice since and led what it now a demystified climb. It's a familiar and friendly route but the chemical hit after I climb it never as good as that first time around.