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.