I found myself getting quite nostalgic about rock climbing the other day. I haven't done any for years. I threw out my rope and harness a while back: man-made fabrics, even the toughest, don't last for ever and both were well past their sell-by date.
I found myself
remembering how, when it went well, a vertical, rocky environment was a
wonderful place to escape to. Oddly, one can feel securely cocooned
among the cracks, corners and bulges of a cliff. The surface is close to
your face, it demands that you be aware of it, in a way we are rarely
aware of the detail of the ground beneath our feet. Anyone who has
climbed on a warm, Summer day will remember the smell of hot rock.
Arranging one's protection -taking in ropes, paying them out, clipping
and unclipping karibiners- one looses oneself in a relaxing, meditative
And then there are the routes. I was never any
good and so had to cultivate an interest in old, easy routes - routes
that were difficult in the old days as "protection" was limited or
non-existent but easy enough in these days of chocks, hexes and
"friends" (spring loaded camming devices).
I didn't need a lot of encouragement to stay with these old routes. The
history of climbing makes for great literature and, fortunately, the
literature of climbing is prolific, from the Victorian Edward Whymper's Scrambles Amongst the Alps, through WH Murray's accounts of his Scottish climbs to more modern writers such as Joe Simpson, David Craig and Al Alvarez, to name but a few.
then -and this is what set me off writing this post- there are the
names climbers give to the routes they devise. Few people realise when
they look up at a cliff that, to a climber who consults his or her
guidebook, it will most likely be covered with a tracery of routes. And
the names? They range from the boringly descriptive -such as "Central
Chimney"- to the outright poetic. Often a name's significance derives
from it's pre-existing neighbour. On Pic Tor in Derbyshire, Diagnosis runs up the crag next to Prognosis. Humour abounds. The late Arthur Dolphin (a climber active in the 1940s) named a route he'd climbed in the Lake District Kipling Groove.
When asked why, he said "because it was ruddy 'ard." All the best route
names tell a story, although usually we'll never know what it was.
Sometimes it's obvious. On Kinder Scout there's a crag known as Chinese Wall - up one side there's a Communist Route, up the other a Nationalist Route.
To name but a few, picked at random from the pile of guidebooks I have beside me: Tranquillity, Hades, Gehenna, Cinderella's Twin, Cucumber Groove, Ulysses or Bust, Soyuz (next to Apollo), Soho Sally, The Flute of Hope, Tales of Yankee Power, The Mangler, Time Machine, Piranha Wall. Most are short. Some are longer: Float like a Butterfly, Land like a Tomato.
many great books have been written about climbing, some of the best
mountain literature is out there, invisible to the naked eye, the
rambling collaborative poems the lines of which are the names of the
routes themselves, words composed by those who first climbed them.
Although, in the days when I climbed, I never composed any lines myself
(in words or on rock) I enjoyed reading them.
4 years ago