Friday, 22 March 2013

Invisible Graffiti

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 way.

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.

And 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.

Although 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.


tony said...

You Know,I Told You About The Place I Have In Italy in Abruzzo?this is the view I have From My bathroom window.You can seen them rock climbing from there!

Gwil W said...

Never read it myself but a friend of mine reckons Herbert Tichy's Cho Ohyu is the best book about climbing. Don't know if you can get in English.

The Weaver of Grass said...

I like your oxymoronic title!
Glad you have thrown your old gear away - because you feel you are too old I hope rather than so that you can make room for some new stuff.
Are you snowed in down there?

Dominic Rivron said...

Thanks for these comments.

tony: Great view. Looks like limestone which usually means the climbs are very hard.

GwilW: Not read it. It must be good: the only version of it I can see on Amazon costs 99 quid! I'll add it to my mental list of books to look out for when browsing through 2nd hand bookshops.

WofG: I'm not too old - it's just I don't feel like risking my life for fun any more. (I never did feel like it, come to think of it. The danger somehow looms larger in my imagination these days, though).

Not snowed in exactly but there has been a lot of it.

Alan Burnett said...

I have always wanted to start a blog with a sentence like "I found myself getting quite nostalgic about rock climbing the other day". But I must confess it is well outside my experience. "I found myself getting quite nostalgic about going to the dentist", maybe. Even getting nostalgic about going to listen to Wagner. But rock climbing is a dream too far.

George said...

Very interesting, Dominic. I recall with pleasure some of the climbing stories you share when we spent time together on the Hadrian's Wall Walk.

A Cuban In London said...

Fascinating post. I didn't know anything about the names climbers gave to the places they did their climbing on. Many thanks, I quite enjoyed that.

Greetings from London.

Friko said...

I suppose it helps to have a sense of humour when you are stuck to a cliff face like a fly to glass pane; a sense of humour stops you panicking.

never having tried any form of climbing in my youth I am unlikely to start now. I have a tenuous enough grasp of terra firma.

GOAT said...

You know, if you don't consider yourself a great climber, maybe it's best you quit while you were ahead (and alive)!

When I was in Japan and becoming increasingly "mountain crazy", I expected I would end up becoming a real climber as well as a hiker. "Fortunately" there were two deaths in the same month, and these were both internationally famous climbers - of course I'm talking hardcore high-elevation climbing. This coincided with realising I lacked the common sense and quick reactions necessary for that activity - as well as being quite cold-intolerant and too old to start such a dangerous "hobby". I stuck with walking and feel I might at least continue it safely into old age.

I too read a lot of climbing lit in those days and still have dozens back home. The Eiger is my favourite "literary" mountain - and also the scariest. Walking in its eerie shadow was a hiking highlight. I've read every Simpson and the movie of 'Touching the Void' is great too - in fact I followed Simpson on Twitter but he talked about cricket etc too much and I dropped him.

The thing about most climbing books is that they are catalogues of intense suffering - but the poetic & profound inevitably shine through as well. Mark Twight is a modern climber/writer with a sort of punk-rock approach. His books are kinda angry at pathetic humans with easy lives, but he seems to detest himself just as fiercely!

I've noticed that many of the climbing routes in America have rock'n'roll-esque names. Very cool.