Thursday, 31 August 2017

Feeding the Capybara

In his wonderful book Feeding The Rat, Al Alvarez talks about the titular phrase being "the need to get out, to test yourself, to flush out the system, and, above all, to have some fun". Well, on that basis, having climbed basically the square root of fuck all for several years, my rat was more of a ravenous capybara (the world's biggest rodent, fact fans). Or maybe it had died and I wasn't even a climber any more, just someone with a few good tales and a cupboard full of too many expensively acquired shiny things.

We were on a family holiday near Land's End, so I decided to throw the capybara a few crumbs to test its aliveness (Schroedinger's capybara?). The weather had been quite mediocre, but I had a few hours spare one evening, so I raced up to the Count House and walked down towards Bosigran - a path I've trodden many times before. Only this time I turned right and wandered round a beautiful little bay to the top of a crag - Halldrine Cove. This has a reputation as a fine beginners crag, being non-tidal and having a clutch of slabby, low-grade routes and an easy scramble down to the base.
Halldrine Cove - magic
I made my way down to the sea and traversed over to the start of a Diff. My arms vaguely remembered what to do, even if it all felt rather alien, and I was soon back at the top of the crag. Half an hour or so later and I was back there again with 3 more routes and over 100m of lovely easy climbing under my belt. I scrambled up to the little rocky summit of the buttress, watched the sun set into the sea and felt like I'd scratched an itch that I'd almost forgotten I had. All felt right with the world - it was a slightly hippy experience. Sadly this was punctured by me remembering that the car was half a mile away and significantly uphill, and it was about to get dark. Bah.

Roll on a couple of weeks and I had a 5 day climbing date with Oli. It had been a long time since we'd had a climbing adventure and the whole country was our oyster. So obviously the weather was utterly miserable. EVERYWHERE. It was even forecast to rain in Pembroke. The only place that looked vaguely dry was Swanage. Possible the biggest climbing area in the UK that I've never been to, and with good reason. Received wisdom being that it is steep, limestone and fally-downy. 3 of my least favourite things (yes yes yes, I know Pembroke is also limestone, but it's uniquely the good kind of limestone that proves the rule that all limestone is shit (the other exception being Jack Scout Crag, obvs)).

But before we had to go anywhere near the place, there was a day of dry weather in the Peak. Unfortunately I've climbed most of the routes in the Peak, but some judicious poring over guidebooks identified that there were unclimbed low grade routes, some of which had stars, at Gardoms. So we went there. The first order of business was to climb my 1,000th ticklist route, since I'd been marooned on 999 for ages. For those of you not keeping up, the ticklist is a list of every route at VS and below in the UK with at least 2 stars. There are about 3,400 of them and I'm determined to climb them all, however ridiculously unachieveable that goal may be.
Route number 1,000 and some daft bastard
 Anyway, Elliott's Crack, at the lofty grade of Severe, was the route accorded this mighty honour. It looked quite steep, although safe, and I was a bit scared racking up that I might fall off. Which would have been a bit anticlimactic. Luckily there was a lot of jamming and I can still evidently remember how to jam. There was also some glorious inelegant beaching onto a ledge below the top, and some hefty application of knees, before I arrived at the top of the crag, victorious, if a little bloody and out of breath. I could still remember how to climb 4a. And place gear. Ace. Some top bambering up Apple Arete from Oli, some weirdness up an HVDiff next door, and seconding Oli up NMC Crack in the pouring rain followed, whence we decided to call it a day and head south-west.

After a cracking night in the Old Spot in Dursley with Gordon, Katie, Paul and Becca, we set off to try and find some esoteric sandstone buttress under a flyover on the outskirts of Bristol, which Oli had spotted contained a 2 star VDiff in the recently-published Frome Valley Sandstone guide (sure to become an instant classic). Unfortunately access was blocked by some building works, so we asked a bloke in a high vis jacket and a Cambodia cap (nice) if we might get past. Through his debilitatingly thick Brizzle accent he seemed to be saying that this was his land and we should get off it. So we ran away. To Dartmoor. Where it was dry, but windy. Very windy.
Haytor
 We started at Haytor, where we had once spent a night bivvying under constant fear of being trampled to death in our sleep by rogue cows. I wombled up a nice VDiff and we wandered round to the Low Man with a view to climbing Raven Wing, a fun sounding VS. It had an in situ team who were in the middle of a bizarre domestic argument. The leader had climbed too high to make the committing swing round an arete which gained access to the main part of the route, and was loudly blaming her belayer for this. She then ploughed on upwards, placing several massively underextended runners, before finding a way onto the top part of the route. At this stage she began to reap the rewards of those short extenders and seemed to have a near infinite amount of rope drag to contend with. As an added bonus, she was totally unable to hear anything her belayer said to her due to the wind. Their dog was also making a concerted effort to get kicked in the head by a skittish Dartmoor pony. Fun times. (I should add that they were very nice, just not overburdened with competence).

After waiting a while, it became clear that this palaver was not going to resolve itself quickly, so we repeated a nearby Severe that we'd done on our last visit. It was ace, if surprisingly steep. By the time we'd finished this the route was free. It was worth the wait. The swing round the arete was super committing but not too hard once you'd persuaded yourself it was going to be ok, and the arete above was continuously interesting and very pleasant.

Given our slow start to the day we wanted to wring as much value as we could from the remaining daylight, so we headed back to the car and over to Hound Tor, where Oli soloed a Mod and I led a slightly underwhelming VDiff. Followed by some very underwhelming fish and chips in Bovey Tracey and a wild camp under the stars on the moor.
Hound Tor

Soloing at Hound Tor
 The weather wasn't perfect the next morning, but the forecast suggested it might stay mostly dry until lunchtime. So we headed to Sheeps Tor, home to a clutch of decent sounding lower grade routes. It was raining gently when we arrived, but the walk in was short so I insisted we should at least go and look at the crag. The routes faced away from the wind, so the rain was blowing over most of them, although it was utterly baltic. Anyway, it seemed like the only climbing we were likely to get done that day, so Oli led up a mostly dry and actually quite nice Severe, before I laid the smack down on a damp Diff. Grrr. Then it *really* started to rain and we ran away. We spent the rest of the day eating cream teas and playing pool in various venues along the south coast en route to visit my friend Susi who very kindly put us up in her caravan, and even made cake.
Prime conditions at Sheeps Tor

Classic rainy day shennanigans
 The next morning the rain had buggered off and it was finally the day of reckoning - we were going to Swanage. We decided to start with the Swanage-lite of Subluminal - a short walk in, non-tidal, and plenty of lower grade routes to go at. It also meant we didn't have to carry the enormous 80m static abseil rope with us. Whilst the view from the top of the crag was quite pretty:
So much crag. So many climb. So wow.
 my first impressions were that it looked much like I was expecting. Steep, limestoney and a bit fally-downy. Hmmm. Still, at least it was Oli's lead first. We abbed down and he set off up a Severe corner. To my surprise this was actually not shit. The rock was surprisingly grippy. There were some holds. The gear was good (not those awful rattly insecure nut placements you tend to get on limestone). There were even a few jams. And nothing fell off. There were also some cool massive fossils (this is the Jurassic coast after all). I led another route and it was similarly good. This was a bit disorientating. After a third good route the tide had gone out sufficiently for us to get round the corner to the cave of Avernus. The guidebook made this route sound amazing - climbing out of a cave through a blowhole in the roof. Standing at the bottom, it looked scary and wet. Very, very wet. I girded my loins and set off upwards. Good holds kept appearing above me, and the rough rock was grippy in spite of the dampness. Eventually I hit the roof at the back of the cave and had to start bridging, alarmingly, out towards the window above the cave entrance that marked my salvation. The holds kept appearing, but the position, directly above Oli 10m below me, was amazing. Very reminiscent of the excellent (but much harder) Inner Space at Mother Careys (which I wrote about here). Eventually I squeezed out through the skylight and back into the land of the living. Magic. Proper good old fashioned stupid fun. Basking in the sun as I laughed at Oli struggling up after me I almost felt like a proper climber again. *Almost*.

Suitably warmed up (and warming to the crag), we decided we should have a proper Swanage experience. So we drove to the (excellent) campsite at Tom's Field and walked over the hill (lugging the massive ab rope) to the top of Cormorant Buttress. Or at least, somewhere near the top of Cormorant Buttress. I had foolishly left Oli in charge of the guidebook, so we were a bit lost. Eventually we found the spot we were looking for. Probably. I tied the ab rope to the single available stake, backed it up with a dead bush, armed myself with a photo of the route description on my phone and set off down the ab rope.

The steep grass slope peppered with large loose blocks above the crag looked horrific (very Lundy/Gogarth esque and apparently a bit of a Swanage speciality), so I traversed it gingerly (hoping the line of our route would finish somewhere near the ab rope so we could escape up it) before setting off into the vertical unknown. At some point, half way down a 60m abseil, tied to one rusty stake and a dead shrub, abseiling down to a tidal boulder as the tide came in, very unsure if we were in the right place at all, and facing a very long swim if we weren't, I realised I was a lot less scared than any rational person would be. In fact I wasn't really that bothered at all. This all felt very normal. I think I can pinpoint this as the moment I realised that I was definitely still a climber, just a really bad one. The Capybara lives!
Committed to finding a way out
 After this magnificent epiphany, the route itself wasn't all that. The first pitch was nice enough on some funky rock, but the second pitch was a bit dirty, wandering and generally rubbish. And there was laybacking. Ugh. Not really worth 3 stars (or 2), but worth it for the experience. Probably a bit of a terrifying experience for the budding Severe leader though. At least it did finish next to the ab rope.
Cormorant Buttress West - average climbing, but a worthy adventure
We rounded off our trip the following morning with a quick visit to Cattle Troughs, where Oli led a really good little VS, Isis. There were a lot of roofs, but not much steep climbing, which was nice. I managed to second it in a vaguely competent way (trying my best to be quick since I suspected, correctly, that we were running late).

So what's the moral of this story? Well, for the first time in almost 4 years I actually feel like some kind of rock climber. I'm not sure when I'll next have a chance to climb any rocks, but I'm quite psyched for it to be soon. I might even have to dust down my climbing logbook spreadsheet and give it a makeover...

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