Tuesday, 24 September 2013

Unknown Stones

On the way into Sheffield I stare out across the saturated countryside, its a grim day, the first of winter perhaps. With temperatures dropping and leaves gathering in the gutters its not long before the season begins. Of course when thoughts drift to winter I prefer to remember only the days of perfect crisp weather, rather than the many depressing hours spent inside on the plastic, watching the rain. The bus crawls through the villages and past all the great gritstone outcrops, long ago pillaged of their true lines by the key figures of British climbing's history. There are of course new routes to be done, but most are mere sideshows surrounded by the greatness of the past. As Sheffield approaches I again find my mind transfixed on thoughts of a small group of stones, stuck into the cliff-face, perched above the old mill towns of Lancashire.

It had begun on a warm, balmy afternoon in the Chew Valley. The day was progressing in the usual unproductive fashion, try this, try that, "too bold", "too snappy". Wimberry is an unusual crag in its angles and dimensions, its bounded by sharp soaring aretes and walls interspersed by deep dark corners and cracks, almost like the keys on a piano. The jewel in the Chew crown has had a special summer, many of its lines have seen rare attention whilst its true last great problem was claimed in a blaze of bamboo canes and grunting. As the day progressed the thought of leaving without doing something, or at least having a reason to return, made me spur into action. I told Oli that I was going to abb a potential new line, being needlessly coy about its location only 30ft away. I guess I just didn't want to jynx it. On first acquaintance the wall had no holds, aside from a small edge with a thumbcatch and a fat pebble just next to it. However, being just this side of slabby, it gave me enough reason to set up the top rope. Working out the moves proved tenuous and tricky, with several holds coming off in the process. After around an hour of practice the moves were done, the crux revolving around the crucial thumbcatch edge. At least now there was reason for return.

The red line of Unknown Stones on this Gritstone axehead
For just under a month the line occupied my thoughts. We returned only to be warned about clouds of midges on the walk in, and whenever there was another opportunity the weather callously intervened. After starting to feel as if time were running out to try the line again, I was granted a days belay from Dad. In the cold winds we made that familiar trudge up the hillside. First time up the rock felt sticky, I cruised from the resting hold to the top crux move, I was stunned, the climbing felt easy. Then all of a sudden I was on the rope. Something had happened, and the noise on the thumbcatch edge hitting the ground 15m below let me know loud and clear. At that moment there was a mixture of emotions. Anger at the rocks betrayal, relief at the fact it had snapped on toprope. This was the third "crucial" hold to have fallen off the route now, I needed another new sequence. After more working one came to hand, undercutting a pebble to reach the good holds just below the top. The main downside of the new sequence is that its now the crux of the route and relies pulling pretty hard on a pebble. After working out the traverse over to the resting foothold (moves on Dougie Hall's masterpiece Appointment with Fear) I was able to link the route three times, a real coup considering how badly the day had started. Now there was real reason to return, which was both awful and amazing in equal measure.

The traverse on Fear
As the days ticked by I felt more and more nauseous at the idea of returning, at the idea of climbing on that slab. I thought constantly about those tiny stones, each one of them a completely unknown quantity, and for all I knew held in by nothing more than a few square millimetres of coarse moorland grit. The week crawled to its conclusion, Friday was the day, it had been set in stone. There were people keen, the weather forecast was good, this was it. Until it wasn't. It drizzled most of the way there, on arrival the crag was damp in some places and sodden in others. This had not been forecast. In an act of blind and naive optimism we set about chalking and towelling the damp rock, after a few hours of no rain and a strong breeze the route had dried out enough to work the moves again. I was hesitant to try the slab, pebbles pull out of damp rock much more readily, and if I lost another of my confidants the route may cease to exist. Drier and drier the route became, the excuses were slowly dissipating on the breeze. Two more full links and I'd reached the magic number in my mind, five.

Leaving the sanctuary of the foothold
Everything was set up, pads on the ledge and my rope through a siderunner in the crack. Both become redundant as soon as Fear is left, and from the last crux move a 13m deck or slam is obligatory. Pull on, swing out, the crux mantle on Fear runs smoothly on the now dry slab. Stand in balance, tug the rope, its dragging. Commit to the next section of Fear, a balancy step through and rockover. Stood on the resting foothold the situation suddenly becomes all too real. My position, standing on the lip of this great axe of rock slicing clean through any thought of control. The option to doubt yourself there is immense and, like a certain slab in Wales, you have to choose to continue.

Pausing Mid-Crux
After a few tricky set up moves the long crux section is reached. Thumb down on one pebble, pull hard on pebbly crimp, reach over for a tiny pebble. Then its another tiny pebble, then a good pebble, undercut this to the good holds. Halfway through this sequence and I pause, the rope is dragging. I experience a feeling new to me within the realms of hard grit climbing, a complete lack of control. In that instant there is no choice to be made, instinct kicks in and you keep pulling, no matter how fragile the little quartz stumps. The good holds are reached about two metres below the top, and so begins the victory march. When the jug is reached I'm in no rush to top out. This route has dominated my thoughts for weeks, and now I let the relief wash over me. Even after topping out its a few seconds before the inevitable release of anguish. Lent on my knees at the top I wasn't sure that I had climbed the route with the respect it deserves, but perhaps it had let me off.

Reaching salvation

In the past few weeks I've had time to consider everything about this route. I think I'll get the boring stuff out the way first. The route is physically harder and more dangerous than its neighbour Appointment With Death. On this basis and comparing it to the other E7-8s I've done Unknown Stones is likely to be at least E9 6c.

I think I'll finish with these thoughts. Why do I and some people obsess over these kind of routes? My motivation to do this route came from several sources. Firstly it always stuck out to me as an obvious gap, I appreciate it may look slightly contrived to some, but I can assure you that were the line escapable into either of its neighbouring routes I wouldn't have bothered doing it. It is only the direction and location of the holds that make it possible, yet also inescapable. Secondly the moves on it are great, its a good example of minimalist climbing, with only just enough holds to link the wall. Lose one of the crucial ones and it would be far, far harder. So, as far as the climbing and the line go, its a great addition. Of course there is also the mental aspect. Routes like this captivate my mind in a way that no boulder or sport route ever could. You really have to question your motivation and then back yourself to the hilt when climbing on the lead. Second thoughts are not welcome, and its the challenge of controlling this gathering doubt that is so interesting.

Further interest came from establishing a new line on what is arguably (sorry b-south) the most hardcore grit crag in the country. Every line has a level of distinction. The "easy" routes being known for their sandbag difficulty and almost all of the harder lines characterised by their utter seriousness and complete lack of meaningful gear. Finally, climbing a new route means leaving your mark, you're writing a piece of history, on something that had been and will be there long after you've gone. I deny anyone to claim that this has no bearing on their thoughts when considering a new route, even if they're primarily climbing for the line or themselves. I think that is enough of that, you've done very well to read to here.

Thanks alot to Neil, Steve and the ever-patient Mike Hutton for waiting around on the day, belaying and helping me to dry the route!

In the end, when I weighed everything up this route just seemed worth it. In hindsight perhaps it wasn't. Clear cut as ever. 
Happy eejit.