NEW ROUTING RAT RACE?
Cubby wonders if today's high profile first ascentionists are telling the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth...
Ah, the joys of new routing! The exploration, the work, the stress and the paranoia - but then think of the fame and the glory! It's not much fun living in fear of somebody else stealing your climb. That much I can vouch for having been there on more than one occasion.
I always remember being stormed off an attempt at doing the first ascent of Wild Country on the Cobbler. I had arranged a week's climbing away with some friends in north Wales. There was no getting out of it and leaving the next day was the last thing I wanted to do.
A week away, I couldn't bare the thought of someone else nipping in and doing my route. Pete Whillance was sniffing around the Scottish hills at that time and Murray Hamilton of course, who had acquired a reputation for ruthlessly climbing other people's lines. Even worse, I had to abandon some gear! But climbing is a great leveller, it concentrates the mind and for most of the week I didn't think too much about the Cobbler - until the drive home that is. My stomach churned.
On reaching Glasgow, I immediately phoned Rob Kerr, my trusty climbing companion and arranged to meet him up at the bivi the next day. "Don't worry Dave, there's no way anyone is going to pinch your route. In any case who's capable of climbing it?" Rob's attempts to comfort me didn't work and I never doubted others ability anyway, especially as more English were acquiring a taste for Scottish rock.
The hitch up from Balloch seemed to take an eternity. I bought some food at Arrochar and then walked in from Succoth Farm. I couldn't go fast enough despite my huge sack. When I reached the bivy, Rob was there to greet me. "I can't see the gear Rob, the gear's gone, somebody's done the climb." Rob didn't know quite what to say. I said Hi, unhooking the sack from my shoulder and started jogging up to the top of the North Peak. Rob looked on in disbelief.
Some of the gear had definitely been taken, that much I could tell from the path beneath Punsters Crack. But there was no sign of any more chalk. At the top I lay flat on my stomach and peered over the great overhanging scoop. No new chalk. It's not been climbed, that was the most important thing I thought to myself and must've been grinning from ear to ear. Somebody has seen the gear, abseiled down to retrieve what they could but it's so steep that once the top piece was removed, they couldn't pull themselves in to get the remainder.
I discovered later that it was Tam MaCauley, alias Tam the Bam, one of the Creag Dubh who I knew well. He said that he thought that somebody was trying to do a new aid route "that looked pretty desperate by the way". I took this as a compliment. So all was well in the end and within two days the route was climbed.
So John Dunne has climbed Arran's last great problem on the Bastion of Cioch na h'Oighe. But wait a minute, is this not the same line as that taken by Dave MacLeod? Before his departure to the Dolomites, young Dave told me that he found a prototype Karrimor rucsack and static rope at the top of the Bastion, who else could it belong to but John Dunne, who as we all know is sponsored by Karrimor. "The chalk ran out before the big horn," said Dave none too convincingly, "and the rock's immaculate". It's also been raining a lot, which could have washed off some of the chalk, I replied. "The top pitch was really dirty," retorted Dave, "and I'm convinced it hasn't been climbed". It all began to sound oh, so familiar.
Murray Hamilton and I did what we thought to be the first free ascent of Titan's Wall on Ben Nevis. I always remember Murray saying, as we prepared to rap off from the top of the wall having climbed the route, "I don't know, it seemed too clean to me". A few days later, we bumped into Mick Fowler and Phil Thomas at the Dubh Loch. Phil had been working in Fort William for a while and spent most of his evenings on the end of the rope, cleaning Titan's Wall. They did the first free ascent only days before ours but didn't use chalk because of the cold. Initially I felt gutted for we had already been up before but turned back because of the cold. I still have fond memories of that day however, the experience was one of having made a first free ascent and in some ways I still associate our ascent with Mick and Phil's, historically at least.
So now we now have two routes on the Bastion, Dave's route, Macrocheira (E8 6a,6c,6b) starts up Abraxas, climbs the scooped wall to and round the horn, crosses Tidemark and takes the very serious wall above. John's route, The Great Escape (HXS 6b,6c,6c) has an independent first pitch starting to the right of Abraxas. The two descriptions are different, although I'm sure they more or less must follow the same line. As to who did the actual first ascent is between John Dunne and Dave MacLeod and as I'm no Sherlock Holmes, I'll give the detective work a body swerve. Whatever the outcome, I'm sure the guidebook author to Arran and Arrochar will be interested to know, after all he was probably responsible for encouraging its first ascent in the first place.
John Dunne is an outstanding climber who has more than proved himself in the past, present and will no doubt in the future. His build, fitness and strength, his determination and creative mind set him apart from others. Quite simply John is unique. But in some respects, I was disappointed when I read his piece on The Great Escape on his website. John explains that grading last great problems and superb lines is academic, saying that armchair critics often downgrade the true grades of his climbs, whether they have climbed the route or not and he believes that a grade is in the hands of a repeat ascentionist.
This I understand and believe to a large extent but personally speaking, I think such an outstanding climb is worthy of so much more than HXS. In light of Dave's ascent, it does come across as a bit of a cop out, even a facade. John talks of how the Bastion's central line resisted the efforts of many leading climbers, until his own ascent. There is nothing wrong in a little journalistic licence now and then, we're all guilty of that but I would be curious to find out who the leading climbers actually are.
When John climbed The Great Escape, he stresses the point that all the protection was placed on the lead (except from an insitu thread) and places great emphasis on this style, especially so "after seeing first hand the amount of pegs and more surprisingly, bolts placed on existing routes. Bolts have no place on mountain crags and in my opinion they should be removed, the possibility of which I would like to explore in the near future". John finishes by saying that mountain crags must remain bolt free and any lines that could go with the odd bolt or two should be left for future generations.
I don't think anyone would disagree with John's views but let's not delude ourselves over the use of the word "adventure". On that note I would still defend the use of pegs on a true ground up first ascent, without prior knowledge or recourse to pre cleaning. There are a few nagging details that are somehow missing for me in both John and Dave's descriptions. Dave shunted both of the hard pitches before leading them. I haven't got a problem with others top-roping routes - after all I've done it myself - but if we are as John inadvertently implies, upholders of adventure, then I do not think it is asking too much for a grade and style that the first ascent was completed in.
I would assume that by omitting any details of top-rope practice in John's description to The Great Escape that such tactics were not employed. We all live in a fast crazy world where time has become so precious, a world where even climbers and climbing have to some extent been sucked into the rat race. Would it not be challenging to give the rock just a wee bit of a chance and try these routes first without any pre-conceptions of top-roping?
Perhaps would-be first ascentionists should place a small plaque at the top of their new line, saying something along the lines "new route in progress", which gives the climber a right to ownership for a limited period of time.
What do you think of this column? Let us know at firstname.lastname@example.org