I'm a woman

I'm a woman
Photos copyright Laurence Gouault
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Friday, 24 February 2012

The Way of the Dervish, by STEVIE HASTON

Katie Haston on the Dervish

Are route names important? 'Seventy Thousand Assyrians' is the title of a short story by a brilliant writer called William Saroyan. I was going to use it as a route name but instead I chose 'Comes the Dervish'. It became the name of a symbolic route of a thousand shades of mauve and purple.

A slab that had been chipped for me by an unknown Welsh Powder Monkey, slippery stone, turned into a test for chalk-covered fingers. Mostly it was mine, 'all mine my precious', but of course you can share it. Routes are funny little things, mere pathways up bits of stone, but sometimes they have a story. We often burden them with significance, and mystery and an aura totally beyond their span. Slate routes are a little odder than most. The very medium implies distrust; brittle and incredibly lacking in friction, this stone cannot be trusted. Or so we once thought, and maybe we still secretly believe that slate is malign.

In 1980 I was sitting in Pete's Eats at lunchtime, without the means to afford lunch. I was staring in the direction of the Prince of Wales, though I had no money for its fine ale, and I was banned anyway. Through the drizzle I noticed that some slates on some roofs were by some alchemy dry. It wasn't a trick, it was a sign, a starting block for a new route boom, so I stirred my tea and then naturally forgot about it. That's what happens to great ideas when dropped into the minds of young lads, they are simply forgotten. You generally need burning bushes or meteorite strikes to wake youths up. Later that week I failed to hitch to Tremadog and instead found myself swimming in the magical aquamarine of the Vivian Lake. My companion was a happy hippy chick, we were not burdened by clothes, we were floating, resting on the surface tension of a secret spell, between the blue of the lake and the turquoise of the sky, a trance-like place, timeless. As we opened our eyes, a kaleidoscope of colours assailed us, blues, browns, purples, greens, spinning around and then, there, in the middle, appeared the Dervish. It showed the way, it promised scary stuff, vanquished by arcane techniques, it was The Way.
Spending time in North Wales is easy. So many rock types within a short drive, the sea cliffs and the mountains, nowhere in Britain offers such variety of climbing. One day in London thirty years ago I quit my job, packed my pack, hitched to Wales, and fell in with a crazy bunch of rowdies, reprobates and riotous Pan worshippers. They were climbers, but they were also people in love with life. I was a student of climbing, and came to be apprenticed, to learn more, broaden my skills and at the same time shake a tail feather in the university of Lambert. They were halcyon heady days, hazy after all this time, but famous to those who were there.
Fight club every Friday night in Caernarfon. The elders of the climbing world dishing out free advice and the odd sandbag in the Padarn Lake hotel on Saturdays. Climbing was so popular that you couldn't get into the pubs of a weekend, or onto the fashionable crags. This meant routes were clean, info was on offer, and there were partners and enjoyable climbing society everywhere. You could be penniless and physically broken, but some kind old dude would buy you a pint and listen to your tales of daring do. The elder statesmen had been everywhere and done most things, some shameful, some staggering, but all recounted in that put-down, self-disparaging style, punctuated by boyish smiles. The partying was prodigious, the casualties colossal, the fun farcical and free ranging. At one party I remember the editor of the world's premier climbing magazine and the head of the BMC, both unconscious, and I didn't think this odd or inappropriate.

It was the time of the famous Dance of the Flaming arseholes and other such social frivolities. A time and a mindset never to be forgotten. I lost a lotta mates in the next few years and I'd just like to mention Al Harris, Mark Whitfield, Rob Utley, Gordon Tinnings and Dirty Alex (Macintyre), because they were very special to me. You hear a lot today about the trauma of losing mates, but in those days you just went on the ale. Some of course never got back off it, and became casualties of another sort.
There were whacking great holes in my climbing skills, apart from a yearning in my heart for fun, laughter, and joy, and I needed to fill these needs. Having travelled around the country I had seen many very good climbers and come to understand the necessity of the complete palette of skills. Colourful Wales was the place for me to learn mind skills, not just the rockcraft, but also the Jedi-stuff. In those far off times there were some exceptional people who not only had the moves, but also could tap into a flow, a secret place of free movement, unencumbered by fear. It wasn't always there of course, and it wasn't always accessible, but you could see it if you looked very closely and thought outside the finger strength box.
In the 70s and early 80s people did think differently. Ron Fawcett had the flow occasionally. He is famous now, but then he was just one of a huge bunch of very talented climbers who at times tapped into the flow. When he did Lord of the Flies, you could see he was there, he was inside that climb, he was complete. Ron didn't have it all the time; it comes and goes, this gift. For some of us it is there briefly, for just one summer of superlative stuff, and then poof, it's away, just a happy memory.

Great climbers I have seen are Joe Brown, prodigy John Allen, and masters Ray Evans and Hank Pasquil. The last two were incredibly cool on lead, and not widely known. Ray took the piss outta me once when I was trying a new route on Gogarth in '78, when my second was pressurising me to put a peg in and use it to clean a loose section, so that we could do the route, though with aid. I listened to Ray rather than my famous second and retreated. My greedy second went back and did the first ascent. I lost a route, but learned a very valuable lesson from a master. I knew I could move my level of loose rock skills higher and didn't have to compromise my fair play to accommodate my ambition.
The Dervish was very blank when I stared at it from the scree-covered tier at its base. It was unlike any of the few routes that had been done on slate until then, which had been fairly easy and more exploratory adventures, rather than technical tests. This clearly was going to be very hard. I bouldered out the start, taking ground falls from loose flakes until I managed to get stuck on a little ledge at about 12-foot.
The next 100-foot looked the same, but further, bigger ground falls were more than my knees and heart would stand. So, I abseiled down, cleaning it with a knife and fork from Pete's Eats. There was gear, but it would all be very small, number one and two stoppers, and the climbing was going to be on fingertips and rubber edges. After I'd cleaned it, I gave the first lead attempt to Chipper Jones, as he was the best slab climber in our posse. He couldn't believe I was giving away such a pearl, but I wanted to learn and my intuitive brain told me I would learn more by watching than by doing. These were the years before videos, YouTube, and blogging infinite, and it was hard to learn, but damn it, I wanted to learn. I wanted to know my shortcomings, so that maybe I could make them up.
Chipper gave it a really good go, getting high but then ran out of strength, and psyche, but not technique. Being stronger than Mr. Jones I knew I just had to access more psyche, and so I did, I just pulled the switch and I became the Whirling Dervish. I woke up above the overlap my last gear miles below, and with 20-foot of uncleaned rock to the belay. I made it to the sound of Chipper swearing at me for succeeding on 'his' route. Chipper and McGinley did the second ascent, and Dougie 'the Bold' Hall the third, but not without taking a fall. It was top end E5 for a while, a good test of one's inner calm, and it became a collectors' route. Slate was to hold on to its bad reputation for a long time.
Even to this day there are people who are proud that they did an early ascent of the Dervish. Younger climbers should realize that in those far away days people mostly had very limited racks of gear, and climbing boots with holes in them. Climbers made personal journeys of discovery rather than trained. They were archaic times, and people's standards were all over the place. Good climbers often had to access some intestinal fortitude or some Jedi calm to make up for lack of gear or physical fitness. Climbers took climbing to a certain level, only for it to be forgotten, and then others would start again. There was little continuity of knowledge, and for many climbing was a game of macho one-upmanship. I saw it differently, but didn't know why or how or where it would take me, or where I would take my climbing.
The day of the Dervish was over for me quickly. It was just one lesson out of my long course in climbing, for I was a slow learner, and still am. I was just a boulderer, or at best a gritstone climber, while some of my friends and mentors had made the transition to 'bigger' routes almost by instinct and years before me. Leigh McGinley and Chris Gore, the late human anagram Arnie Strapcans; these were friends who would often do the big leads when I would be bouldering somewhere, shirking the serious stuff. Or someone like Cliff Philips, who had harnessed his heart into soloing first ascents with his light frame, capable of skipping over rock, rather than fighting it.

But over the years, climbing with many good and great climbers, a kind of osmosis happened. Sometimes it was a two-way thing, when I gave and didn't just take. The Dervish however always gives; it gives you the purity of its line, its position, and its colour, still as stunning now as then. Its difficulty, though diminished by large degrees, is still a question of finesse and delicate technique and a prerequisite for harder slate. None of those harder routes on the magic, icy, slippery slate could have happened without Mr. Dervish. That was its true gift, an eye opener and no mistake.

There were also the small battles that had to be won or at least fought, the battle of the bolt. Bolts don't have the legitimacy in Britain they have elsewhere, so we had to understand their place or make a place for them. As the blanker faces were attempted, often the poor gear that was the norm on slate had to be supplemented by a bolt or two. Bolts were placed by Joe Brown himself. I do not castigate him, but merely mention it for historical reasons. Other famous bolts were placed by other notable climbers and pre-practice became the norm on the harder routes. Many of the true onsight skills that were once known, were lost. Again I do not criticise, I just mention it, lest people forget these arcane skills, these atavistic arts that could supplement everybody's climbing. But onsight ground up has to be within limits of looseness and ability and the rock was not supplying onsightable stuff in significant amounts or of sufficient quality. I have never placed a bolt on slate.

Married to today's levels of fitness and gear, particularly rock shoe brilliance, most people would climb two E grades harder when accessing inner calm - this force that some of the older climbers could tap into. The new pro-bolts attitude opened up much rock and the cleaning tidied up the quality no end. The fear that the slate would become emasculated proved unfounded. Without the great bolted routes like Manic Strain - just to the left of the Dervish - we wouldn't have the repertoire of routes we need to get to the next technical and physical level. In hindsight their bolts are now a non-issue. A route like the Quarryman with its length and disparate pitches of great climbing surely is a must for today's climbers, and a stepping-stone into the future. A few bolts placed by a stone master showing the way is not a sin.

Sadly the Welsh scene is not as vibrant as it once was. The limited amount of reasonable rock for new routes and a more moral social structure has created its own rewards and shackles, but the routes are there, the talent is there. It used to be said that if you climb on all rocks in Wales, you develop the skills necessary to climb anywhere in the world. With the addition of a touch of ice this old adage is probably true.

The Past, that sacred time during which the old skills were so blatant? Ray Evans, climbing onsight new routes in weird RAF boots way above his gear, calm and serene. I can see him now, but can you? I think a few of each generation still do the same, but forgive me for thinking there could be more.
Caving Dervish style with Kate and Mini Trogs
In Ron Fawcett's book there is a lovely section on soloing. In a way it is about this elusive ability that is sometimes harnessed, it's worth reading again and again. There were many people who used to solo in the old days; a very common practice, but the reaper had to be paid. Noddy, Jimmy Jewel, Derek Hersey, Paul Williams and many others have passed to the other side. Loving something called soloing is classed as a sin in today's society but it used to be seen as a celebration of life.
The first pair of EB's I had were Tony Wilmott's. They were too big for me in more ways than one. I inherited some of his stuff after he died soloing, a long time ago. Tony used to do a lecture, called the Black Light show. It wasn't about the dark side; it was just about the two sides.
Is there anything finer than soloing a dozen routes at Tremadog?
Just don't wake up flying through the air, that's all.
Is there anything finer than being way above your smallest wires, sublimely confident in your skill?
1993: Identifying Derek's dead body in Yosemite and seeing the cost, I was not able to avoid the questions. But there were days like the one Derek had in the Black Canyon, inoubliable, was perhaps his defining moment. Today, as I write this, I must say the price seems too steep. And there I think is the rub; age has finally finished what the political correctness of the 80s began.
The 80s were the watershed of my life. Childhood and freedom on one side, being bound by watches and time and money on the other. Weird stuff like the war with Argentina, and the glorification of the burning the Argies in the Belgrano. The taking away of choice with front seat belt legislation and two decades of Toryism, it all contributed to my alienation from the New Briton.
Many climbers seemed to retreat into climbing and to the smaller communities in the climbing areas, but even there the tide has I think been too strong. The new North Wales in this new century is still relatively unspoilt, adventures are there in plenty, and luckily it is still a place where you can hide from the latest political nonsense.
Today there is a fantastic number of great routes on slate, with authors like the cosmonauts Dawes and Redhead, and stalwarts like the Crook and Smith, a cast of hundreds. It's probably a good time to celebrate the Quarries more and keep a careful eye on the access situation. The quarrymen and the climbers left us a great heritage that we should be proud of, and perhaps we should guard it also. There are routes of all grades, to suit any persuasion. Hundreds more could be added, so get going. And maybe we should retain some Dervish in all of us, just a bit, to keep the magic of the force alive.