Friday, 8 July 2011

Returning from Orkney

On Rats Stole my Toothbrush E5/6, Mucklehouse Wall
I wrote this on the way home from our trip to Orkney, having had a great time. The final days were mostly spent gathering some really cool footage for our film about the Longhope route which we’ll prepare for the autumn.

Ed Drummond revisiting St John’s Head. Photo Lukasz Warzecha
For the last few days we also had a nice visit from Ed Drummond who stayed with us and walked back in to St John’s head to see his route again, 41 years after his original ascent. We filmed his return to the climb, his perspectives on it and it’s place in his life, which were very interesting. He felt the reports of my ascent were a little unfair in describing his ascent in 1970 as an old aid route, given that apart from the complete aid pitch on the top headwall, they only used around 10-15 points of aid up to the A2 crack. Of course this was a remarkable climbing feat and in what sounds like the ethic of the day for big wall routes. It’s hard for people to imagine how hardcore it was to venture onto the world’s big walls before anyone else and without cams etc.
Nowdays, I guess things are a categorised a little more cut and dry. There is less room for caveats and details in sport. In my opinion this has it’s good and bad points. Simplicity raises the game. For example - a point of aid makes it an ‘aid route’? Yes or no? It sounds like in 1970 the answer would maybe be no but now maybe yes as the climbing game has evolved. Oliver Hill referred to my ascent of the Longhope as a rehearsed ascent. I’m totally happy with that even though I climbed 4/5 of it onsight. If I rehearsed only one move it’s still a redpoint. It has to be. There is no room to make compromise look like success with redpointing - it has to be in one push with no falls. A side effect is it makes it easier for others to quantify it later when they are not familiar with the details. More importantly, on a personal level it’s good when the finish line between success and failure is absolute, binary. You either succeeded or failed to redpoint.
Simplicity can be a bad influence when it obscures or distorts the real picture or just dumbs everything down. Even words so central to sport like “winner” and “loser” must be applied carefully. If you have been watching tennis recently they keep talking about “great champions”. But there seems to be so many great champions they need a new definition already to stand out from them. It’s not enough even to refer to them as just “champions”, never mind “players” or even “people”. Edi Stark didn’t seem to want to accept my response to her question about how it felt to have done some climbs that are out of reach of some or most others. I said it was ‘nice’ to have found such a good connection with an activity like climbing. “Nice?” she repeated back to me with a mocking sarcasm. ‘Nice’ didn’t seem to cut it. Either that or it cut me out as an awkward personality? With the exception of an overflow of enthusiasm which is a fine excuse to dispense with caution, I feel there is no need to always attach larger than life language, deeper meanings or metaphors to my experiences in climbing or elsewhere. A climb is the expression of the climber through vision for the line, preparation of the skills and movement. And it is an appreciation inherent beauty of the rock and the place as well. These things are already special in their own right. They do not need sweetening or plumping up.
Having succeeded on my own climbing vision on the Longhope route with Andy, my feeling is not of me, the climber, being at the centre of the story and I do not feel any bigger or more worthy as a result of it. Rather completing my climbing involvement on this particular cliff leaves me with a greater appreciation of the scale, permanence and impermanence of different things in nature and this has been what is awe inspiring about it. I think that climbing and mountains have a great effect on peoples lives when it helps them to appreciate their true insignificance in the world both in scale and time. Paradoxically though this actually adds to the sense of meaning in life because you simply see more clearly how you fit into the world. In the process of appreciating your insignificance, you also get closer to a true sense of your significance.
How then, do you deal with another great paradox of a major effort on a big climb; that of the feeling of invincibility that climbing can give when you are performing well and at your limit. Of course if you step back it’s obvious that the feeling cannot really be invincibility or anything approaching it. So if it’s a misinterpretation, what is the correct one? I have felt happiest in climbing when I’ve seen this feeling not as wielding personal strength or power over my climbing environment, but as aligning to it, understanding it well enough to work in harmony with it. This idea of harmony with the medium, in this case rock, is so well known that it’s a cliche. Where does the difference lie between these two subtly different interpretations of the same raw feeling. The most frustrated, isolated or bored climbers I’ve met have been those who appear to chase after brief flashes of invincibility in themselves over nature instead of seeing brief flashes of the invincibility of nature in themselves.


  1. Incredible insight Dave! Thanks for reminding us to realise our place in the bigger picture.

    I'm looking forward to the film.

  2. Anonymous08 July, 2011

    Great first photo - gives a real sense of runout, and good composition otherwise

  3. Anonymous08 July, 2011

    Me and my big foot again! My comment about the route being rehearsed was in no sense meant to be derogatory, merely a synonym of redpoint, actually redpoint is jargon. Rehearsing is what it actually is. Probably a redpoint or rehearsed ascent is more honest than an onsight ascent, because how much weighting of gear may have been done during the cleaning process or gear placement, route finding, belaying, etc? To a certain extent all ground up climbing is rehearsed and only becomes an onsight when no taints were needed. But how else would you distinguish between John Arran and Dave’s onsight, albeit discontinuous, ascent and yours? What word would you use? Headpoint? Or the somewhat contrived assumption that all routes over E8 have been rehearsed, hence no rehearsing has taken place but hidden in the E grade? It seems to me this fashion is dishonesty of omission. Totally unnecessary, as you have been open about everything you have done. It seems to me that it is high time top end UK grading resolved this matter, rather than just brushing it under the carpet. But this is just semantics!!!!
    What is important is what you have done! And that is great, fantastic, hard and bold, probably too hard and bold for sensibility. I am proud for you for achieving this, and creating a fantastic climb. Remember: pusillanimity is the English disease. You are Scottish, so beat your chest and shout it out to the world! And bugger the consequences and arm chair climbers!

    Oliver Hill

  4. Anonymous08 July, 2011

    Your point about climbing motivation was interesting. I would imagine that for any top sportsman much of the incentive to train must be to do with the ego i.e burning off the other guy and increasing one's own social standing. For me the purer climbers are those who do not need to be better than others and operate with a different ethic. I think that competition in general is bad but the upside is that those who are attached to the ego enhancement do inspire a lot of people.

    Scott Innes

  5. "In the process of appreciating your insignificance, you also get closer to a true sense of your significance."

    Hit the nail on the head for me. That's beautiful.

  6. Regarding just how hardcore the guys on the big walls were back then: in a similar vein I read the other day (not in English so won't bother linking) that Comici was reckoned to have used about half a dozen points of aid on the Cima Grande in 1933, leaving substantial sections of solid UIAA VII (f6b) that he must have done free. On a big wall. Did I mention in 1933? Oh lordy.

  7. It's not so relevant to this particular post but I came across this

    recently and thought you might be interested as it bears some relation to the ideas you put forward about the risk of failure. To get the whole picture I guess you have to read the book but Tim Harford's blog gives a pretty good overview of where he's coming from. Cheers.

  8. I can't make my mind up about this post. It's either a great piece of insight or just a collection of cliched platitudes... I mean no offence by this Dave, I honestly can't make my mind up. You make some great points early on about how we categorise ascents and I think you're right that we pigeon hole things too much these days, but I totally disagree with your last line.

  9. Thanks for the post Dave .. always really interested to hear your thoughts behind your climbs/adventures/journeys.

    Totally relate to the significance/insignificance perspective getting outdoors and doing stuff helps to bring to our lives.

    Seems to me that climbing is a great way for us to visit unknown places, whether that's a route that we don't think we can do, a route that's never been done before or even just turning up at a crag without a guidebook, picking a line and having a go. It's always the journeys into the unknown that are the most memorable .. however what your doing is going to places that are unknown to anyone and that's what makes them special. So no, I reckon the "nice" comment probably doesn't cut it :-)

  10. Fabulous!!That's what i was looking for. I will definitely share it with others.

  11. It is very wonderfull center