Monday 6 July 2009

The Prophet of Purism

Onsighting Prophet of Purism E6 6a Glen Coe. The number of runners clipped to the rope give away what this climb is all about.

During the early nineteen eighties in Scotland, any climbing was trad climbing, and the focus for the best climbers of the day sounded like it was very much about how death defying the climbs were, rather than difficulty, as things have leaned to these days.

Or at least it certainly was for Dave Cuthbertson, who was climbing better and bolder than anyone in the country at the time. Dave’s drive was to push himself further and further towards the limits of being in control with the maximum possible constraints and risks in the climbing situation, and try to stay on top [i.e. alive]. 

The more intimidating the cliff, the poorer the protection, the purer the style the better. Even talking to Dave about loose rock, he tells me “I used to revel in all that stuff”. Most of the time on Scottish mountain cliffs, climbing new routes onsight (in the modern sense) is either a pretty messy business, or a suicidal one. One some cliffs, like Lewissean Gneiss, it’s no problem, the rock is clean, sound and the routes tend to give many of their secrets away on visual inspection from below. On others, dirt and loose rock would make climbing first ascents onsight a reliable path to an early grave. Of course it’s fine up to a certain grade (for most this might be the mid E-grades). But as soon as dynamic movement comes into the equation the risk spirals and rapidly overtakes the romance of the ideal.

The highpoint of this highly dangerous pursuit, for me at least, was Dave’s onsight first ascent of Prophet of Purism E6 6a in Glen Coe. Naturally there have been better performances since, but often on more predictable rock types like granite or Gneiss as I mentioned before. But to climb this overhanging wall covered in hollow snappy loose edges with so little protection has always seemed to be an outstanding example of sheer bottle. It’s what climbing used to be largely about for many people, and although its well out of fashion now, it still impresses. Or at least makes us shake our heads in disbelief.

And inevitably more so if you hear the climbing story first hand. Dave told me about doing a massive traverse across an overhanging wall, pumped and committed and facing a 20 or 30 metre fall and swing into the slabby bluffs beneath the wall. At the end of the traverse he ended up grappling in extremis on opposing press holds in a niche which was completely overgrown with wet moss, slipping and gasping for breath and calm. 

I figured, at some point, sooner or later, I better go up and try it myself, if only to have a shadow of this experience. Dave launched across this traverse into the blankness of glen Coe wall without the knowledge of what was across there - a block pulled off, a move too hard, and a terminal fall. I launched across it knowing it was E6 6a, and most of the holds tested for me. Still, it was very cool to pull quickly into the niche, not realising and stretching from a press to another and suddenly dawning that I was in the same move as Cubby told me about. 

Because I could relax in the knowledge that no really hard cruxes were coming, I  felt ok on the traverse and was feeling like the final ten feet of overhang above should be a jog for home. But every hold felt totally detachable, 35 metres up and without a runner that would stop me. Sensitive climbing with a very reserved and calculated movements does get you through loose rock climbing, but I’m no expert at it. Maybe it was because this part wasn’t even worth a mention for Cubby that gave me a wee fright because I thought I should be home and dry by this point and had relaxed too much. I had the gift of being able to play the game of telling myself “these holds have been pulled on before, they won’t come off!! 

After a hurried grapple over onto the Big Top flake, I took a moment to respect a very very bold standard by Cubby to be able to keep cool on this terrain without knowing which holds would take his weight.

I’d like to try a modest experiment in this type of climbing shortly, and know a line that could be around E7. Nearly 30 years after Cubby did Prohpet of Purism, the game wont be too much different. Fitness will matter a little, sure. But this game comes down to what is in your head. Interesting stuff.

The prophet wall on Aonach Dubh, Glen Coe. Prophet of Purism goes up the right side of the wall before doing a massive traverse line across the wall to eventually gain the left arete (Big Top).


  1. Anonymous07 July, 2009

    Yikes Dave I had my eye on Prophet this year but I think you've just put me off! What about carrying on straight up instead of traversing off left? :-)

    Cheers, Guy

  2. There's no way that Prophet of Purism was first climbed on-sight. Rob Kerr was up there with Cubby prior to the first ascent, & distinctly remembers Cubby abseiling down to clean and inspect the line from the Big Top flake.
    Why can't people be honest and up front about their achievements??

    Gary Latter

  3. Anonymous08 July, 2009

    Excellent effort, your climbing sounds amazing at the moment. Especially as they seem to have been on your to do list for a wee while.

  4. Anonymous10 July, 2009

    In reply to Gary Latter,

    Thank you for pointing it out, Gary. As it was a significant achievement in the climbing history, I agree it is important that the record should be as accurate as possible.

    Nevertheless I felt had the tone of the comment been a bit softer, it would have been even better.
    The concept or definition of onsight varies significantly from person to person even now, and in my understanding used to be much more so in 80's (see for example OnSight DVD for Jerry M's comments). I suppose you don't know how Dave Mac got the info, either. Given those uncertainties, I'd say there is no benefit to use a harsh tone in the comment.

    Anyhow I appreciate your comment on the more correct record, Gary. Thanks for that.

    Finally but not lastly, congratulations Dave, for your significant and bold onsight lead on the memory route (even though I'm sure it is well within your grade)!!


  5. Anonymous12 July, 2009

    Good post!

  6. Anonymous13 July, 2009

    Er...why is Rob Kerr's word any more reliable than Cubby's?!

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