Rachel Crolla recalls the highs and lows of completing all 83 climbs in Ken Wilson's book Classic Rock. Puerile tickers, take note...
Soaked to the skin by driving rain, rattling off a string of expletives, crushed between the sides of an impossibly slimy chimney and squirming in the filth with an unwieldy rucksack… that was when I became hooked. It was a terrifically feisty VDiff, which no one would find easy. The climb was Great Gully on Craig Y Ysfa and from this point on I was obsessed with Classic Rock.
Some people climb E3; for the rest of us there's Classic Rock.
For those who don't already know, Classic Rock is Ken Wilson's inspirational book of historic and brilliant British climbs. Each chapter features an account by a key figure in British climbing, alongside the kind of photography that gets the heart racing. It's a staple on the bookshelves of outdoor enthusiasts and, in 2007, I had just received the full colour second edition for Christmas from my dad. It's often said that people buy presents that they'd like to receive themselves; this was undoubtedly the case as my dad announced that, in his climbing days, he'd fancied trying to tick off all the routes in the book. Thumbing through the pages, it was immediately obvious that this was my sort of climbing and, well, my sort of ticklist: generally long adventurous sub-VS routes with stories to tell. Rightly or wrongly, the fact that it was a 'list' made it irresistible, especially when I realised I'd already unwittingly climbed a couple of the routes.
Troutdale Pinnacle in Borrowdale was the best of these first routes. Unaware of its Classic Rock credentials and armed only with a battered 1968 guidebook, I'd selected the route on the basis of its elusive 3 star rating and relatively modest Severe grade. Back then, we (my partner Carl and I) weren't early risers and started the climb during a late afternoon in October. Threading a bold and circuitous line up the steep, imposing Black Crag, my memories are of breathtaking exposure and an airy stride out of a dramatic corner as the light waned, followed by a hair-raising descent in the dark. It made me realise what I wanted out of climbing: not to improve my grade, not to lose my skin and temper on hard-won short and tough local gritstone crags, but to travel on what felt like secret ways up mountains and imposing cliffs; not breaking new ground but following in the footsteps of trusted pioneers.
We were captivated by Classic Rock and any decent weekend or holiday weather meant a much-anticipated outing into its pages. Initially, I certainly didn't imagine that our technical talent would stretch to climbing all the routes in the book; I just loved doing as many I could. We had soon eagerly devoured the delectable Lakeland routes on Dow Crag, Gimmer and Bowfell, along with the Dales and Peak offerings within striking distance of our Bradford home. I was surprised at what we'd already achieved as below-average self-taught climbers. I'd always felt inadequate during my first forays into leading at Baildon Bank and Ilkley but was liberated and immediately more comfortable negotiating the walls between numerous grassy belay ledges on Gillercombe Buttress or savouring the ridges and pinnacles of Tryfan. Carl had come slightly later to climbing, but was less anxiety-prone and made up for lack of technique by sheer bloodymindedness. The kind of trust that comes with a long-term personal and climbing relationship meant that by hook and by crook we got up Classic Rock routes that were at the top end of our ability.
Exciting exposure is part and parcel of climbing, but occasionally Classic Rock provided a little too much of a good thing. Age and experience had already eroded my youthful fearlessness and, on top of the iconic Napes Needle (HS), I found my small sloping perch physically sickening and suffered a tormenting feeling of being drawn towards an edge in every direction. Another inglorious moment was in the draughty gap of Almscliff's Parsons Chimney, with nothing but space between my opposed feet. Climbing Moss Ghyll Grooves on Scafell's imposing north face, I enjoyed the delicate slabby climbing. Then, at the third belay, on a sloping seat jutting out high above the tilting ground of Hollow Stones, my stomach started churning in panic. However, despite these uncertain moments of dread and doubt, the obsession continued and fear never outweighed the magnificence of the rock architecture and my experiences.
Looking back, it seems utterly stupid that my first Welsh climb had been Great Gully, as it was by far the toughest outing offered by the Welsh section of Classic Rock. On the Glyders, Llanberis and Idwal climbs, there was only 100% pure and simple enjoyment. Climbing in Snowdonia made me feel glad to be alive and it remains a special place for me. The superbly crafted stories in Classic Rock can be intoxicating and make you awestruck as you climb in the brave hobnailed-bootsteps of the first ascensionists.
Nowhere was this more so for me than on Nea at Carreg Wastad. Whether it was the wartime female first ascent, or Nea Morin's latter-day repeat climb with her daughter and grandson, or the fact that the descent had just seen a tragic climbing accident, Nea's story resonated with me. Classic Rock made me want to be part of the history of human endeavour in steep places. Its climbs have very ordinary grades by today's standards, but were extraordinary lines to spot and climb for the first time. The fact that the routes themselves remain so extraordinary is good news for today's ordinary grade climbers. Some people climb E3; for the rest of us there's Classic Rock.
As the Classic Rock list favours mountain crags, there are only seven climbs included in southern England. After a brief spell living in London at university, I had hotfooted it back to Yorkshire and rarely returned south, let alone to climb. My preconceptions of outdoor pursuits south of the Watford Gap was unashamedly biased – it was crowded, flat and dull. Without Classic Rock, I am sure that I would have remained in ignorance of the delights of Sennen Cove and Bosigran. Sea cliff climbing was a bizarre new experience to me; consulting tide tables with the peril of foaming breakers crashing beneath a belay was thrilling. The jewel in Classic Rock's southern crown was the Devil's Slide on Lundy – an inaccessible perfect wedge of warm pink granite. It just felt right; I felt at home tiptoeing up the Slide in a way that I'd never felt at home on Yorkshire grit.
It stands to reason that those living south of the border would leave the Scottish Classic Rock routes until last. They are bigger, more intimidating, bloody freezing most of the time, and the reputations of routes such as the Clean Sweep, the Chasm and the Talisman precede them. We had had an almost supernaturally successful Scottish climbing week in May 2009, where snows still lingered in the corries. The headgame for me was amplified in Scotland: I confidently led hard pitches on Lochnagar's Eagle Ridge then, days later, I was intimidated at Squareface on Ben A Bhuird. This was a route with a Classic Rock photo I had spent hours salivating over but, standing in the snow and wind at the bottom of the almost vertical jigsaw of the wall, I couldn't face being on the sharp end of the rope.
At the start of June 2010, we were left with just an unholy trinity of Classic Rock climbs left: The Cuillin Ridge traverse, Clachaig Gully and the Long Climb on Ben Nevis. Anyone who has ever flicked through Classic Rock will immediately understand why. The climbers' Cuillin Ridge traverse is not to be taken lightly. Planning is everything. We had chosen to camp near Gars Bhein to get the requisite early start, but I had fallen badly on my coccyx in a boulder field on the approach. I spent an agonising sleepless night wrestling with the ominous portent of the fall and rationing our meagre supply of painkillers. In truth, I had thought the Cuillin would be gruelling but, after fifteen hours on the ridge, supping the obligatory pint at the Sligachan Hotel, I was overwhelmed at how much I had simply enjoyed it. I knew that we were in a minority of climbers who had succeeded on our first attempt and I began to feel worthy of completing my Classic Rock dream.
The Clachaig Gully was a very different story. This eye-catching slimy gash in the side of Glencoe clearly beckoned the tough pioneers of the Classic Rock era; climbers had uncommon tastes and special penchants for torture and misery back then. My first rainy day outing into the drenching depths of the Clachaig had included my getting so cold, wet and forlorn that I had a wee fully clothed just to warm up momentarily. And that was one of the better moments. After extricating ourselves at great length, we felt outraged at the inclusion of this hideous route. We had managed to climb everything at our first attempt thus far and it was another year before we thawed out sufficiently to try again. Perhaps the Clachaig isn't always a 500m battle up a waterfall, but part of me suspects it is.
Where the photography for the other climbs in the 2007 edition of Classic Rock was updated, the Clachaig retains the original 1970s black-and-white shots. It did make me wonder whether anyone had been in there since. However, having re-read Allan Austin's excellent Classic Rock account of his falls and near drownings in the Clachaig, I felt newly invigorated for attempt number two. The fact that I was decked out in waterproofs purchased in the '90s from the same Allan Austin's Bradford climbing shop and socks over boots surely meant that I'd succeed. In truth, when approached with a sense of humour, the Clachaig is slightly more palatable. The ravine had the last laugh though. Just as I was scrambling out of the final pitch, a car-sized boulder flew out of nowhere and hurtled past me just feet away. It was the Clachaig giving me a final two fingered salute.
At 427m, the Long Climb VS on Ben Nevis is the longest face route in Britain. It is the final chapter in Classic Rock and was fittingly the final climb on our list. We had approached it a year previously in persistent drizzle; we snuck off to climb Tower Ridge and took the hint to leave the Long Climb as a grand finale. The Long Climb is not impressive so much for its line or memorable climbing, as for its unparalleled situation and sheer scale. Routefinding and trying not to be intimidated by the oozing rock, icy vestiges of a lengthy winter and swirling mist were the main difficulties we overcame. What better place to celebrate completing the Classic Rock's climbs than the snowy top of Britain's highest mountain?
Completing the Classic Rock climbs has been one of the biggest achievements of my life and, of course, it means absolutely nothing to the vast majority of my friends and family. It is not like winning something or being the best or even the first. It's just a list and Wilson claims Classic Rock wasn't even intended to encourage "puerile tickers" like myself. Similarly, when I got to the top of the highest point of every country in Europe in 2007, it was just a wonderful ticklist. Hindsight has made me self-aware enough to understand my pathological obsession with lists. They are not arbitrary to me; they have brought a sense of structure, purpose and great joy to my life.
Dredging the internet before writing this article, I was surprised not to find a single account about completing the Classic Rock list by another woman. I wondered why; to me it seems an obvious thing to want to do. A couple of female friends speculate that women tend to climb for personal fulfilment rather than arbitrary goals and are less likely to shout about their private achievements. Gender stereotypes aside, maybe both or neither or these things is true, but I believe that structuring part of my life around lists has increased my personal satisfaction.
Similarly, as a woman with a male climbing partner, I have thought about whether the Classic Rock ticklist would have been possible without Carl or for him without me. I'll never know. To us it's obvious after 25 years together that we're a team. My partner may have led more of the trickier pitches but Classic Rock is simply not about things like who led what or how fast you did it. To complete the list it has to be a committed endeavour and an obsession. I'll never climb E3; I don't want to and don't care. After all Classic Rock was there for me to make an ordinary climbing career feel extraordinary.
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