Come to the Dervish

© Charles Arthur

At the start of Comes The Dervish; Dave Barraclough belaying. The graffiti is the red stuff on the right....
© Charles Arthur

I am standing at the foot of the Dervish. I've been here before, in my dreams, in my daydreams, in reality. Stood here and looked up and this blue-grey slab, all 140 feet of it, and the overlap 100 feet up it that waits like a rock poised to fall, and I've wanted to be at the top of it, wanted to be good enough to get from bottom to top. I've done that in my dreams, never in reality.

I was first struck by this route when I was such a hopeless newcomer that I had never put on a harness, never tied on to a rope, couldn't name a move (rockover? smear? dyno?), barely knew the grading system. All I could do was put on boots and fall off the bouldering wall.

But then it was shown in a TV programme, with Fliss Butler inching up it, the camera so distant that you could see the setting, a straight line upwards amidst the brusque geometry of the slate quarries. It looked impossible; yet clearly it was possible.

Perhaps it was the breeze or perhaps it was the upward movement, but the clinking of krabs seemed like Eastern music accompanying this silence, this effortless effort. It was love at first sight. Like someone seeing a picture of a supermodel in a paper and deciding that's the girl to marry, I wanted to conquer the Dervish, to have done it, to be able to say "Been there, done that."

That was four years ago, and today I'm at the foot of the Dervish. I've been a long time getting here. If you haven't got some sparkling natural talent (and I realised soon enough that I didn't) then the path to that place involves a long, winding apprenticeship. Ropes, knots, harnesses, gear, placements, how to read guidebooks, how to read routes, how to read guidebook descriptions of routes, how to work out whether the two are the same. God, what a lot. If it was in the National Curriculum parents would be lining up to complain that it was all too much, that their kids couldn't possibly learn so much stuff.

Beginning the lower crux, with some small RPs for protection
© Charles Arthur

Yet I did it all, learnt it all, with of course those few missteps along the way. Such as not knowing that you were supposed to set up a belay when you reached the top of a climb; this posed no hazard on single-pitch routes on Stanage's frictionful horizontal tops, but rather more on the sloping grass of Swanage. Just one letter and a few hundred miles; the difference between looking happily at the concrete factory, and watching fearfully as the rope came tight when my second fell off, whereupon my feet and I started moving rapidly towards the edge of the cliff and eternity. As you'll have guessed, I stopped first.

But it was all exciting, because at the back of my mind was the thought that if I persisted, then one day I too would be slowly moving upwards on that beautiful line.

Tiptoeing through the grades ("I led an HVS this weekend!"), I always had in mind that prize, the Dervish. I didn't know what techniques were needed, only that you had to climb E3, because that was what it was graded.

I had tried once before, and got to the first hard move, which comes maybe 10 or 15 feet up - a reach up from an insecure, increasingly polished little edge with just an RP0 between me and groundfall - and retreated in fear, but with increased respect for my target.

But I knew that one day I would be good enough to take it on and succeed. And today, I have decided, is that day.

Someone has been up here with red aerosol paint and sprayed the anarchy symbol and FUCK RELIGEON - yeah, like that - near the bottom of the slab. I blame the schools. Kids can't even spell properly now.

Silence, rack gear, tie on, tie boots. Begin. I can't get a song by Madonna out of my head. As I try to concentrate on the footholds - slate ripples like hard beermat edges - the words keep rolling around my brain. "Faster than a ray of light... faster than a ray of light."

Begone, you pointy-breasted vixen. I want to do this slower than gravity, not faster than anything. I want to understand the choreography these holds impose. I come to the first hard move and this time I'm confident I can surmount it, and I do, to a hungry finger crack. As I continue upwards happily, I reflect on what a gift good gear placements are. "Faster than a ray..." Shut up, you sperm donee.

It's as I'm contemplating another sequence 60ft up that would take me to the right that it happens.

Standing on another beermat edge, perhaps I unconsciously lean out to get a better vantage point. My foot shoots off and so do I.

The gear holds, as you would expect on a crackline. I'm left sitting in my harness, contemplating the situation. The dream is broken; my wish to flawlessly romance this supermodel of a route is smashed. But there's no point in stopping or retreating to start again. I came here for this and I'm doing it. This won't now be such a pristine ascent, but that's life, isn't it?

I continue refreshed, and though I fall off again before the overlap it's more through thoughtlessness than difficulty; the move wasn't hard, I just didn't concentrate. Soon I reach the top and pull back to the tedious world of the horizontal. I want and expect to feel a great rush of relief and delight. I don't. Instead I just feel... I just feel like I climbed it. After finishing other routes, including some where falling off really would have been dangerous - solos, and huge runouts - I've had that buzz of an experience, as if I had wrestled it, won a submission in a contest. Here, I'm not even elated.

The mid-crux on the Dervish, before......
© Charles Arthur

Maybe it's a consequence of attaching numbers to what we do. When you're starting out, that's what you're so sure of: that climbing is all the same thing. When you're leading HVS or E1, then E3 is *always* E3, isn't it: unreachable, something that you could only do in some blaze of brilliance or madness.

Whether it's a grimly overhangingly offwidth or an eenky-tiptoes slab doesn't matter. It's at a grade you don't climb and so it's all the same. But, you tell yourself, if you could climb E3, then you could do them all - the grimly overhanging offwidth and the slab.

The same operates in reverse; you tend to think - wrongly - that all routes a couple of grades below what you normally do are equally easy, even though during that apprenticeship at HVS or E1 you encounter routes which, bloody hell, no way this is VS, take in, I'm going to rest here, bloody HELL this is hard, are you sure this is the right route, how old's this guidebook anyway?

That's why for me the Dervish was always something to drool over - but only as long as I was not technically or mentally capable of climbing it. Once I could, then the supermodel was actually just a girl next door. There was no longer that driving element of aspiration. It became a tick, not a goal.

But as that the achievement of that goal got nearer, I discovered that I didn't want it in the same way as I had. Before, I had wanted to triumph over this route: I wanted to DO the Dervish, prove how much better I was than it. Just as when you're getting into leading, you don't want to fail on a route: you want to be fantastic, the Supreme Being who reaches the top effortlessly, just as those really good climbers do on those climbing videos. (Well, some of those videos.) So you ask questions of people who've done it: "Is the gear good? What did you use? Where? What's the crux like?"

....and after
© Charles Arthur

Then after a while I found that asking those questions somehow subtracted from the experience. I didn't want to know. I wanted to make my own mistakes, if I did. Perhaps it's a way of recapturing something about those early routes where you're almost unconscious of what you're doing, yet so aware. Yes, you're captured in the moment, but you can't really get any feel of how well or badly you're coping because you have nothing to compare it with.

That was what I realised I disliked about knowing too much about a route. Too much comparison. Too many things to make you say "Oh, it's like that one".

As I stand here at the top of the Dervish, I realise that I will have to set my sights on something higher, something that is impossible for me now, so that I can maintain that excitement. Otherwise, why go on? Even as I'm attaching my ropes to the anchors, I'm thinking that London Wall - that evil E5 finger crack at Millstone - looks interesting. I'm terrible at finger cracks. I've never done 6a. Now that is an ascent worth working for.

As I abseil down, I'm already freshly excited, thinking of how good it would be to feel the top of that buttress at Millstone under my hands. Soon I'm at the foot of the Dervish once more. But now I know I'll never dream of it again.

Somehow I got talking about it to Leo Houlding in the Heights one night. I think it began when we were talking about Pull My Daisy, which is an E2 on the Rainbow Wall. Someone said something about it being a good practice run for the Dervish; which it is, being a long crackline followed by a blankish slab above.

Leo just laughed and recalled how he'd been soloing Pull My Daisy one evening when it had begun to rain. He'd had to reverse the crack - including a mantleshelf.

I mentioned the Dervish in an offhand sort of way. "Oh yeah, did ya like it?" he asked. "I nearly shat meself doing the overlap."

But surely, I said, unable to stop myself, I thought there was good gear for that move.

"I dunno - I was soloing it," he said.

Sodding E9 climbers. Honestly, the things they say.

Charles Arthur has led 6a since then... but not London Wall

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