Author, writer and Britain's first female mountain guide, Gwen Moffat (96), shares a story of climbing the classic VS 5a Diocese at Chair Ladder in Cornwall. This is an extract from Gwen's book 'On my Home Ground'.
We climbed solo down moderate rock to the foot of Bishop's Buttress. The tide was coming in and, despite the fact that offshore the water was calm, sizeable waves broke against the cliff. Communication would be difficult.
From sea level we looked up at Diocese. The chimney faced away from us but we could see all the traverse – that is, we could see where it went. What was called a slab but was surely a wall started some distance above us (the chimney would be in its right-hand corner) and this lift of rock ran into a tremendous roof where you must traverse left for twenty or thirty feet until the overhang ended and you could go up again. I felt nothing, only the sun boring into my shoulders. Stupefaction, Johnnie had called it, but for me it was involvement.
I followed him easily to a big square ledge below the chimney. This was too narrow for me to get inside; the guide book admitted that this part was strenuous but there was a delicate slab over the corner on the right. The belay was our smallest nut fitted in a crevice and the sling was line: breaking strain a thousand pounds, considerably less than the shock-load of a falling man. Between the wall and the ledge was a big horizontal crack. I sat down and wedged my leg in this up to the thigh. Then I told him he could go.
"Where are your gloves?" he asked.
"Oh, my God! I forgot them!"
He said nothing. I would have climbed down and gone back for them, and he knew it, but he was all keyed up now; he couldn't wait.
He went over the corner. The rope ran out. I couldn't see him although he was only a few feet away. He was talking about polished holds and his sweat making them slippery. The slab must have been twenty feet high. Suddenly he appeared at the top.
"You climbed that fast!"
"I couldn't stop once I was on it."
He went on, moved left. I could see only his legs. Strange, how immobile lower limbs can be while the torso and arms are working out of sight and the brain running overtime. I saw his calves were sunburnt. I felt a crick in my neck and I looked out to sea, then back. The legs were gone. The rock was empty but for the rope.
Acoustics were strange. The crack in which my leg was wedged was part of the fault-line of the chimney. A voice mumbled up at me from the depths. This was Johnnie talking to himself thirty feet above. Suddenly there was a sharp outburst of swearing coming more conventionally downwards. The slings were cursed, the chimney, the guide book, the rock. I took a turn round my wrist. With complete detachment I thought about a rope with a fourteen stone load running across my naked back. I followed through, first to my climbing down fast and pulling him out of the water after he'd hit the starting ledge. Then I pondered the effectiveness of my tiny belay and my wedged thigh. Of course I would be catapulted out and with him hit the ledge and land in the water. At the thought of two fractured skulls in the sea I stopped thinking. There was no one else on Chair Ladder. I wedged my thigh a little deeper.
The curses stopped. His feet came into view again. As if I'd heard nothing he elaborated.
"They said it was hard," I pointed out.
He stared down at me. I looked at the gulls, searched for and found the red lattice spire of the bell buoy halfway between me and the horizon. I felt him relaxing.
He disappeared again and swore solidly for ten minutes – but the rope ran out. There was a pause and then a clear pleased call: "I'm near the top."
When it came to my turn I staggered as I stood up. I removed the little nut too easily, glad he hadn't needed to trust it – and me – and I stepped up and looked at the slab.
It was grey and pearly and smooth, but it was climbable: he'd climbed it.
As I worked my way up the pitch the rope wasn't being taken in quickly enough. He would be tired. I didn't say anything – and then I came to the place where I'd watched his feet as he peered round into the chimney. I peered too. It was quite wide, quite big, very deep, but there were no holds. It leaned sideways gently, away from the sea.
"I faced left," he called.
This would mean my leaning forward with the incline of the rock. I preferred to lean back if I was to progress by friction. I faced right and moved several feet inside.
The space was too narrow for conventional methods: back and knee wedged against opposite sides. There was only one alternative: unpleasant in a bikini but inevitable.
I set my back against one wall and bore down on the rock with the palms of my hands at waist level. Occasionally I put a leg sideways and wedged the inside of my knee. For friction I used anything that came to rock, as it were: shoulders, buttocks, thighs. As in a hand-jam it was essential to place yourself carefully so that you didn't slip when – at the same time that you lost valuable inches of height – you lost skin. You could withstand the first shock of pain but would the grazed flesh hold a second time on rock that bristled with quartz crystals like broken glass?
I seemed to be making no progress but suddenly there was a capstone above me and I must make my way out from the depths to an incipient scoop with one poor foothold in the bottom. I worked sideways, still bearing down on the palms of my hands and it was here that, virtually unscathed until now, I punctured my hand on a crystal.
From the constricted stance in the top of the chimney and under the start of the great overhang we looked out along the traverse.
"'Widely spaced holds'," he quoted, "there aren't any!"
I saw little things, not holds. Reluctantly we adjusted ourselves until we arrived at a state of mind where these tiny wrinkles were what we must use. We uncoiled the second rope.
It was a strange place, dark and shadowed at the stance, sunlight on the wall – and the black roof extending outwards for twenty or thirty feet. Up under the overhang where the wall ran into it there might be handholds, but there was nothing for the feet below. We stared hungrily at the rock wondering if we could swing along it on a hand traverse, wondering if there were runners.
"Before you start," I said, "I want to say something."
He continued to work things out for a while then he turned to me.
"You'll be out of sight," I said, "and the sea may be noisy. If I come off, I'll grab the rope and run across the wall. I'll end on Flannel Avenue." (This was a Severe away to the left.) "You'll be ready?"
He laughed but I was serious; I didn't want my tremendous falling swing to take him unawares. We were a long way above the sea now.
He started. I watched very carefully to see which holds he used. Again, he had to move fast. Halfway, he shouted, "I might go up and put a runner on for you but it would take a lot of fiddling - "
"It's all right," I said, "I don't need a runner."
He went on. Towards the end he made two moves at full stretch, on tip-toe, reaching high with his fingers. There I must find another way.
He reached the end, pulled out round the corner and disappeared. After a time I knew he was belaying by the way the ropes ran out. He flicked them. They hung vertically from the lip of the overhang on to the wall, so that it was like being in a cave with ropes hanging over the mouth, but this cave had no floor. Then the ropes came in a huge curve to me. I realised that I must do the whole of this very severe traverse with no security; I was on my own.
He pulled in the ropes until, with the curves still in them, I shouted: "That's me!" Then I took off my belays, gave one last admonition: "Don't pull!" and tried the first move.
There was a wrinkle for the left foot, a pock mark for the right, but I didn't like the latter: it meant facing in to the rock. I wanted to face left, the way I was going. There was a hold for the tips of three left fingers, a speck of quartz for the finger and thumb of the right hand – and this was the first move. You could make it, but there was another, more delicate, to make before you reached the first good sloping toe hold. The second move couldn't be reversed; once you'd made it there was no going back to the first: you'd never find those wrinkles again. I shouted, telling him to listen to me. He pulled in some slack.
"No!" I yelled, "I'm talking! Listen!"
I listened to hear if he were listening. I heard a lot of shouting.
"I can't hear you!" I screamed.
"Climb when you're ready!"
"Listen! I want to speak!"
"If I come off, it'll be on this first move. Be ready for the swing!"
The sea was suddenly very noisy, then subsided. There was a mumbled monologue from above, then: "Climb when you're ready!"
"Climbing!" I shouted. I was angry now: with the sea ridiculing me, with my contrivances for safety, with the traverse.
I put my left foot on the wrinkle, my fingers on the holds. I drew myself up until a fraction of the edge of my right sole was on another smaller wrinkle, then I made the second move – and as I moved for the third time I reached the first good holds and was still on the rock and the wall fell into the sea which, hushed now, whispered against the starting ledge, and I called quietly:
"Take in a little."
And so it went, all the way: a hold here and there but in one place, perhaps because I was small and couldn't reach a real hold: a sliver of quartz no bigger than a finger nail for the right hand. There, looking down for the next foothold, I realised my leg was starting to shake.
"Stop it!" I said sternly, and it stopped.
Where he went high, I went low, and came to the end of the wall and reached round and found a pinch hold. I was off-balance. I shuffled my feet and the pinch hold, projecting towards me, seemed like a jug handle. I was round then and resting on big ledges that would take the whole of each foot. Above me jugs covered with orange lichen ran up to Johnnie.
We changed places on the stance. I stood straddled on an overhang, leaning out against my waist-line. The sun poured into this crazy haven and there was no wind. Above me he climbed the wall on ochre holds. Below, the sea shone blue and the white lace at the foot of the cliff was quiet. The bell buoy tolled, the Wolf was a grey spire on the horizon and a fulmar floated past.
I thought of the guide book phrase: "magnificently exposed". It was magnificent but was it really exposed? I had to work it out: exposure is a long drop over nothing; there is nothing below this ledge or that traverse but the sea and that's a hundred feet below. Exposure is fear or splendid soaring triumph.
"Climb when you're ready!"
I took off the belays and waited while the rope slid up the cliff. The swifts were out, skimming the top, and all the rock was gold in the lowering sun. I started to climb.
- ARTICLE: Winter as it Was - The Helm Wind 24 Dec, 2018
- ARTICLE: Gwen Moffat - Thoughts on viewing Psycho Vertical 19 Dec, 2017