It was twenty years ago today...

© Matthew Dowsett

Twenty years ago when I first took up climbing only a small part of me could truly imagine where it would take me. I had a mental list of routes to climb that had been fuelled by books and magazines. Some of those routes have been achieved, but the last 20 years have been more a personal journey through self and through growing up.

My first climbing partner, Simon, told me that I should log all of my climbs. It was the best piece of advice he ever gave me. I bought a little hard-backed note book and scribbled away. Nearly 6000 logged routes later in a dozen different countries and a number of different note books and I have a lot of stats to look back on. But I have also captured the stories and experiences on those pages that equate to an irreplaceable personal memoir. Time always leads to reflection, but personal milestones can also prompt a glance backwards. 20 years of climbing, but more importantly the birth of my first child have combined to prompt an Ian Banks style reverie.

History never looks like history when you are living through it.

John W Gardner

Reflecting on Barbette Buttress - 2013  © Matthew Dowsett
Reflecting on Barbette Buttress - 2013
© Matthew Dowsett
My mind goes back, back to 1993 when we three young RAF lads piled into my blue Austin Metro bound for the Peak District. The Metro was my first ever car and served us well for a while right up to the point that the back wheels fell off. Simon had often asked what the grating sound was when we took the corners near Baslow at high speed. Fortunately he wasn't there when the rear sub-frame collapsed having rusted right through. Even more fortunate was the fact that I was only going at 5mph when it finally happened.

We bounded up the path to Birchen Edge and spent the next 2 hours failing miserably on our first ever climb. Simon had climbed before, unlike Jon or myself, and so we took our lead from him not realising that we were boxing well above our weight when attempting to lead the short but awkward Barbette Buttress at Sev 4b. This off-balance test piece looked short and innocuous enough, but it repelled our repeated attempts not only to lead it but also to top rope it. Staring down at us over our shoulders while we ate our lunches, it seemed to taunt us. We were still optimistic, but deflated as it became clear that we were on a fool's mission. Simon, stubborn and annoyed, wouldn't give up until exhausted and finally defeated we wandered off to the other end of the crag to play around on more simple challenges such as The Funnel and Kiss Me Hardy.

Sacha Guitry said; "Our wisdom comes from our experience, and our experience comes from our foolishness."

Simon had asked me if I was going to tape my fingers for the climbing. It is almost excruciating now to write that in my naivety and foolishness I had no clue what Simon was talking about. This was also 1993 and my information came from books and books alone. Not only was this before UKClimbing but before the internet. To set the scene, in 1993 unemployment was over 3 million as the recession ended slowly. Democrats were taking a hatchet to Czechoslovakia while John Wayne Bobbit's missus was taking a hatchet to his manhood. Waco went up in flames and Bill Clinton became the US President. The IRA were causing deathly mischief in Warrington and Stephen Lawrence was murdered and badly let down by a different kind of mischief. Climbing was still the realm of lycra-clad trad stars and a bouldering mat was better known as a beer towel. Kit was developing quickly with the introduction of flexible Friends and ever lighter krabs. Yet chalk was still sold only in blocks and guidebooks relied heavily on line drawings, black and white photographs and, heaven forbid, a bit of initiative.

Back on that February day in 1993 I took sellotape to my finger tips. If Simon and Jon noticed then they had the good grace not to say anything. With my first abrasive touches of the Derbyshire gritstone I very quickly came to realise that sellotape was worse than useless and I threw the shreds away while marking it down to experience.

20 years on give or take a couple of days and I am back at the foot of Barbette Buttress, this time without Simon, Jon or sellotape but with the loyal belaying hands of my wife and climbing partner Catherine. The grit is bitterly cold, wet in places and frankly I would rather be in the pub. But I rope up feeling insecure and start the route. Fingers drain of life on contact with greasy grit, feel feet insecure on the damp rock and I soon become numb while the memory of all those failed attempts comes back to me at once. The route has held its grade and is still an awkward customer. On this day I barely cover the ground to get to the soggy ledge, lacing the crack to ensure I don't clatter myself and while enduring hot aches I allow myself a wry smile of reflection that this truly was not the climb for novices to start on. The bravado of our 1993 attempt is not a folly that is reserved for us alone as the comments in the UKClimbing logbook for Barbette Buttress will tell you. Let's be honest, it's a little bit of a sandbag.

Pulpit Groove - 1993.  First lead.  © Matthew Dowsett
Pulpit Groove - 1993. First lead.
© Matthew Dowsett
Pulpit Groove - 2013.  20 years to the day.  © Matthew Dowsett
Pulpit Groove - 2013. 20 years to the day.
© Matthew Dowsett

Just 2 days after our failed expedition and we were sheltering from the harsh February wind in the quarry at Lawrencefield. In the gloomy cold and misty air I was setting myself up for my first ever lead. At my fourth ever climb it was very early in my climbing career but Jon and I were keen to throw ourselves in at the deep end. We just hoped that the turgid Lawrencefield pool wasn't to be that deep end.

My choice was Pulpit Groove with its frantically awkward mantel start, the stride across the void and the nervy shelving exit. Armed to the teeth with wires, hexes, slings and runners I wrestled my way up the first section hindered by a combination of inexperience and the sheer weight of metalwork around my hips. I scuttered and scrapped up to the pulpit and flopped on top suddenly realising the enormity of the task and slightly intimidated by the ground I was working my way through. I sat down and had a break, telling Simon and Jon to have something to eat and leave me to think for a while. I shivered a while on the pulpit before steeling myself to take on the rock that was coated with a fine February sheen. I made the stride across the gap and negotiated the apparently holdless ramp to discover that Simon had made his way up to help me set up my stance. It had been a devious expedition indeed, but that evening I was writing it up in my logbook simply, but proudly, as my first ever lead.

In those moments of satisfaction, moments that lose some details but never lose their significance, it is always interesting to mark what was still unknown but that would come after. My first VS lead was not far way. My first E1 lead would have to wait a fair bit longer. My first new route would come sooner than expected and my first fall, not surprisingly, even sooner. But in life also such milestones were reached, marked and passed, all going into the logbook of life; first marriage, first house, first job outside of the RAF, first Marathon...

Some milestones were greater anticipated and longer in coming than others. My first climbing book was a part story and part instruction manual by the champion of hyperbole, Steve Ashton. His route descriptions and stories of his first steps in climbing filled me with excitement and terror. Fuelled by his storytelling which could frankly make Barbette Buttress sound like El Capitan, I resolved to take on the famous routes he described. 2 photographs were prominent; Valkyrie at The Roaches and Cenotaph Corner. Hindered by history, melodrama and self doubt it took me 13 years to get round to leading Valkyrie and 16 to pluck up the courage to finally lead THE corner. In life I had to wait even longer to finally reach the most precious milestone, being almost 42 when I held my daughter in my arms for the first time.

An hour after Pulpit Groove, all my drama done, I watched from beneath comforting layers of fleeces as Jon took to Lawrencefield Ordinary on his own first ever lead. Simon belayed him casually from the ledge above the pool as Jon, confident and relaxed, scrabbled up to the first crack, pondered putting in protection and dismissed it with bravado. He pulled up on a jam and the jam failed. Jon fell and bounced off the ledge and was only stopped from a soaking in the icy deep end by Simon's sharp belaying and the low-lying level of the water. It should have been comical, but the trip to Hope to get a stitch put into Jon's head put an end to any comedy and an end to the day's climbing. We sat quietly in the Devonshire in Baslow sipping brandy and each reflecting on what had happened. Not surprisingly Jon didn't get into climbing as much as me. Not only that but despite all the quarried and damp uncertainty of Lawrencefield in a gloomy February, we came to love the place and would routinely end up there on windy days to seek sheltered fun on the Gingerbread Slab. It seems incredible but my first trip to Stanage was still a couple of years away. Guided heavily by Simon's prior experience and his determined influence we trended towards esoteric rather than popular venues.

Millstone photo for Matt Dowsett article

20 years to the very day after my first lead and I am roping up again at the foot of Pulpit Groove. The long discarded millwheels have shown us the way into the quarry that is dappled by footprint-dashed snow and the pool has an icy layer that is dappled by the stones of climbers and passers by. The reasons we originally chose Lawrencefield are brought back to life at once – it is sheltered and the rock is only damp in a few places. Pulpit Groove is an entertaining wander back in time. The moves feel relaxed and enjoyable with only a slight wariness about occasional damp spots on the rock that could be banana skins to the unwary. I climb the route quickly and efficiently and it is over in an unfussy flash unlike in 1993 when it seemed like an epic.

Our little group went its separate ways during 1993 for RAF reasons. I was bound for Cyprus and climbing continued to be a growing part of my life. 20 years later I know very little of what Simon is doing and even less about Jon.

1993 - Oversized Zens, Ron Hills, cheap harness and cammo hat.
© Matthew Dowsett
But I didn't think that I would even complete 3 years of climbing. Freeze frame a moment in time when a large block of limestone peeled away from a rock face in Cyprus with me attached. In a moment, a millisecond, I knew that all my protection was useless and that I was going into freefall until the ground stopped me. In that moment I mentally drew a line under anything logged so far and waited as the sky and ground circled in alternating blurs to come to a halt at the foot of a route called Jive Bunny. I remember distinctly the crumbling sound as the block parted and I remember that two words dropped into my head; "I'm dead." Yet I didn't die. The irony is that my moment of accepting my fate was the very thing that saved me. I dropped like a rag doll, bouncing limply down the rock, leaving me battered and bruised but with no major injuries. Those life moments and climbing logbook entries yet to come, were still open to me.

Since then climbing has evolved through extensive development. The fundamental elements are still there but have become varied and simply MORE. Climbing walls were once few and far between but now we are almost spoilt for choice. Ropes seemed to be a basic choice between 9mm and 11mm but the current array is bewildering. Runners have become superlight, nuts have become both enormous and tiny, strong and colourful and the range of rock shoes, harnesses and helmets is almost too vast to comprehend. At least the clothing has become cool and my Ron Hills sit firmly back in the 1990s as a cringeworthy memory and nothing more.

But the biggest advance has been in information and media. In 1993 Stone Monkey was about the only climbing film that had any kind of following. Climbing magazines such as High and OTE were wordy and very focused on specific disciplines. The BMC Guidebooks advanced route descriptions forward and Rockfax was like a moon landing in its giant leap. Information, technology and the internet have combined to mean that a new route can be captured in HD quality and posted online within seconds to a broad and international audience. We are swamped with information and the climbing world can feel like a broad social community rather than a series of distant and separated villages. And yet, is it? I have spoken to so many names on the forums of UKClimbing about all manner of topics, including climbing, but I don't know these people and don't climb with them. Some might say that the modern climbing community is in many ways almost artificial, simulated or shallow.

As I look at my 1993 logbook memories jump out at me like a jack-in-the-box; an aborted attempt at Right Angle, long runouts on the pocketed slabs of the Moelwyns, Simon's obsession with Orpheus Wall and squeezing through Cougar Cleft at Wild Cat. But there are so many things that a logbook cannot capture such as the post-climb glow and drinks in the Fox House, the breakfasts at Lover's Leap, Outside or Calver Crossroads. There are the cuts, bruises, slips and grazes. Then there are the failures and the routes only every dreamed about or pored over in awed silence. All unwritten, but still there.

Climbing is still climbing. What did Ron Fawcett say about tracing the line of a climb, reaching out a hand to touch the rock and being home? And this has not changed for me in 20 years – the simple love of being on rock is still the same. The hopes, the fears, the expectation and that moment of satisfaction when you pull over the top moves and stand, complete, on top of your chosen challenge. Time does not change this, technology advances do not alter it, and age does not defeat it. The inner love of climbing abides.

13 Feb, 2013
Enjoyed the read and I sense many would have a similar story to tell! (Have still got a pair of Ronhills, although climbing in Skye has not helped their appearance!)
13 Feb, 2013
Excellent article, well-written and modest, and many will identify with the places, events and observations in your 2 climbing decades. Your points about the impact of media and the internet on climbing are well-made, and I like it that you don't pass sentimental judgement on those changes - as you say, climbing is at heart a very personal experience, but now its set in a context of more public sharing of information and achievements, not a bad thing, just an extra thing. When it stops being fun, its time to stop. Enjoy the next 20 years! Dave
13 Feb, 2013
Nice article. You have also reminded me that my own first trad lead was 16 years ago tomorrow (and also in Lawrencefield). Although on that particular day, the sun was out and we were climbing in T-shirts!
13 Feb, 2013
Good read, but "This was also 1993 and my information came from books and books alone. Not only was this before UKClimbing but before the internet" the web existed in 1993 (just), the internet had been around for many years </pedant>
13 Feb, 2013
Ok ok :) I'm sure you get my point!
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