Jules McKim writes about those who've climbed before us...
We've got history!
We'd run out of lemons. Swerving away from G&T disappointment, I squeeze out of the house and cycle into town to buy some. On the cycle path back, one of those strange moments. A passing cyclist. Jules! He shouts! I look back. John?! I ask. Cycle helmets off. Oh my God! A person from the past, one of those I shouldn't have lost touch with. So strange to see a face, familiar still, in a 30-year older variant: larger, lined (not too much!) and bearded, but now, increasingly recognizable: those same expressions, the same eyes, the same smile. If it hadn't been for the lack of lemons! John's now living near me, so we meet for a beer and a catch up.
I'm thrown back to being 15: I punch him hard in the nose for spilling coffee on my school books in a teenage testosterone tantrum. He immediately punches me in the nose straight back. We lock eyes and laugh! Instant karma or something. Loved him for that! Loved him too for our climbing adventures, his love of David Bowie, his homemade headbands, his humour, his flexing of, not his biceps, but that little back-of-the-hand muscle on his fist; the one that bites into grit handjams and gets bitten back.
We reflect on our first solo trip to Peak grit in our mid-teens. John's dad dropped us off so we could walk into North Lees campsite and keep our Rolls Royce ride hidden. We smoked our roll-ups with such fierceness and lack of practice that the campsite man came over and tried to buy hash off us. I had the small plastic-covered green Stanage guide and the orange Burbage to Curbar guide. I'd marked all the routes I wanted to do. Everything with a star up to and including HVS, I'd marked with my own little pencil tick, which in reflection was pointless, but I had to be active with the guide, itching to get started.
Those anticipatory scribblings later were replaced by pen ticks, dates of ascents, the odd note added, populating our log-books and histories. We had even added little drawn caricatures of Ron Fawcett, post Rock Athlete, arms having done their stuff: penciled pictures of him with tab out one side of his mouth, speech bubble out the other: "Aye lad."
Goliath's Groove, all those Joe Brown and Don Whillans routes and tales, they were all here! Wearing our Whillans harnesses with gonad grinding swaggers. On to Right Unconquerable in 80 degree sunshine, home-made chalkbags from my dad's old denim jeans pockets, frankly too small, both with headbands (!), short shorts and EBs. What a perfect flake, undamaged by cams back then. That top out! I spent ten minutes there nauseous and pumped stupid. I belly-flopped like a beached seal. With cams below though…
Bloody hell Joe, it must have been hard back then. I swear that little crimp I use now wasn't there. We meet our hero Ron at Burbage South, soloing down David. "Morning lads" with no tab. Our climbing history, those stories from Crags and Climber and Rambler was talking to us. We were struck dumb, barely managed a "Morning" in reply, snuck a look at his arms. Yes, still doing their stuff.
A long hot walk to Froggatt. We asked a woman who lived on the roadside just up from the Chequers if we could camp in her garden and she let us – a great location and a nearby water-trough to have cold baths in. Up through the rocky mossy forest to the crag. How good is Heather Wall? We did it loads. Failed on Valkyrie's first crack. Drunken soloing around Great Slab after pints outside the Chequers. The plan was always to go on to the Roaches. We had that guide too, longed for the Lower Tier, but John's grandmother died so we went back to our homes and families.
We talk of Cheddar. Not the nearest crag to John and me at school; we tended to go to Avon. The history bit, it hurt. 35 years! It was such a long time ago. At school we learned that Cheddar and Avon are both made of carboniferous limestone deposited somewhere between 360 to 300 million years ago, pushed around a bit during mountain building epochs and eroded by glacial meltwater in the Pleistocene sometime in the last 1.2 million years.
Avon moved to Bristol and urbanised and quarried itself, allowed Isambard Kingdom Brunel to straddle it, got into trip hop and graffiti, went the way of mud and tides and wading sea birds. Cheddar stayed in the country, covered itself in trees, got into making cheese, allowed goats to roam its slopes and opened itself up through its caves to the burials of our early ancestors. Cheddar Man lived and died here 9000 years ago, leaving the oldest complete skeleton in our lands. DNA sequencing indicates that he was lactose intolerant, so he would not have been a fan of the cheese.
Fast forward to the 1930s and the first routes. Marples and Bates did Knight's Climb at Cheddar in 1931 while Graham Balcombe did Piton Route and Central Gully at Avon. After WWII it was members of the Bristol University Mountaineering Club who began developing Avon and Cheddar and then in 1965 Chris Bonington climbed Coronation Street before a TV audience. This truly spectacular route and event captured the public imagination. My dad talked of it.
My first Cheddar route was with Gilbert from school, one school weekend. A freezing ascent of Knight's Climb, I remember chimneys and ivy and a step off a pinnacle, a bushwhack through forest, a dangerous scramble over a spiked metal fence, an impaled flare of my jeans flipping me as I jumped, left hung one legged by demin and Gilbert needing to lift me off. His brother had invited us to some meeting of a local climbing club in a nearby village – other climbers from the world outside school. I remember meeting Mike Weeks, the man of that evening, with a long history of caving and climbing here, and me just a pup, wide eyed not saying anything. He gave kind words, and encouragement. Marples and Bates and Weeks and months and years.
For many years my mother worked as a physiotherapist in our local hospital. She came home one day around this time talking about one of her patients who had been married to a climber and wanted to meet me. Her name? Eleanor Winthrop Young! History, time and space bent before us. I had heard of Geoffrey Winthrop Young, but associated him with a time long gone, the players of which had long since died. His legacy lives on, underlying some of the traditions of Welsh rock climbing, of clambering around on school buildings, but to be able to meet his wife seemed extraordinary.
How wonderful it was to have several tea dates with Eleanor, to hear of her and Geoffrey climbing together, his one-legged ascent of the Matterhorn and other mountains, tweeds and britches and hobnails, his artificial leg with a selection of attachments for ice or rock, their Pen-y-Pass parties. She founded and was the first president of the Pinnacle Club, a climbing club for British women, a hundred years old this year. She heard of my fingery crimps and monos and the buildering at the bridges, the Chip Shop Slab, climbing with Gilbert, Andy, Luke and John.
Over tea in china cups and Rich Tea biscuits chatting with this lovely remarkable woman ("Call me Len!"); the years were swept aside, she opened up a hidden history, gave a face and a beating heart to dusty hard-backed books, poured colour into black and white. She passed on her copy of On High Hills, within which, used as a bookmark, I later find a postcard from Geoffrey to Eleanor.
It's a colour painting of the Weisshorn in Zermatt. On the other side, in slightly smudged pen, Geoffrey writes:
Sunday, R'alp 3PM. [Postmarked Riffelalp 21. VII. 35]
Lovely weather again: [ Who? starts on W.horn] so I'm going over this afternoon to Schwarzsee, for the night. More good discipline for muscles! Back here tomorrow. Peaks all amazingly clear and brilliant. Going to get hot running down and up those zigzags! Hope the sports went spiffing! Here's our old Weisshorn, for luck, to you – G. from the Grumsee, too.
I turn it over, put it back into the book to mark my place. Eleanor looks back, my friends and I look forward, our generational perspectives. I looked forward to seeing her for tea again but she died, just shy of 100.
Of course, we have to have Hope. Hope for the next generations. Climbing Hope on the Idwal Slabs last year with my son Kai: my first climb in North Wales becomes his too, the passing on of an experience that I had loved and together creating a new shared one. Emily Daniel, later a member of The Pinnacle Club, made the first ascent back in 1915. Cwm Idwal is dark and gloomy once again, yet the rock leads us up and out with such friendliness and ease. The polish is testimony to its popularity; since Emily's day so many feet and so many hands have passed this way. So much has changed with our footwear yet our human hands remain the same. Boots and plimsoles, pumps and PAs, EBs and Fires and a stampede of all the rest; our hands, chalky now, holding a history carefully in our hands and passing it on with hope.
We remember now, John and I: we just had to do Coronation Street! That picture of Chris Bonington traversing the shield feature, right foot in a sling with snow so far below! Perhaps the closest classic to our school. It was a Bonington route. My Dad would be impressed!
That experience we shared of climbing Coronation Street, we shared again. Driving only months after getting a licence; did we bunk off school or was it after we had left school? Not sure. There's a lot I don't remember. It was only the second route I'd done at Cheddar after Knight's Climb. Did we climb it outside of the ban? We weren't sure. We didn't see anyone else. It was cold and grey and frigid, the road silent and empty. We parked below and just climbed it, flipping from horizontal grey tarmac to vertical grey rock like the flicking of a switch. Stepping off the road into instant adventure.
Long and rambling initial pitches, meat and two veg, then John led the first beautiful crack pitch. And then beside and above us: big clean squares of perfect grey limestone. I did the shield traverse, (look, not stepping in a sling, Chris), which was mind-blowing, good holds, but the position was extraordinary; a semi-hanging belay at the end, clipped into historic pegs. We were just glad we weren't Jim Perrin. To be soloing here! We were freaking out with ropes.
So Bonington had been here, Perrin had been here. Who else? Cheddar Man, did you get this high? Extraordinary not simply going to the same place as our heroes, but in doing their climbs, actually moving the body the same way, arranging our limbs into the same shapes they had, touching the same holds. As I bring John up, I watch the present moment on the rock in front of me: woodlice tumbling out of cracks, greenery shaking.
A family parked directly beneath us and spread out a picnic blanket, kids sat on corners. Somehow we managed to sort the ropes out, maintain composure and safety and not drop anything. The odd rattling block was cause of much caution and concern. What a weird place to picnic. I led the next long pitch that has those two 5b sections, one a groove, one a crack, damp in places, numb fingers, strong rope drag at the top, a taut line connecting me to John. Relief to untie, deep satisfaction now that anticipation and effort had become memory.
They're funny things, memory and history; different people have different perspectives, different sensory experiences, unique ways of seeing the world, personal filters and foci, different memories of the same events. Can we trust our memories? History is all around us all the time – yours, mine, theirs, ours. We create it without knowing quite how the present so rapidly slides into the past. Those choices with their little details hold consequences and biases that rattle down through the years and become our stories. And we tell our histories as stories, adding to what we knew with what we know.
The past evolves, it isn't fixed. There are gaps in our accounts, but the details don't matter. It's the co-author of this story that matters. My Coronation Street is not the route, it's John. He remembers: we got back to my mum's Vauxhall Viva and drove off home, windows down, briefly looking back at the huge line of the climb, at where we'd been, The Rolling Stones' Wild Horses playing loud.
Childhood living was easy to do. Was it really?
I reach behind me and take a book down off the shelf. It's back to Geoffrey, and his concluding line from On High Hills. Thinking back about the mountains he has climbed: "And we may take from them, when the time comes for memory and reflection, a perfected home for our thoughts more generous, more liberal even, than their own great spaces of air and height and freedom."
Isn't that great? He was there before us.