Opinion: The Blurry Line - When does a sequence become a line?

© Franco Cookson

Franco Cookson recently made an ascent of The Prow at Kyloe-not-so-in-the-woods-anymore, on which he found a new sequence. His ascent quickly received a range of responses from armchair critics and previous ascensionists; some arguing that he had not climbed the route, and others arguing that it was simply a different sequence on the same line. Whatever the consensus turns out to be, there is a nuanced argument to be had on the nature of lines and sequences, which Franco delves into below...

In 2022 you may wonder what may start a huge controversy in the world of highballing – perhaps chipping? Or overbrushing? Or tick marks? What has proved more divisive is something that is arguably a lot more straightforward – where the highball actually goes. 

The Prow (E9 7a) at Kyloe is a highball with an almost mythical aura. Andy Earl climbed it in 2003, with the Northumberland MC guide describing it as "one of the last great problems of the County... very hard and very bold." It waited many years to see a repeat. It was a certain masterpiece of hard highballing, which along with The Young (f7C+) and The Dark Side (E9 7b), extended the Earl legacy of superb and rarely repeated Northumberland routes.

Fast forward nearly twenty years to last Friday and an excited 16-year-old Tom Pearce is coming up from the North York Moors for a first taste of Northumberland highballing. We decide on Kyloe as a destination, as there is promise of better conditions since the extreme Storm Arwen hit the place and ripped up many of the magnificent trees that thwarted the crag's attempts to dry out. The Prow is an obvious target for us, with its reputation for small holds and significant boldness and only having seen 3 repeats, all headpointed (I think?). So we pack 7 pads in the car and off we go. The whole plan is a bit last minute and I don't read either the guidebook description or watch any of the videos before I inspect the line on an ab rope. I suppose in the back of my mind is the video I've seen a few years ago of Dan Varian finishing up the right wall of the prow, or the picture on page 203 of the NMC guide, of Andy Earl seemingly climbing up holds on the right face. Not having scoped out all the beta is a bit amateur on my part, but with 3-star highballs, the line is generally pretty obvious and, I nearly always climb things totally differently from everyone else anyway, so the beta videos from Will Bosi are unlikely to be helpful to me. Moreover, less knowledge is generally more fun when trying a line! 

Once down on the ab rope, I quickly find the top holds that I remember from the video of Dan Varian doing it, about a metre to the right of the prow. To the left of the prow is very little and the blunt arete is way too rounded to be used as an arete. I find a small pocket right of the arete lower down and some high monos also right of the arete that I think is the sequence used by others. The move looks cool, with your body hanging under the overhanging left side of the prow for that one hard move, before turning it and traversing right onto the face and to a big pocket. I soon discount this sequence though, as I find a decent three finger configuration and a pinkie mono that can be used in conjunction with the same low pocket used by (I assume) everybody else on their ascents. I simply take this low pocket with my left hand, rather than right hand. These new right hand holds I've found are also about a metre right of the arete, so just below the big pocket. It's evident that you can bypass the one steep move under the arete and the following hand movements across the right wall (that previous ascentionists have done) by stepping right a move earlier. It looks like an easier sequence for someone like me who is rubbish on overhangs, but very happy on monos. When I'm back on the ground I check out the video of Will Bosi climbing it and see that prior ascents have climbed what I assumed. It's a bit tricky to figure out exactly what he's doing, as the angle of the footage doesn't give much away, but it's clear that after that small pocket, he climbs mostly on the right wall. "Cool! I've found a better sequence!" I think. 

We then go for a bash at climbing the route. A further advantage of the storm is that there are loads of fallen branches everywhere, so we build a nice bouncy castle with them and put our pads on top. Probably more like E7/8 than E9 now, but still not without spice (especially as the new sequence may send you onto a bit of a rock) – the siege is on. A few up and downs, Ed Brown and another friendly guy who are bouldering on the main crag swing by to offer us an extra pad. A foothold breaks as soon as I get up onto my new sequence which is annoying. I start to wonder if it will actually go. Next go I make a rubbish attempt at a jump, which is not ideal at that height. After Tom courageously cleans another foothold for me and a little bit of cleaning on the solo, I find myself up high, loving life and topping out on glorious flutings. "I've climbed The Prow!" I think to myself. Or have I? 

The great thing about the Instagram and YouTube age is how quickly you can share what you've been doing and how quickly people can respond. It's not long till I've put a picture and video up and the usual warmth of the climbing community does its thing. In amongst the polite congratulations, however, are some pretty offensive messages and posts on online forums.  If you're reading these comments about someone else, you may not think they're that personal, but it is quite different when they're directed at you. Some people were taking issue with my claim of having climbed The Prow, as I hadn't stayed under the overhang the whole way (not that anyone else had). Much of the online criticism was factual and polite, but there were some calling me a liar, dodgy, a worm, a narcissist, a cheat and that I've 'let a ball drop' by having not climbed the prescribed sequence. I've maybe become used to expecting a high degree of scrutiny about my ascents, but I have to say I found the extreme nature of these comments surprising, totally over the top and really out of order.

I've taught in behaviour schools for a lot of my working life, so I like to think of myself as fairly resilient, but this kind of behaviour and these kinds of personal attacks (some from people who don't know me) is the kind of thing I've seen leading to self-harm and even attempted suicide in the kids I've taught. And if you think that these kinds of issues don't exist in the world of climbing, you're wrong. I really think we need to be careful about the accusations we're throwing around - let's keep things in perspective. 

The issue that seemed to have so many people riled up was the discussion about what a line in climbing actually meant. This is superficially fairly interesting. But, as I said in my Instagram post, it's a discussion without an end, as lines are subjective. 

Franco's ascent is in the video below:

The first thing we need to decide is whether this line is a boulder problem or a route. As far as I'm aware, every prior ascent has been headpointed (? - not that there's been any discussion about that, which in my opinion is almost as important as the line), so that would suggest that most of the usual points about bouldering don't fully work, as people are treating it more like a route. Routes generally have broader lines, with defined lines often being classed as eliminates and rarely gaining any stars. On the other hand, I can see how all sequences on this wall are largely safe, especially with the branches we moved under it and left there (I'm happy to move these back if the consensus is against having these in situ), so I can see how some may think boulder lines should apply, even if no one has fully approached it as a boulder problem yet. 

The Prow - A prow is an overhang, generally an arete feature. No one has climbed the prow in its entirety, although Andy's sequence was very close, turning onto the right wall with his hands, but with some of his bodyweight remaining under the overhang for a little longer. Very little of anyone's sequence on this wall is classic arete climbing, with there being that one sidepull pocket right of the arete that immediately climbs up to a mono on the front face and from then on Dan Varian et al are face climbing, just like with my sequence. It seemed very important to some people that were commenting on my ascent that your body stays under the overhang for another move, before turning it onto the face. Why is that important? If it was a single decision to step left and then it was an inescapable line up to the top (I think like Purgatory (E8 7b) at Back Bowden), then I'd see that as a great line. I fully understand how an arete can be two different lines, if climbed on either side, with something like Archangel (E3 5b) at Stanage being the classic example. What is really important with a line like that though is that you cannot easily move between the two sides of the arete and that it is easier to keep climbing upwards on that side of the arete than to turn it. If you climb up the left side of The Prow, every single move upwards is harder than the move rightwards onto the face. This is not a logical line, even if it were a boulder problem. At a stretch though, perhaps the super direct up the overhang the whole way up is an interesting athletic challenge, but what makes no sense (unless it's easier for you than my sequence) is to do one more move up the steep side, only to then simply turn onto the right wall after that move. 

Footage of Ned Feehally climbing The Prow can be seen in this video from roughly 8 minutes:

I do understand that people can get very attached to sequences, especially when they're hard and cool like the mono pop beta on The Prow. But as far as the line goes, I do have to ask what is so important about doing that one move to the mono? Why does that define what The Prow at Kyloe is? Is it just because it's difficult? Difficulty seems an odd justification for a line and unlikely to make something good quality. I don't however think those saying 'the line is as Andy Earl climbed it' are categorically wrong for thinking this is the line though, as I understand some people see the visual feature as more important than anything else. What I do think is important however is that those people don't act as if they are definitively correct in their interpretation of the line, as it is evidently totally subjective.  

As is so often the case in Northumberland, the climbing does not follow the feature. I didn't even try the Dan Varian sequence, as it so obviously looked like a duff sequence on ab. You literally climb an extra move up the steep side of the prow to just traverse right into the same pocket. For that one move, you'd feel like you were under the prow, but then you're back on the face. Why would you do that? Some have used the phrase 'forced right' as a way of describing this line, but this means very little. If you climbed font 11B, you wouldn't be forced right at any point, as the moves upwards would feel easy for you, even though the moves rightwards were even easier. If you climb 7C, maybe you'd be forced right into my sequence (not that I'm saying my sequence is 7C), but you probably wouldn't be able to do the mono pop move. So my point is that it is not really a prow at all. Or at least it doesn't seem to have holds to let it climb like a prow. Why force it to just artificially climb the feature? I do feel like I'm fighting a losing battle with some people in Northumberland. Many people are fanatic about following the feature, even if the holds take you elsewhere. Perhaps it's a cultural thing - by region, rock type and facet of climbing. I suppose it's better to think of this thing as a convex face climb. And if it was a face climb, I think people would see fairly easily how ludicrous it is to say that what I did was a different line to those that came before. 

Ultimately, routes change with ascents. Loads of my own routes have. One of my new routes in the Moors, The Waves Of Inspiration (E7 6c), has been repeated something like five times, with five different sequences. Some of these will be harder and some easier. I didn't slag off the repeaters and say they hadn't done it, or called them worms or liars, even though their sequences were a lot more different than the difference we're talking about here. First and foremost, I was just overwhelmed with joy that anyone would want to repeat my routes. Future repeaters' reinterpretation of lines is part of the richness of climbing and life. 

Another one of my routes, Divine Moments Of Truth (E9 6c), was repeated via a different sequence after a horrible spikey tree landing was removed with a petrol chainsaw. This took what was one of my hardest ascents at the time from a death font 7C move to a 7A+ dyno that you'd take a long, possibly survivable fall from. This was literally something I'd put my life on the line to develop, as well as several years' worth of effort. It destroyed the only E10 in the Moors at the time too. I was in a way sad that that route had changed, but I smiled and was mostly just really pleased it had been repeated and that Mark had made such a good effort on it. The line is still there - still awesome, a bit easier and a great memory for all. The bottom line is that new routing is brutal. Most routes change grades, lines or gear with repeats. We have to be open to this, as eventually, it will happen whether we like it or not. You can't create a 3 star line that doesn't physically exist in the stone. 

Divine Moments Of Truth
Franco Cookson, May 2015
© Jake Hampshire

If the consensus after all this is that all 3 sequences are different routes, or that the prow must have that pop to a mono in it for it to be The Prow, then I'll accept that. That really clearly wasn't the case when I went to do the route though. For me, The Prow was a 3 star line and so I didn't have to think about what the rules were for where hands were meant to go or even at what point you'd have to turn it. I think it's a bit of an insult to Andy if he gets associated with a defined line, and I apparently have to claim my sequence as a 2/3 star new route (The Delta Varian?). Is that really what people want? Andy had the vision and ability to do something no one else could at the time. Does it matter if it ends up as 7C+ or 7C or even 7B for that matter? The line is still a testament to his cutting edge strength and ability for boldness, however it is climbed in the future.  

9 Feb, 2022

Cue more Franco Bashing from UKC arm chair critics....Chapeau sir!

9 Feb, 2022

good hard highballing !! well done ! maybe the answer is for all first ascensionists to colour the used holds with permanent marker so we cam all follow their beta and lose all joy and fun from finding our own way up :-)

9 Feb, 2022

I'm not really sure about the article, Franco seems to spend the first half saying what he climbed is basically the same as the previous ascents, and the second half justifying why climbing the feature using a different line to everyone else is ok. Personally I don't really care either way but I think he needs to get off the fence and either downgrade it as the original had duff Beta or name it as a new, easier but still quality problem. It cant be both.

9 Feb, 2022


Thanks for that thoughtful and measured response. I really enjoyed reading that and thinking about some of points raised.

I can understand how boulderers get obsessed and fixated on only using certain holds in a certain order to claim a send. But do modern bouldering and highballing ethics now require you to first watch at least [x] You Tube videos of previous ascents by others in order to determine what is in or out in order to tick a send?

What about onsight attempts (or whatever that is called in modern parlance)? Or ground up, no beta ascents on highballs etc?

For routes it is ludicrous to demand that a particular sequence and/or holds on the line are used. Otherwise we'd end up with paint spots to mark the holds which can be used (think indoor climbing...). Climbing history is full of examples where future ascentionists have found a better or more logical or less contrived or easier sequence or a sequence which they need to use given their size and/or stature or where they use different and better gear (eg knee pads, mats) than the first ascentionist.

What is sad and frustrating is modern day social media hysteria, diatribe and vitriol that is unfortunately such a part of wider society.

Anyway, the most important thing is that you're out climbing, having fun and enjoying life.

Well done on a great effort here and on previous routes, highballs and projects.


9 Feb, 2022

As someone who has not seen the feature in flesh, having watched the videos and seen the Earl photos, Dan V looks like he climbs pretty much (but not quite) what Andy climbed and envisioned, Ned and Will drifted further right and Franco climbed "the wall to the right of the Prow".

This may just be the camera angle but, looking at it with a bouldering eye, Franco's line looked more like a direct start to the E4 traverse than the Prow. I have never been there though so this is full armchair critic stuff. It does, however, chime with the article, which as a poster above notes, seem to contradict itself by switching positions half way through and hints that Franco is not 100% confident in his opening arguments.

Regardless of the above, I think Franco's comments about online commentary are very valid and we should be more considerate in how our comments/criticism is phrased. I'm not sure his reputation for courting controversy is as well deserved as people think and there seems to be a group of "usual suspects" who have the pointiest tongues.

It looks like good climbing. Give it a name and a grade and we can all sleep happy!

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