The weekend of the 11th and 12th of September 2010 - the Stoney Middleton get together. Over one hundred climbers met at the classic limestone venue to recall tales of old, climb, reminisce and above all have fun.
You can read the report with photographs here: UKC News.
The weekend was a roaring success due to the hard work of many people, including Mick Ward, author of the emotive article Tales of Windy Ledge which helped to kick start a surge of interest in the event, and helped spread the word far and wide.
In this new article - 'The Ledge is Narrower' - a follow up to the weekend, Mick reflects on climbing, life and his fellow climbers.
'Tho' much is taken, much abides; and though
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven; that which we are, we are...'
“We need to celebrate the past, not live in it.” Thus ended 'Tales of Windy Ledge'. Easier said than done. When Phil Kelly bravely mooted plans for a Stoney reunion, privately I had doubts. Yes I knew that people would come, if only from curiosity. But there were two fears. It might be a huge disappointment. And, for so many of us, Stoney had become a place of ghosts. Would facing the ghosts prove too painful?
We can return to the place, but we can never go back to the time
It was no coincidence then that my return to Stoney could scarcely have been more indirect. Leaving sleepy, sunny Dorset for the north, the first memory trigger was the oddly named Middleton Stoney near Oxford. By mid-afternoon, I was playing once again on the glorious serried buttresses of Stanage. Later, in a dull twilight, I drove through narrow Sheffield streets where once I'd scratched a precarious living to subsidise writing and climbing. Everything was the same and yet everything was different. Our memories are bubbles of place and time. We can return to the place but we can never go back to the time.
The next few days were spent at Tremadog, a perfect reintroduction to trad, where every gear placement is obvious and wires slot in with comforting reassurance. Sheltering under a bush from drenching rain at Craig y Castell, somehow we found ourselves chatting with Crispin Waddy, arguably the inventor of deep water soloing. Jokingly we agreed that he should have trademarked DWS. At the café, the quiet legend that is Eric Jones bore the pain of yet another knee operation with the same stoicism with which he'd once soloed the Eiger and so much else. Perhaps the best thing we did all week was bring a few wry smiles to his lips.
Leaving Tremadog in wind and wet, ploughing our way up Nant Gwynant, past the Pen y Gwyrd, up to a misty Pen y Pass and back down again to Llanberis, one remembered the late Paul Williams following the same route, pointing out the intricacies of dozens of climbs to his son Chris. As a teenager, on my first visits to Wales, the place had seemed dark, sombre and bloody frightening. Now, by contrast, it seems almost sanitised. Yet there are compensations. Once, for me, Hiraeth was merely the sardonic name of a route on Dove. Now I can feel something of what hiraeth, the heart-wrenching longing for Wales, means to many people.
The closer we got to Stoney, the more powerful were the memories
Sometimes in life, a tiny shard of encouragement makes all the difference. For me, that day, the difference was meeting Black Nick Colton on the way up to the crag. Suddenly I knew that everything was going to be all right. Weeks of accumulated doubt dissolved like mist in morning sunlight. Coming back to Stoney, after so long, was a risk for many of us. But if climbing is about anything, it is about risk. And this risk was one well worth taking.
The conversation must have ranged across more than 4,000 years of shared climbing experience
Years ago, after a book launch of Jim Perrin's in Wales, his son Will had taken Lindsay Griffin, Steve Dean and me to an obscure craglet in Anglesey which I'll never find again. Our conversation had ranged across perhaps 120 years of shared climbing experience. By contrast, at the Stoney reunion, with some 100 climbers assembled in one place, the conversation must have ranged across more than 4,000 years of shared climbing experience. On the 1953 Everest expedition, Jan Morris noted how climbers' conversations flick sporadically: from Himalayan peaks to grit boulders, Welsh crags, Lakes fells, Alpine ridges, Patagonian icecaps and a myriad obscure places in-between. Within a minute of grabbing a burger from Phil Kelly and Mick Ryan, I was listening to Yorkshire's finest, Dennis Gray, enthuse about dozens of newly discovered Yosemite-style walls in China. With his customary diligence, Lindsay Griffin had written up Dennis's discoveries. On learning of them, Sonnie Trotter was busting a gut to get out to China, perhaps to find a harder version of Cobra Crack. The spirit of the Bradford lads lives on.
That Saturday I quickly learned that my memories of Stoney were effortlessly eclipsed by those of many others. Dave Unwin showed me the notes he'd made of his first visit in 1962, pretty much ticking the crag in a day's climbing that would stand up well, even now, almost 50 years later. John Loy reminisced about his first ascents at Stoney and elsewhere, most notably the superbly named Satan's Slit at Millstone. Rather charmingly, by contrast, Jim Reading couldn't remember climbing with any of us, although we all remembered climbing with him. Tales were legion of Tom Proctor's power, matched only by his altruism. Although Brian Cropper and Al Evans weren't physically present, it felt as though they were there in spirit. My friends, Marti and Anna from Dorset, were a reminder of a very different place, the towering limestone buttresses of Wallsend rising majestically from the sea.
Somehow the bitter rivalries of those old Stoney logbooks were forgotten
Robert Louis Stevenson once wrote that Skye was 'mountains of rain and sun'. That Saturday, at our Stoney reunion, sunny episodes were interspersed with torrential downpours. It didn't matter in the least. 100 climbers sheltered as best they could and talked... and talked... and talked. Ages ranged from a few years (Mark Leach's daughter) to Ron Townsend at 90. Somehow the bitter rivalries of those old Stoney logbooks were forgotten, erstwhile combatants chatting amiably, side by side. Had age delivered tolerance, even a kind of wisdom? Maybe, after all, there's something to be said for growing older. Physically, of course, we'd changed. Weight had been put on by some and lost by others. Millions of strands of hair had drifted westward, sadly never to be glimpsed again.
“The ledge has got narrower!”
Although some hardish routes were done, notably Circe, it was always going to be more about the craic than the climbing. Richie Patterson caught the prevailing mood perfectly by declaring it a high gravity day. Most of us played around in the bays, with not a murmur of 'filthy, top-roping scum' from the hard core of yore. I was shocked by loose flakes, high up, that I'd often carelessly pulled on when soloing. As morning slid into afternoon, going up onto Windy Ledge was a pilgrimage that more and more of us elected to make. Like a pair of excited schoolkids, Nick Bond and I gleefully traced the sequential moves at the base of Our Father and marvelled at Tom Proctor's 1960s futurism. I stood beneath Kingdom Come, where Noddy had once nearly taken us both downhill and peered nervously at the drop. In my memory, it was a slide along steep grass, no more. In reality, it was sudden death. Quentin Fisher delivered the quote of the weekend. “The ledge has got narrower!” And, for most of us, it has.
PHOTOS: Then and Now...
It's claimed that, with the internet, the original six degrees of separation have come down to three. In climbing, are there ever more than one or two degrees of separation? In The Moon that night, I got pissed with two burly dudes who regaled me with tales of clanking hexes, epic struggle and yet more epic failure on classic VSs. Were there any climbing heroes around, they queried, anyone they might have read about? I assured them that there were more eminent climbers present than you could shake a stick at – not least Steve Bancroft and Paul Mitchell sitting opposite. For me, meeting Al Phizacklea was a rare pleasure. It was only when the boredom of injury prompted him to put his new routes on a spreadsheet that he realised he'd done 500 in the Lakes, 23 of them on Scafell. What a legacy! Yet he seemed more concerned with documenting the earlier legacies of Botterill's Slab and Herford's sublime Central Buttress.
Punk rock blasting across the dale... The only comment, “Louder! Louder!!”
Whymper wrote that his brief sojourn on top of the Matterhorn was, “a crowded hour of glorious life.” That was the feeling I took away from my first evening in The Moon in well over two decades. Somehow everything had come together. Somehow everything had turned out right. Phil and Mick had slaved like demons to make this reunion happen. And it had worked – beyond anybody's wildest expectations.
A last night of camping in a sodden tent. Punk rock blasting across the dale in the wee early hours as Mick and Phil fired up the grill for the stragglers to feast on fried egg butties at 2am. The only comment from John Stringfellow in the nearest tent, “Louder! Louder!!”
And then it was morning, the dale bathed in gentle September sunshine. Time for me to sneak away, to try to make some kind of sense of it all. On the way down to the road I met two young lads going up. What were conditions like? “The crag's drying out,” I told them. “You'll have a great day – and a free breakfast, if you play your cards right.”
A long journey south, with ample time to reflect. Quentin was right. For most of us, the ledge has got narrower. But if the bitter intransigence of yesteryear has yielded to tolerance, if fierce ambition has been transformed into Redhead's 'authentic desire', climbing because you love it, then the exchange is a fair one. And there are other generations, young Nick Bond, with whom I'd climbed the day before, the two lads going up to the crag, the burly dudes of The Moon rattling their hexes. Our story doesn't end; it lives on in others.
For me, returning to Stoney had been a risk. But the risk was worth it. I had faced the ghosts. Finally, after so many years, I had found peace. Best of all, I had kept my promise, gone back to Windy Ledge and, once again, touched the stone.
© Mick Ward 2010
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