Dan Varian recently made the third ascent of Transcendence E8 6c at Back Bowden Doors, one of Northumberland's proudest and most fearsome routes, which has resisted attempts by some of the country's finest climbers for twenty five years. Over that time, its reputation has grown to the point where to talk about attempting it comes with shaking heads and knowing smiles from the locals.
It was first climbed by the legendary Malcolm Smith in the summer of 1994, and was arguably way ahead of its time in terms of pure finger-power and bouldery moves on a trad route.
It is a true 'king line' up the bullet holes (they literally are bullet holes!) in the overhanging black streaks on the beautiful, bulging arête of The Tube Wall and it's difficult to take your eyes off it as you approach Back Bowden. From close-up, the challenges are all too obvious. The pockets are small and the wall is steep and unrelenting. The landing zone slabs out, so when you commit to the higher moves there's a certain chance of serious injury should you fall off.
There's almost an air of inevitability about Dan's ascent. He's tied into a rope quite a lot recently and surely it was destiny that at some point the country's strongest and most prolific boulderer would lock horns with one of his home turf's hardest routes? It had to happen sooner or later. No-one with that level of talent can resist the siren song of such an iconic route.
Malcolm originally graded the route E9 7a, but when Robin Barker repeated it just three or four months later, he felt that it was worth a downgrade due to the crux being low down. Robin spent three days on the route and took a couple of falls from the low crux. After doing it he said, "It can't be that hard; I had an injured finger at the time." I'm sure anyone who's been on it would disagree!
One of the hardest sequences on the route is just standing up in the Duke of York break with the gear at your feet, but then there is a long stab up with your right hand to a crozzly dish. If you don't hit this exactly right then it's already over. The holds are so bad that there's no chance of adjusting your fingers. You've already made five hard moves by this point and your feet are still in the break!
Dan thought that this small pocket was the crux hold, but that the next move out and left was the harder (and scarier) move. On the day, he had a few attempts on a top-rope, but only made it up cleanly once, so I was pretty sure he wasn't going to go for it, but he was feeling strong and confident. We waited until the sun went down for optimum conditions, then he gave it 100%.
Don't be deceived by how easy he makes it look in the YouTube video; he was trying hard! I've personally seen 10 climbers attempting this route (11 if I include myself), whether it be on a top rope, or an outrageous ground-up attempt, and Dan is the only person I've seen do more than four moves. What makes it even more impressive is that Dan is recovering from a broken wrist and still isn't back to full strength.
There's also footage online of Matt Segal popping a finger tendon on the first hold above the break and he was absolutely crushing at the time. I can tell you for sure that the moves are way harder than 6c, which is the Barker grade.
Both Dan and Malcolm thought it to be equivalent to sport 8b and Franco Cookson felt it was probably around E8 7b. Andy Earl tried it many years ago and thought that a couple of the pockets had worn slightly, making it harder now than it would have been when Robin repeated it.
Tim Blake, who just added The Bitch 8A+ to his impressive CV, also worked the line with Dan and said he was shocked at the level of difficulty: "Pulling on Transcendence was a real eye opener as to how hard Malc was climbing back in the day. It's fairly basic pulling but the holds are absolutely awful. To anyone who's tried the left hand sit start to Hitch Hikers Guide to the Galaxy at Kyloe-In (which gets 7c+) it's very much like that but harder and way above gear."
It'll be interesting to see if Transcendence undergoes the 'YouTube effect' and gets a couple of ascents in the near future now that people have the sequence. I'm certain it won't take another couple of decades, but you never know!
Thanks to Gavin Ellis for hunting down his photos of Robin Barker on the second ascent.
Dan Varian sent in the following account of the route and his repeat:
At Back Bowden there lies a huge buttress of sandstone. So large and magnificent that the military thought it would be a good idea to shoot at it. With it being almost the size of a small German aircraft hangar, some bright spark must've thought it'd cheer the home guard troops up to actually hit something with their Enfields from the hilltop. It's a good job a few of them could shoot; as otherwise in 1994 the world's strongest climber at the time (one of the strongest of all time, self-taught and self-made from a home board) wouldn't have linked them together to make those two huge black streaks into Transcendence. Power is a weapon unleashed through fingers, not guns, in our medium. Malcolm left behind a masterpiece of power. There was only one problem with this. He was tied into a rope.
Usually if you tie into a rope people give more of a shit about what you do because it's "proper climbing," but Malc had done a move so hard that he all but eliminated any of the roped cognoscenti; Dawes was never going to get up this with funky power. There were but a few candidates left whose head could both turn, notice, understand and repeat what'd happened. Unfortunately again for Malc, the only fish big enough to bite was Robin Barker. Robin holds a special place in British trad climbing for me (along with Welford Sean Myles and Myles Gibson) in that he was actually properly strong. like 8c/+ strong in a world of 9a as the top bar. Robin's real strength was on pockets, that and extremely British modesty. Unfortunately for Robin the UK is a barren land of crimps and slopers with barely an open handed hold being forced on our ratty fingered climbing population.
Having met and climbed with Robin a few times over the years I get the distinct impression that he is the type who'd go for a jog and be feeling alright so would have a pop at going sub 4 on a mile to see what the craic is about. He'd probably arrive home having run a 4.10 and would answer to the question "Good jog dear?" "Yes, not bad." That to me is Robin Barker on pockets; a man who used to campus through the crux of Revelations on a drag in his trainers. Who quietly climbed some of the best hard lines on Grit and, unsurprisingly, whom Franco Cookson had never heard of until this weekend, or at least, forgotten. Robin nipped up in 96/7. Gave it a top-rope on one weekend then lead it the next. E8 6c no big deal. 23 years pass with no more repeats…
We forget a lot now in the age of swipes and clicks, even when we learn things, it's harder for things to stick. For some reason all these snippets of history stick in my head; it adds depth to the crag as I look around and also weighs it down with preconceptions. Reputations develop in strange ways. Maybe this is what age brings.
I've always wanted to try Transcendence but in good style as my trad buddies (carers) have always been people who are used to starting from the bottom, not tops of crags first.
The weekend before last, Alex and I set off to Backers with a rack, a proper rack of gear - I know I couldn't believe it either - but between us we almost looked legit, even if we'd only remembered one tie-on chalk bag. I got bought a load of Totem Cams for Christmas (thanks Vicky), and those triggers are addictive. We warmed up on some solos, some classic E4 and E5's and then I did the honourable thing and walked to the bottom of the route… and blagged Alex to set up a top rope whilst I had a brew and sponged all the beta (just like on my ground up second ascent of Pebble Dash). Oh dear this isn't good, his blouse is off already, knickers look twisted and excuses are flying out. I try helping him out: "Malc wasn't shit!" I shout up to make him feel better. It doesn't help. "This is a joke," he says. To be fair he was misreading some subtleties in the beta, but on the whole I was worried. He'd bouldered a crap load of 8A-8B boulders last year, did Dark Side 4th try ground up and established a really highball 7C+ on pockets. He's also bold enough to turn any E5 and below into an E6 through half arsed "that'll do" placements. Hmm, this doesn't look good.
"Maybe you're not warm for pockets" I shout up, softening the tone. Nope that hasn't done it. Crap I mentioned to Robbie I wanted to ground up this. Caff's actually had a bash with Pete too. Hmm decisions. "Try the top moves." Ah shit, he's not pissing them. I think back to what my wrist looked like hanging off my arm 11 months ago after taking a slammer onto some concrete… pick your battles, maybe this one isn't your fight. Security comes with ability. Hmm, 23 years since Robin. Andy must have tried this…If this is as hard as Alex is making out it's going to take sessions to figure out the micro beta from the ground and I'm going to fall a lot. F- it.
Transcendence is a funny "route." It essentially comes down to a move. A hard move off a friction reliant 2 finger pocket extending off a good foothold. If you fit the pre-entry conditions of having A: got strong. B: got really strong on pockets for no reason other than you like them C: grown past 5ft 9" it's probably only 7C/+ (I say only because one 7C/+ is a shit day at the crag for me normally and I've climbed that hard since I was 15, I'm 31 now).
7C/+ doesn't explain 25 years of watching the world go by for this line though, so you really need to look deeper into the parametres. How many British climbers are over 5ft 9"? Lots. How many are over that height but with the pocket strength to pull through on the crux move in the last 25 years? Fewer than 20 most likely. How many are prepared to do that on a rope and want to do the route, or live near enough? Just Robin evidently. Maybe some are putting it off like me, for the sake of ethics. Caff and Pete's efforts were inspiring but they barely made it past the first crimp (I've seen the pics, you two spent half the session with the crimp in the wrong hand!) Ground up climbing is so much harder than pre-practising that I still feel this route is ahead of its time in those respects. It'll be a really impressive day to see this get ground upped, as truly this is where the rope makes a difference to bouldering and a trad grade would be comprehensible.
I find this hard to reconcile as a boulderer at heart as this climb can only really be done justice for its unique place in British climbing in that it is still likely in the top 5 hardest moves on any gear-protected route in the UK. It wouldn't surprise me if it was near the top of that list but we have lots of other testpieces waiting in the shadows like Marbellous and Fagus sylvatica, a little too peculiar to cement their place on that list. All of these routes are hideously unpopular. Why? Because they are roped boulders. And the type of people who can be arsed with that level of difficulty combined with the faff are rare.
As a boulderer I'd stress to point out that this is not a hard move on this route, as Malc and Robin seem to have agreed on by both doing it quickly and going on to do many other harder moves around the UK. Having established a few problems of my own over the years and repeated the odd one I know a hard move when I see one. But for 1994!! and the speed at which Malc (and Robin) did it, just shows the level they were operating on. For me this route marks a key point in the progression of really hard moves in some way. The point in which it left ropes behind. Lothlorian and Leviathan have also been forgotten as sport routes because they're in the County and graded as a boulder, but I'd love someone fit to put time into them and tell me they're not the country's first 9a or 9a+. l chuckle at the fact that Robin popped in and downgraded this too. "Good day climbing dear?" "Not bad just popped out with Gav in the County and did a nice route of that young Malcolm's." English 6c! Brilliant Robin, just brilliant. Just to make sure the strongest climber in the world at the time knew he was still in the UK. We can't go waving big grades around now can we, especially when it's so safe.
Transcendence is a bit of rock at the end of the day and whilst this seems a highpoint for difficulty where cams and ropes are required, as far as I felt last Sunday I was bouldering, which explains leading it first try with no falls after 3 short looks on a top-rope (no real progression from Robin's ascent 23 years ago).
That is the only way I can explain how this route is so damn hard, but also not hard at all. As a ground up challenge I'd say this'd still be one of the hardest routes in the country today. But then again what do I know? I'm just a boulderer.
Many thanks to Tim Blake for the belay and crag banter, Franco for the video and banter and Mark Savage for the pictures and banter.
Watch the video of Dan's ascent below, and the film of Matt Segal's attempt: