Franco Cookson talks to Craig and Rob Matheson about Craig's new line at Bright Beck Crag, near Pavey Ark. Tipped to be one of the hardest climbs in the country, Franco investigates Craig's pièce de résistance and finds himself hugely inspired...
Bang, bang, bang. I was leaping in great strides down from Pavey Ark on one of those magical mornings, in the last heat of the summer, with the balls of my feet crashing into the hard stone path with bruising force. The first walkers of the day were just starting on their way up to the tarn and I felt smug: because I was floating down rather than trudging up; because I was surfing a pure adrenaline wave of reaction times and body position on the uneven path, rather than stuck looking up at an unending hill; but most of all, because of where I was and where I had been. As I approached the final stretch before the Old Dungeon Ghyll, two figures came into view who had the characteristic look of rock climbers. I slowed my borderline-dangerous running to a steady jog, on the off chance I might identify them and share in the majesty of our surroundings. I soon recognised one of them as Rob Matheson and the second as his son Craig. After finding their pads up on the mountain years ago, I knew they had been sporadically looking at the Bright Beck Groove, but also wondered if they were perhaps going up to look at Neil Gresham's new line on Pavey.
I crashed to the ground in a sweaty mess, resting naturally, half on a rock, half on my rucksack. I looked up at the Matheson clan, still fresh, smiling. I felt a kind of warmth you only get in climbing – barely acquainted with one another, yet intuitively at ease in each other's presence. We began to converse, but in a stream of exciting consciousness from all three directions, tackling more than three topics at once, all with such interest in what each other were saying that the simultaneous conversations appeared to be understood by all, in a feat of computation rather unbelievable for the puny human brain. Amongst this jostling pile of language, one sentence penetrated deep into my ear and vanquished all other thoughts in an instant, "oh yeah, I did the groove up at Bright Beck". The words came from Craig and I looked towards him in total astonishment.
There are some lines that seem to define a whole branch of climbing before they exist, that type of climbing was yet to be born. The groove is one of these. It is unlike anything else in the Lakes, with 10m of continually desperate climbing up an overhanging contorted corner, which leans in two directions and offers no protection. I had always known that Craig was operating at a level a bit beyond anyone else in the Lakes, quietly repeating most of Birkett's hardest lines, but I had no idea he was even close to cleanly top roping the Bright Beck Groove. My own brief attempt to have a look at the moves had been a total failure, with no gear to back aid into it and seemingly no holds to pull on. I could look down the feature enough to satisfy myself that the climbing was sufficiently burly, bold and futuristic not to be worth a second look, but convinced myself that no one would be seriously trying it anytime soon anyway. Craig's news completely shook me to the core. I instantly had a hundred questions, but all I could manage was a feeling of complete surprise and a barrage of excited expletives and exclamations. The Matheson's laughed and we continued our chat for a few moments before we parted ways: they up; me down.
For the next few weeks, I would often think about this line; the beauty of that sweep; the audacity in attempting to climb it; the complete mastery of Lakes climbing that establishing it must have demanded. Fortuitously, the Kendal Film Festival gave me the chance to meet up with the two of them again and get the answers to all my questions. In a manner that perhaps fits the first ascent of such a proud and outrageous line, our conversation turned out to be the most inspirational of the year for me. Despite having only met the two of them a couple of times, I barely had to say anything at all, with the story unfolding completely naturally and Craig eloquently and simply presenting his motivation and thinking behind the risks and effort involved in the creation of Hard Cheese. His dad beautifully punctuated the chat with hilarious anecdotes and short statements of immense power. I was left with a feeling that I had witnessed something very special and that in reality, I had no real comprehension of what it took to climb Hard Cheese.
Perhaps it was the magic of being in his presence, but to me Craig seemed to have a new take on bold Trad: the scientific approach to training and tactics is crucial, but the foundations of his ambition appeared to be unquantifiable, driven by an inspiration derived from the local area and a magical draw to the line. What a radical manifesto for the next generation of bold trad climbers: first, find that which is most important to you in the world; second, do not rest until you have analysed every last bit, never give up, and use everything you have to climb it.
Watch Franco's extended interview with Craig and Rob below: