Tuesday, July 18, 2006

My British Vacation II

Back in the day, a climbing day went something like this: You picked your route, which might be two or three pitches, and you tried to do it. Trials and tribulations ensued, and if you were lucky you finished your route without an epic. And that was the whole day of climbing. In these days of side-by-side clip-ups, it feels like a slow day if you don't do six or eight routes. But the old days still exist in British sea-cliff climbing.

On our first day in Britain, the American friend we were visiting, Keith Gotschall, revealed that we would be going to a party that night and that, furthermore, he had told his British friends that he had yet to get rat-faced in their fair country. The gauntlet was thrown. Jet-lagged as we were, we had an excuse to depart early, but Keith stayed until the bitter end. Bitter being the beer, wine, sangria and Irish moonshine called potcheen coming back up his throat much later that night.

And so it was a bit surprising that Keith and his new English wife, Catherine, were keen to climb the next morning. Well, they were willing anyway. We headed to Torquay on the South Devon coast, where a limestone cliff called Daddyhole awaited our itchy fingers. As I led the way across the boulders at the base of the cliff, two seagulls dive-bombed me a couple of times. Uh-oh. We chose as our first route the classic of the cliff: a three-pitch Hard Severe (HS) that looked like it would go in a single long pitch. Now, HS is supposed to be about 5.6 or 5.7, but less than 30 feet up, as the chattering gulls swooped by my head, I found a short headwall that had to be at least 5.9. I lurched through it, trying not to discourage Chris (my wife) or the ailing Keith. Lesson 1 on British sea-cliff climbing: Don't trust the guidebook—big chunks of the cliff may have fallen off since the book was published. Later, I found out that move now carried a technical grade of 5a or 5b: that is, easy 5.10. So much for our 5.7 warm-up. But the sea was calm and the day was beautiful, and so, after rapping back to the beach, Chris and I decided to do another route. Having observed that most of the gull attacks were coming from the right, we figured we could do a route to the left with no problem. I started up an overhanging face and lieback crack, and just as I huffed and puffed to the top of a small pedestal, whack!, a gull's beak bonked off my helmet. I pulled up, looked at the ledge atop the pedestal, saw a nest, and deduced that retreat was the order of the day. I didn't trust the nut in front of me to lower, but it would have to do as toprope protection, and I downclimbed as quickly as I could, arriving back at the beach pumped silly.

The next day was gloomy, but nevertheless we decided to head to the wide-open moors. One of the cool things about British climbing is the great variety of rock types. Half an hour in one direction from Catherine's house, we were climbing on sunny limestone sea cliffs; half an hour in another direction, and 1,000 feet higher, and we were on Dartmoor, which was so empty and rugged that we might as well have been in Scotland. After several visits to the U.K., however, I still don't really understand the appeal of the island's micro-cliffs, like the Peak District's famous gritsone edges or the little outcrops on the moors. These climbs seem either too easy and short or so thin and desperate (and still short) that they might as well be boulder problems. We climbed a couple of pitches at Haytor, which is supposed to be Dartmoor's best crag, but it wasn't impressive on a muggy day when the flies were biting. Fortunately, a quaint café was just a short drive away, and there we prepared for our next few days in Cornwall with some serious carbo/lacto-loading: Devon cream and scones.

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