Thursday, July 20, 2006

My British Vacation III: On to Cornwall

It was pouring rain when we left our friends Keith and Catherine's house and headed for Cornwall, and it didn't clear until after lunch in the tourist mecca of St. Ives on Cornwall's north coast. Thus we established our pattern for Cornwall: puttering about in the morning, followed by a confusing search for the sea cliff du jour in the afternoon, leaving time for only a pitch or two. Well, we were on vacation. What with the stunning coastal scenery and charming villages to explore, we weren't really in much of a hurry.

The weather had turned perfect, making me 2 for 2 for T-shirt weather in Cornwall. In 1987, after a cold, dreary winter in London, I spent four days in North Devon and Cornwall over Easter with a crew of Brits who worked at the same Alpine Sports shop that had agreed to employ me for a few months. (Hint to potential floor workers in British climbing shops: When someone asks you to "Show me your pits," he's not being rude. "Pits" is slang for sleeping bags in the UK. Or at least it was in 1987.) The weather was gorgeous that spring, too, and the sun-starved Brits fried themselves the color of Maine lobsters. We had spent one day at the granite cliff of Bosigran, and so Chris and I steered there first, as I remembered it being very pleasant (check) and non-tidal (check, at least for the routes we were after), and I felt relatively confident of finding it (check). After all the rain, we only had time for one route, but it was a beauty: Anvil Chorus (HVS 4c, or roughly 5.9). The first pitch was fairly nondescript, but the second was a corker, with a gorgeous finger and hand crack leading to a frightening-looking but easy traverse that lulled you into a false sense of confidence for the desperate mantel at the end. I could go back to Bosigran again and again. Beautiful place.

Next day we puttered about looking at various villages and neolithic ruins, and then decided it was time to go climbing. After a false start at one incredibly windy crag, we ended up on more granite at Carn Barra. As with most of these cliffs, there are no anchors at the top, and it's really hard to figure out where you are. We spent at least an hour trying to locate the tops of the climbs we aimed to do, and then building a good anchor and lowering into the unknown. After a gander at our chosen route from the bottom, I decided to toprope. The climb was superb and supposedly E3 6a (well-protected 5.11), but while the "5.11" felt right, the "well-protected" seemed to be missing. To start, you stood atop a boulder about six feet off the deck, then did a hard boulder problem over a chasm until you were about 15 feet up, where you could place your first, possibly adequate protection. And then you began the crux. Hence the toprope. But it was a great route, and afterward I led a superb 5.10 line and watched a seal fishing with the incoming tide. The rapidly incoming tide. Our third route was hurried. I've often wished slow partners could have a time clock enforced while they were climbing. On sea cliffs, the tide is a stern enforcer.

Further puttering the next day stalled us in Cornwall until noon, and thus we didn't make it to North Devon until midafternoon. This day's crag was Lower Sharpnose Point, an extraordinary trio of 100-foot-high fins that project toward the sea. At low tide you can walk around the base of the fins, giving access to dead vertical cliffs (overhanging for the big, bad routes). I have no idea what kind of rock this was, but like many sea-cliff routes the first few feet involved smearing on barnacles. We were tight for time and a bit fried after five days in a row of exploring and climbing, and neither of us was in the mood for a big challenge. I chose the easiest route I could find and raced up it. There was some doubt (which I kept to myself) about how we would escape from the top, but the answer was a horizontal sidewalk in the sky, about six feet wide, 100 feet long, and plunging to either side. We kept the rope on. Although our route was so lowly it wasn't even described in our "selected climbs" guide, it was still pretty good, and Lower Sharpnose is one of the most amazing crags I've ever seen. Yet another must-return-someday cliff.

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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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Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Darwin Award

You can ask my wife: Every time I drive up Clear Creek Canyon west of Denver, I rant at the people parked under the road cuts and steep, rocky hillsides near the canyon's climbing crags. "What kind of idiot would park under all that loose rock?" I'll shout, as my wife rolls her eyes. Well, now my question has been answered, as an unfortunate guy last weekend had his car flattened by a giant boulder as he was off climbing. I say unfortunate—actually he was really lucky no one was in the car.

I know just the spot where he parked his Toyota. In the old days, people parked down the road about 150 yards in a huge, paved pull-off. But ever since the moderate sport climbs at the High Wire Crag were developed a few years ago, lazy climbers have taken to parking on the dirt by the side of the busy highway, 100 yards closer to the cliff, underneath a road cut with a huge, steep hillside above it. Don't they notice the rocks littering the road after every storm? Didn't he realize it had been raining hard for the past week? I do feel bad for the guy, but jeez! At least maybe now some people will wake up and start using the decent lot down the road. But it's probably only a matter of time until the next knucklehead gets nuked.

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Tuesday, July 11, 2006

My British Vacation

OK, it would be wrong to say I've been away for nearly six weeks, the time since my last post. The Mountain World just needed a little vacation, in order for some real (read: paying) work to get done. But I did go away for two weeks to the United Kingdom, a trip noteworthy for the quantity of sunshine (high) and the ratio of fun per climb (extremely high). We got tanner in Great Britain than we were at home in Colorado, and we managed eight days of climbing during a two-week trip (certainly an all-time high for me in Britain). We climbed only 19 pitches during that time—an average of less than two and a half pitches per day—but each day still seemed action-packed. Climbing in Britain is like that, especially on the sea cliffs where we spent most of our time. Over the next few days, I'll try to post a few reports.

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