Pushing for Rail. To peg or not to peg – that is the question.

The top three pegs were taken from Rust Never Sleeps and the bottom peg is from the start of The Gross Clinic. Picture credit, Ray Wood.

It was an odd one, the country was bathed in sun and as the temperature hit 30 degrees, the most obvious, and sensible option for a climber was to head to the hills. The hills were brown – brown and dried to a crisp. The white stone walls, that ran over, and across the hills, stood out even more than usual. Underfoot, the grass and bog were parched. There wasn’t a wet hold in Snowdonia. Get on those seldom dry climbs, it was now or never.

I’ve never been good at doing the obvious, or the most sensible, (maybe that’s why I became a climber) and as the temperature increased, and the crags up high became as dry as a quality bottle of French wine (not really my tipple of choice, cheap and chunky is much more preferable), the most obvious place not to climb is Craig Dorys on the Llŷn Peninsular, and in particular, Stigmata Buttress, because the crag faces south, and it hardly ever rains even in the wettest of summers. But, in this desiccated landscape Stigmata Buttress had become the very place to go climbing.

Stigmata looks amazing, but it’s like playing in a sand pit to reveal a dog turd, there is danger in the untouched. I love wallowing in the dirt at the base of the crag and squeaking the rubber of my climbing shoes, before standing, and once again, sinking into muck. I love getting home and emptying dirt from trouser turn ups and standing in the shower to watch the flow of gravel swirl towards the plughole. Climbing on Stigmata is the antithesis of what many enjoy, but for me, and some of my friends, this place and its idiosyncrasies add to the climbing experience and the climbing experience adds to our existence.

A long time ago, in my climbing, it was ticking the classics, the test pieces, but for a few years now, it has been more about becoming involved, having a relationship. I suppose being a bit shit at climbing makes it like this, if I was as good at climbing as James McHaffie, I would get on a climb once, then, more often than not, never go back. (If evidence is needed, just look at one of Caff’s latest climbs, Masters Wall, a climb he had to visit a few times, over several years, and in doing so, became involved – he vividly remembers his times on this bad boy, doesn’t he?)

Being a bit shit gives a whole host of recollections, it gives time to become familiar, not just with a place, but with individual rocks, single holds, toe placements, crumbly, insecure flakes – I become close and begin to look upon these small features with love, and also, in the case of Stigmata, with suspicion. Even crappy gear placements become something to be thought about in the long hours between dark and light. And when the time comes to place these crappy bits of gear on lead, it feels similar to reading a favourite passage from a loved book.

Climbing life goes through stages. One year it big hills, then bolts, then on-sight trad in new areas, Canadian ice, Scottish mixed, Alpine mixed and rock. Headpointing routes that are too difficult or bold for me to tackle in any other style, has always given me joy, its just another form of climbing, but add loose rock and practised uncertainty becomes tantamount to psychological chess.

Loose rock at its most insecure can be termed, death choss, and death choss, I suppose, can be sub-divided into on-sight death choss – following lines of weakness and gear, generally off vertical to vertical, to very dangerous death choss – lines of a type and grade I am not good enough, or bold enough to on-sight, or even climb, with just an abseil inspection. These lines tend to be overhanging and hard, and follow no particular line, but sometimes islands of solid and small micro-features give direction. And the ultimate in getting close and becoming involved is new route, dangerous death choss.

The Hippy was away in the Dolomites doing something called via ferrata, I think its clipping cables and teetering along metal steps somewhere on a rock face? He is very old now, so this is OK, each to their own, at least appears to be enjoying himself. The void has been filled by a younger, more skilled and talented model in the form of Mick Lovatt. Admittedly the music hasn’t been as good, I’m pretty sure we haven’t listened once to Jonny Cash, but the clothing has been like the rock, snappy, and the hair is not only more abundant, but nurtured!

Mick and myself have had fun, and because Mick lives only half a mile up the road from Dorys, he’s rubbing his great big hands together at the saving in fuel. The sleep deprivation does appear to be bringing about the odd crease though – more skin care products needed!

Pushing for Rail. E8 6b. The green dot is the approximate position of the peg.

A few weeks ago now, Tuesday was my day to climb, and we climbed a new route I had been working. This route falls into death choss, sub-category 2 – no actual line, steep, bold and physical. In the lower half it climbs the steepest and most insecure section of Stigmata via the longest portion of the worst type of rock. There are no particular features and it only has one lump of the safe red stuff. The line is between The Gross Clinic and Melody, and in the lower section has poor, minimal gear. I fought long and hard, but eventually decided to place a peg about half way up the bottom section of wall. The peg is tied-off, and in my opinion, quite good. It’s the best bit of gear up to this point and for a little way after, which is the crux of the lower wall. I think it would have been easy for me to have placed at least another one, or two pegs lower down, as the gear (what gear there is), is not trustworthy, but because I worked the route, I was able to keep the pegs to a minimum.

Another reason a single peg is good, is to mark the line, which is difficult to spot. And finally, a reason for not placing a peg (once I knew it was possible), was to give the climb a grade of E9. E9 is a pretty chunky grade, which I would have liked to have given to inflate my ego, but in the end, I decided this was the wrong reason not to place a peg. If in the future someone wants to remove the peg and climb the route without it, go for it and give yourself an E9 tick, or if you want to replace like for like and get the E8 tick, do that also, I’m not that worried as I’ve now had my experience and I’ve never been of the opinion that the first ascensionist has some kind of ownership over the rock.

Myself, above the lower wall crux (and peg) with a few more steep moves to complete before the sanctuary of the ledge. Picture credit, Ray Wood.

After the lower wall the climb has a ledge. I love climbs that have ledges, especially ledges big enough to take off my shoes, sit and contemplate. Being a bit shit also loves a ledge, a ledge helps climbing hard when you’re a bit shit. Ledges are great – while away the time, revel in the situation, (or is it tremor with what is to come and grow really scared that if fluffed, it all needs doing again!). On the day of my ascent, I’m not sure Mick liked the ledge as much though, because his wait while belaying me was long!

Leaving the ledge is negotiated by a few easy moves up a corner, until a pull right and onto that beautiful orange face. There is gear in the form of a nut, before the technical crux – a weird pockety, crimpy, mono-move, and, if successfully negotiated, this leads to more sustained climbing, but with good, spaced gear. The biggest worry is muffing it or breaking a hold and having to climb the lower wall again. As good as it is, you really don’t want to climb that lower wall too many times!

The top wall with the technical crux climbed. Picture credit, Ray Wood.

Placing pegs on sea cliffs is a lukewarm topic, and one I do have mixed emotions, but I think they are still a valid part of climbing because they allow passage at a certain grade and use natural weakness in the rock to determine where they are placed. A bolt can be placed anywhere and I don’t agree that bolts should be placed when a peg becomes old and rusty. The main reasons I disagree with bolts for pegs is, a bolt is almost one hundred percent safe, while a peg always has a feeling of insecurity, something akin to a piece of traditional protection, and there is always concern that it may not hold. This, ‘not sure’, fits perfectly with the whole ‘trad’ experience.

Another reason I don’t think bolts should replace pegs is, once bolts start appearing on the rock face, as part of protecting moves, where does it stop? There is certainly evidence (where bolts are accepted), once they go in, they spread and take over traditional climbs, and very rarely come out again. I can see the argument that pegs are only good for the first ascent and maybe several years after, because they rot, and it’s a valid argument, but what is the alternative? The alternative I suppose, is to climb at a very high E grade and risk life and have a harrowing experience. This of course is fine, but the route may never get repeated, which is also fine (all be it elitist), but, possibly the most pertinent question a climber should ask is, should the rock be climbed at all? Not making an ascent of a new route, would also be fine, and something I agree because does every piece of rock need to be climbed, no, I don’t think it does? I’ve thought a lot about this, but much of climbing, and especially new routing, is driven by ego and it will take a strong person to forgo the experience of putting up a new route. I love climbing new routes and becoming involved with micro features and a piece rock, I find it very rewarding and the experience is very much about the time and place for me, the experience is individual, its an intimate thing. It’s also a rewarding experience to add a new line for other climbers to enjoy, but it is certainly about my ego and my experience, and to be frank, putting up a new route benefits a very small percentage of the population and is never going to win you the Nobel Prize.

To almost prove my point about how confusing the argument is about pegs, there was a discussion a few weeks ago on a UKC forum where my friend, Rob Greenwood wrote a few interesting comments, one in particular caught my attention,

“Pegs really are crap… Take Huntsman’s Leap for example, a crag with countless amazing E6s – almost all of which are f**ked because of the fact the in-situ gear has rotted away. They’re basically there for the first ascent, then anyone quick enough to bag a second or third ascent, but within the space of 5-10 years are inevitably in a pretty poor state which can often render the route unclimbable (or unjustifiable).”

Rob, in part, has a valid argument, although I think 5-10 years will see more than a few ascents with the high standard in climbing today and in many cases the pegs last longer, but the amazing E6’s would not be there at all if the pegs had not been placed. And if they were there without pegs, they would be a much higher grade, and of course, a lot more serious. In this form they would not be amazing climbs that many could attempt including Rob or myself (which as already stated is fine – do we all need to climb all of the climbs?) The initial use of pegs is what made these climbs, and gave their grade, and as climbers maybe we should just accept that climbs have a limited shelf-life and this is not something to be looked at as a problem and bad, but something to be revered?

Something else Rob said was interesting,

“With that in mind I don’t necessarily think they need to be chopped (in time they’ll rot anyway), but I do think that anyone thinking of placing one should question long and hard as to whether it is actually necessary. What makes the matter all the more confusing is that there’s inconsistencies abound. Replacing one on Souls for instance would feel wrong, whereas replacing them on Roc Ness Monster would seem ok.”

Rob does make very valid points. In my opinion, replacing pegs on climbs that have been climbed since the peg has gone is possibly wrong, as the bench has been set higher, and this is fine (its elitist, but that’s OK, because as stated above, climbing is an elitist activity). But I don’t see a problem in replacing pegs like for like, or even backing up old and rusty pegs to give you something close to the experience the first ascensionist had. And as for replacing pegs on other less dangerous climbs, well, why not, or put it out there and get a feel for what people think, or just do it, because to finish with Rob’s final comment,

“Basically, it’s a massively grey area riddled with inconsistency. As someone said above, it’s more about emotion than it is to do with logic…”

A statement I completely agree, climbing is grey and inconsistent, and that’s why it’s great. And climbing is most definitely about emotion, and long may this continue, because emotion is what got us into it at the start. If we wanted logic we would take the stairs.

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