Picture a land in the grip of pestilence. The once pleasant, green and rolling countryside turned to misery. No longer can the people wander freely through the wide-open spaces. No longer animals aimlessly cavorting in the meadows, gambolling on the Fells. Lorry’s rumbled through the lanes, hooves pointing skyward. Pyres burnt through the night. The evening news broadcast shouted of doom and despair; a grisly reminder to one’s own mortality. Foot and Mouth was ravaging Britain. Everyone was affected, traumatised … Distraught.
“Damned inconsiderate! Do these agricultural jonnies not realise I only have a couple of months to rockclimb before setting out on another mountaineering adventure,” growled Biffa, strutting back and forth gesticulating wildly.
Dr Jon took it all in his stride; he had witnessed these child-like tantrums before. The previous year it had been a regular occurrence, until finally, in the middle of the summer Dr Jon could take no more. The strain of climbing with a hyped up, on-sighting-suicidal Biffa had stretched his nerve strings too far. He escaped the intense relationship and sought therapy in the form of shiny-bolted limestone abroad. So what on Earth had possessed him to team up again with Biffa? “He’s a fucking nutter,” Dr Jon thought to himself.
The pair drove along the congested M1, leaving Leicester behind. Industry and development gave way to the green of the countryside. The Peak District boundary soon appeared, and Ramshaw Rocks came into view on the horizon. Sharp gritstone points jutting random from a single humped crest, a veritable dinosaur’s back of a crag.
Biffa had never climbed at Ramshaw. It was one of only a handful of crags remaining open, thanks to the Foot and Mouth epidemic. The larger more spaced delights of the Roaches were preferred. There he could escape the crowds by disappearing to the Far Skyline, it being far too much of a walk for the baggy-trouser-bouldering-mat-brigade, especially as it would require their tying up their shoelaces.
“Beggars can’t be choosers,” thought Biffa, as he reversed The Belingo into a lay-by. Biffa bounced out of the van into the fresh invigorating breeze, nerves tingled and excitement stirred in the pit of his stomach. A curlew cried, a long haunting call stirring emotions far too deep for Biffa to begin to comprehend. The sting of the breeze caused tears, blurring his vision. God he loved this life. Climbing gave him this. He loved climbing. “That’s enough of that,” thought Biffa, sentimentality will never do. He wrenched open the Belingo’s back doors and yanked out his rucksack. Once the dust had settled Dr Jon carefully retrieved his own sack from the festering and cluttered interior of the Biffa Wagon. Dr Jon’s sack bulged with monster-cams and other esoteric grit gear.
Dr Jon closely studied his friend for signs of mental instability. Worryingly, there were many. He made a pact with himself to get to the phone and find a sane, normal person for future trips. But he was committed now, so his only hope of having a relatively stress-free day would be to point Biffa at something really silly in the hope of intimidating him.
Dr Jon knew Biffa had recently returned from winter climbing in Scotland, before that, icefall climbing in Canada and the Alps, and before that Peru. Safe in the knowledge that Biffa was not fit for rock, a relative stress-free day belaying him on a top-rope was the plan, and he knew the very climb.
“Come on Dr Jon lets go, we’re wasting precious climbing time, loads to do, so little time, and all that.”
Dr Jon shook his head and ran after the rapidly disappearing form, striding forth. “But don’t you want to lock the van?” he cried.
The pair dipped feet into a bowl of disinfectant and then followed the path around the end of the crag.
“What’s this climb called, you want us to have a look at?” Biffa growled.
“Never, Never Land. It’s a great line, I top-roped it loads last year but never had the bottle to give it a go. I’ve got it wired now, so maybe I’ll try to lead it. It’ll be a good workout for you, something to lead when you’re a bit fitter.”
Biffa strode on forcefully, admiring the sculptured beauty of the rough unforgiving rock. Turreted gritstone battlements rose dramatically from the steep hillside on his left. A chuckling grouse strutted from the heather in front of him, puffed up and on the hunt for females. On the right were ferns with new unwinding fronds; intense greens sprouting from a tangled dead thatch. The wind didn’t abate, but the combination of vigorous exercise and the weak mid-morning March sunshine worked its powers enough to warm Biffa.
“This is Dangerous Crocodile Snogging,” said Dr Jon, standing beneath a large fin of un-featured rock. “It’s E7 6c, first climbed by Simon Nadin in 1986.”
The Doctor was getting into the zone now. Biffa’s obsessive enthusiasm started to draw him in … “Look at it, look at it”. Dr Jon danced and stroked the rock.
“It’s a pissy little piece of rock, for heavens sake! Why don’t you show me something I can get a work-out on.” Secretly Biffa was impressed by the line, but needed more from his day than just belaying practise whilst the Doctor perfected his quirky-jerky-Johny-Dawesey-death-defying style of climbing. Biffa thought that Dr Jon and Johnny Dawes were very similar in looks and stature, and also suspected that The Doc had a bit of a Johnny Dawes fantasy thing going on.
Moving along the crag, the path they followed became steeper and the rock higher. Passing beneath a great jutting prow, split down its middle with a wide crack caused Dr Jon to salivate. Biffa felt nauseous.
“Look at that, Ramshaw Crack. It really isn’t as bad as it looks, how do you fancy that?”
“Not at all”, replied Biffa, moving quickly around the corner, to look at Never Never Land the climb they had come for. “Wow it looks great, its got holds and edges and ledges to stand on. It’s a wall climb, a steep one admittedly, but definitely a wall. Where’s the gear?” The excitement suddenly dropped into the pit of Biffa’s stomach.
“It has got gear, but not a lot. It’s quite low down.” Dr Jon replied, whilst scuttling up an easy corner to reach the top of the cliff.
“LOW DOWN! It’s only just off the floor. What’s that flake like in the middle?” Dreading the answer, Biffa covered his ears and began talking to himself. Once he could see that The Doctor’s lips had stopped moving he replied: “It’s good you say, brilliant. No need to worry then, with bomber gear behind that flake a ground fall may just be avoided.”
On top of the crag, setting the anchor for a top-rope, Dr Jon suspected his crazy companion had now gone deaf, which only added to Biffa’s long list of ailments and growing decrepitude. Shouting very loudly The Doc answered for the second time. “I said the flake is hollow and expanding, not much good at all.” As an afterthought, building his case for a stress-free day, Dr Jon continued, “It may just take a weighted Sky-hook and a couple of RPs, but I doubt they will hold a fall. Even if the flake was solid and the gear good, a ground fall is one hundred percent if the final gnarly mantle-shelf move is fluffed.” Out of sight from Biffa, he punched the air repeatedly, secure in the knowledge he had done enough to intimidate him. Even Biffa wasn’t stupid enough to attempt this without mileage in his arms.
Below the celebrations happening on top of the crag, the Biffa resolve had been dented somewhat. He resigned to set up camp in preparation for a long belaying haul. At the base of the climb the overhanging wall was undercut, forming a small cave. He stuffed the contents of their rucksacks into the cave to prevent their clothes from getting wet should a spring shower burst from the cloudy sky. In the cave there was still enough room to sit and chill-out between top-rope attempts. Tucked away from the elements, and out of sight of the menacing wall above Biffa felt secure. The ground outside was muddy, clods of earth sodden from the recent rain dripped, forming puddles in the deep boot-shaped slots that had been kicked into the steep hill. It was dry in the cave. It was dry and safe.
Dr Jon’s little legs swung into view from above the roof of the cave. A couple of bouncy moves placed him on the ground after abseiling the line taken by the route. Worryingly he landed quite far out from the base of the crag.
“Come on then, let’s get something done.” Biffa yawped, fed up with all the inactivity.
Dr Jon grabbed a few bits of gear from the mountain of metal heaped on the ground, and then tied on. Threading the rope through his belay device, Biffa wondered why Dr Jon had brought so much gear for a climb that is only twelve meters high. This was obviously one of life’s great climbing mysteries. Biffa began to ruminate on other great mysteries. He wondered – what is the grade of a climb with a mountain of bouldering mats beneath it, and would climbing up one of the foam-mountains actually constitute a new route in its self?
Looking down, Dr Jon noticed Biffa’s glazed-over eyes. He half expected a twine of dribble to leak from the sagging corner of his mouth. “Are you still with us?’’ Dr Jon clapped his hand against the grit smartly.
Coming out of his imagined boulder-mat-first-ascent-scenario, Biffa vigorously shook his head back and fourth, as if to dislodge the images from his brain. He then quickly took in the long loop of rope that had formed whilst Dr Jon had run up the climb.
Several steep pulls put The Doctor at the top of a wide flared crack. He unclipped a monster cam from his harness and stuffed it into the wide grateful-gobbling jaws of the equally monstrous crack. A couple of graceful foot placements to the right lined him up for a long reach into the middle of the wall for the creaking flake. Smoothly taking the flake’s top, which was excellent for curling fingers round, he swung his little legs to then place a little foot, with ballerina precision, onto a sloping hold. “Take there please.” He uttered politely whilst maintaining controlled breathing and grace.
The long move to the flake must be an optical illusion, Biffa thought, as Dr Jon’s reach is very small. ‘BRING IT ON!’
Sitting on the rope Dr Jon placed the Sky-hook and two brass blobs, each about the size of a matchstick’s pink phosphorous tip, that pulled out every time he weighted them. Then, balancing precariously on the rounded side of the flake, he continued his top-rope warm up. Whilst grasping the top of the flake, his little legs scampered up the steep wall until his hands and feet were only inches apart. Dr Jon was bunched until, with one quick-springing-twisting-unfolding-flying move he hit perfectly the hold he was aiming for. There was a loud slapping noise and a puff of chalk emanated from the sloping edge his fingers had just caught. Both feet dangled in space until a smear allowed him to stand up onto the rickety flake.
It doesn’t take an expert to realise that the sequence of moves The Doc had just completed were highly technical, highly skilled and very very well practised. Biffa had been watching the performance carefully. He came to the conclusion that the climb was obviously an easy touch.
Dr Jon made another long move (for him) up to a large sloper.
‘Must be massive, look at the way he’s hanging and shaking-out,’ Biffa thought to himself.
The final mantle-shelf move was staring The Doctor in the face. Biffa was bouncing around now, at the bottom of the crag, overcome with excitement, unable to contain the welling-up of emotion brought on by the prospect of an easy-touch Simon Nadin E7. “Come on get it done, you’re at the top now, it’s all over”. Biffa yelped impatiently.
“NO IT IS NOT.” Dr Jon replied in his curt and correct BBC newsreader style of talk.
“It is for a six footer,” Biffa mumbled under his breath.
With thoughtful and surgical precision Dr Jon positioned one hand onto the large sloping ledge, then slickly the second hand along side the first. Friction is all that was holding him. First he ran his feet up and in one smooth movement. His head, shoulders and chest then moved above his hands. Now his arms pushed down straight, holding him in a precarious leaning position. With great control he brought one foot alongside a hand … then just slipped off. “BUGGER”. Dr Jon delivered his standard curse.
Biffa made a mental note – he must teach Dr Jon some more manly swear words. He imagined the sniggers from the hardcore bolt-clippers up north as the plummy cry of “Bugger!” floated around the cliffs of Malham Cove. At least kick the rock in disgust and demand lowering down, thought Biffa.
Regaining the sloping holds beneath the mantle-shelf, Dr Jon swung a little leg up to draw level with a little hand for the second time. Once again he pushed hard onto the little leg and cautiously reached to the rear of the ledge. Success. “Can you lower me down please?”
Having belayed for an inordinate period of time, at least fifteen minutes, Biffa allowed the rope to pass through the belay plate as quick as he dare before anymore of his precious climbing time was wasted. Dr Jon guessed what was happening and asked to be held so he could practise the crux moves for a second time. Grumpy and feeling hard done too, Biffa locked the rope and looked for a dry spot of ground to sit on.
Blood flowing, moves remembered, crafty energy-saving tricks remembered Dr Jon easily completed the whole climb without once stopping or falling. This time, before Biffa had had the chance to drop him, he asked for a slow return so he could brush the holds free of chalk, and see if the gear was still seated correctly. Trying to disguise his impatience Biffa reluctantly agreed, knowing what was about to happen.
Whilst enlarging water-filled footsteps by kicking the earth repeatedly, paranoia simmered just below his skin. Biffa was certain a Dr Jon climbing conspiracy was a-foot. An attempt to restore the power-balance and prove superiority was obviously a sub-plot to this climbing trip. Biffa had stolen the cragging-crown the previous summer. He’d prised The Dr away from his beloved grit to take him onto some long welsh rock. The top-rope, headpointing style of ascent is not as effective on the longer climbs. Being less skilful than Dr Jon, but with the advantage of having little between the ears, and a high pain threshold, Biffa grabbed the on-sight advantage. The support roll fell to Dr Jon. Dr Jon ‘didn’t like that,’ but he was too polite to let it show. They never talked about Biffa’s superiority, but as Biffa basked in his glory that fabulous on-sighting summer, he knew Dr Jon must have been distraught to lose pole-position. After all, it would have tortured Biffa, and he wasn’t competitive.
Finally with gear checked and holds cleaned Dr Jon touched down. Turning to Biffa he popped the obvious question: “Do you mind if I lead it now?”
Biffa new it was coming, so he agreed for an extended belaying session without too much grumbling.
Dr Jon wasted no time. Preparation was everything for him. Moves practised, gear placed, body warm and no distraction. The headpointing style of ascent worked well for him. Movement, skill, strength were the important factors. Risk and chance were practised away, until to a minimum. The lead happened only when the climb was ready to submit.
Biffa respected Dr Jon’s professional approach, but this style of climbing wasn’t for him. He loved the challenge, the risk and the uncertainty of the on-sight. Admittedly he worked routes, pre-placed gear, top-roped. Generally though, Biffa used what he considered an inferior approach as a stepping stone for a more satisfying style of ascent later in a season.
Dr Jon fluently breezed to the top of the climb making it look simple. Only the foolhardy would be tricked by the ease of ascent though.
Biffa came to the conclusion the climb was definitely an easy touch and ripe for the picking. Excited, he scampered around collecting kit and preparing for his turn. No sooner had Dr Jon reached the floor Biffa was practising the first moves. “Come on, hurry up and untie. I can remember every move, maybe I should try for the flash?”
Realisation hit Dr Jon hard – his cunning plan had backfired. He had under-estimated Biffa’s drive and obvious limited life expectancy. “At least try it once”, he pleaded.
Biffa had flung the rope aside, and had already climbed the start of the route to warm up. He now stared longingly right toward the flake in the middle of the wall. “Hmm, some of them holds don’t look very positive”, he mumbled.
Dr Jon seized his chance. “They aren’t, they slope, every one of them. Please come down and tie on.”
Reluctantly Biffa reversed. Like a sulky child he tied on, resigned to a tainted top-rope affair. Breathing a sigh of relief Dr Jon settled in for a relaxing session of belaying. After three attempts Biffa was able to complete the climb without falling or stopping. “Well, it looks like it’s on then”, Biffa sang out jubilantly
“Do you not think a little more practise will help?”
“Maybe practise clipping the gear, and decide which of the three sequences you have used works best.”
The strain was clear to see on Dr Jon’s face. Biffa’s next comment didn’t help to resolve his rising feeling of panic.
“No, enough faffing, I’ll be right. Why take away all of the uncertainty.”
The top rope was pulled down. Rucksacks stuffed and placed over bulges on the ground should the ascent go awry. Climbing shoes cleaned. Rock brushed. Biffa was as ready as he could be. Shoes donned, chalk bag filled. Sequence sorted (in a fashion). Three top-rope dry runs completed, (with one clean.) What could possibly go wrong?
Biffa started to climb feeling slightly nervous and under prepared, but he was in control. He delved into the depths of the dark crack and clipped the monster cam.
Then suddenly, voices startled him. Pulling his nose from the crack and turning, he was shocked to see the easily recognisable faces of grit-guru’s Seb Grieve and Neil Bentley. Oh Bugger, thought Biffa, using one of Dr Jon’s stronger curses. There won’t be any backing out now. That really wouldn’t be good for the reputation. After all here were boys who had balls of steel, no way would he be able to live with himself if he wimped now. Just to add even more pressure, Grieve asked if he could take pictures.
“Aye go for it.” A nonchalant reply from a head of turmoil. Biffa lurched into the middle of the wall aiming for the flake. Sensing all of the eyes did nothing for his confidence, and the whirring of the camera broke his concentration. He managed to reach the flake, but the assortment of gear, with its bright colours hanging at different angles and levels confused him. Burning forearms, burning-melting-head-screaming-wind-whistling-camera-whirring, no time, no time … He clipped the rope through each krab as it came to hand – a cats-cradle. He quickly executed the powerful move right and then left to stand on top of the flake. One foot on the flake and one bridged wide, hands on sloping holds, eyes glazed, a purple haze. The ropes dragged, the camera whirred.
A high foot smeared, he jumped and slapped. The rope resisted, but Biffa, like a child running for his ball, paid no heed. The camera whirred.
Legs swung free. The left foot was raised high, pushed onto an edge level with his waist. Rocking onto this leg he was able to reduce some of the weight on his arms, arms that he expected any minute would burst into flames. The right leg flagged behind the left acting as a counter-balance. The camera whirred like a wasp in his ear. “SHIT, I’m pumped.” A desperate plead. One more move and he would surely hit the floor should he fall. He looked down, at the tangle of gear behind the rickety flake. “I’m going to try to reverse.” Biffa dropped to a hold and then another, totally pumped, he jumped.
The camera whirred. The sky-hook ripped. The pointless little brass-blobs pulled. Biffa plummeted, the ropes twisting around his legs, he flipped. Dr Jon was ripped from the ground and pullied upwards. Biffa flew upside-down. The ropes stretched. Biffa screamed. Dr Jon grimaced. The camera whirred. The smell of sodden earth and wet grass filled Biffa’s flaring nostrils as he flew into the cave, just brushing the ground. Swinging and laughing, the ride had ended as abruptly as it began. Dr Jon’s little legs kicked as he hung on, his hands clamped to the rope, his eyes bulging with shock.
“Lower me down then, there’s time for another go now I know its safe.”
The Doctor’s eyebrows shot upwards nearly leaving his forehead, and then he slumped in resignation.
Walking back to the Belingo, Biffa promised a return visit soon and Dr Jon promised himself that he would be looking for another climbing partner.