The County has been a salvation in this dismal winter weather and there have been a few winter gift days over there of late. Friday wasn’t one of them but i was busting to get out after a week of work. I ended up going to Back Bowden with Alnwick Ben and making the best of a very snowy day. The snow made most things un-playable and i’m not one for going too near wet sandstone. So we played about on the north wall. Unfortunately i’d had a gorgeous sunday the previous week doing all the boulder problems on there. Nothing was toppable so i thought it wise to look at Dark Side and get the bottom wired. I first tried this in 2008 with Ned when i had a finger injury and could barely get off the ground. It was hot and Ned got up the wall until the holds seemingly disappeared. I didn’t get back up to Backers for a while but i always thought this’d be a great route to leave and attempt in good style. Ground up/Onsight climbing is a funny ethic but entirely logical, you just walk to the bottom of something and try it. The problem with most of the climbs i want to try is that they have no gear on (boulders/solos) and if they have good gear on i’d prefer not to use it (e.g Earth boots, Living in oxford, second born, Sheer temptation i have all climbed onsight or ground up above pads only (when all have at least some decent gear) This is a funny niche of ground up style and one which is non sensical if the E grade of the route is looked at but so far as climbing a bit of rock in a purely enjoyable and memorable style then it is second to none. This style only works when its possible to exercise a good level of control and down climbing or jumping off has to be an ever-takable option.
Problems begin to arise when things get close to your limit. when you start falling off left right and center its best not to hit the ground in my experience. Compromises creep in for sanity reasons. short “Trad routes” are often a funny concept to tackle for myself as i love the grey area between highballs and proper routes. I think this stems from when i started climbing in Northumberland after learning to drive i was often on my own but wanted to attempt many of the classic callerhues routes like crouching the mahogany, boulevard, ned kelly along with others at howlerhirst, and armathwaite so i just got on with it with my one blue franklin pad (which i still have). Once i moved to Sheffield i was really at home with this style and amongst friends. There is a fantastic Onsight and Ground up ethic at the heart of Sheffield climbing and there is a friendly peer pressure to not take the easy way out and ab/ toprope stuff. This is a great incentive but it does tend to mean you get less done as a climber (but feel better for what you do do) as something that may have only taken you one go to head point can take considerably longer to ground up. Some fond memories from Sheffield ground up days out are (guide book grades)
Superbloc E8 (font 8A+)
Carless torque E6 (font 8A)
Toyboy (e7-7a (font7c)
My prune E5 (font 7c)
Return of the Jedi HXS (font 7c)
Renegade master E8 (font 7C+)
Earth boots E6 7a (font 7c)
Pie hard E6 (font 7B+)
unfamiliar e7/8 6c font 7B+ (used a rope)
Panther dash e7? (font 7B+) fa ground up
Living in oxford e7 7a (font 7B)
nefretiti e6 6c (font 7a) flash
Happily ever after e6 6c (font 7b) onsight
navana e6 6b (font 7a)
4 above all on same day with Ned and Luke
narcissus e6 6a (font 7a) onsight
The power of the darkside (E8) (route 6c+) flash (clearly looking at the above list this is more like E6)
There is one failure from the peak which particularly sticks in my mind and that is when i attempted to ground up superstition above pads (and a bit of snow) so no rope. Miles Gibson is the only person in the peak (with Myles, Welfords, Barker and Moffats additions notable too) who has put up routes which get close to Andy’s in terms of being brutally hard as well as intimidating. Before you leave the ground you know you wont be in a typical trad climbing mode, you’re snatching at crap pebbles and mini edges doing font 7c+ to 8A+s in places where people are imagining trad routes being in a few years time. If Miles bags the lawrencefield project (and lets be honest a closed (gentlemans agreement) one to the likes of Me, Ned, Caff and Ryan etc) then he’ll have pushed this style of boulder/trad blend to new heights.
I have never been so gripped as the 25ish seconds i stood at the last hard move of Superstition, with no one else there (but my camera), needing the gumption to just pop 8inches from a little cluster of pebbles to the ledge but with that distance feeling more like 8 feet. This situation taught me lots about where my own limit lies in terms of when brain frizz shuts you down completely. Over the last year i’ve tried to push these a bit. An easier project on lion rock tested my mental limits with only 4 pads i was trying to commit to an easy font 6C+ish dyno but at a height where dynos and solos haven’t mixed yet. I didn’t do this or Superstition but the adage that you can learn more from failures than successes couldn’t be more true in this case.
Adam's awesome pic is taken from up a tree so foreshortens the distance a bit.
It's these 2 failures which have taught me the most about ground upping and really seizing opportunities when you have them. Interestingly hard moves can be easier to do than easier ones which disrupt flow and allow you time to think.
Andy has an incredible roster of hard boulders and competition results in his portfolio and Pointed the way in the peak 4 years ago by doing the first ground up ascent of Careless So far in the County (of Andy's routes/problems) i’d only managed to ground up the Magician (E7 font 7c+) and i’d found better beta on the bottom and stuck to the right arete at the top, different to Chris and Andy. The Young was far to intimidating to attempt ground up but it really does represent an awesome challenge for someone with balls the size of Buster Gonad. The Prow could have been potentially ground upped the Day me Mick and Ned got on it but it would have been a bit poop as one of us would have sat there getting all the beta off the others as they worked it which is a bit silly, it was much more fun to mutually work it and figure it out together.
So the Darkside was an obvious challenge to leave. At least font 8A, high but with a great landing and whilst it is incredibly intimidating up there it is also one of the most basic walls in the UK, nearly everything on the upper route is a horizontal crimp, no sidepulls underclings or pinches. So no tricky sequence reading just wind up the gears and pull. It is very steep for a “trad route” and as i learnt on one go foot pings mean lots of pivoting and travelling time as your body follows with the momentum. These are dangerous as you can find yourself flat on your face from high up. Luckily this is something i’ve unwittingly trained in the past, albeit from a lower height...
When it came down to it the Darkside passed in a serene blur for the crux, i was totally psyched and committed once i thought i had my beta and for the crux moves i could just hear a faint whir of intensity in the background. I arrived at the break with numb fingers from the cold (the friction was incredible though) and some serious quick thinking was needed, Mark had brought slightly poor gear as andy has a metolious cam in the pic of him and we tried to guess from that (who seriously owns a set of these in the uk unless they’re sponsored by them?) so Mark had guessed at a half camalot (he’s the trad man), i’d been totally useless and only brought a harness and a 10m rope it was in anyway even if it was looking a little uncomfortable, (if you want to know the gear then i think some small ball nuts and size 0 cams would be great) luckily the gear is almost completely superfluous as there are only 2 pulls to really good holds and you can sit on your heel, after some serious breathing i pulled up to the top of the crag and a large snow patch, being somewhat un prepared for winter climbing we had opted to rest a rope up there to get through the snow as decking out from an icy footslip would be a bit to ironic after all that!
If you’re looking for some huge insight as to whether it deserves the grade of E9 7b or not then bear these points in mind. I’m mostly a boulderer and don’t fully understand the E system when it comes to danger vs difficulty.
If it were a sport route it’d be about 8b+ and have about 4 bolts and a belay in (it’d also be nowhere as good, i love Englands ethics!)
The move to the rail off the quarter pad crimp is probably 7b, if not then its 7a along with the 2 moves before and there arent any moves upto the break easier than 6b, most’d be 6c or 7a.
There are no other trad routes of this uber higball/guaranteed deckout from the crux of this difficult style except for maybe Superbloc which is lower and Andy’s own routes The Prow and The Young (not forgetting The Ayes have it and Endless Flight direct too which i haven't been on). Pearson’s excellent Return of the Jedi is similar but easier but with a slightly worse landing. Lanny Bassham 8A+ and High fidelity 8B come close in Yorkshire but are boulders. (the latter Andy cruises in this video http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PdG26UwP1YA)
Grade bickering is the Dark Side of trad and at the end of the day i think routes are best judged by their reputations and how they keep them. One thing about this route is that i think because it is basic it’d be the most flashable of all the routes of this style, what a flash that would be though! Not many people outside Northumberland really know about this route in the same way that Gaia is famous worldwide. Yet you wouldn’t catch a lady bird on any of the crux holds on Darkside, greenfly maybe, but no one ever got distressed after crushing an aphid. Its a beautiful wall and its certainly an ascent that i'll cherish for a long time to come.
I’m indebted to Andy for pioneering these incredible routes and Mark and Katie for the style of this ascent as without their spotting along with Mark abbing and cleaning the holds for me the route was pretty much un-attemptable. The wall was very wet until 2008 when the trees were felled so moss had grown over two of the 1/4ish pad crimps rendering them totally invisible from below and its impossible to take a hand off and brush (for me anyway) at that difficulty. Knowing the gear is right is a great mental boost too, even if it is superfluous, you don’t know that ground up and it gives you the option of retreating.
I had 4 pads 1 cam (pre knowledge of gear and placement), and 2 spotters for this. I’d have used way more pads if possible but we just didn’t have them.
To see Mark's perspective of the day then go here: http://marksavagephotography.blogspot.com/