The Big Tick

by Stephen Reid

A very long time ago, when I was still quite a young man, someone took me to Almscliff and hauled me up Whisky Crack. Not counting the occasion when, aged about eight, I had to be rescued by the coastguard at Hartlepool, it was my first experience of rock-climbing. I freely admit to being terrified - but I was also hooked.

It must have been a month or so later that I told my father that I had started climbing. To my surprise he was not the least disapproving and instead confided that he had done a bit himself in the late thirties. He rummaged around in a book-case and produced a large volume I had never noticed before - 'Hard Rock' - 60 'Great British Rock Climbs', by Ken Wilson. Dad's words as he handed it to me were "You'll never do any of these but it's nice to look at the pictures". One glance inside had us in complete agreement.
First Edition of Hard Rock published 1974
The cover shows climbers on Sloth (HVS) at the Roaches

To a novice, it was an eye-opening work and I had read it all several times over within a few days. Sixty of the very best and (in those days) hardest routes, scattered the length and breadth of the British Isles, each described in graphic and often hair-raising detail by climbers of a far greater ability than mine. It kindled what small spark of interest I possessed and fanned it into the flames of mountain fervour. Previous generations had their Mummery, Whymper, Jones et al, but within my small circle 'Hard Rock' was a far greater source of inspiration. But the climbing scene was changing rapidly in the seventies and my father's mental image of my likely progress was founded on his pre-war knowledge of climbing equipment and his own leads of such routes as Kern Knots Crack, Rib and Slab and Eagles Nest Ridge Direct, made, of course, without the benefit of EBs, runners or even karabiners. No-one was more surprised than he when, a month later, I seconded The Crack on Gimmer. We wrote a short note to that effect in the margin next to its description - the first tick. The hook was firmly embedded.

In the 10 years since then, despite Wilson's inclusion of The Scoop to prevent, so it is rumoured, 'puerile tickers', I have, without (except in a very few cases) going especially far out of my way to do so, ascended every route in the book. This quest has taken me to parts of the British Isles I would never otherwise have visited and has given me a lot more experience, pleasure and interest than one might imagine mere rock climbs would provide.

Leafing through the pages now, faces, crags, isolated moments, even whole days, are brought flooding back to life - a scribbled note providing the key, as Wilson later wrote he had intended (see Foreword to 'Classic Rock'), to endless, and usually pleasant, memories. Turn, for instance, to chapter one... Dragon and Gob. 'Both A.L. Paul Wood 24/4/83 (Also Red Scar, Fionn Buttress, Fionn Castle & St. George.)' - reads the note. It doesn't mention the rear puncture in my motorbike that necessitated an extra five miles walking in addition to the normal 10 while the bike was left for repair, the overnight bivvy in the Poolewe bus shelter, or the subsequent 60mph crash when the newly repaired tyre burst en route back south, scattering climbing equipment, camping gear and us a hundred yards along the A832. It doesn't mention the midges and drizzle either. But turn a few more pages and you'll see Pink and I escaped with grazes and had a good few days of it. Four days later - Carnivore, my second attempt fresh with recent memories of a painful pendulum on the first. Pink led the aid section, pulling recklessly on the pathetic fragments of rust which I have come to find are typical of most aid sections. The next day - Yo-Yo, so wet I had to use my jacket to mop the puddles. The day after that - Trapeze, where I strained fingers on a horrendously overhanging corner whilst Pink craftily juggled the leads to swipe the magnificent top pitch. Hard Rock ticking at its best.
Stephen Reid on Carnivore (E2)
in the early '80s – note the EBs!

Stephen Reid on Kilnsey Main Overhang (A2)

There have been other great trips like that Highland one. Turn a further few pages and see. Late August '84 - Ichabod with Bill Parker. One of my few 5c leads, followed by Phoenix and Moss Ghyll Grooves. The next day - a failed attempt on Shibboleth - the bête noire of the book for me. We made up for it the following day with The Bat and Centurion. But more drizzle and so to Arran, and South Ridge Direct in, wouldn't you know it, rain and midges.

A great many of my 'Hard Rock' climbs were done with Bill, who had the misfortune to share a cottage with me during most of our university years. These included the spectacular Kilnsey Main Overhang where our total ineptitude in the mysterious art of aid climbing meant that we not only started but finished in the dark with only the shortness of the December day as an excuse. Bill also seconded me up Cenotaph Corner - surely the most longed-for lead in any climber's career - but, being Bill, brought me firmly down to earth by wearing his Alpine boots, much to the amazement of other parties on the crag.

Earlier climbs, such as Central Buttress, Engineer's Slabs, Sirplum and Right Unconquerable, were often done with Richard Tolley and Jeff Appleyard, who together with most of the Leeds Mountaineering Club, derived much healthy amusement from my poorly conceal obsession for 'Book Routes'. Anticipation, a sense of achievement and our endless bar-room reminiscences seemed keener then. Experience, though no doubt desirable, sadly blunts such naive emotions.

Another member of the Leeds Club was Roger Wensley whom I persuaded up to Hoy. Success on the The Old Man inspired us to greater things but the usual rain midges foiled us on the Ben, and sheer inability in Glen Etive. Raven's Gully we thought would be an easier bet. So easy that Roger was determined to spice it up a bit by spending an illicit night in Jacksonville prior to our planned ascent. What little sleep I achieved was punctuated by restless visions of marauding members of the Creag Dhu returning rampant from the Kingshouse. I awoke in a sweat each time my nightmare reached the point where they found two uninvited sassenachs sleeping in their beds, eventually becoming so panic-stricken that I forced my mild-mannered companion into a much earlier start we had planned. Despite which I slept even worse the next night, as we huddled together in an unplanned bivouac a pitch below the top. It rained a lot in the long hours to dawn — but at least the midges had gone to bed.

Richard Tolley on Mousetrap (HVS)

Bangor was a marvelous place for a climber to attend university - though the 'attendance' was often theoretical. Best day ever? Cloggy in April '81 with Tony Gray. Only time I ever climbed with him I recall. And who can blame him. Great/Bow, no problems. White Slab. A brilliant climb. Should be top of everyone's agenda. We never did manage the lasso though and I had to inch round the edge before making a drastic lunge for the spike Luckily my reach was more accurate than my throw which left us time to try Vember in the sunset. Never to be forgotten - that feeling of almost coming off on to hurriedly placed gear. The sunset was good though. Cloggy was the place in Wales for us then (closely followed by Gogarth). Slanting was tricky. All the old pegs and much of the rock had crumbled away. A single rusty spike remained well out of reach. A more accurate lasso a few weeks later with Crag Jones gained the peg, the Slab and a host of imitators. It's not often I've initiated a trend. Big Groove, again with Crag, was another occasion. We hardly had time to bask in what we thought was well deserved glory before the entire University Club had repeated it and it had been down-graded to E2.

Photo: Stephen Reid on the main groove of the Bat (E2 5b) in 1984
Photo: Bill Parker

Richard Clarke (alias the Prof.) was another a Hard Rock ticking companion from those times. Our first such route was Coronation Street where the Prof., whose leading ability seldom matched up to his brilliant bouldering struggled forlornly a few feet off the tarmac. A tourist of what is nowadays termed the 'lager-lout' fraternity watched us with disdain. After five minutes, during which the Prof had gained as many feet and showered the ground pebbles and ivy, he could stand the suspense no longer. "You going up there?" he sneered. "Yes", I replied trying to sound confident. "With him?" (the sneer had become a snarl). "Er, Yes", (less confidently). "You're f***ing barmy mate", he rejoindered before moving his car well out of the firing line. I took over the lead determined to prove him wrong. We climbed the last pitch in total darkness; I hope he felt vindicated.

Richard and I also, together with Bill's wife to be Jill Gibson, attacked The Great Prow of Blaven. Problems arrived with the first chimney. As Gibbo later put it, "Every girl has her assets" and unfortunately hers became well and truly jammed below a bulge. After a long pause during which she could neither go up nor down, a passing walker pointed out a useful foothold and the difficulty was solved — for that route at least.

Another tremendous trip with the club was to the South-West where - having survived a massive, self-initiated rock fall on Wintour's Leap - Malbogies, Suicide Wall, Bow Wall, Bishop's Rib and Moonraker were ticked off in almost as many days.

But I was on Cloggy and wondering if I would ever get up Great Wall. Turn to chapter 37 and almost all will be revealed. 'Second with 'Jim' Roberts, 20th July 1982 Free but with but two rests on the rope' - whatever that may mean. At least the record attempts to be honest. In fact Big Jim Roberts is a man I owe more ticks to than most. He has indulged my puerile passion with only the mildest of ridicule. The list is impressive - Central Pillar, Deer Bield Buttress, Extol, are but a few of our more memorable excursions. Dwm, where a snapped peg deposited me 2O feet on to his head and knocked him out, is one he would probably prefer to forget. More recently we spent two days on The Scoop.

I don't know how we did it really, persuading my wife that the Outer Hebrides were a good place for a family holiday. After that the route had got to be a cinch. Was it? Well actually no, it bloody well wasn't, but it must at least be a lot easier than on the first ascent now that most of the gear is in place.

I won't bore you with detailed lists of what we took. Suffice to say that a fullish set of Friends is practically indispensable unless you fancy doing a lot of hammering. We took a Rurp as well though I don't think either of us would have had the courage to place it. Lots of wires, pegs, nuts and krabs of course, five ropes, jumars, etriers etc, etc. The hardest move came close off the deck. Jim was leading. He stood up gingerly on a jammed nut. From the highest rung of his etrier, he could just reach a bolt in a blank section above. Only about quarter of an inch of the bolt protruded from the rock and it had no head on it. It sloped downwards slightly as well. Jim threaded the loop of a wire on to it and jammed up the wedge to hold it on. Attaching and standing in an etrier, he stretched again for a tattered length of fading bootlace. He could not see what it was tied to. There was no loop in it and he could not tie one whilst holding on to the bolt. Oddly he seemed reluctant to let go of that bolt. Finally he wound the cord round his hand and pulled. When I reached the same spot I was horrified to find the cord was attached to a rusty Rurp in a shallow placement. After that Jim kept the lead, whether he wanted it or not.

Photo: Big Jim on the first pitch of the Scoop (A3)

We did two pitches the first day. The upper one finished at a small ledge from where a totally free l50 foot abseil just reached the ground on rope-stretch. We were able to protect this and the return jumar by use of our spare ropes. We woke at four am the next morning and had gained our high point by a quarter to eight. I then had ample time to admire the view from the stance, north over the bleak bog-lands of Lewis, while Jim took five hours to lead the third pitch. On following, I was astounded at some of the marginal placements and rotting in situ gear he had dared to pull up on, but consoled myself with the thought that he was nearly two stones heavier than myself. Traces of chalk in ridiculous places reminded us of a rumoured free ascent.

It was getting late when we gathered again, some 25 feet below the final 40 foot roof. The chalk had vanished to the left. This roof is not horizontal, but slants upwards. It is split by a very thin crack which is a natural drain and though there were many pitons in place most of them were rotten.

In fact Jim placed only seven or eight pegs on the whole route and five of them were here, small angles and Leepers being the most useful. We had decided that if he hadn't reached the lip by seven pm we would retreat, but once he embarked on the roof he announced, in rather a weak voice I thought, that there was no way he was coming down again, whatever time it was. It is thus one finds oneself committed.

We were saved, of course, by the fact that it does not get dark in Harris in May until about 11pm - something we hadn't really been aware of when we started out, but which I was profoundly glad of as I shivered amid the lengthening shadows on the ridiculous sloping ledge above the lip of the roof while Jim led up the final 100 feet. The position was incredible - a giddy 500 foot sheer drop with the hillside sloping steeply far below. In fact so overhanging is the whole climb that there had hardly been a point en route where a carelessly dropped karabiner would not have fallen totally free to the ground (indeed a few did just that), and the biggest ledge encountered (and there were very few) only just allowed us to sit side by side, legs dangling over the void. Earlier illogical fears concerning the strength of the stitching in my harness escalated into total paranoia.

Big Jim on Goliath (HVS)

We topped out, as they say transatlantically, at 10.30pm, but any feelings of relief or even accomplishment that I might have felt entitled to evaporated when I realised that our ordeal was not yet over. For Jim was newly in love and worried about what his girlfriend would think if he did not return on time. I, having been married for many years, knew my long-suffering wife would be (a) sound asleep and (b) neither worried nor particularly ecstatic at the absence or presence of my unwashed body in the early hours of the morning. But I was too tired to argue and so found my weary legs pointed in the general direction of the car. Staggering under the weight of all the camping gear together with five full-length coils of rope, I resembled nothing so much as a Michelin Man with a puncture. We finally got home at four am, 24 hours after our start. I met up with Jim's girlfriend in the kitchen when I got booted downstairs under orders to get rid of my socks and make a cup of tea. She was cooking him a full breakfast complete with the horrible Hebredian suet slices he had discovered made a passable substitute for black pudding. I've tried to warn Jim it doesn't last but he won't listen. On our southward journey Jim and I finally polished off my own particular shibboleth - Shibboleth. Most of the actual polishing was done by my scrabbling appendages as I struggled pathetically on the end of a very tight rope. But with the end almost in sight, ethics assumed a reduced importance. Fifty-eight down, two to go.

On the 18th of June 1988, Big Jim, the Honey Monster and I met the Dubh Loch. If the the Dubh Loch was impressed it didn't show it. The forecast was for rain and midges so, whilst trying to appear outwardly cool, calm and collected (and no doubt failing dismally), I nevertheless felt a certain urgency of common purpose to be desirable, but reckoned without my companions who grinned mischievously and prevaricated provocatively.

Eventually, and after a false start up Giant - deliberately engineered by the Honey Monster - we completed Goliath. Friends to the last, they both had a long list of routes they wished to do next - neither list included King Rat, which in case, as they were only too keen to point out, looked a grotty climb and moreover had several other climbers and no sun on it. If they were fairly insistent, I was understandably more so. We reached the top just as it started to drizzle and the midges closed in for the kill. They grudgingly condescended to buy me a beer in Ballater. It was as much congratulations as I was likely to get.

I cannot begin to explain my obsession with Hard Rock Routes any more than I can my obsession with climbing in general. My well-thumbed copy lies before me, beautifully rebound in red quarter-leather by my generous father. But it is suddenly all in the past, my interests and ambitions have moved on. The challenge of a decade is over and The Book can now provide only memories, usually, as I hope I have shown, pleasant ones. I cherish every 'puerile' one of them.

From left to right: The Honey Monster (aka Steve Martin), Big Jim Roberts and Stephen Reid at the top of King Rat (E1), the latter's last 'Hard Rock' route, 19th June 1988.

This article was originally published in High Magazine in April 1989
© Stephen Reid 1989

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