Monday, November 26, 2012

Crag cleaning: Yes...but is it art?

 Andy Goldsworthy...eat your heart out!

As I was hanging on my shunt at the weekend from an old 'retired' 11mm rope- which like me appears to have developed middle aged spread- I called across to my partner, 'you know...I think I prefer gardening to actually climbing!  Well...perhaps I exaggerate a tad, but there is something intrinsically satisfying in cleaning a potential new route or cleaning up a crag face. I see it as almost an artistic activity. Creating something out of the natural materials at hand..a la Andy Goldsworthy.

If you have never swung a pick into a bed of vegetation resting on a small ledge; given it an exploratory tug and felt it submit .... then you will not appreciate the creative satisfaction achieved through that climbing practice known as 'gardening'. The pick head is applied with one hand as black fingers curl under the sod and peel it away and send it falling into space. Revealing  pale pink tinged stone underneath. A perfect hold for those who will follow. Carry that out on an extensive rock face and you have the makings of an extremely satisfying creative experience. You will have created something which has both aesthetic and kinetic qualities which can be enjoyed and appreciated by others.

In the early ninties I was heavily involved in new routing on the then undiscovered tirerd crags of Simddu Ddu on Arenig Fawr. I can't imagine how much vegetation I removed....a lot!.... but as anyone familiar with Arenig would know, it was but a merest pin prick on an elephant's hide, for the cliffs hereabouts are as verdant and impenetrable as any Welsh cliff. At the heart of the campaign, you would heard the explosion of huge sods and rocks exploding in Simddu Ddu's dark amphitheatre far below. Echoing in the distance like the sound of artillery on a distant battlefield. One route 'Heart of Darkness', a remarkable route which climbs Simddu Ddu, (The Black Chimney) itself, finished via a steep corner which I climbed ground up. Cleaning as I went with nothing more than a nut key and my torn fingers. Later,when I went to the other side of the amphitheatre and lay down on my belly, peeping over the vertiginous edge, it was a real buzz to see the beautiful line which I had created. It gave me the same satisfaction as painting a landscape which works.

Of course not everyone sees the removal of what are in fact micro eco systems in the same artistic light. Climbing in the above area with the renowned climbing writer, David Craig was a education with regard to the 'tread lightly on the earth' philosophy of climbing. David, apart from being a brilliant writer, has a sacred view of nature which in fact I share but not to the same... could I say, obsessive degree. Leading what became a new HVS route-Achilles Heel- David led the 5a pitch which was heavily coated with that black moss which coats a lot of north facing rock faces and delicately picked his way up without even the merest sliver of vegetation drifting down. Even passing a loose flake of rock and leaving it in place.In a 100' of climbing there was never the urge to rip into the face to create a placement or reveal a hold despite the fact that this delicate long 5a pitch was climbed on just two pieces of protection.

I have to say, as much as I admire the David Craig's of this world with regard to this holistic approach to climbing, I just think it's unnecessarily extreme. I come back to the artistic argument. I remember reading John Sumner's account of creating his classic V Diff..Willo the Wisp.. in Cwm Cowarch. After a gardening campaign lasting several days,he and his partner Jill, were left with a pile of vegetation standing 8' high at the base of the cliff.  However, that night, back at the Bryn Hafod Hut at the head of the cwm, the watery moonlight revealed the pale line of their creation which out of the shadows,revealed itself in all it's glory. A new rock climb emerged from the darkness like a Will o the Wisp!


The compulsive climbing  gardener's tools of the trade...

Retired climbing rope of at least 10mm or better still, a static rope. Old fashioned figure of eight descender. Petzl Shunt. Slaters hammer,plaster pick or short ice hammer. Stiff brush, nut key, Secateurs, small fold up saw, Old slings and general tat for fixing off.



And finally...think of those beneath you. I was working away yesterday at the top of the crag when the end flew off my slaters hammer and fortunately glanced off the slabby overhang below,to be projected out into space. 'Fortunately',because my partner was at the base of the cliff, quietly enjoying a butty. It's just a hunch but I think a solid steel pick head hitting a human skull from 130' might just make your eyes water!

John Appleby

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