Tuesday, 13 September 2011

The Souter

I went climbing the other day and I loved it. Beautiful place, inspiring lines, great bunch of people.
I’ll even tell you a little about it later, but first, I’m going to have a moan, as usual.
Why oh why do Edinburgh climbers never talk about Fastcastle? These sea cliffs, including the sea stack of The Souter, are less than an hour’s drive down the coast and offer a far better climbing experience than any of the other central belt venues I’ve so far visited. They’d be even better with a bit of traffic to clean the routes.
Like pancakes or banana bread, nobody seems to be making enough of Fastcastle. I know the Highlands offer great climbing, but the weather is so often crap and from Edinburgh the good bits are at least three hours’ drive away. People keep telling me how good Diabaig is. I’m sure it’s great, but I’m tempted to reply that Siurana’s got some pretty decent climbing too, and it’s easier to get to. Anyway, back to The Souter.
My visit was a flying one as we were late leaving, had to be back early, and a wrong turn made the walk in three times longer than it needed to be. Don’t do that, is my advice. If you go there (and you should, but I think we’ve established that by now), walk pretty much straight down towards the sea from the farm, and allow yourself all day - you won’t regret it.
The sea in this part of Berwickshire is crystal clear and the rock architecture inspiring. It’s basically similar to the Culm Coast in Devon, and the main climbing area around The Souter is kind of a poor man’s Lower Sharpnose, with fins of rock sticking out into the drink. The rock is similar too, a little snappy on the surface but basically solid.
On our whistle stop tour, I chose to jump on a route called “Take it to the Limpets” because I liked the cut of its jib. Finger holds and the guidance of a pair of faint cracks led to a half height jug, which I luxuriated on while contemplating the blank, lichenous wall above. Ali pointed out that an E2 variant went left, saying “go for the line, not the grade”. You can’t argue with that, so I arranged some quantity-based protection and took a pretty straight version between the two so-called climbs. It had a rather pleasing committing reach for an undercut on it.
Then we jumped on The Souter itself, via the original route, which for situation and all that has to be one of the best HVSs in southern Scotland. At the top you feel like you should hang around and take in the view, savour being on the tip of this giant geographic phallus, but we had to get a car back to someone’s girlfriend so we just abbed off and left. If you do want to hang around there, it’s probably best to take some sandwiches up, because it could get a bit boring if you’ve nothing to do.
So there you are, don’t just make pancakes once a year. They’re cheap, they’re easy and they taste good. I like mine with some fried banana, tossed in the same pan with brown sugar, butter and cinnamon. Try it. And climb The Souter.

Saturday, 3 September 2011

Zorba the climber

When I was young the books I read went to my head like a drug, throwing my life off course like a sparrow tossed in a hurricane.

On the Road, The Sun Also Rises, The Unbearable Lightness of Being and Slate: A Climber’s Guide all had a profound, although not always long-lasting, effect on my malleable juvenile mind.

I remember reading Kerouac’s Desolation Angels and throwing all my possessions into a suitcase in the middle of the night. I don’t know where I was planning on going, but my girlfriend waylaid me and I ended up in a mad flight from the Czech Republic a couple of months later after receiving my last wages in cash, before I could be fined for vomiting down a concrete tower block and after the agency found Dave’s cannabis plants which I think is all something Jack would have approved of.

The funny thing is, Kerouac seems almost unreadable to me now. My literary tastes have become as staid and sedentary as my lifestyle, perhaps as a defensive mechanism to avoid that kind of madness.

But one book I read then has been coming back to haunt me recently, and that’s Zorba the Greek. Nikos Kazantzakis’ great creation didn’t particularly throw me off track back when I read it, but it was one of those books that was passed around my climbing set at the time and well regarded. Perhaps that’s because Zorba’s style fits what climbers aspire to, living life hard and in the moment, with full commitment to whatever task is in hand.

The eponymous hero is getting a bit long in tooth, and although he has accumulated nothing materially he is rich in experiences and retains all his vigour and lust for life. Maybe Zorba is Kerouac for the more mature gentleman, because I recall a friend gave his dad a copy and then worried that it seemed to have brought on a mid-life crisis.

I think I’m due to read Zorba again, because the other weekend at Limekilns I pottered about like an old codger, doing routes too far within my limits. I hadn’t climbed for a while so a warm up through the grades was excusable, but once it was evident I was on form and the venue suited me, it was time to pull out the stops and get on something that scared me. Instead, I opted for the rock climbing equivalent of a drive in the countryside with a stop at the National Trust tearooms.

After I cruised the excellent Elgin Crack, E2 5c, I should really have manned up and got on an E4, but instead I hedged my bets on the appropriately named Going Through the Motions, tough but safe at E3 6a. I didn’t regret doing it at the time because it was a tremendously enjoyable lead, but neither did I walk back into the office on Monday feeling 12 feet tall, with a buzz inside that could carry my soul through the duller parts of the day and fuel the build up of passion that might have spurred me onto greater things the following weekend.

Instead, it was a slightly cautious business journalist within me that decided it was best to top rope Duncrankin at Roslin, and to be fair, he had a good argument. Looking at the 15 feet of vertical wall that made up the meat of the route, it was obviously going to be tricky for E4 6a, no gear was visible, and who knew if a few crucial holds weren’t hidden under the lichen.

As I popped for the finger-edge to nail the crux, I was convinced I’d made the right decision. The gear would have been below my feet, the fall would have involved bouncing off a big sloping ledge, and the move had felt like 6b. But the victory was hollow. Here was a grotty little crag of filthy sandstone, which we’d hacked through near vertical mud and undergrowth to get to, and through the miracle of British trad it had offered an experience on a par with the finest cliffs in Europe. On lead, committing to that slap would have marked itself indelibly into my being, whether I hung the hold or not. As it was, I didn’t even fancy the headpoint.

Of course, it can be quite an art to pick something that’s hard enough to be a real challenge without ending up looking like the kind of idiot who gets on a route he lacks the ability to climb. Chances are if I’d tried to lead Duncrankin I would have gone up and down from the gear like a yo-yo before finally lowering off. Chances are it’s the mother of all sandbags and well worth E5. That’s why it’s so hard to be Zorba, and most of us end up being one of those new men the lad-lit set write about who cry over their mortgage payments and think having a kid is an adventure.