dimanche 31 octobre 2021

Climbing and the dark side of social media

A very long time ago, when the internet was a new thing and before social media had arrived. Imagine being a teenage climber, living many miles from the centre of the Universe, ie. Sheffield, climbing on obscure crags in the South Lakes, usually with your brother and often belayed by your dad. The chances are you're not going to see many other climbers (or be "seen" by many other climbers) but you're keen to progress and get better. Basically you're climbing well below the radar in a total backwater. It's the way it is, what you're used to. It doesn't matter anyway because you climb entirely for yourself. That's what climbing is all about, right?

Imagine being that same person in 1990, reading about the most important ascent in the world at that time, Ben Moon has just climbed "Hubble". Unlike most of us, this person is totally inspired and decides that he wants to follow in Ben's footsteps. He embarks upon a serious training schedule to get fit enough to climb "Hubble". He's geeky, unassuming and a bit shy but totally obsessed. He actually measures all the dimensions of "Hubble" and builds a replica in his parents' garage, reducing the size of the holds as he gets stronger. He rarely climbs outside, because he is so focused on training in his garage, besides he doesn't have a car and there aren't many locals to climb with anyway. On the days when he is getting close to repeating "Hubble" his dad drives patiently, whilst he warms up in the car during the long journey south to Ravens Tor. They always set off early to make the best of the cool conditions and after a few goes (and some progress) they're usually packing up by the time other climbers arrive at the crag. After a long time and a huge amount of effort and commitment eventually this "outsider" succeeds and realises his dream, he has just made the 3rd ascent of "Hubble". Respect! But he doesn't expect any respect or praise because he climbs for himself remember, he's not interested in being famous, he's just totally happy because he's really enjoyed the whole process, all the highs and lows during the last 4 years. 

Ben Moon climbing Hubble in 1990 (Ben Moon collection).

Our young climber continues to develop his local limestone crags, always pushing standards higher but always under the radar. He even gets taken to France ('95) and Germany ('96) by us, where he enjoys playing on "Super Plafond" and "Action Direct", there's no pressure to actually do them, he's just happy to test himself on the individual moves (which admittedly seemed a bit odd to us at the time, but each to their own, we thought). 

The years pass, our young climber is now grown up, at last he has a career, he's very happily married and he's a loving father too. He's continued to put up desperate problems on his local crags but he still operates under the radar, his friends think he's a legend and his hardest problems have achieved mythical status. 

However times have changed, we're now living in the digital age, climbing has changed and there are very few of us who practice our passion discreetly. Many of us have become narcissistic and constantly striving for fame. It's not uncommon to video yourself as you work on your latest project, edit it and post it on your favourite social media platform(s) as soon as you have succeeded, where you can get instant recognition from your friends. Not only that, there are endless possibilities to easily troll people you disagree with or you don't believe, often anonymously and without censorship from these websites. No wonder we live in an era of fake news and conspiracy theories.

Sadly, such is the setting whereby some younger (and some not so young) climbers have been casting doubts regarding the validity of some of my friend's hardest ascents. How dare they? Who do they think they are? What gives them the right to question someone's climbing achievements from almost thirty years ago, just because there's no video footage or nobody witnessed the ascent or some hotshot isn't strong enough to pull on the holds? Climbing is so unimportant really, and many of us choose to climb to escape from adhering to any definition of a normal life. However, I have only recently found out about the drivel and hatred that has been written on various forums over the years regarding some of my friend's climbing achievements (including the 3rd ascent of "Hubble"). I am totally appalled by this and believe that some have gone way too far with their character assassination of him. They should be ashamed of themselves, but I doubt they will ever apologise for all the hurt they have caused. I have no doubt that my friend did these climbs (including "Hubble", despite not seeing him actually do it). His word is enough for me. End of story.

mercredi 18 août 2021

Et dieu créa La Ramirole

Whilst we were climbing in La Drôme, a couple of weeks ago, we heard that the approach to La Ramirole (in the Gorges du Verdon) had recently been improved and was much easier. Previously it was exhausting getting to and from the crag with Ruff. I had to make the descent (via abseils, a via ferrata and handlines) with my sack and rope, leave them at the bottom and then return to pick up Ruff, put her in a large rucksack and descend again. At the end of the day the whole process had to be reversed. So La Ramirole was complicated. Plus it wasn't a good crag for Elaine, as you need to be climbing at least 8a to get the most out of it.

So, I got in touch with Seb Bouin to find out, then we went to check it out with Ruff on a rest day. Sure enough, there's only one short tricky section now and the rest is straight forward. Game on for a return and to settle the score with Et dieu créa la flamme (a magnificent 8a+ I had tried a few times in 2016, before my shoulder injury and subsequent surgery and recuperation). I was definitely psyched and feeling up for it this time. 

There were a number of reasons why I gave up 5 years ago, for example: it was too hot, it was too humid, the skin on my fingers was too sore, there were too many strong climbers using it as their warm up, and so on, yawn yawn. But mostly I gave up because I wasn't good enough. However, I felt that with a different mindset, and being in better shape, the outcome would be different this time round. 

Et dieu créa la flamme was equipped by Antonin Rhodes about 10 or so years ago, it is considered to be one of the most beautiful routes of it's grade at La Ramirole (and probably the whole of the Gorges du Verdon). It consists of 40 metres of sustained and very steep climbing mostly on tufas, sparsely protected by only 14 bolts (it definitely feels run-out). Surprisingly there are lots of good holds and lots of kneebars too, but the climbing is always very physical because the holds are usually far apart, and there is also a tricky fingery section between the floor and the 2nd bolt. Overall it's a great physical and mental challenge that is sheer bliss to try and eventually succeed on. 

The 1st day was cool and windy, perfect for working the moves and making links on the easier sections. On the 2nd day I went from the 2nd bolt all the way to the top, so it was definitely possible (unfortunately I hadn't worked out the best sequence for the difficult start). The 3rd day was really far too hot and doesn't really count. However it went like a dream on my 1st attempt on day 4, belayed by Pete Chadwick and after only warming up on the 6c.

Thanks to Elaine, Santi Garcia and Julien Bouquinaud for the belays and encouragement over the 4 days spent there during the last week. It's a dream come true and I still can't believe it!

Climbing Et dieu créa la flamme is up there with other memorable days spent in the Verdon, such as:

La Demande with Elaine in '83, taking all day, finishing in the dark and having to walk all the way back to La Palud;

Dingomaniaque with Joe Picalli, also in '83;

Le Triomphe d'Eros with Al Simpson, again in '83;

L'Ange en Decomposition with Simon King, in '84;

Surveiller et Punir with Dave Turnbull, also in '84;

Elaine and I hot on the heels of Jim Hewson and Pete Chadwick on Rêve de Fer, again in '84;

a 1 day/1st red-point ascent of Seance Tenant (belayed by my ever patient and long suffering wife Elaine in '97).

Such a stunning place to climb and so many happy memories. However, I have another score to settle with Triste Lune over at Petit Eycharme sometime. Bring it on!

Thanks to Elaine and Pete for the photos.

dimanche 11 juillet 2021

Orpierre and Figols

There hasn't been much to write about this year, due to the Covid-19 restrictions on travelling. However, we did get away to Orpierre, in May for ten days or so, to climb at Paroi Jaune. Thanks to Simon King for the recommendation. The routes there are long (up to 40 metres) and gently overhanging on edges, pockets and lots of slopey kind of holds. You have to go and do Misere (7a), Caroline (7b), Trop Pure (7c+) and Lost (8a). There are some more recent routes further right, most of them 7a to 7b, which are worthwhile to extend your stay. However, to the left, there is a great slabby wall covered in 5's and 6's, which are all very good. The must do route being Vive les femmes (6a), which looks more like 7b when you see someone on it from Paroi Jaune!

We've recently returned from the Spanish Pyrenees where we revisited Las Devotas and Rincon de Sin (the walk up and down hadn't got any easier!). Whilst in the Bielsa area, we visited a crag at Liguerre del Cinca. We were recommended by Jean Claude (from Team BTR) to do his route called Marysa, a really good 7c with a bouldery start and then tufa heaven for 25 metres. The crag takes some effort to find and was rather hot, so it would be a great place in autumn. Marysa is the easiest route, so it's hard to warm up properly, most of the other routes are 8a+ (Chorrera Marron looks rather like Dinosaur at Seynes and equally good).

The weather was really weird, with lots of rain. In fact, the whole time we were there, Foz de la Canal was soaked. So we moved on quickly to Figols, in the Alt Urgell valley. We'd seen some amazing photos of our friends Marco and Marta, from Andorra, attempting their projects in a big cave (called Cova de les Gralles) and just had to go and check it out for ourselves. It proved a great place to climb in summer, with coolish temps and mostly good holds. However, the walk is a steep 20 to 30 minute slog uphill. In summer the sun doesn't shine into the back of the cave but your belayer would be suffering from about 17H, whilst the less steep walls on either side are fully in the sun (left side from around 16H and right side from around 18H), so early starts are recommended. Most days we had the place to ourselves, how good is that? Stand out routes were Gigita (6b+), Limonchella (6c+), Catalina (7b), Clasica (7b), Sensacion de Pinzar (7c), Kingline (7c+) and Gambusina Line (8a). There are some really steep, thrutchy 7c cracks (reminiscent of Gogarth Main Cliff) in the back of the cave for masochists (eg Sucina, Virginia and Amazonia). George Smith would love them!

The view from Cova de les Gralles (carefully taken to avoid showing the quarry).

Whilst at Figols, we checked out some of the other crags in the area. Tres Ponts involves waiting until 17H before climbing in summer (so we didn't bother hanging around wasting time for that). Figol a l'ombre and Socol de Narieda were really disappointing (tiny crimps and slippery slopers) and I wouldn't recommend either (especially in summer!). There are obviously some harder routes at the left side of Figols a l'ombre that are classics, eg the 8a/8a+ link up looks like a must do in cooler temps. Fontanella had great connies (cool and windy) for summer, but the climbing was disappointing again (very fingery, polished and caked in chalk). However Lapsanus (30m) and Segle XIX (45m) were very good 7b+'s. I was too much of a wimp to try Aromes de Fontanella (a hard 8a) as it looked like too much effort in summer.

After spending so much time in the Vallée du Cinca (Bielsa) over the years, our impressions of Alt Urgell, by comparison, were rather disappointing. It's ugly, noisy (from the quarry opposite Cova de les Gralles and the road traffic) and the river is dirty and smelly. That said, luckily, the climbing at Cova de les Gralles is really good and it makes a great summer venue. A muerte! 

Thanks Elaine for the following photos.

A great doss spot away from the noise.

Cova de les Gralles is big and steep!

Mar on Papiandres (8a).

Ruff and Slack at Fontanella.

2 photos of Veterana (8a). Very appropriate!

6 photos of the excellent Gambusina Line (8a).

3 photos of Catalina (7b).

2 photos of Mar on Clasica (7b).

4 photos of Bertrand on Kingline (7c+).

3 photos of Jerman on Sucina Line (version 8a+).

Always happy.

Back to beautiful France.

samedi 20 février 2021

Phil Davidson, Top Lad 22nd August 1959 - 15th February 2021

Phil Davidson, Top Lad

22nd August 1959 - 15th February 2021

It began with a message from Phil back in August 2018. Typical Phil, he just came straight out with it, no beating about the bush. “You’re going to have to write my obituary” was how it started, and then he went on to explain that he’d been given six months to live. Kate (Phil’s wife) says that he described the next two and a half years as “living with a terminal illness” and he continued to live normally, never complaining or feeling sorry for himself. In fact you’d never believe that he was ill at all, as he set about packing in as much as he could, he was a man on a mission.

I’ll do my best to honour his original request. Here is the story about a remarkably talented, dedicated, single minded and sometimes brash person who became possibly one of the best climbers in the world for a few years back in the early 80’s. His name is little known as he tended to operate under the radar; he didn’t put up 1st ascents or live in Sheffield. However he should be regarded as a hero for his no-fuss on-sight approach to hard trad climbing back in the day. Please think of this story as a celebration of Phil’s wonderful life.

Phil was born in Manchester and was adopted at birth by his doting parents Sid and Jean Davidson from St. Helens. He started climbing at Pex Hill, a sandstone quarry nearby, with Dougie Gardiner and Gaz Healey in 1975. Ken Latham recalls: “We climbed a lot together at Pex in the early days, all of us there like a gang of mates, plenty of banter, piss taking, and pushing each other on the routes, Phil, Gaz, his brother Joe, Robbie Mallinson, and Chris Hunter.” He quickly developed incredible finger strength and perfect technique to enable him to use the tiny holds. He also worked hard on his upper body strength and flexibility, doing lots of pull ups, press ups and leg stretching (he could do box splits without warming up). Soon after that he was taken on several trips to North Wales by Hugh Banner. Apparently, at the time, it was obvious that Phil had great potential, but he had a long way to go regarding acquiring the vital skills of rope work and placing nuts before he was able to start pushing himself. (In fact, I don’t think Phil fully mastered the art of placing gear, he never seemed to spend long fiddling with runners, he simply preferred to keep on going, his ability and confidence always got him up.)

I first met Phil in the Llanberis Pass during the incredible summer of 1976. The weather was amazing; all the crags were dry for months. It was a wonderful time to be a teenager feeling the call of the mountains after a hard week at work (Phil was an apprentice at BICC). There were a few keen teams around at the same time, working their way through the classics in Pete Hatton’s “Three Cliffs” guidebook. John Roberts, Brian Jones, Pete White, Sandy Dobie, Mike Griffiths and I made up a group of climbers based in North Wales. Andy Sharp, Steve Lewis, and Pete Lewis from South Wales were usually around most weekends. And of course there were Phil and Gaz Healey, who we called “The Psychos”, due to frequent bouts of outrageous adolescent behaviour. Whilst it’s fair to say that we were all climbing well, Phil quickly became much better and left us all behind when he nonchalantly strolled up “Right Wall”, thus making the fifth ascent in 1977. It was an amazing ascent to witness, by far the most impressive piece of climbing I’d seen up to that point.

Soon after Elaine and I moved to the Merseyside area in 1980, we went round to see Phil at his parents’ house. We were surprised to see an immaculate, shiny black and gold Ducati 900SS parked in the corridor between the back door and the kitchen, which his mum used to regularly dust and polish! He briefly introduced us to his lovely mum and dad, quickly gave us a mug of tea (not full, which we referred to afterwards as a “Davidson measure”), turned off the TV his parents were watching and then put on The B52’s. It was such a surreal experience sitting there listening to “Planet Claire” at full volume in his mum and dad’s living room.

As spring time arrived, the weather improved and the days got longer, we joined the local climbers at Pex in the evenings. There was a really great scene with lots of ruthless banter and lots of encouragement too. Regulars included Joe Healey, Willy Simm, Al Stewart, Steve Foxley, Eric Rooseberry, Pete Chadwick, Ewan McCallum, Steve Tonks, Mark Hounslea, Steve Boote, Lew Brown, Jim Hewson, Pete Trewin and Buzz. Phil would arrive on his motorbike and park it above the Dateline Wall. He’d then step through a gap in the fence and announce his arrival with a humongous burp! Then he’d down solo “The Dateline” in his motorbike leathers, with his helmet in the crook of his elbow. We used to greet each other fondly with “alright yer spaz” (of course that was back in the days before political correctness). Once EB’s were laced up and he was on the rock everybody admired and envied his climbing ability. Ken Latham recalls: “Phil was soon searching out the blanker walls of Pex and produced outstanding problems such as Black Magic, Main Wall and Catalepsy as well as repeating Joe’s Monobloc, and Staminade, we mere mortals looked on in awe and sulked over to the naughty corner. Phil always had an infectious smile and was a joy to have around, always had a tale to tell but never boasted, watching him move on rock was mesmerising but scared the heck out of you, climbers like that come around very rarely, they light up the tight knit climbing community and leave you wondering ‘’what the f***, how did he do that?’’ He never said he was better than the next guy and would give you a nod of confidence if he knew you were capable but unsure.”

In the early 80’s, Phil went across to Germany with his great friend Jim Jewel, with the intention of finding some work. He didn’t actually stay very long but made a lifelong friendship with Uwe Hofstaedter. True to form, he made early ascents of some of the hardest climbs in the Frankenjura at that time, for example the classics “Chasing the train” and “Hitchhike the plane”.

During the next four years Phil climbed with a number of “belay slaves”, including me. I remember watching Ron Fawcett climbing “Sardine” at Raven Tor on the TV, the evening we arrived home from a two week holiday in Corfu in 1982. As soon as the programme ended the phone rang. I knew it was Phil before I picked it up. I knew what he wanted. Next day he walked up “Sardine” whereas, being unfit after two weeks of sunbathing, I got dragged up it. He even lowered me down into the nettles as he was far too busy chatting away with a young hot shot called Jerry Moffatt. Incidentally, sometime later, Jerry lent Phil his Fires so he could do Narcissus at Froggatt.

Around the same time, Phil repeated (on-sight of course) one of Britain’s first E7’s (Pete Gommersall’s very bold “Death Wish” at Blue Scar), and also on-sighted “Cave Route Right-hand” (then known as “Tiger Mountain”) at Gordale. Having found “The Cad” and “The Long Run” both fairly straight forward, he made an on-sight attempt on what would have been the second ascent of “The Bells! The Bells” but lowered off the peg. Not surprisingly he made mere E5’s look like “paths”, for example “Golden Mile” at Chee Tor and “El Coronel” at Malham. One day at Forwyn, after leading a load of E3’s and E4’s, he soloed “Great Wall”. As if that wasn’t enough, we then went to Pen Trwyn where we both led the soon to become classic “Axle Attack” and “The Bloods”.

Phil was on top form in 1984 when I held his rope on “Obscene Gesture” (on-sight of course). A few days later he rocked up at Chee Tor to do “Tequila Mockingbird” with Jim Hewson. Jim recalls that Phil had to wait his turn, as there were a number of very strong Peak climbers trying it that day. He refused to have the first bolt pre-clipped and set off. Apparently, as he climbed higher and higher, reading the moves quickly and climbing perfectly, the jaws of the onlookers sagged lower and lower. Unfortunately a foot slipped right at the top and he was off (to the sound of much cursing). One of the onlookers (a young Ben Moon) says that he was sure he was going to do it. Phil lowered off straight away, pulled the rope, tied back in and quickly climbed the route. Pretty impressive or what? That was the same year he soloed “Right Wall”, not once but twice! The second time was for photos. Who remembers that iconic poster? Who still has it? I’m sure that it has inspired many climbers over the years. Other gobsmacking solos included “Cockblock” and “Linden” (on-sight).

Later that year Phil started a B Ed (Hons) in Outdoor Education at I M Marsh teacher training college. He stopped climbing, just like that. He suffered the embarrassment of being bottom of the class in everything apart from climbing. So he rose to the challenge (as to be expected) and set about getting better, much better, particularly at white water kayaking. Within a few months he was out there with the best, literally “pushing the boat out” (one of Phil’s favourite expressions) on the most difficult rivers in Snowdonia, for example the Dee, Conwy, Ogwen, Glaslyn, and the Fairy Glen. He also enjoyed late spring trips to the Alps, to kayak the snow melt with a tight knit group of friends including Dave Howard, Steve Priestley and Ian Walsh.

Phil really loved jazz. Charlie Parker’s famous alto break was one of his favourites, which he aspired to play. That was no problem to a bloke who never did things half-heartedly. He learnt to read music and taught himself to play both the alto and tenor saxophones, so that he could play it too. Phil also went on to play in a local soul band, Brass Roots, which several of the Pex Hill faithful turned up to watch one night in Widnes. He was also a very stylish skier whose knees seemed to be permanently welded together. We went away on several trips together over the years; the week at Les Arc with Tim Lowe was one of the most memorable, filled with loads of hard core skiing and constant banter.

In 1990, after a couple of years teaching, he made a comeback (not 1992 as he has logged on UKC). However, the sport had changed in the six years since he’d hung up his boots. Climbs had got steeper and it had become acceptable to “work” routes before a “red-point” ascent. Not surprisingly, Phil adapted quickly, though he often had problems memorising moves and I usually had to shout up the beta mid crux. It was almost as if every attempt was like an on-sight attempt. Nonetheless, he flashed “Obsession”. The draws were in, but it was a big shock when he arrived at the belay to find there was no quick draw to clip. Even worse, finding that the gate of the belay karabiner was stiff and wouldn’t open! With an arm painfully locked in the belay chain, he eventually managed to open the gate enough to clip his harness belay loop in and finally thread the rope through. As you can imagine, there were lots of loud Davidson expletives.

That same summer, we camped for ages at Gordale Farm and Phil ticked loads of the Yorkshire limestone classics, such as: “New Dawn”, “Mescalito”, “L’Obsession”, “Defcon 3”, “Pierrepoint” and “Man with a gun”. Unfortunately “Zoolook” proved too much for him and the magic 8a grade sadly eluded him. It was the first time I’d ever known him unable to do something but he took it well. He did prove that he was still very handy on bold trad though; when he made a very controlled, on-sight ascent of “Souls” in Huntsman’s Leap (Phil has mistakenly logged that ascent as “Ghost Train” on UKC).

Soon after he met Kate in 1992 and other time-consuming interests took over. He raced two-stroke karts and mastered the art of clay pigeon shooting. With Parker their adored black Labrador joining the family, who Phil trained to the gun. But there were occasional rumours filtering through that he’d been spotted at Pex or Helsby (where he was still able to solo “Beatnik” despite having not climbed for ages). No doubt he was keeping himself fit and maintaining his low carb, low fat, sugar free diet.

More recently, social media enabled Phil to get back in touch with lots of his old climbing friends and ultimately he got back into climbing. With his friends Daz Devey and Dave Greenald he appeared to be making up for lost time and was as keen as ever. Daz recalls: “Phil has been a fantastic climbing partner and become my closest friend over the past few years. Never any drama with him, just turns up and climbs everything with ease. And the odd time he doesn’t climb it first go, he is back until he gets it done.” Dave Greenald summed up Phil’s inspiring ascent of “My Piano” at Nesscliffe in 2017: “E8 at 58”. Once again Phil proved that he was still up there with the best. Total respect.

The last time Elaine and I saw Phil was when he came, with Kate, and spent a week with us here in the Gorges du Loup, in 2019. In many ways it was just like old times, he hadn’t changed (though he’d finally caught me up and lost his hair). The wonderful thing about the climbing community is it’s like we’re all part of an extended family, despite not seeing each other for years it’s always fantastic to catch up with the new and relive the past. That’s exactly how it was seeing Phil again. For one week we were almost transported back to our teenage years, sharing banter, laughing and having fun, we even managed to climb every day.

Phil was still climbing hard and tearing up the tarmac on his latest Ducati until just a few months ago. Unfortunately, he’d had to stop kayaking and skiing a couple of years ago as he couldn’t cope with cold temperatures anymore because of his treatment. True to form, he didn’t moan about it, he just carried on doing what he could. Eventually, his illness finally caught up with him and he has been taken from us. Sadly, it is time to say farewell to a true legend, who set the benchmark for us all to follow. Phil will undoubtedly be very sadly missed by so many. The world is going to seem a sadder place without his infectious laugh and radiant smile. Listening to Wayne Shorter won’t ever seem the same to me.

My sincere condolences go to Kate, who was always there for Phil, right up to the end.

Now my friend, it’s time to set off on that last lonely lead, there’s no gear and I can’t give you the beta this time…..

Mike Owen

Many thanks to the friends who have helped me compile this celebration of Phil’s life.