(by Steve Young, from IMC Newsletter Summer 2011)
First ascents of Wicklow routes in the 1970s, and how they got their names.
With the availability of the Internet and such web sites as Climbing.ie and the IMC web page, I (too) regularly keep track of activities. Unfortunately the use of usernames hides the originators of many of the forum comments and being “out of the scene” it is sometimes difficult to follow the threads. One recent discussion involved Drifter’s Escape and this leads well into the following.
I guess this is one subject that at one time I thought I understood. As time passes, the difficulty of grading routes becomes clouded. Soon after my arrival in Ireland and the ascent of my first new route in the Quarry, Joss cornered me regarding the possibility of editing a guide book to update the O’Flynn edition that was now some 7 years out of date. The only part of the process for publication that caused any concern to me was the need to list route lengths in metres. I wanted feet, it made the routes seem bigger! Imperial feet prevailed and after the guide’s publication (1974), the grading storm started. New route additions in the Quarry in the mid-seventies went exponential and once again Joss was looking for an editor; there were no takers. Hoping to make more sense of the grading I issued a questionnaire to all the protagonists of the day along with a number of the Quarry regulars. All routes were listed along with their grades and columns for pitch grades and overall grade. I had hoped to come up with an “average” grade. Response to the questionnaire was poor but the results were used along with my own experiences of leading all routes below 5b in the hope of finding some form of agreement. I had hoped for what one person “on-line” described as “global consensus”. But no, the disagreement continues to this day. New to this guide and I believe new to Ireland at the time, I introduced the “numerical” system for technical difficulty that I had been brought up with in Cornwall after its introduction in the 1968 guide to Bosigran by Peter Biven. Annual visits to Cornwall were used to check my technical grading.
Route grades have to change with time; they can not remain constant. The rock changes, the equipment improves, techniques are developed, people’s needs are different ,etc. An interesting fact: Dónal and I climbed together, we did the same routes, but Dónal wore out his boots every year; mine lasted two. The reason being Dónal needed twice as many foot holds as me! This must affect the grade. Stephen McMullan in the Drifter’s Escape debate listed his favourite solo routes. It’s interesting that many of these were old IMC routes, done in big boots, no chalk and no protection, but still carry the original grades! These first ascents were in fact “solos”. What I ask is will the grades change once the Gecko boots and Gecko chalk are available? The solution to guide book grades is to remove them, just describe the line!
This was my first recorded new route in Ireland and named by Jimmy Leonard, that worldly scholar, after the preponderance of heather (Latin name) that streaked the route. Boy was he a mine of knowledge, anything from rockets to enhanced tomato soup. Being the only new route climbed at Luggala in that lovely month of November and having Dave Fawcett (supposedly Ron’s brother) as its only claim to fame, it was never destined to be a star route! So you may ask, “why climb such an ugly route?” I guess the original Perrott guide book was hard to follow, it was misty and wet, the day was running out fast and the view out from the end of the Terrace across the Main Face was too horrific to contemplate. After all, we had to do something to earn a pint!
An obvious name for another late-in-the-day route, requiring speed to avoid a walk up the hill in the dark.
Named by Joe Mulhall after the popular RTE TV programme of the time. I remember suffering from a wild sore throat that I was subduing with Strepsils. I did not read the instructions and scoffed down the tablets like candy. When I got up to climb, I swayed, the horizon rolled and the rock pulsated in and out! Somehow I got up this first pitch and then led the continuation to the top. Big boots in March were a must.
Bearcats: Doug Milnes on second ascent
Dance of the Tumblers
As it has been said, the route did not go without fighting back. The name came from the piece of music by Rimsky Korsakoff. I had the name in mind for a route in Cornwall at Carn Barra that I had tried and failed on a number of times. Later I was to find out it was climbed around the same time as Dance and named Ra. Now to right some history. The route was originally written up in the IMC Newsletter in October 1972 with the first ascentionists listed as Richardson, Young, Harris and Mulhall. Pat Redmond’s 1973 guide gave the same list. Ken Higgs’s guide in 1982 had us listed as Young, Mulhall, Richardson and Harris. This was perpetuated in the 1993 and 2009 guides. Here is what happened – the story, written for the IMC Journal but never published.
“It’s a peach of a line up the side of Great Gully”, Joe spouted out between sups of Guinness, “tried it with Alan Douglas, he fell off.”
So one cold snowy Sunday in November 1971 Jim and I wandered over to Luggala to look up at Joe’s peach. “He must be mad”, I scoffed at Jim, “it’s all bloody overhangs.”
A while later I was belayed agog as Joe led off up the ramp towards the menacing overhangs. Three hours later he was crouched like a frightened pigeon on a sloping triangular ledge surrounded by roofs. “Bring up my ciggies” is the only encouragement I get; are they to calm his nerves or does he expect this to be a long day?
The gentle ramp turned into a steep slab with overhangs pushing me out towards the gully, the green slab angled up to give a barrel-like formation. Stepping around the corner onto holds that John Gibson (our trusty photographer) swore were there, or had he got something against me after that Maestri-like experience on Lugnaquillia during the winter? Now a short reach up to Joe and I took up a yoga position hanging from the peg below the triangular ledge. “Give me a ciggy”, he gasped. Like Arthur I tugged at my Chouinard Excalibur and like Arthur it came out of the anvil. I was not to be king and Joe was not to get his ciggy. I shot out on an arc and rapidly grabbed at the mass of rope rapidly moving in space. Joe had a shoulder belay and with only one hand on the rope, I did the braking with his neck as the bollard! He then lowered me to the ground some 10 feet out from the foot of the cliff; quite some peach. A shaken and rope-burned Joe abseiled from his lonely perch as the sun gave way to the cool of evening. We never did see John’s photos, he must have a mine of climbing history pictures.
Months later we were back for my pitch, a quick variation aid route (never written up) led to the triangular belay ledge. Now with Joe once again ensconced on his perch, I led off right. The drop below my feet seemed so steep, there was nothing; my hands pressed flat against the rock, I edged along the tip of balance at the point where all time seemed to stop. Fingers enveloped a jug, a pull at the green friction at my feet pushed be back into balance. A peg runner and on, tiny foot holds led across towards a crack. Far below on the brooding lake, ripples lapped the shore; what peace to be had there, alas no Lady of the Lake.
A long step, and with good friction I stood on nothing to reach a sharp edge, a layback and then with a shuffle, I reached a “green and pleasant ledge”.
With a bong belay in place, Joe came hurtling across like a fire engine with its bell ringing – oops, I forgot, the route’s third tumble! We abseiled off, enough fun for the nerves!
After many abortive attempts to reach our previous high point from above including the famous Dave Walsh anorak-eating epic (the dangers of loose stuff and figure of 8 devices), I found myself once again at the “green and pleasant ledge”. This time in the company of an International team. Joe the local, fresh from Healy’s, Bob Richardson the American, laden with the latest Hexcentrics, and two “Brits”, Mike “Bomber” Harris – he had more “flying hours” in his Whillans than most Air Corps pilots – and finally myself. The acceptance of new members on this route led to some controversy, not unlike rumours surrounding the original ascent of Spearhead back in the ‘60’s. Over a pint or two, Joe invited Bob to join us on the completion of the route and somehow Bomber tagged along. I did not agree with this arrangement and through spite, I offered Bob the lead much to Joe’s annoyance. Bob (wearing shorts! – a new sight on Irish rock) led in superb style, across the slab to place a hexcentric, a brief layback to more protection placed. At regular intervals more hexcentrics were expended in an orderly and systematic manner; each move was thoughtful, deliberate and useful, a show of perfect control in this vertical environment. Traverse out left to the crux position, a no. 10 placed high, a swing over the lip, up the slab to disappear into the heart of the sun. I followed, cursed for not letting Joe lead, and finally at the belay, I crawled up the grass and then crouched, very quiet and thoroughly subdued. Harris followed in a cloud of Gauloises smoke, reminiscent of the Paris Metro, and seduced the pitch with a combination of bad language and fear but no “air time”. Joe finished in fine form and complimented Bob on his inspirational lead. Now relaxing on the ledge, I gazed down at the dark waters glistening far below still looking for signs of the Lady of the Lake.
The first complete ascent with aid elimination was by Dave Richardson in 1973.
Dance of the Tumblers: Joe Mulhall on first ascent of first pitch
The Real Thing
A pretty obvious line leading to some most improbable situations where the line of the route follows the ground below to give a serious position apparently close to the ground! A classic large glass bottle of coke was trussed up like a chicken and hauled up the route as we went. The Real Thing seemed an apt name.
The Real Thing: the Coke haul
The only new route I climbed with Pat “I’m the leader of the gang” Redmond. The line at the time appeared from below to be acceptable but the vegetation encountered was like a journey to the Lost World until the final mossy slab was reached. One poor peg for protection mid-way across the slab gave me the confidence to proceed; its difficulties in its mossy form were confirmed by Pat’s lunge for the peg. His comment was “you must have been ‘Psycho’ to lead that”! The 2009 guide shows the direct finish and not the slab pitch.
A tortuous explanation for this name. Competition was beginning to appear in Irish climbing. There was the Trinity Club, the UCD club, the Rapparees, Spillikin, the IMC and various non-connected masters and new routing and development was starting to boom.
We descended from Luggala over the boulders late on a Sunday evening to see Higgs and Co. on a new route. “No way will they get up that today, we’ll grab it early next weekend.” It rained, two weeks later we were back. Up at dawn and on the wet rocks at Luggala before the UCD hut was awake. With much squirming in the mud we completed the route. The young’uns appeared, we were ahead; obviously age and experience still ruled! Ken calls out, “how are you finding it?” We reckoned 4c when we climbed it; was hard to be objective as it was dark. So Aqualung had been climbed; at least we did the second ascent! We knew the race was over, we could now just climb for recreation, the competition was too great. The traverse out left at about severe led to a fine ledge and tree belay. As I abseiled, the grass below my feet started to peel away to reveal clean white granite. With a little help the grass rolled away like a carpet to expose a dream slab and cracks. This was promptly climbed, we felt rejuvenated, Golden Oldies – Side One was born. Seán Windrim and Anthony Latham passed by; "where the f— did that appear from?". The 1993 Wicklow guide indicates that nature has reclaimed the rock. The 2009 guide describes it “as an expedition for the foolhardy”. Confusion in the guides as to the dates of these ascents; the 1982 guide is correct. No doubt in our environmentally-challenged climbing kingdom nobody will enjoy the pleasure that Joe and I sampled that day.
I was beginning to feel pretty decrepit watching the “young’uns” at work; the name blended well with its neighbour and the age thing seemed to be associated with other routes for some reason, e.g. Geriatrix at the Rathdrum railway quarry, now crushed and mixed with concrete into someone’s home! It has to be added to my “Memorable Routes of Destruction”, but that’s another story. Little did I know how decrepit you could really get and yet, still climb! I am currently working on a mathematical model for U.S. route grade modification based on “one’s physical condition”.
Ken Higgs considered me to be a “volunteer” that day; I think I was “press-ganged”. This was a masterpiece of hard steep on-sight leading.
With Ken again, but I have no recollection of this route, maybe it should be renamed Alzheimer’s!
More Latin; I certainly never saw a rabbit, only a Mad Hatter and a March Hare! Massive gardening was required; we spent hours trying to decapitate a holly tree, which I see from the 2009 guide is still alive and well. Its shattered remains were used as a tied-off runner!
Ken gave it the name; my wife was expecting, so perhaps it was for the expected “Offspring”.
My new camera accompanied us on our first outing onto the Main Face. I soon found a bulky SLR was more bother than it was worth. Fewer photos in the future.
With my new trusty all-metal, state-of-the-art peg hammer I set off on the first pitch of what was to be a new “rambling route” somewhere up, across and around the Main Face. Somewhere en-route while trying to put in a peg, my hammer shaft broke; back to the drawing board, that is if we survive the Main Face. Across under the main overhang to the belay for the last pitch of Spearhead. The previous week, an ROV, the Pisces, had been trapped off the coast of Cork but was luckily attached to the surface by a sturdy lifeline manned by a capable crew. Dusk was fast approaching as Dónal – that was well planned – set off around the Spearhead crux cursing for a sturdy lifeline to the top and disappeared out of contact. After what seemed an eternity, it was now dark, the rope was taken in, I set up a back belay; I did not relish a slip, swing and whoosh out over The Gannets. On reaching Dónal, he pointed out his insecure belay. The descent in the dark down South Gully included a crawl through at least one dead sheep. We passed through Roundwood after closing time, Pisces seemed an apt name.
Pisces: First ascent, Steve approaching Spearhead last pitch
Friends Laughing Alphabetically
First attempted with Dónal in 1973 but turned back by loose rock. While being watched by three friends (A, B & C) from Arklow a few years later I tried to clean the route of vegetables and loose rock; incessant laughter cheered up the gloomy locale. With a handful of borrowed “friends” the route was taken.
Some tune I kept on whistling, to Dónal’s annoyance.
Dónal and I spent hours hanging from the tree below the overlap, trying to free-climb through a pile of loose blocks. Eventually aid was used to beat it into submission. Jim Leonard had observed us in the tree on his way up to the cliff in the morning. On his return in the evening we were still there. The following morning, we were again up in the tree, ready to finish the route; Jim calls out “Are you two nesting?”
After a Cornish climbing locale.
It could have been after seeing Cathy’s giant diamond ring or the fact that I started the route being belayed by an “en-plastered” Dónal, still cast up after his flight off “Jackie”. Des Doyle came along in time to second the route. The initial finger crack caught my imagination after seeing photos of Yosemite’s “Cookie Wall” and all the fine finger lines. Just dreaming!
Solitaire: First ascent
Just “friggin” about as I watched Seán Windrim deal with his new and un-controllable double rope, designed to slow him down!
Glendalough Acorn Buttress: Seán Windrim and his spaghetti
A letter to the MCI forum in 2005 indicated concern as to the political correctness of this name. So what was special about August 1974 – well children, if you are sitting comfortably I will begin … I lived in Avoca in Co.Wicklow, worked at the Avoca Mines, climbed on Bell Rock, bouldered on the Mottee Stone at Cronebane and listened to the RTE news on “six of the 19 prisoners that escaped from Portlaoise prison” were seen in the Tinahely area and heading deep into the Wicklow Mountains. An army helicopter gave chase but ran out of fuel. Escape by sea along the Wicklow-Wexford coast was prevented by the eagle-eyed sailors of the Deirdre and the army searched the Avoca area. This was Friday August 23, 1974. On the Sunday, I headed to Glendalough and climbed the oh-so-obvious line above what we called base camp with Dónal Windrim. So as not to forget the event I called it “Provo”. Remember, “lest we forget”! As a Brit, I’m proud of the name.
Provo: Bob Richardson on second ascent
I guess the name is pretty obvious; the interesting facet was that it was led by a child prodigy, Terry O Neill!
Seem to remember we carried a cassette recorder for “music while we climbed”.
Named after my faithful dachshund walking companion, who emigrated with me and helped suss out new rock in the Canadian Shield.
The call of the wild took Tom Wolfe and myself high up into the Upper Cliffs to a prominent yellow groove, hence the Latin name. A worthwhile expedition.