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CLIMBING WITH PEOPLE YOU'VE ONLY JUST MET

Updated: Jan 27


A surprising number of my best climbs have been done with people I've met randomly, often at the crag in question. I get the strong impression that this is something that no longer happens (other than in bouldering) and that's a shame. As a largely itinerant walking guide I spent a lot of time travelling round the country and though I had regular climbing partners in some areas there was no guarantee that they would be available when I was passing through. As a result I kept my gear handy and regularly roped up with any climber who happened to be at the crag I went to. I've had the odd epic as a result but by and large it's led to some great experiences.

I've never had a problem approaching and talking to strangers, probably because my main form of transport between the ages of 16 and 34 was hitching. Climbing with someone just seemed a natural extension to this. Sometimes the approach has been of the even-handed "Do you fancy doing a route?" variety and we've discussed what to do (e.g. Left and Centre at Cummingston with Pete Hill). Sometimes it's been that someone wanted to do a route but didn't want to lead it (Himmelswillen at Wharncliffe with off duty coppers Phil and Dom), or a second had failed on it and I've offered to get their gear out (Piker's Progress Direct at Dunkeld with someone whose name I never got). Sometimes it's simply been that I wanted to do a particular climb and asked if the other person would give me a belay on it (Ground Control at Ailladie with Robbie from Dublin).

It's noticeable that it happened more often in places out of the mainstream, such as Northumberland, Ireland or the Highland outcrops, though from reading accounts from the 1930's or 1950's it used to happen in the Peak, Lakes and Snowdonia too. Perhaps with fewer climbers around people are more used to taking who they can get. Maybe it's also an example of the 'more people = less sociability' phenomenon often noticed by hillwalkers – meet someone in the Fisherfield and you probably have a five minute chat, whereas even saying Hi to someone on Mam Tor often gets you a funny look. That also fits with the idea that the decline in the practice is due to there being more climbers around now. I suspect that another factor in that though is that people in general are more distrustful of strangers than they used to be (hence the virtual disappearance of hitching). The internet is a factor too, though it isn't the main one as the decline in random pairings predates it by over a decade. The urge still exists (see the "partner wanted" posts on UKC) but it's now easier to join an online group and arrange meet ups through it.


Ailladie, The Burren, Ireland

Ailladie in County Clare. Half my climbing days here were with people I met at the crag


If climbing with random strangers still has a heartland it's probably Ireland. The legendary Irish conviviality promotes it, as does the fact that there still aren't a huge number of Irish climbers. Every time I've met an Irish climber they've known someone that I know – and that's been true whether I've met them on an Irish crag, a Scottish one or even in New Zealand. The sociableness is certainly real - if you're soloing around at Dalkey and other climbers are there it's simply expected that you are going to rope up with one or more of them. I've done some lovely routes there as a result. I went to do the classic VS Jameson Ten, but the leader already on it was having problems. One of the guys waiting, an outdoor instructor called Tony, suggested we filled the time usefully and he seconded me up Mahjongg (VS 4c). This was superb, a fine slab with a thin crack up it for runners, delicate and very sustained. He also pointed me at something he claimed was graded V Diff 5b (an Irish Verandah Buttress?). I couldn't trace this later but I think it was probably the low crux of Intestate (HVS 5b), slanting up into the easy top part of Levitation HS 4b. Apparently you weren't supposed to touch the obvious crack so I only got to claim a 5a 😏. I had been up Lugnaquilla in the morning and eventually ended up back in Staffordshire at 4am so it was quite a long day!


Bow Shaped Slab, Pembrokeshire

I later went back to Bow Shaped Slab with Rob Ivens. I climbed with Rob the day I met him and we did many routes together in the 90's


Another memorable day was in Pembroke. I was just leaving the St Govans car park intending to abseil in and solo Bow Shaped Slab when the only other person there said that his partner had pulled out and as I had a rope...... Comparing objectives it was obvious that John climbed far harder than me but I told him I was ok to second 5b if he was fine with following me up VS/HVS. We went to Stennis Head and I led a fairly easy VS called Limbo, which John more or less walked up. He then led Cool For Cats (E1 5b), which I found hard. I must have passed the test though as John suggested abbing into Huntsman's Leap to do Beast from the Undergrowth (E2 5b), a much more committing proposition. John ground to a halt at the crux overhang near the top until someone else shouted across to tell him where the crucial hold was, then he pulled up and disappeared over the lip. When it was my turn to climb I found the bottom half surprisingly easy for an E2, in balance, with a couple of minor overlaps at 5a, just my style of climbing. Then at the main overhang I had the advantage of knowing exactly where the hold was so I cruised that too. I found the whole thing much easier than Cool For Cats, but was then unwise enough to say so to John (who hadn't) and even worse, to say "I could have led that" (still think that's true, actually). He decided I needed taking down a peg, so we abbed back in and he led Shape Up, then the same grade (now demoted to E1). This was sustained and strenuous and I could no more have led it than fly in the air, and that was exactly what I did, several times. I eventually got up with lots of rests and a very tight rope.


Huntsman's Leap, Pembrokeshire

Huntsman's Leap, Beast From The Undergrowth is the RH section of the slab on the left

Photo copyright Colin Park, from www.geograph.co.uk


After that John obviously felt he'd made his point and fed his rat so agreed to second me up Army Dreamers and Front Line, both HVS. The latter is still one of the best routes I've ever done, ludicrously steep for the grade but with great bridging positions to keep the weight off your arms. On the top groove you can look down between your legs and all you see is the sea churning away 100 feet below. I was still buzzing when I got back to Reading 5 hours later.

Northumberland is another place where I've often climbed with people I've met at the crag. Tiger's Wall at Bowden Doors packs more into its forty feet than most routes twice its length, with a technical slab, a sizeable bulge and a run-out section before a welcome crack. I had bumped into a student from Newcastle and led him up Scorpion (VS 4c, quite thought-provoking at the top). We had then gone on to Tiger's Wall (then VS 5a). I found this fine but my acquired second couldn't get off the ground on the bottom slab. Luckily a trainee instructor nearby swapped places with him, with some trepidation as she said she'd never done a 5a before. She needn't have worried though, she cruised it. I've just noticed that it's been upgraded to HVS, probably deservedly. It's one of the great outcrop routes, at any grade.


Tiger's Wall, Bowden Doors, Northumberland

Tiger's Wall, Bowden Doors. Photo copyright Rob Bruce


Picking up partners at the crag is obviously much easier at outcrops than mountain crags, partly because there are usually more people about at the bottom of the crag to ask, but also because the commitment that you're asking from the other person is less. I'm sure there are plenty of climbers who would be fine with following you up some single pitch VS but who wouldn't risk getting stranded on a belay in the middle of a larger cliff with someone who might turn out to be incompetent.


Below Lliwedd, Snowdon

Dean and Craig James below Lliwedd


I've only twice done multi pitch routes with people I didn't know. On one of them I was staying in Eric's bunkhouse at Tremadog and my partner didn't turn up. Two brothers who were also staying agreed to make a rope of three to do Avalanche and Red Wall on Lliwedd. Craig had never been climbing before that weekend and I suspect Dean was quite glad to be able to put him in the middle of a three so that he was protected from both ends on traverses. We had a great sunny day, warm enough for the shade of a big north-facing cliff to be welcome. Dean and I shared leads and had 50 metre ropes so we were able to run some pitches together, but it was still eight pitches and a full day out. Bits of it were quite hard too, especially for a route put up before World War One. It was graded HVD, but at the top I led a steep slab direct at an unprotected 4b. I thought I was off route but apparently it's the usual way now (and it gets Severe). As Harold Drasdo wrote about it in Classic Rock "Never underestimate the pioneers".


Avalanche/Red Wall/Longland's, Lliwedd, Snowdonia

Craig James on Longland's Variation, Lliwedd


The only other time I've done a long route with someone I'd only just met was in Skye. Rob Ivens and I had picked up an American hitcher called Tamara and we invited her along for a route on Blaven. She had only done sport routes in sunny Arizona so we did point out that on Skye it might rain and there might be loose bits. It was indeed spittering occasionally so we downgraded our ambitions from Great Prow (VS) to the nice looking CD Buttress (Diff). I led an excellent sustained slab, with virtually no gear but easy enough moves. Rob then led directly through an overhang at 4b ish, not knowing that there's an easier chimney on the left. Tamara had trouble following so I untied my belay and soloed up to her. Once I had pointed out the method she cruised it. I was comfortable where I was so didn't go back down, and it was a good thing I didn't. I was able to duck under the overhang when Tamara pulled off a body-sized flake thirty feet higher. It sailed past and totally demolished the small pinnacle I had been belayed to – if I had been where I should have been I would certainly have been killed. Tamara had of course fallen off with the flake and when she looked down she could only see the smashed pinnacle and no sign of me. Dangling on the rope and convinced that she had killed me she had a breakdown. I nervously stuck my head out again and Rob carefully talked her up the last 20 feet to the belay. She was still pretty shaken and we kept her on the rope for the rest of the route, although it was all easy scrambling. It's still one of the narrowest escapes I've had in 40 years of climbing.


CD Buttress, Blaven, Skye

CD Buttress on Blaven, the overhang is at two-thirds height


Despite the foregoing incident I'm really glad I had the experiences of climbing with all those different people. I had some great days out that I wouldn't have had otherwise - I would probably never have gone into Huntsman's Leap with any of my usual partners, for instance. There were lots of other gems too – Inverted V and Robin Hood's Right Hand just after sunrise with a guy I met bivvying in Stanage Cave; Slab and Wall, Tacitation and Wilfrid Prickles at Kyloe with a cheery local trio; Pis Fliuch and Jug City at Ailladie with a couple who were camping near to us on the clifftop, and many more. There was also Mount Thompson, but that's another story.....


Slab and Wall, Kyloe out of the Woods, Northumberland

Slab and Wall, Kyloe. Photo copyright Simon Caldwell


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