Dizzy Heights: Climbing in Dorset and beyond

By the summer of 1999 I'd been teaching for three years, working solid eighty hour weeks (a combination of boarding school and the pressures of staying on top of the curriculum for an inexperienced teacher). I'd been climbing very little, and I'd had enough. The benefit of living in the school was no rent and free food so my bank balance was a long way into the black and I was certainly good for a year without working. I handed in my notice and booked a ticket to San Francisco. I spent a couple of months in the US - in Yosemite then other places. My life took a new direction, as I rediscovered climbing, and this is some of the story of the few weeks of my life spent living in the dirt of Camp 4.

Tales from Camp 4

Black dust and pine resin. Maybe a hundred and fifty climbers, a few girlfriends, and two guys who’ve come to The Valley to fish. It sometimes strikes me as strange, the way that climbers end up in these clumps when they’re so thinly spread everywhere else; Camp 4 is a floculation point. Maybe for every couple of thousand people coming through San Francisco airport in September one is a climber, but on Camp 4 everyone’s a climber, or a hanger-on – apart from the two fishermen of course. Llanberis is the same except it’s not raining here so you don’t have to sit in the café, which is a good job because there isn’t a good one. And the crags are a bit bigger. Well, actually they’re a lot bigger. In fact El Cap is quite ridiculously huge – much bigger than in the photos. The racks are bigger too, and the haul bags are the size of trucks, and the trucks are bigger in California than they are in Wales. Egos are about the same size though.

Life on site #17 is easy life.

Wake. Shit. Eat. Climb. Shop. Eat. Drink beer. Sleep.

And that’s about it – sometimes the order changes. And if you get pissed off by everything and it all starts to feel like shopping at Christmas then head down the road and into the woods and the people stop and The Valley is like it was a thousand years ago.

Tom and his mates have the best fire tonight. White Man’s Fire – and a time for stories…

Church Bowl is right by the road so there’s a bit of a congregation. We want to do Bishop’s Terrace but there’s someone on it so we do a couple of other routes first. The guide talks about a perfect 5.8 hand crack but I get the first pitch, which starts off nicely but ends with a bodylength of nasty offwidth, so I have to do some udging. By the time everyone else gets up to the flake it’s moved a bit so they can all cheat and layback up it. This makes me a bit grumpy but the hand crack above smiles at me so I smile back. Andy’s going home tomorrow and is fired up so he heads off up a 5.10a that laybacks round a small roof. I get up there and find the roof alright so think I’ve got .10a cracked, but then there’s a rockover onto a smooth, smooth slab and I step my foot up too far left and have a horrible time trying to stay in balance. I get there in the end though and I want to do something bigger.

The top of North Dome is a casual hour and a half’s stroll from the road. On top we leave empty rucksacks and empty boots and set off with the gear on our outsides, food on our insides and rock shoes on our feet. This seems like less of a good plan when the descent turns out to be a nightmare two-hour thrash through chest-high shrubbery. By the time we reach the ledge at the base of the route we’re too late and too shattered. The view’s good though and half an hour with my back propped up against a rock makes the pain in my feet subside. Feeling optimistic about tomorrow we stash the gear and head back up. A line of cairns promises to show us a trail but abandons us half-way back up in worse brush than before. The rest of the remaining daylight is spent in an epic bushwhack – the bushes doing most of the whacking. By the time we get back on top of North Dome the sun is diving behind the mountains and Half Dome is dressed in orange. I feel strangely happy.

One day on, wearing proper boots and having some idea of the best way now, we get on the route pretty smartly. The friction on the first pitch looks dead easy but Yosemite slabs have a naughty habit of being harder than they look. This one has me sliding around on the hot rock twenty metres above the starting ledge trying to reach a crack, which I do, but the layback above is just as slippery, although the gear helps a bit. Two pitches up I’ve no idea where the traverse out of the corner goes and I’m not looking forward to the harder pitches above. The grades seem straightforward but the climbing doesn’t and we bail. A lot of effort for two pitches.

“No climb today. Very tired” says Marie-Claire. She smiles a lot. But the idea of a route on Chapel Walls insinuates itself about mid-afternoon – so we go to Chapel on Sunday. Stumbling around in the forest there is some evidence of the route above us. No path, chossy cliff; it’s off-putting but the first pitch is kind of okay. The second dresses like a little scramble for the topo but flirts with scary slab moves when we get up close. There is an impasse. But I have to passe so I set off while I’m not looking and by the time I notice I can only go up and I don’t fall off. The last pitch is Bryan’s Crack and it overhangs and flares and the tiny flakes on the side wall all crumble off when I try to stand on them. It doesn’t look as if anyone’s been here since Bryan so I find an easier alternative and we slither down through bushes and leaf-drifts just as it starts to get dark.

Nutcracker is Yosemite’s all time most popular easy classic so it’s no surprise when pitch one is occupied. I go for the alternative crack. There’s a bit missing though, longer than either of my arms. But a little wire snuggles down nicely into the top of the bottom crack and some skating on polished chicken breasts – wider and flatter than their heads – takes me up to the bottom of the top crack, which lets my fingers in, and then my hands, and then my feet, and then it’s easy. Above, the climbing is wonderful.

Snake Dike is nearly as popular but a lot further to walk. Three hours trail bashing sees me and Ainé installed in a pine needle double bed on slabs above Lost Lake. I’ve hooked our food way up a tree because I’m sure I read about it somewhere. Bears can climb trees of course but at least the food’s far enough away to allow them to eat it without waking us up. And it’s safe from the squirrels up there...

It rains in the night.

The morning’s clearer and the food’s still in the tree but as we gain height above Lost Lake there are mean-looking clouds on the horizon. The thought of a rainstorm thirty metres out from the belay is enough to put me off so we head back to our gear and hike round to the Half Dome ladders. There are big notices saying not to go up if there are storm clouds anywhere on the horizon. There are loads. You’d think that we’d have the top to ourselves then, but some dumb yanks with no sense of self-preservation are on top too. They don’t spoil the view much though, which is fantastic, except for the bit that includes Glacier Point. This is ruined by the car park – you can’t see it but you know the car’s there and it’s absolutely miles away. It takes at least as long as it looks and for the last hour all I can think of is food. Back at Camp 4 we cook a chilli that’s too big to eat, drink beer and crash.

Resin is pissing me off. Instead of going flip-flop, flip-flop, flip-flop my flip-flops are going flip-click, flip-flop, flip-click because my right foot’s glued down by a big blob of the stuff. And it’s all over my tent. And Ainé has gone.

After a day of mooching round I find a girl from Colorado called Seneca who’s keen to do Snake Dike too so next morning it’s up at five for the walk-in to Half Dome. We head over to Curry Village in Seneca’s beat up old Toyota. She has some dogs - two I think. They haven’t left Colorado but their smell has made it over to California on its own. And by the look of Seneca’s breakfast their food made it too. Conversation grinds to a halt as the trail gets steep and narrow – this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I follow my instinct off the main trail and onto the non-existent climber’s path up between Mt. Broderick and Liberty Cap. Higher up the trail becomes existent. The Valley is welcoming me for the moment. Seneca and the pace become separated. I want to do the “5.7 friction: no pro” on the first pitch while it’s still cold, so I get pissed off. We go slower and slower above Lost Lake until I’m waiting more than I’m moving. The pace is way out in front now and has to wait ages for us at the base of the route. Seneca tells me she’s feeling sick. Of course she’s just knackered from the hike so I shoot up onto the first pitch just ahead of the sun. There’s a technique for these blank slabs. Marie-Claire had told me about it. “You go like a leezard” she had said making a leezard face and smiling a lot, “la, la, la, la, la, la, la...and don’ stop”. So I go la, la, la, la, la, la, la and don’t stop and sure enough the crack arrives and it’s easy. The second pitch is alright too until half-way up it Seneca says that she doesn’t think she can keep going. I tell her how much easier it is to go over the top and down the main trail. She comes up to the belay and pukes. It occurs to me that I might not have been all that supportive and, since it’s quite obviously not easier to go over the top, I start to think about abbing off. But then I climb the next pitch instead, hoping she might feel better like you sometimes do when your stomach’s empty. Happily she does, although she manages some pretty good burps, and this is good because the rest of the climb is superb and just positive enough to allow you to ignore the thirty metre run-outs. The 2nd class slabs really do go on forever, like it says in the guide, but then they finish and you’re on top.

Matt wants to do Royal Arches the next day, and so do I. Fourteen pitches up, ten down. It’s been done in an hour. We took seven but it felt like we were cruising. One of those brilliant easy routes with good climbing and great places. The raps were horrific though, down a huge white wall getting blasted by the sun. All sweat and rope-burns. Two hours to re-hydrate. We put empty bottles through the Village Store checkout - which I thought was pretty honest - and got black looks. Not as black as my hands though.

Tomorrow’s my last day and it would be good to find something to do.

“Herro, you are Mattyoo? My name is Uedo” (pronounce that however you like - I did). “You are rooking for partner, mebbe?”
“Maybe. What route do you want to do?”

“Aaaaaah, mebbe any...but Eas Buttress off Midder Cafedra mebbe good.”
“What did you do today?”
“Selenity Clack an Son off Yeserday”.
“There’s some .10d on that isn’t there”
“Hah, onry shor, enough for me, ha, ha”
I point at the hard pitch “Your pitch then?”
“Have you got a car?”
“Aaaaaaah, no”
“A big walk then – like the Alps”
“Aaaaaaah, hah”
“What time”
“6 o’clock?”

There’s a long pause while Uedo looks at his watch and counts with nods of his head like he’s calculating how long the route will take but he’s trying to work out what 6 o’clock is in Japanese.
“Aaaaaah, sis o’crock is good time.”

In the morning Uedo comes over to my site a polite two seconds late.

Guidebook abuse takes the best part of an hour until I get bored running up and down the wrong gully and find the start of the route. A couple of bronzed rock gods on their honeymoon find the route at about the same time. They climb about 5.25 between them so I let them in front. They’re on Camp 4 too. It doesn’t strike me as a good honeymoon venue – I’d want somewhere with thicker walls and silk sheets. I consider it a sign of increasing competence that we’re right up their arse for the first eight pitches (and what a spectacular arse it was to be up too) and pass them when they stop for lunch. The route is great; we layback and stem and jam and smear up ten pitches and then do the Japanese finish up some flakes on the left. Life’s great.

Meanwhile El Cap bakes brown in the sun across the Valley. Too many dreams.


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