Chapter 7. The First of the New Routes

After a long bout of intensive climbing, we exhausted all the classical routes. I have already mentioned the main features of classical climbing, with its emphasis on the drainpipes, chimneys and horizontal ledges. It was, above all, limiting. We had realised this very early on, and had seen that new routes must exist, and could be found with a careful eye. So we set about our task.

The best way to look at any possible climb is to study it in daylight. So we spent many hours wandering around the colleges and the streets considering every likely looking route, and it was not long before we saw our first possibility — the Pitt Press (or Old University Press) — surprisingly undiscovered.

We learned that several climbers had considered an ascent on the front face, but had been put off because of the condition of the stonework, apparently very suspect. We looked at it for hours, and then wandered off, rather dubious of the whole idea, in the direction of the Mill. As we entered Silver Street, Dave and I saw the solution — a drainpipe to the first level. We hurriedly sought Nick and Brian, and soon had them at the Pitt Press. We all agreed; this was the possible answer.

We planned to attempt it that night, but it was horribly cold and wet and we decided to delay the assault. The next day was my twenty-first birthday, and it proved a real occasion for celebration in more ways than ones I began by getting drunk at 11.00 a.m. — a most philistine hour. The day slipped rapidly by with vague memories of gunfights on top of beer barrels, chases across the college lawns and quiet repose in Bernard's armchair. I was sober in the evening, or almost anyway, when the others announced their birthday present — “the first ascent of the Pitt Press will be tonight”. I was not overjoyed at this particular time, but the hour was still early, and I would waken. We had a few more drinks in the Volunteer and then went to the Kismet for a meal. It was midnight when we got back into college. Every one was still in high spirits as we climbed into college and made for Bernard's room for coffee.

It was half past one when we ventured forth with quiet dignity. We got to the Pitt Press and started up the long square drainpipe, to the right of the archway in Silver Street. This is quite straightforward, except where it occasionally lies close to the wall. The four of us were soon on the roof; before us was the tower. A protuberance on the right hand side of the tower holds the key to the next pitch. Brian decided that he would do it first, though there was some debating. I was overruled in all my attempts to lead, as the others said I must be suffering from alcoholic poisoning. The second pitch consisted of bridging up a very wide chimney, between the protuberance and a narrow wall where the building is recessed. It is far too wide to chimney, and the method is to face directly outwards with one hand and one foot on each side of the recess, and then move the feet up together, then the hands and so on. It is best done quickly. Brian accomplished this with considerable speed, and then belayed on the roof of the protuberance. The rest of us followed.

Another debate ensued, but this consisted mainly of — myself trying to persuade the others to allow me to go first. I was outvoted again and Dave began climbing. One can get easily onto the pillar to the right of the small roof, but the pitch gets interesting at the top where it tapers and one is obliged to trust some small holds. Foot jamming between the pillar and the wall helps the confidence. A good thread runner can be put over the top of the pillar. The final move of this pitch turned out to be quite straightforward — no desperate mantelshelves or delicate balance moves — for, standing on the pillar, the parapet can be reached with the left hand. We were all on the roof, and I was eventually allowed to set forth up the pinnacle. This is very easy, but quite exciting and very exposed. We congratulated each other and then returned to earth.

That night we had noticed two more possible routes; one up a drainpipe to the top of the tower, and one up the very exposed north-west pillar overlooking Trumpington Street. Some time later, we decided to try the latter route. After a curry, we moved down to the Pitt Press.

Figure 7.1. Pitt Press

Pitt Press

Ascending the pillar above Trumpington Street.

Pitt Press

Bridging — the first move.

Pitt Press

Transferring to the base of the second pitch.

Pitt Press

Ascending the pillar.

Pitt Press

Reaching the parapet.

We soloed up the first drainpipe, and assembled on the lower roof. The plan was to go up the old route and then give the top rope for the pillar climb. The first part of the plan was executed with little difficulty, and Nick gave Dave a belay from above. Dave managed it all right. Just as we were about to follow a police van stopped in the street below. Soon we realised that it had broken down and was waiting for help. It was over half an hour before another police car came along, and by this time we were freezing. We then started climbing again, which soon warmed us up,

Nick got up without incident, but had difficulty with his footgrips on the slippery slanting holds. Then I began. The first bit is quite good where one steps out over the parapet with the road below. Then up the first pillar. This is similar to the top one the other side, but slightly less pleasant. Most of the stonework was covered with moss and debris, and the ornaments seemed even more doubtful than those on the first route. The tricky bit is to get from the bottom pillar onto the top one. The method is to walk up the small ornaments onto the top of the first pillar, with the hands gripping sideways on the square stone projection below the top pillar. This is slightly precarious on account of the treacherous nature of the footholds, but once the bottom of the top pillar is reached the difficulty is over. From then on it is similar, though not identical, to the top pillar of the other route. This is a route best done with a top rope, for the stonework leaves much to be desired.

We were greatly encouraged by our recent successes, and began searching the buildings for other climbs. We had looked carefully at the Fitzwilliam Museum, and had considered the possibility of a direct ascent. The idea was to take the classical line up the Lion Chimney, which stops at the top of the pillars, and then continue directly over the overhang. Dave and Nick were both in bed with influenza, when Brian and myself decided to attack the Museum. I felt on great form and Brian was equally keen.

We arrived at the Fitzwilliam at 12.45. It was a fine night. I looked at it from the ground and decided that the inside chimney, on the southwest part, less exposed to the street than the outer one, was the most feasible. Brian climbed up to the top via the classical route at the back, and after much searching, managed to find a belaying position on the lead roof, using an old drainpipe. He lowered the rope, as we considered a top rope essential for the first ascent. The stonework near the overhang looked suspect, and it is pointless bravado taking unnecessary risks.

The chimney itself was as usual quite easy; it is of ideal width, and the ribbed stonework provides good grips for the feet. Soon I was on the top of the pillars, gazing apprehensively upwards at the enormous overhang. I rested for a while. From this position, one is just able to reach rather crumbling ornaments on the underside of the overhang. Pull up on these, until one's feet are on a small ledge. One is now leaning out at a sensational angle. Now let go with one hand and reach over the top of the overhang; now the other hand; swing out and mantelshelf onto the flat ledge at the top. The last part is done quickly (or not at all).

I was fantastically overjoyed. What a route! Brian could hardly wait, and quickly disappeared over the edge on a descendeur. When he reached the bottom, he clipped onto the rope and began climbing almost immediately. I could see nothing of the climb, as I was belaying him, but I can still remember the look of ecstasy on his beaming face as he came over the top. We shook hands for minutes, almost danced with joy, and eventually sat down quietly in a corner and enjoyed a long cigarette.

Figure 7.2. Fitzwilliam Museum

Fitzwilliam Museum

Overhang at the top of the Lion Chimney.

Fitzwilliam Museum

Overhang at the top of the Lion Chimney.

Fitzwilliam Museum

Overhang at the top of the Lion Chimney.

Fitzwilliam Museum

Overhang at the top of the Lion Chimney.

The next day we told Dave and Nick about the climb. They were equally thrilled, and as they had recovered from their attack of 'flu, we all agreed to go up it that night. We decided that it would be led instead of top roped, and that Dave was to attack it first. This first lead was absolutely brilliant. Apart from the enormous psychological barrier of the overhang, he had to find a way of fixing a runner on at the top of the chimney. Dave moved steadily up the chimney, with Brian taking the photographs. Nearing the top of the chimney he looked for a place for the runner. The top of the pillar is flat, with corners projecting in Corinthian style, and he managed to attach a runner by lassoing the far projecting corner with one sling and tying it tightly to one around the near corner. All this was done when still in the chimney position. It was a brilliant manoeuvre, and showed the rest of us the way to tackle it. This made possible a wonderful night for us all.

Afterwards, we had promised to take Mick T. up the Wedding Cake and some effort that would be, for he was quite large, physically unfit, and quite afraid of heights. But he wanted to do it. So off we all went to St. John's. Unfortunately, the only way up to the roof level that we knew of at the time, was by the classical drainpipe route, and this is not exactly for novices. We apologised to Mick, and headed for our beds. The Fitzwilliam had certainly proved us with two glorious nights.

In the opening chapter, I told of our first night on the Old Schools looking for a new route. This attempt was frustrated by an irate porter, but we were soon back. We had seen two possible routes on the east face, one on the northern side where two small drainpipes lie in a small recess, and the other up the main gate. Brian and Nick did both routes on a top-rope one night — a tremendous effort — while Dave and I were climbing in Derbyshire. When we returned, we decided to do them, and Brian and Nick came with us. We tackled the drainpipe route first. I found it technically very interesting, and far from easy in places. All sorts of bridging tactics can be used to advantage, as the pipes themselves are not much use. The first half is definitely harder, because after this various drainpipe bowls appear and provide the only really good holds on the route. Great care must be taken, however, as some of the holds do not seem too safe. There is no point in giving a detailed description of the climb, for it requires above all improvisation from the individual. There is no standard technique to recommend, except, as I have said, bridging, which is a very useful method here.

We then made for the Gateway climb. Here a top-rope is advisable, for the stonework is in no place safe. The start is a bit awkward. One has to climb up the window the left hand side (looking from Clare) of the Gateway, and then traverse round the pillar, on slanting footholds and vertical pinch-grips as handholds. One then climbs directly upwards on small ornaments. Here again, there is no one technique to be recommended, and the only advice is that extreme care must be taken in order to avoid damage.

The first of these routes was certainly seen as a possible one a long time ago, but there are no recorded assents of this recess route or of the Gateway climb so we feel justified in labelling them new routes, though we admit that the first may have been climbed before and possibly both of them. This I feel, is a justifiable way of viewing any “new route”, for one cannot rely on rumour.

The next new route, we embarked on with some reservation. I do not really know why. We had looked at a possible chimney route between Trinity Hall and Clare, but had gone no farther for a long time. Then one day we decided to do it.

We came down the Senate House Passage at 12.45 and we wanted to warm up on the S.E. Corner of Clare, but a light in one of the corner rooms made us decide against this. So after brief excursions up walls and gates, we approached the chimney. It is a fearsome looking climb, for the spikes tend to be a repellent. Anyway, we were here so we might as well try it. It proved to be less obnoxious than it appeared. The climb starts with an easy chimney by the door and then one climbs up using the vertical spikes as handholds, and spikes projecting from the wall as footholds. Near the top one moves into a chimney position facing Clare. It is a bit wide, but if the feet are kept high it is not too bad. A small ledge gets in the way by pressing into one's back, but one can sit on it a couple of moves later. The difficulty is over once the feet have reached the holds below the overhang. Then it is best to continue chimneying, which obviates any difficulty the overhang might pose. It is not a hard climb really, less difficult and more enjoyable than we had anticipated.

Figure 7.3. Old Schools

Old Schools

Gateway climb

Old Schools

There are many holds available for this climb.

Figure 7.4. Old Schools: Recessed Drainpipe

Old Schools: Recessed Drainpipe

Figure 7.5. Trinity Hall — Clare Chimney

Trinity Hall — Clare Chimney

A chimney move for confident climbers.

After all these successful climbs we were really buoyed up with hope for the future. The University buildings are large and rambling, and there would be more routes to climb.