Chapter 6. On Chimneys


"He hath inclosed my ways with hewn stone"

--Lamentations, iii 

In climbing parlance a "chimney" is a fissure between two walls, in which the climber has his back against one wall and his feet against the other. By exerting pressure with his legs he creates sufficient friction to prevent himself from ~slipping, even if there are no hand-holds. In a suitable chimney between two vertical walls it is possible to climb with the arms crossed, .. for they are not essential. In other chimneys, especially those that are narrow, the hands must supplement the chimneying action.

Chimneys vary as much as drain-pipes. But to the climber (as opposed to the gymnast) they offer better climbing, because more can be entrusted to the legs. They pertain to mountains as well as to buildings, unlike drain-pipes, and so are known to mountaineers as well as to night climbers. George Abraham, veteran mountaineer, says in one of his books that a good climber is known, not by the way he uses his hands, but by the way he uses his feet. This is especially so in chimneys. Where the bad climber uses a hand-pull, the expert thrusts himself up with his legs. And since the legs can support the body without becoming tired, chimneying is reckoned the least exhausting form of climbing.

Chimney-climbing in Cambridge is both more severe and at the same time more straightforward than on mountains. Paradoxical as it may sound, this statement can be easily explained.

All buildings being vertical, the chimneys on their faces must perforce be vertical also. Some mountains have vertical faces, and vertical cracks into their sides, yet by far the greater number of chimneys that are climbed are sloping. And a sloping chimney is apt to be less fearsome.

Furthermore, mountains have not been smoothed out by the touch of the stone-mason. The inequalities of the rock provide knobs and cavities which give a greater purchase to the sole of the foot, and hand-holds where they are needed. Mountain chimneys offer many facilities which the night climber must do without.

On the other hand, there are points in favour of the Cambridge chimneys. Though perpendicular, they are regular. On a mountain the chimneyist, working steadily upwards, may suddenly find himself in difficulties arising out of that very irregularity of the mountain which has been helping him. The walls may converge, or gradually widen apart; a boulder may be wedged in the chimney so as to obstruct the climber, or the rock may become crumbly and flake off. If the boot slips on a crumbling piece of rock in a chimney, woe betide the climber!

Cambridge offers none of these unexpected difficulties. The climber can study the chimney in daylight and note such peculiarities as may affect him. Even the leader can often be roped up if he will, and it is comforting to know exactly what lies ahead. The hand- and foot-holds, where they exist, can be trusted, and the climber prefers to know what he has to face, even if it be severe. The pitches are often difficult, but they are short, which makes them less formidable than if they occurred on a mountain in the course of a long day's climb.

And now as to the method of climbing chimneys.

In the photograph of the climber in the chimney by St. John's south gate, a typical chimneying position can be seen. The left leg is doubled beneath the body. The right is stretched out, with the toes of the foot pressing against the wall opposite. The hands, though stroking the wall affectionately, are doing no work. The body is just away from the wall, preparatory to moving up.

Although we have said that in an easy chimney the arms might be folded, they can be of some use for helping to push the body upwards. For this, place them on a level with the hips, slightly to each side of the body, palms towards the wall. Then leaning slightly forward, so as to avoid the friction of the wall, press the hands downwards while at the same time straightening the leg which is doubled beneath the body without allowing the foot to slip downwards. The body will rise.

Then, lean back firmly against the wall. Bring the foot from underneath you across on to the opposite wall, above the other foot. Both feet are now on the opposite wall, one above the other. Bring the lower foot under the body, doubling the leg into a comfortable position for pushing upwards. You are now in the same position that you started from, except that the right leg instead of the left is beneath you, and the left on the wall opposite, where the right had been. And you are a foot or so higher. Repeat the process, and you will be exactly in the position you started from, only two moves higher.

In a chimney of suitable width this action can be repeated at fair speed. In the course of every move upwards, each foot is transferred from one wall to the other in a rhythmic action which is pleasant to watch. As long as he keeps his head, the climber can reach the top of any chimney by this means.

And where he can climb comfortably all the way by chimneying, the climber should beware of using extraneous hand or foot-holds. They may enable him to climb quicker, but they may also throw him out of rhythm, unless he be an experienced chimneyist. There is a natural temptation to grab any hold he may see, or stand on any ledge he may be passing, but the wise chimney-climber will resist it.

A novice, surprised at the easiness of chimneying, is apt to get about twenty feet up and then, looking down and seeing nothing but smooth wall below him, to have an attack of the "willies". This is where a little self-reasoning will help. He knows that, as long as he continues to chimney correctly he will be safe, and if, he keeps his head he will find no difficulty to worry him. It is best to chimney up and down small distances until the procedure becomes instinctive.

We said earlier in the chapter that chimneys vary as much as drain-pipes. They differ from the latter in that the action of chimneying can be used in places where the novice would not think of it, and would thus be unable to get up. For instance, the first overhang on the pinnacles of King's Chapel, twenty feet above the roof, has a height of five feet without hand-holds, and appears to be impossible. However, by chimneying between the pillar and the centre of the ornamental stone-work the climber can surmount the difficulty, and so with the second overhang, even more fearsome, on to the parapet.

Other Cambridge chimneys have their idiosyncrasies. The Old Library Chimney becomes narrow near the top, and the climber has to perform a gymnastic twist to bring his back on to the opposite wall. This would be practically impossible but for some projecting brick-ends which provide good handholds. The Chetwynd Chimney in King's is so narrow as to be back-and-knee rather than back-and-foot, and is blocked by two apparently insurmountable chockstones. To be successful the climber must leave the chimney for an adjacent window ledge.

But the sun is setting. Enthusiasts will now make a tour of some of the interesting climbs of Cambridge, we hope in fact as well as by the fireside. There is no moon, the sky is cloudy and the barometer is high. It will be a fine night.