Chapter 4. For Beginners Only


"Silence is a friend that will never betray"


Having decided to make a start, the beginner will want a few questions answered before he sets out. First and foremost, he wants to know what to wear.

Any old coat will serve for climbing. A rough coat, however, is apt to be troublesome in a chimney, since it catches on the rough stone behind the climber's back, and prevents him from sliding up or down. In an easy chimney this does not matter, but in an awkward chimney it can make a very troublesome difference. In such a situation a smooth, golfing jacket is to be preferred, but there are few places in Cambridge where the difference is appreciable, and the beginner is not likely to find them on his first time out.

Long trousers are better than shorts. The knees and the finger-knuckles are the most vulnerable parts of the night climber, and long trousers will save him from many a scratch or graze. It is wise to give the ends an extra turn-up, or he may catch his toe or heel in his trousers at a moment when he least wants his attention to be distracted. The slight extra feeling of freedom which shorts give is not worth their attendant penalty of scratched knees.

Rubber shoes complete the necessary clothing. Black gumshoes, which are cheap, are not conspicuous, and every climber who intends to go out often should buy a pair. Rare roof-climbers who are also mountain-climbers prefer to climb in nailed boots, but these are not to be recommended. Rubbers are much better on a dry night, and if a shower causes them to lose their grip it is best to come down and go home. In the wet, bare feet grip better than rubbers, and it is not painful to climb barefooted. As an experiment, a certain thick-skinned enthusiast climbed for two months in bare feet before deciding that he preferred rubbers. Even to-day, he prefers bare feet to boots on mountains. And on Cambridge buildings, boots scratch and damage the stone-work, which is not consistent with the night climber's ideal of leaving no trace where he has been.

The use of the rope in climbing is a controversial matter. A rope is not necessary, but is an asset. There is a strong tendency to regard the rope as the hall-mark of the expert climber. It is nothing of the kind. It should be regarded as an additional safeguard, only to be used in places which the climbers find difficult or dangerous.

With a rope many climbs can be undertaken in Cambridge which would be unwise or impossible without one. In such cases, the rope can usually be taken up by an easier way, and lowered down the difficult climb from above. This is a practice to be strongly discouraged, and we know of only one occasion on which it has been indulged in. It is the writer's opinion that no climb should be attempted on a rope which the climber would be incapable of achieving unroped. An experienced climber can lead a novice up difficult places, but climbs should not be attempted where none of the party is willing or able to manage the climb without the help of a rope from above.

The rope itself should be of the best obtainable quality, the proper Alpine hemp, which is distinguishable by the three red strands, visible at the ends, which run down as a sort of core inside. The longer the rope, up to a hundred feet or more, the better it is. Forty feet is too short for many Cambridge climbs, allowing for the fact that both climbers have it tied round themselves, and the top climber must try to belay the rope round the nearest available anchorage.

A piece of cord, ten or twenty feet long, is also sometimes useful.

For climbing or descending, the rope should be over the climber's waist-there is a special knot for it-and the surplus coils are carried on his shoulder by the second man. He pays them out as the leader advances, taking care never to jerk the rope tight. It is not wise to have three men on a rope in Cambridge. As most of the climbing is vertical, the leader should be off the pitch before the next man starts. This is very important. If the climb is severe, the leader can take a ball of string with which to haul up the rope, thus freeing himself of its drag. This is more satisfactory than carrying the whole rope coiled on his shoulder.

The top man, if he can find no anchorage, should draw the rope sharply over the angle of the roof or parapet on which he is standing. Even if it be less than a right angle, the stone-work will take a good proportion of the weight so that the leader can usually hold the rope comfortably with one hand. If he continually draws the rope in, there will be no jerk should the second climber slip.

A strong weight of opinion exists that the use of the rope is bad on all but the most severe climbs, as it has a bad moral effect. It kills confidence. The leader, says this school, learns I to doubt the ability of his party to follow him up without a rope. Those who are roped up come to depend Upon the sense of security it gives them and, however good they may be, they tend to lose their self-reliance.

Certain it is that a climb takes much longer when the party is roped. Furthermore, a rope creates an atmosphere of gravity which is apt to make a man climb more slowly. Some climbers, at least, find that they climb better unroped than otherwise. Alone, a man trusts himself-there is no alternative-and acts accordingly. On a rope there is apt to be the feeling of being supported by a better man, and this does not increase self-reliance. After being roped up, even if he does not slip — as he never does — a man is inclined to think: "I could never have done that without a rope". Unroped, he would have done it. And his moral fibre would have been strengthened instead of weakened.

A small but select school stands for the use of the rope on all possible occasions. Being roped, say they, relieves a climber of any immediate fear, and enables him to find for himself how easy it is. It is fear which impedes a climber's freedom of action, and on a rope he could do with confidence what he would not otherwise dare do.

These are the two schools of thought, and the beginner must decide between them. The truth probably lies half-way between. If he compromise, he will be able to test and increase his ability while roped to a leader, and develop his self-reliance unroped. Let him beware, however, against the insidiousness of the roping habit. Better far never to rope at all than to rope for easy climbs. The writer is convinced that over-roping, like drug-taking weakens the subject for future occasions. But used sparingly the rope has the benediction of most climbers. It can conveniently be concealed in a gown slung over the arm, or under the coat if there are proctors about.

Two is the ideal number for climbing. Solitary climbers are sometimes met with on mountains, but in Cambridge they must be very exceptional; we have only known one serious roof-climber who preferred to go out alone. Three is a possible number, but is more cumbrous, slower and more noisy. And since no chain is stronger than its weakest link, the greater the number the less venturesome is likely to be the party. Two, climbing regularly together, get to know each other's strength and weaknesses. However, the matter is not very important, and will solve itself.

When to climb is equally unimportant. Summer nights are short and sweet, but are marred by the thought of the Tripos and impending damnation. And no time of the year is too cold. A party of four climbers, in February, were exposed to a howling east wind for over two hours on a roof with the temperature several degrees below freezing. They record that they felt no cold, although they wore no gloves, and only two men could climb at once. The excitement and the occasional exercise kept them warm.

Whatever the time of year, however, it must be a fine night. Night climbing is no fun in the rain, and the most ardent enthusiast can find plenty of fine nights for his purpose.

The state of the moon has a considerable influence on night climbing. Other things being equal, most climbers probably prefer to climb under the blaze of a full moon. The majority of climbs are too exposed for this, except well after midnight, when the climber can relax some of his precautions against discovery.

No night is too dark for climbing. It is surprising how much can be seen on the darkest of nights, and while the climber can I be concealed from observation he can see all the handholds and footholds around him. A formidable exception to this generalization is the Drain-pipe Chimney on the outer west wall of St. John's, of which more later. Suffice it to say at present that this chimney must be the darkest spot in Cambridge.

The ideal time of night is between midnight and 2 a.m. The proctors are off the streets, and if an irate don sends for the porters they must dress, by the end of which time the climbers should be well away. And bed by two-thirty once a week will not hurt even a man in training.

For a secluded climb passing close to a don's window, a very good time in the winter is between seven-thirty and eight o'clock, when Hall dinner is being served for the High Table. The John's Drain-pipe Chimney, for instance, or the Chetwynd Chimney in King's, both of which run through a nest of dons, could very well be done at this time. Both of these chimneys are close to an easy way out of college, however, so the climber has little to worry him.

The beginner, straining at the leash, is probably wondering where to start, what climbs to do first. For this reason, there was a strong temptation to grade every climb in this book as easy, moderate, difficult, severe or very severe. Fortunately, wiser counsel prevailed. A few climbers may be disappointed at not having the standard of their achievements labeled for them, but they can do this for themselves. Night climbing is not a competitive sport.

What appears easy to one climber appears difficult to another and vice versa. Climbers of equal calibre often disagree radically as to the degree of difficulty of a particular climb. What is difficult to a beginner may become easy to him in a month's time, and what would be classed "difficult" is merely two degrees harder than "easy". The climber, even an absolute novice, may find climbs well within his scope from which he might have been discouraged by the forbidding sound of the classification. A man known to the writer, by no means an expert climber, made his first salutation to the roof-tops leading up a severe climb. Classifications are more of a deterrent than a help.

Finally, a word about sobriety. By far the greater number of men climb sober, and for an expert climber it is ably better to do so. One man has told the writer that he notices a deterioration in his climbing after a single glass of beer. Another would never climb unless he was three-parts drunk, however, and was then extremely efficient. Whether drink improves climbing or causes it to deteriorate depends upon the character and constitution of each particular man. Where it gives "Dutch courage" without impairing muscular control, it may send a moderate climber soaring up places that defy the sober expert. Under the influence of alcohol, a man with an object in view often acquires an accentuated power of concentration upon one object. And if that object be climbing, he will climb brilliantly. Many men must have noticed that it is easier to climb into college while intoxicated, and the same applies sometimes to serious climbing.

Nevertheless, it is dangerous to attempt a serious climb while drunk or under the influence of drink. For the climber may "sober up" at the crucial point of the climb and lose his "Dutch courage". And while on one occasion drink may improve the standard of climbing, the next night it may have precisely the opposite effect.

Besides, a climber is continually conquering his fear, and enjoys doing so. If he allows drink to do this for him, is it not a confession that he cannot do so alone? It may at first need more courage to do an easy climb while sober than a difficult climb while drunk, but then the lesser climb is the greater achievement.