Chapter 2. The Classical Climbs

Cambridge has a lot to offer the student. The academic demands are neither stringent nor time consuming. One is not compelled to go to lectures or forced to produce essays, though such activities are actively encouraged. Consequently, most students have time on their hands, The river is attractive and relaxing, the backs are inviting, punting is a novelty, parties abound, coffee is liberal: what a way to spend one's days.

I came to Cambridge in 1963 and rapidly became bored. Everything seemed so artificial and stultifying. It was a green-house existence with little possibility of escape. My depression grew by the day: I had to break out of it in some way.

It was completely fortuitous that I met someone similarly placed. His great passion in life was mountaineering. Though I too loved the sport, it had not then gripped me in such an all-consuming way. Climbing introduced us, but there was much more to Dave than just climbing. A North Londoner with a fearsome black beard, dark threadbare Donkey-jacket, scraggy jeans, red high-necked sweater, and compass hair, he had a captivating electric quality and an almost overloaded character. It is impossible to describe the awareness that his presence created. Physically he was much shorter than I but stockier, and he looked three parts unhewn. Together we decided to make some impression on nightclimbing which for some time had been in a backwater.

Nightclimbing is a tradition peculiar to Cambridge, and its history is filled with mystery, absurdity, interest, and anonymity. There are piecemeal documented records of incidents and especially of first ascents. The 1930's was undoubtedly the hey-day of nightclimbing. It was in this period that The Night Climbers of Cambridge by “Whipplesnaith” was published. After this, however, there was a reduction of interest and activity, though we could never discover the reason. Perhaps the Proctors became more agile, the bulldogs grew longer teeth, and the porters became better sentinels? Perhaps the authorities carefully selected non-climbers for a decade or so to dampen enthusiasm? Perhaps students were locked in their rooms at night? The most likely explanation however is that many potential climbers were deterred by such things as the blocking up of the chimney route on Kings College Chapel and the rustication in 1937 of two well known night-climbers, Nares and O'Hara. However, most of these observations are mere conjecture; that interest declined is a fact, and we meant to do something about it.

Before we could contemplate any new routes it was obvious that we needed both a thorough grounding in the classical climbs and a close familiarity with the roof tops of every college. Climbs can be classical in either period or technique: here the latter is more important. Classical climbing relied on a very limited technique vis-à-vis modern climbing, being principally dependent on chimneys, drainpipes and horizontal ledges. Classical climbers of the 30's were particularly good on mantelshelving, but such techniques as bridging and lay-backing (the latter an old technique but surprisingly not used) seemed foreign to them. This severely restricted their climbing potential. This is not to say that some of the classical routes are not hard, but they were all much of a muchness.

The best guidebook to the classical routes is the book by “Whipplesnaith”. This is an excellent survey and thoroughly readable. Two pains of which to be careful are: the grading of routes where mentioned is inaccurate by modern standards, and above all some of the techniques recommended must be regarded with scepticism. Having made these cautionary notes, the embryonic night climber is advised to read the book thoroughly. It is for this reason that this chapter tries to keep descriptions to a minimum and allow photographs to speak for themselves.

It was with some trepidation that Dave and I left our rooms on our first adventure, harbouring nightmarish visions of irate porters and police chasing us through sleeping cloisters and empty streets. We soon learned that our misgivings were not without some justification.

We left Dave's room at midnight. Instead of coming down the steps into the court we decided to climb over the balustrade. Dave climbed over the edge and went down only to be met at the bottom by a dark figure whom I took to be another student. I followed Dave and was about to jump down the last few feet when a stern voice broke the silence. “Ah, its M— isn't it?” Quite startled, I replied in the affirmative. He immediately left us and we thought little more of it. The mystery was solved the next day by a “communication” from the Dean (ostensibly the disciplinarian, though certain tutors take this duty upon themselves) which implied, acting on a tutor's report, that we were acting in such a manner as to be likely to cause damage to the tiles, slates, and drainpipes, disturb people's sleep, etc. etc. He considered a £1 fine to be appropriate punishment for each of us. We did not. We pointed out that we were on no roof top, that in the absence of drainpipes we were unlikely to damage them (this being, anyway, our last wish), and that there were no sleeping students within hooting distance. Over sherry, the Dean reduced the fine to 10s each and everyone was satisfied. What no one realised was that our encounter with the tutor was the beginning of our first exciting night.

After our unfortunate meeting we made a rapid exit from college. We made our way through the Arts Passage up Market Hill to the Senate House Passage. The streets were deserted save for a lonely bobby who looked twice at our footwear, but otherwise showed no undue interest. We planned to begin on the Old Schools, said to be the safest building for the uninitiated. We started with the Sunken Drainpipe, comprising a drainpipe somewhat inaccessibly inset in the wall. Some sections are alarmingly loose and make a hollow noise; the bowl is definitely unsafe, and one has to trust the gutter which seems quite firm. We wandered about the rooftops doing many small, though interesting climbs, in particular, the climb into the top of one of the stone arches (at the Trinity Hall end). Then Dave and I climbed the tottering tower together. At that moment three cars screamed down Trinity Lane, and stopped beneath us, next to Clare College. Curious, we peered over the top of the building, only to see two policemen standing next to the first car, looking up at us. Coincidence? We were far from sure, so we moved quickly towards the Sunken Drainpipe, half-anticipating a welcoming party at the bottom. We slithered down the drainpipe at friction speed. As I landed, there was equally hectic activity in the Senate House Passage. We decided to make for King's College, and comparative immunity, from the police at least. We had to get over some revolving spikes — a bit tricky but not over-difficult. We left Kings quickly by way of the back gate.

Figure 2.1. The Old Schools: Sunken Drainpipe

The Old Schools: Sunken Drainpipe

Figure 2.2. Trinity: The Hall Lantern

Trinity: The Hall Lantern

The lantern is approached along the ridge of the roof in the foreground. The climber then pulls himself up past each window using his hands, being careful to avoid the glass with his feet.

Trinity: The Hall Lantern

The climber approaches the spire.

Trinity: The Hall Lantern

Standing at the base of the spire.

Figure 2.3. South-East Corner of Clare

South-East Corner of Clare

The climber has pulled himself up from a similar ledge just below the bottom of the picture and will repeat this operation to another ledge from which he will be able to reach the roof. Note the position of the left ledge, which is essential.

Figure 2.4. Fitzwilliam Museum: Lion Chimney

Fitzwilliam Museum: Lion Chimney

The climber relaxes with a cigarette to pose for the photograph.

Figure 2.5. King's Porters' Lodge

King's Porters' Lodge

The climber has reached the base of the climb by a drainpipe from the ground. A variety of small holds give access to the clockface. It is essential to climb the clockface up the right-hand side.

King's Porters' Lodge

On reaching the centre of the clock, the climber can reach the ledge which he is holding (the only suitable one), on which he then pulls himself up.

King's Porters' Lodge

A series of strenuous pull-ups lead to the top.

King's Porters' Lodge

A series of stenuous pull-ups lead to the top.

Figure 2.6. St. John's: The Bridge of Sighs

St. John's: The Bridge of Sighs

Falling across on to the bridge; it is better to face the bridge before this move.

St. John's: The Bridge of Sighs

Stepping down on to a projection, which gives access to the main part of the bridge.

St. John's: The Bridge of Sighs

Traversing the bridge.

St. John's: The Bridge of Sighs

Climbing the window to the roof.

It was only 3.45 a.m. so we decided to do another climb before returning to college. We made for the Clare Ladder climb. Dave went first and I was to photograph him and then follow. Cameras were very strange phenomena to me: they were mechanical and I never understood anything more complex than a wheelbarrow. I put the largest bulb I could find in the flash gun, waited until Dave was in a good position, then pressed the button. There was a tremendous flash, and I was blinded for several minutes. Dave was in a similar state halfway up the climb, but he soon recovered and quickly completed it. I followed him. I had, of course, made two mistakes by putting too big a bulb in and by standing too square to the stone face, thus catching the maximum amount of reflection both in the camera and my eyes. I began to study the camera shortly afterwards. Nevertheless, I carefully avoided a possible repetition of this disaster, and the photographs shown of this climb were taken on another occasion by our more competent resident photographer.

We made our way back to college as it was now 4.30 a.m. taking a few photographs as we climbed in. It had been an excellent first night, despite the fact that we had unluckily roused both a tutor and the police. We hoped that this sort of luck would be minimised as we became experienced.

For the next eight months we had a trouble free period during which we dismissed most of the classical routes. We learned a great many things about the buildings, weather conditions, police and porter activities and so on. Above all, we learned not to trust any hold without careful inspection though on one memorable occasion we forgot to transmit our knowledge to one of Dave's friends. He had come up to Cambridge for the weekend and came with us to a party in Clare. We arrived back at college rather late and were forced to climb in. On the top of the college wall one stands on a small potting shed and then descends by a rather shaky drainpipe. One uses the drainpipe in such a way that all the pressure exerted on it is downward. We forgot to mention this to Chris. I climbed down and prepared to direct him when he suddenly leaped towards the wall and clutched the drainpipe. Straining under his weight the top bracket finally gave way and he was hurtled back the way he came. Unfortunately, action and reaction were not quite equal and opposite and he did not go back as far as the potting shed. Instead he dropped sharply down into an enormous tank which was covered with a sheet of asbestos. This cover he duly shattered and by the grace of Heaven landed with both feet in the tank, which was, fortunately, empty. The lesson was quickly learned.

The weather was quite cold in January and February, and we had some painful nights before learning from our mistakes. It is imperative that one is not over-burdened with clothes; a thick sweater, thick socks, and jeans are all that is required. We spent one night on Trinity almost unable to climb through perspiration of the hands and feet though it was desperately icy that night. Cold clear nights are excellent for climbing — the air is bracing and if there is snow about it will deter anyone from glancing up. However, it is important that on a cold night something easy should be attempted first to give one an opportunity to adjust to the conditions and to get one's hands warm.

After several months we had gained in confidence and experience. One night Dave and I decided to take Enid up the Wedding Cake — it would he the first time a woman had climbed it. We went round to Carol's for coffee but she was out. Nevertheless, we managed to find a pair of her jeans and gave them to Enid to change into. I gave her my shirt, so that I was left with a jacket and a pair of jeans. We went round to St. John's just before midnight. Dave and I left our jackets at the bottom of the drainpipe outside New Court, near the Eagle Gateway. I had to discard my shoes since it proved impossible to climb in them. I went up the drainpipe first and helped Enid from above with Dave below supporting her feet on his shoulders. Inside the court we decided to go up the corner staircase onto the roof and walk along the balustrade and the slates up to the tower proper. It was very warm, so I took off my socks and Dave his shirt, shoes and socks. We used the same technique as previously to get Enid up to the top of the flying buttress. She then climbed up the top section with perfect ease and confidence — quite unusual for anyone on their first ascent. During the descent, Dave and I managed to get dressed, and then we popped in to see Alan for coffee. It was quite an entertaining evening, though next morning Enid had difficulty in deciding whether it was a dream or not.

In May, however, the pattern of our activities was to change. We had heard vague rumours that some other people in college were interested in climbing and eventually we tracked them down. Nick and Brian joined us without hesitation. Nick was a splendid, solidly built, nocturnally athletic and a prodigious smoker. He was an unusual product of Repton. He had an odd genius for getting up climbs in an individual way, quite incomprehensible to the rest of us and quite regardless of any conventional technique. He had done no nightclimbing before, but was bursting with enthusiasm to learn. Brian had done some rock-climbing and was much more orthodox technically. Robust and athletic — reported to have been a prospective discus champion at one time — he had a healthy interest in non-collegiate activities. He did a wonderful impersonation of a detective and arrested no end of unsuspecting people. A classicist by trade, a hedonist by nature, he was delightful company.

Our ranks were further strengthened by the acquisition of two photographers. First, James lent a professional touch in this field, but sadly was forced to leave after the first year, when his application to change subjects was refused. Fortunately, his place was filled immediately by Bernard. His role was augmented by unbounded enthusiasm and some climbing knowledge. This experienced help gave us all the incentive we needed.

Figure 2.7. Trinity: Castor and Pollux

Trinity: Castor and Pollux

A narrow chimney which leads to the starting point of the Ornamentation Climb.

Figure 2.8. Trinity: Wet Bob's Traverse

Trinity: Wet Bob's Traverse

A traverse along two ledges which is a good exercise in balance.

Figure 2.9. Trinity: Ornamentation Climb

Trinity: Ornamentation Climb

A delicate walk up the flange of the window, holding on to the ornamentation. A long reach ending in a mantelshelf leads to the roof.

Figure 2.10. Trinity: Gateway Column

Trinity: Gateway Column

The climber starts up the window shown in the bottom of the picture. Balancing on the ledge above the window, he reaches for the column and pulls up to his present position. He then mantelshelves over the overhang. (Notice the climber's arched back.)

Figure 2.11. Trinity: Library Chimney

Trinity: Library Chimney

This photograph was taken in the early evening. A very narrow chimney of uneven brickwork. Knees must be used for the first 15 feet.

Figure 2.12. Clare Ladder Climb

Clare Ladder Climb
Clare Ladder Climb