Chapter 5. Kings College Chapel

King's Chapel is one hundred and sixty feet high. It is commonly regarded as one of the finest examples of perpendicular architecture in England. Henry VI laid the foundation stone in 1446, and it was completed in 1515. It is renowned for the early sixteenth-century coloured glass in its many windows, for the intricate fan tracery in the stone roof, and for its magnificent organ screen. Rubens' “Adoration of the Magi” behind the high altar is a recent acquisition.

Few of these facts are relevant to the climber. There is something far deeper and less easy to explain about the Chapel which attracts the would-be climber. The building has a meaningfulness all of its own. Tradition, height, beauty, severity all combine to make it the goal of everyone's ambition. Partly, I suppose, its attraction lies in the unexpected; the mystery and renown which always shroud a building few man climb. This, perhaps, is its main attraction: it is a building talked of by thousands, experienced by a few.

It has been regarded in this light for a long time, and though there is no authenticated record of a 61st ascent, it seems probable that it was climbed in the nineteenth century or earlier. The route that our Victorian ancestors would have taken is that described in Whipplesnaith's The Night Climbers of Cambridge. This comprised two main pitches: the first, a long chimney from the ground to the main roof, with the aid of a lightning conductor; the second, the seventy foot pinnacles. The first pitch was long, arduous, but basically very straightforward. It required, above all, stamina and a good appreciation of the delights of exposure. The second pitch, the pinnacles, was again not unduly difficult, the main problems being pigeons and crumbling stonework. The whole climb is a superb example of classical climbing, as I have earlier defined it. Here it relied basically on chimneying. Of course it can be argued that this was the most “natural” route, and this is not contested. However, Whipplesnaith notes that when the lightning conductor in the chimney was moved for two years, it was not climbed “because the vast majority of undergraduates did not know it was possible” without the conductor. Severely restricted by techniques, the classical climbers looked no further than the chimney. What would happen if the authorities made the route impossible?

Well, they did, and we shall see the circumstances surrounding this in the next chapter. This was achieved by placing large concrete blocks on the chimneys at each corner of the Chapel. These are unsurmountable unless one uses artificial climbing techniques. We had, in fact, contemplated bolting our way over the block in the North-East Chimney, but this idea was dropped in our enthusiasm for the new route. Anyway, this step by the College authorities saw the end of the age of classical climbing. Its short-term result was effective: it stopped ascents of the Chapel. Its long-term result was to give modern climbing the impetus it needed; it brought home the realisation that classical techniques were too limiting, and could be easily frustrated, The Chapel was still there, climbers still longed to climb it, there had to be another way.

The new route up the Chapel was set up before we came to Cambridge. We have been unable to discover who the first climber was, when or how the route was pioneered. All we can do is pay tribute to the brilliant unknown man who crossed the threshold. He broke the psychological barrier; from then on, no climb was regarded as impossible, no building too high, no face too forbidding, no route too thin.

The new route is on the north face of the Chapel, facing Trinity Hall, the Old School, Caius and the Senate House. Part of it is still secret, and I will explain why later. It falls into three natural stages. First, there is a thirty foot climb into the lower roof. Second, from the lower roof to the main roof beneath the pinnacles. Third, the pinnacles themselves.

There is a description of the route in a certain climbing journal, and would-be climbers are recommended to unearth it. In this description, however, the writer says that the only way up the first pitch is at the north-west end by the door. However, we worked out a method which makes it possible at any point along the length. From a slanting ledge a foot off the ground, one can reach some iron bars on the windows. Go up these for a few feet, and make a long reach for another set of bars in a small, higher window. Hold on to these and get into a crouching position on a V-stone. Then, stand up as much as possible, using a poor handhold on a ledge, and bridge up the V-stone until a large ornament above can be reached. It is then easy to get onto the top of the first pitch.

The second pitch presents the main difficulties. This consists of climbing carefully up the iron bars of the stain-glass window for about forty feet, using small foot-holds. It is imperative that only the climbers toes are on the window bars, otherwise there is a danger of touching the stained-glass. Near the top where the windows arch over, the iron bars are of no use. At this point the leader should stop and fix on a runner. The runner should not be fixed on the top section, where there are spikes, but on the bars below where a good thread runner can be fixed.

You are now standing on small holds, in the left hand side of the window, near the top. To your left there is a drainpipe, fixed where the buttress meets the main wall. The pipe seems a long way away, almost out of reach. Now, holding on to the window bars with your right hand, you are just able to reach the drainpipe with the left. It is a long stretch. This is the crux. There is no possibility of getting your hand behind the drainpipe, as there is only a very small gap between it and the main wall. But, look carefully, and you will see that a flange on the stone buttresses goes outside the drainpipe, and between them there is a sizeable gap. Here is an excellent “jug” (hold). Now place the left foot on a bracket lower down, and swing across, transferring the right hand and foot quickly. You are now exhausted, but do not rest. You must get into a standing position on the ledge you are now clinging to. This is achieved by pulling up on small finger jams behind the drainpipe (in a few places, one can get the top joints of one's fingers behind it). After a few strenuous pull-ups, you are now standing on the ledge. This is a time for rest and contemplation, for the next thirty feet is severe lay-backing.

You have now regained your breath, and you survey the situation. You are standing in a sizeable ledge, the best you have encountered yet, anyway. Facing you is the main wall, with the buttress pressing against your left shoulder. You can put your fingers behind the drainpipe only on one side — that away from the buttress. How do you proceed?

To begin with, it is necessary to rely solely on finger jams. One puts both hands behind the drainpipe on the some side, in a classic lay-back position. At the same time you walk up the face with your feet. Hand-over-hand, one foot after the other. The main difficulty is that all your weight is being supported by the tips of your fingers. After a short distance, however, you will notice that on your tight, the curved flange of the window arcs away from you and you are able to move into a bridging position (that is, put your right foot on the flange of the window, and the left foot against the buttress wall, and maintaining your balance by the continued use of finger jams behind the drainpipe). Alternatively, one can chimney this section. One soon reaches a horizontal ledge which provides something of a resting place, though in fact a large section of it is eroded. Do not allow your knees to shake at this point, the stonework may be fragile.

Now there is more lay-backing, but the drainpipe here provides better holds, though it is still not possible to get a hand right behind. Soon a third ledge is reached and the drainpipe bowl is now in sight. It is well to try and fix a runner at this point. The next part is probably easier than the exposure makes it, but it is still very serious. The drainpipe bowl is quite sharp, and you can now gasp with joy to find a really good hold. But the pitch is not quite over, so hold on tightly. Gripping the bowl, swing your right foot onto a window in the wall on your right and get yourself into a sort of bridging position with your left foot against the buttress. Pull up on the drainpipe bowl and you will be able to feel a hole on top of the big stone above the pipe. Use this and you will be able to pull yourself up (if you have any strength left), and climb through or over the parapet onto the roof. At this point you feel a bit of a lad; you then collapse with exhaustion.

This pitch is very severe, and the actual route is as I have said, a secret among climbers. The reason is simple. As far as is known, it is only possible to climb the last thirty feet (after the window section) on one drainpipe, and it would be tempting providence too much to disclose this to the authorities. However, it is quite possible that other drain pipes would do and we have noticed another strenuous route, anyway. This consists of prussiking up a lightning conductor from the ground to the main roof, but we were frustrated on both our attempts by prowlers of one sort or another. Its great disadvantage is that it is very open to view. As for the new route, its continued anonymity is a tribute to the equally anonymous first climber.

The pinnacles are well described and photographed in Whipplesnaith. This pitch of the climb remains virtually identical today, except that spikes guard the first overhang. However, these are no obstacle at all; in fact, they provide a missing hand-hold. The idea is to pull up on them with the hands and than work one leg between the spikes. It is then an easy matter to pull up over them. The only other point that needs emphasising is that the stonework is rather crumbly in places and ought not to be trusted without careful inspection. The chessboard is particularly unsafe. At the top of the North-east pinnacle the climber will notice a beautifully carved inscription in the stonework. It is the name of an O.B.E. which I noted in my logbook on one occasion, but have since misplaced. I wonder when it was put there?

The whole climb is graded as Very Severe, and this is perfectly fair. However, it should be noted that the difficulty is very inconsistent throughout (the first pitch, being especially easy), unlike, for example, St. John's Chapel. However, it is certainly one of the best climbs in Cambridge.

Our experiences on the Chapel will live in our memories for a long time to come. Our first ascent took place in December 1964, on a very cold, icy night. The iron bars of the window were cold and slippery, and Dave set off first, belayed by Brian. He was thus forced to move even more cautiously than is normal, so that by the time he had reached the top of the windows, fixed a runner on, and swung across onto the drainpipe, his fingers were too cold to enable him to hand-jam. He decided that he would have to return to warm his hands up. In doing so, he proved that the move from the windows onto the drainpipe was not “irreversible”, as was then generally believed. After a quick cigarette and a longer-warming session, he set off again, at at faster pace, and managed the climb brilliantly, stopping only for occasional rests. It is not easy to explain what a tremendous feat this was, for the whole pitch is tremendously difficult in perfect conditions. The biting cold made the lay-back and hand-jamming section terrifying. A measure of the situation is that Brian could feel Dave's shivering through the vibrations of the rope. Such climbing is difficult to accept in one's imagination. Brian followed, and the climb took all but the last ounce out of his resistance. I did not notice the cold until the drainpipe section, where I had great difficulty in preventing my fingers from becoming welded onto the metal. We then brought Nick up. He had been standing around for a long time and was, unluckily, already frozen when he began climbing. Consequently, he was forced to move slowly and he became tired rapidly. When he reached the drainpipe bowl, he was so tired that despite Brian's instructions he made for the wrong hole in the parapet. He went too far to his right. However, living up to his reputation, he resorted to methods entirely of his own making (which I would describe, had I had the confidence to watch) and miraculously got up. He collapsed on the roof. Everyone recovered very quickly, and Dave and I went up the southeast pinnacle, Brian and Nick the north-east. The descent of the second pitch was executed by means of the “double descendeur” technique (a rope is passed through the parapet, the two ends being at the bottom of the pitch, and then to the two people who go down together on different halves of the rope, counterbalancing each other).

On another occasion. the four of us were joined by Martin and Clive. I only mention this because of the difficulties we had in organising everybody. Six is a good number for company, but not for a nightclimbing expedition. There are several reasons for this — first, there are too many differences of opinion as to what should be attempted during the course of the night and in what order. This is time wasting. Second, it is often difficult to determine the exact location of everyone at a particular time, so that someone is always “lost”. This is irritating. Third, far too much noise is made. This is dangerous. On this particular night, Dave and I did manage to solve most of the Problems, although Clive fell asleep at the start of the second pitch and remained there until we came down at the end of the climb. Having done little nightclimbing, he was not too happy with the sudden juxtaposition of himself and seventy awe-inspiring feet of glass and masonry. This was something we should have anticipated, because every time one gets to this stage of the Chapel, one has the greatest urge to retreat and leave everything for another occasion. No matter how many times one has climbed Kings Chapel, one always shudders at the thought of this pitch.

Our greatest tragedy on the Chapel was that we failed to get any photographs. On each climb something went wrong. A stand-in photographer on our second ascent forgot to wind on the film. On another occasion, everything seemed to function perfectly, but all the negatives were blank. And on our final ascent, we borrowed a camera and a roll of film from a friend, only to discover at the camera shop, that the roll of film was a used one which had lots of holiday snaps on it. I destroyed it.

Our photographs were frustrated, and so was our “Great Scheme”. The great scheme had been planned for months. It was to be one of the cheekiest climbs in Cambridge history. The plan was for the four of us to climb the Chapel at 6.00 a.m. and wait on the roof until 10.00 a.m. At this point we were to ascend one pinnacle each, and tie ourselves on to the top. We would may rucksacks, filled with food, drink and cigarettes. We would, of course, have face-masks. We were to sit there all day, oblivious of the crowds, porters, police or whoever tried to dislodge us. Then we would escape. but how? Well, we went through about four different methods, all of superior ingenuity than the previous. Brian suggested that we hire a lorry, filled with straw, into which we could jump from a reasonable height, say 30-40 feet, he thought. This was mildly received, until someone pointed out that the porters and police would probably come up the stairs onto the roof. We thought again. Dave's idea was very much in character — smoke bombs, and if necessary, something more noxious. These, he argued, would create confusion and give us an even chance of escape. Yes, but we wanted a better-than-even chance. I devised a scheme, whereby, a rope would be slung between Clare College rooftops and each pinnacle. This, I considered, would be barely noticeable, and then, at the appropriate moment, we could all /en echelon/ slide down the ropes on a pulley system, and, of course, escape. This was encouraged for some weeks, but no one could devise a foolproof system of sliding safely down the ropes, or of guaranteeing escape from Clare College. It was up to Nick.

Now his system was no ordinary one. He had a friend — an acquaintance, he preferred to call him — who claimed to have access to, and be able to fly, helicopters. This was the solution. When everyone would think that capture was imminent, our helicopter would buzz in from the sky, whisk us away to a waiting car 20-30 miles away, and we would be free. This would bring a bit of drama into it, he said joyfully, for helicopters are not really supposed to fly over built-up areas, you know. We knew, we also knew Nick, and we were prepared to back him all the way. Unfortunately, there is a sad end to the tale. Just at the point when everything was organised, when success was just round the corner, when the day would be ours, Nick's “acquaintance” was whisked off to prison for “currency offences”. So ended a chapter in our climbing lives.