Chapter 10. New Routes II

Sending down did not stop our climbing, but it certainly made it more difficult. To begin with, there were fewer occasions when it was convenient for all of us to go out, and we had to exercise more caution because Dave, Nick and Bernard were still in a vulnerable position, if caught (though they were least worried). The real effect of this was that it made our climbing more purposeful: we could not really afford to repeat many easy climbs, but had to concentrate on now routes or old hard classics. We therefore wasted little time in looking for unconquered buildings.

Modern architecture has a tendency towards concrete and brick faces and is rarely any good for climbing. It usually lacks ornamentation and buttresses and drainpipes are often inside the buildings. There have been many new buildings in Cambridge of late, mostly with little climbing potential (the multi-storey car park is certainly possible, but was really too dull for us). New Hall (a women's college) proved the exception.

The idea of the climb came to us while it was still being built, but we did not get a close look at it until after the Senate House incident. One night, aided by builders ladders, we had at close look at it. The prospect was quite upsetting. Instead of rough concrete, always excellent for grip, the surface was made of fibre glass (far too smooth for comfort). Nick mumbled something about frauds, while Dave tried without success to do a layback (feet on the inner dome, hands under the flange of the outer dome), but this was obviously not practicable. On that first night we gave up as it had been raining, and the already smooth surface, was hopelessly slippery.

But we were not beaten. There was something rather sneaky in building a dome of fibre glass and making it look like concrete. and we meant to climb it. The “dome”, in fact, consists of a double fibre glass dome. The outer dome comprises four segments, covering and slightly overlapping the inner dome. These segments are about 2 feet thick, hollow, with translucent boarding on the underside of the overlap to allow for lighting of the dome.

Now to the climb itself. Two unexciting stages (a bridging pitch and a chimney pitch) have to be climbed to get to the roof of the hall. Between these two stages there is a long flat roof to walk along, the only difficulty being that it is covered with gravel (tread carefully). While moving along this roof we saw a light on behind a frosted glass window at the far side of the college. Fortunately, we need not have worried, as it proved to be a girl taking a shower. This, of course, vaguely raises the issue of climbing in women's colleges, as one could easily be mistaken for a potential invader or something-or-other, and the police would no doubt be called if one was seen.

However, do not let this worry you, tread carefully and keep your head, for once you are just under the dome, a parapet shields you from view, and you are in much less danger. As Nick said, at this stage, even if one was seen, one would clearly he seen to be a climber not a sex-maniac. Now you are beneath the dome. Do not look for climbing protection as there certainly is none for the leader, and the dome is not very high anyway. It is best to start the chimney with one's back against the side wall which joins the inner and outer dome, and one's feet on a very thin ridge on the underneath of the outer dome, to which the translucent board is fixed. The board is too weak to carry any pressure, and as the outer and inner domes are very close together at the bottom, this is the best way to start. As the chimney progresses (it is quite a struggle in the early stages), the two domes get wider apart, and it becomes possible to slowly change the chimney position so that one's back rests more on the inner dome. When one's back is entirely on the inner dome and one's feet are high above one's body on the underneath of the inner dome, the chimneying continues, getting easier as the dome curves out. At the top of the chimney the inner dome has almost completely flattened out.

Figure 10.1. New Hall Dome

New Hall Dome

The usual chimneying position at the start.

New Hall Dome

Nearing the top, where it is at least possible to stand upright.

Now comes the crux, moving out from under the overlapping part of the outer dome, which seems a safe point, one stands up on the inner dome with no grips for one's hands and quite a good feeling of exposure. In front of one is a short vertical wall, the top of which is transparent board, and which is, of course, extremely smooth. The structure appeared to be too weak to take the weight of the body in a mantelshelf position, but eventually we found a place where a metal rib ran underneath the board. Putting one's weight entirely on this part, one then mantelshelves and puts one's foot up and onto the same reinforced strip. This is primarily a balancing move, but because of the lack of any holds and the fact that it is quite a reach for the foot, it can be quite worrying for a moment.

Now one can stand up, reach over the top of the two sections of outer dome converging at this point, and keeping the feet from treading on the transparent hoard underneath, one does a form of hand traverse (or rather, walking suspended from one's hands, with the feet getting friction grips for balance against the sides) until one reaches the point where the two segments of outer dome converge. Here one has to do a quick, easy mantelshelf onto quite a large round flat area at the top. The view from the top of the dome is excellent.

To get down again, we recommend two methods, both of which should be tried. The first is simply to reverse down, using the same route as that on the ascent. The second is to bring a rope along and stretch it over the top of the dome, and with counterbalancing weight, two climbers can come down on opposite sides of the dome. The latter way is quite fun.

All in all, this is an excellent climb (about 55 feet in all, I suppose), and is probably just very severe. It is unusual in its architecture, facade, and setting and makes quite a refreshing change from the older buildings in Cambridge. An important point is that plimsolls or baseball boots should be worn rather than the normal climbing footwear. Four months after our first ascent, the dome was desecrated with black footprints. We were all pretty worried about this because, although we never caused damage to any building, we thought that we might be suspect because of our known climbing activities. However, it was not long before we discovered who effected the “artistic” daubings. Surprisingly, it was a group of assorted architects and “anti-philistines” with the aid of a rock-climber. They all had one thing in common — an avid disgust and hatred for this “cancerous sore on the beauty of Cambridge”. One of them was a very good friend of ours who had remembered us speak of the new route. He came along to Dave's room one night and told us the story.

After painting footprints over the dome, they were about to descend when one of them saw three dons watching from the opposite side of the court, and the night porter down on the lower roof. The climbers came down hurriedly to make their escape, but the porter shouting: “This way officers, here they are”, came running up and grabbed all three of them. The porter was apparently getting the better of the struggle, when a don appeared in her nightdress upon the roof. The porter wanted to tie the culprits up with their own rope, but after a long discussion it was agreed that they would go peaceably to the porter's lodge. At the porter's lodge, the dons were about to check the names and colleges given (false, of course) when one of the three yelled “Run”. The porter gave chase, but the three split up and he followed the one who knew the college best. The porter was soon outrun. The other two, meanwhile, ran to the Huntingdon Road side of the college and locked themselves in a shower and “having persuaded the window to open a little wider than usual”, scrambled out and made their escape. They all hid for a day not knowing if the police were looking for them or not. When the fuss died down, an architect friend admitted a certain pride in both the escape and the “attraction” of the footprints, though he insisted that he would never even consider damaging a worthy building. On this, the last word is his: I content myself with an interesting escape story packed with more drama than the three realised at the time.

Our next big climb was to be the Senate House, but this time the back route (the west face). It was 1.30 a.m. on the 7th March when we made for the Senate House Passage. We decided that it was not worth going up via the South face of Caius, as this was too exposed to view, and went up the stairway inside the Tower, and thence onto the Senate House roof. Brian tied the rope and threw the other end down. We decided to try the right hand route (from the ground) as it is less visible from Caius. Dave, Nick and I went down the rope on descendeurs. Dave went up first in brilliant style, and Bernard managed to get some good photographs. The first layback one finds easier than expected. With the left foot always above the right (in a layback position) it is fairly easy to move up and one's feet show no sign of slipping (though the half-pillar is flat, unlike the ribbed one on the east face). As soon as one's left hand reaches the first ledge, swing out, pull up, reach the curved ledge above this, mantelshelf on it, and with a stretch reach the “window” ledge above (there are no windows on the west face, but there are ledges, flanges and curved tops, just like the east face). From here it is easy to get up onto this ledge which is pleasantly wide. After a brief rest there is a second layback. Now the climbing becomes a little tiring. At the top of this section one puts one's feet on a tiny ledge (most of which is missing, but that remaining is adequate). and reaches for the top of the pillar. Reach up for the ledge and hand traverse round until one can get the other foot (right) onto the corner of the other pillar. Using pinch-grips stand up and reach over the top. Fortunately, there is no lead on this side of the building. Then swing out and mantelshelf in a manner that is similar to the final move on the Fitzwilliam Museum.

This climb is similar in many ways to that on the east face, but is much less exposed to view. In fact, we all felt quite safe despite the numerous flashes from the camera. The photographs, I think, speak for themselves.

Our last two noteworthy routes belong entirely to Dave. They are both on the Gibbs building in Kings and though they have certainly been noted previously as “possibles”, we found no evidence of any other ascents. It is a curious building which offers no easy route up it, the two possibilities being that up the central archway on the west face, and that up the drainpipe on the north face. Dave persuaded us to go out and have a look at the routes one night, and Bernard came along to photograph.

Since there was no simple method of ascent (thus precluding a top-rope for the first ascent) Dave decided to lead the easier of the two routes, that on the north face. The drainpipe has a few good resting places, its only difficulty being that it stops short of the roof, a few feet below the overhang. Added to this, there is no securing clamp on the top section. This was a most unenviable first lead, as we had no idea of the safety of the pipe at the top. Dave climbed steadily up and put a couple of runners around the pipe above the top two clamps for safety. The top section of the pipe seems quite firm, and from the very top one can reach over the overhang without too much of a stretch. From this position, one can pull up in the usual way and mantelshelf, this move being made easier by the use of the top of the pipe as a foothold.

We then moved along the roof till we were above the central archway. Here there is no obvious belay, so we tied the rope right around the chimney. We went down the rope on at descendeur, with Nick ready to belay us. Bernard was waiting at the bottom with the camera.

The climb starts up the slotted stonework on the inside of the archway (back to the pillar). This section is straightforward. Then one swings across behind the pillar, on a reasonable handhold, to get on the ledge on the outside of the archway. Dave thought the next section might not go, but he did it surprisingly quickly. This part is in fact quite hard. Using a small foothold near the bottom of the window flange, one puts one's left foot upon a small ledge about a foot below a larger one and bridges until one can get a foot on the larger ledge. From here it is possible to reach over the overhang onto a slanting ledge, and then a higher one above the window. Pull up on this and swing onto the sloping roof. This is a good resting place. From the next ledge only the curved flange offers a possible hold (the smaller ones being unsafe). Here, technique is all-important. Pull up on the curved flange, and with the help of knees and feet, move the hands up until the angle of the flange eases off. Now one can reach the ornaments above: they seem desperately fragile, but there is nothing else, After at mantelshelf (similar to that on the Ornamentation Climb, Trinity), one can reach over the overhang and mantelshelf. From here it is possible to go straight up to the very top.

Figure 10.2. Gibbs Building: Archway Climb

Gibbs Building: Archway Climb

Chimneying between the pillar of the gateway and the wall leads to the top of the gate. The climber now ascends the curved window until he reaches the ornamentation.

Gibbs Building: Archway Climb

Standing on the ornamentation.

Figure 10.3. Gibbs Building: Drainpipe Route

Gibbs Building: Drainpipe Route

A long drainpipe climb, ending in an overhang.

The whole climb is a really excellent excuse for one's technique and stamina. It is not an inspiring building, but the archway climb is certainly one of the finest (though not the hardest) new routes put up recently.