Saturday, August 18, 2007

A Sea of Limestone and an Avon Epic

Saturday 11th August

Alex is sitting next to me. We are both attached to a small tree in the middle of a blank limestone slab. It slants steeply down, the cliff below towering some 50m above the ground. I am belaying Eric, who, for some reason, seems to be stuck somewhere down below. The rope has felt slacky for the past 15 min. Alex is belaying Heloise. He is actually waiting for her to start climbing up. He's been waiting for about half an hour. The slanting slab and the noise from the highway below precludes any attempt at communicating. Alex and I shout in vain, trying for find out what is going on with our respective partners.

It is a warm Saturday evening. It is getting close to seven. Our bus back to London leaves at eight sharp from Bristol Centre. Not knowing what might be wrong makes us feel uneasy. Little we knew then that it was to become a rather surreal weekend. Little adventures were awaiting us, and we were definitely not getting back to London that Saturday evening.

We are in the Main Wall of the Avon Gorge, a staggering cliff that rises at more than 115m from the
bottom of the valley. The river Avon flows slowly down below. The tide has been rising steadily, and from a small trickle in the morning, the Avon is now a large river. A big ship full of tourist sails slowly past us, they are all looking up the cliffs, perhaps at us, the four Brixton Climbers stuck high up the rock face. And we are still waiting . . .

Everything started rather unexpectedly on Thursday. Eric was mad about doing some trad climbing. So we improvised a one day crash trip to Avon Gorge. The plan was simply to catch a coach very early in the morning from London to Bristol. From Bristol Centre it would be a very short cab ride to the crags. On Friday evening we learned that Alex and Heloise had canceled their planed trip to the Roaches in the Peak District so they would be joining us on our expedition.

At seven in the morning we left Victoria station in London, and by 10am we were at the bottom of Morning Slab, in the Main Wall of Avon Gorge. The Gorge runs for several kilometres, bordering the west side of Bristol. Its most famous crags are the Sea Walls, the Main Wall and the Suspension Bridge Buttress. There are hundreds of multi pitch climbs on great limestone. Route grades go from Very Easy to Extremely Damn Hard and Dangerous.

Alex and Eric set about to start the leading session. Alex went for Clarion (VS 4c) and Eric for Sinister (HS 4b), both are famous climbs that tackle the right hand side of the massively imposing slab. I seconded Eric. The route is very elegant, although a bit polished, with loads of equilibrium moves. The first pitch stops at Lunchtime Ledge, a massive terrace high up on the wall. There we were soon joined by Alex and Heloise. From the terrace the view along the gorge is breathtaking. The Avon meanders cheekily, surrounded by forests and dark gray cliffs before joining the River Severn. From the terrace is another 20m pitch to the top of the cliff. The previous pitch was 50m, so this makes up for a 70m route! Easy leading leads to a park at the top, full of joggers, children, people walking their dogs, etc. The climbing feels so daring and adventurous but at the same time so safe and urban!

Back at the bottom it was my time to choose a lead. The superb weather and the nice setting invigorated me. I decided to go for Mike's Mistake (5b E1), according to the guide book "an old time polished classic". This route tackles the slab directly at its centre. A clean line with reasonable protection: a succession of ancient pegs, and the odd nut or cam placement! No cracks here, just the tiniest crimps and slopers, thin balancing moves to progress slowly up. I must confess that at the crux, some 15m up the ground, my legs started to shake. The sight of an old rusty peg as my closest piece of protection was not very reassuring. Some deep breathing and very delicate footwork allowed me to reach the upper slab. I smiled, the hard work was done! Although the last 10m to the belay exhilarated, the last bit of climbing being really easy (about 4a). I reached the bolts and set up a hanging belay. While belaying Eric up I took a moment to look around the massive wall. I was immersed in a sea of limestone! Above large overhangs and blocks towered imposingly. There is a variation of the route I was on, suitably called "Lost in Space", that continues straight up, losing itself into the upper reaches of the wall.

Eric and I at the hanging belay at the top of Mike's Mistake (5b E1).

Eric arrived and he led a short traverse up and leftwards, back to Lunchtime Ledge, where, again, we joined Heloise and Alex, who had just led another classic route. Because the upper reaches of Lunchtime Ledge are technically easy and offer bombproof protection, we decided that it was time for Heloise to lead. She did so quite confidently! However, she would put a piece of protection, climb up, put another one, just for the previous one to pop out and slide down along the rope and onto Alex hands! The final result: Alex only had to remove one piece of gear near the top when he seconded the route!

Eric led some improvised VDiff, and soon we were all at the top again, joking about Heloise pro placement style. Nonetheless this is a serious matter! Luckily nothing went wrong so next time we need to make sure that everybody is confident with their skills!

Back at the bottom and a quick glance at the clock showed that it was four o'clock. We had started climbing at ten. Six hours for only two routes! Taking into consideration the lunch break earlier, we were doing each route in about 2:30h, which is not too bad for long multi pitch climbs. Perhaps at this point we should have felt satisfied and headed to a pub before catching the coach back to London, but well, we decided to bag another route. Another 2:30h and we would be done by 6:30pm, with plenty of time to catch the 8:00pm coach.

Eric decided to do Great Central Route (5a HVS). I glanced at it, and high up, really high up, there was a dodgy looking overhang! Well, HE's leading that, not me, so there should be no problem. Alex and Heloise settled for a more sensible option, a nice arete running close to our intended climb. Eric went up really smoothly, the overhang seemingly posing no difficulties whatsoever. He reached the pink upper wall and it took him about half an hour to set up a complicated and delicate belay in a small stance. I followed up, and it took me several minutes to figure out how to overcome the overhang. It was really polished, and as soon as I managed to get over it, I found myself in a precarious slab with barely any footholds! That was a really impressive piece of climbing by Eric! Joined him, racked up and then set to lead the second pitch, which goes at about 4c VS. The wall here is very exposed. I had to do a short hanging hand traverse really high up which felt like and outer space experience, my feet dangling some 40m above the ground. I reached easier rock at the top, but Arrrg, again, a long unprotectable slab. Just as I was about to reach the tree belay, I put my hand in a solid looking hand hold, just for it to come off as I put my weight on it. In fractions of a second I managed to regain my balance and push the loose piece of rock back. A frozen chill ran down my spine. I was about 8m above my last piece of protection! I gained the tree and set up a nice belay, backed up by a bomber hex and a cam. Alex quickly joined me and we both set on to belay our partners.

Eric tackling the overhang in Great Central Climb (5a HVS).

Eric started climbing soon after, but after a few minutes we seemed to have gotten stuck somewhere down below. Alex was completely puzzled. He would shout again and again for Heloise to come up, but nothing, no reply, the rope lying dead onto the slab. Finally Eric came up. He said it was impossible for him to hear us because of the highway noise. I lowered him down to the lower border of the slab so he could get a glimpse of Heloise. She was right down at the bottom, patiently belaying Alex! Eric shouted to her to start climbing. She duly fixed herself and started up just to find that the rope would remain completely slacky. The rope was stuck some 10m above her, caught under a small protruding bulge! I had to lower Eric a further 30m so he could release the rope. The whole process seemed to take ages. The clock ticking away, munching our precious minutes to catch our return coach home. I believe this kind of situations are the most dangerous in climbing. The end of the day, everybody's tired, you feel in a hurry. The perfect recipe to make a silly mistake.

A few minutes later Heloise started to come up. My rope suddenly felt really loose. I thought Eric was coming up really fast, but I just couldn't keep up with him. I tried to take the ropes in as fast as I could, unsuccessfully. Suddenly it downed on me that he wasn't attached at the other end! I brought up the ropes, assuming that he had just unclipped himself, scrambled down, and was packing the bags and calling a cab to take us back to the station. Heloise finally appeared and confirmed my hypothesis.

There were some 5m of easy climbing to exit. We hastily gathered the gear and retreated in a manner that I'm still not happy with! We basically half soloed half belayed ourselves to the top. The sort of situation that easily could have turned sour. We ran back down to join Eric. It was 7:30pm. Surely a cab would pick us up and would drop us on time at the coach station. But it was not to be. As we approached Eric he broke the bad news. There was a gridlock at Bristol centre and no cabs would be available for at least an hour! We tried to hitchhike but to no avail. It was clear that we would have to spend the night there. There were no more coaches and a last minute train fare would be around £100!

As we pondered what to do with our lives, a procession of colourful balloons started crossing the sky. They were so close that we could see the people inside waving. There were dozens of balloons of various colors and slightly different shapes. The sun was setting and the cliff had turned golden. As the balloons flied by, they would go over and behind the flaming limestone. It was a breathtaking spectacle. In the meantime we started picking and eating the most tasty black berries ever (maybe because we were plainly starving!). The balloons kept passing by, all in a very surreal atmosphere. People were stopping to take pictures. The top of the cliffs became alive with bystanders watching the long queue of balloons, moving lazily with the wind. A total of 108 balloons crossed the sky that day in Bristol.

We walked to the top of the cliff. Into the park, and strolled along the posh part of the city. Bristol is actually very pretty, spacious, and has a healthy feeling that London lacks completely. Our priority was to find a pub. Heloise lived in Bristol four years ago so she became our tour guide. We saw the pink house were she lived, the hospital were she had some stitches, the place were she got her lip pierced, etc, etc, etc, etc, etc. She also led us to an amazing pub with a huge terrace overlooking the gorge and Brunel's Clifton Suspension Bridge. The terrace was teeming with people. We sat down and drank our beers slowly, feeling the breeze and watching the darkness falling by. We sat there after making unsuccessful phone calls to the youth hostel and several other hotels. The plan was to spend a perhaps cold night in the park. Nonetheless we were so happy. The climbing had been great, the summer evening was gorgeous. We had a feeling of freedom and detachment. We just couldn't care less.

As it got darker the suspension bridge lit up. From the back of the hills fireworks were shot up into the sky. They were really impressive and colourful. I would swear that some would resemble happy faces as they exploded. Others would change into a myriad of colours, orange, red, blue and green.

At the other end of our table there was a couple chatting peacefully. Eric and Alex asked them if they
though the train station would be open so we could go and sleep there. We told them our story, and the girl, completely out of the blue, offered us her house to spend the night! We felt really embarrassed, but after a few more unsuccessful phone calls to more hotels we decided to accept her invitation.

We bought them some beers and cider, and had a very pleasant and long chat in her leaving room until late at night. The girl in question is called Grace, a scientist who is now studying medicine at Bristol University. The guy is Adrian, a tennis coach that's based in Dubai and that has met Roger Federer and other tennis legends. It is nice to see that such hospitality is still possible in this world!

We actually slept in a small office beneath her flat. Had a mattress, cushions, etc. Completely unexpected and very relieving. The next morning I woke up with pains and aches all over my body. Eric seemed very fresh, and completely mad about going back to the cliffs. After a small battle of wills, we decided that heading back to London was the sensible option. We gave our farewells to our kind host and returned to the Big Stressful City.

A truly memorable weekend in Bristol.

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