Cheese climbing in the Avon Gorge
At one point during university I was still labouring under the illusion that I might become a decent climber and was spending as much time as I could on vertical pursuits of various kinds. At Liverpool that meant weekends in the Peak and Lake Districts, Snowdonia, out of term in Bristol it meant one of the local cliffs. Also looking for someone to climb with at that point was a lad called Joel, who was one of the best all round climbers I've climbed with before or since.
Mentally he was absolutely sorted – not reckless, but prepared to take a calculated risk and very determined. I should imagine he's either a guide today or has given up climbing altogether. I can't think he'd accept a halfway house. I got to climb in some strange places with Joel – I remember him trying the second ascent of a manky E41 with the somewhat off putting name of Crematorium on a muddy cliff in the middle of nowhere, until he fell off, onto protection fortunately.
But few cliffs are as strange as parts of the Avon Gorge. It's a very disorientating spot, you swing your car off the busy road by the river, just outside of the city, trot 100m in and there's this big cliff. It can flummox climbers who aren't used to it - it's not that steep, but it hasn't really got any holds as such and in parts is polished2 so you can see your face in it. If you're climbing well, you can sort of shimmy up the routes, but if you're not it can quickly sap your confidence. When my mates came down from Liverpool, I'd point the slab climbers at the steep stuff by the bridge, and the muscly ones up the shiny stuff further down. Always good for a laugh...
With the noise from the road you can't really hear a thing from below, so climbing here is more than ever an individual sport, human and rock against gravity. As soon as you leave the ground you're in your own little world, even on the massive ledges that you can stroll about on at two thirds height – one of them even had a sofa on it at one point – god only knows how they got it down there. It almost certainly did come down rather than up, as the transition from vertical to horizontal at the top is equally abrupt – you climb over the security fence and you're on the Clifton Downs - all frisbees, little old ladies looking at you strangely and an ice-cream van. It would have been even better when you could exit on to the Clifton Suspension bridge, but that's banned now. There are still quite a few who choose to exit the other way, unfortunately – I imagine every now and then the climbers on the cliff nearest the bridge must see a body whistle past, on the way to an untimely end in the Avon mud, or a slightly swifter one on to the concrete pontoon above the Portway.
Most of Avon is a compact shiny black limestone. Then there's some nice white 'continental' limestone by the bridge and, in places, some 'special' yellow rock. Most climbers learn early on to avoid the yellow rock on limestone routes, not for the same reason that Inuit avoid the yellow snow, but because it is normally soft, loose and crumbly. Such rock is sometimes referred to by climbers as 'cheese' although the texture is more like the inside of a Crunchy bar. Either way it needs careful handling. The climb that Joel had picked that day went right up the middle of the yellow stuff and it clearly didn't get much traffic. It did, however, have a bit of a reputation – a pair of climbers had been killed on it a few years back, after the leader fell off and ripped his second off the stance. Since then it had apparently been re-equipped, so that was alright then.
Joel headed off in his normal assured manner, and I was soon getting a crick in my neck trying to keep the double ropes right as he zig zagged his way upwards. He took a while, and I was cold as I set off on the dusty traverse, my mental state not matching the calm that Joel was exuding. As he climbed the second pitch, the decision to opt for helmets was looking better and better, as a head size lump of the yellow stuff came crashing past me and down to the trees that were already below. Still he made it through alright and I set off following him, surprised by how steep and covered in yellow dust it was and admiring the creative placements he had found – Friend3 in ripe cheddar, nut between a lump of mature brie, and thread behind one of those cheeses that they throw down a hill in Gloucestershire for the amusement of the yokels. It had a 6a4 move on it which I made OK, before falling off a 5C5 move higher up.
I can't remember the last pitch at all to be honest, but I remember we'd forgotten the ice cream money again and jogging back down in painful climbing shoes. It was a taste of a different type of climbing, normally reserved for a different class of climber (on the sharp end) and I'm very grateful to have had the opportunity to experience it for a while - see how the other half climb as it were.