The author and journalist, Bill Bryson, once said, “If you drive to, say, Shenandoah National Park, or the Great Smoky Mountains, you'll get some appreciation for the scale and beauty of the outdoors. When you walk into it, then you see it in a completely different way. You discover it in a much slower, more majestic sort of way”. Anyone who chooses to spend time in remote, rural areas will recognise this as a universal truth. It’s not until you remove that last barrier and become close enough to touch your surroundings that you can truly acknowledge the intricacies of their beauty. Being close enough to touch your surroundings is, of course, one of rock climbing’s treasures. Discovering this for the first time is one of life's.
It's eight thirty on a Sunday Morning. The night skies were clear and the air is cold. I'm already thankful for the extra layers of clothing that I put on when I was pottering around the house. I finish loading bags of equipment into the back of the car, close the boot and set off to drive the short distance to a local rail station to collect Chris, a fellow climbing instructor. Together we drive north from Newcastle to meet three climbers at a crag near the Scottish border.
The roads are quiet and we're making good time, so we pull in to services to pick up some coffee a few miles from our final destination. As we get out of the car and make our way across the car park it becomes obvious that we weren't the only ones with that Idea. Ben, 9, and his Dad, Jonty, emerge from a car parked in the opposite row, and Joe, our third climber emerges from another. After introductions and hand shakes, we head inside together to fill up with hot drinks and bag some snacks to binge on later in the day.
None of our climbers are novices and all have climbed in the past, but, not unusually these days, their climbing escapades have so far revolved largely around indoor climbing walls. Today is special as we're getting out on rock.
After a brief chat and some ice breaking, we leave our hard seats and empty cups behind and head back to the cars. I pull away slowly, waiting for the other two cars to fall into line behind me, and we make our way north again. After a short time we slow to a crawl and pull up on the wet verge close to a farm track. We've arrived, but before we can embark on the walk to the crag we have to undertake some administrative formalities and make sure we have enough equipment to go around. Harnesses are checked, helmets passed around, extra gear loaded into rucksacks and we begin the short walk in. As we leave the road we pass a faded sign hanging from the fence next to the track. It's hard to read, but the indiscernible heading can just about be made out: “Climbing in the Nineties”. A reminder of the county's enduring affection for rock antics.
With the five of us walking up the grassy trail it's clear that there's a nervous excitement in the air. The crag has been in view from the outset and she slowly reveals more and more of herself with each passing step. As we near the top of the hill the trail turns right, we pass through a gate and we draw parallel to the sandstone wall, now on our left side. We're almost there.
The trail narrows and begins to meander. Wet in places, the ground is mostly spongy and covered in the remnants of last summers bracken growth. In a short time the warming season will encourage new growth and the trail will be consumed like a rope cast into the swell. For now we can enjoy a relatively straightforward approach.
Minutes later and we settle beneath a substantial piece of overhanging rock. Bags are heaved from shoulders, deposited in the dust and members of the group begin to disperse to study the imposing contours of Kyloe Crag. We've settled below a popular section of the escarpment known as Central Wall, right underneath a route called Australia Crack. At E3 6B, the route's not in our sights today, but Chris still can't help casting a starry gaze upon it.
After a quick safety briefing and a tour of the crags safest descent route, I set about rigging a bottom rope over a favourite route called Flake Crack. The Northumberland Climbing Guide, published by the Northumbrian Mountaineering Club, describes the route as “a classic of the grade” and directs aspirants to “climb the steep crack to an obvious ledge and follow the crack above to the top” adding that the Flake Crack is “an excellent climb”. The route stands at 11 meters, is graded at Severe 4b and receives two stars in the guide book.
First to climb is 9 year old Ben. Ben climbs regularly at Newburn Activity Centre, where I supervise some of the indoor climbing groups, and he's a natural. True to form, Ben makes short work of the route and is soon back on the ground with the biggest of smiles and a round of applause go with it. Next to tie in is Joe. Joe also climbs at Newburn and has developed a reputation as a climbing machine, hammering out route after route on the centre's half dozen auto belays. Joe also makes a clean ascent under the watchful gaze of Cad, his extremely well behaved Labrador. Last to climb is Jonty, and like Ben and Joe before him, Jonty cruises the route, making it look like a stroll in the park.
Chris volunteers to derig the bottom rope system that we've been using to safeguard our climbers, and, while he does so, we flick through the guide book to find our next challenge. We focus on a route called Miny, which is amusingly sandwiched between a route named Meeny and another named Mo. By now the crag is alive with activity. Several groups have arrived and accents from north of the border and as far south as Yorkshire can be picked from surrounding chatter. I glance to my right to see that there are half a dozen climbers in the area of Miny, so we elect to move further along the crag to Deception Buttress. We find a quiet area beneath a route called Slab and Wall, a thirteen metre route graded Very Severe 4c, and marked with two stars in the guide.
I scramble to the top of the crag to find Chris. He's just finishing off his deconstruction and the gear is ready to move. As he heads back down to the group, I take the pile of ropes and slings and manage to contort myself into an awkward position at the top of Slab and Wall. It's a squeeze, but I eventually find myself sandwiched between the dirt below and the stout, low hanging branches of a gnarled old conifer above. I pluck a double length sling from my harness and drape it around the deeply fissured bark of the tree's trunk. The locking carabiner from which it hung slides easily through both ends of the sling and there's a sharp crack as the gate snaps shut. With a figure of eight knot, I attach one end of my climbing rope to the carabiner and screw the gate closed. Next I measure a good length of rope and attach it with a clove hitch to a second carabiner that's clipped to the belay loop of my harness. For this route I intend to use a direct belay to keep everyone safe. Not only is it a little faster to set up, so there's less waiting around for the guys below, but it also affords them the opportunity to top out when they reach the end of the route. Below, Chris is talking though options with the group, pointing out hand and foot holds that they might make use of. None have climbed a route like this before.
I cry out “rope below” before dropping a few coils from the top of the crag. They land with a dull slap at the top of the slab and slide it's length to the feet of the group at its base. Ben is the first to tie in and, undeterred by the tall moves, he makes solid progress. It's not long before he reaches the top of the slab and sets about conquering the wall above it. First to top out, he crawls to a comfortable spot below the oppressive limbs and clips into the anchor before untying from the rope. Joe and Jonty follow and both give 100%. The route is challenging and all three climb well.
When we make it down to the rest of our kit, the crag seems to have quietened down a little and the groups have thinned out. We look at a route called Twin Cracks, but the exit from the top is more treacherous than some of the surrounding lines, so we opt for the now quiet Miny instead. Miny is a great route with some nice moves lower down and opportunities for rest higher up.
I take up a position at the top of the crag and again set up a direct belay making use of a sturdy, mature tree. Looking down the route it's clear that it's been climbed in crampons and has been left with a tell tail trail of scars leading from the ground to the stance that I'm occupying. Northumberland has a strong climbing ethic. Crag care is an important issue to many climbers in the county and the incident had been widely reported in the climbing press. As it turned out, the perpetrators had not understood the implications of their actions and were unaware of the damage that dry tooling would cause, or the inevitable furor that would accompany it.
My cry of "below" echoes along the crag and my rope again disappears over it's edge. Ben, the most eager member of the group, is again the first to tie in and, true to form, makes short work of the route. Miny's positive holds provide a stark contrast to the delicate footwork required to gain the slab on the previous route, Slab and Wall, and the group are far more comfortable with them. Miny is quick to fall and it isn't long before we are again at the bottom of the crag, this time surveying the festively named Christmas Tree Arête.
Christmas Tree Arête is a great route. The Northumberland Climbing Guide pegs the grade at Difficult, whereas Rockfax list it as Very Difficult. Either way, it was of little concern to us as we elect to charge headlong into the direct finish, graded Very Severe 4c. The direct finish follows an overhanging crack which is best dispatched with a lay back. After a couple of strenuous moves, the crack gives way to a substantial jug and often a sigh of relief. Each member of the group nimbly negotiates the tall slab, which comprises the lower two thirds of the route, before mounting a dauntless attack on the imposing overhang. A good deal of effort later, and after only a few choice words, the route is done and its time to move on.
Time has passed quickly and it's now late in the day. Before we pack up and go home we decide to undertake a repel from a quiet spot on the the crag. Miny is deserted and looks like a great choice. Using a static line I rig an equalised anchor, making use of a figure of eight on a bite. The knot provides two loops; a releasable abseil rope is attached to one loop whilst a safety line is attached to the other. The group is gathered at a safe area at the top of the crag, and one by one they are attached to the safety line, moved to the abseil and attached to the abseil rope with a figure of eight descender. After final checks, and after requisitioning a Heath Robinson rope protector, the abseils begin. Ben is the first down and smashes it without any trouble. Jonty and Joe follow. My childish side rears its head and I'm the fourth down the rope, using an autoblock for safety, and Chris is the last to descend.
On the ground we engage in a brief retrospective of the days undertakings and I manage to snap a few final photographs as we pack our bags. Characteristically I am the last to finish packing and follow the group as it meanders back along the uneven path back in the direction of the road. The walk out of the crag is pleasant; the sun still providing some warmth. Arriving at the cars there is a short lived flurry of activity as equipment is gathered, repacked and parting words are exchanged. Chris and I squeeze our bags into the boot and settle in for the hour long drive back to Newcastle.
There's something very satisfying about being part of an adventure like this, and watching it draw to an end is a little disheartening. Regardless, I'm content knowing that it's an experience I can continue to appreciate and that there will be many more days like these.