I'm sat on an uncomfortable wooden chair. In front of me on the table is a cup of delightfully strong black coffee and two cellophane wrapped cakes: one a Rocky Road and the other a Chocolate Crunch. I have two cakes, quite simply, because I was unable to decide between them. You might reason that both offer the same sweet distraction, but at their hearts they are quite different chocolaty sensations. My strategy to avoid disappointment, and to circumnavigate my indecision, was to buy both cakes instead of just one. My slightly grander concern is, which crag do we climb at today? George Canning, a British politician whose career began in the 18th century, said that “indecision and delays are the parents of failure”. A statement not without truth. As I sit here, in a roadside cafe, badgered by indecision and with three eager climbers around me, I have to make a choice which will effect each of them directly. One of the climbers, Joe, has climbed with me before at one of the crags we could visit today: Kyloe Crag. I really don't want to take him back there again now. I want to be able to provide a taste of the unknown. A new adventure that he hasn't experienced before. The problem is that, as I walked from the car to the cafe, a passing area of low pressure was throwing blustery punches around the car park. From experience I know that Bowden Doors, the crag I'd like to visit, can be quite unforgiving when the winds are high, whereas Kyloe Crag is quite sheltered. In a cake inspired moment of clarity I declare that we should make our way to Bowden Doors, the closer of the two crags, assess the conditions there and move on if they are unfavourable. We can sample each and pick the nicer. With a new found direction, we file from the cafe into the car park.
The final five miles of the journey pass quickly and before we know it we're there. I slow the car to a crawl and my near side wheels roll lethargically onto the short grass of the narrow, uneven verge. In the distance I can see the lumbering contours of The Cheviot, the tallest summit in the Cheviot Hills and the last major peak on the Pennine Way. To my right Bowden Doors, a striking sandstone curtain, snakes off into the distance. In a flurry of activity car doors swing open, boot lids quickly follow and we heave bags of equipment onto our backs and shoulders. Thankfully the conditions here are much better than they were at the cafe. Minutes later the brief walk in is nothing more than a memory and we are settled below a route called Second Staircase.
Second Staircase is graded as Difficult and described in the Rockfax Northern England guide book as “a worthwhile beginners climb”. It's an ideal warm up route and will be the first to fall. We each make preparations, pulling harnesses and helmets from our packs, and when we're kitted up we undertake a brief tour of the crag, making sure to familiarise everyone with the safest descent route. Our tour ends at the top of the crag and today's three climbers; Jane, Ben and Joe, make their way back down as I begin to construct anchors at the top of Second Staircase.
The first piece, a number five Wallnut placed in a horizontal crack, is a bomber ten out of ten placement. I tie a figure of eight on the bight at one end of the rope and clip it in with a screwgate carabiner, making sure the gate is locked. To my right I spot a second placement; a 0.75 Camalot slips straight into a parallel sided crack. The rock is good, the crack not too deep, and there is little chance that the cam will walk. I clip the rope through the snapgate hanging from the Camalot's sling and measure a second, longer bight that will shortly become an overhand knot, equalising the load between each of my placements and making them both redundant. I unclip my bight, tie my overhand and reclip the bite into the snapgate. The rope now forms a Y shape between the two anchors. I add a second snapgate to the Camalot's sling, securing the rope in such a way to ensure that it cannot escape unintentionally, and I move toward the top of the climb. At a safe distance from the edge I snap a second screwgate into the belay loop of my harness and secure myself with a clove hitch. I then tie a second overhand on the bight between myself and the anchors, clip it with an HMS carabiner and adjust the tension on my clove hitch so I can stand comfortably at the edge of the crag. Almost ready.
Looking down I can see that Jane, Ben and Joe have changed from their approach shoes into their rock boots, and they're all ready to tie in. I coil seven spans of rope and drop them over the edge to the cry of “rope below”. The coils hit the slab with a subdued clap and slide to the grass below. Joe is the first to tie in. He prepares a figure of eight knot at his end of the rope, and, whilst he’s doing that, I tie an Italian hitch at my end. I reach back and clip it into the HMS, screw the gate shut and test the knot. It's smooth and ready to go. When I look down I can see that Joe has almost finished. Jane and Ben take a second to check his work and he's ready to climb. I haul the slack through the Italian hitch and shout “on belay”, which is Joe's signal to climb.
The route starts in the centre of the slab below and follows a rightward leaning crack. The top of the crack leads to a wall on the right side of the slab and gives way to a spacious ledge. The wall above the ledge offers steeper, harder climbing, but is short lived. It's not long before Joe is sitting by the anchors untying from the rope. Jane follows in a similarly agile fashion, and Ben is the last to climb, also cruising the route.
With one route down, I consult the guidebook to find our second. To the right of Second Staircase is a route named Deception Crack, which begins up the same slab. The route is graded Very Difficult and receives a single star. I move the gear the short distance and again I choose to belay directly from the anchors. I set up the same system and again throw my seven coils to the group below.
Jane, Ben and Joe are all vigilant, safety conscious climbers. I know this having instructed them at Newburn Activity Centre’s indoor climbing wall. They work well as a group and meticulously check each other's knots as they prepare to climb the steep, widening crack above them. In a similar fashion to the previous route, each of them executes a clean ascent, making the climb look all too easy. Time to up the grade again.
The third route we choose is named Black and Tan, so called because a black flake at the bottom of the route, offering a tricky start, gives way to an easier tan coloured crack above. Black and Tan is graded Severe 4c and receives two stars for quality. Again the team deliver the route a good pasting and it’s not long before we’re deciding on route four.
Next on the list is Grovel Groove, graded Severe 4a and receiving two stars in the guide. The route begins as an awkward leftward slanting groove, but quickly leads to a Y shaped recess which presents solid, juggy holds. True to form, the group top out, one by one, without any real drama, each happy to have conquered the demanding moves encountered en route.
Climbing aside, the south westerly aspect of the crag has really helped to make the day. The sun is now high in the sky and bathing the rock in an almost unfamiliar warmth. In truth winter has been kind and conditions largely mild, but this is the first time this year that I have felt compelled to discard layers rather than augment existing ones. Especially unusual given that I am the least active member of the party. Sitting at the top of the crag, belaying for the other members of the group, I have a stunning view of the valley below and the hills beyond. Beneath me, I can see our troop relaxing in the sun, occasionally snacking on goodies concealed in rucksacks and preparing for their time to climb. There really is no better way to spend a day in the county.
To the right of Grovel Groove is a route called The Scoop. From the ground it looks as though you might expect given the name: a large depression high in the face, not dissimilar to the first gouge created by the tip of a breadknife being drawn across the top of a refrigerated block of butter. At Very Severe 4c, and boasting two stars in the guide, the route provides a challenging start, except for the tall. Like those before it, the route eventually falls, but not without some unorthodox monkey business around the foot of the climb: the first move becoming more of a team effort than a solo slaying.
A short walk north along the crag, the classic Russett Groove, graded at Very Difficult and receiving no less than three stars in the guide, is our next objective. The group are apprehensive, seeing only the routes overhanging roof, but that might be expected. In truth the route is packed with a multitude of very friendly holds and the roof is sidestepped with a short leftward traverse. At the top there is a single boulder around which a sling can be placed. Luckily the boulder is orientated in such a way to provide the perfect anchor for the route. If it were to face any other direction it would be of no use at all. Jane and Ben are the first to ascend, followed gingerly by Joe.
Now, late in the day, we gather at the foot of the crag in an area littered with belongings that have been sporadically removed from various rucksacks. We all know that we should be moving on: packing our playroom mess back into our toy boxes before bed, but none of us really wants to. Instead we elect to undertake a final climb: Flake Crack. Graded at Severe 4b and receiving a single star in the guide, we really have made the most of the routes on offer today.
Flake Crack begins at the foot of a leftward leaning slab which rises to a prominent flake above. Beyond the flake is a deep horizontal cleft and it’s from the right side of this cleft that the top out is made. The hand holds at the belay are not altogether friendly and there are some “rabbit in headlight” expressions as, one by one, each climber pops their head over top of the crag. With a little guidance, all three climbers heave themselves from the precipice and it is finally time to pack up.
The indecision of the morning is now far behind us and has been replaced with a joyful sense of fulfillment. The day appears to have passed quickly, but the feeling of agreeable weariness and the heavy steps of the walk out tell a different story. Rucksacks are languidly bundled back into cars and we offer each other parting words. We’ve managed to climb seven great routes, and everyone has shone. It may be the end of the day, but it’s the end of what has been a great day.