Onsight Frenzy Sweeps Britain

 – by Dave Pickford –  During late May, a spate of cutting-edge onsight ascents of traditional routes swept Britain, leaving the scene of UK adventure climbing at its most vibrant for decades.  Perhaps the most significant of all these took place on Sunday May 25th, when Neil Dickson made the first onsight ascent of The Hollow Man, the hardest and most serious climb on Gogarth?s North Stack Wall. The route was first lead by Andy Pollitt, seconded by Johnny Dawes, on October 2nd, 1986. Just two days later, Dawes himself made history by climbing The Indian Face (E9 6c) on Clogwyn Du?r Arddu. Both climbers agreed on a grade of E8 6b for The Hollow Man. A second ascent of the route was then quickly made by John Redhead. Redhead was the mastermind of numerous other hard climbs on the wall including The Bells! The Bells! – a serious E7 6b climbed in 1980, and arguably Britain?s first ever climb of that grade. Redhead then promptly downgraded The Hollow Man to match that of his aforementioned magnum opus. The climbing scene in North Wales at the time was intensely political, and although the climb was eventually written up at E7 6b – perhaps under the shadow of Redhead?s fearsome reputation for establishing bold new routes – many seasoned Llanberis climbers regard The Hollow Man as Wales?s first E8 and possibly Britain?s second (Johnny Dawes had climbed Gaia, E8 6b, at Black Rocks in Derbyshire in March 1986). Pollitt?s description of The Hollow Man in the Gogarth Bay section of the 1990 guidebook he authored betrays the power the line had over his emotional life at the time: ?there is no margin for error, so a strong will to survive, or better still a blatant disregard for life, will prove helpful.   Neil Dickson: at the cutting edge of hard onsight climbing in Britain.  Whilst attempting the third ascent of The Hollow Man on a freezing winter?s day in the late 1980?s , Dave Towse had an all-out epic when his fingers cramped high on the route. Redhead, who was belaying, dragged their abseil rope out far enough across the wall for Towse to reach it. The now desperate climber then made a completely unprotected lunge for the rope and swung wildly out across the cavernous mouth of Parliament House Cave, clinging on so hard he cut his hands.  Today, The Hollow Man has seen a very small handful of headpoint-style repeats in twenty-two years,. I personally inspected the climb on an abseil rope eight years ago, with a view to leading it, and felt it was too dangerous to justify: there is no meaningful protection for the sustained crux on snappy flakes, ninety feet above the boulders. There is an important difference between The Hollow Man and the few other E8 trad routes that have been onsighted to date in Britain, such as Carmen Picasso in Yorkshire by Jordan Buys or Fear of Failure in the Lake District by Dave Birkett. In contrast to those two routes, surviving a fall from the crux of The Hollow Man is extremely unlikely. This makes Dickson?s recent onsight ascent all the more remarkable.  Dave Birkett has been one of the most consistent high performers in the British trad climbing scene for well over a decade now. Barely a month goes by without Dave making either a cutting-edge first ascent or swift repeat of a significant route. Recently on excellent form, Dave made a no-nonsense onsight flash of My Piano, a dramatic and cumulatively serious E8 6c arête at Nesscliffe in Shropshire.  Dave Birkett onsighting My Piano. Courtesy of Alistair Lee (www.posingproductions.com)  Back in North Wales, on the action-packed May bank holiday weekend, Neil Gresham?s Gravediggers (also E8 6c) saw a flourish of ground-up ascents by Jack Geldard, Pete Robins and ? inevitably ? Neil Dickson. All three climbers took long falls from the crux on to a solitary, wobbly wire prior to their successful ascents. Robins in fact ripped out this wire mid-flight: his fall was then arrested by the gear below it, leaving his feet dangling inches above the ground. Robins, with his irrepressible flamboyance, then proclaimed the route ?totally safe?, and ?probably E6?. Aspirant ground-up ascensionists should take this proposition with a large pinch of salt, possibly followed by a tequila.   Click on the link to view a sample clip of Jack Geldard attempting Gravediggers from Alistair Lee?s forthcoming film, On Sight http://www.posingproductions.com/video.php?form_action=play&video_id=131  Also in the forcing ground of the Llanberis Pass, Belgian climber Nicolas Favresse made an extremely bold and impressive onsight attempt at Steve Mayers?s testpiece Nightmayer (E8 6c) on Dinas Cromlech, a route that has seen only one repeat by Tim Emmett in almost two decades. Nicolas made good progress all the way up to the final crux just below the top, where he was stopped by a baffling move on dirty rock, high above a solitary small wire. He promptly took a monster fall in front of a number of slack-jawed onlookers: fortunately, it was safely held by the wire and his partner, Sean Villanueva O?Driscoll. Favresse and Driscoll have very recently made an extremely impressive second ascent and the first single-day ascent of The Mad Brown (E7) at Gogarth, a route that has been the subject of much speculation by Wales?s top climbers since it was established by Adam Wainwright and George Smith back in 1996.   At the other end of the country, Bristol-based Chris Snell had a good day at Pentire Head in Cornwall. He warmed up by seconding a friend up Black Magic (E5 6a) and then went on to make an onsight second ascent of the first, bold E6 pitch of my own route Wall of Spirits (the E8 second pitch of which was repeated by Dave Henderson headpoint-style back in 2005). It?s worth pointing out here that onsighting an E6 – particularly an unrepeated one – very often demands a somewhat higher level of determination, skill, and commitment than climbing an E7 after top-rope practise.  The author headpointing the first ascent of Wall of Spirits (E8 6b, 6b) on The Great Wall at Pentire Head in Cornwall back in 2004. Photo courtesy of Mike Robertson (www.wildartproductions.co.uk). Today, there is a very real possibility of routes like this being successfully climbed onsight.  Both Birkett?s ascent of My Piano and the nail-biting multiple ascents of Gravediggers were captured by filmmaker Alistair Lee for his new film – On Sight – due to be on general release later this year (seewww.posingproductions.com for more information). It is interesting here to note how the zeitgeist-stirring 1997 movie Hard Grit by Slackjaw Films (www.slackjaw.co.uk) inspired an era of frenzied headpoint-style climbing on the gritstone outcrops of northern England at the turn of the new millennium. The high drama of this latest flurry of hard onsight ascents of bold traditional routes around Britain strongly pre-empts the first screening of Lee?s film. And Slackjaw?s film, Hard XS, which is on release, also features a number of very bold onsight ascents by British climbers. Today, as the standard of onsight sport climbing on the international stage rockets into the stratosphere of F8c+, it seems clear that top climbers in this country are also pushing the traditional boundaries of our sport in a thrilling way. All this seems to strongly anticipate a new age of rock climbing worldwide where, above all else, ?onsight rules?, and where a philosophy of adventure holds sway over the pursuit of numbers.  After more than two decades of relentless grade-chasing among the international elite, Neil Dickson?s extraordinary achievement on North Stack Wall in May 2008 is a powerful re-enlightenment of the original spirit of uncertainty, risk, and exploration that lies at the heart of British rock climbing.