Before I left for Chamonix with Alan Mullin this winter a friend of mine told me a story about a recent trip to Scotland with Mick Fowler, new routing on the basalt cliffs of Sky. Now, this guy climbs grade VII’s for fun but the experience left him speechless. Loose, dangerous and bold, ground-up, onsight, on terrain where you never knew if you’d find a belay let alone, runners. Both took falls and both cheated. If they were to be graded conventionally these routes would be as hard as any VIII in the Northern Corries, but Fowler being Fowler graded them as ‘solid’ V’s. After all, how can your give that kind of route, climbed in ‘dubious’ style, the same grade as a proper new wave route that has taken four days of pre-practice, where your fixed runners may be dangerously weakened by rust and UV?
I’d never climbed with Alan before but it seemed we both come from similar backgrounds, both ignorant and stupid enough to swim out of our depths. Bad weather kept me from dragging him onto the Grandes Jorasses where I knew I’d be as strong as him and blew us over to Cogne in Italy instead where I knew I’d be in trouble. To be honest I didn’t actually like him that much, though he lacked humility, and soon frustration saw us fighting in the street. Very Haston and Smith. I thought he needed to learn some respect, so I found the steepest most dangerous cliff around and pushed him towards it. “What’s the worst that could happen, Alan?”
Inspired by Fowler, inspired to fail or die trying, we climbed three pitches, up to ground not that dissimilar to the Cow on Gogarth. Un-solid E4 6a, by accident putting a two-pitch extension to a Haston M8 called Gelleti along the way. Full-blooded and ground up, Birdbeaks instead of bolts, eyes on stalks and heads up, every crack into which you hammered a peg seemingly a weakness that held the looseness in check. Before long the base of the wall looked like a clumsy stonemason was at labouring above, a dull thumping that echoed around the valley that signified men at work. I’m not afraid to admit that in the nine hours of leading we used every technique in the book to get up those pitches, fair and foul.
When Alan reached the top of the crux pitch and answered my question about how good the belay was by shouting that he had “A fucking awesome copperhead…mate” I was the one who had to learn some respect.
Down on the ground, in the darkness, maybe we should have felt guilty about the lack of style, weak bastards on terrain built for logo gods. Instead, we laughed and acted like friends instead of just climbing partners, hyped up by the steep craziness.
We talked about grades, I suggested we should grade it as a solid ‘Ken Dodd three-star.’ In the end, we thought that a combined grade and name of ‘XS is Not enough’ sounded fair.
Why didn’t we just keep quiet, leave the Velvia in the bag and play our own game, one aside? Unfortunately, our sponsors were paying for this holiday so we had to kick the ball about a bit.
Note: This story was written for On The Edge magazine sometime around 1999 (I think). Alan died in 2007.