Paul Pritchard - Lost In The Broccoli Garden
On March 29th we ran an online event with Niall Grimes interviewing Paul Pritchard. It was fab. You can watch a recording of the event here.
During the talk Paul referred to a chapter from his first book, Deep Play. It is with great pleasure that Vertebrate Publishing have agreed to let us publish the chapter, which was the first piece of writing Paul had published in a climbing magazine. Paul is writing a new book ,which will be published by Vertebrate later this year, called The Mountain Path.
Also, following the talk Paul took the time to go through the questions that had been posted in the chat, and very kindly answered each and every one of them. They are at the bottom of this page.
Resources & Links from the talk:
Paul Pritchard - http://www.paulpritchard.com.au
Niall Grimes - http://www.niallgrimes.com
Paul's Totem Pole Book - https://www.v-publishing.co.uk/books/narratives/the-totem-pole/
Paul's Deep Play book - https://uk.bookshop.org/shop/ShAFF
Niall's Book - https://www.boulderbritain.com
CHAPTER THREE - DEEP PLAY
LOST IN THE BROCCOLI GARDEN
It was a vile day and the gigantic breakers from the Irish sea were surging halfway up the 400-foot wall, drenching the cliff top with spray. I came away with vivid impressions of dripping, disintegrating granite set at a thought-provoking angle.
— Tom Patey commenting on Gogarth’s Red Walls, Climbers’ Club Journal, 1966
It was in 1986 that the hard climbers returned to Gogarth, and in that year an insular band of the young and not-so-young subjected the ‘Mother of all rock’ to a bombardment of frightening and characterful new routes. That same year my intense relationship with the Red Walls began.
There are two Red Walls, a left one and a right one. High, vertiginous, wedge-shaped sheets of ancient quartzite, separated by a knife-edge promontory. The oldest rock in Britain some say. The right-hand wall became public property in 1966 when its first ascent went out on television, live. The show was called Cliffhangers and involved the likes of Joe Brown, Ian McNaught-Davis, Royal Robbins and Tom Patey. This wall is a contorted and sensuously confusing place to be. Parallel shallow dykes of sandy, horned grovelling nearly always lead the climber into a cul-de-sac and the shape of the wall is perspectively deceiving, luring you over the edge when you stop at the tourist viewpoint.
The left-hand wall is different. A crimson headboard to the sea bed. From a distance the upper two-thirds appear featureless and ill at ease atop the lower third, a warped and undercut wave of a soft grey chalky substance. To be on the wall is to be on a vertical desert of pocketed rock, and as a desert, seething with hidden life. Sea slaters and springtails disperse in all directions from behind the odd loose hold and the face is also host to some huge spiders (likened to my prematurely aged digits). Rare flora also abounds; round comfortable cushions of green cling to the wall which is also one of the few haunts of the Mad Sea Broccoli.
I’d only been to Gogarth once before, when I’d waltzed up Positron, stopping occasionally to gaze into the exposure. I’d laughed and shook my head in disbelief all the way. Then, looking for an enjoyable climb to finish the day on, Gwion Hughes and I rapped into the Red Walls for the first time. After being puked on by an ugly ball of fluff, we crouched at the bottom of the route Mein Kampf. Uninspiringly, the first pitch looked quite horrific, but looks can be deceiving. They weren’t. It was a loose and awful climb to the belay ledge and then it was my turn to puke through a mixture of the smell and the terror. We escaped up the wall’s namesake and vowed never to return. That night in the Padarn, over calming beers, one of the older guys revealed to us that Mein Kampf hadn’t been repeated after seven years. So that was it, we were back there the next day, climbing a little direct variation too. For me it was love at second sight.
When sprawled out in comfort on the belay ledge of Left-Hand Red Wall it’s hard to miss the hanging flake of Schittlegruber. I was gobsmacked to learn that no one had climbed that flake so I rapped in and inspected it. I found an overhanging scoop with only a meagre scattering of holds leading up to the jagged shield of the flake. The scoop looked hard and difficult to protect and, once again, looks weren’t deceiving. The climb, with Nick Harms, went OK, I was taking well to this type of climbing, and the line came to be one of the classic hard routes of the island. It was repeated quickly, for Gogarth, by Yorkshire men Dave Green and Clive Davis who likened it to Gordale Scar’s Mossdale Trip, a famous tottering pile of limestone. I wondered whether this was complimentary or not.
The wall drew me further in, to the central sweep right of the Heart of Gold. Rappeling down and discovering continuous lines of pockets and seams, it was like unwrapping a surprise parcel. And once I’d torn it open it was just the gift I’d been waiting for. In 280 feet I managed to find one peg placement, a poor downward-pointing knife-blade, which would have to serve as a belay. With Moose (Mike Thomas) I descended to the foot of the route. I set off on a tramline of sandy pockets in the grey wave. The first protection came after fifty feet of overhanging pocket-picking, taking care not to snap off the brittle edges. It was a briefcase-sized block detached on five sides and attached on its smallest end. Once looped it had to be laybacked and manteled. The bloated bodies of the Monster Alien Spiders wait for prey at the roof. I pull by and gain a foot-cramping rest on a hanging porcelain slab a little higher. I arrange a clutch of shallow protection in the blind seams in front of my face and begin what looks like three bodylengths of wicked dink-pulling. I gained height in convulsions. Classical music I’d heard in some car advertisement droned through my brain. I stopped being scared and, after an age of schizophrenic debate, I convinced myself that I could not fall off. I then began to look at myself rather than the rock. It was as though my body climbed while I gazed on … Peg. Stop. A threadbare stance in the middle of this Broccoli Garden.
I wasn’t experiencing the anticipated satisfaction of completing such a frightening pitch. It was the numbness. And it was also that I was hanging on a tied off knife-blade with one small foot-hold. There were some tiny slots that would take RPs, there and here, but I’d used all four of mine on the pitch below. “Please don’t fall off, Moose,” I shouted down, but not too loudly so as not to worry him about the state of the belay. He didn’t come off and we filled every imagined nut placement optimism could provide. Expecting the next pitch to be OK, I tried to send the Moose up it, but every time an RP popped out of the belay and we dropped another heartstopping inch, our nervous disorders got worse. After a valiant attempt he refused. I led up and, quivering, pulled off the boulder problem, a slap for a tiny edge a bodylength above a nut in a wobbly block. I flopped over the rim trounced, with the buzz of an arsonist (I remembered the burning moors). Sitting on top and trying to calm down with ice-creams, we wondered if the runners or the belay would have held what would have been a long free fall. I attempted to question why I went for those moves when I could have backed off, reversed down, but no one answered. (Did I ever pause to ponder as the hospital curtains turned to yellow?)
A murky September day. The sea mist, the diffused flashing of the South Stack lighthouse. The distant subterranean boom of the North Stack foghorn. A melancholy mood. The dull lapping of the waves reverberates around the huge Gothic archway at the very base of the wall. Having just failed an on-sight attempt on the shale corner at the back of the arch, which we dubbed Television Set Groove, I passed two limp rope-ends to Johnny (Dawes). Silently he tied in and set off up the actual arête of the arch. I dodged the falling blocks for over an hour. To us the impact of the rocks made loud crashes but the fog would eat up any sound we made, swallow our cries for help. Did anyone know we were down here? Then a large part of the arête came off and I instinctively locked off the brake plate, waiting for the exploding gear placements. He screamed and began to fall, I saw it, but then he caught hold of the rock again and continued upwards, up the grey wave. After swinging around a short roof and pulling off more quartz rockery blocks, Johnny found a Friend belay in a wide crack. The crack went up to an apex and then back down to the lip of a giant roof further to the right. I struggled up the arête and approached the belay.
Johnny stared at me with an expressionless face. Something was wrong. It took a while to place it, and then I sniffed. It was the smell, the smell of fresh soil coming from inside the crack. We looked at each other still in silence. The crack formed one side of a bus-sized block which had recently slipped. The block was the roof. It wasn’t supported from below, only from above by, perhaps, some kind of vacuum suction. Johnny’s only belay was constructed of three shifting Friends in the crack. With hardly a word I set off on the next unprotected traverse pitch. I edged sideways with loose spikes for my hands and dinnerplates for my feet, right on the lip, which kept snapping off. I glanced back at Johnny, just a loop of slack rope between us. If I fell would the centrifugal force be enough to bring the stance down? My head begins to swim with fear so I concentrate on the mosaic of bubbles and ridges just beyond the end of my nose and keep on blindly feeling to my right. Eight feet from the corner now where the promontory meets the wall and the loneliness begins to shake me. Boom, flash, boom, flash go the other inhabitants of Gogarth. The fulmars and guillemots seem strangely quiet. After a seeming eternity on one small muscle-cramping foothold, Gwion and Trevor appeared on the ramp. They broke the cathedral-like atmosphere with their chatting and laughter and this cheered me across to the last jump move into the corner. One, two, three … No, I can’t. Yes, you can. I can’t. You can. An internal pantomime raged in my head. One, two, three … Yes, gotcha! I clung onto the grass tufts of the slabby side of the promontory. It was all over. Come to Mother, we like to think, stood as a monument to on-sight climbing for five more months, before the roof collapsed of its own accord.
The next month I was back again, this time with Trevor Hodgson. I stole a fine direct on the second pitch of Heart of Gold and followed Carlos, as he was then known, up a short, hard direct start to Cannibal. But these were only to be fillers in before a new episode began.
In my search for unclimbed rock I began to visualise an almost imperceptible line between Heart of Gold and The Enchanted Broccoli Garden. It was a line marked by its lack of flakes, cracks and corners and would follow small edges and pockets from one tiny seam to the next. The first pitch had a small roof to be surmounted and the holds were hidden under wet tufts of grass. I climbed, ice axe in hand, cleaning as I traversed the initial overhang. Two king spiders watched me place a peg. This time they made me feel good. I took a fall whilst leaping across the overhang. The peg moves but holds. The thought crosses my mind that the spiders have smiled and granted me one fall. Next time up brings the Heart of Gold stance, once rumoured to be iffy but now recognised as bombproof in comparison with its neighbour. Nick, my partner for the day, refused to follow me so we left. Four months later an exceptionally bitter January day found Gwion and me sliding back down to the belay to attempt the next two pitches. Pudding and debauchery weighed heavily on my stomach and conscience, as I contemplated the accumulation of Christmas calories. The middle pitch only took a few minutes because there was no gear to slow me down, just clip the belay and go for the layback. And there I was again at the dreaded Broccoli Belay. Silently, I sighed with relief when Gwion shouted over that he was bailing out.
It seemed to be becoming increasingly difficult to find rope-holders for my escapades, so I jumped at the chance when Bob Drury offered his services. It was the last day of January and on the first day of February the seasonal bird ban came into effect. The rock had trickles of water but it had to be today or not at all. We slid over the edge from a world of coach tours and ice-creams back into the tilted desert. Two opposite universes separated by a right-angle. At the hanging stance Bob was intent on clipping into the abseil rope but I threw it well out of his reach. I began to regret my decision as I repeatedly almost came off whilst attempting to rock over onto a slimy nipple. Three times I contrived to scrape back down barndoor laybacks to the minimal sanctuary of the Broccoli Belay and re-psych. I squeaked the inside edge of my left boot and climbed up to the nipple on my outside edge. That gave me just enough stick and I rocked over; the only consolation a Rock One in soft red rock. The face above is steep and carpeted. I brush the hairy lichen from the rock with my hand and it floats into my eye. There is no more protection. I begin to shake, then I go beyond shaking and once again my mind enters that realm of depersonalisation. I move away from the rock and come back with a crash at the end of all the difficulties, retching, about to puke. Sitting on top of this Super Calabrese, watching the clouds billowing out on the Irish Sea and, beyond, the Wicklow Mountains silhouetted by the setting sun, which then begins to play a trick on us and lifts the mountains so that they are floating on shimering stilts, I am numb and unaware of what I have done. It never really attained a relevance.
I climbed some more routes on the Red Walls, but the big lines had gone. There is something sad about a cliff becoming worked out – for me it’s a sign to move on. But there were still a couple of blanks in the guidebook that I wanted to fill. At last I found a keen partner in Pete Johnstone and we took residence in South Stack bogs in the winter of ’88. Over a couple of freezing days we climbed Outside the Asylum, because we were alone in an insane world, and Salem, named after a famous Welsh painting depicting worldly vanity – a woman comes into chapel late so that the congregation will notice her new shawl, and in the folds of the shawl is the face of the Devil. The folds and contortions of the rock reminded me of that shawl.
I don’t often go back there now, but I do remember a daydream – of becoming entangled in one of those viscid webs, cocooned, to be excised as a Monster Alien Spider, to face my existence, shuffling silently, watching and soloing on that red wall.
 A pun on Schicklgruber – Hitler’s family name.
Below are Paul's answers to the questions posted in the chat during the talk.
06:27:11 From Julie H : Maybe misfits recognise and understand each other that also helps create a crazy band of brothers?
I agree with you Julie. But what brought all these misfits together in the first place? The politics of the time – very unique circumstances.
06:29:59 From Simon Turner : I climbed the wire in the quarries after seeing you on a berghaus poster - we ended up having an epic and abbing off in the dark ... I blame you for that Paul
Sorry about that Simon. I remember a loads of rust raining down into my eyes!
06:30:12 From Mike Huntington : Chip butty offered free cos you're skint
06:32:35 From Simon Turner : You’re not Paul, it was a different time then... for the better.
And I’m a different person now to what I was then. We all are. My cells have completely changed four times since those days.
06:39:23 From Ann Kelly : Contextualise the times, the government didn't care about anyone - miners strikes etc and young people can be hedonists. But climbers were actually doing something relatively constructive with their time and out of it many of today's climbing brands were born
Well Said Ann. I think I touched on how the unemployed climbers of 80s Llanberis actually helped build the outdoor tourist industry that it enjoys today. Weird irony there.
06:50:13 From Simon Turner : Climbers are unique in that we have no elitism, we’re all in it together.
Climbers are unique eh? They’re not really competing against each other. I actually think team sports shore up capitalism. I believe we should all be helping each other every day, not competing against each other. But then I grew up in Bolton, very near Rochdale, the birthplace of the Co-op.
07:00:32 From Allison Dunne : when is the book out? It sounds amazing Paul?
Later this year Alison. Sign up to the Vertebrate News Letter.
07:01:29 From Peter Goulding : I’d be keen to hear about him down the Great Canopy Camp Out in Tas
Hi Peter, The native forests of Tasmania are amazing. The eucalyptus trees are the tallest flowering plants on earth at 90m and half the state is uninterrupted forest. But it is being destroyed. Check out the bobbrownfoundation.org
Congratulations again Peter. ‘Slatehead’ is a fine book.
07:06:47 From Rachael Flynn : Question for Paul - I’m an occupational therapist and have worked with many people with brain injuries. I also climb and am interested in helping people to get back into the outdoors following a brain injury. Watching you climbing with JD with your splints on was totally inspiring! Any tips or techniques you give me on how people can adapt to the physical effects when climbing following a brain injury?
All brain injuries are different. But lots include some kind of hemiparesis. As you will know the brain is an incredibly plastic organ and will adapt on it’s own (to a certain extent) just by climbing, and climbing, and climbing. I have to pad my affected side with body armour. If I don’t I with get to the top a bloody mess! But this involved a lot of trial and error. Perhaps I should do a little film on climbing with a brain injury as strokes are becoming more popular as people live longer.
07:07:28 From Simon Turner : As a fellow Bolton lad, you were one of my inspirations in the local scene when I started climbing in 1984. What is your favourite Wilton 3 route and why?
Oh wow Simon, well, Rappel Wall was my first climb. But Shivers Arete is a great climb. Quite necky up to the peg then brilliant moves past the peg. Also The Grader, Me and Phil Kelly used to do laps on that with Phils bum bag filled with antique pennies.
07:11:06 From stuart rhodes : With your new book The Mountain Path about the old times or by the sounds of it from your reading what made you choose Hazel Findlay for the forward?
Hazel was the perfect person for writing the foreword. The Mountain Path has a lot of my thoughts on how we can live our lives to the best, with courage and strength. With her background in philosophy, she is a fantastic person to write the foreword. Also, we are both Vipassana meditators, and that technique shows you how the pains we face can be a precious gift. Plus, I've known Hazel since she was 8!