I was introduced to rock climbing more years ago than I’m prepared to admit, though I will own up to being 13 at the time. I remember it vividly, not because it was exhilarating but because it was traumatic.
It was on Seathwaite Slabs in the Lake District. That’s THE Lake District in the North of England, UK. Centuries ago it used to be the north of Wales (Cymru), but then the Welsh kings of England, the Tudors, got things in a muddle and it became Cumbria and part of the North of England. ‘Lake Districts’ in other parts of the world are just plagiarised. Britain is not only very good at inventing new sports which are then copied by others who are better at them (soccer; rugby; cricket; tennis (though at least we still play it on lawns!); darts; you name it!) BUT we are also very good at making up place names which then get pinched. A quick Google search shows at least 3 Manchester copies in the USA: New Hampshire, Connecticut and Tennessee. Almost certainly many more.
Back to Seathwaite Slabs. We were up in the Lake District for a week as a break from the ‘dib dibs’. It was my first climb, albeit on sloping slabs, something I would now probably not regard as a ‘climb’ but a footpath. I made the final lunge to finish, heart pounding, disco-leg, and the youth leader, a bully of a man, wrested my fingers off the rock and wouldn’t let me top-out because I had a knee on the rock giving extra friction and comfort. The message was that it was bad form to use your knees or indeed any other part of your body except hands and feet to make contact with the rock.
Bizarrely this incident flooded into my mind as I climbed a crag on Symi recently. I had trekked up to the deserted village of Gria and decided to climb the limestone crag towering above it. The rock was very aggressive, edges sharpened, scalloped for extra ‘bite’, surfaces rivuleted and pointy-toothed. Good grip for shod feet, painful on hands and fingers.
Normal practice rock-climbing is to keep your body as close to the rock as you can. Here it was the opposite. Essential to make sure there was no part of you came into contact. No knee on the rock now! Even a short impact meant blood would flow.
This kind of rock is usually only encountered when you go off-piste. If you stick to the trails in places the rock is very sharp and irregular but it’s all underfoot. Only when you start clambering up crags to get a better perspective or just because you like clambering up crags does it become an issue. Much of it is in spectacular locations.
Though not found everywhere on the island, there is similar limestone in other parts of Symi as well as on the crags above Pedi Bay, including the long ridge to the east of Nimborio Bay and cliff edges such as near Agios Vasilios.
It’s not confined to Symi. There is exactly the same kind of rock on Tilos especially on Oros Koutsoubas. If you lose the path and resort to going vertically up or down to relocate it, or go off-piste to try to get a better angle for photos, you will be come across it. It was the rock on Koutsoubas which destroyed my sandals.
And it’s not only in the Dodecanese islands. Determined to get the first draft of the book about my travels around Greece by bus finished before I head back to the UK for a few weeks, I’m spending the mornings writing and the afternoons walking. I’m now writing about The Mani, the middle of the three peninsulas of the Peloponnese, where I spent a month in June 2012. Revisiting the trekking I did there in the Viros Gorge the similarity of the rock struck me. I diverted off a path which would take me down to the floor of the gorge to climb a rock pinnacle with a tiny chapel on top and a drop of nearly 1000 feet vertically on 3 sides and stood on the same sort of sharp edge.
I find this sharpened limestone fascinating. Intricately detailed, potentially lethal, natural sculptures. I sometimes go off-piste to climb a crag with the pretext of getting a better photo but really to explore the rock and photograph that. There’s also the fact that I like to get on top of things, especially crags.
Delving in the dim recesses of memories of Geomorphology in University, more years ago than I’m prepared to admit, though I will own up to being 18 at the time, I recall that, unlike other rocks, limestone is dissolved chemically by acid in rainwater as well as by physical forces of erosion. This may be the cause of the extreme sharpness of the rock.
Great care is needed as I have found on a couple of occasions. Sometimes the footholds are like the edge of a serrated knife blade and an ankle wobble can produce claret in copious amounts. I once gingerly lowered myself off a slab and as my calf muscle tensed to take the weight the scalloped edge of rock like a bread knife cut a line down the centre of it.
Not that these crags offer traditional rock-climbing routes but ‘Extreme Bouldering’, a proposed new classification based not on the conventional considerations of technical difficulty and degree of exposure but on the risk of flesh being cut to the bone or loss of finger tips.
I don’t know, nor have ever seen, anyone climbing in gloves. With the exception of the Italian Stallion who for some reason in films in which he shows off his climbing skills always seems to wear gloves. And what about all the grunting he does? Does he do that himself or does he have a grunt double? And the lunges? A lunge exposes lack of technique …. or lack of height. Enough said. But to return to the point, gloves would be a good idea for climbing this rock, preferably laminated with Kevlar.
One of the problems with climbing on limestone crags is that because the stone has a low PSV (Polished Stone Value, a highway engineering term) some of the key holds on popular routes have become very polished and therefore slippery. Climbers on the easier routes in South East Wales and the Wye Valley know this only too well. However I doubt that the Extreme Bouldering on Symi will attract that much traffic, the skid marks are not likely to be rubber.