1 October 2011

Perceptions of Dawes

Jonny Dawes talked  at the Harrogate Climbing Centre last night. He has a book coming out - Full of Myself and this seemed a chance for him  to build up a head of steam before publication. I had leapt at the chance to see him speak as  the last time was 25 years ago in the back room of a pub in Hathersage when he was the new kid in town and I was just a kid in town. Much had happened to us both since.

He started with some insights into his childhood. I had known he was a posh boy but not how comfortable and glamorous his childhood was. The son of a doctor who had counted John Bonham as a patient "he kept telling him to drink less". His parents were motor sport obsessives and there were pictures of Monaco and Le Mans. He had got in to scrapes at an early age trying to get over a 100 in his dads race prepared Porsche on the family drive. He did, but stopping once he had proved more difficult.

We also got pictures of a young JD stood on a Lilo age maybe 8. Not a trick few of us will ever repeat. He climbed all over his house, prep school and  then did the same at Uppingham. So his talent whilst honed on the grit of the Peak was certainly being trained at a tender age. There seemed a massive dose of natural ability there as well.

What stood out was his matter of fact bravery in what he would take on. He stood and  looked at the same rocks in the Peak as I did in the 1980's. I and most other people at the time saw impossibility or death, Dawes saw potential. He has talked in the past about how these "last great problems" needed a new dynamic approach to be climbed. His fearless and movement centred approach tore into Peak climbing in a way few have ever done.  The exception being during the 50 and 60's  when Joe Brown and Don Whillans climbed every crack that was left.  Dawes gave us routes like The End of the Affair and Gaia these are real quality and few take them on even now.  He reflected on the 1980's peak scene with "It was quieter on the crag in the 1980's. You could hear yourself think on the rock. Or even sometimes hear yourself not think."

Anyone who followed the arc of his career knows that a move to Snowdonia eventually led to him climbing one of Wales's last great problems in the form of the scoop on Cloggy that everyone called Masters Wall. Everyone had tried it, everyone  had either slithered off to one side or the other, or fell back down. Some people falling a long way.

He has written at length about what became the Indians Face and he spoke some more about what must have been a lonely and uncertain step into the unknown, of a kind few have taken before or since. It seemed that he was to a certain extent motivated by a desire for fame with this one, as much as a love of the climbing. You got the feeling he felt backed into a corner of his own making and  had no choice but to take it on. Fame followed in the national press and the international climbing press. It  was some line and still is. Two ascents later in a few decades and the photo still has  pride of place on the wall in Pete's Eats. This route more than any other defines what Dawes achieved.

There was some nice video footage of him soloing a huge blankish flared groove in a flooded Leicestershire quarry above a submerged fang of rock. His exit strategy being if he fell, to push out as he went and land in the water beyond the fang. It looked like it might have worked but it wouldn't have done for me.
There was a one handed ascent of Downhill Racer on Frogatt  whilst an arial camera spun and panned adding a weird vertigo to Dawes' mesmeric and occasionally unbelivable  rock dance.

There was also contradictions blind alleys and frustration. When he read his prose from the book he was gripping. He writes well and he hears sounds and rhythms in life in the same way I suspect he hears moves over rock. When he just talks his mind sometimes races. He got lost in what seems to be a high speed train of thought "Sorry I was trying to explain four things at once there". Or "bolted climbing is not the same as on sighting its just  climbing with bolts'. Him clearly rubbishing it as a past time.  Then half of what he showed being bolted.

I suppose you should never meet your heroes and Dawes is as close to a hero as I have ever had. When you meet them they are more real, more ordinary, flawed and driven and less rounded than you wanted. Their great  deeds lead you to implant impossible qualities onto to people who are just really good at one thing.  Perhaps what came out of the evening for me is if Dawes had heroes he never mentioned them in such terms. He was interested in setting the pace not following it. So sitting there I felt like a fraud and thought  that I don't  need heroes  because having them allows me to get away with my own mediocrity. Because Jonny was out there doing it all  for me.

Dawes is complex but he is definitely not mediocre. I will be buying the book though, not to give me answers or to worship a hero, just to see how it felt to be first on the grid in the past time I have been absorbed by too.

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