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Photo: Andy Pollitt hanging out at La Palud campsite, Verdon Gorge. Photo John Kirk
Legendery Welsh climber, Andy Pollitt – rock star and true character of the 80s and 90s – died on the 13th November after suffering a cerebral aneurysm which subsequently proved fatal.
Andy was one of those brilliant and fearless rock climbers from those halcyon climbing days of the 80s and 90s. Although he put up some heinous routes of his own, and repeated many of the top routes of the time, his main game was to do second ascents of the hardest routes, but on sight. He climbed with many of the top climbers during his tenure at the top and was also a great story teller.
Amongst many others, some of his notable trad first ascents were Skinhead Moonstomp (E6 6b), Hollow Man (E8 6b), both at Gogarth and Knocking on Heaven’s Door (E9 6c), at Curbar Edge in the Peak. One of his more remarkable sends was his onsight “first repeat” of John Redhead’s, The Bells The Bells (E7 6b), also at Gogarth – A tale he tells in his brilliant autobiography Punk in the Gym – without a doubt the best climbing autobiography or biography I have ever read.
I remember the book well and gave it a deservedly great review in an earlier issue of SA Mountain magazine. Then quite unexpectedly, about a month later, I received a phone call from Andy, from Australia (where he lived), thanking me for my kind words about his book. We ended up chatting about climbing in the good old days and climbing here in SA, etc. And when I put the phone down, I shouted down to Patsy, my wife, “You won’t believe who I have just been chatting with on the phone. Andy Pollitt!” Fact is, I hardly believed it myself.
RIP Andy, it was an honour to have spoken to one of Britain’s climbing legends.
Condolences to family and friends
Punk in the gym
by Andy Pollitt
Published by Vertebrate Publishing
A5 plus, 320 pages with 32 full colour pages
£18.99 online from Amazon Kindle
£24.00 hard copy from www.v-publishing.co.uk
Review by Tony Lourens
Let me just start off by saying that this is the best biography or autobiography I have ever read. And I don’t mean about climbing, I mean the best biography, period. True, I can’t say I have read many non-climbing biographies (although I have read a few of what I think are the gooduns), but I don’t think I’m far off when I say I have read probably ninety per cent of all climbing biographies, from way back in the day (Bonatti, Mauzeud, Rebuffet, Bonington, et al) to the modern-day writings of Moffat, Moon and McClure, etc. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve enjoyed each and every one of those books, experiencing their exciting lives with them page by page. But Pollitt’s book takes biographies to a whole different level.
Although it is intensely about climbing, and his passion and obsession with climbing at the very top of the pile comes bursting through in no uncertain terms, his tales of life around climbing – his almost equal passion for the ‘good life’ (wine, women and song), is hugely entertaining and often extremely funny (haha)!
Many a night, while reading in bed, I would burst out laughing, and my wife would want to know what was so funny. So I would end up reading long excerpts to her aloud, so we could both enjoy Pollitt’s extremely descriptive, ‘say it as it is’ writing.
Pollitt grew up in the ’70s and ’80s; smack bang in the middle of the golden era of extreme, ‘boaty’ climbing. Before the real onset of sport climbing, but after the advent of harnesses, chalk and sticky rubber. This meant if you had the ability you could climb really hard, but because it was mainly totally trad, many of the extreme routes were terrifyingly runout, often to the point of looking at ground falls from waaaay up.
And Pollitt certainly had the ability. Talented and strong, he was a prolific new router, opening tons of routes in Wales and also the Peak, but he was also fanatical about getting second (or very early) ascents of other new desperates. One that stood out for me in his book was the story of his second ascent (onsight) in 1886, of John Redhead’s The Bells, The Bells!, on North Stack Wall, Gogarth, which, when opened in 1980, was the first E7 in the country, and by all accounts had (and still has) an X rating. His tale (which can be read in this issue of SA Mountain, as an excerpt from his book), is masterfully written, and has you on the edge of your seat for four palm-sweating pages, dragging the reader through every sequence and near death fall in his three-hour escapade to claim this coveted ascent. He then goes on to put up The Hollow Man, an E8, essentially a direct of The Bells, a few months later, with Johnny Dawes.
Many big names hailed from that era – Fawcett, Moffatt, Redhead, Dawes and Moon, to mention just a few, and Pollitt was right there with them, pushing the limits of climbing, which at the time was probably the hardest and scariest stuff any climbers were doing anywhere in the world. Pollitt’s book is an amazing journey, weaving together many of these names during this period, bringing to light brilliant stories and mind-bending tales of life as an obsessive dirtbag climber. A climber always striving to be the best (and for a time he certainly was up there with the best).
In the early ’90s, Pollitt became obsessed with the iconic route, Punks in the Gym, a route put up by Wolfgang Güllich, at Mount Arapiles in Australia. It was the world’s first 8b+ and Pollitt desperately wanted the second ascent. Sadly this was not to be. He spent 44 days spread over three trips across two years, before he finally succeeded, but not before his great friend Jerry Moffatt, took the coveted second ascent from under his nose in a mere two days, followed shortly by Sean Myles. Pollitt then promptly gives up climbing – totally and for good. Right there on the ground he lowered off on after his ascent of Punks.
Punk in the Gym is a brilliant book in every respect, written from the heart with no punches pulled. It portrays Andy’s life as a climber, a womaniser and a lover of lots of beer and other stuff. It is exciting, scary, hilarious, riveting, bizarre and absurd, but at the same time, sad and melancholy in places.
If you only read one climbing autobiography, there is no question that this is the one to get.
In fact, I am about to start it all over again from page one. And I have never done that with any book before, with the exception of Lord of the Rings – now that is saying something.
The second ascent (onsight) of one of the hardest routes (at the time) in Britain.
An extract from Andy Pollitt’s autobiography, Punk in the Gym.
I thoroughly enjoyed the game of snooker. Its angles, technicality and the need to always ‘think three moves ahead’ – so be mindful of ‘position’. Always. And chalk your tips often too …
We’re being very silly young men on a quartzite rock face so are deserved of the wooden spoon across the back of the legs from our mums. Lord only help us when Dad gets home and finds out what we’ve been up to … Quick, hide under the bed, I hear his clomping footsteps ascending the stairs.
We were on North Stack Wall that day you see.
Akin to a giant of a stowed-away billiard table – resting on its long side and leaning against the wall behind the comfy settee of the ‘man-cave’ that is Parliament House. Unused and unloved for quite some time. My fluffy old slippers and dressing gown set to one side. All my Rocks, tape slings and Friends scattered on top – thrown hurriedly so’s not to miss the tide.
I took commitment and self-belief to extraordinary levels for an onsight attempt to repeat The Bells, The Bells! It was six years since JR (John Redhead – Ed) had metaphorically ‘shook up the (climbing) world’ – à la Cassius Clay back in the late sixties – but I believed (or had convinced myself anyway) that I could do it. I figured I’d have to get at least sixty feet up it without falling. To fall any lower would only result in permanent disability. Quadriplegia. Wheelchair and full-time carer for the rest of my life. Maybe one wink for ‘yes’, two for ‘no’ in ten years’ time and all for a bloody rock climb. That was my greatest fear, not death; and I approached it, stewing all the same, in that headspace.
Mark Leach recently reminded me of a bizarre incident that happened shortly before I squeaked my boots and chalked up with butterflies and heavy breaths: after Bernard had dropped us at the South Stack car park Mark kept a safe distance behind me as we strolled across the heathery hilltop – I was not really talking. Quiet, deep – very deep – in thought, and psyching myself up for something momentous (Mark had an inkling and shuddered, thinking quite wisely that I was best left alone). But then I stopped dead in my tracks and bowed down, leaning over shouting something that Mark couldn’t quite grasp over the wind. Quickening his pace he caught up – my face and hands were an absolute mess of bright red blood. I’d worked myself up that much I’d brought on a massive nosebleed and the claret was streaming out of both nostrils. All over the place it was, so we tilted my head back and I pinched the bridge of my beak, blood literally pumping out of both holes whilst I spat out great congealed blobs of the stuff that had run back into my throat. He knew I ‘got off’ on North Stack Wall. He’d never been there before, so turning the next bluff and sighting that deserted and blank-looking face he knew I was having a case of ‘the shivers’; he then shuddered once more.
We abseil in and pull down our ropes, committed. So I set off up damp crunching barnacles till I’m above the highest water mark and can clean and resqueak my boots. Now, here’s an opportunity to invite someone along – any takers?
‘Come on, it’s a Go-Pro view! OK, you’d rather not? I understand, I really do.’ Tell you what then: read this next chapter hanging off your door lintel. You can bridge against the sides but no Egyptian no-handers. And no underclinging the far lintel, that’s cheating!
‘Tell us when you’re pumped.’ I was on the route for three hours … just wishing there was a lintel-sized hold somewhere … and a decent flipping runner!
‘See ya at the top Mark,’ I call over.
‘OK. Good luck, I’m watching.’
So come with me now anyway; we climb 5b cracks up the start of The Cad, draping slings over spikes and weighing them down with the ‘steelies’, two apiece, clipping in only the left-hand pink rope until we gain an obvious line of flakes hovering above a faint rightward traverse covered in green fur. This sideways runner at the start’s OK if I (we) were to fall now, as it also should go on pink – but will rotate and rip if I’m even five feet away and I’m going a good twenty by the looks of it.
‘Anything else? There, here, fuck … ’ Keep traversing. Keep searching for protection. ‘Still bloody nuthin.’ It’s OK climbing, 5c, 6a maybe, but there’s no bloody gear and I’m weighed down with the stuff. There’s a pleasant little platform waiting at the end of the traverse and we rock-over steadily until standing in balance, ‘That wasn’t so bad now was it?’
‘Now, where are the runners for blue, see them?’ I wiper-blade the rock and brush my hand over it to swipe off the fuzz, with eyes and mouth closed tight after a deep breath. Again and again I do this, covering myself in the arid shit until a tiny flake flashes a miniscule fissure. It accepts the smallest of nuts but that doesn’t bite well. Hey, look, a little crack in the ledge we’re stood on, so drop down and find ‘get out of jail’ cards!
Fiddling Rocks, fiddling RPs, sideways no. 3 or flatways no. 2? The 3 doesn’t go all the way in but has further distance to rip. The 2 is all the way in but only just inside the flare. ‘Which one do you reckon?’ I go for the latter hoping not to fall, but am feeling much too heavy.
There are two more crafty placements for a keen eye – which should be useful to anyone ever here again. A pair of horizontal RPs in opposition – you pick ’em out? This one is at least making an effort and trying, although that one’s an underachiever, but by cleverly combining the two they may just take a short fall. We’re thirty feet above the deck and this is all we have between us now. That ‘pink’ wire rotated and fell out ages ago and the spikes are too far beyond.
Let’s step back up and take five. Get composed. I have a little eight-millimetre tape sling ready, it’s clenched between my teeth and the peg’s sticking out horribly fifteen feet up left … ‘Don’t even consider clipping the eye. Choke it.’ We rock upwards on reasonable half-finger-joint flakes and gain semi-balance. ‘Any gear?’ ‘None that I can see.’
Wiper-blading away again with eyes and mouth shut – this is horrible. Everything’s sharp – poing ‘Whoa!’ startled! ‘Fuck that was close, see it snap? Almost off there.’ (Meaning the boulders fifty feet below.)
Let’s rock back down and regroup. All this bloody gear! This is pumpier than the ledge below and I’m not sure about reversing the rockover – so stay put. OK, am feeling it now, we’re heading up leftwards but the best usable hold is that sidepull way up and right. I negotiate with it, exchanging a whispered ‘I’ll hold you against the wall, I promise’ action in exchange for no less than a smooth layaway transition within an absorbing life or death sequence. ‘What did you reckon? 6a into 6b and straight into 6a, without pausing and hanging off fingertips to shake out and chalk up?’
There’s a decent-looking finger-edge up left and the peg’s scratching at my waist. I don’t want to stop but must crimp hard with my left whilst stood only on my right inner toe, left foot ‘over there hovering in space’ for balance, and fumble the tape over the peg and back through itself then pull up some blue and clip it. What a faff.
We’ve just clipped the peg but ‘ … look at the mank … fucking sad isn’t it?’ Another few moves up and we enter the ‘death zone’ so can relax a little – even though it feels somewhat chillier up here don’t you think? I shut my eyes as I rest my forehead against this ‘mountainside’, just for a sec, breathing, breathing, then open them up and look all around me – blinking at the reflected light bouncing off the pale crystalline rock – up, right, left and down to take in, absorb and either embrace or rally against what I’ve just climbed myself into. And it’s absolutely beautiful! ‘Fucking hell! What a “space” to be in!’ Very quiet, very calm. This is an altogether new place for me. I’ve never been this far out yet ‘in’ – as in ‘involved’ – before, you know that don’t you? Oh, I didn’t tell you. I asked God for a sign a while back, and a lone seagull drifted past above. I’m sure he noticed us.
We’re balanced now precariously on tips of toes and locked on via steel fingers and forearms to two very small, creaky finger-flakes far, far above ‘the red line’, knowingly disobeying my old schoolmaster’s rule that ‘you could get hurt young Master Pollitt’, and feeling laden down with useless gear.
Has the weight of the ’biner on that rusty old peg down there caused it to sag even further too? Oh, and my last remaining sideways RPs – those opposing ones – are still there but the others have fallen out from that cluster at around thirty feet … I’m now at eighty.
We’re going for that thin horizontal seam running across above us, OK? Five thin-looking moves away. ‘I’ve figured them out already, don’t be worried.’
Crimp hard with the left, move left foot, pull hard as the right leg drifts away from the face as a counterbalance, and shoot and lock with right tips on that razor blade up there.
‘Nice, well done!’
But, ‘Agghhh,’ a sickening, tearing feeling, and ‘fuck!’ ‘No!’ There’s blood!
It’s pissing out of my right big fingertip and the next one’s splitting too. Pump, pump, blood running down my hand. ‘Quick Andy … ’ Wipe shirt, wipe tights, right leg pops off suddenly, swing it in behind left and get balanced. Quick man or you’re on the deck. Chalk more chalk wipe dab chalk chalk. ‘Fuck!’ Reverse two moves quickly. Chalk dab wipe wipe inspect … ‘ … this ain’t good … ’
For the first time in my life I thought I was a goner and it was all happening in a weird ‘sped up then slowed down again’ timeframe. I was in a confused state where I knew but didn’t know if this was all really happening. A fight for survival but strangely, oddly, really calm. I never panicked but remember distinctly emitting a sickly-sweet scent from my skin and I took its pungency to mean death. Attempting to reverse until standing on that peg then dropping on to it was my best option. ‘Mark!’ I shout down loudly. ‘I’ve done a tip, going to try and reverse to the peg, watch us …’ A few moves down and my left big toe lands on that small matchbox-sized ‘Thank God’ hold I hadn’t noticed on the hard bit passing the peg. Balance. Recompose. A lengthy pause then I make my decision: ‘Am OK, going for it Mark … ’ and we’re moving …
We know the next fifteen feet and they pass precisely. Use the sharpie lower where it’s blunter and stretch a bit further for the break. My fingers tickle left and right but it’s too slopey. ‘Shit, where’s the good bit? There’s got to be a good bit.’
Hold panic at bay, ignore all this weight pulling us downwards and hold tight. It’s no good, my feet are too low. Reverse, shake out and flick fuzz off the newly intended footholds. ‘No! Not in my eyes, wind! Owww … ’ blink, blink, ‘damn,’ cling on and try and get it out with the other hand.
We’re seriously way out on a limb here and I weigh a fucking ton and this is far too hard and thin for this shit to be happening. I’m seriously fearing for my life here you realise? My calves ache and I’m miles above shite gear with a longer move than I’d’ve liked. I shake the crap from my hair and face and spit out the bits then get the feet right up and stretch like mad. ‘It’s still no good …’ let’s go the other way, over my head, got it! A decent hold and a runner too. Saved!
We’re dragging ropes and are approaching the final groove, just another ten feet across and we’ll be there. 5c, 6a maybe, like the start – then another platform arrives. The winter rainwater channel above teaches us how to swim and grovel desperately whilst remaining true to the traditions that The Leader Must Not Fall and should Maintain Three Points Of Contact. What a hideous finish to such an amazing climb.
Earlier, gearing up beneath this route, going for the onsight repeat with six years of sea-beard regrowth on it: a manky peg – more sticking out than was in, and by all accounts the odd shite runner in 120 feet of climbing. But what runners were they? I had no clue beyond The Cad spikes. My rack consisted of multiple sets of RPs, a dozen quickdraws, Rocks up to size 6, small and medium cams – Friends up to size 2, and slings with steel krabs on for the spikes before the real ‘trip’ began. Oh, and my tiny Leeper skyhook just in case.
So now I knew: apart from the slings low down with their weighty steel krabs, then the wire before the traverse, that cluster of three small nuts (two of which had fallen out), the one little sling and ’biner I’d tied off around the peg, and the single runner above the crux, I’d carried all the rest from bottom to top. Everything else – several kilos of it – was still hanging from my bandolier. I was utterly drained and lay there for a moment or two in reflection, gradually calming down before Bernard and Janine bounded down the bluff on their way to see us – moments too late for a historic snap, and then some other friends ran over and shook my hand and hugged me. Bernard Newman still recalls that top-out clearly:
I remember that Jan got to you first and she describes your eyes – she’d never seen such a wild stare before – near death experience obviously – super adrenaline rush!
The Bells, The Bells! Finally repeated, and the utterly harrowing nature of the climb confirmed! That’s roughly how one magazine reported it. ‘Finally repeated.’ Yeah, I liked that. It had been my goal and my dream for several years. Mike Owen and I had often fantasised over the prospect when I boarded at his and Elaine’s.
All those months laid up twitching by the gas fire at no. 84 watching telly. The shorted-lived comeback thwarted by my downfall on Artless and the training and the laps on the fingerboards thereafter. Days on end working Free and Easy at Raven Tor – clean to get climbing-fit in a hurry, not to forget that prediction I’d made to myself below Flashdance that ‘I’d go on to bigger and bolder things …’ Those tough days had paid off and the dream had just come true.