Magazine article The Spectator

Spectator Sport: Roger Alton

Magazine article The Spectator

Spectator Sport: Roger Alton

Article excerpt

For anyone who knows or cares about rock climbing -- a minority sport if ever there was one, albeit pretty extreme -- the turn of the year was heaven. Newspapers, magazines and TV bulletins were full of one specific, highly photogenic though very technical event: the first free ascent of a climb on Yosemite's mighty El Capitan face called Dawn Wall. It was 3,000 ft and 32 pitches long, and rated the hardest pure rock climb in the world. The two climbers, Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson, spent 19 days on the face, but years preparing and training for it.

This is, for the time being, the ultimate climb, very difficult but also very safe, with ropes and other gear used to protect the climbers, and entirely free in that they never used any artificial aids. It is the high point of a certain type of highly gymnastic climbing culture: practising pitches, working out hard sequences, an insane training schedule, all in the pursuit of pure difficulty. And the birthplace of this culture was in Britain, on the remorselessly overhanging limestone walls of north Wales and the Peak District, in the late 1980s. The further climbing moves from that period, the more pivotal it becomes, like the Sixties for music.

It is the subject of a compelling new book called Statement: The Ben Moon Story by Ed Douglas. Moon almost single-handedly revolutionised elite rock-climbing. He was the first person to climb at the grade of 9a, the hardest level in the world, on a route he called Hubble, after the famous astronomer, on Raven Tor. Twenty-five years on it is still a benchmark. It was a breakthrough in the same way as Bob Beamon jumping out of the long jump pit was in 1968. Before Moon, recreational weekend climbers knew what the hardest routes entailed and could even envisage repeating them one day. After his arrival, hard climbing moved into another league of possibility. …

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