Bob Wightman

Footless Crow

Footless Crow was one of Pete Livesey’s defining masterpieces. Along with Right Wall in North Wales it showed the way forward for a new breed of rock climber.

First climbed in 1976 it was several years before it saw a repeat (by Ron Fawcett) and the following years saw only a trickle of ascents by the foremost climbers of the day. It might be said that many were called but few were chosen. Among the suitors was one Ed Cleasby who, despite several attempts, failed to negotiate the powerful undercut moves of the crux sequence. Ed was one of the Lakeland stars of the mid 1970s to the early ’80s. Climbing mainly with Rob Matheson the period saw intense competition for new lines between them and the north Lakes teams of Willance/Armstrong and Lamb/Botteril.

Having only started climbing in 1980, Footless Crow appeared a long way above my level for many years. Slowly however my standard improved to the point where one spring I announced “I want to consolidate on E5 this summer”. As the summer progressed I garnered several climbs of the grade under my belt. All were attempted on-sight, and my success ratio was improving.

My friend, regular climbing partner and erstwhile rival, Al Phizacklea had succeeded on Footless earlier in the year so the gauntlet had been laid down. Despite being keen and improving I never managed to get on Footless Crow that year.

The following year, keen to build on the previous years’ efforts, I aimed to add the route to my tally as soon as possible. At the time I was working as a scaffolder in Kendal so was physically fit. One Tuesday evening in May at our club meet (in the pub) I asked Ed Cleasby to join me in an attempt the following evening.

We arrived at the crag at around 6pm. Another pair of climbers were intent on Preying Mantis and were worried that we had come to do the same route. No worries there! After the usual preliminaries of racking up, there was none of the “my lead, your lead” bartering: it was mine.

The initial groove is also taken by Athanor and I am soon ensconsed in the intricacies of that route’s crux moves over the bulge. A swift pull and I am back in balance looking rightwards to the long ramp. This is shared by the girdle, The Voyage, and is around 5c in standard. Taking care not to put in too much gear since the crux is still a long way above and I do not want heavy rope drag, I tip-toe across the ramp.

Eventually I arrive at the possible belay point, a sloping ledge. No stopping for me however as I intend to do the route in the original way, as one pitch. An awkward move up leads to an old peg filled with tat, above is the first of the undercuts. This is gained by an ungainly lurch and I am now committed to the crux section. Moving up on the undercut I am able to reach the second, another heave and shuffle to sort out my feet and I have it. A Friend slots in behind this one, then feet high again and I have the third and final undercut.

I am now getting quite tired, this section is all overhanging with little chance of resting arms, the crux itself is moving leftwards from this undercut to a finger wide crack. I fiddle in a small wire by the flake which creaks alarmingly (it was to come away a couple of years later with a leader attached), and attempt to shake out whilst figuring out how to move left.

It would appear that changing hands on the flake is required, so... I fall off! Back on the rock I try again with the same result. No point in wasting strength, I sit on the rope and survey the rock for options: there aren’t any! The crux move is simply taking my right hand from the right hand side of the flake, crossing it over my left hand (which is holding the underside of the flake), and grabbing the left hand side. A total movement of 8 inches!

Several more attempts also result in taking flight. Eventually, after maybe a dozen attempts, I succeed, reaching across to the crack is simple by comparisom. It takes a welcoming Friend runner, then I swing up and back into balance on the short slab. Above me lies another set of bulges so I take my time and attempt to recover as much strength as possible. By now the rope drag is horrendous and I have to pull up a couple of feet of slack before making a move then do the move before the slack slides back into the nest of runners I have placed.

The bulge/roof is technically easy but the rope drag makes it very tiring. Finally I am on the upper wall and haul myself to the twin trees at the top of the route. “Belayed!” I shout down.

Once I have sorted myself out, I haul in the ropes and Ed begins to climb. On reaching me, with considerably less trouble I might add, he comments “persistent bugger aren’t you?”, then “thanks, that’s one ghost laid to rest”.

We abseil off with the ropes just reaching the ground. It is now too late to contemplate another route so we head back down the valley, then southwards and home. On dropping Ed off I call into the local pub and buy a couple of bottles of Dog. After all I feel a need to celebrate.