Johnny Dawes – Moving On

Interviewing Johnny Dawes is both fascinating and challenging, as much intellectual joust as interview.  Compared to discussions I’ve had with some other climbers, it’s like listening to free-form jazz rather than some anodyne boy band, the melodies obscure, sometimes dissonant and prone to sudden tangents, but never, ever boring.  The challenge with Dawes is to know what to leave out, how to distil his improvisations to their essence, to find the real Johnny Dawes.

So let’s start at the beginning.  What does Dawes, the Bonny Prince Johnny of British climbing, mean to us?  Over the years, I’ve been lucky enough to talk to three of the four climbers who have so far succeeded on his route Indian Face.  Nick Dixon once explained to me the process he went through in order to ready himself for the second ascent, fixing me throughout with a thousand yard stare that told me more than words ever could.  I remember walking into Cotswold Outdoor in Betws y Coed and bumping into Neil Gresham a couple of days after he’d climbed Dawes’ magnum opus.  He was still as high as a kite, full to the brim with the experience of a lifetime.  I listened at one of the early North Wales Festivals at Llandudno as Neil talked about the ascent, voice tremulous with emotion, the psychological scars all too obvious, audience in the palm of his hand.  This was no ordinary route, this was literally a step into the unknown.  The recent fourth ascent by Dave McCloud is still newsworthy, even 24 years after the first ascent.  Simply put, Johnny Dawes is responsible for Indian Face, arguably the most iconic route in Britain, natural succesor to the likes of Cenotaph Corner, Right Wall and London Wall.

That alone would be enough to enshrine Johnny Dawes in climbing’s pantheon, but to Indian Face we must add routes as diverse as The Very Big and The Very Small, Gaia, End of the Affair, The Quarryman, Hardback Thesaurus and The Angel’s Share.  To borrow a cricketing analogy, if climbing had an equivalent to the Long Room Honours Board at Lords Cricket Ground, the name of Johnny Dawes would dominate eighties climbing as Bradman did cricket in the thirties.

Inevitably, I start by asking Dawes about Indian Face.  What makes it such a singular route?

“The beauty of The Great Slab on Cloggy and, in particular, Indian Face is that people end up on it before they’re ready.  By the very nature of it, the cleanness and beauty and blankness gives the impression that it’ll be ok, I’ll get up there and have a go.  Pete Crew’s effort on Great Wall in 1962 was impressive in spite of the six points of aid.  Imagine setting out on that expedition back then, it’s mind-boggling.    Even Ed Drummond’s flawed effort on Midsummer Night’s Dream (in 1975, when Drummond was accused of using too much fixed protection) was outstanding in a way.    However, Pete Whillance did an extraordinary job cleaning up the route in 1978 and he’s always been one of my heroes, a very impressive climber.

Indian Face is special.  It’s risking your life, it just looks crazy to do something that dangerous.  It’s only 7b+, but it’s dying to turn 8a on you.  Both Neil and Nick had smiles on their faces when they succeeded, they’d found something within themselves and it gives you a certain modesty.  I’m amazed it hasn’t been done on-sight.  If there hadn’t been competition between me and John (Redhead) and if I’d had the time and the right circumstances I would have on-sighted it.  I tried it once, and got to where James McHaffie did, the point where there’s a natural impasse on the cliff.  I think I was climbing well enough in 1986 to climb it on-sight, but the weather wasn’t very good and it’s the sort of crag where everything has to be just right.”

One of the chapters in Dawes’ soon to be published autobiography describes the mental process he went through prior to the first ascent, the psychological tricks he used to render the first ascent feasible.

“It’s possible the gear would have held but unlikely so I had an idea how they’d rip,”  Dawes sings a song of ripping gear, “donk, donk, dank……donk doink!  Then you’d be free at about 35ft doing 40mph and you’d have to jump for a patch of grass, where you wouldn’t stop but have to jump again to the scree.  I might have got away with a broken femur or something but at least I would have survived.  It wasn’t pure hogwash, it’s very possible it wouldn’t turn out that way, but at least I had a scheme, it helped me make my mind up to do the route.  It insulates you from your brain’s tendency to freak out.  I practiced it on an ab rope so that I could feel the weight of the rope which you don’t get on a top rope.  I’m as meticulous in my preparation for a trad route as Wolfgang Gullich was for a sport route.  McCloud’s ascent of Indian Face after extensive top-rope practice is the least impressive so far and I genuinely feel that McHaffie’s on-sight effort took real balls.”

Dawes’ exploits no longer fill the pages of the climbing press.  So what happened during the lost years, when he all but disappeared from public view?  What was he up to?

“Even though I was climbing really hard, I wasn’t actually achieving anything, I was too unfocused, fucked off and angry.  I wasn’t supported by the climbing industry because I didn’t fit the commercial  template, I was neither pretty enough or female enough or muscley enough or dull enough.” Dawes chuckles, then bristles with anger briefly.  “But the thing is I’m here to do my thing, not their thing!  And it’s not as if I didn’t do their thing.  I went sport climbing and progressed from 7c to 8b in a year.”  He smiles.  “The projects I was on in the nineties are still hard now: Wizard Ridge at Burbage South, the wall in the first bay at Lawrencefield, the wall right of Ulysses on Stanage, they are really hard and still unclimbed.  Ben Moon and Jerry Moffatt couldn’t touch the stuff I was doing then, but we didn’t really play each other’s games and their game was the one with commercial value at the time.”

He is patently pissed off that he never received sufficient sponsorship to be able to climb full time, yet self aware enough to concede that he didn’t play the game.

“I was pompous, unimpressed and made it obvious.  That was devastating commercially.  I didn’t think other climbers were prolific, they were just climbing routes that were obviously possible.  It’s important that people don’t think I’m showing a lack of respect here, they were amazing climbers, they climbed harder than me but didn’t push the boundaries of the possible.  I wasn’t the only one, Robin Barker was climbing stuff (including Marbellous, E8, Unfamiliar, E7, Shine On, E7) that was exceptional at the time.  What support did he get?  I know it’s wishful thinking to assume that simply because you’re climbing well you should get support and I was probably a bit fetishistic about standing out but why wasn’t that tolerated?”

Over the years, Dawes has seen a number of his climbs chipped.  It has obviously hurt Dawes and he is patently baffled by it.

Perplexity at Millstone is now just like a really badly set route on a climbing wall.  Chipping grit is beyond the pale – however affable and like your favourite uncle someone might be, however cheerful and enthusiastic for life, I don’t think it’s on.”  Again Dawes gets that mischievous grin on his face.  “Unlike most chippers, Pete Livesey did a good job on Downhill Racer, it’s a lovely piece of climbing, but I don’t know what was there before and I never will.  It could have been the greatest slab on the grit.  John Redhead is a lovable card, we get on well but it hasn’t been plain sailing.  In my book I ask, “Who was the great wall tooth fairy?”  because I do remember a new mark behind the flake that came off.”  Again the puckish grin lights up his face, signposting yet another bon mot.  “I don’t want to throw the baby out with the bath water however.  British rock climbing is great.  Yes, it’s neurotic, but how could anything produced in Britain not be neurotic?”

Dawes’ autobiography contains trenchant views about honesty in climbing but they don’t set the tone.  There is a subtle sense that Dawes is moving on, an intimation that if he has yet to come to terms with the disappointments of a climbing life, he is at least learning to live with them.

“In the book, I’d love to have written the complete truth as I see it, which of course wouldn’t be the complete truth as happened, but would be closer than no attempt at all.  There was much I could have put in the book that I feel would have put the record straight, but it’s not my job to write climbing history, that’s a journalist’s job.”

It’s tempting to ask how much more Dawes could have achieved if the energy he expended on righteous condemnation of cheats and chippers had been concentrated on climbing instead, but I sense this is not a question of choice.  Dawes’ love for the rock is a compunction and his determination to defend it against all comers instinctive.  Has he ever fallen out of love with climbing?  Dawes pauses for an age and then answers as if trying to convince himself.

“No, I’ve never fallen out of love with climbing.  The circumstances haven’t been too conducive at times or I haven’t been able to climb enough, but I’ve always enjoyed it.  I love going somewhere I’ve never been before and exploring, enjoying the essential flavour of a place and its rock.  If I find something that’s unclimbed, that challenges me to my limit, then you get all that coming in as well.  You don’t have to do new routes but it is the richest experience, you power up with the beauty of the rock.  I enjoy the physical act of climbing as much as ever, if I can find anyone to climb with.  Problem is, Sheffield isn’t a climbing area any more, it’s a bouldering area.”

In contrast to the eighties I suggest, when Dawes shook the very foundations of British climbing with routes like Gaia and End of the Affair.  Was he aware at the time of the aura of extreme difficulty that swirled around his routes for the next few years?

“It passed me by because I was in France getting my arse kicked on overhanging limestone.  In a year and a half I managed to get to the point where I could climb Mauvais Sang and Taboo Zizi (both 8b), I played the sport climbing game, but it was a struggle.  What a crag Buoux is though. It’s often empty now which is strange because the rock is unchangingly brilliant and shouldn’t be about fashion.  A good crag is a good crag.”

I press him on the length of time it took for his routes to become viable targets for the aspiring hardman.

“Or woman!  All those routes have been done by women now and when we meet, we share something that a tall male climber could never understand.  But these routes should be climbed on a regular basis because climbing E8 now is like doing Right Wall in the eighties.  It’s no surprise that phenomenally talented climbers like Kevin Jorgeson and Alex Honnold have soloed Meshuga but it’s a twenty year old route.  We should have had an E12 by now, I think British climbing has stalled hugely.”

Dawes warms to the theme of the current state of British climbing.

“Good job there are walls to climb on, gives the rock a break.  People need to look after the rock, in the Peak they don’t clean their boots, they climb in the wet, they over-brush, but then I guess by producing films like Stone Monkey, I’m complicit in that, I’ve encouraged people to climb.  Climbing should be more of a sacred art than a sport, more of a privilege.  A lot of the time these days I don’t feel like that, I just feel a bit worn down, it’s only when I go out and rekindle that interest that it inspires me again.  I don’t feel that maudlin, but I do feel that it could have turned out more interesting.  I think people could enjoy the crags more, try things that are interesting and fun, not just hard because I hate to break the news but we’re all rubbish compared to the top climbers and having fun is the best way to climb hard.”

Dawes smiles.  “I know, that’s just standard Johnny crap but I need to listen to my own advice because a lot of the time I feel dull and normalised and climb by rote.  But even going to a climbing wall I can enjoy the company and the beauty of the moves, it’s a simple pleasure and I’m not climbing well enough or badly enough to stand out.”

Having heard Dawes read a number of chapters from his book, I feel confident that the climbing community is in for a surprise when it’s published.  He has an easy way with words and has introduced a healthy discipline to his work.  There’s a new maturity that doesn’t compromise Dawes’ ability to coin a pithy phrase, “Limestone, the lager of the kinaesthetic world”, yet pares back his flights of fancy to the point where they are more pleasing challenge than chore.  There’s a lot of climbing in it, but it’s an autobiography not a climbing book and, potentially, a welcome antidote to the glorified tick-list school of climbing memoir.  Undoubtedly, it will be the same maddening mix of the profound and the profane we’ve come to expect.

Dawes is a flawed genius, yet who isn’t flawed in this complicated and ethically compromised game?  He is tough on himself, recalling an occasion when his erroneous memory of a climb is corrected by the man who belayed him, Trevor Hodgson.  Truth is a slippery customer he suggests.  He freely admits to his failings yet his contribution to British climbing over the years is incalculable.  Climbing is all the richer for characters like him, those who challenge us to see climbing as so much more than an extraordinarily difficult way of gaining height.  Not that Dawes would necessarily agree of course as he floors me with a parting one-liner. “Climbing really is a bit of a storm in a teacup.”