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05History | Steel in the Soul

"But I guess that those heroes must always live their lives where you and I have only been…" ~ Leonard Cohen

The Oxley Legacy

On an early visit, in a glorious Portland sunset, Michele and I wander along the top of Wallsend. She passes her binoculars to me. Clumsily I fumble with a plethora of blurry images. Suddenly they focus, with almost unbearable clarity.

Far away, a tiny figure is fighting his way into a belt of overhangs, his top fluttering in the wind. Even from this vast distance, you can tell he’s giving it all that he’s got. And, instinctively, I know who it is. Already I’ve exchanged harsh words with two editors on his behalf. But he cannot know that, any more than he knows he’s being watched.

Moments later, he disappears. I lower the binoculars, try to explain. It will be ten more years before I finally meet him. And, by then, I too will have fallen in love with Wallsend.

Rock Athlete...

Pete Oxley’s dad was a Geordie, who came south for work, in the cruel 1930s. The family settled in Potter’s Bar in London, "the middle of nowhere," Pete wonderingly laughs. He was the youngest of four brothers. Holidays introduced him to wilderness. "We were away in the Campervan, all the time, hill-walking, scrambling…" As a teenager, he moved into outdoor sports, such as cycling and orienteering, unwittingly following the top climbers' syndrome of "becoming totally obsessive," getting good quickly, dumping them, moving on.

Then, in 1979, came the television programme, 'Rock Athlete', where Ron Fawcett soloed with haunting, iconic grace. Suddenly Pete knew what he wanted with his life. He wrote to Ron, received a signed poster and kind, encouraging words, from the man who would always remain his hero. "I’ve still got that poster. I owe it all to Ron - he saved me from becoming some mountaineering greybeard!"

Pete Oxley at home on Heartland, Coastguard North, Portland

Pete Oxley at home on Heartland, Coastguard North, Portland | Photo: Chris Weedon

¨Don’t Ever Do That Again!¨

But Pete’s youthful desire for climbing quickly met obstacles. The family moved to Dorset, where the local climbing club wouldn't let him join. "They said I was too young; it contravened insurance." (Ironic when one considers how teenage climbers are encouraged today!) Undeterred, he trained on a local bridge, necessarily alone, like his exemplar, Hermann Buhl, his mates having no interest in the outdoors. Right from the beginning, he was discovering that, if you wanted to get things done in sleepy Dorset, you would have to be prepared to do them alone.

Pete trained on that bridge nearly every day for two years. 4b became hard 6b, stamina traverses were extended into F7b+ routes (unknowingly!), at a time when established rock stars struggled at this grade. His first 'new route', with a single, home-made bolt banged into the eight metre bridge wall, for protection, was E5 6c, (F7b+), harder than anything else in Dorset. And Pete still hadn't touched real rock. Unsurprisingly, when he was taken to the nearby beginner's emporium of Cattle Troughs, by, "some 75 year old guy, with about three wires and clunky World War Two krabs," it was less than enthralling. "I buggered off and soloed a VS!" Finally allowed into the local climbing club, he did his first 'proper' Extreme, Stroof, E1, in the rain, and was sternly admonished. "Don’t ever do that again - it’s against club policy!"

Pete Oxley bouldering at Barrel Zawn

Pete Oxley bouldering at Barrel Zawn | Photo: Oxley collection

Pete Oxley on the first ascent of New Privateer, E6 6b

Pete Oxley on the first ascent of New Privateer, E6 6b | Photo: Rob Godfray

Two Fingers

Salvation came with the highly respected Swanage activist, Tim Dunsby, who took him into Boulder Ruckle and nurtured a burgeoning talent. E4 quickly arrived, not just on Swanage but on grit also. As an 18 year old, in 1984, he met the Moon/Moffatt generation dossing in Parisella’s Cave. In a week, E4 became E5 6c, and two 7bs were onsighted. On trips to Pembroke, when he was cruising the big E4s and E5s, such as Tangerine Dream and fellow members of the local climbing club were sieging VSs, Pete and his mates were blatantly ostracised, sitting at a separate table in the pub, most times. Prophetically, his first proper new route was at Portland, with Tim Dunsby. Unsurprisingly, it was entitled, Two Fingers.

Living the Dream

A close friendship with the late Brian Tilley, “passionate about traditional climbing,” brought increased dosage of the full-on Ruckle experience, new routes and otherwise. Like Moon and Moffatt, Pete was living the ‘rock athlete’ dream, torturing his body with training, including the merciless dead hanging with weights, which led to knackered ring fingers. Trips to the Peak brought success on the crimpy, polished horrors of Piranha, White Bait, Tribes and those other, then top-rated, Rubicon routes. On an early repeat of All Systems Go, at Stoney, he was watched by Fawcett, the instinctive nod of approval a sign he’d arrived.

Cutting Edge

By then, school was over, university and career cast aside to make way for full-time climbing. In 1985, at 19, his new routes, Punks in Power and Surge Control, both E5 6b, matched Martin Crocker’s best efforts at Swanage. Wallkraft, Pete’s climbing holds company, was more serious and has lasted longer than (any of?) the other Enterprise Allowance climbing subsidies. While his parents were supportive, others criticised. Undeterred, he moved around, getting good results in competitions while on-sighting classic grit E5’s, such as London Wall, Milky Way, White Wand, Ulysses or Bust and many others. Fawcett’s masterpiece, Strawberries, was almost a world-class on-sight, the second attempt a mere formality. Pete bagged second or third ascents of stuff like Cider Soak, La Creme and Avenged at Ansteys. At Avon and Cheddar, “as soon as Martin (Crocker) did it, I’d repeat it!” He was redpointing 8a+ at Buoux and on-sighting E6 at Pembroke. These were big numbers, on both sport and trad, at a time when many leading climbers were specialising in one discipline only.

Snapping Harnesses…

These years, in the mid-1980s, were the forging of Pete’s soul. Martin Crocker, “a fantastic bloke,” showed him the way, climbing from dawn to dusk, expecting others to do the same, relentlessly driving himself until failure. Like Crocker, Pete pushed body, mind and gear to their limits. Hundreds of thousands of feet of steep rock were shunted in mammoth training sessions on Lean Machine and many other E5’s at Swanage. Twice harnesses snapped, due to over-use, in outrageous situations. Utterly alone, swinging around, on 9mm rope, cleaning massive roofs, he’d get light-headed and end up talking to himself.

Once, in thick, ghostly fog, on a gargantuan cleaning session of the futuristic Laughing Arthur at Blackers Hole, a fallen cow sprawled on the rocks below, helplessly waiting to die, eyeballing him, for hour after eerie hour. Another time, in the middle of January, diving into the sea at Blackers to retrieve a dropped sac, he was viciously spewed back onto the rocks. He fought his way ashore, massively bruised, shivering uncontrollably, cowering in a cave, cut off by the tide. Half an hour later, his mate lowered a rope and harness, allowing him to prussik out, stark naked!

Pete Oxley on the Waveband, V10, sector Pom Pom

Pete Oxley on the Waveband, V10, sector Pom Pom | Photo: James Dunlop

The First Bolts in Dorset – No Clip-Ups!

In 1986, in line with events elsewhere in the UK, Pete took the controversial step of placing the first bolts in Dorset. These weren’t clip-ups! They were single, lonely bolts on the Swanage routes, Tessalations and Birth Pains of New Nations, then rated E5 and a very bold E6 respectively. In 1987, he introduced E7, with Mark of the Beast at Stair Hole, which he later retro-bolted. In 1988, he surpassed this with Laughing Arthur, E8, the biggest free roof in the UK, still unrepeated. Roof climbing became his forte and passion. Infinite Gravity (8a+) could be the steepest pitch in the UK, with only one known repeat in thirteen years. Palace of the Brine, still unrepeated after a similar time, may, like Vespasian, turn out to be 8b. Adrenochrome and Burn Hollywood Burn are probably undergraded at 8a. Ironically, through working in isolation, Pete may have unwittingly undergraded some of his best routes. Only further ascents will tell!

And All the While, Sleepy Portland Waited...

And yet, all the while, sleepy Portland waited, “a cheesy, unfashionable Gogarth, that no-one ever visited.” Crispin Waddy’s realisation that the rock, on Battleship at least, was harder than it looked, led to tentative probings. On these protectionless walls, some form of ethical compromise was needed. For Pete and for Martin Crocker, that compromise was minimalist bolting, threads and pegs. However, once such pegs were weighted, the placements quickly eroded. Bad news for doggers! Pete received a memorable rant from one notable, who fell twelve metres after pegs stripped from the aptly named Realm of Chaos. Typically, the bold E5s and E6s were totally ignored by the mainstream.

Pete’s conversion came with a potentially fatal ten metre groundfall from Hell Bent, E6 6c, a minimalist route at Cheddar. Rejection of the oft-unsatisfactory compromise of minimalist protection, left two distinct forms of climbing – trad and sport. With consensus, areas could accommodate both styles. For Pete, a trad route should have no bolts, whereas a sport route should be well bolted. The rigour of this stance was starkly defined by bolt-free ascents of Critics Choice, E7 6b, at Avon and Breaking the Habit, E7 6c, in Pembroke. With rare lapses, he has stuck by this philosophy ever since.

In a pioneering article for OTE 13, on Portland, ‘the Gibraltar of Wessex’, Pete explained that the miles of blank, crumbling walls between the cracks offered obvious hard route potential, but inadequate natural gear. The first full scale sport climb in Dorset was Cocteau Phenomena, 7b+ at Blacknor, in 1989, an intricate, delectable sequence on a big, Dolomitic wall. Pete’s OTE justification was, “an outrageous six bolt ladder that’s still runout, a radical move perhaps, one that would only be chopped by suicide climbers.” These days, there are nine bolts – and the final moves can still feel runout!

Rejection of minimalist bolting left Pete with a problem of horrifying logistical complexity – retrobolting hundreds of his routes, with thousands of bolts. The agonising effort of hand drills had to be superseded by power drills, firstly a Bosch, then, on Nick White’s advice, a petrol powered monster Ryobi. Conventional bolts were replaced by stainless steel staples, Pete’s little innovation, later to be disseminated throughout the UK, in plain delivery parcels, spreading the virus to other activists! By day, he was placing up to 45 staples, while also engaging in marathon cleaning sessions and high-standard new routing. By night, he was metal-bashing in the proverbial garden shed. When money and steel ran out, he’d use whatever else existed; witness the bed knob on Out of Reach, Out of Mind! Let you who read this be in no doubt: Pete’s lonely orgy of labour has made Portland, and surrounding areas, the sport climbing paradise they are today. Of around 1,200 sport routes, probably 50% are his. Of around 10,000 staples, probably 70% are his, mainly self-funded, costing thousands of pounds. Staples don’t just grow in the rock – as some people seem to think. Go out, as one aspirant did last summer, find the right spot, stake it, abseil, do a few hours cleaning, place half a dozen staples and… you may well end up exhausted and gripped. The paradox of Portland is this: sunny clip-ups are created by scary toil!

Disproving the Uninformed Myth

Pete was also busy elsewhere, creating alternative sport climbing venues at Swanage and Lulworth. His casual solos of Mark of the Beast and Lord of Darkness at F7c/E7, anticipated the deep water soloing boom and trumped its best efforts for many years. He later added many E6 deep water solos in Dorset. Meanwhile he was climbing widely, with over thirty 8a and 8a+ routes in this country and abroad, yet again disproving the uninformed myth that he’s just some kind of minor local phenomenon. In addition to Dorset, his new route tally includes offerings in Cheddar, Avon, Pembroke… and even a few in the Peak!

My Love of This Land

The first Rockfax to Portland changed everything. Goodbye cheesy sub-Gogarth. Hello paradise! The crowds flocked down and found near-eternal sunshine and on-sighting delight. Notable regulars included many of the British Team, such as Simon Nadin, Ian Vickers, Fliss Butler and Chris Cubitt. With soaring demand, the second Rockfax promptly went out of print. Now there is a third one, even bigger and better. Guidebooks write themselves? It’s easy work?? Dream on… No climber burns out faster than a guidebook writer. With Alan James, Pete has lasted the course, not just for one guide but for three (the latter with Mark Glaister, also.) Truly, it seems, My Love of This Land was well named.

Yet things move on; people move on. Pete’s full time climbing brought tough times financially. For the last twelve years, he has been deeply appreciative of his partner, Jan, for her unstinting support, both on and off the rocks. Ultimately he abandoned sixty hour climbing weeks for sixty hour studying weeks at college, a lone mature student in a bunch of kids. Redpointing focus and determination brought a First Class Degree in Graphic Design, swiftly put to use starting up his new business, Ratio: Design. But fitness suffered, metabolism changed, weight increased - at 6’ 4”, he’s a big lad! Now in their late thirties/early forties, the Moon, Moffatt, Dawes generation, the boys of 80s summers, are slowing down… or are they? Well seemingly not Pete! Most of the weight’s come off and training is in full swing. If he’s working six days a week, then the single climbing day must count. And it does. Haka Peruperu, the Maori warriors’ life force, an awesome 8a+ stamina roof near Palace of the Brine, has signalled his comeback with a vengeance. With little time remaining before he emigrates with Jan, to New Zealand, he’s psyched to finish other projects.

A Last Autumn

A last autumn, a few more projects, and he’s gone. The wild spaces and great climbing possibilities of New Zealand may herald a resurgence of restless exploration. Portland, which he loved, will be the poorer for his passing. And yet ‘this precious stone set in a silver sea’ will always be imbued with some part of his vast spirit.

With seemingly little time remaining, Pete went back on Lifeforce, an old F8b project in Palace of the Brine, on which he’d almost succeeded fourteen years previously. In a climber’s life, fourteen years is a very long time indeed. In Pete’s case, it was the difference between his carefree mid-twenties and pushing forty.

The huge sea cave of Palace of the Brine is one of the most amazing crags in Britain, surpassing Kilnsey in its steepness and crying out for national attention. The entry level route is a F7c+ with wild roof climbing. Warm, moist air can become trapped in the cave, making redpoints a near-impossibility. One day I belayed Pete on Lifeforce. Watching someone head out without a warm-up across an 80 foot 8b roof is a truly amazing sight. To avoid rope-drag, I had to pay out huge loops of slack. To me, lashed to my belay to avoid a massive pendulum across the cave, they looked obscene. Pete fought his way almost to the lip before pumping out. Conditions were hopeless. We abandoned Palace of the Brine and went round to Connor Cove so I could do Freeborn Man. Afterwards, down by the lapping waves, we talked for hours. It was an afternoon I’ll never forget.

A few weeks later, against all the odds, Pete redpointed Lifeforce - the hardest route in Dorset at the time, and the perfect finale to twenty-five years of devotion to climbing.

This article was written in 2007, and previously appeared on the now defunct dorset-climbing.com website. We thank Mick kindly for permission to reproduce it here. We hope to move some of the other content and functionality from that domain in the near future, so watch this space...

Written by Michael Ward Posted on 8th January, 2015.

05Join the Discussion

Michael Ward

Mick Ward new-routing on Portland

Mick Ward new-routing on Portland, Dorset

A long time-resident of Portland, Mick is perhaps one of the best placed to judge the Oxley legacy. As one of the most prolific new-routers in Dorset, Mick can fully appreciate the sheer physycal and mental challenge of developing and bolting new climbs.

As well as a climbing career far longer than he would like to mention, Mick has a knowledge of British climbing long and deep, and is well known in the climbing community for his ability to articulate his passion in books, magazines and online.

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