Franco Cookson nails Nothing Lasts (H10, 7a)
- Tuesday 11th April 2017
April 10th; 2017
The avid north-east developer and larger-than-life character, Franco Cookson, has climbed one of the last great problems in the North East to give Nothing Lasts (H10,7a) at Sandy Crag, Northumberland.
Franco Cookson making the first ascent of Nothing Lasts. Photo Franco Cookson Collection
The so-called Sandy Crag project has been the subject of attention for some time. Franco last featured on the CLIMBER News Feed (click here for that report…) almost exactly a year ago when he climbed MYXOMOP, a super high-ball boulder on an amazing stand-out boulder at Stoupe Brow, near to Robin Hood’s Bay on the North Yorkshire coastline. At that time CLIMBER asked Franco what he was interested in doing next – he was emphatic: “The main thing I’m working on at the moment is the arete at Sandy Crag. It’s a substantial step up in danger and difficulty. All my attentions are focused on this and I’m starting to be able to try this again now.”
Well, now Franco has completed that project and it’s clear that it has been a considerable personal journey! Writing on his blog, this is what Franco has to say about his latest new route and the experience; “The name is about our place in space and time. All that we are, will one day cease to be. With the immense sadness that this realisation brings, comes an opportunity to rid oneself of the shackles of the human condition. We can reach a blissful trust that the rawest of our essence is beyond the physical world and at that point abandon fear. To climb this line you have to not only accept that your existence is finite, but want to celebrate that fact. It is the embodiment of that which is most eternal, whilst offering us the most fleeting of moments on this earth. It is out of the blankest of rocks that the holiest realities form.”
Let’s look at some of the background. Sandy Crag is a little off the beaten track – even in Northumberland! The old-skool classic, Sandy Crack is a stonking jamming crack going at E2. The faint groove in the arête right of this gave Tommy Smith the quality pitch that was Greenford Road (E5). Mark Savage did the direct on this in 2003 to give Greenford Road Direct at a whopping E8 6b. Several other bold aretes have been done at Sandy Crag but the line now taken by Nothing Lasts was clearly the outstanding challenge of the area.
Franco Cookson taking a ground fall from his first attempt of Nothing Lasts. Photo Franco Cookson Collection
It’s abundantly clear that this is a major new route and that it’s taken considerable effort both physical and mental. CLIMBER have been in touch with Franco for the low-down. Here is Franco’s thoughts on Nothing Lasts…
You’ve been working this project for some time – can you tell us about that process and how you decide it was time to start headpointing.
I linked the whole route on a shunt about a year ago. It was in a sense frustrating to know that I could do the moves, but still be going through the rigors of having a project on the high moors. This is the first project I’ve done where I haven’t had a moment of realisation, “Right. I’m ready now”. Instead I was kind of forced into the lead by knowing other people were starting to have a look as well.
I think when people talk about the project process, they often start from the end point. Most investigations into potential unclimbed lines end in failure. Maybe they’re too hard, or easy, bold, dangerous, or just don’t climb well. In recent years, I’ve found that in order to maintain at least a moderate amount of sanity, I’ve had to have lots of projects running along concurrently. That normally means a handful of safe and hard things, a couple of relatively hard and bold things and then just one big one that defines my whole life until it is done.
The Sandy Arete entered my life in 2015. There was a lot of reference to it as Northumberland’s last great problem and Sandy was actually the first place I visited when moving up here. Those first few months of exploring Northumberland were incredible. Words cannot express the beauty of the landscape up here. It’s humbly wild like the Moors, but it has that slight hint of Scotland as well. It was a massive unknown for me whether I could really climb hard on Northumberland sandstone – even whether I’d enjoy it. My one foray into climbing outside of the Moors had resulted in that awful fall at Tintwhistle and that weighed heavy on my mind. Right up until this Sunday, I didn’t know if I had the motivation to take the risks that I take in Moors in other places too.
How did the actual ascent go?
It was pretty out there. The first part of the route is really steady and cool climbing up a big flake. At the Skyhooks you have this weird rest, where you’re kind of an eagle on its nest – properly perched. You’re swapping between a mono and a tiny sidepull and try and rest as much as possible. I remember very vividly looking up the arête and just thinking it looked impossible. It’s when you start to go down that mental path that you have to totally abandon traditional notions of performance and goals. You take each move as it comes and relish the position you’re in.
The day before I had taken a groundfall from the 3rd crux move, after having climbed perfectly. This time I was climbing worse, but knew what the result of a fall would be. The experience seemed to ramp up to the next level when I passed my previous highpoint. I knew that I was facing an even worse fate if I failed and I was slipping and fumbling every move. I feel like in those 20 seconds I lost about 3 stone of my soul – It was such a violent draining sensation. Every twitching piece of energy in my body was throwing itself at the next move. I really lost my cool once I got onto the E5 ground – a real out of this world experience. Pretty sure I was spasming at the top.
You gave Nothing Lasts H10. Talk us though your H grades and how you see them sitting with the conventional E grades?
It’s less a statement and more just pragmatic. E11 means nothing if you’ve headpointed something. An E7 might be as hard to headpoint as an E9 – so why would you use that system? All H9s should be vaguely as hard to headpoint as one another. I think climbing Nothing Lasts ground up without beta would be ridiculous – perhaps possible in the future, but streaks ahead of MYXOMOP (H8 7a ***) or something like that. I still don’t know what my opinion is on the whole onsight/headpoint thing. I’ve never headpointed a none-first ascent, but I suppose I don’t really see it as evil.
I get a lot of stick for big grades. The wise move would have been to leave Nothing Lasts ungraded – “do a Macleod”. It was actually Anna who persuaded me not to do that. “Don’t be a knob” were I believe her words. She’s got what a lot of people would probably see as a reverse view on all this nonsense – she’s experienced a lot of sandbagging in the County and generally sees under-grading as a sign of ego. We all have egos and these grades will all sort themselves out eventually. We need to just try and be honest. I could have given this H9 to make my Moors routes look harder, knowing that others are obviously going to try Nothing Lasts and find it tricky. But this is all just a nonsense. What’s the reputation of this route going to be in 20 years time? – probably the same as it is now. No grade will change that. I’d encourage anyone to drop a rope down this route – It’s an awesome feature.
How does Nothing Lasts sit relative to your other hard headpoints that you’ve done including those back on The Moors?
Tricky question that. Northumberland Sandstone is less positive than Moors Sandstone and therefore less easy to feel solid and also less my style. Nothing Lasts is also fairly long. So I definitely had to try a lot harder on this route than any other I’ve done before. But is it harder? I don’t know. I’d like to see someone with really strong fingers have a look at Divine Moments of Truth (H10 7a ***). It’s bolder and maybe harder than Nothing Lasts, but it’s basically just a couple of moves. Despite all this though, it’s obvious that these climbs are nowhere near the limit of what is possible. When you see the boulder problems someone like Dan Varian is doing, the potential for Trad is mind-bending. Someone needs to take that kind of strength into the no-fall zone.
Have you felt a tremendous release now that you’ve finished Nothing Lasts?
I just feel really well set up for the year. Anything else is bonus now, which is a great mind frame to have. I’m close to quite a few fantastic easier routes that I’d love to get done soon. Every year I have this feeling that I’m might be at my peak, but then the next year blows that out of the water. Seeing all the strong climbers in Northumberland has reminded me of just how little power I have. I’d love to have some of that.
And we must ask – what are your plans now? Time to chill or straight onto the next project?
I gave up bread for Lent and we’re going to Rome on Monday – so pretty psyched for Pizza! Once I get back (and maybe this weekend (?)), I’d love to get the Landslip Arete done in the Moors. My attention is split fairly evenly between The Moors and Northumberland. There is some safer English 7b type stuff in the Moors, like The Holy Grail Wall at Kay Nest and The Smuggler’s Terrace Wall Project, which will force me to get better at climbing. There are also a couple of big Trad routes left to do at Stoupe Brow. In Northumberland the main LGPs are highballs, but there’s some interesting stuff at Howlerhurst and Coquet View I’d like to have a look at. There’s still an obscene amount of new routes to be done up here. I think if I want to find the next level of difficulty, I’m either going to have to get a lot stronger or get into a slate groove. If anyone knows of any unclimbed slate grooves.
Finally, Franco’s ascent was filmed as part of an upcoming 'Hard Sand' film project. Read more about Framco’s adventures on his blog here…