The Grammarian’s Progress, by John Burns

Another story by former IMC President John Burns. He’s now a published author as well as playwright, and his outdoor blog is at The pictures are of Wharncliffe crags; the Dragon’s Den at the foot.

Let me tell you a tale about climbing, about man against rock, as strange as I have heard in this game that is stranger than most. It is set on a crag north of Sheffield, Wharncliffe by name, a half forgotten wall, known for its greasy vegetation and rocky bone breaking landings. We were new to the game and sought to explore the crag, working our way through the V. diffs and Severes as many a climber has done. All fell before us and, unusually, the gritstone was kind to us that day. Then we came to a climb that defeated us. A tooth stood proud from the crag, at its base a small cave and above that a sheer wall. This was Grammarian’s Progress. All day we struggled, determined not to give in. First me then Dave, my mate, would try but all our efforts were in vain. We got into the cave but could not get out. As you clung to the lip of the cave, a big jug on the face was always just too far to reach. Eventually the light began to fail and our thoughts turned to Tetley and the little pub at the foot of the crag.

Once we settled into the nicotine heaven of the Wharncliffe Arms and the pints began to revive us we told the Landlord of our struggles. As he listened a knowing smile came over his face and he laughed as he pulled us more nectar. “There’s only one can climb that.” he said. “Who’s he?” we asked curious as to the identity of this master. “How did he do it?” we eagerly questioned the publican. “He’ll be in later.” we were told, “Buy him a drink and he’ll show you”.

Well, we waited and drank more of that brew and after a while the door opened and the landlord nodded at us to look at our better. Then, my brothers, we gazed on a sight that raised the hair on our necks. There in the doorway stood the bold Grammarian, a man whom nature had slighted. His left arm was wizened away and was barely half of the length it should have been. Nature, as though conscious of the slight, had lengthened his right so it swung near to the ground. He staggered in and slumped at the bar. The landlord spoke to him and motioned to us. The Grammarian threw back his head and laughed. But when we made for the door he pointed to the bar indicating that the drink was to be first. “By God” he said “ I couldn’t do it sober! ” the only words I heard him utter. I’ll tell you that man could drink. His short arm held a rum in the bar while his right had a pint in the snug. All night he downed oceans of booze until our money was nearly spent. At last orders he rose unsteadily to his feet only to crash to the floor. We felt we had been cheated! Surely he couldn’t do the climb now? But no, the whole pub left for the crag. The Grammarian, unable to walk, was in a wheelbarrow. The landlord was leading the way with a lantern in one hand and a ferret in a cage in the other. I was puzzled as to why he brought this evil little beast but I could never have imagined the truth.

We arrived at the crag and the Grammarian, barely conscious, was propped up at the foot of the climb. Suddenly the grotesque figure found new energy and leapt to the rock. In all my days I have never seen a man move on rock as he did. It was like watching a lizard move effortlessly up a pane of glass, he fairly flew up the rock and into the cave. But then, strange to relate, he too got stuck in the cave. His short arm gripped the lip and his prodigious limb snaked out towards the jug above. Even he, a man who seemed designed for the climb couldn’t reach the jug. It is now that my tale takes a twist and crosses from the unusual into the bizarre. For it was then I saw the landlord release that vicious ferret. He whispered something to it and then tossed it into the cave. There was silence for a moment and then I saw a sleek brown shape flash up the Grammarian’s trouser leg as he strained to reach the jug. In one great leap he made the jug and was up the route in a flash. For a second he stood silhouetted in the moonlight, holding the ferret aloft and I swear to you, I heard that furry beast laugh. Then he fell backwards into the arms of the on-looking crowd and lapsed back into stupor. Perhaps one day I will climb that route but I’ll tell you this. By God I couldn’t do it sober!