Friday, 21 September 2018

No Easy Way- ....Reviewed


No Easy Way’ (The Challenging Life of the climbing taxman) Mick Fowler. 244 Pages, Perfect bound paperback: Published by Vertebrate £14.95.

A sight to make an old man young’ Tennyson

Recently I was invited to attend at the Leeds Central Library, for there on the third floor was a large double door safe, which had not been opened for three or four decades and the keys lost in the mists of time. Professional safe crackers had been brought in and finally the doors opened. Inside was a huge amount of historical climbing material, lantern slides of Slingsby and Frankland, some of the latter leading Whisky Crack, Central Climb and the Green Crack at Almscliff routes which he had originally pioneered; there were old Journals, and a stack of black/white photographs mostly by the Abraham brothers etc. One item that I found more than interesting was a copy of the ‘Times’ supplement celebrating the first ascent of Mount Everest in 1953.

This illustrated how different Himalayan exploration was at that date compared to the ascents now being made by such as Fowler and his contemporaries. These climbs rely on the fact that there are hundreds of lesser altitude unclimbed Himalayan objectives around the 6000/7000 metre mark, many of which provide challenging, multi-day technical ascents; possible for two well drilled unsupported climbers to attempt, and importantly without recourse to using bottled oxygen to climb or as an aid for sleeping and physical recovery.

No Easy Way’ was a must read for me, as many of the Himalayan regions featured in the book I have also been fortunate to visit, albeit not to attempt the kind of technical climbs achieved by Fowler and a partner. The book begins with an illuminating chapter on how since joining the Inland Revenue in 1977 the author has managed to deal with the competing priorities of his life. Somehow he has managed a work life balance that most climbers will envy; marrying, raising a family and moving up the Civil Service grades whilst continuing to climb at a high standard, particularly in achieving greater-range ascents, with such a trip planned almost every year. 

In this first Chapter he mentions the climb he and Paul Ramsden made in 2002 of an impressive ice streak on Mount Siguniang in China’s Sichuan Province. I think it was this climb which was to be the basis of his approach to similar challenges from thereon; noting that the ideal objective should boast a striking line leading directly to a summit, be unclimbed, be visible from afar, be technically challenging, be objectively safe, be on an eye-catching mountain, be in a remote interesting area, somewhere he had not previously been to, and have an aesthetically pleasing-and different descent route. Phew! I have been to Mount Siguniang and the ice couloir that he and Ramsden climbed meets all of those criteria, and over the years the author has gathered a huge file of many such potential objectives throughout the Himalaya. 

 'The Stone Bell Tower' : Southern Altai Mountains of Xinjang; DG
Also noteworthy is how in his later life when he moved to work in the tax office at Nottingham, he settled with his family to live in the Peak District, and where to keep his body trim and increase his stamina and general fitness for climbing he took up fell running. However he was already trim before this, being just above medium height, rangy and bony.
 
Somehow by an ability to manoeuvre his work commitments, right up until his recent retirement in 2017 he managed to save up a sufficient holiday entitlement each year to around 30 days. Enough time for the author and a companion to attempt a major Himalayan ascent. And what is most impressive for me is the same tight circle of climbing friends he has been able to draw on to take part in his different climbing activities; chalk climbing on the White Cliffs of Dover, shale climbing in the South West, rock climbing in Orkney, ice climbing on Ben Nevis, ascents in the Andes of Peru, and of course the Himalaya. This was borne on me the first time I attended in the 1970’s at the Pindar of Wakefield pub in Kings Cross where the North London Mountaineering Club used to meet and this was where Fowler and or his friends usually met up (later at the Sobell wall, and later still The Palm Tree in Mile End). 

Present were Ben Wintringham and his wife Marian, Slippery Vic Saunders, Chris Watts, Mike Morrison, Steve Sustad etc all of whom apart from Ben (who died in an abseiling accident in Morocco) appear in ‘No Easy Way’. I grew to marvel at their planning to take off on a Friday night after work to drive to destinations like Ben Nevis, Kintail or Cornwall, climbing through Saturday and Sunday to arrive back at work on Monday morning. The author claims they never missed that deadline which if true would be an impressive tribute to their driving skills.
There are in the early chapters of the book two impressive climbs on mountains in Eastern Tibet, Kajaqiao 6447mtrs and Manamcho 6264mtrs, the reader may be wondering how Fowler knew about such objectives? 

The internet has changed such research, and a key figure in identifying suitable objectives is the Japanese Tom Nakamura. A retired business man he spends a large slab of time each year trekking with companions like him of an advanced age, through different unexplored (for climbing) Himalayan regions, and subsequently publishing photographs and maps of the surrounding peaks he has noted on his travels. It is from such that many impressive objectives have been garnered by those keen on Himalayan ascents in Alpine style. However gaining permits to climb in these areas is fraught with bureaucracy and needs patience, contacts and good luck to achieve a successful outcome.
 
There are some light hearted chapters away from the multi-day high mountain ascents; a sea cliff extravaganza with Steve Sustad to South Orkney, a short lecture tour and climbing jaunt in Ireland , and two chapters about participating in the Paps of Jura fell race. The first detailing his failure to successfully complete the race being timed out, the second a year later when after some more applied training he was successful in completing this gruelling 28kms race, and the thousands of feet of ascent and descent within the time schedule. I have not so far noted Fowler’s ability at writing with a wry humour, and it shines through in these diversionary chapters away from the high mountains, including secretly climbing the walls of Nottingham castle with Paul Ramsden who like Fowler worked in that city. 

On the second occasion they were apprehended after completing their climb early one morning by a security guard, who sent for the police. This ended amicably when the police decided they really could not charge the two miscreants for they had caused no damage but suggested that in future they obtained a permit to climb from Nottingham Council! 
 
Another engrossing chapter away from the remote-ranges is the one about the bizarre events that led the author to become President of the Alpine Club. When first approached to stand for election he was undecided about accepting aware that it would mean a lot of extra work, but eventually he agreed. A few weeks later he was stunned to learn that an older, more senior member, Col Henry Day had decided to stand against him and it was suggested because of decorum he should stand down, for it would be the first contested election in the 150 years history of the Club. But bolstered by his proposer Paul ‘Tut’ Braithwaite and his second Joe Brown he decided to take this on. I attended the AGM meeting having been lobbied to be there or else dire consequence might befall, for only those attending could vote and our man Fowler was appointed. This meeting was typical of the theatre which occurs about once a decade at the Alpine Club. Passionate speeches, one by a senior judge, another by a lawyer, and yet another by a young tiger made for a truly memorable event, leaving the author with the task of mending fences and getting on with the reforms he had promised in a Hustings speech.

Back to the greater ranges and in 2010 a trip to the Chinese Tien Shan mountains in Xinjiang, which the author confesses he knew little about before his visit which had been difficult to organise due to the riots of 2009 in Urumqi, when the internet and international phone connections had been closed down in that City the capital of the Province. I was there during the riots when 200 people were killed and a 1000 injured, mainly Han Chinese. I am afraid for once Fowler has some detail about the history of the Province wrong, particularly viz a viz the Uighurs and the Han the two biggest ethnic groups (there are 12 others). The Uighurs do not make up only thirteen per cent of the population as he states, they are the largest grouping and make up almost 50%.

It is outside the scope of this review to explain more, except to inform that I have travelled throughout Xinjiang, been there 10 times and undertaken two research projects in this the biggest Province in China. It is the most impressive place I have ever been to with five mountain ranges and the two big deserts of the Taklamakan and the Gobi. My ‘discovery’ of Keketuohai situated in the southern Altai on the border with Mongolia in the autumn of 2009, has led on to visits there by Tommy Caldwell of Dawn Wall fame, Jeremy Collins and Mark Jenkins reporting for National Geographic who declared the valley ‘awesome’. Mike Dobie an ex-pat climber has also become a visitor and the valley is now referred to as the Yosemite of China with its impressive granite walls, domes and towers? 
 
The objective for Fowler and Co in the far west Xuelian mountains of the Tien Shan was a mountain called Sulamar 5380 metres and partnered once again by Paul Ramsden, the author had an almost near death experience whilst crossing a snow covered glacier and falling into a deep crevasse. Despite being roped up the fight to get out of this predicament nearly cost him his life. Post this trip Fowler and his friends found it ever more difficult to obtain climbing permits to Tibet or the Tien Shan and their expeditions were from thereon in West Nepal and the Indian Himalaya. At the first of these destinations they headed for a mountain Mugu Chuli 6310 on the Nepal/ Tibet border, and once again just as in Nick Bullock’s book ‘Tides’ appearing in yet another cameo role is one ‘Streaky’, Graham Desroy. 

I suspect if I was persuaded to watch ‘Love Island’ (unlikely) there on the beach would be a character wearing a bandana on his head and sporting a flower shirt and white painter’s trousers. He does rove far and wide and last night I received a mail from him on a climbing visit to Madagascar. Post this ascent there are impressive further climbs detailed in the Indian Himalaya, on Hagshu 6515 mtrs, the Prow of Shiva 6142 mtrs and in the north-west of Nepal to Gave Ding in 2015.
For me the most amusing, finest writing in the book is the final ‘big’ climb, Sersank 6050mtrs in the Indian Himalaya when Fowler teamed up again with ‘Slippery’ Vic Saunders, their first climb together since the Golden Pillar of Spantik, Pakistan in 1987; a climber of equal merit and achievement as the author. Their getting back together starts with their reliving a boxing match between them to settle a dispute in a seedy east London pub, but at which they were jeered at during their fight for a lack of aggression by the audience, which led to them being replaced by a stripper!

In 2016 Fowler was coming up for retirement aged 60 and Saunders was 66 years old. They were like a couple of escapees from Dad’s Army, and they certainly could have moonlighted as the ‘odd couple’. But they completed a difficult climb of the 1100metre north buttress of the mountain in eight days in a round trip from Base Camp. To report that the pictures of the route are gnarly is a half truth and the author’s advice that you are ‘Never too old’ seems to hold good.

'The Royal Arches'.. Xinijang; DG
The book is replete with colour pictures and is well designed and produced, meeting the standards we have come to expect from Vertebrate. But it concludes with an Epilogue on a truly sombre note as the author is diagnosed with anal cancer, and needs to undertake both chemo and radiotherapy to combat this, torpedoing his plans for a trip to Sikkim, again with Slippery Vic. Post treatment after two clear scans, a further monitoring visit reveals the cancer is back, and an operation may now be necessary. However he remains as ever positive, and his dream of visiting Sikkim is still being planned as he decides, ‘anything is possible’ 
 
This historically important work is a book to savour, and one to recommend any tyro reading as they start out wishing to also emulate such an adventurous life style. I applaud Fowler’s attitude to bolts, he eschews them in the high mountains and explains why, and although he has been awarded three Piolet D’Or, the so called Oscars of the mountaineering world he appreciates the limitation of such awards, and likewise as when he was awarded the soubriquet of ‘The Mountaineer’s Mountaineer’ in a poll conducted by the Observer. 


Mick Fowler: Image BMC
Times change and he was lucky to be active when world travel made such ascents possible in a short holiday time span. Whatever, as long as the sport of mountaineering continues to be keenly followed worldwide Mick Fowler will be a name to give tribute to, the more so for the adventurous way and the spirit in which his climbs were achieved. 

Dennis Gray : 2018 
 

Friday, 7 September 2018

Waymaking.... Review



WAYMAKING: An Anthology of Women’s Adventure Writing, Poetry and Art.
Edited by: Helen Mort, Claire Carter, Heather Dawe, Camilla Barnard.
Published by Vertebrate £17.99. 280 pages. Paperback.

For what is a play without a woman in it?’ Thomas Kyd.

Whatever else this book is about my first response on perusing a copy was how bold and innovative this appeared to be and the contents did not belie such a consideration. I had a thought though as I commenced reading, namely would women’s writing about outdoor adventures be different in a fundamental way to a male’s? And I soon decided as I read on, that the answer was YES! The author’s revealed themselves as more caring, less heroic in their claims for self, and gentler in their approach to life and all of its demands; relationships, family, children, and place. I will contradict myself here, for there is nothing gentle in Lily Diyu’s essay ‘Running on the roof of the world’, a seven-stage sky race set around Manaslu the world’s eighth highest mountain. But again there is perhaps less of the heroic within the story than if this had been written by a man?

In WAYMAKING the contents are broken down into four sections, under titles headed as follows, ‘Vicinity’ ‘Heart and Soul’ ‘Water’ and ‘Union’ and each of these contain essays, poems, and paintings/cartoons which more or less fit such headings. This is not however a feminine version of ‘The Games Climber’s Play’, an anthology of mountain themed writing, for it is much wider sourced than that. It does include some hard core climbing, but the range of content is probably wider than most other such compendiums.

The essays are so varied and cover so much ground physically, set in the Antarctic, Patagonia, Ireland, Nepal, Wales, Scotland, the Lake District, Australia, the Peak District, and many more such destinations. Most of the subjects covered are straightforward adventure activities; bouldering, swimming, canoeing in rivers and oceanic waters, urban running, peak bagging etc but a few are more challenging, and for instance ‘Leaving for the edge of the world’ by Kathleen Jones questions our consumer life styles, the pollution this is causing, and the damage to the natural landscapes. K’e yil yal tx’i; ‘Saying something’ by Leslie Hsu Oh is equally thoughtful, and anyone who has taken their own children climbing when young will understand the trials and tribulations one must face over this; their over enthusiasms, but on occasion lack of same, and the worries over safety, toileting and sustenance. This essay also has something to inform about how native USA people saw, and still see the rocks and mountains of their homeland.

 Bouldering at Ardmair Beach: Deziree Wilson

The essay ‘Memory Ten’ by Libby Peter is set in more familiar territory, winter climbing in Snowdonia with her daughter, at that date a 13 year old, climbing Yr Wyddfa’s Trinity Face by its Central Gully. Despite earning her living as a mountain guide, you realise that with her own daughter the relationship is different to that of a client during such an ascent. Two other climber’s essays have unusual slants, Hazel Findlay in ‘No-self’ and Katie Ives ‘Unmapping’. The first is self analysis, and its author is well schooled academically in philosophy and psychology for such a mental challenge whilst the second author is a climbing journalist of stature writing about night climbing.


To anyone who has deliberately set forth as other climbers are descending at the end of the day, this will bring to recall memory of the excited anticipation tinged with apprehension that planning such climbs and trips can bring which quickly disperse once into moon or torch lit action. There are so many different topics covered in the other essays within this book, that it is not possible in this review to cover them all, but one I cannot ignore centres on the joy to be found in the simple pleasure of a continued observation of a brook that falls from high ground on the eastern edge of Dartmoor. 

Illustrated by photographs and an accompanying essay ‘Counterflow’ by Jen Benson or ‘Lost in the Light’ of West Antarctica, sleeping in tents at minus 50F, melting snow for drinking water where daily living demands so much of Tara Kramer, who nevertheless feels so alive in such an environment. Whilst ‘Rewilding’ poses a different kind of scenario, but just as alive, describing a 550-mile self supporting mountain-bike time trial around Scotland’s most rugged and remote wilderness for Lee Craigie, but with an acknowledgement that despite the chasing and racing, it is something more than that which drives her to such physical demands, at the end of which the memories of the scenery passed through remain dominant and fast to recall.
 Climber: Hazel Barnard
 
So far in this review I have not written of the many and varied poems included in Waymaking or the paintings; poetry is such a personal like, but running throughout the book are a series on the Camino de Santiago by Cath Drake which have a resonance for this reader. ‘To Follow’ by Claire Carter and ‘Falling’ from Joanna Croston will be recognised as the truth by any climber as will a reading of Helen Mort’s contribution ‘The Climb’ of just how and when it begins! Other verses were more difficult for me, but some were rewarding at a second and third reading, typical of which was ‘Last night I dream we walk up to the Point again’ by Imogen Cassels, or ‘By the Way’ a crossing of Kinder and more by Sarah Outen. Publishers always declare there is no money in poetry (that is unless you were based in the old USSR where poetry outsold fiction, and Yevtushenko had the lifestyle to prove it!) so it was brave of Vertebrate to go along with a format where poetry has almost as much emphasis as essay.

The paintings/cartoons do add much to the feel of the work. Four paintings by Pam Williamson, illustrating her poem ‘Walking Moses Trod’ set the scene and why the artist wanted to capture it, whilst the line drawing of a ‘Climber’ by Hazel Barnard does look so real and ‘gripped’. My two favourite pictures however were the wash drawing; ‘Women who Run with the Wolves’ by Tessa Lyons and ‘Bouldering at Ardmair Beach’ by Deziree Wilson. There is humour as well in a series of paintings by Paula Flach of a young tyro taking on challenging situations and by some cartoons, which for me the most laughable was ‘Ken the Cross Dresser’ by Tami Knight. The hero of this is Ken, a one legged, cross dresser hoping to ride his bike to the summit of Mount Everest (without oxygen) but who is beaten to the summit by a more agile one legged lady biker.


Enchantment Larches: Nikki Frumkin
The book ends with C.V’s of the 56 contributors who have essays and their pictorial work appearing in WAYMAKING. Only three or four of these were personally known to me, but what a galaxy of talent they represent? Writers, academics, poets, travellers, mountaineers, canoeists, bike riders etc many undertaking challenges and writing about them in way that any publisher would feel positive about presenting their work. We are informed that this volume of Women’s Adventure Writing would not have appeared with the support of Alpkit, but we are not let into the background story of what that was, but whatever it was we readers are grateful. Finally the book’s four editors are to be congratulated in assembling such an outstanding eclectic work; one that will bear dipping into again and again, a veritable cornucopia of interest expressing an enjoyment in living. 


Dennis Gray : 2018 
 


Friday, 24 August 2018

The White Cliff....Review



The term 'coffee table book' is generally used to describe an A3 sized doorstop which is brim full of seductive images but sadly lacking in solid writing. However, within the climbing/mountaineering field there have of course, always been exceptions to the rule. Works like Crew, Soper and Wilson's The Black Cliff; Tony Smythe and John Cleare's classic Rock Climbers in Action in Snowdonia- recently republished as a Paperback- and of course Ken Wilson's series of weighty tomes with Classic/ Hard/ Extreme Rock at the heart of the series.

With the recent publication of Grant Farquhar's The White Cliff, The aforementioned The Black Cliff now has a worthy companion within the genre. A diligently researched, skilfully edited and beautifully produced work which features a contributing cast list which appears to include just about everyone who has contributed to north Wales's post 1950's climbing history.

John Redhead on a recent addition to the Gogarth route list with a first ascent of The Golden Fan with Martin Crook

It is fitting that Ynys Mon -the land of the druids- should cast a spell over climbers who were drawn to these complex, intimidating cliffs of Ynys Cybi relatively late in the century. Although the RAF had used the cliffs around Gogarth since the 1940's and local activists had dabbled thereabouts in the 50's, the true birth of climbing on these pale cliffs above the Irish Sea began in the 1960's as word leaked out that a stone El Dorado existed way out West. No surprise then that the procession was led by north Wales's leading activists and new routing pioneers . Hard chaws like Pete Crew, Joe Brown and Martin Boysen in the vanguard. To be quickly joined by just about every 'name' in the UK climbing scene and beyond. All magnetically drawn to this fabled climbing terranova.


This explosion of activity in the swinging sixties is described by many of those who were part and parcel of the scene. Both the living and through the words of the dead. David Dukan, Geoff Milburn, Les Holliwell, Trevor Jones and Ken Wilson included. One of the more fascinating episodes in this period is 'The Great Gogarth Hoax' as described by Peter Gillman. Then a young non climbing Sunday Times journalist.. It recalls a bizarre case of the climbs that never were. A collection of state of the art routes written up by a climbing Walter Mitty character-Keith McCallum- whose activities quickly aroused the suspicions of fellow activists. Not least the Holliwell Brothers and Pete Crew who were in the vanguard of developments at Gogarth at the time.

As the 1970's brought in great advances in equipment and footwear, standards continued apace and essayists including Henry Barber, Martin Crook and Al Evans describe the relentless drive which delivered classic routes like the 3 star E5 'The Ordinary Route', Positron E5 and the 3 star Moran/Milburn/Evan's E3, 'The Assassin'. With The White Cliff now cooking on gas, the clear blue sky certainly was the limit and as the punk era ended, the 80's New Romantics in the form of Johnny Dawes, John Redhead, Ron Fawcett , Jimmy Jewel and Andy Pollitt took The White Cliff by the scruff of the neck and recorded increasing audacious first ascents. The old master's like Brown, Crew and Boyson could only look on admiringly as routes like Conan the Librarian E7, The Big Sleep quickly fell. By the 90's it was open season on The White Cliff and editor Grant Farqhar opens 'The Raving 90's and the Naughty 00's with Sex and Religion, his serious E7 route at the heart of his revealing essay, Bouncing Czechs'.

Henry Barber and Al Harris looking suitably intimidated!:Photo John Cleare

But before I give the impression that The White Cliff is a mere chronological procession, detailing hard routes and their creators, let me quickly confirm that far from being a dry historical account of climbing on the Gogarth cliffs, The White Cliff ranges far and wide across the the entire Gogarth spectrum. Covering developments on every cliff- including Rhoscolyn- but including a broad area of interest with every aspect of climbing covered by over 100 trailblazing pioneers. Contributions ranging from a brief paragraph to lengthy essays and describing the characters, the epics, the exploration, the failed projects, the accidents etc etc. Fascinating and inspirational in equal measure.

It would be unfair to single out any single essay from such a qualitative field of work, or indeed, mention stand out photographs from such a stellar cast of image takers which include John Cleare, Leo Dickinson and Ray Wood. Suffice it to say that the editor has used the whole range of the photographic spectrum to illustrate the essays herein. A worthy project which like the aforementioned tomes mentioned at the start of this review, is destined to be a future classic within the field of climbing literature.


John Appleby; 2018

 

Friday, 10 August 2018

Tom Price : I'm a Stranger Here Myself



His life was gentle, and the elements so mixed in him, that Nature might stand up and say to all the world, ‘This was a man!’ Julius Caesar

Recently a researcher contacted me to question who I believed in a long life were the outstanding characters of the mountain world I had been fortunate to meet and know. I thought for a short while and advised that the three most stand out personalities known well to myself for different reasons had been Tom Patey, Don Whillans and Tom Price! This latter’s inclusion resulted in my interlocutor being rather fazed, ‘I’ve never heard or read anything about him’ she responded ‘who was he, why was he so outstanding?’ And here is an essay which I hope will help to illustrate why I believe this to be so, for although Tom was not a major pioneering climber compared to the record of Patey, or Whillans he led a much more varied life, and one so rich in incident that few others can have equalled it in its diversity of experience. 
 

Tom was born in Sheffield in 1919, and for his first decade of life lived in a rural environment near to Wharncliffe Crags, but his father a railway worker in order to find employment moved his family to a sprawling suburb of Liverpool. Price attended there at its Alsop school, winning a Scholarship to the Cities University to read English and History, and it was at that institution he started to seriously climb, having previously as a schoolboy enjoyed hill walking in Snowdonia. The Presiding spirit of that bodies climbing club was Graham MacPhee, and he was a friend of both Kirkus and Edwards, leading pioneers before the last war also originally based in Liverpool. Tom physically short and slight, with a wiry build and a fearless approach to steep rock moved quickly up the grades, and he was soon by the standards immediately before the War leading routes graded at the top difficulty of the day, Very Severe.


MacPhee was a controversial character, famed for his acerbic wit, and one instance of this noted by Tom illustrates this, it occurred on a University climbing club winter meet on Ben Nevis. Walking up the Allt a Mhuillin glen to camp under the North Face of the mountain, MacPhee hired a pony to carry his equipment, leaving his companions to stagger on behind carrying large, heavy rucksacks. Stopping part way for a rest, MacPhee addressed his companions thus, pointing at Tom. ‘Price’ he observed ‘is like an Alpine guide’ a remark at which its recipient swelled with pride, only to be deflated as he went on to further observe; ‘They do not sweat, they only stink!’, MacPhee was however a Nevis expert, and although based in Liverpool, he produced the first climber’s guidebook to the Ben. Despite the preceding anecdote, Tom stayed in touch and friends with MacPhee until his death in a mountain accident in the Canary Islands in 1963.


The outbreak of war then intervened, and Tom confessed that if it had not he might never have graduated, for he was in trouble for spending all his free time, and waking hours, either climbing or thinking about it, and thus he failed to meet the demands of his course work, including failing Latin! But the war changed everything; few of today’s UK population have a notion as to what it was really like, and typical of those who lived through such life changing experiences, though I must have spent hundreds of hours in his company, the only story Tom ever told me about his war, was that whilst commanding a ship in the Mediterranean near the end of the conflict, and of how the crew and he were nearly court marshalled for running a cigarette smuggling racket in league with some American sailors; which became such a cause celebre that it was resolved by him receiving a command cipher from the Admiralty ‘Stop it!’ 

Other details of his war service I have managed to research post his death in 2013 and it makes for gripping reading. On call up he elected to join the Royal Navy, for as he was later to modestly observe, he did this for the lure of the sea and the watery wilderness of the oceans which meant ‘he spent the war safely at sea’.


But nothing could be further away from the truth of his service, for starting out as a lowly Able Seaman he finished the war as the Captain of a rocket ship. Initially he volunteered to serve in minesweepers in the Western Atlantic, spending over two years in that more than dangerous activity, until one night ashore he was arrested for drunkenness and placed on Captain’s report. But instead of being disciplined when his record was examined he was persuaded to apply for officer selection, which surprising to himself he passed. He was then assigned to Combined Operations, planning and training for the invasion of France. At the D-Day landings he was a lieutenant on a rocket ship carrying Canadian forces into Juno beach, one of the most challenging of the landing sites. Of the first eleven soldiers they landed, ten were killed or injured by enemy fire. Post this event he was promoted and given command of rocket ship LCR 405, which he sailed into the Mediterranean to take part in the invasion of the South of France.


At the end of the war in 1946 he returned to Liverpool, back to its University and its climbing club, but he also joined the Wayfarer’s in order to be able to use the system of huts in the climbing areas. He then spent two and a half years completing his studies, ending with a BA degree and a teaching diploma. Although whilst based in Liverpool he had been nearer to Snowdonia than the Lake District, he opted for the latter for much of his climbing, making ascents in Langdale of routes like Gimmer Crack and Hiatus, and Eliminate C on Dow Crag. On completing his University education, the fell tops and crags of Cumbria were not to be denied and he joined the teaching staff of Workington Grammar School. He also became the coxswain of the local lifeboat, and took part in several dramatic rescues in the Irish Sea. In West Cumbria during that era there was a group of outstanding pioneering climbers led by Bill Peascod; and along with Harold Drasdo and Peter Greenwood, I was fortunate to meet up with them in the Gatesgarth barn in Buttermere in the winter of 1950/1.

Without transport, such activists tended to be ‘centrists’, and for Peascod and his rope mates, that was mainly Buttermere, where they were pioneering some outstanding new routes. They had formed their own club, which like so many of that period was short lived, but amongst their members that weekend I remember meeting Sid Beck and Tom for the first time.
  South Georgia.Image:Royal Geographical Society
 

Tom had by then started visiting the Continent to climb, his first foray had been to the Pyrenees, and later to Mont Blanc and the Valais, managing classic ascents in what were visits, cut short mainly because of money shortage. For quite some years post 1945, British visitors were only allowed to spend a small sum in hard currency on a single trip. You paid for your train journey in the UK (return), but all your expenses abroad had to be covered by this small amount. Some enterprising climbers found ways around this by selling such as a nylon rope to the continentals, but I can still remember how shocked I was as a 18 year old, travelling across France by ancient steam trains that kept breaking down, on the devastation still so obvious from the war, but one could spin money out by living on local produce; mainly bread, milk, eggs and cheese.


Tom was enjoying his life in Cumbria climbing at weekends, casting pearls of wisdom to his pupil’s mid-week, heading out to sea on rescue missions, but an accident on Dow Crag in the early 1950’s shut down his climbing for a while. Fortunately he had just acquired his first nylon rope; tying on this directly with a bowline knot, and with Frank Monkhouse as his second he was leading the classic, ‘Eliminate A’ climb on Dow Crag. Shod in basket ball boots all went well until above the Rocher Perches crux, but on the upper reaches of this route which become vague to follow, Tom lost the usual line and continued ascending up previously unclimbed rock. But as he was moving to gain easier ground, pulling up on a handhold it suddenly shattered, precipitating a long fall. 
 

Fortunately there were other climbers at the crag that day, and after lowering to the base of the cliff they carried him down to Coniston on an improvised stretcher, a bed spring from the nearby Barrow Boys Hut at the side of Goats Water. 

An ambulance then took him to Workington Hospital, where his injuries were treated; a laceration to the scalp, fractured ribs and an ankle, with sprains to both. He had fallen over 40 feet, and his brand new nylon rope was shredded for almost 20 feet. Tom was always careful about spending large amounts on gear, preferring to kit himself for his outdoor clothes at the Charity Shops, but he confessed the purchase of a nylon rope was one of his wisest choices despite its then high price by the standards of the day!


After serving, quite some years at the same school, in 1955 Tom took a sabbatical to take part in a Duncan Carse led expedition to South Georgia. Younger readers can be forgiven for not instantly recognising the name, but he was radio’s ‘Dick Barton Special Agent’ which attracted 15 million listeners each evening. Carse was an unusual mixture of polar explorer and radio actor. Over four southern summers between 1951 and 1957 he organised, and led the South Georgia Survey. 

This sub-antarctic island is covered in glaciers and mountains, and records a fascinating history, including a first navigation around and exploration by Captain Cook in the 18th century. It is also the island reached by Ernest Shackleton in his dramatic rescue journey in 1916, and it featured much in the engagements surrounding the Falkland’s War in 1982.Even today it can only be approached by a long sea journey, lying in the South Atlantic Ocean 1390kms South East of the Falkland’s, so in 1955 it was a remote destination with uncharted fjords, glaciers and mountains, replete with fantastic wild life breeding on its beaches. 

And now it is once again being keenly visited by climbers, most recently by Stephen Venables and Chris Watts, the former a frequent visitor having made the first ascent of Mount Carse 2300m in 1990. Tom was one of three mountaineers recruited for the 1955/6 party, the other two being Louis Baume and Johnny Cunningham; their task was to get the surveyors into safe positions in the mountains, and they managed a lot of travelling on ski and some technical independent climbing. Tom departed South Georgia with a glacier named after him, and he told me an anecdote about the Dick Barton connection, whose two side kicks in his nightly adventures were ‘Jock’ and ‘Snowy’. Interviewed by the media on his return about this, for Cunnigham a Scot was obviously ‘Jock’ and Tom they decided must be ‘Snowy!’


An interesting fact about Tom’s life is he always ‘moved on’, and in 1961 he succeeded John Lagoe as the warden of Eskdale Outward Bound School, where he remained for 7 years. Somehow despite the fact that Tom was a unique kind of English revolutionary, he fitted this post with such distinction that he remained, into old age someone the Outward Bound movement embraced for his sage advice and support. He was a founder member of the Mountain Leader Training Board, and with John Jackson he wrote the tract of its award scheme, which by the time when I was at the BMC and we took over its administration, it had become one of the largest such training schemes in British sport.


But Tom was to move on again in 1968, back to Yorkshire as an adviser to the West Yorkshire Education authority, where his essays and ideas about the development of outdoor education won him wide respect. His attempt to ‘Bridge the Gap’ between educationalists and amateur climbers set out in such format, was published in both ‘Mountain Magazine’ and the anthology, ‘The Games Climber’s Play’. On one occasion he invited me to speak at a Conference he had organised for teachers involved in Outdoor Education, he posited me with the task of preparing and reading a paper on ‘The History of Mountain Literature’. Somehow I blagged my way through this assignment; which was typical of Tom who always expected students and acquaintances to meet his own level of attainment.


And his next appointment in 1973 illustrates this in spades when he became the Dean of Bingley Teacher Training College; which with his encouragement became during that decade a numero uno place for climbers to study, for his students included Gill Price, Jill Lawrence, Pete Livesey, Pete Gomersall and Bonny Masson. In that era he and I were both members of the Plas y Brenin Management Committee, and living down the hill from Bingley in Guiseley I used to drive up there, to meet up and journey to North Wales together. These were some of the most entertaining, amusing journeys I have ever made. On one occasion Tom elicited to me his thoughts about ‘The Sermon on the Mount’. I wish I had then a tape recorder in my car for it was of such worth it should have been recorded, and I guess for the reader to realise how amusing Tom could be, the sparring between Ken Wilson, and Price was a prime example?, they were two outstanding figures in their own milieu.


Original Image : Outward Bound Trust

When Alan Blackshaw became BMC President in 1973 we decided on the need to review the future needs and development of the Council, and so a ‘Future Policy Committee’ was formed which included both Ken, then editing Mountain Magazine, and Tom. To report that these two sparked off each other is true, for as Tom was later to observe about Wilson ‘that he was a passionate defender of a climber’s right to kill himself in his own way!’ We used to hold these meetings in Pubs up and down the country, but on occasion in more salubrious surroundings, such as The Army and Navy Club in London, close to Hyde Park. 

In one of our discussions held there on ‘The future of Mountain Training’ , Ken and Tom became engaged in animated discussion, and Wilson who on occasion could get very exercised in such debate, suddenly jumped up and shouted out loudly ‘ Climbing is all about dying!’. One wondered what the ex-military types at the bar made of this outburst, I thought ‘crikey’ it might cause one of them to choke over their gin and tonics. Tom’s riposte to this was classic and typical of his gentle strain of humour; ‘Well Ken if that is the case, you cannot have been too active yourself!’
 

Tom was not a bureaucratic type of Principal, and he was always planning some journey or trip himself. With the famous Swiss climber, avalanche expert Andre Roch, and mountain guide who was one of his friends he made a ski traverse of the Alps, with another friend George Spenseley he made a multi-day canoe journey down the Hanbury and Thelon rivers in Northern Canada. He was always keen to get out for a climb and when he became President of the BMC in 1982-1985 we climbed together in Wales, the Peak District and The Lake District. And for some years, even as the ageing process began to catch up with him, he led trips in the USA and did some instructing work for Outward Bound in Southern Africa.


Retiring to the Lake District he lived first outside Keswick then in a small cottage in Threlkeld, for his was a complex personal life, married with two sons, Gareth and Trevor (both climbers) he had a partner, an accomplished musician, a professional harpist Jean with whom he shared his later years. In 2000 he published an unusual autobiography, ‘Travail So Gladly Spent’ which is more a book of thoughtful essays than a life history, but I recommend anyone who has not done so to read it, for Tom’s character as a gentle and amusing man shines throughout its pages. I write the word gentle with some care, for I did see him once roused in temper. When Tom became the BMC President we were faced with a vastly changing scene over a flood of potential new members, many starting out to climb at the large number of climbing walls then appearing throughout the country. 

The BMC had always been in truth before that an affiliation of climbing clubs, but most of these new tyros were unconnected. As they moved outside and started to travel abroad to climb, there was a demand to access BMC services, particularly insurance. We decided to introduce a new membership category to help them to do this, but some of the elderly patrician leaders of the major climbing clubs opposed this. We had a rather fractious meeting with some of them at an AGM, but Tom roused to fiery speech took no heed and eventually won them over; however it was agreed that such individuals would not become voting members, this was changed during the late Mark Vallance’s Presidency, some decades later.
Besides his book of essays during his last decades Tom was painting his beloved Lakeland hills. One of my proudest possessions is one of these, a panorama view of Scafell which I have hung on my living room wall. He also thoroughly recorded his life for the British Library Archive in oral form entitled ‘I’m a stranger here myself’. The last time I was with him in Threlkeld he was 93 years old and as I said goodbye, he was just leaving to traverse the Cat Bells ridge. He died in July 2013 at 94 years of age. Posthumously some of his paintings and artefacts from his long life were exhibited, entitled ‘Inspiring Adventure’ at the Keswick Museum and Art Gallery, late in 2015 into 2016. I will finish by a quote from Tom who when invited to explain his fascination with his time spent in Antarctic exploration; he declared it was.... ‘in pursuit of life’s simple satisfactions and the succour to be found in the wilderness and mountains’. 

Dennis Gray: 2018 
 

Friday, 27 July 2018

Villainography...The Landlord's Tale


The thirst for more of the life or legend of Don Whillans apparently remains unsatisfied. Here's a story no-one has heard as I heard it. I never checked it with Don. During the sixties and seventies a number of climbing clubs with Welsh roots or properties took to holding annual dinners in the Conwy Valley rather than at Llanberis. They favoured the subsequently demolished Victoria Hotel at Llanrwst or the Prince's Arms at Trefriw. At one of these Trefriw dinners the club chose to accommodate its invited speaker and some other guests in isolation from its members. They were quartered at the Fairy Falls in the centre of the village. The licensee at that time was a Yorkshireman called Midgeley, known to locals as Midge. In fact he worked full time as a forester but served drinks himself most evenings. His wife handled food and accommodation.

On one occasion I found myself making idle conversation with him across the bar of the empty lounge. Both of us had half an eye on the muted television news when, surprising me, the bearded face of our hero appeared.

Midge made a sharp hissing noise and his face stiffened. He lunged over to turn the sound  up as the report on Whillans vs. Lancashire Constabulary unfolded. He'd apparently seen it earlier.This fininished,he turned the sound down again. Then he unloaded himself.

'They got back about midnight. They'd all had a skinful but some of them wanted more. They were residents, they weren't that noisy. About half past one I told them I'd like to close the bar. A couple went right off, then the others except for that bugger. He just sat there, sipping away, half-glasses and pints in front of him. In the end I told him I was shutting, could he go up now. He got up, picked up a couple of pints and set off up the stairs. I ran up after and dodged past just as he reached the landing. " You can't take those to your room' I said. He looked at me deadpan. "Oh, sorry", he says, mock polite. Quick as a flash he tipped the drinks over the railing. Now I'd had a new hallway carpet fitted just a week before.' He paused.' So I it im'!

That resonated. In perfect innocence he'd pinched Don's punch-line.

'What happened?'

'He went straight down the bloody stairs, all the way to the hallway. He lay there a minute, not looking up, then he hunched his shoulders up against the wall, reached for his cap, and put it on straight. He looked up at me. He got on his feet and came up the stairs, head down. I just waited. 
He looked me straight in the face for a minute, then he gave me a really nice little smile and said Please....Can I go to bed now?" I stood there and watched till he'd gone through the door.
'He was a bloody menace, but....I liked the feller,' Midge said, shaking his head, mystified. 
 
I'm repeating remarks of over thirty years ago as accurately as I can but a problem has come up. I told this tale to Doug Verity a year ago -- at a funeral, where else? Doug laughed and said, "Oh, in Don's account the battle raged from room to room." So who was right? Somewhere out there Don's fellow-guests might have heard something. But which club was the host club? In any case, the incident seems to me to show both sides of Don's nature.

It happened that I read Jim Perrin's book only a month ago, causing memories of my own to resurface. In fact I never once climbed with Don or even saw him climbing. I always met him in pubs or at parties, where we had many lengthy conversations. Yet these encounters may have spanned as long a period as any other climber's. Possibly, though, the first would be disallowed as not proven.
From Whitsuntide 1950 the end of petrol rationing brought much more traffic onto the roads. That made hitch-hiking to the Lakes practicable so that gritstone became, for me, a local midweek indulgence. But in the April of that year my brother and I were still extending our acquaintance with unvisited outcrops at the limits of our range. One of these trips took us over the border to either Ravenstones or Dovestones in the Chew Valley. 
Image- Daniel Rees.
 
It was a grey day, cloudy but not wet. I don't know whether we had route information but we worked left to right along the crag climbing anything to our taste. We'd seen and heard no-one on the moor. Then, halfway along, we rounded a buttress and found two other climbers. I still see this clearly.

They were standing beneath an overhanging crack seaming the back of a shallow cave. I couldn't take my eyes off their monstrous rope, thick, muddy, a tangled heap lying in a pile. We each said where we came from but not, I think, our names. It was more a matter of "Where are you lads from?" They'd been working right to left. The big hefty youth never spoke. The short one, feet planted, shoulders back, with a flat, challenging stare, told us he'd just climbed the crack. He urged us to try it. He was in nailed boots. Clearly, it hadn't been touched before. It was obviously very hard but completely unappealing -- damp moss, the seam dripping, the finish a heather drapery. It was filthy. And it wasn't thirty feet in height. We'd come to climb full-length routes on clean rock. We declined, moved on, and didn't see them again.

By chance the 'The Villain' happens to include Don's diary entries for the last two weekends in April that year. They were for Ravenstones and Dovestones. That settles it for me and names the companion as Eric Worthington. This was a year before Don met Joe Brown.

I always enjoyed talking to Don. In the beginning it was rock climbing. For a while he overestimated my ability, probably because in making the third ascent of my hard climb on Castle Rock he'd had to produce an alternative finish in default of the normal finish. Some years later circumstances were reversed. Making the second ascent of his route Delphinus at Thirlmere, I thought I could dispense with his highest peg and straighten the line by climbing a steep little groove just to the right. I got up this only to find that I had to place one myself for the insecure exit. 

In fact, Joe, Don, and the Rock and Ice nucleus were hot on our heels on our own crags though Pete Greenwood and Arthur Dolphin briefly teamed up and raised the existing leading standard on Scafell and Bowfell. Apart from making their mark at Thirlmere the Rock and Ice even raided our home ground at Kilnsey and followed us to Dove Crag. I'd spent a bit of unrewarded effort on these two impressive cliffs. They lifted standards on Dove with Dovedale Grooves, and seven years later Don did it again with Extol.

I remember Don describing at length the ascent of the big pitch on the Central Pillar of Freney. At his high point, trying to climb it free to scorch the French pursuit, he realised that he wasn't going to get up or to get back. He knew he could hang on for a couple of minutes longer and he wasn't ready to drop off as an act of will. So he simply warned Chris Bonington to be ready for this sensational fall. Chris, desperate to have a go himself, told him to let go immediately to-save time. Reluctantly he complied!. Years later I had a letter from a Professor of Applied Psychology who was editing a four-volume series on skill studies. The second book was in process. Could I contribute a substantial essay analysing what factors seemed to be common to extreme performers in rock climbing? He'd written to Don first but he'd declined and suggested I should do it. I felt flattered by this recommendation.

Of course, what it really meant was that Don couldn't be bothered and was earning more from a single lecture than the fee for this task. But I enjoyed it. I was also asked to supply a selection of photographs from which only one could be chosen so I put together a batch from various acquaintances. They were sent on uncaptioned as requested but by chance the one selected was of Delpinus.

Of course, we all learned sooner or later what a monster he could be. When he moved to North Wales we heard the inside stories of events in Penmaenmawr. Long-term friends of Audrey Whillans were already established there and they were equally friends of Maureen and myself. Years earlier my own wife had had to discourage an advance, but then, didn't everybody's? In fact he mellowed as time went by and would even buy a round when reminded. 
 
In his later years his interests shifted. He was no conservationist but he drew a childlike pleasure from animals, birds and fish. At Penmaenmawr he had a big aviary and an aquarium. Just before his final journey we talked exclusively about snorkelling. Maureen and I had been to the gulf of Aqaba, he'd revisited the Red Sea. His instinct for self-preservation was still acute. Thinking he'd glimpsed a shark fin nearby he'd pounded over to a small rock barely breaking the surface. After three lonely hours there he'd realised that if he didn't make the longer swim back he'd die of heatstroke or dehydration. He hadn't enjoyed the trip back.

Despite his immodest cravings for celebrity, women and drink, and all the problems these caused, he was always able to delight with his wit and his uncompromising stance.These may have sprung from Northern folk wisdom but he made them his own. In a backstreet pub he looked sadly at the line of freshly poured pints on the bar. "Want to know how to sell more beer, love?" "Yer what? How?" "Fill the fuckin' glasses!" 

 'Villainography'..the original typewritten essay.

In the Dolomites, on his final journey, a group of British climbers was descending from a hut near the Civetta. They sat down to scan the face, trying to see whether they could spot Hugh Banner and Derek Walker, who were somewhere on the Philip-Flamm or the descent. They'd started from a camp near this point and Derek Price had agreed to collect their gear. He called over to ask for assistance and one or two amongst the group got up reluctantly. Frances Carr, better known as Frantic, also tried to rise but was detained by a heavy hand on her shoulder. "Never volunteer for owt " Don muttered

Harold Drasdo