Friday, 26 August 2016

The Gully....Part Two


We went into the bar and there in the left hand corner were a group of six lads with enough pints of beer lined up on the tables to quench an army. Tam walked over to hoots and yells with a few expletives thrown in. “Thar yous ar yous ald bastad” said one, “whare the fack av youse been Tam” someone else shouted out. “Whoos that wanker with yous Tam” came another retort. Tam introduced me to the group, all Glaswegians to a tea and proud of it.
“This heers na wanker, this heers ma mate” said Tam, “he kens Jock fra ma ma’s street”. No one seemed impressed. Then Tam said “he laved in Greenock, he wos a fucken ‘hatchet warrior’ yous ken yous daft wankers”.  Now this did the trick and everyone moved up and made room for me. They all had obviously heard of the ‘hatchet warriors’ reputation, but if they only knew about me being a pacifist, but then why spoil a good thing, especially when several pints of beer appeared before me.

Any intention of getting an early night was soon out of the window when another round was bought and someone told me that we had to finish all the beer standing on the table before anyone could leave. My heart sank when I counted 45 pints of beer and eight people in the group one of whom could only manage a few pints since his kidney failure through drinking every day for three years whilst serving in the RAF in Germany - me! 

The evening wore on and when the barman tried to tell us it was closing time, a few whispers in his ear seemed to do the trick and he agreed to stay open for a few more hours but the doors had to be locked. Tam’s reply was as good as it gets: “eye, ahn keep yon bloody door locked so we canny get ooot”. I contented myself with the fact that this was going to be an all-nighter, if not, someone was going to pay and I don’t mean the transferring of money!

Around 3am a loud knock on the door interrupted the session. I thanked whoever it was as I was by now lagging behind with emptying the glasses in front of me, but got a little anxious when in walked a police sergeant. I thought things were going to get ugly but he just said that he was looking for volunteers to help on a rescue as someone reported shouts for help from around the base of the Buchaille several hours ago and the regular Coe team were still out helping the Fort William rescue team on the Ben.

Tam and his mates were up in a flash, downed all the pints still standing there and were off to get their gear. It was then that I realised that these were what an earlier mountaineering instructor had referred to, as ‘committed mountaineers’. I was glad to join the rush as no one noticed the full pints’ glasses of beer I was leaving which was just as well as I realised that if I was going to make my get-a-way, this would be my opportunity.

I drove alone to the car park below the mountain, word arrived that the body had been recovered. This was my excuse to say goodbye to Tam and his mates who were already eager to get back to the pub in the hope the barman would re-open it for them. Chance would be a fine thing I thought but then again, you never know!!

We parted company with me driving south cautiously out of the Glen in the direction of Callander whilst the others crammed into Billy’s car shouting and singing unprintable words to the tune of ‘the wild west show’.  Poor barman I muttered to myself as I drove off.

I drove until my eyelids refused to stay open for business so pulled over into a lay by and tried to get some sleep in what was left of the morning. As it was, I got little sleep so got up around 7am and started off for the car park below Ben Ledi arriving around 8am. I hurriedly got my climbing boots and other gear on, donned my head torch and set off in the morning darkness along the path towards the gully. As I left the path so that I could head for the start of the gully, I had to fight with snow covered bracken tufts which made my legs and thighs ache.

After what seemed hours, I arrived at the start of the gully just as the light was pushing the darkness out of the way. Looking up I felt the adrenaline start to course through my body, and my head cleared of all the nasty things I wanted to do to heather, scree and gorse. What a sight. The gully looked vertical, snow filled and very welcoming so I did not disappoint it and took my first step on the snow slope. As I thumped one of my climbing axes into the hard crusty ice wall it made that fantastic noise that climbers love, the pinging sound which tells you that it is a good hold on good solid ice.

Once I was climbing, my world opened up to allow a multitude of warm sweet feelings to flow in which in itself, gave me the impetus to keep climbing upwards despite the fact that higher up the gully the snow cover was unconsolidated and loose, in addition to last night’s alcohol intake playing havoc with both my head and my bladder.

Three quarters of the way up I was confronted with a large boulder wedged in the gully. It was covered in rime ice and attempts to get a good pick hold with either my Pterodactyl climbing axe or my Chouinard ice hammer was proving difficult and time consuming. Looking back down there was no way I was going to reverse my position as I was too close to the top, just thirty to forty feet away. After struggling for some twenty minutes to overcome the boulder, the weather changed dramatically. Cold winds were blowing, increasing with every gust, and snow put in an appearance, first as a flutter of slow falling flakes, but rapidly turning into a swift downwards fall of a blanket of snow. The early morning sun vanished in a cloud blanket that said I’m here to stay so goodbye sun and any modicum of heat. Finally, it turned into a ravaging snow storm, not wishing to offer up any mercy to those caught out in it which of course really meant - me!

One final effort allowed me to get two good pick holds and without any finesse or decorum, I pulled up and slid over the boulder using my knees and stomach not caring if anyone was watching my unceremonious movement.

A few more hard pulls, some heavy breathing coupled with impaired vision by the stinging snow and sleet which was now attacking me horizontally, and the top disappeared in a white out just when I thought I had reached it. My position was getting serious. The snow was balling up under my crampons so that the points could not get a good grip and visibility was down to less than a couple of inches.

At one point a gust of wind pushed an intake of air deep into the back of my throat making me struggle to catch my breath like a fish out of water struggling for life giving oxygen that wasn’t there.  My energy was quickly being sapped and my arms and legs were telling me constantly that they had had enough of fighting and wanted a rest.  I knew that in my rucksack somewhere, I had a pair of snow goggles but I was unable to take the time to get the rucksack off and to look for them so had to endure movement without them.

My brain however, knew that rest was also impossible due to the unconsolidated snow base this high up the gully which was soft and loose causing every step to end with the snow cover to fall aimlessly down the gully. Without a doubt, this was a terrible day to be climbing solo up a gully that was relentless in its efforts to prevent any degree of success.

As I took a few seconds from the battering storm to get my breathing into some semblance of order so that much needed oxygen could get to my brain and onto the muscles that just did not have any strength left in them, I thought of that big open coal fire in my study where I sit and work when not out climbing or trying to prove that I am immortal and I wilted at the thought of the flames as they danced across the logs and coal to a merry tune.  It was not long before the shrieking wailing wind brought me back to reality and the task to hand and despite its rip roaring theatrical approach to my situation, it continued incessantly to buffer my sodden and damp clothes as it tried so very hard to knock me off balance and tumble down to my final demise below.

I suddenly and uncomfortably became aware that the sleet, snow or rain whatever it was blowing horizontally at the time, was finding those little openings in my clothing allowing the cold to sweep across my already numb body. If there was any time in my life when I most closely resembled a drowned rat, this was surely it.


Reaching down for any internal mental and physical reserves that I hoped was there somewhere deep within my psyche I was shocked and somewhat frightened to discover that these had been used up earlier. In addition, I realised that the gully was higher than I thought and therefore it had taken me longer than I had anticipated just to get this far. I also realised I had made the cardinal error of not taking into account the weather patterns which had turned violent, angry and determined to hurt.

I tried to work my way to the sides of the gully to see if I could climb out onto the mountain slope itself but the absence of any consolidated snow proved that this was not on. Just then a window in the swirling snow, allowed me to see what I assumed to be the top just some fifteen feet away. With such a motivation, I summoned what strength I had deep inside of me and lunged upwards with my two ice axes, kicking as hard as I could with my crampons into what I hoped would be consolidated snow or ice, which it wasn’t but I cared nothing as I was grateful for the rock hard frozen sods and earth so long as it held.

Anger, hate, confusion, bewilderment, anxiety, euphoria, fear, regret and pleasure. How can I be feeling all these emotions at once? What is happening to me? Why am I slipping? Why is my head full of this crap?  Relax. I must clear my mind, say a quick prayer if you must, even accept the inevitable outcome of the fall downwards but get on and do something. I know in this split second that I have probably outreached myself this time. Too arrogant by half. This time I have to pay the ferryman, there is no escape as he waits for me at the bottom. Who will cry for me? Who will miss me? Who will even care when they pick my broken mangled frozen body from among the rocks below. No answer was forthcoming. The silence of ensuing death was all that could be heard.

Life has real meaning when you are about to lose it. All that matters, is how hard do you want to stay alive and what you are prepared to do to achieve that.One-minute I was lunging upwards with every conviction that I would top out within seconds and the next I was slipping downwards. The snow cover let go its grip on the gully surface and decided to drop not knowing or caring that I was relying on it to stay where it was so that I could get out of my predicament.

Snow like a virus has no need of logic and is none selective on who or whatever it attacks. It just does what it wants when it wants.  Frantic stabbing into the tufts of grass that became stripped of its white blanket with both ice axes did not appear to be working, but then, just when I thought I was going to make contact with terra firma in a way that I would rather not, I came to a stop. Frozen not daring to move a muscle in case it started my down wards movement again, I breathed slowly and quietly tried to evaluate my situation. Looking up I saw that all the snow cover had gone leaving hard compacted tufts of grass and a few frozen sprigs of heather decorated with white frozen snow.

I really only had two choices open to me. The first was to just let go and take my chances on the down wards fall, the second and most logical, was to hold my breath, and scrabble upwards using everything and anything that I could, not stopping until I got to the top which was now some distance away if not more a thousand miles!

Despite the cold wind and blinding sleet and snow, I took a few seconds in order to breathe deeply and to calm my insides from its incessant bobbing like a piece of cork floating on an angry sea. 

Looking down I saw that the boulder that I had surmounted a while before, was jutting out some ten to fifteen or so feet below and the snow that had banked up above it after falling from above, was in some way responsible for my sudden stop. However, once again, amid the storm that was raging all around as well as the storm raging inside myself, that old familiar feeling returned that this was not the time for me to die, although looking up did nothing to ease the anxiety I was feeling about my current situation.

Everything went quiet with not even a sound coming from my heavy breathing or fast pumping heartbeat. I felt in a familiar serene and peaceful place and noticed that around me the raging snow storm had abated but was still raging ‘outside’ my cocoon. Darkness slowly engulfed my body starting with my head and going down to my cold snow covered boots and despite the raging storm all around, I felt warm and safe. 

I was convinced someone was talking to me, saying ‘You know what you have to do, so just do it’. Feelings of déjá vu spread through me just as the darkness left and became replaced by the storm which shook me back to reality.

I felt a slight comforting twinge at the sound of a distant voice and without thinking about what I was going to do, I allowed my climbing axes to hang by their wrist loops, took off my gloves, said my farewells to Sandy, my children and family, thanked whoever was listening for a good life and just moved upwards grabbing whatever I could. Heather, grass tufts, frozen stones, whatever, they all became good handholds and I cared not for climbing etiquette.

Just why each and every tuft of grass and clump of frozen heather I grabbed that day held is still a mystery, but hold they did which finally enabled me to roll over the top where I lay on the deep snow, oblivious of the snow storm that was still raging furiously all around. The storm could not touch me now as I rolled away from the edge and crawled to a large boulder which I sat against, ignoring the fury of the storm, no doubt angry that I had got away. My whole body was trembling and shaking but whether it was from the cold or the release of tension I had been under is hard to say, but possibly a mixture of both.

The trembling and shaking stopped as suddenly as it started being replaced by euphoria, relief, elation and uncontrollable whooping and shouts of delight. This in turn was eventually replaced with a feeling of arrogance as I punched the air with clenched shouting into the howling storm, “sod you, it’s just not my time to die yet”. I allowed myself to enjoy the flowing and ebbing of a spring tidal wave of emotions as I took great internal comfort from the fact that death can be overcome in extreme circumstances when you have the resolve to want to live.

It mattered not that I may have miscalculated the snow conditions or that I should have been aware that the weather was most likely to turn for the worse, what matters is that as I struggled to get back down the mountain in a white out, I was in control - I resolved to live. 

Somehow, it seemed as if I was pardoned for all my earlier transgression including the Glasgow gang fight incident, slate wiped clean, penance accepted, move on with my life.

Frank Grant:2016 
 

Friday, 19 August 2016

The Gully....Part One



“And now that I have climbed and won this height,
             I must tread downward through the sloping shade,
                 And travel the bewildered tracks till night;
                 Yet for this hour I still may here be stayed,
                 And see the golden air and the silver fade,
                     And the last bird fly into the last light”.

                                           Dante G Rossetti

Anger, hate, confusion, bewilderment, anxiety, euphoria, fear, regret and pleasure. How can I be feeling all these emotions at once? What is happening to me? Why am I slipping? Why is my head full of this crap?  I sense my head telling to relax, clear my mind, say a quick prayer if I must, even accept the inevitable outcome of the downwards motion but get on and do something.  I accept and acknowledge in this split second, that I have probably outreached myself this time. Too arrogant by half. This time I have to pay the ferryman, there is no escape as he waits for me at the bottom. Who will cry for me? Who will miss me? Who will even care when they pick my broken mangled frozen body from among the rocks below. No answer was forthcoming. The silence of ensuing death was all that could be heard.

The winter of 1977 was turning out to be a reasonably good one for early climbing routes and I was keen to get out and do as much as I could. Although Sandy and I had only been married for a year, we had agreed from the outset that we should not lose any of our individuality or who we were before we were fortunate to meet, and so whenever it was possible and appropriate, I would go climbing somewhere.

It all started one Friday night as I was sitting in the Golden Rule in Ambleside, having a quiet pint before driving back to Carlisle after climbing alone on Dow Crag where Easy Gully and Easy Gully Ridge Branch gave excellent satisfaction, when my world was rudely intruded upon. “What’s to do Frankie boy” inquired Mick loudly as he danced a jig in my direction, arms swaying to and fro like some mad monk with his habit on fire. This was Mick’s usual entrance when he was trying to impress somebody and in this case it was the new barmaid despite her being nearly twice his age, but then he always fancied himself as a lady’s man and this was to be no exception and so Mick thought he stood as good a chance as anyone else. He was, believe me, full of rampant optimism that night!

I looked up from the book I was busy trying to read and replied as quietly as I could, in the hope that he would steer himself towards someone else in the pub that he knew, but it was patently obvious that this did not have the desired effect as he came over, sat down and helped himself to some of my crisps. I gripped my pint glass tightly.  “Not a lot Mick, what’s to do yourself?”

As he tried unsuccessfully to get some more crisps from the packet I was now holding tightly with the other hand, he replied in a loud voice, no doubt hoping to impress the new barmaid who was paying him no attention whatsoever, “I’m off to the Cairngorms for some winter routes with Charlie, fancy coming along for the ride?”  My reply was quick, precise and to the point and left no words to be misconstrued.  “No thanks Mick, I’ve got other plans”.

Now it wasn’t that I didn’t like climbing with Mick, he was precise in his movements, strong as they come and level headed in dodgy situations, it was the thought of going with Charlie that put me off. Charlie was as they say, ‘another kettle of fish’. Charlie found it impossible to be quiet when climbing and was devoid of any degree of decorum when leading any climb. 

His party trick was to see how many times he could belch and break wind which he always tried to do when he was on the front end of the rope, and thought it hilarious to suddenly stop and relieve himself irrespective of who was below him, which was usually his climbing partner. I had been there twice and was determined that there was not going to be a third time.

I well remember the last time when Charlie and I last climbed together in the winter. Whilst Mick’s idea was to eat as much cheese as he could so that it would bung him up, negating him having to bare his backside to the cold. Charlie for his part was the exact opposite. He would eat as much curry as he could, followed by tins of cold beans. His reasoning was that if your crap was like water, then it was over quicker in which case your bum was not exposed too long to the cold. I suppose they both had fair points although in reality terms, we all know that when you’ve got to go you’ve got to go and the cold will have its affect no matter how long, or short, you expose your nether regions.

So there we were, Charlie and I, climbing Central Buttress - Original Route on Lochnagar in Scotland, a route I had wanted to do since doing Parallel ‘A’ Gully solo several years before.

We were going to lead alternately with Charlie climbing the first pitch and I the second and so on. On the third pitch which Charlie was leading and I was tied on and belaying him from a narrow part of the gully lower down, he decided the curry and beans for breakfast just had to go, so without warning, he wedged himself below a bulge, dropped his trousers to relieve his heaving belly of its contents.

Now it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to know that in any gully, there is only one direction for anything to travel (according to Issac Newton that is), and that’s downwards and if your’ standing beneath whatever is coming down and you can’t get out of the way, there is a high probability that it will hit you on its way down at 32 foot per second per second.

Up above, Charlie was wetting himself with laughter at the sight of me trying desperately to avoid the downward contents of his bowels. Believe me, I did not see any funny side to his antics and promised myself that I would never be in a similar position again. I knew therefore, that Mick’s attempts to persuade me to accompany them on this occasion, would be fruitless, and it was.

However, Mick was never a one to let sleeping dogs lie so as he was striding to the bar with his usual swagger, he turned his head and asked what it was that I had in mind. As it happened I had nothing in mind, but I was not going to give him an opportunity to try to talk me into going with him and Charlie.  I therefore convinced myself that in such situations a little white lie was acceptable. “I’ve had my eye on a route for some time now which hasn’t had a winter’s ascent to my knowledge” came my curt reply. Just as Mick was about to press me for more information, the barmaid who was wearing a tight low neck sweat shirt, leaned over the bar to wipe some of Mick’s beer that spilled out of his glass when he tried to grab it to capture the froth that was still spewing over the top. Fortunately for me, a part of her anatomy was also spewing over the top of her T shirt, which thankfully distracted him long enough to allow me to drink up and leave unseen.

As I drove home to Carlisle, I started to ponder on the little white lie I had told Mick, thinking that this was not such a bad idea after all. After I had given it some more thought, I eventually decided to go to Glen Coe for a brief foray calling into Ben Ledi [north of Callander] and on my return to try a winter ascent of the central gully that can be seen from the car park and roadside and which had not had a winter ascent for many a year if at all, which I hoped to address.

Sandy was already in bed reading when I got in so after some discussion about my ideas for the weekend, I settled down to get some well-earned sleep. As is always the case, sods law came visiting in the guise of a bout of insomnia which clearly had returned with a vengeance. I kept thumping the pillows as if this would somehow bring sleep to my tired eyes but it didn’t so I just got up at 3.30am and had a brew.

By 4.30am I was sitting in the freezing car trying to get the damn thing to start. I did my ‘Basil Fawlty’ routine but from the inside, thumping the dashboard, screaming at it that it was going to a scrap yard if it didn’t start, but this had no effect. I got out of the car and repeated my poor John Cleese impersonation by kicking the wheels and threatening to carry out my threats if it didn’t start the very next time. It did and after patting the dashboard and calling it some nice names I set off northwards up the A74.

The car spluttered and coughed all the way to Stirling where I stopped at a transport café for a hearty but greasy breakfast. Once I was sated with my eggs, bacon, beans and toast, using the last piece of toast to wipe the plate clean, I became conscious of someone standing over me, blocking out what little light there was emitting from a 40-watt grubby looking bulb above the table I was sat at.

I looked up to see a gangly youth, unshaven, long matted hair, wearing a baggy jumper that had more holes than a pound of Swiss cheese, and a rather thin hungry looking roll up fag hanging from the corner of his mouth. On his jumper were what was left of the words ‘I’m a fuken Gls’wgian’ so I knew that whatever he wanted, it was not to offer me a cup of tea and hoped it was not to ask which football club I supported, Celtic or Rangers!

“Pardon, I’m sorry, I wasn’t paying attention. Did you say something?”  “Aye” he said in gutteral Glaswegian as he took the half smoked fag from his lips. “och, I dinny ken youse waa an Englishman, but I asked if yoose wa gooing ta tha Coe”.  Before I could stop myself I replied rather quickly, “yes as a matter of fact I am, do you want a lift?” regretting it instantly once it was said.

The gangly youth sat down shouted for “two laarge brews hen”, [ok so I was wrong!] threw me his baccy tin offering me a rollup.  Sliding the tin back in his direction, I said no thanks as I had given it up. As he reached out for his baccy tin I noticed his tattoos, love and hate across both knuckles accompanied with the usual gang related dots on the skin between thumb and forefinger. On his forehead he had a star which was repeated on the left ear lobe.

I refrained from asking him about his tattoos as I knew such questions were unwelcome at the best of times. He sat there watching me, his eyes staring, unblinking, which was both off putting and disconcerting. However, as I had done some basic psychology at University, I knew that silence and giving the ‘eye’ is sometimes used as a means of testing out someone else’s mettle.

After a while, he asked, almost demanded to know “whit youse aftee pal”. Not quite sure whether he was referring to the fact that he thought that I was staring at him or not, or he was challenging me to a fight, I asked him what he meant, standing up to take off my denim jacket to expose my tattooed arms as I did so. This caught his attention. I had him thinking now. It appeared I had turned the tables and waited for his next move which came almost instantly, “Whit youse gooing to da in tha Coe then laddie”. The penny dropped so I told him that I was not going to do anything specific just going to see what the conditions were like before making up my mind. “Nort veery talketive are yous paaal” with the emphasis on the word pal. 

In an instant, memories came flooding back of the two years as a twelve-year-old that I spent living on the outskirts of Glasgow in 1956/57. Gangs were all the rage back in the 1950’s, teddy boys ruled in most towns and cities but there was also those who were not teddy boys who made up a wide variety of gangs, usually comprising of lads from either a long street or a council estate.

The daily behaviour of such gangs were two fold – first to shop lift for kicks rather than for profit (apart from when it was sweets or cigarettes), second to commit minor acts of vandalism, scrumping fruit from orchards, and generally being a nuisance to their local community and society in general, and third, to protect your territory from other gangs.

It was generally accepted that boys were expected to join a gang and I was no different, and as I knew that once you were a gang member, you had the protection of your own gang member friends, it was a no-brainer, so when told to join the gang by lads on the estate, I readily agreed.

Fraser was the street boss and his word was never questioned. In the greater scheme of things, all the street gangs in Greenock (where we lived), were called ‘Wasters’ by those who lived in the city and each had its own preferred ‘weapon’ – flick knives, chains, catapults, bats, and knuckle dusters. The gang on my estate was called the Hatchet Warriors and it does not take Dixon of Dock Green to know what our gang’s preferred ‘weapon’ was!

I could see that my new found Glaswegian friend was getting impatient for an answer to his “Nort veery talketive are yous paaal” statement, so I shook the memories away and said without giving it a second thought “It’s just that I’m tired of driving, you must know how it is paaaaaal”.

He appeared to flinch at my seemingly challenging response and asked me where I was from, what did I do, how old was I, and more to the point, “whit does yon tattoo mean laddie”, as he jabbed a tobacco stained finger to my right forearm, but I was elsewhere. My mind had switched to that time in 1957 when I went with my gang and eight other ‘Waster’ gangs to do as Fraser put it, “haaav a feeecken geed ruck with tha tooonie wankers”, names given to gangs from the city of Glasgow. I recalled the splattered blood, the roar of the gangs as they set into each other, I heard the yells of triumph, the yells of pain and the clanging of the police cars as they rushed to end such ridiculous carnage. I know my hatchet hit something or someone and I was pleased that within two days, my father came home to tell us he was posted to Northern Ireland (he was in the Armed Forces) and we were to leave in two days-time. I was relieved that I would not be around when the townie gangs came to take their revenge.

Thinking rather foolishly that he may well have been one of the gang that I and my other pals wreaked havoc on in Glasgow all those years ago, I was paranoid that he had recognized me. Once I realized that this was impossible as that was some twenty years ago and I had improved with age! I just said that it was the mark of a group of RAF lads who had formed an elite club consisting of those airman who had cheated death whilst carrying out their duties.

He was hooked now, I just reeled him in with the knowledge that I was in control and he needed to know more. I explained what had happened many years earlier, when stationed in Germany and I was working inside a confined space of a Canberra aircraft and the ejection seats went off accidentally, but I managed to do the impossible, crouch down between the two front seats which even a stick of rhubarb would find difficult, and I lived to tell the tale.

Sitting there with his mouth open wide, he just leaned forward stuck out his right hand and said, “I like yoouse pal, yoor no feart bastad reet enough”. He shouted for two more brews and we started to have a decent conversation. We discussed my time in Greenock, my Scottish ancestry, my love for all things Scottish, and by the end of twenty minutes’ conversation I had been told his life story, given the names of all his family and we had agreed that not all “bloody Englishmen were wankers”.

He said his name was Tommy Scott, although his family referred to him as Tam and his friends referred to him as Scotty. As I knew there was no chance we were related and that as we had only just met, there was no way he would consider me his friend, I erred on caution by not calling him by any name at all, this way I would be on safe ground, hopefully.

He wanted to know where I lived in Greenock, what school I went to, what gang I was in. This was it I thought, the bugger has recognized me and is just toying with me. I knew in my heart that it would have been impossible for him to recognize me even if he was a member of any gang that we fought with but even if he didn’t recognize me, finding out I was a member of ‘that’ gang, might just be enough for him to exact some revenge right there, right now.

I clenched my fists under the table and told him I was a member of the hatchet warriors. I waited for him to make the first move, but did not expect him to stand up so quick whilst I was still seated, catching me off guard. He leaned across the table “Fack ma ald boots pal, whit a fucken heed banger yous arr” was all he said with a grin that put any Cheshire cat to shame.

He held out an outstretched scrawny hand “poot it thar pal, whit a fucken heed banger”.  I assumed, hopefully, that he wanted to shake my hand so stood keeping the left fist clenched, just in case, and took his hand. He clasped his other hand over the handshake and shook it until I thought one of my false teeth was going to drop out.

It would appear that the incident went around Glasgow gangs like proverbial wild fire – blood curdling roars as youths tore into each other – police cars racing to the scene to investigate calls from the public, a by-stander taken to hospital with shock, three young lads accompanied him but for different reasons, and four were seen running off screaming for their mums, some wiping the blood away as they tried to evade the onslaught. All in all, the hatchet warriors had gained a reputation and as such, three months after we left to go to Northern Ireland, they were involved in a gang fight in the city centre when one of the hatchet gang was killed, knifed through the heart.


My new found Glaswegian friend did not recall the name of the poor sod who met his untimely death so whether or not it was Fraser, I’ll never know.

For his part, my enthusiastic new found traveling companion, was a member of the Easterhouse putty gang. Don’t ask me where putty comes in as I dread to think so did not bother to ask him, I just took his word for it that his gang were well known for things they did with putty and left it at that.

Cleary I had risen dramatically in Tam’s estimation and was someone he wanted to be friends with, why I don’t know because if he knew the truth, in reality I am a pacifist by nature, he would no doubt rate me a ‘soft pussy’. However, he was fine with what he knew so I was not going to deprive him of any excitement he was feeling at being in the company of one of the ‘hatchet warriors’, anyway I was relishing the status he was according me as well as the free flow of tea coming my way.

He said he was a shipyard worker who spent every weekend with his mates climbing in the hills and mountains around the Trossachs, but this weekend they were going to visit the Coe as he so eloquently put it, “weeve goot unfinished busniss oop theer pal, and this weeken is when weer gaing to seetle it”. I had no idea what he was talking about but I was sure it had nothing to do with any business proposition. 

We left the café and as I opened the car door for him to throw his tattered rucksack onto the back seat, he held out his hand again and said, “caal me Tam”. I had made a new friend!

When he got in my battered old car, he delighted me by taking off his boots, which resulted in the car being filled with an aromatic smell that would make a Turkish whore house smell sweet, not that I would know what one smelled like as when I went to Turkey, it was for climbing rock, honestly.

He put his feet onto the dashboard and fell asleep. There was no way I was going to wake him to ask him to take his smelly feet down from the dash so just sighed and drove off. As we drove down the main street of Callander, he woke and started to sing. I ignored his singing and allowed my thoughts to dwell on the gully on Ben Ledi as we rounded the bend which brought it into view on our left. It appeared to be in good condition and not wanting to bring Tam’s attention to it, I tried to not make it obvious that I was looking past him to the gully.

He must have caught me looking side wards and thought I was looking at him so he stopped singing whatever song he was well into. “Eh pal, sorry aboot the sang, I ken forgoot youse was a bloody Englishman”. “Oh don’t worry”, came my swift reply a little embarrassingly as he should think himself so lucky that I would want to look at him! “It’s just that I wondered what you were singing that’s all” came my reply, quick as a flash to dispel any thoughts he might be harbouring.

Small chit chat ensued for another hour as we drove towards Rannoch Moor and at one point, he looked as if he was going to start singing again so I distracted him by asking where his mates were if they were all going to the Coe, and why had he not gone with them? His answer was to say the least, not surprising given my evaluation of his lifestyle back in Glasgow.

Apparently on the Thursday night he and his mates had gone out for a drink or two which resulted in him getting into a fight around 2.30am with a bouncer who refused to let him into a night club, because as Tam said, he was not drunk enough. Tam took a dislike to this discrimination and showed the bouncer what he thought of him. The rest of the morning was spent in the police cells sobering up. When he was released around 8am because the custody sergeant could not be bothered to do any paperwork as he was about to go off duty, Tam found out that his mates had left without him. He had hitchhiked to Stirling which confused me a little as the more direct route for him was a straight north from Glasgow. This conundrum however, was soon settled when he said the only wagon that stopped for him was going to Stirling so he just had to take it.

Conversation turned to climbing which was fine for me as my eyelids were getting heavy and I was losing the battle to keep them open. Tam never offered to do any of the driving so I assumed that he either couldn’t or wouldn’t, so kept quiet about it and just continued with a window open from time to time and the occasional sharp slap across the face to keep my attention especially when Tam fell asleep, which was often. He asked me if I knew any Scottish climbers to which I replied several but have only climbed with one particular Scotsman, a Jock McGowen who I served with in the RAF in Germany.  He had a broken nose, a legacy from his youth and as it had set at an angle, which made a lasting impression on you.

He asked where Jock came from and when I said I think it was Paisley, he slapped his left knee and said, “Weel, shag ma auld boots pal, I ken wee Jock, he lives in ma ma’s street”. A further descriptive input from us both confirmed that his Jock and my Jock were one and the same. I asked how he was getting on and was sorry to hear that Jock had cancer and that he had been given a medical discharge from the RAF and was counting his days.


Before I knew it, we were driving down the road into the Glen, past the Buchaille wearing her white mantle, round a few curves and then turning off right to the Clachaig Inn where he said his mates would be. As we pulled up, he said his mates were there already. I asked him how he knew and he pointed to a van parked in the corner. There staring out of the back window was a blow up doll with gaping mouth surrounded by ruby rich lips. Around her neck was a sign which said, ‘Hurry up darling, ma lips await your manhood’.  “Ay, that’s Billy’s van aright” Tam said with a smile. 

Frank Grant:2016 

Part Two of The Gully- Next Week 
 

Friday, 12 August 2016

Simon McCartney's 'The Bond'...reviewed



Climbing now seems to be at a crossroads, will it continue to be a free- wheeling activity, attracting adventurous souls, with a canvas much wider than organised sports or will it succumb to being a rule orientated safe consumerist pastime? Those who are pushing it down that road might stop to read ‘The Bond’. Although this describes a series of stand-out ascents which took place more than thirty years ago, the message they impart for me is an illustration of the trust and bond between rope mates engaged in pioneering difficult new routes on the highest, remotest mountain faces, and the selfless willingness of other mountaineers to risk their own lives to help their fellow climbers in distress. A part of an unwritten credo subscribed to by those involved in making such ascents and a sacrifice which can often inspire none participants, perhaps because it rarely if ever occurs in any other sport?

Simon McCartney grew up in London but began to climb as a teenager in the 1970’s and he was, like so many of his generation enamoured by the lure of alpine climbing. He soon moved through the grades, and after meeting Dave ‘Wilco’ Wilkinson in Wales, an older more experienced alpinist they were quickly in the 1977 season into ‘major’ alpine ascents, with a first ascent in the Oberland, an attempt on the Eigerwand, success on the North Face  of Les  Droites and the second ascent of the central pillar of Brouillard on Mont Blanc, but after which because ‘Wilco’ had to return home to work, leaving Simon on his own in Chamonix, there occurred  a chance meeting in the Bar National with Californian ‘stonemaster’ climber Jack Roberts, an event that would change McCartney’s life. He invited him to go to Alaska with him to attempt alpine style, inspired by a photograph by Bradford Washburn which had appeared in Mountain magazine, the 5,500-foot north face of Mount Huntington.

To understand how ground breaking this was in 1978, one must realise that most such ascents on high mountains were still usually climbed as expeditions and for two climbers totally unsupported in such a wilderness area it was pushing the envelope. Before they took this on, they stopped off in Yosemite, made some climbs together and undertook some ‘travelling’ USA style. But it is remarkable that on such a short acquaintance they gelled so well together, and their successful climb on Mount Huntington which took ten days to achieve, up and down was really something, for over such a period in Alaska the weather was inevitably bad on some of the days, but somehow they had kept on climbing. However they only narrowly escaped on the descent by the West Face route of the mountain when their rope became so snagged whilst abseiling they had to cut it into pieces. Their food ran low and Roberts suffered from frost bitten big toes. For some years there was doubt cast about their successful ascent for it was obviously such a hard and serious route, but a later party on the West Face (Harvard Route) they had descended discovered the bits of jammed rope they had abandoned, and today their route is still unrepeated. This was an impressive feat of stamina by Simon, who was only 22 years old during this ten day marathon. His American partner Jack Roberts was 28.

Back in the UK McCartney began to plan his next climb, deciding to return to the Eiger’s North Wall but in winter. Initially he wished to attempt this with just Dave ‘Smiler’ Cuthbertson but as word spilt out about his plans the party grew and grew, until finally six climbers set out on the climb. Besides Simon and Smiler, there was Howard Lancashire, Stevie Haston, Vic Saunders, and Bill Barker. Their first foray was repulsed by poor conditions and planning, but a second attempt found them high and committed and in difficulties. The cold was extreme and moving as a twosome and a foursome they were moving too slow, but what caused their most serious problem was that some of their ice tools were breaking due to the unusually low temperatures. They finally reached The White Spider, but Simon who had needed to take off his gloves to lead one of the rock pitches suffered frostbitten finger tips. Reluctantly they signalled their need to be rescued, which eventually they were by the Swiss helicopter service which literally plucked them, one by one off the wall.


This whole episode rankled with McCartney, and despite still suffering with his highly sensitive to the touch fingers, he returned just a few weeks later still in the winter of 1979 but only with Chris Hoyland, and successfully climbed  the Eiger’s North Face. Simon led the ice and mixed climbing but he relied on Chris to lead such as the Difficult and Brittle Crack pitches where it was necessary to remove ones gloves. Although this was really an achievement climb in that era (and still would be), McCartney started thinking about and comparing Alpine climbing to greater range ascents. Feeling that he wanted to experience another adventure similar to his Alaskan climb of the year before, and understanding for the first time what had driven Joe Tasker and Peter Boardman to follow the path they were then taking in their mountain endeavours. And so he wrote Jack Roberts enquiring if he had any plans for 1980 in Alaska? He was surprised by a quick return phone call from him in the USA suggesting they team up again to attempt the unclimbed South West face of Denali. To which Simon readily agreed.

If you have read so far, then stay with it, for here the action really begins. Think ‘Touching the Void’, ‘The Last Blue Mountain’ and into ‘Thin Air’. To understand the enormity of what they were taking on, one must realise that this climb was twice the height of the North Face of Huntington, and that Denali is 20,310 feet (6144m), and from its base to summit it has the largest peak rise in the world. 

All went well with the ascent for several days of rock and mixed climbing at a high technical standard, some of the time they could set up their small bivouac tent, other nights were spent sitting out in the open. But by day eight at around 17,000 feet Simon’s condition became worrying, he became uncoordinated and was slurring his words, but somehow on day nine they made a junction with the Cassin ridge route at 18,400 feet, and then  tried to keep climbing through the night hoping to reach the summit of the mountain. But McCartney’s condition was continually worsening as they gained altitude. Somewhere above 19,000feet they were forced to stop. Roberts managed to cut out a ledge in the ice for their bivvy tent, but by then they were out of food. They still had some fuel left for their stove and they could make a drink but the following day, their tenth, the weather was too bad to move. On day eleven the weather was bad again and Roberts had to keep digging their tent out whilst Simon was by then completely helpless, suffering from oedema. At that date not as much was known about acclimatisation as subsequently, and being high for so long in such a condition, truly McCartney was lucky to survive.

Naked Jack
On day twelve the weather finally improved, but they had no way of signalling for a rescue, and in any case they were too high for a helicopter lift off. Roberts began to realise his feet were frostbitten, and decided their only hope of rescue was for him to climb solo over the summit and down the west flank and hope for a meeting with a party on this, the normal route up the mountain. He realised Simon’s chances of survival were almost nil, and made a list of his immediate family and friends to contact, for him to say his goodbyes. He packed and prepared ready to go, but stopped outside the tent unable to take the first step and leave his stricken comrade.

Then a crucial meeting occurred when two American climbers, Mike Helms and Bob Kandiko who had been following the Cassin ridge route arrived on the scene. They too were running short of food, but they cooked up one of their last two meals for Roberts and McCartney who by then had not eaten for four days. After discussing the situation it was decided that Kandiko would stay with Simon whilst Helms, who knew the West Buttress descent route would accompany Roberts to go and seek help.

Stay with it for the story is just beginning. The weather turns bad, and Kandiko and McCartney run out of food and fuel, and after three days of waiting Bob decides their only hope of survival is to descend back down the Cassin ridge. He knows that on the way up the climb they had discovered a cache of fuel, and if they can reach this they will be able to have plenty to drink. Meanwhile Roberts and Helms after being held up by bad weather have managed to climb down to reach a party on the West flank with a radio. They alert the rescue services to Bob and Simon’s desperate situation, but they are too high to be rescued by helicopter and in any case the weather is too bad to fly. Somehow belaying him down, Kandiko managed to begin lowering McCartney rope length by rope length and he also has some medicine with him and after taking this Simon feels a little better. On day four since Kandiko took over at Roberts departure, they reached the spot where the can of white spirit was cached and from there on they had hot water and heat in their bivvy tent.

Slowly as they descended and lost altitude Simon began to recover and could begin to look after himself abseiling and belaying. As he became coherent he learned from Bob the intimate details of just how ill he had been, even urinating over Kandiko and the tent. He tried to apologise, but his partner told him there was no need and if they get down alive he can buy the beers! 

Six days had gone by without eating a meal, and Simon had endured four days of starvation before that. A highlight for them was finding some used tea bags, and Kandiko was to write that ‘the subsequent tea, lukewarm and barely coloured was the best they had ever tasted’. By this date they were still at 17,000feet, but once again they were pinned down by high winds. Mercifully the weather improved and they started to descend again and miraculously met up with a party of four other climbers from Pennsylvania ascending the Cassin route, and who were resting inside a large Whillan’s box type shelter set on a prepared ledge. They took them in and prepare a meal. This was Simon’s and Kandiko’s first in a week.

The next day all six climbers after a breakfast of porridge and tea started down, for the other four decided to abandon their ascent, for they too were running out of food delayed by the bad weather. Once again by serendipity they met on this descent a party of three Japanese who had a radio, and they managed to get a message out to arrange an air drop of fuel and food. Jack Roberts is by then down and in touch with the rescue services, a helicopter is organised and a successful supply drop was carried out. By this date they were at around 14,000 feet and after gorging on the food and resting, Simon took his inner boots off for the first time in many days. This lead on to them swelling and for him to suffer in agony for the rest of the descent, which is aided by some fixed ropes set up by the Japanese climbers.

Finally, finally after Simon had been three weeks on the mountain they reached the foot of the Cassin ridge and set up a camp on the Kahiltna glacier. But still stay with it for it is not all over! After a nights rest, and despite still suffering pain from his injured feet, McCartney and Kandiko set out, roped up to descend the glacier and its ice fall. With regard to all he has been through Simon was remarkably in a capable state, but their progress is hampered by increasing white out conditions. Unfortunately Kandiko missed the route they were following and he fell over a small ice cliff, luckily landing in deep snow. McCartney on the other end of the rope was pulled by this like a cork out of a bottle, and he shot passed his leader and landed upside down into a crevasse, suffering a badly fractured left wrist and was unconscious.


Once again they were fortunate for four climbers from Minnesota (who later disappeared on the mountain) and the three Japanese who they had been following arrived on the scene as Kandiko was being pulled inexorably also towards the crevasse weighted by Simon’s swinging body. And working together they managed to rescue them. A camp was set up nearby and slowly Simon regained consciousness, his injured arm was put in a sling and Bob who was also bruised and battered needed to explain to McCartney where they are and what had happened.
Finally it is all over, the Park service had organised a voluntary rescue party made up of climbers who were in the area led by Dave Buchanan one of the Rangers. Three Swiss guides joined the rescue and skied out with Simon tied down on a litter, then once down through the crevassed area he was carried out by the volunteers to the Park base at Kahiltna. From there he was flown out to Anchorage hospital and on arriving he finally met up again with Jack Roberts, already in situ receiving treatment for his frostbitten feet. I am pleased to report I made a slight contribution to Simon’s recovery and well being, for he was insured with the BMC. The insurance scheme was set up when I was its General Secretary by Fred Smith and I!

After such a tryst with fate Simon never climbed again. He did meet Jack Roberts once more in the UK in 1981, but after that with his Australian girl friend Judi he migrated to Sydney. He took up cave diving in the Blue Mountains, but earned his living in a business he set up jointly in Hong Kong, commuting between the two places. He totally lost contact with climbers and climbing, until one day in 2011 someone he did not know sent out an e-mail, noting the two standout climbs he had made over thirty years earlier in Alaska and querying if ‘he was still alive’. After much soul searching he decided to reply, and started trying to find out what had happened to those with whom he had shared such life and death experiences; Jack Roberts and Bob Kandiko. With no real mode of contact other than internet searches, it took some time. He finally reached Roberts wife Pam in 2012, just too late for Jack had died one month earlier due to a fall whist ice climbing on the Bridal Veil Falls in Telluride, but Bob Kandiko was alive and very much kicking. They and their wives subsequently enjoyed a reunion and a glacier flight to both Denali and Huntington, and this persuaded McCartney to write up the story of those two ground breaking ascents made so many years before, when he was in all truth so young.

So what can one make of Simon McCartney’s book ‘The Bond?’ For me it was a life affirming experience, because of the fact that so many climbers were willing to do so much to aid another climber in need, who they did not even know. Bob Kandiko in particular put his very existence on the line to do this. The story is told in a searing honest way, McCartney does not hide the fact that it was only by a string of unbelievable coincidences that he did survive, but we must also acknowledge that few of us would have, for cerebral oedema is a killer and statistically not many recover from its onset. I guess he must have been an unusually strong willed and fit individual.

So if you read just one climbing book this year, make it ‘The Bond’. I am sure it will become a classic of exploration mountain literature. It is well produced, with excellent photographs and layout. To finish with the words of the late Ken Wilson, who never at a loss with an opinion, phoned me when ‘Touching the Void’ won the Boardman Tasker prize (of which I am a Trustee) for mountain literature .He reported that, ‘reading that book had made him proud to call himself a climber!’ and the same is true of myself about ‘The Bond’.       


Dennis Gray: 2016 

The Bond is available from Vertebrate Publishing



Friday, 5 August 2016

Classic Rock: A fanfare for the common man



The following article announced the imminent arrival of a book which has become an iconic coffee table climbing tome...Ken Wilson's Classic Rock. A sequel to the equally lauded Hard Rock.The concept was simple. Bring together many of the UK's best climbing writers and outdoor photographers who will each be given licence to produce their own unique photo essay around a classic outing selected from one of the main climbing areas within the British Isles.At the eve of the books launch in October 1978, Ken outlined his reasons why these old routes from what were then described as 'the middle grades' were worth celebrating in words and pictures.

One of the reasons why Britain has so many fine classic rock-climbs in the easier grades has to be the length of British climbing history. Look at Tremadog — recently developed, it has very few decent easy climbs— half a dozen at most. Yet if it had been discovered for climbing fifty years earlier, Bwlch y Moch would surely be criss-crossed with easy lines, linking gullies and ledges in complex permutations, on ground at present overgrown or slashed vertically by difficult climbs. It might have been possible, if one had been a pioneer of yesteryear, to have worked out a classic diff in the area near Shadrach or near the gullies below the Neb. Certainly nobody is going to bother now —today's pioneers operate at altogether more exalted levels and the classic climbs that Archer Thomson or George Abraham might have raved about, will stay hidden for ever. The point I am making is, that with few exceptions, easy routes tend to be the product of their time. In compiling Classic Rock, the forthcoming sequel to Hard Rock, this fact emerged above all others. Somehow the older routes had power, despite their lowly grades (the book includes routes up to Hard Severe).

The reason for this may be that at the time they were first done, the climbs had real pioneering importance. Take Avalanche on Lliwedd for example. It is hardly a push-over in damp conditions even today, but to Archer Thomson and his friends embarking onto the uncharted tracts of the East Buttress seventy years ago, it must have seemed a formidable project. The route beetles upwards, every twist and turn caked in history. So too, Jones's Direct Route from Lord's Rake on Scafell or the gullies Great on, Craig yr Ysfa, the Chasm on the Bauchaille or the celebrated and eventful Clachaig — all have pitches that have been grappled with, and written about, by countless generations of British climbers. The routes seem ingrained with history, like ancient carvings on the wall of a cathedral or in the depths of some castle dungeon they attest to the efforts and traumas of our predecessors.

The Direct Route on Milestone Buttress: N Wales
Most of the routes that were eventually chosen for the book come into this truly 'classic' category. Their history is well-known, though in some cases some extra appreciation of their importance emerged as the book was being assembled. A good example of this being the remarkable Direct Route on Glyder Fach, which, as David Cox points out, was initially underrated, yet represented very hard climbing for 1907. The great classics of the old days are generally well known, but the real revelation to me in compiling the book was the discovery of more recent climbs of quality in the lower grades.

These routes also seem to have the stamp of meaning and relevance about them, despite being discovered by climbers whose normal level of operation is a far higher standard. The supreme example of this must surely be Ardverikie Wall, a truly marvellous severe in the depths of Scotland, which Patey once described as the finest route (then unclimbed) that he ever walked past. It is a five pitch slab climb, on splendid rock with a simple and growing exposure. One can just imagine the S.M.C. men Hunter and Lang leaping around in delirious pleasure on the summit after their first ascent in 1967. Who would have expected such a gem to be so late in discovery? Hell's Lum Crag in the Cairngorms was another revelation — replete with "challenging" severe slab climbs it has much to offer the middle grade climber.


The crux Red Wall on Lliwedd's Avalanche

 The chosen route for the book — Clean Sweep—was first climbed in 1961 by no less a pioneer than the late, great, Robin Smith, accompanied by feisty, beasty Graham Tiso, the Laird of Leith — certainly a route of considerable pedigree in its antecedents as well as its climbing quality. Tom Patey discovered a number of classic routes of recent origin. Patey's tastes in climbing rarely included anything that could be described as overly technical. He liked to keep it simple; not too much gear, sometimes hardly any — a swashbuckling approach. Many of the climbs achieved in this idiom were hard, of course — the Meggy Crab Crawl comes to mind — but his two contributions to Classic Rock, the Cioch Nose in Applecross and the elegant Squareface in the Cairngorms, are climbs of distinction free from undue difficulty. Enough of this talk of Scotland, that untapped tourist paradise for the classic climber, too jealously guarded by the locals and difficult to penetrate. What of the climbing further south? To my mind the Classic Climbs in the Lakes are, in general, better than the harder ones. The main reason is that they seem longer, more sustained and are often better positioned. Imagine a classic severe up the middle of Cloggy for example — wouldn't that be worth savouring?

What else is Moss Ghyll Grooves to Scafell — though some have thought its grand situation demands its honorary entry into the lower VSs to give it, and the cliff, some spurious respectability—long may it remain a Severe on a big cliff. It is a climb only matched in Wales by the superb Main Wall. Wales— perhaps not as rich in classic climbs as the Lakes has three big advantages: Lliwedd, the East Face of Tryfan and the Idwal Slabs. The austere attractions of Lliwedd are not easily appreciated nut once a Lliwedd addict, always a Lliwedd addict. As far as Tryfan and Idwal are concerned, how lucky can I count myself having these two stamping grounds on my patch. I learned on them,wrote a guide about one of them and now I am able to fete them. Both areas had the advantages of being blessed with superb guidebooks-those of Menlove Edwards of course-not any latter day pastiche.

To Edwards we owe so much: his fine climbs (several are in the book), his skillfully honed essays and his tortuous and glorious guidebook writing. His Tryfan guide contains many a gem,e.g. Yew Buttress..A short severe and a good little route,harder than one would expect,more difficult than Cheek,with which it is not comparable.

Of Idwal Slabs he said....The climbing is much of the stepping up type,It favours delicacy of technique and makes excellent practice for beginners learning the balance and strategy that makes the best additions to the climber’s progress. Nowadays the routes are not so select and scratches both short and long cover the face with the strenuous abandon of the times. It is perhaps well that rubbers are more discreet.First and last the slabs are a matter of Faith, Hope and Charity.



This epithet might easily be applied to all classic climbing. In Britain we are lucky. The faith, the hope and the charity of climbers over the past 100 years has left us a marvellous legacy of classic climbs, all too easy to overlook in these days of athletic and technical preoccupation. Perhaps the ‘boots and sacks’ day is due for a revival,with packed lunches and thermos flasks and a trek to the summits after the route is completed.

That is certainly one way to lost the crowds that one now finds at every level of difficulty on the lower crags.


Ken Wilson: First Published in Climber and Rambler, September 1978
 

Friday, 29 July 2016

Ashes



Ashes. Now there are only ashes. Scattered on the wind. Falling far and free.

Who was he?  When I first met him, he was struggling to stand in a sling on the bolt of Darius. He’d never made an aid move before. What a place to begin! His face, normally pale and thin, was red and beefy with effort. There was far more slack in the rope than I’d have liked. He seemed indifferent.

We met again soon afterwards on the wall in Endcliffe Park. His gentle ribbing of my own risqué tactics at High Tor showed an unexpected sensitivity in one so young. He had a slight, almost girlish frame. His face was ingenuous to the point of pity.

He came sailing along the low-level traverse, only to skid wildly off the crux. Muddy boots he explained, abashed, then confided he’d soloed Great Slab earlier that afternoon. “Hope your boots weren’t muddy then,” I jested, inwardly appalled.

After that, he was everywhere. For a time, he seemed inseparable from Jerry. And yet he never struck me as sorcerer’s apprentice, Jerry’s clone. They were both fuelled with energy, eager to get out on the rock and make it happen. Shared dreams; different realities.

Other times he would be out on his own, soloing. Rumour had it that, come ten to eight each morning, he’d be at the bus stop at Hunter’s Bar, punctual as any commuter, never mind the weather. He’d be out in the Peak all day every day. Dedication he had. Naturally, inevitably, 5b became 6b.

I always thought him an odd, quixotic figure. Even in an impoverished existence, respectability clung to him like rags. This was no child of the streets. Somewhere there was a loving family, the warmth of acceptance. And, somewhere else, rebellion, a necessary battle for identity. We all struggle with our demons. Perhaps his struggle was harder than most.

So many come into climbing, young and foolish, to pay dearly for their maturity. Only perhaps in combat is experience so hardly earned. Through the long, long litany of faces I have known, his was the most fragile, the most innocent, the most vulnerable. In life, it earned him the cruel nickname which he bore with pride.

Once, in Stoney caff, I remember him sitting with Kim and Ron and Gill. Company indeed. And making some ill-favoured remark about lazy Aussie climbers. Kim’s acid riposte – “Well, I wouldn’t exactly term all those mega-routes at Arapiles the products of indolence…”  He blushed furiously, nodded spasmodically.

If, by his own admission, he lacked talent at climbing, it was elsewhere in abundance. Absence of guile came from a mind which was too open, too questioning, where other, lesser ones were narrow, closed. All the while he was learning the bitter lesson that possession of intellect is more apt to be curse than blessing.

We’d meet out on grit or lime, exchange banter, solo together. I liked his company. Mutual reticence precluded a deeper understanding. This I now regret.

What he did when he wasn’t climbing, I never know. He once said that you could have real fun in the Poly television room. I wondered at that. What kind of life was it where you could have real fun in the Poly television room?

The last time we climbed together was at Stoney. Unfit from exams, I’d gone there to do Kingdom Come, only to discover that the crucial protection bolt was missing.

He offered to clip the peg above the crux. In momentary weakness, I acquiesced. My relief ebbed, then abruptly died as he started to forcefully undercut creaking, unprotected flakes out to the right of the normal route and harder. Suddenly losing the sequence. Twitching and gibbering above the void.

Instinctively I grabbed the ropes to belay him, then realised there was no belay, he’d simply take me with him. As quickly, I let go, before shamefacedly wrapping the ropes around me again. Some things you can’t do.

Above his juddering body lunged, dark against brutal overhangs. Taut fingers scrabbled at the crucial layaway. The harsh click of metal against metal as he clipped the peg. Against all odds, we were still alive.

We finished the route, then drifted down to Rheinstor, in deference to my unfitness, played around on easier routes all afternoon. I never saw him again.

The first accident happened that summer, in Pembroke. A hold broke. He fell, from high up, and hit the ground. They said it wasn’t his fault, it was the sort of accident that could have happened to anyone. Except that it happened to him.

At first he was in a coma. He left hospital with brain damage. An ironic, bitter handicap to such a mind. The childlike prettiness of his face disfigured.

I meant to see him but didn’t, maybe couldn’t. Soon he was climbing again, not well but strong. Four hundred pull-ups a day. Not lazy at all, you see, he was never lazy. But life… what was life? He wanted, they said, to die in the hills.

He did. He died on the Wastad, soloing a pokey, nasty little route that anybody could have failed on. A terrible, searing, bloody landing. No more.

Gail told me, in a back-street pub in Sheffield. One more death in a litany of deaths. But this one, I knew instantly, was the one from which I would never recover. For his face was the most fragile, the most innocent, the most vulnerable. Gently she led me, uncontrollable with grief, out of the pub, past the sniggers and the uncomprehending stares.

His funeral; I’d missed it. But at least others came. For an awful moment, I feared there would have been next to no-one.

They scattered his ashes at Stoney, which truly had been his home. Even now, years later, as I drive along the dale, I glance up, quickly, instinctively, half-expecting to see him bouldering above Windy Ledge. No more.

When they scattered his ashes, a certain notable was bouldering in the bays. Some of the ashes swirled past on the wind, drifted onto a crucial hold. Our notable thus bounced up his problem, ironically commenting, “I always knew the little bugger would be good for something, after all.”

Some people can inspire hatred. This was one such.

So, even after death, ignominy continued. A magazine article blatantly disparaged when there was no need. What further misery may his mother have endured?

But now he is gone. Long gone. The ignominy and the loneliness far behind him. And the soloing… a harsh medium indeed in which to decipher one’s troubled image.

Talent there was in plenty. But talent bloodily uprooted before ever it had a chance to nurture, to bear testimony.

Ashes. Now there are only ashes.



Postscript.


Noddy (Neil Molnar) was a member of the early 1980s Stoney coterie. He was a friend of Jerry Moffatt and is mentioned in Jerry’s autobiography, ‘Revelations’. Although it’s more than 30 years since he died, he’s still remembered.  

Micheal Ward: 2016 

Friday, 22 July 2016

Slippery Jim



Joe Brown: Painting by Keith Bowen:Image KB
 
I prefer to look forward and not back, but occasionally it is good to sit and remember. I do hope however, that climbing never becomes anything more than a pastime for idlers.  

‘Vroom’ a boulder the size of a human head smashed into the scree landing near to Joe ‘Morty’ Smith, Joe Brown and myself. ‘Where the hell did that come from?’ we chorused, craning our necks and looking up the East Gully Wall. Peering through the gloom and the light snow that was falling. It was March 1958, and our day had started many hours before. We had left our tents at the Grochan field early that morning, four of us- for besides the three now straddled across the foot of the wall- Don Whillans had been with us when we set off.


We had driven to Hafod Newedd, walked up past a deserted half-way house, then across the main Du’r Arddu. We had been shocked by the amount of snow around and there had been a disagreement about objectives. Joe was fixated on trying the steep wall rising out of the East Gully which he later ascended as Shrike. Whilst Whillans had suggested another possible line, somewhere over on the Far East of the cliff, but as we had skirted above the Llyn, tempers had flared as Don declared that the whole outing was now ‘bloody mad’.


It ended with him stalking off. In those days there was no reasoning with him. Joe as always was phlegmatic in such situations and Morty and I were too young, and too inexperienced to interfere. Joe was the senior, and both Morty and I used to defer to him on all matters to do with climbing. He was just so much better, older and wiser about mountaineering than we were so we were happy to follow him wherever he led.


Soloing up the first part of the East Gully had been no joke, covered in a light dusting of powder snow it had been a frightening experience, at least for me! In such situations I never knew whether it was only I, or if the others were also gripped, but if they were they never showed it. Normally the East Gully is a scramble except for the last hundred feet or so, but a covering of snow can transform anything, especially easy angled rock. The East Gully in winter is an impressive place, a natural amphitheatre it is flanked on all sides with steep rock walls. Easy rock lead in summer up into this bowl, which has only one straightforward exit, the Gully climb itself, graded Very Difficult.


At the base of the wall, we had roped up onto over-weight single nylon ropes; two 150 feet lengths of hawser-laid which had become like wire as we struggled to retreat. Joe had led us up the first pitch of the East Gully Wall and Morty and I had then spent a couple of hours on a cramped belay while he battled with the unclimbed rock face above. But the cold, and then the snow which had started to fall had made it difficult going. In the end somewhere out on the edge of even his abilities he had decided it had become too much. The retreat had been orderly and we had assembled at the bottom of the Wall, still in good spirits. We knew we had to get off quickly for there was not much daylight left, but the thought of trying to climb back down the easy slabs in the falling snow, frightened me in no small measure.


Joe traversed to the bottom of the final pitches of the East Gully climb. ‘We’ll go up there!’ he decided pointing up to where at about 30 feet there was a bulge covered with ice. ‘Up you go Morty’. Grumbling, swearing, Morty set off whilst I belayed him and Joe sat on a nearby rock, smoking, like a reclining Buddha. ‘Vroom’ another boulder, this time the size of a football hit the rock above Morty and then shot off into space. ‘Bloody Hell’ Morty cried, whilst I jumped sideways, only Brown was unmoved. ‘Must be a goat or sheep up there’ he declared.

Rock and Ice icons gather in The Peak, 1957. Back Row left to right...Nat Allen,Don Roscoe,Ron Cummaford. Second Row...Les Wright,Joe Smith, Ray Greenall,Eric Price, Don Whillans. Front..Dennis Gray, Joe Brown.Photo Doug Verity   

‘Look Joe, this is bloody desperate’ our leader advised. ‘Oh get up it you little ninnie’. After such a statement, Morty had no option but to continue, however at the ice bulge he was stuck. The snow increased, the wind began to whip it into the gully and holding the rope I was uncontrollably shaking from the cold.
‘I can’t do it, its just too bloody desperate today’ Morty shouted down.
Fortunately, he had managed to get a sling on above his head to protect him, a full weight one over a large spike. So at least he looked safe. ‘Get on with it!’ shouted Joe, but the next minute Morty had to grab hold of the sling as he slipped into space, his feet shooting off the ice. The spike held his weight, so it was sound. ‘Let me down! Let me down!’ cried Morty and this time I obeyed. He arrived, swinging in and as usual was full of good humour. We were climbing in boots as we had been all day, with vibram soles. ‘Did you see the rubber on ice moves?’ he laughingly demanded.

    
‘Vroom’ another boulder came whining, down the face, to land once again some distance from Brown, Morty and myself, ‘Bloody hell! That goat ought to be fielding for Yorkshire, it can throw so accurately’ I advised. ‘Often happens, there are many sheep and goats always wandering around up there’ advised Joe. The dreaded thing then happened, Brown offered me the lead. ‘You do it’.
I pleaded, but to no avail. ‘No he told me, Morty has been fined a brew for his failure and if you don’t get up it your fine will be worse’. Joe had evolved a system of incentives to improve our climbing, if we failed we were fined a number of brews (making communal cups of tea), if we succeeded then good scores were given to knock off our cumulative totals.


We never managed to get into credit and Morty was such a staggering number of brews in arrears that we had lost count….. Joe had not! I set off feeling determined and gritted my teeth. I had a tight top rope for the first thirty feet for Morty was giving me G sharp. To my surprise I then managed to climb up and over the ice bulge. It was very hard, but I felt in control until ‘vroom’ another rock smashed into the wall on the left-hand side of me. The noise as it came screaming down the gully filled me with absolute dread, and in the next instant I found myself, hanging by both hands to the sling Morty had fixed up on the good rock spike. Somehow I had climbed back down and then grabbed hold of the sling as I descended.


‘Let me down, let me down’ for now I was choking, having let go of the sling, and hanging off my waist. Joe grabbed the rope, and insisted I give it another try, ‘You had it cracked’ he yelled up. ‘No, No I am too gripped’ I insisted gasping for breath, with my ribs constricted by the rope biting into my body. So in the end they lowered me back down. Morty and I were now both scared, for the barrage of falling stones had completely unnerved us. ‘Joe, come on, you lead it’ we both pleaded.

For some reason and though I believe we were reasonably articulate, when we were climbing we always addressed each other in a mono-syllabic fashion. No long discourses communing with nature or even about the ever rising price of tea! ‘I’ll lead it for a brew each…….’ he offered. ‘No way, No way’ we both objected, but just then ‘vroom’ down came another boulder to land in the snow to the side of us. It was the largest so far, and the noise it had made as it roared down on us, hurtling through space had been awesome. ‘Bloody hell….. O.K’, ‘O.K’ we both quickly changed our minds.


I belayed as Joe set forth and up he went. Through the snow and gloom easily over the ice bulge, and up into the far reaches of the gully, mysteriously no rocks fell whilst he was climbing! It was this ability that above all others which stamped Joe out as our supreme master, this command of being able to climb in bad conditions. He was in a word a phenomenon. He belayed in the Gully near its head. Sheltered, from the wind and falling snow in a deep recess.


First, he brought Morty up and then myself. In truth, it was not too bad on the end of a tight rope. Morty and I should have been able to lead it, and Joe had been right about that, but just as I had once again pulled over the ice bulge, ‘vroom’ it happened yet again, a rock the size of my fist smashed into the rock wall nearby. ‘Tight, Tight’ I screamed and I literally then ran up the rest of the route to join Joe and Morty in the recess. ‘You can finish it off ‘ Joe then told me, and on this occasion I did just that. It was not too hard and after I had pulled out over the top of the cliff, and started to set up a belay in what was quickly becoming the darkness of night, I was startled by a figure emerging from out of a nearby cleft in the rocks. Flat cap pulled down; hands set deep in pockets, short, squat and powerful.


I was relieved to recognise Don Whillans through that gloom. Scared Yer didn’t a?’ he chuckled. ‘Bloody hell, Don, those boulders were close’ ‘They were meant to be!’ was the laconic reply. (In all truth they were probably a long way out from us, but the noise they made, flying down through the
air was frightening and enough to scare most climbers?)

That summer occurred an incident that I have kept buried until now and not talked about much, for it revealed something about myself I do not like. I have always professed to be a pacifist, and when I had to do National Service, I served as a non-combatant, but on two occasions my pacifism evaporated. Once when in a fracas I lashed out and unfortunately hit a police sergeant and the other is the occasion I have in mind now. That was the day we fought Joe Brown, we being Morty and I.


It started like so many of the Rock and Ice stories in good humour, as a joke, but developed. Morty had been behaving particularly badly in Joe’s eyes, failing on the odd route, crashing motor bikes, doing untold physical damage in many of the Club’s rough games to the other participants. And so by the summer of 1958 he had run up a spectacular deficit in brews to be made, and because of this he decided to go on strike and refused to make any more cups of tea.


This could only lead on to one thing: a physical challenge. I talked this over with Morty and he felt the time had come to challenge the master! I was incredulous at first, Joe was quite a wrestler and he loved to tackle such as Slim Sorrell (his original climbing partner) in a friendly bout on occasion. But what Morty was suggesting was something different, in trying to wrestle with Joe, he would easily beat him in a real set to. ‘No he won’t’ declared Morty grinning ‘because you are going to help me’ ‘You have got to be kidding’ was my reaction. ‘I am not a fighter, I have never physically been in such a set too in my life’ I advised.


‘You bloody big girl!’ Morty responded. ‘Alright I’ll take him on by myself!’
This put me on the spot. I knew Morty would have no chance against Joe, although pound for pound he was the strongest physically amongst us, but he was also the smallest. He was no match for a hardened street fighter like Joe, who had grown up in Ardwick and Longsight, and of necessity had been dealing with the local heavies in those deprived areas of Manchester from an early age. Morty then was in reality still a boy, and on his own he had no real chance of besting Joe. This for me was a moral dilemma, rather like the last war.


‘O.K, I’ll help, but we need a fighting strategy’. This was hammered out between us, and we agreed that Morty would face up to Joe head on, whilst I crept around behind him. I consulted with Slim Sorrel beforehand, who was something of an expert in unarmed combat because of his position in the police, and he taught me an unbreakable strangle-hold, which if I could affix around an opponents neck, meant certain surrender. After which Morty and I decided we were ready for the fray. Morty then duly refused to carry out his task of making brews and offered to wrestle Joe instead. I was present when this happened, and I was included in the challenge. The master laughingly accepted our challenge.

'Joe limbering up before our wrestle' DG: Grochan Field, Llanberis Pass. In the background,Dennis Gray's A 40 van.Photo-Doug Verity 
 
We were camping under Clogwyn y Grochan in the Llanberis Pass. This was in an age of wild camping……. anywhere. A beautiful green sward, it served as a campsite, a cricket and football pitch and now it was to have a wrestling ring. Gleefully the rest of the Rock and Ice present marked out a ring with stones. There was a referee, Les Wright, a genial giant who could have physically sorted out any other member of the club if he had been so inclined, and it was agreed that it was to be a no holds barred contest! This meant it was no use crying about a spot of blood or even such as the odd fracture. These lads were tough and played it hard. I realised we had to be absolutely ruthless; otherwise we would get short shrift from Joe.


As I lined up with Morty I was shaking with fright, but my younger companion seemed to be not so concerned. Les clapped his hands and the action started, and Morty closed in punching out like an automaton. It was all that Joe could do to hold him off, and I realised that our agreed tactics were working, so I danced round behind our adversary, but he then realised the danger and lashed out at me with his feet. But Morty kept on advancing forward in a flurry of punches, oblivious to Joe’s counter blows. It was again as much as the latter could do to hold him off, and though if he been on his own Morty would soon have had to give it best, it enabled me to get in behind Brown and the next minute I had him by the throat, and began to apply pressure using the stranglehold Slim had taught me.

He thrashed about wildly, but could not shake me off, and Morty just kept on coming forward at him. I put on more and more pressure, and at that moment I should have stopped, but something I have never been able to explain just kept me on squeezing. Suddenly we both fell down, with Joe on top of me, his back pinning me to the ground, unable to see anything, I just kept squeezing with all my might. He thrashed around, and tried to break loose, and then Morty was on top of him and both of them were lashing out at each other. ‘Let go, let go’ my inner voice was commanding, but I felt I could not and just kept applying pressure. Suddenly I felt Joe go, limp and then I did let go.

He had lapsed into unconsciousness, and fear welled up inside me about what had happened. I was by then so sorry for our actions, Joe was the greatest man either of us had ever known, we were truly fond of him but that was not the kind of sentiment working class lads ever let themselves show to one another, and now we had killed him! Or so I thought. Les and the rest of the Club then broke it up and pulled Morty and I off of Joe, who was lying comatose with a purple face, and a bruised neck.

We were all of us very concerned and relieved when a few minutes later he sat up gasping and choking. ‘You bloody little swine’ was all he could gasp out, but there was a tinge of admiration in his rasping voice. A strong arm then grabbed my shoulder and at the same time the same thing happened to Morty. It was Whillans! ‘What’s wrong Don?’ I stuttered. ‘Just hang on a tick’ he told us, ‘I’ll lace up me boots’ then he bent down to do this. ‘Why?’ we wanted to know.



Joe under Cloggy: Painting Keith Bowen.Image KB
 
‘Tha’s done for him’ he told us, ‘Tha better have a doo at me next!’ he said. ‘No way’ we both chorused. I began to run away, but became conscious that the Villain was on my heels, and trying to catch me. Why had he not gone after Morty, I wondered as I ran off up the Pass? He was not as good a runner as I, but I realise now he had seen something that he understood, someone had acted in an unreasonably aggressive manner, and that I was the culprit. And I needed teaching a lesson. Fortunately, for me, I was a faster runner than Don, and he could not catch me, but his voice is still with me now as I write this, for he stopped and hurled after me the following epithet. ‘You’re a bloody Slippery Jim’ ‘A bloody Slippery Jim’ he cried.  


Dennis Gray   
      

An abridged version of this article first appeared in High 


Keith Bowen Artist website