Friday, 24 July 2015

A Climber Extraordinaire

I was getting down to work when a voice came on the telephone, strongly Lancashire and alive with excitement. I won’t try to put it in dialect.
“Tom, it’s Stan Bradshaw. I’ve been at the Munros on my own for a week. It’s been marvellous. Yesterday I was above the clouds, at 3000 feet in the sun with nothing but mist all round. I’ve done nineteen Munro tops, and I want to make it 20. How about joining me for Ben Challum tomorrow? It’s my last day. Can you make it?”

Before such enthusiasm what can you say? Especially when the man is Stan, whom I met for the first time on the Cuillin ridge a year ago. On that occasion I had watched Stan and his friend Frank Milner pick their way down Bidein Druim nan Ramh on their way to finishing the whole Cuillin Ridge in a single day. But alas, they had failed on the Bhasteir Tooth, and thirty-one hours from setting out they were back at their Loch Coruisk base.

By any standard that was a good attempt. I drove north to meet him, because he went back to the Cuillin last June and I wanted to hear the story of his triumph. Stan is 63, and wonders if he is the oldest man to have done it? Small, bald-headed, light and wiry, he had the coffee boiling when I arrived on him at breakfast-time for Ben Challum. During our climb he told me all about the most wonderful day of his life, beginning at 3.30 a.m. in Glen Brittle and finishing at Sligachan at 11 p.m.

“It was perfect, except for taking a third man along who slowed up Frank and me. But he gave up halfway, and we got moving then. We had a cache of food planted at the Inaccessible Pinnacle, and once we got it we felt sure nothing could stop us. We were tired when we got to the Bhasteir Tooth, and once again we couldn’t find the route, although we had made a reconnaissance in advance. We wasted a bit of time and energy, but once we were up we could relax, for we knew that nothing could stop us getting to Sgurr nan Gillean. It was beautiful! Everything about was grand—the colours, the sea and, swinging away from us, the marvellous ridge and the corries we had traversed.”

The Cullins painted by William Mervyn Glass
Telling the tale to me as we climbed, I noticed that he never seemed to pause for breath as the top of Ben Challum came nearer and nearer. I had never thought of it as an exciting hill, but Stan grew excited as the corrie opened up and a whirling flock of thirty ptarmigan crossed in front of us, white as doves. The cause of the alarm was immediately apparent, when over the ridge came an eagle, its broad wings beating as it crossed our flank.
Strangely, there was a flock of twites up here, too, despite the frozen ground and the cold wind that made us put up our anorak hoods. It was fine to get into the lee of the cairn and have a cup of hot soup and a jam butty while watching the moving black clouds obliterate peaks, or pass and reveal winking eyes of lochans, one of them pin-pointing our route of descent by the south corrie.

Nice to jog down the rocky corrie sweeping down to Lochan Dubh and listen to Stan telling me of his lifestyle as a tripe manufacturer, cross-country runner, fell-racer and hill-walker. He told me how the building up of his business hadn’t left him any time for climbing until he was 40, but that he had always been a harrier.

“I do four miles every day before breakfast in any weather. And I run six miles every evening after work, before tea. I’ll run six miles tonight, and I’ve done so every day since I’ve been up here. After coming back from the hill I have a cup of tea, then go out for my run and come back to a big meal I eat a lot.”
In fact, I did not know what a remarkable individual Stan was until I talked to his Cuillin companion, Frank Milner. Stan, it seems, is a legend in his own country, having at the age of 48 knocked a little off the time taken by Bob Graham to round 42 Lakeland summits in 24 hours, a record which stood for 28 years until Alan Heaten did the second round. Stan was the third man to do it.
Another of his feats was a winter run of 120 miles and 20,000 feet of up and down work to link the two highest pubs in England, Tan Hill in Yorkshire and the Cat and Fiddle in Cheshire.

Doing this with a couple of friends, they took only 51 hours and 49 minutes, without sleep, in rain, snow, mist, hail, thunder and lightning. They set out on Boxing Day. Stan has also done all the summits over 2500 feet in Lakeland in a continuous walk, 105 miles of ascent and 77 summits, all between Saturday morning and Tuesday morning.

Ah, well, it is encouraging to meet a driving force like Stan, who doesn’t know where to stop and who refuses to grow up or grow old. I went to the funeral of another man of that kind a few weeks ago, Dr J. H. B. Bell, with whom I had the pleasure of climbing in 1968 when he was in his seventies, yet he was doing the Munros for the second time and planning to go to the Alps that summer.

Bell was an Auchtermuchty man, chemist, scholar and editor of The Scottish Mountaineering Club Journal. He was one of the big names in British climbing between the wars. Small and lightly built, like Stan Bradshaw, Bell at the age of around fifty pioneered some of the hardest climbs ever done on Ben Nevis. The Orion routes on the North-East Buttress will be amongst the finest of the Scottish classic routes for situation and difficulty.

Now he is dead, a great character gone, while Stan Bradshaw is off to the Canaries to climb a volcano in Tenerife. The great thing about life is to live it to the full when you have the chance. It’s the best recipe for happiness.

Tom Weir 

Stan Bradshaw Guardian obituary 

Friday, 17 July 2015

Your lovely hills are very dangerous

There cannot be more than half a dozen real hard men, perhaps youthful aspirants to the Alpine Climbing Group, who have made the journey, on foot and by road, from the beginnings of Llanberis Pass to Beddgelert. To the best of my knowledge I am the only man living who has made this appallingly dangerous journey on two occasions. Of the second, on which I had a companion, I have already written in another place, but my solitary attempt has remained unchronicled. I now set out, below, what I recall of my experience in the spring of 1951. I was not able to make notes at the time, but the facts are essentially as I record them here. About ten o'clock one morning towards the end of March 1951, or it may have been 1950, I was sitting in the bar (since remodelled and renamed the Smoke Room), of that small hotel at the foot of Llanberis Pass which is known to all travellers in those parts.

I was sipping a whisky and soda, having just finished reading a most excellent article on the climbing situation in Wales in the 1940s called 'Return to Arfon'. On the table in front of me was a big blue-covered volume, 'Rock Climbing in the English Lake District', by a man called 0. G. Jones. Some people from a place called Keswick had taken some old-fashioned photographs to illustrate the work and I was finding it of interest. My presence in that hotel at that time of year was due to an obligation I was under to write a work of fiction containing a gang fight in Wales, preferably on the face of a steep rock climb. My thoughts had no connection with Beddgelert and were indeed focused upon the measurements of the bar. It had just occurred to me that a determined man, sitting where I had positioned myself, could hardly miss the landlord with a shot from a .32 Mauser pistol, if the landlord happened to be standing at the cash register. At that moment the door of the bar opened and the landlord's wife came in to join me.

She was not in those days much given to conversation, being endlessly busy about the house. 'I've come to have a little chat with you', she said, 'It's nearly eleven o'clock'. `So late', I said, emptying my glass, 'I was sitting here thinking'. `Not thinking', she said, 'Drinking'. `So I was', I said, holding up my glass, 'I must have another of these'. `That's what I want to talk about', she said. 'You drank a bottle and a half of Scotch last night in this very room, and here you are doing it again, or in a fair way to doing it again, before lunch. You should go out more, into our lovely hills'. `I did that from this very hotel, just after Christmas,' I reminded her, 'and I was ill for weeks. Your lovely hills are very dangerous.' I stood up, all the same, and returned the red Journal of the Fell and Rock Climbing Club of the English Lake District to the corner bookshelf in the bar which, in those days, had twenty or thirty of the Journals, but not one of them with anything quite so good as 'Return to Arfon.' I didn't know what any of it meant. It was just interesting to read.

The author was a man called A. B. Hargreaves, and I didn't know him either. I put 'Rock Climbing in The English Lake District' under my arm. It had just come into my head that my hero might well be reading it in his bath when a villain, still uninvited, thrust a gun through his bathroom window. The essence of thriller writing is that heroes', preferably unarmed, should invariably outsmart relentless thugs with guns in either hand. It seemed to me, as I weighed it in my hand, that 'Rock Climbing in the English Lake District' was at least throwable. `I'll get hold of my packed lunch and go', I said. I tried to sound a little hurt, a trifle wounded: I've always found that difficult.
The landlord's wife picked up her broom and duster. 'Don't forget to take off those red slippers,' she said. There was a packet of sandwiches lying on the hall table bearing the legend, 'Mr. Fitzgerald, no cheese'. As cheese makes me frightfully ill, I knew what would be inside the grease proof paper, but I shoved the packet into the little knapsack I used for carrying books, put aside 'Rock Climbing in the English Lake District' while I was putting on my shoes, and walked out into the icy conditions of a Welsh spring morning. A man with a coiled rope over his shoulder was standing motionless in the driving rain. He was wearing scarlet stockings, and what appeared to be velvet knickerbockers.

There was a look of total despair on his face. 'Have you seen Marcus'? he asked me. `There was a man in the bar last night they were calling Marcus' I said. 'He was trying to read the `Tractatus' of Wittgenstein, but they kept interrupting him'. `Sounds like him' said the despairing man, 'I was to meet him here at half past ten'. `And you've been standing here in the rain all this time? Come in at once and have something to drink'. To the look of despair he added a look of real horror. `I am a member of the Alpine and of the Climbers' Clubs' he said; 'I never drink in the middle of the day. We try to keep ourselves reasonably fit'. I bowed, silently. It seemed to be the only thing to do. `You'd have seen Marcus at breakfast, if he'd been there, wouldn't you, don't you think?' the despairing man said, almost to himself. It was clear to me from his constructions that he, at least, had not, spent the previous evening reading the `Tractatus', or even the 'Philosophical Investigations' of Herr Wittgenstein, but it was my turn for the look of despair and horror.

`I never eat breakfast,' I said, 'I'm never well enough.' That man seemed not to like being with me. 'I think I'll go inside,' he said, and I stood alone with my problem in the heart of Welsh Wales. I could see no way round it; I would have to go for a walk of some kind. It had been on the tip of the despairing man's tongue to ask me to go climbing with him. I had only saved myself with my inspiration about breakfast. I embarked upon my journey. I still had no thought of Beddgelert. I don't suppose that I had, in those days, ever heard of it as more than 'a place'. But there was, as there still is, in a much altered form, a High Road and a Low Road for part of the way in which I was, merely by chance, going. I stood at the junction (there was no gateway then), took a pull at my pocket flask and considered matters. A blonde woman in Scandinavian costume who was standing beside me began to sing `Solveig's Song' from Peer Gynt.

As I turned to seek her advice she disappeared. There was a lot of loose gravel on the Low Road, and a little bird with a white rump was hopping about. It frightened me rather, and I set out along the High Road.

There was very little traffic on that road in those days, and it had not been straightened out anywhere. But there was a blinding flash every five or six minutes as a motor bicycle or motor car skidded upon me round unsuspected corners. There was an Admiral of the Fleet in full dress uniform walking beside me, making a rather curious clanking noise with his sword. I asked him if he thought our situation dangerous, but he didn't reply. I asked him if he would like a sip out of my flask, but he had vanished. Some time later I reached a Post Office in a place they told me was called Nantgwynant.

I enquired for licensed premises and was told that Beddgelert was my first hope, but that 'they might be closed by the time you get there'. I sat down by the roadside and opened my sandwich packet. Everything was made from cheese and onions. One of the misty people all round me said something that sounded like lucus a non lucendo', but I didn't know what he or she meant and just threw the sandwiches away and emptied my flask. It seemed wasteful in my desperate circumstances to pour a libation for the gods, and I did not. I struggled towards Beddgelert. It was a long journey, but I thought I could do it. I remembered dreamily that the night before someone had been talking about a man called Carr who used to stay in Beddgelert and run over Snowdon every morning, with a bicycle on his shoulders, on his way to a mountain called Tryfan. 'It's quicker that way', he is alleged to have said.

I supposed that was why I was without conscious design, now on the way to Beddgelert, and moreover, with an empty flask. I began to recite aloud the Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, but when I came to the bit about measuring out my life with coffee spoons an Australian Aboriginal, who kept throwing a boomerang across my head, and snatching at it with his left hand as it came back, asked me to shut up. `You need concentration for what I'm trying to do,' he said. I made for the public house where Mr. Borrow was said to have spent a night or two on one of his missionary journeys, reaching it as the rain stopped. You could say I was wet. They told me the bar was closed, and that, at that time of year they seldom bothered to open it during the week until 'going on seven.' The barmaid was knitting a strange looking tube from a huge ball of grey wool. 'Nice not to see climbers,' she said, `If you and I were locked in the snug no one would know, isn't it?

'Not a soul', I said. We drank a bottle of gin together in the snug and quite soon the Australian went away and I was alone with her. Just before six o'clock I asked her if she thought a determined man with a .32 Mauser pistol could blow the lock off the snug door. 'You had better be getting back, isn't it'? she said. We embraced, a brother and sister in extremis. Perhaps there was a cousinly touch to the final kiss as she slipped a half-bottle into my pocket and kept the change.

 'Don't let them put you into one of those places, bach,' she said. 'I've a book to finish,' I told her, stiffly, and set off on my return journey. "You’re going to find this bit difficult, cobber", the Australian said. He'd been waiting for me outside, together with a man from a circus who had a herd of camels with him. I put my face towards Nantgwynant. I woke up just before it was full dark. I think I had rested, with a book, because, as I opened my eyes, a little man in a pink hat closed 'Esmond' for me and dropped it into my book bag. As I reached the hotel the guests were just coming out from dinner and the landlord's wife called out to me, 'Oh, there you are: You're just in time if you hurry up and change'.

'You look ever so much better.' In those days I preferred dining alone, and I gave any loitering diners all the time they needed. There was never a crowd in the early fifties, just a few climbers. When I reached the dining room the Wittgenstein man was sitting by himself reading, and absent-mindedly picking at a plate of Welsh mutton. 'Do you happen to know any German'? he asked me, 'I'm trying to re-write and re-translate a rather bad piece for the Alpine Journal.' I did once, long ago,' I told him, "But where the number 2 bus used to stop they've set up a kind of jungle with orang-utangs hung on the trees."

I must have spoken all Kastner's piece from `'Emil' in German because I heard myself saying Orang-Utans hingen in den zweigen and the Wittgenstein man stood up and held out his hand. 'Please don't bother' he said, 'my name is Marcus, and I'm a doctor. What you need is a nice long rest.' 

I go to that hotel rather a lot, now, and the other night a woman guest said, 'Don't you ever drink anything except tonic water'? 'Oh, yes' I told her, 'at Christmas time and Easter I quite often have a bitter lemon, or something like that. You see I'm a member of the Alpine Club, and the Climbers' Club, and we have to try and keep fit.' Then I went up to bed. There was a book up there waiting for me called 'Rock Climbing in the English Lake District' and I was longing to read it for the twentieth time, and to look again at the lovely photographs taken by the Abraham Brothers of Keswick eighty years ago.

Kevin Fitzgerald: Published in Mountain Life Dec/Jan 1975 

Friday, 10 July 2015

For Rattus Norvegicus: A brief history of the Shiant Isles

The Shiant Isles
I never thought I would find myself writing warmly about a Scottish laird. Adam Nicolson owns the Shiant Islands, east of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides. The Shiants are a compact cluster and, like all small islands, offer the marvellous sense that you can encompass them, you can easily walk or sail round them and get to know each rock-face or sand-bar, each vein of water or peat-hagg lip. Islands make you attend to them with the most intimate focus, until you know them entirely and understand the reason each feature, natural or civilised, is as it is. That stone-heap on a west-facing slope, is it scree, or a cairn, or the remains of a house? Who made those cup-holes in a reef by the shore, and why? When did somebody last dig those lazy-beds, the ridges for potatoes or barley that corduroy the rough pasture? Nicolson has spent so many days and nights on the Shiants that he has had time to pose every conceivable question about them and to delve for the answers.

The Shiants were points on the well-frequented seaways of Western Europe when the landways were still mudded and laborious. Two scallop fishers recently dredged up a gold torc from near the islands’ western reefs. The bracelet is ‘as exotic as a silk dress on a cliff face, Audrey Hepburn, somehow, en route to the North Pole’. It was made in the Bronze Age, a period in which, according to Nicolson, ‘the human person is glorified and with his egotism comes his guilt.

He carries remarkable weapons. He wears jewellery. His body becomes the arena of his glory.’ Nicolson brings ancient and medieval times close, but he also gleans powerful stories from the islands’ recent life. By the 19th century only a shepherd lived there. About 1830 the wife of one shepherd, a man called MacAulay (his given name is not remembered), climbed down the northern cliff on Garbh Eilean to gather seabirds for feathers and meat: ‘She killed the birds and hooked them by their necks, into the rope around her waist. One day . . . the rope broke’ and she ‘fell into the sea, where, because of the number of fowls hanging from the rope around her waist, she did not sink, but floated out to sea watched by her husband, who could do nothing to help her.

How weirdly different, and in one sense how similar, was the experience of two debs (bridesmaids-to-be of Princess Elizabeth) who came to the islands in 1946 as guests of Nicolson’s father, Nigel (son of Harold Nicolson and Vita Sackville-West). They lasted a night. Wakened by noisy rats, they screamed. Nigel would have to row them back out to a fishing boat in the morning. But he had forgotten to tie up his dinghy, which had drifted out and shattered on the rocks: ‘Nigel entered the freezing waters of the Minch, swam out to the boat and returned to the beach with a rope. Elizabeth and Margaret stood waiting in their floral prints. Nigel tied them on, one by one, and they swam out towards the herring drifter, speechless with cold, while their skirts spread like peonies around them.

When Nicolson sets out to uncover Shiant history, he is able to bring over, first, an archaeologist from the State Institute in Prague and then an entire team of Czech archaeologists every summer for five years. They dug up and sifted the layered fragments of the old black house on Eilean an Tighe until they knew its life in the finest detail. When Linda Cihakov√° made a cut or sondage through the floor, she uncovered a smooth, flattish, rounded stone about twelve inches across, ‘buried in the clay and peat ash of the mid-18th century’. It was deeply incised with a cross enclosed in a circle. Nicolson at once began to find out its history, travelling to Sheffield and Edinburgh, phoning Inverness and Dublin. The stone must have been made by a hermit, probably out of Torridonian sandstone from Applecross on the mainland. When the early missionaries founded a new church, they carried with them, ‘in a bag blessed by a bishop, soil or stone from the mother church’. Here was a source for the name of the islands: sianta is Gaelic for ‘uncanny’ or ‘hallowed’.

It’s characteristic of Nicolson that he researches the stone in the most expert way, but also in the most homely. He carries it to and from the Shiants in the bilges of his boat, the Freyja, ‘acting its part as holy ballast, leant on by the dogs and cushioned by my sleeping bag’. It is so charismatic a thing that everyone delights in it. The schoolchildren on the nearest inhabited island, Scalpay, tried it as a pillow. A woman in the toll-booth outside the Dartford Tunnel said: ‘That looks nice.’ A man at a garage thought it was a fossilised meat pie, and an expert in early Christian sculpture at the Royal Commission for the Ancient and Historical Monuments in Scotland stroked its surface and said, ‘“Yes, yes,” as if it were a homecoming’.

Although nobody lives permanently on the Shiants these days, men from Scalpay graze their sheep there and catch whitefish and scallops between Lewis and the islands. These are long-standing habits. When the Victorian laird was trying to justify the clearance of all the crofting townships in the part of Lewis closest to the islands, now called Pairc, he made out that the crofters’ fishing grounds were too distant to be viable. A generation later their descendants testified to the Napier Commission that the fisheries were excellent and were round the Shiants, just two miles away.

The origins of the Shiant place names were known to islanders such as Neil Nicolson from Stemreway, on the fjord called Loch Seilg which opens towards the Shiants, where I did fieldwork last summer. Stemreway (now transliterated as Stiomrebhaigh), a site of extraordinary beauty and habitability, is still mantled in dense green turf, backed by an outcrop for building stone, with a peat moss just yards away. The best houses were roomy, with vegetable fields enclosed by stone dykes. A stand of aspens chatters on the bluff above a river flowing out of a circular tidal lochan which would have made an ideal fish-trap. Stemreway was one of six villages cleared in 1843 by a family called Stewart (who figure in some scalding stories told by Adam Nicolson) so the place could be turned into a ‘sporting’ enclave – a base for killing animals, birds and fish – centred on Eishken, the next settlement along the shore.

The estate is still frequented by sportspersons in Barbour jackets and gamekeepers in natty olive tweeds. The Eishken employees, according to Nicolson, were instrumental in exterminating the Shiant birds of prey, including white-tailed sea eagles, to conserve the profitable grouse. When Nicolson was helping the Scalpay men to gather and dip their sheep on Garbh Eilean, the largest of the Shiants, ‘eight handsome men and women’ arrived from Eishken on a 38-foot, ocean-going, twin-diesel estate boat called the Incorrigible. They lounged about in their fleeces and sunglasses, pretending that Adam and the crofters weren’t there, until he went over to them and asked: ‘What are you up to at Eishken?’ ‘Probably drinking too much,’ replied one of the young bloods.

Nicolson knows that for well-off people to own parts of the Highlands is invidious. At the start of his book he retails the remarks of a man who came up to him in Macleod’s Bar in Tarbert, on Harris, and said: ‘Well, you’re a sackful a shite . . . You can no more say that those islands belong to you than I can say that I’m the landlord of the moon.’ Towards the end he describes his debate on ownership with Robert Stewart of the SNP National Council, considers whether ownership and management by the local community would be the just solution, and concludes that ‘flexible and responsive’ private ownership can be more ‘open’ than ‘exclusive community ownership’, adding that anybody who wants to stay in the one house on the islands can get in touch with him at Nicolson wants the Shiants to remain part of a living society. He knows their harshness and their goodness, ‘neither more privileged nor more deprived than anywhere else’, with ‘the benefit of the good soils, the riches of the birds and fish. It was not to be deprived of anything the mainland could offer. It was a sea room with sea room, a place enlarged by circumstances, not confined by them. Each experience of his island life is beautifully described.

Quite casually, and with no fanfare, no advance warning, from between your feet the islands start to groan. A long, deep moaning emerges from the slits between the dolerite slabs. It begins slowly and builds, a deep and exhausted exhalation. It is like finding a room in which you thought you were alone suddenly occupied by another, a voice emerging from a long dead body.

When the rock breaks, ‘the bare unlichened stone smells of iron or even blood, because blood smells of iron too. The smell is one of deep antiquity, a release into the nostrils of elements in the rock which have not been volatile since the rock was made. It feels as intimate as poking your fingers into a wound.’ On a dark day the gannet is lit like a crucifixion against it.

 I could never tire of this, never think of anything I would rather watch, nor of any place I would rather be than here, in front of the endless renewing of the seabird’s genius, again and again carving its path inside the wind, holding and playing with all the mobility that surrounds it like a magician with his silks, before the moment comes, it pauses and plunges for the kill, the sudden folded, twisted purpose, the immersion, disappearance and detonation of the surf.

David Craig: A version of this article first appeared in the LRB-2001

Friday, 3 July 2015

Braided Lives: The Vince Betts Story

“My brother was a climber back in the 50’s-quite good I think’. As the Communist Party meeting emptied into the damp Mersey night,the visiting national organiser from London chatted to local activists. “This is Pete’; the area secretary introduced my informant. Pete Betts’. Mild interest flickered. ‘Your brother’s name isn’t Vince by any chance?’

Later in the pub to my mounting excitement, Pete pieced together the jigsaw. Vince Betts had exploded across the climbing scene in 1955 when he seconded Don Whillans on Slanting Slab on Cloggy’s West Buttress, of which historians noted in ‘The Black Cliff’... No previous climb had combined such difficulty, exposure and lack of protection, and few have since.

Then, like a one hit wonder, Vince had vanished. Out of the blue (Or rather, out of the red!’, 30 years later I had stumbled upon his trail. “ He lives in Harare, I’ll send you his address’ said Pete.In Braided Lives, novelist Marge Piercy skilfully weaves together the apparently unconnected trajectories of her main characters into a shifting web of interconnections. Discovering Vince Betts' tracks had the same effect on me. I had followed his footsteps across Slanting Slab's still frightening first pitch in 1965, when I seconded Dave Potts on an early ascent. In 1975 I had written about the climb in a chapter in Hard Rock. Now, 18 years later, across three decades and two continents, guess whose rope feels braided with mine? We have never met, but Vince has corresponded voluminously; generous outpourings of memory, hewn in painstaking hand-writing, by someone to whom I suspect writing does not come easily.

His story shouts out to be told, a forgotten fragment of our history that lights up a way of climbing life that has all but gone. So I've picked out several recurring themes from the wealth of material Vince's letters make available.
Vince Betts was born into a catholic family in Sheffield in 1934, the eldest of eight children. He left school at 15 and served an arduous apprenticeship as a fitter at loco-motive sheds in Millhouses, Grimethorpe and Derby. A neighbour, John Storrey, introduced Vince and some of his teenage pals to climbing. "He got hold of Climbing in Britain by J.E.Q. Barford and top-roped us up climbs at Burbage with a 100ft Italian hemp rope." Thursday evenings were weekend planning time. "Every one was fun — climbing, sleeping in barns, boozing, getting sick. I was very aware how many friends got married very young. I just felt sorry for people who did not understand the call of the hills.

To get to them I would let nobody stand in my way." Don Cowan, who was to second Joe Brown on the first ascent of the Cyrn Las classic ‘The Grooves’, introduced the youthful Vince to harder climbing and to the Rock and Ice, and in 1955 he was accepted into the club. "In those days there were strict criteria to join. You had to be able to lead VS on any rock in Britain and also you had to be able to get on with the lads." Vince qualified on both counts. "In the early 50s there were probably less than 5,000 climbers in all. You could go to Stanage on a sunny Saturday morning and see only two or three other groups. Quite a few climbers were working class, but most came from the university clubs. I viewed. Oxford accents with suspicion. It was always them that went to the Himalayas with champagne and porters. "Never did I train for climbing. As a manual worker it appeared a waste of time.

In fact it was unheard of in the 50s. You got fit by doing lots of hard climbs." By modern standards Vince's generation also climbed without equipment. "The best footwear was Dunlop Ventner tennis shoes, or the cheaper plain black Woolies plimsols — both gave a good grip. After a year I managed to buy a pair of walking boots and had them nailed with clinkers. With my own hemp rope, a few krabs and slings and an ex-army anorak, I felt like a real climber. "From the Rock and Ice I learned a lot about safety techniques. They were regarded with awe — not only because they had the best climbers who went climbing every weekend in all weathers — but because they had a tremendous safety record."

The summer of 1955 was glorious. Vince, often climbing with Jimmy Curtis, Tom (Lou) Waghorn and Ron Moseley, had done Gargoyle and four other climbs on Cloggy's East Buttress. On July 9, bound for Bow Shaped Slab, Lou and he were enjoying Mrs Williams' Rock and Ice discount at the Half Way House Cafe. In walked Don and Audrey Whillans. "We told him our plans, but he insisted we should accompany him to 'have a look' at a new route he'd seen. Knowing Don's surly moods of those days, we decided it was better to go along rather than get a biff round the ear. "Well, we went to the start of what was to become Slanting Slab. Don undid his rucksack and pulled out the gear. It was only then I realised that 'look' meant attempt. "Don tied on, grabbed a few slings, pitons and a hammer, and in a commanding voice told Lou to tie on. At the time Lou was a sub-editor with the Sheffield Telegraph and was not as developed bodywise as us manual workers. 'Don, this is not my type of climb,' he stammered. Don's face became black with rage. 'Right oh! Vic, (he always called me Vic), you can tie on then.'

Reluctantly I did so, and Don proceeded to climb the access pinnacle and place the first peg." Vince had never used artificial methods in climbing. "I came in for a torrent of abuse from Don. He moved off the pegs and made the long leftwards traverse above the Western Terrace." Twenty years later in Hard Rock, I wrote: "Even as you crouch in slings on the eaves of the slabs, only 20 feet from second, thermos flasks and solidity, the exposure begins to snap at you. Once over the lip, the snap becomes a snarl..." Vince, like myself — and many other seconds subsequently — was contemplating where his penduluming body would end up in case of a fall when "a party of Cambridge types came up the Terrace to see what we were up to, and one of them, Ted Wrangham, offered me a back rope. I tied my 140ft rope round my waist, gave it to Ted and set off in my sand shoes up the pitch.

"I found no difficulty (the climbing was then unprotected 5b) until around 20ft from Don's belay, when I asked him for instructions, as there appeared to be no holds, just a huge void under my feet. 'You see the big vertical crack, the one you can just get your finger nails in? Use that and swing across.' Don was very pleased with my performance. "Ted still held my rope from the back-stop position on the Terrace. Don climbed up the next, easier section in good spirits, did not take a belay, and just kept on climbing to the full length of his 150ft Viking nylon rope. "With a fisherman's knot and two half hitches, I tied Don's rope onto mine, pulled up mine from below, and belayed him up the rest of the 180ft pitch." When Whillans took in the slack rope, the knot jammed, and Betts had effectively to solo part of the pitch, coiling the rope as he climbed. "After that the climbing was OK until I reached a steep wall with a loose, downward-pointing piton. As Don used it, the piton had moved. With a tight rope I managed the move.

How Don - 5ft 3 inches against my 5ft 7, did it, I don't know." Audrey, who had descended from the top, greeted the two climbers at the top of this epic pitch. "We went down to Half Way House and celebrated with a cup of tea. Mrs Williams had been following our progress through binoculars. We didn't say much about the route because we didn't give it a name for about a year. "Five years went by before it got a second ascent, by Joe Brown and Harry Smith I think, and they were both suitably impressed with its difficulty. We were even accused of breaking off the handholds, but we told them there weren't any to break off. "Years later I heard that Hugh Banner was talking to someone about the first ascent in a pub in Wales, and said that Mortimer Smith was Whillans' second. Someone corrected him, whereupon Banner, unaware that Don was listening, retorted, `Ah yes, Betts' only claim to fame.' " And what's thine?' floated Whillans' rejoinder along the bar." 

The Black Cliff has little to say about Betts, save that he was "a noisy, swarthy-faced character who enlivened the climbing scene at the time." In one of my letters I asked Vince what he thought of this description of him. "My most famous nickname was Black Betts, probably because of my motorbike gear. It was said that I used to go through the Betws-y-Coed bends clipping my own ears on either side on the bridge parapets. "In the mid-50s everyone liked the old climbing songs, but we used to worship The King', Elvis. I remember Dennis Gray singing Rock Around the Clock while leading a climb on Cloggy, with the rope going up in jerks in time to the music. At hard bits he'd go quiet, but at the jugs the music would start again." Christmas '56 was a famous Rock and Ice meet at Wasdale Head. "One night after closing time, we had a game of barn rugby, played with a can of baked beans, about 25 to each team and several injuries.

Don Whillans was in his element - right in the thick of it all. "Once Wilson Pharaoh, the landlord, came leaping over the bar because a climber had used bad language, although he later took the towel off the pumps after closing time, with a loud shout of 'first orders please!'" Another theme runs equally strongly through Vince's letters — work. It is unusual today, when Britain's manufacturing has been laid so low, to read an account of a climbing, career squeezed between loco sheds, factory and building site. His descriptions make work in Sheffield and Manchester's heavy industry sound like hard, grueling graft, so gushing about the "dignity of labour" is out of place. Nonetheless the framework — the counterpoint— that honest toil provided, comes through very strongly as the other side of the coin to Vince's bacchanalian hedonism, as does his bitter resentment at "being too busy working when I should have been climbing."

How the words of the Manchester Rambler have echoed through the lives of Vince's generation of climbers. "I'll be a free man ON SUNDAY." In 1960 Vince emigrated to Australia, followed by spells in New Zealand, Canada, Zambia and Namibia — working on hydro-electricity schemes and in mining, wherever he could use his engineering skills, sometimes living what he calls "the alternative lifestyle" — getting married, doing a teacher training course and all the time going into the mountains. Sometimes he was spotted back in Sheffield, to which he occasionally returned, but always wanderlust seemed to pull him again. Once Whillans, on a visit to New Zealand, sought Vince out "in a town called Cromwell, where they grow the biggest and best apricots in the world. I was amazed how much weight Don had put on. He had just returned from an expedition down the Amazon. Naturally we went to the pub and yarned into the night.

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Then we breakfasted on Lake Waitaki shore." Now the family — a wife and three teenage kids — is settled in Zimbabwe, where Vince trains new generations of fitters for the engineering trade at the local poly, keeps bees for a hobby and spends much time on exploration, visiting wildlife parks and going on walking safaris; rock climbing on Wednesday evenings in Harare quarry, being an active member of the rowing club and trying to import a pick-up truck from Japan. Old climbers never die, they just climb different things! Vince's life is braided also. "After Don lost his licence for drunken driving, (front page of the Mirror - my mother sent out the paper), he bought a pedal cycle to get to the pub when he lived at Rawtenstall. "I stayed at his place in Wales on a visit in April '85. He gave me the bike — a green Peugeot sports — as he'd no further use for it. I still use it. It's in my garage in Harare. I look on it as a memento of a great climber and of great days."

Dave Cook: Climber, March 93.