Friday, 15 June 2018

The Drasdo Brothers......Northern Expressions



The Drasdo Brothers- Neville (left) and Harold outside Lakeland's Old Dungeon Ghyll at one of the last Bradford Lads reunions they attended together.

Derision is the burden that the avant-garde learns to bear; but in 1947 climbing had an oral culture, remarkable for the start of the post war ascendancy of northern working class British climbers’ Harold Drasdo
 
Imagine you are 14 years old, you have been climbing for three years since 1947 and in the winter of 1949/1950- March to be precise- you meet in the Hangingstones Quarry at Ilkley, a 20 year old from Bradford, just returned from Athens, on National Service. Tall and gangling, he is however so knowledgeable about climbing and climbers, as you begin to realise whilst chatting in a corner attempting to stay out of the biting cold wind, ever present on Ilkley Moor in winter. You hang on his every word. You complain about the weather and the cold, but your new found friend declares he has 'been dreaming about being here in these conditions for the last two years' whilst soldiering in Greece, where 'the heat had been unrelenting’. 
 
There were no other climbers present that day, it being mid-week (the average worker was still employed six days a week in March 1950). I had bunked off school and my new found friend was on demob leave, so we agreed to climb together. Our first route being the ‘Fairy Steps’ a Hard Very Difficult, which was climbed in boots, followed by ‘Nailbite’ another Very Difficult , and finishing with ‘Josephine’ a Severe wearing rubbers. It is hard for me now so many years later to wonder what I must have been like as a 14 year old, but my partner that day wrote later I was a ‘streetwise youth’. As we departed to head home he to walk over the moor to Dick Hudson’s to catch a bus to Bradford, me descending to Ben Rhydding for a bus to Leeds I learnt that he was Harold Drasdo, soon to be known in local climbing circles as ‘Dras’.

'Dras' when he was working at Derbyshire's White Hall Outdoor Centre
 
Drasdo is an unusual name (there is a town by that name in Germany south of Berlin) , and so it stuck with me, and over the ensuing weeks meeting at Ilkley and other West Yorkshire outcrops, and coalescing into a larger group of activists, we became known as 'The Bradford Lads'. Several of whom besides the Drasdo’s; such as Pete Greenwood, Don Hopkin and Alf Beanland, were also to develop amongst the lead climbers of our area, and later until his death in the Alps in 1953, our best known group member was Arthur Dolphin. Nobody of my age was to my knowledge climbing regularly in that era, unlike today with the spread of indoor climbing, but in 1950 the popular image of climbing being it was highly dangerous, and in retrospect it actually was.

One element now revolutionised was the basic equipment then in use, another was a lack of instruction, for the only pool of knowledge was held by its regular participants and you learnt on the rock by example or experience as you progressed. And also perhaps you might have managed to obtain a copy of the then recently published Penguin paper back, ‘Climbing in Britain’ by John Barford for the princely sum of one shilling (ten pence). And before the modern reader thinks that was an incredible cheap bargain, Dras told me at his first job as a 16 year old he was paid £1 a week. But he did enjoy two weeks holiday, which made him feel lucky to be so employed! 
 
Petrol rationing finished in 1950 and we discovered hitch hiking. And so after having perforce needed to concentrate on our local outcrops, we began to travel far and wide with the Lake District and Langdale in particular being our Mecca. We stayed in barns and the one at Wall End Farm in Langdale became known the length and breadth of Britain. Often I was in the company of Dras and eventually I met his younger brother Neville. They both made major contributions to climbing, together and individually but for me it was my thinking, my education they affected most. Like me they were both scholarship Grammar School boys, leaving at 16 years of age, and working at low paid jobs, Dras as a clerk in a Health Unit and Neville an opticians; but studying at night school and eventually gaining entry into Higher Education, their outstanding later careers being founded on an impressive ability to master facts. 
Cairngorms 1958.

Dras was reading widely from the first, and I can remember him as we spent long winter nights in a doss under Castle Rock, in Thirlmere recounting to me the story of the first ascents of the North Face of the Eiger, and the North Face of the Grandes Jorasses. I was so smitten by these stories, I sent to Paris for Anderl Heckmair’s ‘Les Trois Derniers Probleme Des Alpes’. Which despite five years of French at school I struggled with to make sense of the stories, but Dras was reading much wider than mountaineering books, and we began to think of him as an intellectual! I can also remember him recounting stories to me about hitch hiking, and one article in particular he valued highly, was written by the American poet and mountaineer Gary Snyder.

Through such sharing I found out that Dras, like me, had started climbing at Ilkley in 1947. Why Ilkley? If you lived in Bradford or Leeds, and relied on public transport, then it was easiest to reach at a time when the dislocation caused by the war was still a major factor in our everyday lives; food, clothes, and fuel were all still rationed. To visit Almscliff was much more difficult than Ilkley. For me it meant a bus to Bramhope then tramp the miles from there to reach the Crag. Despite such difficulties there was a keen spirit of adventure in our approach which was essentially light hearted. Being so much younger than my companions I was sometimes the butt of their humour, one such instance was when they contacted The Bradford Telegraph and Argus and joined me as a member into their ‘Nig Nog club'! It seems incredible now that this could have existed in a City with a high ethnic population, but this was a young person’s club sponsored by that newspaper.

I read out my ‘joining’ letter to my older companions the weekend after receiving this by post in Leeds 6. ‘Dear Dennis, we welcome you as a ‘Nig Nog’ into our club, please try and make all your friends ‘Nig Nog’s’ as well’. They laughed long and hard at this, but I got my own back. We lived next to a chemist and I managed to obtain some medicine bottles, and labels. I poured some coloured liquid into these and handed one to Alf Beanland, Dras, Greenwood & Co. On the label I had printed, ‘Peter Pan Liquid Jollop for Ageing Youths’ I think in those early years of our friendship two climbs stand out. In September 1952 with Dras in the lead, we managed to pioneer one of the Lake District’s hardest climbs of that era ‘The North Crag Eliminate’ at Castle Rock; which is still graded Extremely Severe. This was in retrospect an unusual climb, for one of its pitches meant climbing a large yew tree, then from its top most branches launching onto the rock face to make a difficult upward rightward traverse to reach a secure ledge, below the intimidating top pitch. 
Castlenaze 1957
For me, being at that date a small 16 years old, it was the moves from off the tree I found the most difficult of the route. This climb illustrated for me that whilst Dras was not the most naturally gifted performer in our group- Greenwood and Dolphin being more so- he was the most determined, and once he set his mind to a task he was usually successful. 
 
Another memorable day in 1952 was when Dras and I climbed Hangover on Dove Crag, and noticing on a buttress to its left hand side, an impressive line, which commenced with a steep crack. Dras set off up this, but it was seeping wet inside its edges, and some way up this he managed to hang a sling and I lowered him down. I then tried to lead this, but could not reach as far as Dras and hanging by the sling he had placed I could see that the next moves would be beyond me, so I too then baled-out. The Following weekend I met Joe Brown in Langdale, and I told him about the outstanding difficult line we had discovered on Dove Crag.

He was very interested, and with Don Whillans visited and ascended the route which they called Dove Dale Grooves. A route so difficult for its era, that a decade elapsed before it was repeated. The reader may be surprised, but Dras was not annoyed with me about blabbing about our great find to Joe, for we both recognised that if any climbers could have pioneered the route at that time, probably only Brown and Whillans were capable of achieving such a result.
 
The death of Dolphin and the opportunities that developed for some in the 1950s for entry into higher education, or to better ones prospects in work further afield would eventually lead to a break-up of The Bradford Lads. Dras managed to study in Nottingham and qualify as a teacher. This then led to a career in Outdoor Education, first in Derbyshire at Whitehall, but then as the Warden of the Towers Education Centre near to Capel Curig . But throughout he continued to explore and pioneer new rock climbs. A major development, in which he and his brother Neville were key figures, was the discoveries they made over several visits to The Poisoned Glen in Donegal. This came about by Neville exploring climbing possibilities in that part of Ireland in 1953, returning home and convincing Dras about possible new routes that might be found in that valley, which they visited in 1954. Over many visits in following years they did manage to climb 20 new routes, perhaps the two which have become best identified with them being The Berserker Wall and the Direct on Bearnas Buttress?
Donegal Days

With his outstanding literary abilities Dras was invited by the FRCC to edit their first ever guidebook to the Eastern Crags, an area in which he had been an original pioneer with classic routes like ‘Grendel’ (VS 4b) in Deepdale. The volume he produced in 1957 was a ‘big effort’ on his part, for without transport and often minus a climbing partner, much of his checking and routing was achieved solo, and taking these problems into account, the guidebook he produced was first class. Transport was a big problem in our early climbing days, for as the 1950’s progressed hitch hiking became too slow and crowded (so many other competitor’s out on the road also seeking lifts) and therefore many climbers moved onto motor bikes.

Dras was one of these, but initially he did not display great driving skill. He bought an ex War Department machine, for I believe about £40, and drove it up to Langdale. With me riding pillion we set off from the Old Dungeon Ghyll Car Park to ride up to Wall End Barn, with our fellow Bradford Lads cheering our departure. At the first sharp bend leading up to our destination he lost control, wobbled across the road and hit a wall. I was lucky and landed on a grass verge, but Dras was injured, fracturing an arm quite badly. So it heralded for us a return to hitch hiking.

In 1971 Dras edited a new edition of the Lliwedd guide for the Climbers’ Club having been elected to that organisation in 1966. Taking this on, was truly a brave decision for despite its huge bulk and ease of access it was seen even at that date as something of a backwater, whereas once in the early years of the 20th century it was at the cutting edge of climbing development in this country. Maybe it might yet be again, but Dras had to overcome the curse of Lliwedd in preparing this volume, for its two previous editors, Archer Thompson in 1909, and Menlove Edwards in 1936 both ended their lives, committing suicide by poisoning. He remains however the only such guidebook editor to have published such a volume in both The Lake District and Snowdonia.
Latter days: HD on the esoteric Tremadog VS 'Wanda',where a basking adder held up progress!

Established in Wales and a key figure in the development of Outdoor Education, Dras decided to put his thoughts about this into print and he produced a seminal work, ‘Education and the Mountain Centres’. This was a thoughtful analysis of the role of risk and the experience of an exposure to nature in the development of young minds; in 1972 when it was first published it made a major impact on this then fast developing field of education. It remained in print for many years and sold hundreds of copies nationwide. A more eclectic work that Dras was involved with in this decade was a joint publication with the US climber and academic Michael Tobias, ‘The Mountain Spirit’ published in 1980. This was in retrospect an unusual and surprising work, a potpourri of articles, poems, and anthology, and some pieces written especially for the book by David Roberts and Arne Naess and by the authors. It was full of Zen and Tao, including a piece by HSU who visited every mountain range in eastern China in the 16th century. It was met with such a mixture of like and dislike that it remains one of the most unusual books to be published in that era. 
 
A person who was impressed by ‘The Mountain Spirit’ however was a friend in Manchester, who at that date was a drama student, Nick Shearman. I attended at a theatre in town to see him act in a stage adaptation of the Dracula story. He was also a keen rock climber, and thus when he admitted an interest in meeting Dras I took Nick to meet him at The Towers. Shearman was an enthusiast for the plays of Samuel Beckett, and once met up they gelled and discussed Yeats, Beckett, Joyce and mountain themed writing till the wee small hours. Shearman remained impressed, and I valued his opinion for he was an outstanding personality himself, who went on to enjoy a major career in television production as an independent and at the BBC. This meeting led on to me organising in Manchester a Mountain Literature Evening, at which Dras was one of the speakers, others being Ivan Waller telling about an amazing escape from a crashed plane in the war and Tony Barley who survived an epic rescue after a huge fall in a remote area of South Africa; the theme of the Evening being ‘Risk and Adventure’. 

Dras was a serious thinker, and he loved to draft, rewrite either a talk or article to firm up his ideas which is why he did not publish easily, but the articles he did finalise such as ‘The Art of Cheating’ originally published in Mountain Magazine are worth re-reading, again and again. 
Bradford Lads at that thar ODG.

In 1997 Dras published an autobiography, ‘The Ordinary Route’, which besides describing a life full of climbing in many different locations Yosemite, Greece, The Sinai besides the UK and Ireland he revealed his thinking about access and conservation in mountain environments. I had forgotten just what a good read this book really is, having re-read it before commencing this article, and the chapter on access campaigns underlines his lifelong belief in anarchism; which confirms the need to support local action, away from centralised decision making.

Dras was a lifer when considering his climbing activities, and in the year 2000, he and his brother Neville celebrated 50 years of new routing; ‘Cravat VS 4C’ on Bowfell’s Neckband crag in 1950 and ‘Two against nature S 4a’ on Craig Ddu, Moel Siabod in 2000. He was a consistent explorer of crags in North Wales, and continued to be active in the Arenig’s for many years, accompanied by John Appleby and other friends besides occasionally his brother.

Neville Drasdo has now retired from a stand out career in optical neuro physiology, as a Professor in the school of optometry and vision sciences at Cardiff University, producing 80 research items and receiving over 2000 citations. As a climber, many of his early years were confined due to working on a Saturday in Bradford. Climbing on his one day off he nevertheless managed to pioneer some highly technical routes on local outcrops of which Bald Pate Direct E2 5c at Ilkley and Alibi HVS 5b at Widdop are illustrations of his abilities. Physically he was a doppelganger of Dras and when I was 15 and Neville 19, in 1951 we met up in Glencoe, staying in Cameron’s Barn high in the Pass on the edge of the Inverness Road. We ascended several classic routes on the Buachaille Etive Mor; the Whortlebury Wall, Agag’s Groove, Red Slab and The Crowberry Ridge Direct.


HD on the first ascent of 'Jac Codi Baw' on Arenig Fawr
We even tried the then hardest route in Glencoe, Gallows Route; Neville almost succeeded on this but sticking in the final groove, unable to exit from it, his retreat back down the groove and across the traverse he had made to reach this was heart stopping! This climb had been unrepeated since its first ascent by John Cunningham in 1947, and for us teenagers to nonchalantly be attempting this makes me wonder at our initiative even now.

Neville went on to make some impressive first ascents on Skye and in the North West Highlands of which his 1000 ft route on the Sgurr an Fhidhleir in Coigach was a major development in that area. And in North Wales his most impressive new climb was in accompanying Joe Brown on the 1st ascent of ‘Hardd’ E2 5c on Carreg Hyll Drem.
Dras died in 2015 and though Neville is now suffering from a serious medical condition my most recent message from him was that he was still ‘Hanging On’.

And now as I finish with this, I see in my mind’s eye two figures standing together in the winter of 1951/2. We are in Borrowdale early in the morning and snow is lying deep on the ground and set like iron. This vision is one of the Drasdo brothers, wearing boots shod with Tricouni nails, and they are just leaving to climb in the Newland’s Valley. The rest of us Bradford Lads are heading for Great End, long ice axes at the ready, to do battle with its famous gully climbs. But that was not for Dras, he was ahead of the game and he had realised that the future lay in climbing rock routes in winter conditions. They did just that, climbing a severe summer route, made all the more demanding layered by snow and ice.
Harold under Pavey Ark

Harold and Neville Drasdo were two of the most outstanding, creative climbers of my generation. 

From humble beginnings they carved out for themselves lives and careers of great worth and their achievements and character will keep their memories alive for all who knew them. Which in Dras's case are the hundreds of school children who were introduced to the rivers, hills and moorlands of an outdoor adventure playground, which is a truly suitable memorial. 

Dennis Gray 2018.

Special thanks to Maureen Drasdo and Gordon Mansell for supplying many of these never seen before images. 


 

Friday, 1 June 2018

The Wall of Mists



The hand Traverse.Original Image from Bill Birkett's 'Classic Rock Climbs in Great Britain'
MOST mountaineering literature had not until recently attracted me greatly. Not only were the but also the experiences recorded, unfamiliar to me. With anticipation then, I came across the description of a climb I had actually done, only to find this little more familiar than the others I had read about : each pitch was imbued with an unexpected tension or an unwarranted ecstasy. It seemed to indicate that I lacked sensitivity or the power of observation unless I too could recapture some personal experiences which possibly had become diluted in perspiration or, soon after, drowned in the evening's beer. Mur-y-Niwl : "The Wall of Mist". Here surely was stuff for romance. I was not aware of it however as we plodded for two hours over the moors from the road, up through the featureless cwm into the low cloud over the col; then down, losing a thousand hard won feet in a few minutes, and finally scrambling up the steep broken rubble into the gully to the base of the climb. 

The black cliff seen at intervals through the mist swirling down the gully overhung slightly, austere and daunting. I was sure that I should remember this vividly. As I have often done in the mountains when it has been grim, I let my thoughts skip the period of the climb and rest in the future that offered a more comforting picture. I did not want to do the climb, but if I shirked it, that future would contain a dissatisfaction. There was no easy way out. It was doubtless very good for my character, making me tough and better able to face adversity with fortitude!

I was jerked out of my reverie by Richard calmly surveying the cliff for the line of weakness and suggesting that I might prefer the direct start. I did not prefer the direct start, and the cliff did not look as if it had a line of weakness. Richard's presence, though, did something to alleviate the unpleasantness. I thought of some fatuous ditty about "The Nearness of You", but I failed to burst into song. Richard was good—talented, experienced, never ruffled. The whole problem seemed different to him. There was no psychological conflict but just a sequence of moves and pitches approached with coolness and calculation—the outcome of a classical education perhaps. "How long will it take ?" I asked.

"Three hours, I should think," he replied. The prospect was about as attractive as swimming the Thames on a bleak wintry day: but I cheered myself with the hope that it might feel warmer once we were climbing. We stood up. It is always uncomfortable standing up again after a short rest. The sweat is just beginning to cool. The wind down the gully caught me. I shivered, enervated, and braced myself for the wait while Richard tried the first pitch. "Do you want to lead?" he said. "You're on form." I felt numb. I did not want a decision like this. It would have been an achievement to have led this though. Of course, what I wanted was praise; and fame if possible. 

Ambition is the most powerful stimulus. . . . "All right, I'll have a try," I said, before I had time to consider it further. It was a relief to move. I urged on myself the necessity for speed, with memories of spending half an hour getting off the ground on Longland's and shivering with nervousness all the way up. But I knew my capabilities now—or so I hoped. "Came off on Mur-y-Niwl" wouldn't sound too bad an epitaph—but it was easier to say than to face in reality. The first pitch was not as difficult as it looked, but it did not fill me with great confidence—it was probably just luck finding the right holds first time. The crux would not be like that. I took some time on the first belay. I could not afford to take any risks. I was not used to this responsibility. "I hope he's quick," I thought. "I won't be able to stand waiting around or I'll get cold and there'll be time to feel frightened." 

The second pitch: "a tricky reverse mantleshelf onto a small but adequate foothold." I moved off quickly again. I had to rely on the instructions: there was no point in querying them. I wondered how the leader of the first ascent had felt as he knelt down on this thin ledge and leaned out slightly to find the foothold, only to look straight down to the scree already far below. What magnificent exposure! "I'll be able to talk about that later," I thought. I lowered myself surprisingly easily onto the foothold, moved right and pulled quickly and strenuously onto a pedestal. That had been all right, and a word of congratulation from Richard spurred me on; but that was only two pitches. I moved from the small stance and looked along at the cliff. The rock jutted out and it seemed as though the whole mass of the cliff might fall into the gully as it inevitably would some day. I wondered when the last big chunk had come away.

Again there was nothing desperate—just the tremendous exposure which did not worry me, despite the greater height. I persuaded myself that I might be enjoying it. I was taking time to look about and make comments—I was coming to life. This V.S. stuff wasn't all that bad . . . . or perhaps it was just overgraded for a tall person. But the crux was yet to come. I waited again while Richard read the small piece of paper on which we were relying. This was it: a delicate move out and then a short hand traverse. I had been waiting for this all the way. (l  did not think I would fail, but the tension had not disappeared yet. I was probably at my best, having reached the compromise between caution due to fear and the over-confidence that comes with doing well. Again I had to lean out to see where the route went. I was able to afford the luxury of withdrawal—I seemed momentarily to have lost my tension. I nonchalantly checked the belay and moved out again. I must not withdraw this time. 

There it was—a "jug-handle" of a ledge and nothing for the feet. This was the ideal—hanging with the fingers over a three hundred foot drop. I swung round and down—a clumsy position soon rectified as my left foot gripped the rock and my right foot stretched to a small niche. I pulled up, still a little feverishly as I remembered I was leading, and I was standing up, surprised to find myself breathing heavily. Relieved of the strain, I could enjoy the last three pitches. It was worth having shivered with cold and apprehension and I was sorry the climb was not continuing. 

It seemed surprising that the sun was not shining to celebrate my elation, as we added Pinnacle Wall for good measure. We trudged off over the tops, then down to lower levels, away from the grandeur and tension—the scene of this emotional catharsis. 
 Climbing Mur y Niwl: Youtube

 MW Hewlett: Peterhouse 

First published in Cambridge Mountaineering: 1960 
 

Friday, 18 May 2018

Out in the Big Apple



I started to be really proud of the fact that I was gay, even though I wasn't
Kurt Cobain.

Watch it’ I warned as I tried to get established over the top of the overhanging side, of one of the Columbus boulders in New York’s Central Park. The Big Apple at the end of June is hot and muggy like being in a sauna, and sweat poured into my eyes as I hung there contemplating a fall. As I continued to struggle, I became conscious that a bearded, gangling fellow had appeared as if from nowhere, and was now sitting cross legged and chanting out aloud beneath myself; occupying the only possible landing place.
 
Desperation set in and with a last gasp effort I managed with a type of belly flop to somehow get safely landed on the rounded summit of the boulder. Feeling angry about the action of this inconsiderate newcomer, I descended quickly intending to give him a rollicking, only to find him sitting in the lotus position, chanting and oblivious to that which was going on around him.
 
Hey....what are you doing?’ I testily demanded… He looked at me bemused and I guessed he was spaced out? But then he announced ‘This is my Karma centre’ ‘A Buddhist, what kind Hinayana or Mahayana?’ I enquired. ‘I’m Zen man, Zen’ he replied then continued chanting his mantra. He certainly looked like being in touch with something other-worldly, sitting on the pile of wood chips spread by the local climbers, along the base of the boulders to provide safe and clean landings. ‘Only in the US of A’ I mused as I moved away, to seek out another bouldering venue in the Park, near to the Zoo.
 
Such was to be my introduction to climbing in the City, a place to which I had been briefly before on several occasions, passing through on my way to climb at the Shawangunks and in New Hampshire. But here I was for two weeks attending the biggest athletic/cultural event outside of the Olympics, with 11,000 other participants, from 31 sports, and 2500 artists, taking part in everything from jazz concerts, art and photographic exhibitions to dance and theatre performances. This was to be the Gay Games lV, and I have never been to anything before or since which matched it for interest and a fun time.

It all began for me with a notice on a board at the Foundry Climbing Centre in Sheffield announcing ‘Sports Climbing is now to be included in the 1994 Gay Games, in New York. You do not have to be gay to take part, just gay friendly’. A contact given for the UK was Phil Judson, whose address indicated he lived near me, so intrigued, I phoned him to enquire about further details of the event. It did sound interesting and Phil asked if I could try to persuade some of the British Sports Climbing team to take part, as he felt it was necessary to make a strong showing, as some who would take part, especially from the USA would be of international standard. I contacted two members of the British team known to me, and was shocked by their homophobic responses. Typical of these was the one who declined, because she felt that if she did take part, people would think she was gay, and this might adversely affect her standing in our sport.

Sorrowfully I had some time later to advise Phil that I had not been able to get any of our National team to take part. ‘Would you be willing to make up the team?’ he enquired, and after some hesitation, for Gay in 1994 was not accepted as it is in 2018, I agreed. To then find myself to be one of the British participants, selected by the Gay Outdoor Club (whose existence until then I was not aware of), made up of three guys and two gals.

Due to flight availability I flew out ahead of the others, and was surprised, to find on my arrival in New York that two locals had volunteered to be my hosts for the two weeks of the Games. Like thousands of others in the City they had agreed to put up a participant/s free of any charge, and I was soon to find out what an incredible piece of luck this was. Their apartment overlooked the western aspect of Central Park, New York’s impressive green oasis, which must be the most interesting of its kind anywhere? I could be out there bouldering in minutes, watch the roller-bladers in the Mall, sit and listen to talented busking musicians, including the finest jazz funk combo I have ever heard, and also watch the soft ball players. I could stroll in the Strawberry Fields (a tribute to John Lennon), go for a run on the reservoir track, and attend the numerous events held in the Park which were to be a part of the Games, including the Marathon.

Most days I went out to the boulders early in the morning before it became too hot to climb, and through doing this I made acquaintance with a climber from Boulder, who was working on a short-term construction project in New York. Chuck was physically ripped and as he climbed wearing only shorts and rock-boots, with his muscles bulging in acute definition he looked more like a body builder than a climber. The third day I was bouldering with him, working the classic traverse from right to leftwards of the Columbus boulders, two guys came running past obviously training for the Marathon, wearing Gay Games T- shirts. 'Jeez look at those faggots’ Chuck exclaimed to me. ‘I just don’t get it, they will be on the cliffs next, and I’ll be moving out!’

Coming to the end of our session, changing from rock boots into trainers he then began to quiz me on my life and background. And, ‘Why was I in the Big Apple?’ I swallowed hard and had difficulty responding but managed to gasp out ‘I’m here for the Games’. This he mistook for the Soccer World Cup then in progress; Ireland my mother’s country having beaten Italy just the preceding day. ‘Boy you Limeys will go anywhere just to watch a game of soccer. Me I would sooner watch the NBA’ ‘No I’m here for the Gay Games’ I managed to blurt out’. ‘Holy shit man…. I’m sorry, I did not wish to offend you’ he replied, so obviously embarrassed. I am sure he didn’t, but homophobia lies deep in the psyche of some climbers, and in the past, my own climbing friends and I might have been just as guilty of the cheap jibe and hurtful stereotype.

Ian McKellan shows his support: New York 1994

From daily attending at the boulders I met a keen Latino lady, Renato. She was in her early twenties, tall and elegant, with an impressive shock of black curly hair. Every day she was there early in the morning working the classic traverse, but always failing on the final difficult two step moves. But nevertheless, because she was so keen I dubbed her ‘The Queen of the Boulders’. Eventually after daily practice, I had these final moves wired and could manage them at every crossing. This as long as the sun was not on the rock, for being a smooth volcanic series, it then became greasy and almost un-climbable.

Why don’t you work the final section?’ I suggested to her after she had failed for the third time one morning. She grimaced but took my advice, and after completing the end moves successfully several times, took a long rest, then set forth. This time she climbed faultlessly and easily completed the whole traverse. At which she was openly delighted and turned and hugged me to her. ‘Tonight you must come out with me’ she decided. ‘Can you dance?’ ‘No Renato no’ ‘You will’ she advised letting go of me. ‘My friends and I are going to the concert here in the Park this evening; it is Ben Jori the best Salsa band in the world. There will be thousands attending from New York’s Latino community’.
 
Who has not heard of the famous open air, summer concerts in Central Park?...... Simon and Garfunkel, Mahalia Jackson, The New York Philharmonic and Leonard Bernstein, but Salsa? I expressed my doubts to Renato that I thought this music would not be my kind of beat, but just a few hours later I had to confess a new found enthusiasm for Latin American music. Literally tens of thousands of enthusiasts were up on their feet, including myself, twirling and moving to the Ben Jori sounds.

New York despite being a huge metropolis, with a large climbing community, had I was surprised to find out only two climbing walls; one in a converted bath house, run by a voluntary group ‘The City Climbers’, as a co-operative without the benefit of air conditioning, whilst the other one which had, was in a ritzy health club.

This was inside the Manhattan Plaza between 9th and 10th Avenues, and so the next day with Renato as my guide, I went to check this out.
It had fitted carpets, wall to wall, icy cold air conditioning, was quiet like a library and only about the size of a small sports hall. The routes were rather unimaginative, but what was the worst feature was the entry price.
 
That night I attended the ‘Out of Towner’s Ball’, which was the first event of the hectic social round, to be run in tandem with the Games. This was held at Roseland, then the biggest disco in the world, and my hosts advised me that ‘If you wanna to see some good dancing, you must go there early’, and so I did.
 
When I arrived there were only about six guys on the dance floor, but they were all gold medal standard dancers. Moon walking, back flips, somersaulting all in time to the music, it impressed on me what an art form this had become. Staying late, for the evening only peaked after midnight, and then travelling home on the subway was as exciting as traversing a Himalayan icefall. The hint of menace at two in the morning, inside those cavernous depths where muggings were at that date, a nightly occurrence kept the adrenaline flowing.

However the next morning I was up early to catch a bus from the Port Authority terminal, north to the Catskills to meet up with a Slovak climber ,who I had climbed with previously in that country. Two hours later I arrived in New Palz at the foot of the Shawangunks, from where I set out to try to hitchhike to Sky Top, one of the furthest away of the Catskill outcrops, at which I was eventually dropped off by a local apple farmer driving a pick- up truck.


I had not seen Pietr for quite some time, but now here he was living and climbing in New York State. He had ‘escaped’ the Eastern-bloc during the 1980’s, and had managed to gain refuge in the USA, where he was now an entrepreneur in the real estate business. I had been worried that the good life might have made him indolent but he was just as lean, tall and fit looking as I had remembered him. At this reunion we fell to laughing remembering how he had presented me as a rich relative from England, when we had to face the authorities in Bratislava over an illegal currency exchange.

Sky Top is an amazing place. Unfortunately like the rest of the Shawangunks you have to pay to climb there, something that grates in the so called ‘Land of the free’. But once inside it’s a magic place, with walkways and gardens, and a large hotel complex; surrounded by rock outcrops set above a picturesque artificial lake. After soloing, a couple of easy 5.5 routes, we decided to move up the grades to Mini Belle a 5.8 pioneered by an old friend, Fritz Wiessner in 1946.

I had ascended this before but for Pietr this was a challenge. It starts with a difficult section from off the ground and then a series of steep pulls and layback moves to reach easier terrain. My companion,
with an initial hesitation then quickly overcame these, and soloing up behind him, I was impressed that when I had previously climbed the route over 20 years before, it had not registered with me how difficult those first moves really are.

That night I returned to New York to meet up with the rest of our team who were flying into the JFK airport. They had arrived just in time for the Games opening ceremony, which was held the very next day in the Wein stadium out in a City suburb. I guess that is when I first began to realise what an enormous event the Games organising committee were overseeing, as it finally got under away. Maybe I was badly informed prior to this, but perhaps most other climbers of my generation would have been similarly ignorant?
 
11,000 athletes had assembled from 44 countries, and marching along and involved that day was every level of performer from some like myself, just there for the hell of it, to Olympic gold medallists, a Wimbledon winner, and former world record holders. The organisers had brought in some of the biggest names in show business to orchestrate and produce the event. There were marching bands and cheerleaders, a choir and an orchestra. Amongst the British contingent marching along were Stephen Fry and Ian McKellen. I ventured to ask Stephen Fry which event he had entered for, but he laughed out loud at this, then replied ‘They have not included my event yet’. ‘What is that’ I asked thinking he might be keen on Sumo or some other similar sport, ‘Flower arranging dear boy, flower arranging’ he advised.

Our British team for the Sports climbing then held some last minute training at the City Climber’s Wall situated in an old bathhouse down on the lower West Side. This was run by climbers for climbers, several of which were behind the organisation of the climbing event to be held at the Games. Although this facility was small by modern standards, boasting only about 40 routes, and not very high, they were then the best such climbs I had encountered on a climbing wall, where route setting is key to achieving such a result. The City Climbers kindly let us use their facilities for free, and at our team meetings I was impressed by the strength of one of our members, Zak Nataf, a film director from London. She was actually at home, being a local girl born in Harlem, NYC!
Vision Video Memories: New York 94
The Sports Climbing, competition needed to be held in New Palz at the ‘Inner Wall’, there being no suitable venue then available in New York. This was a fine modern panel wall and the route setting had been carried out by a team led by Ralph Erenzo. On arriving there with the rest of the competitors I found out I was entered in the Veterans class and that the competition was to take place over two days, a qualifying one and then the finals. There were more than 90 competitors mainly from the USA, but some were from Europe and even Australia.
The Gay Games was the brainchild of Dr Tom Waddell, who finished sixth in the 1968 Olympic Decathlon, and though the standards in the Sports Climbing were as expected much lower than those pertaining in other current Internationals; for many of the other events only a world class performance could secure a win.

The morning of the commencement of the Sports climbing competition all of the competitors and volunteers travelled to New Palz from New York, on a fleet of buses, provided by the organisers. During that first day each of us had to climb six routes, of which only four would count towards the elimination scores. Each route had been awarded a number of points, with the easiest having the lowest and the hardest the highest. I decided to climb three easy ones, and then try three, which were much harder. I failed on one of these but managed the others successfully. And so when my scores were added up, I found I had qualified for the finals, so had Zak and Phil. But unfortunately our other two team members, Martin and Sophie just had not amassed sufficient points to make the cut.

Immediately the first day’s competition was over and the names of the qualifiers announced an impromptu party began. Led off by a team of Lesbian drummers; and then a Canadian competitor took over, who earned his living as a stand up comedian. He had everyone laughing out loud at his comedy aimed at the incongruity of climbing up an artificial wall, instead of the real thing, the rocks of the Shawangunks lying literally just up the road.

The finals the next day could not have been better supported, with the Inner Wall packed to suffocation with failed competitors, and spectators. There were two routes set, which had to be attempted by both the men and the women (I think these latter would not have wished it otherwise). I was rather gob-smacked to find we veterans were to attempt these as well, and we had to also suffer isolation.
In the men’s event I had drawn out to be the first to climb, and when I walked out to the foot of the first route I was greeted by a thunderous applause. Which was to be a real anti-climax for the spectators, for after completing the preliminaries, tying onto the rope and starting out on a difficult rising traverse, I simply greased off the holds and landed onto the floor to be counted out.

Phil fared somewhat better than me and made quite some progress before he too fell off. It seemed that the first route was difficult, for the favourite, a 21 year old local climber appropriately named Mountain Miller, also failed to complete this, but climbed high enough to qualify to attempt the second route. On which he stormed up to reach the belay chain, a feat which, no other male competitor succeeded in managing, and so he was the outright winner of the men’s competition.
The women were actually stronger than the men, and as Diane Russell was a participant, and a former USA National Sports climbing champion, our team member Zak knew she was in for a real challenge. It was to be a really impressive performance by Diane which won the day, for she completed both routes, whilst Zak managed within one or two moves to complete the first, but happily was successful on the second. No other women or man managed other than Mountain Miller to complete either of these routes.

That was the end of the competition and both Phil and I were surprised, at the awards ceremony held at its finish, to find he had won the Veterans gold medal and I the bronze, whilst Zak had won the silver medal for her performance in the women’s event. Thus our team had won three medals, and only the USA had bested us.
Within minutes of the completion of the Awards ceremony, with much cheering of every medallist, as they were called up to receive their award, another party was soon under away. This was the most enjoyable such sports climbing event I have ever attended. And as someone who was an organiser along with the equipment manufacturer from Wales, DMM of the first World Cup event in Leeds in the late 1980’s, I can honestly report this one was much more friendly and fun.

The closing ceremony at the end of the New York Gay Games in the Yankee stadium exceeded every other such ceremony I have attended. 55,000 people turned out for the most spectacular entertainment one could imagine. This was more impressive than most closing ceremonies at the Olympic Games, for it was so varied and included something such events usually lack; humour. No West End or Broadway theatre could have afforded the cast list, for it included a thousand member gospel choir; dancers from the New York City ballet, and once again marching bands, stars from the Metropolitan Opera, Broadway, jazz , classical musicians and much more. But for me Cyndi Lauper stole the show, singing ‘Girls just wanna have fun’ supported by a troupe of male dancers, from the New York City ballet in drag. So ended for me two weeks, made up of many memorable experiences, and If you have never been to the Big Apple, my advice it to go there as soon as you are able, and if you’re a climber pack your rock gear, but also a pair of dancing shoes, ready for a spot of moon walking. 

 
Postscript
Surprising to myself, negative comment appeared about my own participation in the Gay Games, as detailed above. Which is why I did not write up a fulsome report at that time, with merely a short note appearing written by myself in ‘On the Edge’ magazine, but this is the first occasion I have covered these events. Fortunately this is now against the tide of developing opinion within the sport, which is to be more inclusive, equal and diverse. Long may this trend continue to expand and influence the thinking of today’s participants!

There are now around a dozen climbing walls in New York, illustrating how-popular indoor climbing has become in that City.The next Gay Games are to be held in Paris in 2018 (Limerick and London were short listed), 17 cities have bid to host the 2022 event, including Capetown, Guadalajara (Mexico), Hong Kong and Tel Aviv.The Winter Games are held at one site, Whistler in Canada. 

Dennis Gray:2018 
 

Friday, 4 May 2018

Loose Rock : A Memory of Pillar

Pillar Rock: W Heaton Cooper. From the Cooper Studio.....
This impressive view of Pillar Rock was painted by William in the 1930’s when he began to make drawings for the early rock climbing guidebooks, published by the Fell & Rock Climbing Club. Here he has simplified the form of the infamous crag, seen in the fading evening light, to produce a monumental painting that reveals his deep knowledge of ‘rock architecture’.


I may not be alone, among the older generation of climbers, in recalling my return to the fells in 1946, the first year of the peace, as a uniquely emotive experience; for me it was almost an act of thanksgiving for survival. In late August, 1939, as the clouds of war gathered over Europe and my recall to military duty became imminent, my wife and I, with Heaton Cooper, were walking down Easedale towards our rented cottage in Grasmere on a glorious evening of that long, hot summer. We had been climbing on Lining Crag below Greenup Edge. I recall saying to my companions: "Whatever else happens, these hills will still be here when it's all over." A few days later I sailed from Greenock in the first convoy of the war; a copy of Heaton's "The Hills of Lakeland" was in my baggage and this helped to keep hope alive during the months and years ahead of me.

True, there had been a few opportunities to climb in war-time, during the brief spells of leave and while training Commandos in mountain and snow warfare in Scotland and Wales. But I had not returned to the Lakes in all those six years. So it was with a special sense of anticipation that Joy and I came down from Scotland after a few days climbing in Glencoe, to spend Easter with Professor A.S. Pigou at Gatesgarth. His other guests were Philip Noel-Baker, at that time a Minister in Clem Atlee's administration; Harry Tilley, with whom I was shortly to climb in Skye; and Wilfrid Noyce. Wilfrid, a most improbable soldier, had turned up in my regiment at the beginning of the war before being posted to duties more attuned to his talents; I had made the most of his skill and experience during the short spell to help me train soldiers of my Brigade and later, Commando units, in North Wales.

It was during those weeks that we had played truant — or taken busmen's holidays — and climbed together. It was as though to give thanks for personal survival that, on our first day that Eastertide, I suggested we return to Lining Crag after climbing on Scafell. Joy, having the responsibility of being mother to our young family, was not climbing that year, but she came along to watch our antics and meet us when we reached the top. We spent a splendid day on Eagle Front and other climbs in Birkness Coombe on our second day, the pleasure of it by no means diminished by a dressing down from the `Prof' for being late for dinner. For our third and last — and best — day we chose Pillar, my favourite Lakeland crag, which held many good memories from pre-war years.

It was typical of Wilf that he should compose a recipe worthy of the occasion: it was Easter Monday and, for more reasons than one, we were in a mood to rejoice. He proposed three routes which, together, would make a synthesis of strenuous and delicate climbing, laced with a high awareness of exposure. The ascent of Savage Gully would provide that first ingredient: by the standards of over forty years ago it ranked a very strenuous climb. But we had not reckoned on another ingredient of Wilf's menu: loose rock. The guidebook informed me that, while being "one of the most exacting climbs on Pillar, its reputation for loose rock is quite undeserved".

We were in for a shock. Wilf, Harry and I made quick work of the first four pitches, which are shared with the North Climb, and addressed ourselves to a different order of difficulty in Twisting Gully: the guidebook says "it is divided by a fine-looking rib", and so it was. Wilf and Harry negotiated the awkward move, some forty feet up the right-hand groove in the gully and, after pulling up on the rib, had landed on the green stance in the left-hand groove. It was my turn to make the difficult manoeuvre. As I started to ease myself around the rib I became aware, to my horror, that a huge chunk of the rib, which provided the "key" hold for the swing across, was loose and beginning to move.

 I was, of course, quite petrified! But there was an even more compelling cause for concern than my own dilemma. Somewhere in the mists below us another party had started up the lower pitches of the North Climb; there was an imminent prospect of a multiple climbing disaster. To this day I am not sure how I, a moderate performer on hard rock, managed that move while leaving the monster undisturbed. Desperation forced me to take deliberate and meticulous care and some other handhold must have been there to accommodate my searching fingers. Considerably shaken, I rejoined my companions on the shelf. So much for Savage Gully's "undeserved reputation for loose rock".

The remainder of that climb was sheer joy. I, for one, was on what we nowadays call a 'high' as I swarmed up the steep, strenuous grooves, cracks and corners to reach the cairn beside The Nose of the North Climb. Far below, lying on his back the better to observe us, Philip Noel-Baker gave us a cheer and we revelled in our good fortune. It was then that Wilf unveiled the rest of our programme: down the North Climb over The Nose, then straight up North West, to trace a kind of zig-zag on the face of Pillar Rock. The descent of The Nose was the easier for myself for two ascents in the pre-war years. For the North West, Wilf changed his Kletterschuhe for tricouni-nailed boots, by way of indicating his relative assessment of the two VS routes that day What a superb finish it made! I have a vivid mental picture of Wilf, in Lamb's Chimney, poised for what seemed an eternity in time.

My diary records: "Craning my neck, I could see him clinging on toe and finger holds, apparently defying all the laws of gravity. It was a tense moment." I fancy that even Wilf, at that moment, may have been regretting his change of footwear. And Oppenheimer's Chimney! Surely one of the perfect finishes to any rock climb, anywhere in Britain. That was one of my most memorable days in the Lakes. We hastened back by the Old West Climb, intent on avoiding further disgrace at the hands of the 'Prof' who had awarded us his famous cardboard medals for our dilatory return from Birkness Coombe. Two days later, after Joy and I had returned home, we learnt of Wilf's accident on the Napes Ridges, when he was blown off the Shark's Fin in a gale. Dear Wilf! He never learned to discern that fine line which, even for one possessing his brilliant skill on a mountain, has to be drawn between safety and disaster.

Post Script. I have often wondered what happened to that unstable block in Savage Gully, which I reported in the Hut Book at (I think) Brackenclose as weighing about half a ton. Its disappearance, long since, will doubtless have restored the reputation of the climb, as described in the 1935 edition of the Fell & Rock guide-book.

*(The Archivist has been unable to find any reference in the Brackenclose log-book of the entry by Lord Hunt, or of its disappearance or being knocked off. It isn't mentioned in the next two editions of the Pillar guide after this incident. Noyce's accident on the Shark's Fin and subsequent rescue are recounted by Rusty Westmorland in his 'Adventures in Climbing' (Pelham Books, 1964'. 

* Editor of the 1990 F&RC Journal.

John Hunt 

First published in the above journal. 

Friday, 20 April 2018

The Ascent of Stack-Na-Biorragh...St Kilda



'The man who cannot climb it never gets a wife in St. Kilda.' So said Maclean in his 'Sketches of the Island of St. Kilda,' a scarce book, published in Glasgow in 1838. In view of the fact that the natives of this remote island formerly subsisted largely on sea-birds and eggs, it is not unreasonable to suppose that a girl of St. Kilda, having in view her future welfare, should establish some sort of test whereby to judge her lover's ability as a climber. Sir Robert Moray, in a paper communicated to the Royal Society in 1678, describes the dangers connected with the capture of sea-fowl by the men of Hirta on the apparently inaccessible Stacca Donna.

There can be no doubt that this is the stack now called Stack-na-Biorrach. After they landed, he says,  a man having room but for one of his feet, he must climb up 12 or 16 fathoms high. Then he comes to a place where, having but room for his left foot and left hand, he must leap from thence to another place before him, which if he hit right the rest of the ascent is easie, and with a small cord which he carries with him he hales up a rope whereby all the rest come up. But if he misseth that footstep (as often times they do) he falls into the sea and the company takes him in by the small cord and he sits still until he is a little refreshed and then he tries it again; for everyone there is not able for that sport.

Martin, in his 'Late Voyage to St. Kilda,' published in 1698, describes the ascent of 'the famous rock Stackdonn, as a Mischievous rock.....

for it hath prov'd so to some of their number, who perished in attempting to climb it; it is much of the form and height of a steeple; there is a very great dexterity, and it is reckoned no small gallantry to climb this rock, especially that part of it called ‘the Thumb’, which is so little, that of all the parts of a man's body, the thumb only can lay hold on it, and that must be only for the space of one minute; during which time his feet have no support, nor any part of his body can touch the stone, except the thumb, at which minute he must jump by the help of his thumb, and the agility of his body, concurring to raise him higher at the same time, to a sharp point of the Rock, which when he has got hold of, puts him above danger, and having a rope about his middle, that he casts down to the boat, by the help of which he carries up as many persons as are designed for fowling. 


At this time; the foreman, or principal climber has the reward of four fowls bestowed upon him above his proportion; and perhaps, one might think four thousand too little to compensate so great a danger as this man incurs. He has this advantage by it, that he is recorded among their greatest heroes; as are all the foremen who lead the Van in getting up this Mischievous Rock.

This quaint description was written 215 years ago, but every writer of importance on St. Kilda since that date has also mentioned this rock. Macaulay (grand-uncle of Lord Macaulay), in his 'History of St. Kilda,' 1764, appears to be the first to mention Stacki-birach, and says 'within a pistol shot of it lies Stacki-don or the Stack of no consequence, being the only rock within the territories of Hirta where the fowls do not hatch.' Then he says that Stacki-birach derives its name from 'ending in a spire.' Seaton, in his 'St. Kilda, Past and Present,' 1878, which is the most exhaustive account of the island yet published, does not allude to the confusion of names. Heathcote, however, in his attractively illustrated book on St. Kilda, published in 1900, takes it for granted that the Stack referred to by Martin as 'Stackdonn' was that which is now known as Stack-na-Biorrach. Martin does not give the height, but Macaulay gives it as 40 feet; Maclean as 400 or 500 feet. 


Heathcote is, in my opinion, correct in putting it at 'about 240 feet.' Macaulay's 40 feet was perhaps intended for 400, as the old writers were given to exaggeration. Heathcote appears to have been the only writer on St. Kilda who ascended any of the Stacks, all of which rise out of the ocean. He states that he has done a lot of climbing in Skye and a certain amount in Switzerland, and thinks he may claim to be a tolerable climber, and in this he is probably correct. For although he did not attempt Stack-na-Biorrach, which he says is the most difficult climb, he scaled Stack Lii, the height of which he gives as 533 feet, and the cover of his book is illustrated with a striking picture showing the commencement of the ascent. He failed to trace the story that in order to get a wife in St. Kilda it was necessary to climb Stack-na-Biorrach. 



In this his experience agrees with mine. The truth is that, although not a necessity, it was looked upon as a great feat amongst the islanders, where for hundreds of years the chief food of the inhabitants was obtained from the lofty precipices and Stacks. In fact there is no part of the world, as far as I am aware, where the practical advantage of being a skilled cragsman was so well recognised.

The chief topics of conversation in this out-of-the-way island are climbing and birds. A visit to Switzerland in 1882, during which the Schreckhorn, Finsteraarhorn, Jungfrau and Matterhorn, and an equal number of high passes were negotiated within ten days, and the fact that a certain rivalry existed between myself and an elder brother who first ascended the Eiger, induced me to visit St. Kilda in 1883, as I wished to test the ability of the natives as cragsmen, to compare them with Swiss guides, and to study the fauna and flora of this remote island, of which little was then known. It is thirty years ago next June since I ascended Stack-na-Biorrach, and therefore I trust I shall not be accused of hasty self-advertisement; indeed, my chief object in writing is to give the members of the Alpine Club an account of a climb which the older writers have attempted to describe on second-hand information; and, moreover, I fear that even the St. Kildans themselves will soon cease to ascend the rock, as they no longer subsist to the same extent on sea-birds and there is not the same necessity for dangerous rock-climbing.

But I have not yet described the St. Kilda group, which lies about fifty miles west of the Sound of Harris, and about one hundred west of the Scottish mainland. It consists of one large island, three miles long and two broad, rising to a height of 1372 feet, and two smaller ones—Soa and Borera, each about 1200 feet in height, and three Stacks—Stack-an-Armin, Stack Lii, and Stack-na-Biorrach, besides smaller rocks. Formerly communication with the mainland was of rare occurrence. Lady Grange was conveyed there in 1734, and was not released for eight years. Since David McBrain's steamers began running there, from thirty to forty years ago, intercourse with the outer world in summer time has been frequent, if uncertain. Fearing I might be left on the island all the winter, I arranged with McBrain to send a special steamer to take me on in September for the sum of £30. There was no necessity to take advantage of this arrangement, as his ordinary steamer took me off in good time. Not knowing Gaelic, I brought an interpreter with me from Glasgow, but, as he was afraid to go within ten yards of any cliff and did not understand the St. Kilda dialect, he was useless, save as caretaker of an old Crimean tent which we pitched on the only level patch (about ten yards square) near the landing-place. 


The natives could not speak a word of English, and it was nearly a fortnight before they permitted me to accompany them in catching fulmar petrels on the ledges along the face of the great Connacher (1200 feet). They wanted to test my ability. I remember one day walking along its edge and seeing a stout stick firmly embedded in the earth about three yards from the face, with a rope round it. I was sure someone was below catching birds, so descending about 100 feet I came upon another rope, also fastened round a stick, embedded in the next ledge. This I also descended and came to a second ledge on which two men roped together were busy catching birds with long fishing-rods, to the end of which horse-hair nooses were attached. Having obtained permission to try my hand and being rewarded with success, the natives became very friendly. Of course I had my boots off. If you don't take them off it is done for you compulsorily. 

For, on another occasion, after landing on the island of Borera and proceeding to climb without removing them, I felt myself pulled down from behind, one of the islanders grasping my arms and waist together while the other proceeded to unlace my boots. The ropes by which the men descended the Connacher cliff were of hemp and rather heavy, but the line between the two men on the ledge was made of horse-hair and was light. In 1883 there were no horses on St. Kilda, but many cows. Martin, in 1698, said there were only three ropes in the whole island, each fathoms long. 'The chief thing,' he says, 'upon which the strength of these ropes depends is cow-hides, salted, and cut out in one long piece. This they twist round the ordinary rope of hemp, which secures it from being cut by the rocks.' Macaulay says (1764) that 'a rope is the most valuable implement that a man of substance can be possessed of in St. Kilda.

In his will he makes it the very first article in favour of his eldest son,' and 'it was reckoned equal in value to the two best cows on the island.' The rope alluded to by Macaulay appears to have been made entirely of cow-hide. I brought two Alpine Club ropes with me, the red central thread being regarded as a great curiosity by the natives. They would use neither of them. But they were very useful when attached to the top of the tent, preventing it from being blown into the sea on two very stormy days. After repeated entreaties, and when the natives had tested my ability in various ways, they consented to bring me to Stack-na-Biorrach. The wind was light, and the entire able-bodied population assisted in pushing the boat over the rocks into the sea. During this operation a crowd of about twenty dogs barked furiously. 




There were eight rowers, my nephew, and myself in the boat. The natives are very religious, and a prayer was said before starting. We rowed round the Doon and under the tremendous cliffs of the western face of St. Kilda, the great Atlantic swell making a white fringe along the rocks and booming in the great caves. In about an hour's time we came to a narrow sound between the island of Soa and the large island, and the boat unexpectedly stopped before a perpendicular and in some places overhanging Stack, which looked to me absolutely inaccessible.

The men talked in Gaelic, not a word of which I understood. One of them put a horse-hair rope around his waist. I could not imagine what they intended to do. For to ascend the rock immediately opposite appeared an utter impossibility, and my heart sank within me when they shouted ' Stack-na-Biorrach, Stack-na-Biorrach!' Donald McDonald, the man with the horse-hair rope round his waist, stood in the bow of the boat. Another man held the rope slack, and, watching his opportunity as the boat rose on the top of a swell, McDonald jumped on a small ledge of slimy seaweed below high-water mark. There was a momentary stagger, but he kept his balance, and fastened himself to the rock by holding on apparently to the barnacles with which it was covered. He then proceeded upwards by sticking his fingers and toes into small wind-worn cavities on the western face. The rope was gradually slackened, and at a height of about thirty feet he turned to the east, getting on a small narrow ledge, unseen from below, which could not have been more than two or three inches wide.

The whole of this performance was remarkable, especially having regard to its surroundings, the steeple-like rock rising from the ocean off the very wildest part of this remote island, the boatmen shout-ing in Gaelic to the climber, the great surge of the Atlantic threatening every moment to drive us against the cliff, and the horse-hair rope alternately slack and tightened as the boat rose and fell. At a height of about 30 or 40 feet McDonald stood on a projecting knob, about two feet square, right over the boat. He hauled up another rope and fastened it round the knob. There were now two ropes to the boat. Donald McQueen, tapped me on the shoulder and explained by signs that I was to ascend, boots of course being first taken off. At that time I could ascend a rope easily hand over hand; the swaying of it between the boat and the cliff made it less perpendicular at intervals and therefore easier, and I soon stood on the knob beside McDonald. I recollect every incident as if it only happened yesterday. 


He pressed me against the face of the cliff, and, to my horror, Donald McQueen now proceeded to ascend the rope. For the life of me I did not know where he was going to stand, and to this day I am puzzled to know how we three men contrived to stand on this projection. Fearing every moment that I would fall, I shouted to pull the boat from the rock, so that in case of accident I should drop into the sea, and not into the boat from a distance of about 40 feet. McQueen now put the rope round his waist and took the lead up a ledge two feet wide, wet with spray, which sloped at a very steep angle upwards. Having ascended this he grasped a narrow horizontal ledge about four inches wide and sloping outwards, so that the fingers slipped readily, and, with his feet dangling in the air, proceeded to jerk himself along this ledge by getting a fresh hold every time with each hand alternately. It was about 15 feet long.

McDonald held the horse-hair rope which was round McQueen's waist in his hand. This, no doubt, gave him a false sense of security, but otherwise was absolutely useless, for, had McQueen fallen, they would have both tumbled into the sea. McQueen now stood on another projection of a more satisfactory character than the first, about 70 feet over the sea, and beckoned me to follow him. The horse-hair rope was placed round my waist, and with McQueen on one side and McDonald on the other, holding the rope, I proceeded along the ledge, dangling without any foothold. Had it not been slippery with the droppings of guillemots I might have succeeded, but when midway I slipped, and, unable to recover my grip, would have fallen had not the two men simultaneously tightened the horse-hair rope with a powerful jerk, raising me a foot, during which I caught sight of a small lump sticking up, and, grasping this anxiously with one hand, was soon safely landed by McQueen at his end of the ledge.



Whether this slight projection, which really makes this traverse possible, was The Thumb referred to by Martin more than 215 years ago I cannot say? McDonald now came along with apparent ease, and we all stood together for the second time. There was more room here, but the cliff above was overhanging and I was curious to see what would happen next. The rope was unloosed from everybody, and one of the men made a lasso of it and proceeded to throw it round a projection about 14 feet overhead.

After five or six failures it was successfully lassoed and the rope tested by vigorous pulls to see whether it would give way. Having satisfied themselves that it was secure McQueen ascended, I followed, and then McDonald, all hand over hand. We were now about 80 feet above the water, and as the stack was no longer perpendicular or overhanging I shall not give minute details of the remainder of the climb, which was not more difficult than many first-class clubmen could contend with. It was interesting, however, and the view from the top was very fine. Hundreds, almost thousands, of guillemots scurried and fluttered or flew into the ocean below. The top was not flat, like the pinnacles on Farne Islands, but weather-worn and uneven. My thoughts were not, I fear, ornithological, but rather concentrated on the problem 'How shall I ever get down?'

However, the descent was accomplished with less assistance than the ascent, and I caught ‘The Thumb’  this time. The boatmen exclaimed 'Sauna' which, being interpreted to me, signified that I was a great climber, like a famous St. Kildan of that name. The best photograph I have seen of Stack-na-Biorrach faces page 124 in Kearton's well-known and beautiful book 'With Nature and a Camera,' published in 1902. It is the left-hand stack in that photograph. Even still, although the people on the island are getting spoiled by visitors, St. Kilda and its inhabitants are full of interest. I do not know whether either of the men who accompanied me in the ascent of Stack-na-Biorrach is alive. 


My nephew took a photograph of us after we returned. It shows exactly how we were attired for the climb; horse-hair rope and all. Thirty years ago there was no Ordnance sheet of St. Kilda, and I believe none has yet been made. The best maps I know of are the Admiralty chart and the map at the end of Heathcote's book. The ankles of the natives are tremendously developed. Kearton, who is a powerful man, gives in his book a photograph of his own ankle and that of a native. Heathcote, at the end of his book, hopes that he has deterred most people from going to St. Kilda. I am afraid his interesting volume will have exactly the opposite effect, but I do not expect his happy hunting-grounds, as he expresses it, will ever be 'invaded by a host of Sassenachs.' 

My last visit to St. Kilda, in 1896, was very brief, and was made when returning from an expedition to the still more remote island of Rockall, 170 miles further west in the Atlantic; nobody has, I believe, been able to land on this island for over half a century. I saw Donald McDonald, then looking very poorly, and believe Donald McQueen was dead, for I could not find him. 

Richard M Barrington

This article first appeared in the May 1913 issue of the Alpine Journal