Friday, 22 July 2016

Slippery Jim

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dennis Gray   

An abridged version of this article first appeared in High 

Keith Bowen Artist website

Friday, 15 July 2016

Climbing Days....Reviewed

Author, Dan Richards in the words of the publisher’s blurb, ‘is on the trail of his great,great aunt, Dorothy Pilley, a prominent and pioneering mountaineer of the early twentieth century’. For reasons I’m not quite clear about, Dan recycles the original book title used by his subject. Is this an attempt at creating familial and literary synchronicity....not sure? However,‘Climbing Days’ -version two- it is, and most would argue that if an author spends years of his time,effort and funds researching and writing a fairly substantial book, then they can title it as they please!

Dorothy Pilley’s contribution to mountaineering obviously warrants a fresh take on her life and times and if its a family member who undertakes the role then at least they will probably be able to open doors which might have remained shut to an outsider.

For those perhaps unfamiliar with the subject-and outside of a dwindling number of traditional climbing anoraks that must represent probably the majority of climbers under 30 or even 40-then its fair to say, her contribition to and impact on what was an overwhelmingly male dominated sport was pretty unique for its time. It would probably be easier to just borrow the Mountain Heritage Trust’s potted biography at this point....

Pilley was one of the scarce band of female all-round climbers operating during the 20s and 30s, ranging throughout the Alps as well as the crags of Britain. But even more prescient, she actually sought the company of other women to climb with in preference to men, and was one of the leading lights in instigating the formation of the World’s first all-women climbing clubs, The Pinnacle Club. As well as these robust feminist credentials (or ‘feminine’ as she quaintly preferred to characterise her philosophy), Pilley is widely known for her famous semi-autobiographical book, Climbing Days, in which she recounts her splendid adventures in Wales and the Lakes, through to Scotland to the Alps. It all sounded like one long glorious summer of climbing fun, all washed down with lashings and lashings of ginger beer.
Further reading: Climbing Days, Dorothey Pilley. Secker & Warburg, (1935)

Pilley, despite her close links to the all female Pinnacle Club and frequently sharing a rope with fellow female climbers, created her most memorable routes with her husband and lifetime partner Ivor (IA) Richards. A respected and renowned English Educator, literary critic,rhetorician and all round Clever Clogs! With Richards she recorded what is probably her most significent and well regarded first ascent, that of the north ridge of the Dent Blanche,in the Alps with Joseph Georges and Antoine Georges. However, UK activists will more more familiar with Idwal Slabs perennial favourite 'The Ordinary Route'.

But that enough about her place within the mountaineering firmament, what about her Great Great Nephew’s account of her life and times and his personal pilgrimage across Europe to retrace her clinkered steps? Well, there is no doubt that Richards is a fine writer who has meticulously investigated every element of Dorothy Pilley’s life and laid it out on the page in fine detail. After saying that, I would have to say from the start that at nearly 400 pages long it would have certainly benefitted by some rigorous editing to cut out the padding and whittle it down to a more coherent and hence more readable 200+ pages.

As something of a hybrid-part biography,part travelogue, part personal musings-coming at the book from a climbers’ perspective, I found- as others will I’m sure- the rather wandering structure of the book, hard to follow at times. The author’s early steps literally learning the ropes in Wales and at Glenmore Lodge; commenting on the architecture in Barcelona; describing a meal in an Alpine hut. You might think that it’s the tiny details that add to the narrative and help build the bigger picture but in this instance,for me at least, it becomes a wee bit ‘off piste’ for my liking and somewhat undermines what the author is trying to achieve.Given the significance within climbing of the subject and wide palette to draw from, a little less superfluous detail and a greater degree of concentrated focus would have created a more rounded and definitive work I feel..

I will freely admit though, that perhaps I suffered from a form of inverted snobbery, for I found it hard to warm to the subject herself. There is no getting away from the fact that Pilley and Richards were products of their age and class. Despite being portrayed as some sort of proto feminist, daringly changing from long skirts into knickerbockers at the crag and encouraging 'sisters to do it for themselves', Pilley was very much someone from that privileged class. Those fortunate enough to be able to indulge their passions without having to worry about trifling things like having to work. I certainly didn’t pick it up from the book any mention of her ever having held a job or pursued a career? Swanning around Europe and climbing mountains with guides while staying at comfortable hotels, does somewhat undermine any attempt to present her as some sort of enlightened mountaineering revolutionary.

Of course that was how society was structured in the early 20th century and at least credit Pilley for having the tenacity and drive to make her mark in a man's world. Being a social butterfly within London's cafe culture would have been the easier option for a middle class gel in those socially stifling times. 

Despite my reservations, there is still enough material in Climbing Days to enjoy and which will further enlighten our knowledge and understanding of an interesting figure in 20th century British climbing. Not a book which will draw in a wide number of readers from outside the climbing/mountaineering fraternity-unless they are drawn in by IA Richards role in Pilley's story - but certainly a book which will appeal to students of mountaineering history .

John Appleby:2016

Friday, 8 July 2016

The Ballad of Idwal Slabs

Idwal Slabs: Artist Aled Prichard Jones 
Editor's Introduction *: The climbing world of thirty years ago seems a very innocent place viewed in retrospect. The days of Wall End Barn or Scotty Dwyer's annexe when climbing, boozing and laughing all seemed part of the same game, seems a million miles away from our competitive modern scene. Most of our songs then were culled from rugby clubs and therefore by definition dirty— but we did have our own 'poem': a doggerel verse by Showell Styles. It was recited and even acted at club dinners. I mean of course The Ballad of ldwal Slabs. It was published in The Mountaineer's Weekend Book, but that has been out of print for many years now— a pity, because the Ballad forms a distinctive footnote in our climbing heritage and shouldn't be lost. Others evidently feel the same, for it was revived at a couple of dinners this year, so I make no excuse for reprinting it here. I asked Pip Styles how it came about, and this is what he says:

"1947. Hemp climbing-ropes, clinkers and tricounis, crampons a bit of a snigger and piton a dirty word. Christmas at Glan Dena, the M.A.M.'s North Wales hut.Plucking and drawing of the Christmas dinner goose achieved with the aid of two medical students who insisted on dissecting its ear. Ears,eyes and nose full of goose down,muscles comfortably slack after leading Zigzag and Home Climb on Griben Facet.

Voice from the kitchen 'What about something to get the fun started after the dinner?. Ejecting goose down,collecting pencil and paper,invoked the muse of doggeral and 'The Ballad' was produced at a sitting.SS

* WU-1981 

THE BALLAD OF IDWAL SLABS (To be spoken dramatically in costume: deerstalker hat, side-whiskers, and with alpenstock)

I'll tell you the tale of a climber; a drama of love on the crags; A story to pluck at your heart-strings, and tear your emotions to rags. He was tall, he was fair, he was handsome; John Christopher Brown was his name; The Very Severes nearly bored him to tears — and he felt about girls much the same.

Till one day, while climbing at Ogwen, he fell (just a figure of speech) For the President's beautiful daughter, named Mary Jane Smith — what a peach! Her figure was slim as Napes Needle, her lips were as red as Red Wall; A regular tiger, she's been up the Eiger North Wall, with no pitons at all!

Now Mary had several suitors, but never a one would she take, Though it seemed that she favoured one fellow, a villain named Reginald Hake; This Hake was a Cad who used pitons, and wore a long silken moustache, Which he used, so they say, as an extra belay — but perhaps we are being too harsh.

John took Mary climbing on Lliwedd, and proposed while on Mallory's Slab; It took him three pitches to do it, for he hadn't much gift of the gab. He said: "Just belay for a moment — there's a little spike close to your knee—And tell me, fair maid, when you're properly belayed, would you care to hitch up with me?"

Said Mary, "It's only a toss-up between you and Reginald Hake, And the man I am going to marry must perform some great deed for my sake. I will marry whichever bold climber shall excel at the following feat—To climb headfirst down Hope, with no rubbers or rope, At our very next climbing club meet!"

Now when Mary told the Committee, she had little occasion to plead, For she was as fair as a jug-handle at the top of a hundred-foot lead. The Club ratified her proposal, and the President had to agree; He was fond of his daughter, but felt that she oughter Get married, between you and me.

There was quite a big crowd for the contest, lined up at the foot of the Slabs; The Mobs came from Bangor in Buses, and the Nob's came from Capel in Cabs. There were Fell and Rock, Climbers and Rucksack and Ramblers and the Pinnacle Club (in new hats) And a sight to remember, an Alpine Club Member, in very large crampons and spats!

The weather was fine for a wonder; the rocks were as dry as a bone. Hake arrived with a crowd of his backers, but John Brown strode up quite alone; A rousing cheer greeted the rivals; a coin was produced, and they tossed. "Have I won?" cried John Brown as the penny came down. "No, you fool!" hissed his rival. "You've lost!"

So Hake had first go at the contest; he went up by the Ordinary Route, And only the closest observer would have noticed a bulge in each boot. Head first he came down the top pitches, applying his moustache as brake; He didn't relax till he'd passed the Twin Cracks, and the crowd shouted, "Attaboy, Hake!" 

At the foot of the Slabs Hake stood sneering, and draining a bottle of Scotch; "Your time was ten seconds," the President said, consulting the Treasurer's watch. "Now, Brown, if you'd win, you must beat that." Our hero's sang froid was sublime; He took one look at Mary, and light as a fairy, run up to the top of the climb.

Now though Hake had made such good going, John wasn't discouraged a bit, For that he was the speedier climber even Hake would have had to admit. So, smiling as though for a snapshot, not a hair of his head out of place, Our hero John Brown started wriggling down — but look! what a change on his face!

Prepare for a shock, gentle ladies; gentlemen, check the blasphemous word; For the villainy I am to speak of is such as you never have heard!  Hake had cut holes in the toes of his boots, and filled up each boot with soft soap! As he slid down the climb, he had covered with slime every handhold and foothold on Hope!

Conceive (if you can) the tense horror that gripped the vast concourse below, When they saw Mary's lover slip downwards like an arrow that's shot from a bow! "He's done for!" gasped twenty score voices. "Stand from under!" roared John from above. As he shot down the slope, he was steering down Hope —still fighting for life and for love!

Like lightning he flew past the Traverse — in a flash he had reached the Twin Cracks — The friction was something terrific —there was smoke coming out of his slacks —He bounced on the shelf at the top of Pitch Two, and bounded clean over its edge! A shout of "He's gone!" came from all — except one; and that one, of course, was our Reg.

But it's not the expected that happens — in this sort of story, at least; And just as John thought he was finished, he found that his motion had ceased! His braces (pre-war and elastic) had caught on a small rocky knob, And so, safe and sound, he came gently to ground 'mid the deafening cheers of the mob!

"Your time was five seconds!" the President cried. "She's yours, my boy — take her you win!" "My hero!" breathed Mary, and kissed him, while Hake gulped a bottle of gin, And tugged his moustache as he whispered, "Aha! my advances you spurn! Curse a chap that wins races by using his braces!" and he slunk away, ne'er to return. 

They were wed at the Church of St. Gabbro, and the Vicar, quite carried away, Did a hand-traverse into his pulpit, and shouted out "Let us belay!" John put the ring on Mary's finger — a snap-link it was, made of steel, And they walked to the taxis 'neath an arch of ice-axes, while all the bells started to peal.

The Morals we draw from this story are several, I'm happy to say; It's Virtue that wins at the end of the day- long silken moustaches don't pay; Keep the head uppermost when you're climbing; if you must slither, be on a rope; Steer clear of the places that sell you cheap braces — and the fellow that uses Soft Soap!

Showell Styles

Original Cartoons: Ivan Cumberpatch

Republished in Climber and Rambler July 1981

Friday, 1 July 2016


Ken Wilson: Photo John Cleare-Mountain Picture Library
‘It’s an old Ken Wilson maxim, a picture is worth a thousand words, so snap away, snap away, snap away!’

(From a song by the author)

Not many sports can have spawned a character like Ken Wilson. A photographer and publisher of outstanding talent with an unequalled track record in producing high quality work, but a climber who is always at the centre of controversy.

On a book shelf in my home is a full set of Mountain magazines (at least there was until I lent out a couple of none returned copies), and just a quick review of these illustrate what Wizz is about. Opinionated, hard hitting, tight editing, first class graphics and photography, with in depth interviews, and no dodging of the issues .As Tom Patey observed, ‘Mountain was the magazine that all climbers were seething about!’

Ken took over the old house magazine Mountaincraft of the Mountaineering Association in 1968, and turned it into a highly respected, bimonthly review that was widely acknowledged as the number one mountaineering magazine in the UK.

My own first meeting with Wizz was when I gave a lecture, in the winter of 1964/5 on the Gauri Sankar expedition, at the Westminster Hall in London. After which the Chairman, Raymond Japhet invited questions. Enter Wizz, and he subjected me to a barrage of questions from the back of the hall; ‘Why had we failed to reach our summit? Why were we so badly funded? Why had we needed to drive overland etc?’ From the stage, this young guy with dark hair, and of medium height, a loud strident voice and flashing eyes and teeth seemed to me to be some new kind of nutter. I had never then been subjected to such a cross- examination and Raymond who could have doubled for Mr Magoo, was too kind and polite to close him down. We simply ran out of time, the caretaker threatening to put out the lights, and so we continued with a shouting match in the pub.

My next meeting with Ken was to be even more dramatic, and it occurred during that summer. I was climbing on Cloggy with Harry ‘The Kid’ Smith and we were attempting an early repeat of Taurus on the Pinnacle when there was the sound of a huge rock fall from the West Buttress. A guy came rushing to the foot of the East Buttress to shout up that there had been an accident on the Great Slab and could we go to the aid of the stricken climbers.

Harry and I descended and rushed over to the West Buttress, where we could see a team at the bottom of the 40 feet Corner who were obviously in distress. Smith shot up a full rope length, without placing any protection and I joined him and then led through to reach the injured party. On meeting them I was surprised to find two fellow Rock and Ice members, Ray Greenall and Don Roscoe tending an unconscious Steve Glass, lying at the base of the Corner. Steve like the other two was then an instructor at Plas y Brenin. Above our heads was another party, and the second on a top rope held by his leader, was shouting down excitedly.

‘Crikey’ I realised it was Wizz. It transpired that Ken following Graham Gilbert, in order to avoid the crowded 40 feet Corner had decided to climb up the wall out to the right, which is actually an alternative in the guidebook description of the West Buttress Girdle, the climb they were following. Wizz had mantled onto a large basalt block, which then collapsed under him, and it had fallen away raking a large portion of the cliff. It was a miracle that only Steve had been hit and by the time Harry joined me he was regaining consciousness, but was obviously injured.

Although it must have taken quite some time, eventually a rescue party arrived with a stretcher and we pulled it up, set up some belays, then between us we lowered Steve down the cliff. He was then carried off to Bangor Royal, and happily he made a complete recovery from this accident.

Ken was born in Birmingham in 1941, and originally began to train as an architect but found he was better suited to Photography, and after following a three-year course in that subject at the Birmingham College of Art, he fetched up in London working as an Architectural Photographer. Anyone who studies Ken’s photographs, particularly of crags will note these influences in his work. And it was whilst he was engaged in this arena that he took the bold step to set up Mountain Magazine. Unless you were active in that era, it is hard now to understand the impact this organ then had on British climbing, and to a lesser extent on similar activities in the USA, for Ken using his contact with American climbers, particularly Royal Robbins built up a large circulation base there.

Initially Mountain was on a knife-edge financially and Wilson took a serious personal risk, giving up a safe position to take over Mountaincraft. He produced only one issue under that title, dedicated to developments in Patagonia, which to publish he had to double the cover price to meet his costs, but it worked and at this his first attempt at editing the issue sold out. He then launched Mountain and for the next decade he lived, ate and slept the magazine for 24 hours a day establishing its reputation as the outstanding British climbing magazine.    

By the time I joined the BMC, as its first ever professional officer at the end of 1971, Ken had also established a reputation as a climbing politician, referred to rather impolitely on occasion as ‘The London Lip’ (shades of Cassius Clay?) And I immediately began to find out why, for he seemed to spend a large proportion of his time ‘phoning people at home and abroad, discussing what he saw as the key climbing issue of the day. Trying to cajole and persuade the listener around to his point of view, myself included. But he was always good value and an important sounding board, and so he was invited to take part in the first BMC Future Policy Exercise in 1973/4 under Alan Blackshaw’s chairmanship. And as a matter of historic record, Wizz is the only committee member to have taken part in all three such exercises that have taken place over the last 30 years.

This in retrospect was the initiative that set the Council on its modernisation phase, and when the BMC moved from London, it was Ken who because of a contact with a group of Manchester University climbers, suggested we locate ourselves in the Precinct Centre of that body. Tiring of London and wishing to move himself, a few years later Ken transferred his publishing activities to the north, first basing himself in Altrincham, then Macclesfield where he is still living.

Being a realist he realised he could not edit and publish Mountain magazine for ever and so in 1978 he sold out to a group based in Sheffield, headed by Tim Lewis, his wife Pat and Paul Nunn.

Wizz then set up the first of his book publishing enterprises with Ken Vickers as his partner, and this new imprint, Diadem, quickly made its mark. He had already edited The Black Cliff (1971 jointly with Pete Crew and Jack Soper), Hard Rock (1975) and Classic Rock (1978) whilst working with other mainstream publishers, but now he took on the whole of the publishing process for himself. In quick succession he produced further titles in the ‘Classic’ format: Cold Climbs, Extreme Rock and Classic Walks. But there were also some other groundbreaking titles such as, The Games Climber’s Play, Mirrors in the Cliffs and Irvine Butterfield’s ‘The High Mountains of Britain and Ireland’. This latter being referred to as the bible of the native Peak bagger, and several reissues of out of print classics and omnibus editions of such as Shipton’s and Tilman’s classic books.

There is a long tradition of national publishers having an interest in producing mountaineering books, although this seems to depend on who is running a company at any particular time. It was Longman’s who sent Edward Whymper, a young wood block engraver to the Alps for the first time in order to prepare a series of Alpine sketches for them. Another Company with a long history of publishing climbing books was Hodder and Stoughton, and in 1989, aware of a dynamic presence in this field, they made a bid for and took over Diadem keeping Ken as the Managing Editor. Initially this worked well with two outstanding coffee table picture books being produced, Chris Bonington ‘Mountaineer’ and Doug Scott ‘Himalayan Climber’, both of which were best sellers. But then with the onward march of globalisation, and the swallowing up of smaller fish by bigger ones, Hodder’s was taken over by Headline, and Diadem was decided by them to be surplus to requirements. And so Ken struck out on his own and formed a new publishing company in 1993,called ‘Baton Wicks’

This has continued where Diadem left off, in 1994 Dermot Somers’ ‘At the Rising of the Moon’ and in 1997 Paul Pritchard’s ‘Deep Play’ were both Boardman/Tasker Literature Prize, winners. In 2002 W.H.Murray’s autobiography, ‘The evidence of things not seen’ won the Grand Jury Prize at Banff. Ken’s latest project is a complete re-vamp of Classic Rock with new photographs and up to date graphics. This will be something like his 60th publication!

When Wizz moved north to live in Altrincham he was soon drawn in to attending Tuesday night climbing meets of the All Stars. This group formed from Manchester/Peak based climbers and included such as Martin Boysen, Trevor Jones, Dave Pearce, Malcolm Howells, Chris Bonington, Mark Vallance etc. Apart from Boysen, Howells and Pearce they were more alpinists than top rock jocks, but when they zoned in on a crag on the appointed mid-week evening, they were good value for an exciting evening. Ken fitted in well as the group’s publicist and a journeyman climber.

On several occasions the All Stars visited our local West Yorkshire outcrops. And sometimes they experienced difficulties. The first indication we Tykes had that they would visit was a warning phone call from Wizz. On one occasion I met them at Almscliff and was invited by Ken to be his local expert. I pointed Wilson and a youthful partner at the Traditional Climb (VS), and the kid was sent forth to lead this. He managed about ten feet of ascent, then winged in a large Hex into the crack, the next moment he was pulling on this, and then gasping he persuaded his second to first hold his weight then to lower him back down to the ground.

Ken whispered to me, ‘I can’t understand it, he led Slanting Slab on Cloggy at the weekend’. ‘Maybe he is still tired out from that effort?’ I suggested. Snorting like a bull Wizz pulled the rope through and then set off to lead the route himself. It was a case from thereon of hands, knees and bumps a daisy, but using the friction from off his moleskin breeches and Helly Polar jacket to the full he wobbled his way to the top of the route. ‘Bloody fantastic’, ‘Frankland (who made the first ascent circa 1920) must have been a great climber’ ‘Incredible jams’ etc, was then shouted out at full volume around the Crag.

You always know when Ken is on a crag and he is always up front with his comments. Instance his turning up at Almscliff on another occasion and seeing a young climber soloing such routes as The Wall of Horrors and Western Front shouted up at him, ‘Oy…… are you  that guy Ron Fawcett?’ ‘Am I climbing that bloody bad?’ was the laconic reply from one Mike Hamill, who at that date could fairly have been seen as a rival to fellow local boy Ron.   

On other West Yorkshire visits members of the All Stars were to find our climbs even more unforgiving. On one occasion at Caley Crags they were falling like the Autumnal leaves, and the result was a dislocated shoulder and a sprained ankle and on another occasion a badly fractured leg at Greetland Quarry. Mike Browell who unfortunately was the victim on that occasion has written that these meets were testosterone fuelled, solo, fests!

One of my own keenest memories of Wizz was when he and I were the BMC representatives on the Plas y Brenin Management Committee, and we met to appoint a new Director of the Centre. Ken a great devotee of the novels of C P Snow loves the cut and thrust of such gatherings, and thus it was that he earned the sobriquet of ‘The BMC’s tame rottweiler’.

In a committee meeting he is a tireless debater, and a handful for any Chairman to deal with. However on that occasion, Jack Longland who had been in the Chair for a very long day, when I apologised if in our enthusiasm to get our candidate, John Barry, into position, Wizz had overplayed our hand, responded with an ‘Oh no!’ ‘ Ken is actually a real sweetie!’

Without reference to me Ken challenged two young hot shots of the Welsh scene at that time to a ‘race’ up Dinas Mot as soon as the meeting had finished. And when we arrived at the base of the crag they were waiting. It was agreed that Billy Wayman and Nigel Shepherd would climb up West Rib (HVS), whilst Ken and I would tackle Western Slabs (VS). We set off climbing when Wizz shouted out ‘OFF!’

I had not climbed the route before, but in the lead I was levitated up the cliff by Ken urging me on in full voice. ‘I had not realised how good you were!’  ‘Faster, they are catching you.’

I had never previously been keen on such an idea as racing up cliffs, and when I had seen the Russian climbers at the Munich Olympic Games in 1972 give an exhibition of their speed climbing, I found this both hilarious and worthless. However with Ken’s enthusiasm driving me on I ran out about 140 feet of rope at speed. Ken then came running up the cliff, and shot into the lead to climb a steep groove above our heads. I then seconded this and led another short groove and we were on the top, well ahead of the local experts. The losers had to buy the drinks and we repaired to the bar of the PYG, where news of the appointment of Captain John Barry as the new Director of Plas y Brenin had preceded us. For some reason Chris Briggs then the landlord of the PYG and his wife were not best pleased about this. I guess it might have been because they were friends with some of the other candidates and I was subjected to some harsh criticism as this was seen as a BMC organised coup. For once Ken kept his head down, and enjoyed watching me take the flak, while nodding serenely in agreement as if he was a total innocent in the whole matter.

Ken’s love of climbing is still as keen as it ever was, and although he is now travelling on a Bus Pass, his enthusiasm for traditional British rock routes is undiminished. The new edition of Classic Rock will testify to this, as will his continued campaigning to preserve all that is best in this area of our sport. His contempt for bolts and particularly retro-bolting are so well known that the message does not need repeating here. He does on occasion to cement his arguments over egg his pudding, but it is good that such a vigorous and outspoken character is always ready to defend our tradition of bold and self protected climbs. And long may it be so!

 Dennis Gray:Loose Scree March 2007


Friday, 24 June 2016


It is all too easy in these days of Crags, Hard Rock, Mountain and Climbing to assume that the state of mountaineering photography has never been better. The recent entries of still photos for the Kendal Film Festival displayed a breadth of ability and enthusiasm which would have been unimaginable a decade ago. Fed by inspirational books and magazines, and armed with the excellent new cameras that have become cheaply available in the last few years, climbers can, and are, taking photographs of their activities that are infinitely superior to those of a decade earlier.

The broad plateau of competence in this field is doubtless due to a number of factors. Apart from those already mentioned, one could also note the increasing demand for good pictures for magazines, books and adverts. Moreover, the increased expedition activity with its attendant sponsorship and book and lecture possibilities has also encouraged climbers to produce better results. Thus in all these fields—action photos, alpine views and expedition narratives—the state of the photographic art in mountaineering is in good shape and we can feel confident that this can only improve. It is in an altogether different field that I fear we are in danger of neglecting; for the amateur, the impromptu snapshot, or for the keener photographer, the telling observational photo that illustrates the world of the climber in a more human way.

Original Caption ' Example of the work of Jed Storah,a young photographer who shows particular talent in capturing the unusual in climbing situations: Image- Extra runners being thrown up to Gabrial Regan on 'The Swan' Roaches.

Recent lectures and illustrated articles have left me bored, despite excellent photographic material, by the inhumanity of it all; an endless procession of bronzed athletes caught in mind-boggling situations doing stupefying moves on routes of tediously repetitive excellence and in permanently magnificent weather. Yet we learn nothing of them as people, nothing of their epics and tribulations, nothing of their lifestyles.

These days people never fail, use camps merely for a few hours sleep, only climb in the sun, never fall out with one another, never lose the route, never get overtaken by storm, never injure themselves, never wobble and never get frightened. The only preoccupation is increasing ones fitness for the next very clinical, very physical confrontation with the latest super-route. The scene has become ever so slightly boring in its technical brilliance. Characters and events have been suppressed by an endless procession of technical successes.

Somehow the photography has begun to reflect this too—we risk being bored by photographs which a few years ago would have had us gasping with amazement for weeks after their publication. At this point I begin to ask myself whether it is me. Whether after half a lifetime of climbing and climbing photography I have seen it all and become too familiar with images and situations that still impress younger climbers. I think not however. The declining attendances at lectures, the increasing tedium of climbing writing, the growing uniformity of photographic features in magazines—all tend to support my basic complaint. But if this article is about photography, what value is there in digressing into a personal diatribe about the decaying fibre of the sport? Namely this: By their efforts, photographers can direct climbers' attentions to new interests in the sport.

In the past I have quite cynically encouraged activity on certain crags or in certain climbing areas by publishing some good photos. Usually the cliffs badly needed traffic to establish newly discovered routes— Lundy is a good example.

It should therefore be possible to encourage in visual terms a move away from the more soulless attitudes to the sport. Of course not everyone is taking pictures for magazines, books and lectures. Many are shooting for personal pleasure and record. In many ways using a camera as a personal diary is its most valuable function. But I suspect the ordinary fun photographer, influenced by the magazines and the possession of better equipment, has begun to elevate his ambitions.

I can imagine countless dusty cupboard-fulls of slide boxes full of tedious action sequences on ordinary climbs, and half-baked landscapes imitating some vaguely remembered painter or photographer. Such "amateurs" (and I use the word hesitatingly for it is they who are truly in touch with the real roots of the sport) would be far better occupied in following the traditional amateur pursuit of the snapshot of the sport, the personalities involved, the campsite life, the extra-mural adventures, peripheral activities like sea level girdling, club dinners, booze ups and the like, editors, confronted by rich new stocks of interesting pictures would soon respond.

While searching through the unpretentious photo collections of some of our folk hero climbers, I have been constantly impressed by the historical value of pictures that were originally conceived as mere snapshots. John Cunningham's superb picture of the Creag Dhu at Jacksonville (in Games Climbers Play) is one memorable image that comes to mind, and another is Geoffrey Bartrum's lyrical portrait snapshot of Menlove Edwards at the foot of the Milestone Buttress (opposite page 87 in Samson, or Mountain 18). I tore my hair when The Black Cliff was published because of the poor reproduction of the photographs.

Yet people didn't seem to mind and still don't. They valued a certain sense of period, a realness in the pictures that a slicker book might have destroyed. Of course, by their nature snapshots cannot be achieved by careful professional planning. They are photographic records of fleeting moments, sometimes technically awful (early pictures in The Black Cliff for example), sometimes approaching perfection such as the work of the professional snapshots hunters— photo-journalists like Cartier Bresson or Donald McCullin.

I suppose I am saying that in pursuing the fickle goal of sports and landscape photography in mountaineering, we have sadly neglected the photo-journalistic side. In the past this was naively achieved by unpretentious wielders of Brownie Box cameras. Today we need to consciously seek such pictures so that our period can be faithfully reflected by more than a catalogue of athletic action shots. Finally I would like to say a word in defence of the photo album. I have always kept one, not for my best professional work, but for pictures that are, in effect, personal diary entries. Looking back at ones first Alpine season or ones early trips to Wales, remembering half-forgotten friends, rekindling nostalgic memories, is always entertaining.

From the same era: John Cleare's classic 'Rock Climbers in Action in Snowdonia' cover shot.Photo-John Cleare Mountain Picture Library.

As the years go by such collections gain in historical and retrospective value. Photo albums are difficult to keep in these days of the colour slide, but I advise anyone who is taking pictures solely for personal pleasure to forget the colour slide and opt for the black and white or colour snapshot. By careful selection and notation a photo album of real value can be assembled. Trade postcards can always be used to illustrate the mountains, huts or places one has visited, but the really valuable contribution that the photographer can make to himself and to posterity is to try and make a really good record of the nature of his activities and his friends. Therein lies the true enjoyment and value from the cameras we all lug around these days. 

Ken Wilson: First published in Crags Dec/Jan 1981

Friday, 17 June 2016

The Old Men of Hoy

L to R; Paul Trower.Al Alvarez and Mo Anthoine: Photo G Band
Most of us city dwelling climbers lead split lives; five days a week in the office or factory, occasional weekends and holidays in the hills. Rarely can the two interests be merged; when the chance occurs it must be seized. One such opportunity arose last February 1985. It was the most prestigious oil industry dinner of the year, still some months before the oil price collapse. The UK's 212 million barrels per day of production was earning over £20 per barrel. Even while we ate, royalty and tax revenue was accruing to the Government at £1 million every 44 minutes. The Prime Minister had just delivered a stirring and congratulatory speech. In the Great Room of London's Grosvenor Hotel, eighteen hundred well fed guests unbuttoned their dinner jackets, lit up cigars and recirculated the port and brandy.

Conversation became completely relaxed. My host was the chairman of the company which operates the Paper and Claymore North Sea oil fields and their onshore pipeline and storage terminal at Flotta in the Orkneys. It was a prize-winning plant constructed with great care to minimise its impact on the environment. Learning that I had never yet visited it, he immediately invited me to do so. 'That must be quite close to the Old Man of Hoy', I volunteered. 'I've never been there either'. 'Then you must do them both', he said. And so the idea was born. I recalled a much earlier occasion in the Pen-y-Gwyrd Hotel below Snowdon. It was 1966 and in came the late Doctor Tom Patey, who, in between treating his patients at Ullapool, was famed for seeking out hard new routes on remote Scottish crags. He fanned out a sheaf of large photographs of an incredibly spectacular sandstone sea stack.

It stood like a stubby pencil on a granite plinth, vertical on all sides for 450ft, and separated from the equally sheer line of sea cliffs by a jumble of rocks just clear of the breaking waves. Rusty Baillie, Chris Bonington, and I have just made the first ascent', said Tom; 'there was one really hard pitch’  a third of the way up the East face; a thin traverse to the base of this long vertical crack which Rusty led using several slings and wooden wedges where it overhung: I've come to show the pictures to Joe Brown. What a TV spectacular it would make'. Tom's words were right. Both in 1967 and more recently in 1984 live TV broadcasts of the ascent by several different routes had fascinated and gripped millions of viewers. Climbing standards had also shot up in the intervening period, not only due to sheer fitness and intensive training but helped enormously by the invention and development of modern safety gear: the whole range of 'nuts' and 'Friends', and sticky soles. 

It meant that climbers of my age who had still kept reasonably fit were uniquely still able to lead routes as hard as they were doing in their twenties, even though these fall far short of the more desperate present day routes. It is a rare privilege accorded to our climbing generation which will probably never occur again.

Having accepted my host's generous invitation, I soon began to have misgivings. I could manage to fly up to Flotta but was less sure about the Old Man. After years of festering in the Tropics, I was no longer leading hard routes and would need to assemble a strong party to get me up. I contacted two equally mature friends: Dick Sykes, who had recently introduced me to ski touring and was still rock climbing well; he had celebrated his fiftieth birthday by leading Cenotaph Corner, and Al Alvarez, poet, poker player and author of several books including a recent one `Offshore; the story of North Sea oil. Both were enthusiastic but we needed younger blood. Al suggested Mo Antoine with whom he had climbed in the Dolomites. Mo ran a small company, Snowdon Mouldings, making and selling climbing equipment but had a profitable sideline as a 'safety officer' to the cameramen in stunt films requiring climbing skills.

He was currently involved in the shooting of 'The Highlander' starring Sean Connery. More important he had assisted in the TV programmes of the Old Man, and had done the climb. He suggested we should have at least one more strong climber. I enrolled the youngster of the party, Peter Evans, who I had last seen wandering off to try Suicide Wall alone with a fixed top rope. He was the son of Sir Charles Evans with whom I had climbed Everest and Kangchenjunga 30 years ago. 

It was not until the end of the summer — Friday, September 13th, to be exact — that we could fix a mutually convenient date. The weather then would be less reliable but it would give us veteran pen pushers the summer to improve our fitness and finger strength. Dick and I climbed a few days together on the seacliffs of Cornwall and Pembroke. Al rehearsed his favourite routes at Harrisons Rocks near Tunbridge Wells, and I practised on a rough brick wall at home. Mo returned from filming 'The Mission' in the Argentine. Over the phone he said What if the weather's really poor? We, need a hard man at the sharp end who can get up in the rain, if necessary. With six in the party we can fix the Old Man with one long rope from top to bottom'. He produced his secret weapon, Paul Trower, a plumbing and heating engineer, who like many top climbers had chosen to live in the heart of the Welsh mountains at Llanberis. With a permanent stubble and single earring he added not only strength but a slightly piratical image to our party.

Surprisingly, we all arrived in time at the southside of Heathrow airport on Friday 13th, for the specially chartered flight to Orkney. We were joined by Alex Blake-Milton, Occidental's public affairs manager who was adept at handling unusual assignments with his customary good humour. Expecting some spectacular moments, he had I commissioned a professional I photographer, Chris Mikami, to come along with us. I began to worry that with all our climbing ropes and equipment our increasingly large party would no longer be able to fit into the compact HS-125 executive jet which was to whisk us up to Kirkwall. 

Happy wanderer: Author George Band
It was drizzling on Saturday morning as we boarded the ferry for Hoy. The weather forecast promised sunshine and showers with even a little hail and S.W. winds of 25-30 knots gusting to 40 knots later in the day. We were rather subdued about our chances; but with most of the climb on the East Face we ought to be sheltered from the wind. It's nearly an hour's walk over the moorland from the hamlet of Rackwick towards the Old Man. Halfway there, the summit appears 50ft above the level heather. Only as one teetered at the cliff edge and peered over did the immensity of the 450ft pinnacle appal one. Powerful gusts blew in from the sea and angry waves surged around its foot. We changed into our climbing footwear and waist harnesses and, shouldering one or two ropes each, scrambled warily down the steep and soggy grass slopes and scree, to the base of the pinnacle. Alex, who had already muddied his fine hand-stitched brogues, wisely stopped halfway.

We planned that Paul should lead the climb; Mo going second would then remove surplus gear, Next the three veterans with 167 years between us: Al, myself and Dick: all of us doubly protected on the tricky traverse by rope ahead and behind. Finally, Peter would patiently bring up the rear. The first pitch of 70ft led to a convenient ledge at the top of a buttress on the South East corner. From there one descended a few feet onto the slightly overhanging East Face where an irregular ledge, but an acute absence of handholds, enabled one to traverse gingerly across to the foot of the vertical crack. Paul swarmed up confidently and was soon out of sight over the overhangs, the rest of us silently hoping to make it look as easy but knowing that it would be a lonely struggle. It was my turn to climb up to the ledge at the top of the first pitch, where the wind still buffeted unless one could sit right back in the corner.

On the second pitch Mo had left a sling dangling as an extra foothold but Al didn't need it and crack widened above until one was straddled inside as in a chimney. Above, it was blocked by a roof, but the rope snaked up through a diminishing slit on to the outer wall which overhung. I could hardly believe that was the only way. Fortunately for me, previous parties had left slings or wooden wedges in place here and there and I had no scruples about using them for extra handholds to conserve my strength. Leaning right out on the arms over the void, one had to commit and lever upwards on the right foot to gain an inch wide ledge for the left toe at the extreme point of reach. Comfortingly, the rope eased tight to reassure me after the move. The crack continued up a vertical corner with the natural jointing of the sandstone providing occasional horizontal creases giving rounded handholds and adequate bridging for the feet.There was no point in dallying and I soon thankfully joined Al — my guardian angel — crouched in a niche amid coils of rope. We had climbed the crux. Two more pitches followed at a distinctly easier standard continuing upwards but easing to the right in a depression. The ledges became wider and more frequent but the rock was also more suspect, slippery with sand grains, or coated with a slimy green lichen. Finally a vertical 50ft corner led to the top.

We waited for what seemed an age as the rope eased out foot by foot and then stopped. We shivered to keep warm and watched the passage of the heavy clouds breaking and reforming, infused by shafts of sunlight. With the wind distorting our voices, communication round the corner was difficult and Chris, in between taking photographs from the opposite slope, helped to relay our requests to pull in the rope.

In the back was a crack with daylight filtering through here and there as the summit block almost became split into two fingers.The wind howled through the gaps and made us realise how lucky we had been sheltered on the East face. We were also largely protected from sheets of rain enveloping the mainland cliffs and a splatter of hail which now suddenly surprised us. It made us keen to finish as quickly as possible. We had been slow; there as no question of lingering as a group on the summit. Paul and Mo were already descending past us, abseiling down and busy fixing further doubled ropes below. Al brought me up to just below the summit where he was squeezed in the corner sheltering from the wind.

I climbed the last few feet and the blast hit me as I raised my head above the parapet. It was four minutes to four. I stood bracing myself momentarily on the summit in case Chris was taking pictures from the opposite clifftop but I could only see a dim figure running for shelter. Peter now led Dick up the crack as Al and I prepared to descend. Al was soon out of sight, and at the third abseil I began to feel very lonely. How was I to know that the rope below ended at a convenient ledge? One might end hanging like a spider over space or simply slide accidentally off the end.
To avoid this at the overhanging second pitch it was essential to leave a fixed rope on the way up so that the first person descending could haul himself back in to the cliff at the beginning of the traverse and then tie in the end of the abseil rope for the others. When it was Al's turn to haul himself in he had an anxious moment finding himself slipping precariously upside down out of his harness which had become too loose. Dick and Peter had the tedious task of retrieving and coiling the numerous abseil ropes. Finally Peter was halfway down the last abseil laden with three coils of rope over his shoulders. A sudden extra strong gust of wind blew him sideways and the twanging of the taut abseil rope flipped a loose block of rock from above on to his head. Fortunately his climbing helmet protected him. We all breathed a sigh of relief when he joined us at the bottom.
A couple of hours later, tensions released, we were laughing and joking and downing our first pints at the bar of the Ferry Inn, Stromness. 

Chris Bonington's 80th birthday ascent of TOMOH

George Band: First published in High-May 1987. 

Friday, 10 June 2016

The Fear Barrier

I first perceived the fear barrier on my first VS climb — the Barbican on the Castle Rock of Triermain.Four of us,on separate ropes,went for it on a damp March day in 1975. Big black boots; a stiffish nylon rope; not much experience (on my part). The book's relentless phrases had shelved themselves in a dark layer of my brain: "exposed and sensational in the upper part" — I would rather not have known that. "Particularly for the last man" — I couldn't understand that, which made it the more unnerving. We huddled beside the ash tree above the seeping vegetable life of the lower pitches and stared at the corner which bent round into space. It was undercut and it looked holdless. Below there was nothing but the crowns of tall trees and the backs of flying wood-pigeons.

Pete led off round the corner, hands on invisible holds, toes on derisory edges, moving fluently. A few years after he was to help pat up an E4 on Kilnsey; today he was in a state that he later called "blind fear". One of the party, an experienced climber but years out of practice, leaned her head against the rock beside the ash with her eyes shut. When I followed Pete, it felt like treading a wire-thin line of rock stretched in mid-air. At the corner lay the fear barrier, a zone of menace, of impossibility. As I neared it, it shrank, became transparent, turned out to be impalpable. I rounded the corner and there it was again, part way along the seemingly impossible wall. As though in a dream, pulled by the magnet of sheer necessity (and pushed by the impossibility of going back), I kept fitting the hefty Vibrams to the little edges, advancing on the fear barrier — until it disappeared, and we both felt fully human again, tethered to the rusty but solid peg (Drasdo' s from the first ascent in 1951?), and beginning to glow with the realisation that the barrier could be nullified.
Jim Birkett in Langdale
But still it lurked,ready to materialise on any crag, and for me it still has the character of that great wall on Castle Rock. A character made of the bottomless drop below an overhang, the vacancy that yawns behind you as you climb only just in balance, the silent obdurate resistance of any big steep mass, of stone. There it was again on Gimmer, on the steep rib above and to the right of the chimney stance on Kipling but not at its crux (though I fell off that twice); and at the apex of the flake on the traverse of Haste Not, Birkett's most spectacular line in White Ghyll, where you cling on with strained forearms and frictioning toes, trying to drape a sling; and on the incredibly undercut crux a hundred metres up the VI — on the Punta della Disperazione above the Canali but in the Pala Dolomites, where I only made the fear barrier vanish by deciding in advance that I would aid along on a sling clipped into one of Renzo Timillero's solid wedges.

It is an invisible obstacle —the point where your arms and your nerve will buckle and fail — the divide where impossibility begins, where everything is too much, the steepness, the sheerness, the not yet-known — a kind of break in the world, a space-warp, where the laws favouring your survival will stop applying and pure gravity will take over.

You can best it — or should I say disprove it? or exorcise it? —only by pushing on into it and through it, as I did in those novice days of big black boots and nylon rope. In that same March, when the mist verged on drizzle, we went at White Ghyll Chimney, and on the thinnish crux where you leave the sheltering security of the corner and step out onto a wall which is all downward-sloping ribs and fitigery edges, I met the fear barrier when I wasn't expecting it, I felt suddenly club-footed, all friction seemed to cease, the rock turned blank and dark, the mental steps afforded by runners ran out and I perched there fearfully, face to face with the barrier, willing it to cease — it didn't — calling out excuses to the other two in the party — they said nothing . . . the barrier consists also of loneliness: you are on your own, as helplessly solitary as though you were hovering in mid air, trying to invent the glider,or evolve wings.

With help from equipment and from people, and with experience, the fear barrier does lose its power. That May we went back to White Ghyll Chimney, I in squashy pumps, and of course I swarmed across and up that wall, and as Chris finally joined me at the top, he said, "Loony tunesville! You failed on that six weeks ago — in proper footgear" (his quaint name for hulking Vibrams). Six weeks later again I made a hash of Kipling, feeling the pumps splurge and wobble on the smaller holds, and by the autumn as the rains came on I had graduated to PA's and my feet felt elegant as an okapi's, unerring as an orang' s. But the fear barrier hadn't lost its power, it had only moved, to a perhaps diminishing but still vast number of locations around the crags the world.

Perhaps it has lost some power in this respect, that I barely notice it when I'm seconding (which for me means on anything harder than 5a). If you fall as a second you can usually swing about airily, like some clumsy trapeze artiste, and the wild free arcing through mid-air helps to make up for the ignominy of failing to surmount the crag by your own powers — I used this compensation heavily when I failed to mantel up the crux of Kipling, tried too late to traverse right, my arms turned to candlewax and I took off on a pendule, facing outwards, Horse Crags, Pike of Blisco, Crinkle Crags, Bowfell all swimming past in a slow-motion arc — crunch as my right hip hits rock and the arc reverses itself, majestic, as exhilarating as flying, the best way to see the Lake District.

Even if there is the comfort of a rope above you, some of the usual fear symptoms still flicker. The sinking gut as the impossible move looms just beyond you, the inefficient scrabbling with fingerends that just aren't up to it. But all this is far less formidable than the barrier itself — that zone of pure ill being or unbeing where your imagination balks — across which it can't throw any Bailey-bridge of conceivable moves into which it implodes like matter into a black hole.

At times the fear barrier locks itself onto a piece of rock and stays there with all the illusory deadliness of the Bermuda Triangle. The only way to prove it doesn't exist is to fly through it and come out alive and well at the other side. For me it was locked for six years (until June 29, 1984) onto the overhung corner and rib on Castle Rock where Triermain Eliminate goes straight up and Harlot Face veers out onto the rib, then round and up it out of sight. The book promises "a good resting place", but you can't see it, and this invisibility helps the fear barrier to form out of the steepness all around. On the Eliminate, in 1978, I tried to follow Pete up the corner, got past the in-situ nut, and faced with more overhang and diminishing help from the crack in the joint before I could even reach the high step onto the doubtful perch on the downward-sloping block, the scale of the overhangs and the colossal outward shove of the great face overcame me — I had reached the fear barrier — it had continued to exert power invisibly, like negative magnetism, and I had to downclimb rapidly (to put it politely) and abseil off the ash-tree.

I hadn’t even tried the move and failed...pathetic! And this mental defeat is what potentiates the fear barrier like nothing else. In this case I’d made it spread and permeate the crux stride out of the corner onto the rib of The Harlot’s Face. Like a fool I let this move become a rite of passage. It was the great thing that I must do to prove my courage, among the thousands of other commitment-points that I might as well have built up into ‘The One’. On a day of cold rushing wind early in June 1983, after retreating off the Raven Traverse with Bill Peascod and Neil because we were too numb and shuddering to climb, Neil and I went over to the Castle for my first epic tilt at the barrier on The One. Seconding it would be worse than useless. The One must be led. I climbed up to the ledge much too quickly, putting on no runners, and belayed to the ash-tree with my guts feeling thin and quaky like watery porridge.

Neil settles himself down for the siege. I put on an original Moac, absurdly low down, and pull clumsily up the corner towards a blur or two of chalk. The crack takes a No. 6 hex, and as my forearms tire I eye the fateful step, the tiny abyss, one stride through air to fix my right foot on the side of the rib and then — the moment I make as if to move, the fear barrier rears —almost visible, almost palpable — a kind of tough formation of the air which my will and my imagination can't win through. No, not my imagination — I can conceive of the move all right: find the best lodgement for the left foot on the pockety wall — right hand onto the first small sweat-blackened spike on the rib — swing out — go for the almost juggy flake three feet up — transfer the left hand — but from what? It's feet away, clung on by its fingerends to a little saw-edged pocket — and if I can't bring it across double-quick to some sharp hold on the rib, or a jam in the corner-crack . . . The half-chances and fantasy-moves flick through almost subliminally, frames in a horror film. My faith in myself has now sucked out into the black hole, and I half-lower off the hex feeling witless and craven and defeated. Five or six minutes on the ledge, shaking out, analysing the moves to Neil — over-analysing them, letting the mental tension build far beyond the point of a useful surge.

Neil is phlegmatic, sceptical. He has a motto for this situation now: "You're your own worst enemy, Dave." He adds helpfully, -It's just one move." I now have a plan: climb higher up the corner; from there I can launch across to a point where the rib is less steep. It turns out that this takes me too high to use the black spike, to reach the juggy flake I would have to fly or something, and anyway at that height the corner impend's, demolishing my strength. I slither back down from nut to nut and stand on the ledge speechless with chagrin, fingertips numb, then starting to throb. Three more deranged efforts make no impression on the Harlot, or on the fear barrier, which remains in place. During the last one I find myself absurdly crouched ten feet up the corner, like a slug impaled on a cactus, craning  rightwards, eyeing the gap and that taunting rib beyond it, urging my inner self to go for it, feeling my inner self quail as the fear barrier toughens into a thick glass presence against which my mind scrabbles and fizzes like a trapped bee.

Then I spent a year rescreening the moves. The barrier was never more precise: six inches out from the rib. At that point the exact grasping of the fingers must begin, the centre of gravity shift smoothly across, the feet pick the perfect friction points, the will remain intact. At the barrier the will may crumple like plastic in a fire, or it may hold and then the barrier is a nothing. I do the climb most weeks — in my head — and in a bad week six or seven times. Maybe I should do more on snow and ice, to reduce the pressure, since it hardens and thickens the fear barrier still more.

The Return Match Just after the anniversary of the epic siege we are up there again. A fine drizzle has made the Castle the obvious place to go. Neil has designs on Rigor Mortis, whose second pitch he fell off several times when he was 16. For me, of course, it has to be The One. "Here it comes at last, the great grey distinguished thing," as Henry James said on his death-bed, and no-one knew whether he meant death or the Order of Merit? Such banter makes me forget the fear barrier, for a minute or two. And then we're there again, Neil steady on the ledge, amused at me but helpful, me staring at the corner and running my eye across the void to the rib. Original Moac, move up, lean out, sketch a sally with the right foot through space, downclimb in good order, five minutes to let the fingertips recover, back up to put on the hex and take a last reconnaissance.

I lean way out, bridging to the utmost, get my right hand on the black spike — then the fear barrier repels my right foot, the lodgement for it under the rib is useless, a greenish slip of cracked rock, I change hands and reach for the juggy flake with my right but the barrier is still working, the flake top runs out, how can I use so poor a hold to haul my full weight up an angle beyond the vertical? Again I retreat, as deliberately as a technician winding back a film (after all, I've done it six or seven times). "This time," I tell Neil, "I'll go for it — no more waste of glycogen - if I fall, I fall." He puts up both thumbs and blows out lips and cheeks in his inimitable mime of jollying and confirming. And as I swing across this time, the barrier shatters and scatters around me. It almost takes me with it, I don't climb well — "I can't do this, Neil!" I remember squawking as my left fingers just clenched my weight inwards and my right just curled hard enough over the flake-top to power me up round into that resting-place I have been trying to visualise for six years — which has become for me the embodiment of whatever lies beyond the fear barrier. It's a flat ledge about the size of a dinnermat, and as I stand on it for minutes, matching little nuts to the crack above, I feel as ensconced in mid-air as a kestrel or a helicopter.

No doubt Jim Birkett, climbing the route without runners 35 years before, made those crux moves at the first attempt. "When I got my hands on something, the rest of me generally followed," was his sublime motto. The fear barrier will have been so much less hard and deep for him, and locked onto fewer places, although he clearly saw it one winter, climbing Engineer's Chimney on Gable (grade IV/V) in nailed boots with one long-shafted ice-axe, since Len Muscroft (his second also on Harlot Face) heard him give a short rasping cough as he moved across the hard wall on verglas: "When he did this I knew it was going to be desperate." (Bill Birkett, Lakeland's Greatest Pioneers, 1983, p. 122).

I now see that the image of a barrier which is there, as though solid, is not true enough. The fear barrier is a zone of nothing, where you cannot be. As you move up closer to it, it may enter into you —you become nothing, your strength is cancelled, weakness hollows out your arms, your feet can't be trusted, your brain ceases to screen clear images, your balance shakes out of true, your imagination can't conceive of a way beyond. But if the fear barrier fails to invade you, it cancels itself, and you remain yourself, strong, limber, and collected, in a fit state to savour the lovely jubilation that floods through you as you move on and up, unscathed.

David Craig: First published in Climber and Rambler May 1985