Wednesday, 27 January 2021

Remembering Slingsby

William Cecil Slingsby’s book, Norway the Northern Playground, was first published in 1904. It is a tale of exploration, adventure and the exuberant joy of high endeavour. It was one of my earliest inspirations and I still have my 7/6d (37pence) 1941 edition. Born in 1849, he visited the country over twenty times between 1872 and 1921 and is considered the ‘Father of Norwegian mountaineering’. It was said of him: “There are two patron saints of Norway – St Olaf and Cecil Slingsby.”

Climbing in the early 1950s, when I began, was far more esoteric than it is today. It was rare to meet anyone who knew anything about it. In the northern Peak District where I grew up, scrambling in my pre-teens on what were then famous gritstone cliffs such as Laddow and Dovestones, I only glimpsed ‘real’ climbers a couple of times though never actually met them. For me, books like this were an introduction, temptation and escape to the climbing world. I read them avidly and dreamed of exploring wild mountains.

Slingsby and other early pioneers opened my eyes to the climbing world. Winthrop Young, another world class mountaineer of that period, comments in his Biographical Notice to Slingsby’s book about “the all consuming zest for adventure in high places which was at the core of Slingsby’s life”, saying, “his business instincts were not a little jeopardised by his picaresque sympathy for schemes and enterprises with names suggestive of forest and cañon and mountain fastness and far, sun-tinted lands and places”. Exactly!

Walt Unsworth observed, “[Slingsby] spent a dozen short "seasons" in the Alps, and [was] the first to climb several formidable peaks… He climbed with friends, but without guides - an almost unheard of thing in those early days”. On Slingsby’s passion for Norway, Walt wrote, “Time and again he made the journey across the North Sea, pushing his way over remote glaciers and wild valleys to forgotten hamlets and farms; exploring, climbing, making friends wherever he went. On these journeys his guide would be a local farmer.” In fact, although he also made some first ascents in England, Norway’s mountains were Slingsby’s consuming passion. On his first visit, he saw the Hurrungane Massif in the Jotunheim, later writing, “I shall never, as long as I live, forget my first view of Skagastølstind, the grandest European mountain north of the Alps. Our guide told us that it was the highest mountain in Norway, that it had not yet been ascended, and that no doubt this was impracticable. Can it be wondered that I determined, if possible to make the first ascent?”.

His routes were made by preference with local mountain people. They will be found from Lyngen in the far north on peaks with “wild beauty and eerie forms” but plagued by “the musical mosquito and the bloodthirsty klegg”, all the way down to the Jotunheim, “the finest mountains in Scandinavia”, to which much of his book is dedicated, and south again to the ice cap and mountains above Hardangerfjord. He writes about this golden age of pioneering and often bold mountain exploration with the same attention to detail and happy, unassuming style in which he made his climbs, both benefiting from the same joie de vivre.

It is hardly surprising therefore, that Norway was to be my own first experience of real mountain exploration. We set out in the summer of 1962, armed with the Northern Playground and some thin but inspirational paperback guides to Rock Climbs in Norway written in 1953 by Per Prag. They were sprinkled with Slingsby’s first ascents and tantalising references to unclimbed walls. The Arctic islands of Lofoten were our destination. Slingsby had climbed there in 1903 and 1904 making first ascents, often with Norman Collie, of peaks that variously “rise precipitously out of the ocean”, “resemble the Drus” or have “climbing of the very best Chamonix aiguille type”.

Like Slingsby, we had a great time, climbing two or three known routes and adding numerous climbs of our own. It was wild and remote. The weather was at times either glorious or foul. Almost penniless from the start, we eventually ran completely out of money despite the hospitality of fishermen and farmers who displayed, as they did to Slingsby, “the kindness and gentle attentions … of a race that we are nearer akin than to any other in Europe”. The die was cast. With the aid of Slingsby, mountains became a lifelong obsession.

Hitching south, we passed through the magnificent Romsdal valley, tempted there by Slingsby’s tales of “good sport” on its many peaks, and also by curiosity about Trollveggen, the Troll Wall, which was then Europe’s greatest unclimbed rock wall. Though partially rain shrouded, this awesome vision gnawed at us for three more years until, in 1965, we climbed it. Slingsby’s eye, however, was drawn to the classic alpine peaks above and beyond the other side of the valley where the partially concealed ridge of Vengetind was an irresistible attraction. He made the first ascent of both its summits with Patchell in 1881, saying “the scenery is too grand to describe”.


Standing guard at the head of Vengedalen and looming high above Romsdal, the great truncated tower of the Romsdalshorn dominates the view. Slingsby climbed it in 1884 with his wife Alizon, the first woman to reach the top, commenting “The mountain is more difficult than the Matterhorn when in good condition”. They returned in the following year with Bowen for the first ascent of the neighbouring fang of Kvandalstind which he described rather enthusiastically as “the steepest mountain in Europe”.  It was also a peak I was keen to climb, rising between two glaciers with the dramatic pinnacle of Torshammer standing between it and its grander neighbour, Vengetind. Slingsby who discovered it in 1875 had named it Thors Hammer, quoting from Olav Trigvasson’s Saga:    

“I am the God Thor,
 I am the War God,
 I am the thunderer!
 Here in my Northland,
 My fastness and fortress,
 Reign I forever!” 

Together they present as alpine a scene as it gets in Romsdal. It was good to ascend the glacier in their footsteps to reach the foot of Slingsby’s North Ridge, but I have to admit we were tempted away to explore its unclimbed six hundred metre North East Face which turned out to be both easy and enjoyable. Part way up we climbed a small pinnacle sticking out above the Miolnir Glacier, naming it Hrungnir after the giant killed by Thor with his fearsome hammer Miolnir. The final steep wall to Kvandalstind’s summit was the crux, which is as it should be, keeping the conclusion in doubt to the end, but at 3+ the route was only around V Diff which left us with plenty of time to climb Torshammer.

Still in alpine mode and tempted by our close view of the jagged Vengetind ridge, another top we hadn’t climbed and the highest in Romsdal at 1852m, it wasn’t long before four us decided on a three day trip from Åndalsnes, making a circuit of the hanging valley of Vengedal by following the ridge straight from town to the Romsdalshorn, over that and the smaller Lille Romsdalshorn, round the head of the valley to Kvandalstind and Torshammer, then along the impressive Vengetind ridge and back down to the fjord. It sounded like fun, and was. We left late one morning and bivouacked near the col under Romsdalshorn. It was a beautiful evening with great views of our cirque, the Troll Wall and the Kongen massif, whilst a long grey finger of cloud drifted up Vengedal and settled beneath us giving us some cause for concern. 

Waking early, the morning was fine and we romped up Romsdalshorn’s classic North Ridge to its flat topped summit then down by abseil to the gap between it and the smaller Lille Romsdalshorn which we then climbed before descending again to the col at the head of Vengedal. Then easily over to Kvandalstind and Torshammer where we bivied again. On our third day the weather was looking doubtful but Vengetind’s jagged South Ridge looked far too good to miss, traversing above a glacier over two smaller tops beyond which, with the weather worsening, we chose the easy but exposed Gallery Route to the cloud-capped summit. By now it was snowing and we were greeted by thunder and lightning, our axes and metal gear buzzing alarmingly. It was no place to linger in an electric storm so we quickly negotiated our way down through the white-out and falling snow until we felt confident enough to glissade blindly down in the general direction of Vengedal. Once beneath the clouds we walked down to the fjord and hitched back to town after a wonderful mountain trip. 

But back to Slingsby! When in Romsdal, he stayed at Aak, an idyllic small farm and hotel used by climbers since the1860s and still a popular hotel today. His route descriptions can be found in the guest book. We stayed there twice in the1990s, enjoying the company of old friends and familiar mountains before returning south, past another haunt of Slingsby’s, the delightful Hotel Union at Øye in Sunnmøre. There, he and others including Raeburn and Patchell, climbed peaks like Slogen, which he called “Norway's prettiest peak" with, according to his entry in the hotel guest book, “the proudest view in Europe”. He was also active in Nordmøre, where he attempted “the fearsome-looking” 3,500 feet Furuveita Ghyll in 1906, only to be halted by a waterfall near the top of “the grandest ghyll it has ever been my good fortune to enter”. He found the neighbouring alpine peaks rather more attractive, writing, “there is an air of mystery and romance about Vinnufjell and its great snowfields”. Unsurprisingly, Slingsby made the first ascent, climbing it by two different routes, just four days apart in July 1906.

I have not yet had time to explore these peaks, nor those of Europe’s great ice cap, Jostedalsbraen, whose “snow solitudes, glaciers and ice-fields were a joy” to Slingsby. To their east is the great Jotunheim Massif “Home of the Giants” and beneath is Turtagrø Hotel, still one of Norway’s pre-eminent centres for mountaineering. Slingsby spent many happy days there and mementoes remain though tragically, the old hotel burnt down in 2001. “What a jolly time we spent at Turtagrø!” he wrote. “Is it heresy to say that the ‘off days’ picnicking were as enjoyable as the days spent on the mountains?”  Here are the most alpine peaks in Norway. In the distance is Galdhøppigen at 2469m, Norway’s highest though Glittertind is a close second. I have climbed both, which, in fair weather, are nothing more than enjoyable snow and glacier routes compared with Slingsby’s favourites, the Hurrungane Group, “with great glaciers and dramatic peaks, none more so than Skagastølstind”.

For me, this alpine spire has remained elusive but Slingsby considered it “Norway’s crowning glory”, epitomising, like the Matterhorn, all that is most appealing about mountain architecture. He made its first ascent in July 1876, four years after first seeing it and two years after making the first traverse of the range, to get better acquainted with his ultimate objective. This traverse was itself considered of great significance to Norwegian mountaineering, crossing the only region of the Jotunheim still unexplored. When he finally succeeded on the mountain itself, he climbed the last five hundred feet alone, leaving his companions over-awed at the head of the glacier, asking him “Should we declare it inaccessible?”. Its north summit is still named Slingsby’s Fortopp in his honour. The 1953 guidebook says “The ascent made climbing history in Norway … it is still a first rate climb with a splendid variety of ice and rock”.

 I continue to be tempted back to Slingsby’s ‘Northern Playground’ whenever opportunity permits, and trust his book will still give others equal inspiration.


Books: Norway the Northern Playground, William Cecil Slingsby, 1904 and 1941.The 2003 edition was published by Ripping Yarns, with an introduction by Tony on which this article is based.
Tony is also author of Troll Wall

Quest into the Unknown also climbing and/or trekking guides to the Peak District, Norway, Palestine and Jordan.

Norway the Northern Playground, William Cecil Slingsby, 1904 and 1941.The 2003 edition was published by Ripping Yarns, with a useful Appendix to Mountaineering in Norway Today by Dave Durkan and an introduction by Tony on which this article is based.
Norway Images all supplied by the author.
Top..L to R: Vengetind and its south ridge, Kalskratind and Romsdalshorn> Photo Øyvind Heen.

Middle..Kvandalstind with its north ridge below.Photo Kyrre Østbø 

Bottom..Kvandalstind and Torshammer. Photo TH.

© Tony Howard 21 Jan 2021.


Tuesday, 19 January 2021

A Dark Shadow Falls : The Tragic Hopkinson Family.


DURING the second half of the last century British mountaineering boasted several remarkable families whose exploits have gone down in history. The Walkers, the Matthews, the Pilkingtons—these, and others less well known, helped to found the sport in Britain and the Alps. Of all these families, none has a more remarkable story than the five Hopkinson brothers from Manchester. Their father was a mill mechanic who by hard work and flair rose to become Mayor of his city and an Alderman. Their mother was one of the Yorkshire Dewhursts, related to the Slingsbys and Tribes, and mountain walking was a long tradition on both sides. The young Hopkinsons grew up with an intimate knowledge of the Yorkshire dales and the Lakeland fells. Often they were accompanied by their cousins, W. C. Slingsby and W. N. Tribe, so it is little wonder that they soon became involved in the new sport of rock-climbing.

The eldest of the five was John (1849-98) then came Alfred (1851-1939), Charles (1854-1920), Edward (1859-1921), and Albert (1863-1949). Perhaps because he was the eldest, perhaps because he was a genius, John was always looked up to by the others; but in fact each and every one of this remarkable family was talented in the extreme. Quite apart from their climbing, it is worth while to glance at their careers so as to appreciate more fully the intellectual stature of these men. John was a consulting engineer with a brilliant academic career—Senior Wrangler at Cambridge, Doctor of Science of London, Fellow of the Royal Society, twice President of the Institute of Electrical Engineers. He was one of the founders of modern electrical engineering, perhaps best known to the public as the man who built Liverpool's famous tram system. Charles and Edward were also engineers and often worked with their brother. Edward it was who first introduced London to underground electric trains in 1890; the start of the modern tube system.

The other two brothers broke with the family tradition of engineering but both reached the top in their chosen professions. Sir Charles Hopkinson was lawyer, M.P., and Vice Chancellor of Manchester University. When he was elected Treasurer of Lincoln's Inn he had to adopt a crest and motto, so he consulted his other brothers as to what the motto should be. It is significant that they chose "Who shall separate us?" Youngest of all was Albert, who took medicine as his profession. He became a leading Manchester surgeon and eventually lecturer in Anatomy at Cambridge, because, he said, "Cambridge found it could not do without a Hopkinson"—a reference to the close ties the family had with the university. Details about the early climbs of the Hopkinsons are not easy to find, but they certainly descended the East Face of Tryfan in 1882, which is four years before Haskett Smith climbed the Napes Needle. However, their interest turned to the Alps, where, among other climbs, they made new routes on the Unterbachhorn and in the Fiisshorner. Their first major contribution to British rock-climbing came in 1887 when, in the September of that year, Charles, Edward and Albert Hopkinson, with W. N. Tribe, attempted to descend the steep face of Scafell Pinnacle. 

They were stopped at a point about 250ft. from the screes, at a narrow ledge. At this point Edward Hopkinson erected a pile of stones. Hopkinsons' Cairn acted as a magnet to all the best climbers of the day. Attempt after attempt was made to reach the tantalising pile of stones from below. Charles himself led the first attempt in December of the same year but failed about 150ft. up, due to ice. In 1903 an attempt to reach the cairn caused the death of three climbers—the first major climbing accident in Britain. * The problem was not solved until 1912, when the incomparable Herford, climbing in stockinged feet, ran out 130ft. of rope on the crucial pitch. The Hopkinsons found an easier way to the top. By climbing Deep Ghyll they gained a wide rift which they called Professor's Chimney in honour of John. In 1888 a famous party attacked Scafell by way of Steep Ghyll. The leader was W. C. Slingsby and with him were Edward Hopkinson, W. P. Haskett Smith, and Geoffrey Hastings. At the foot of the great pitch of the gully they turned out onto the face and Slingsby, running out 110ft. of rope, climbed the chimney which now bears his name and which was to become one of the most popular climbs in the Lake District.

That same year Hastings led Great Gully on Dow Crag and Edward Hopkinson was with him once again. The gaunt buttresses of Dow must have appealed to him, for a few months later he returned with his brothers when they climbed the gully again, this time leading the first and most severe pitch direct. There is little doubt that the Hopkinsons must have put up many new climbs which went unrecorded and it is a fair criticism of them that they failed to appreciate the part they were playing in the formation of a new sport. In fact, their greatest 'discovery' was not recorded for three years; the northern face of Ben Nevis. In 1895, however, they reluctantly published a small paragraph in The Alpine Journal mentioning the fact that in 1892 they had enjoyed some interesting scrambles on the mountain. In fact, they had made the first ascent of the North East Buttress (though it is not known by what route) and the first descent of Tower Ridge. They had tried to climb Tower Ridge but were stopped by the Great Tower. There can be little doubt that it was the enthusiastic reports of the Hopkinsons to their climbing friends that led Norman Collie to make his visit in 1894, the start of real rock-climbing on the Scottish mainland. In 1895 the brothers revisited Dow Crag where they made the two climbs by which they are best known today. Edward and John, with a climber named Campbell made the first ascent of Intermediate Gully; a very strenuous and severe climb and on the same day Charles was leading Hopkinson's Crack, a tour de force which still ranks as one of the hardest severes in the district. 

The Haunted Mountain: The Petite Dent de Veisivi where tragedy struck the family.

But in 1898 an overwhelming tragedy struck this brilliant family. The summer of that year saw John Hopkinson, with his wife, four sons and two daughters staying at Arolla in Switzerland. They did a number of the popular climbs, guideless, including the difficult Arolla face of the Za. On August 27th, the father, together with his son Jack, aged 18, and his two daughters aged 23 aid 19 set out to traverse the Petit Dent de Veisivi. When they did not return that evening a search party was organised and the next morning their bodies were discovered below the south face of the mountain. They had obviously fallen from a point near the top, but whether from a slip or through falling stones, it was impossible to tell. It remains to this day one of the most poignant of Alpine tragedies. The remaining four brothers rushed out at once to the scene of the disaster, but nothing they could do could lessen their grief. John, their favourite, was gone. They never climbed again. So ends the story of the brilliant Hopkinsons, and yet there is a pathetic little footnote—both of John's remaining two sons were killed in the Great War. 

* The Scafell Tragedy


Walt Unsworth: First published in Climber-February 1966 


Monday, 4 January 2021

Saved by the Burn

It wasn't until the wind blew the two of us off-balance that we realised its strength. Until we actually cannoned into each other near the summit cairn of Gars Bheinn I had persuaded myself that it wasn't too bad. It was tearing shrilly across the exposed ridge, as bitter and as numbing as a dental anaesthetic. It seemed certain our long-awaited traverse of the Skye Ridge would end in an untimely retreat. But, as so often happens with climbers from south of the border arriving in Scotland bent only on the routes of their dreams, we were then lulled by an improvement in the weather. The wind dropped, and though the weather remained oppressive with low cloud hiding the highest peaks, the rock was dry and the weather report had not been altogether bad. "Let's give it a go," I said to James and he agreed. Scots climbers, knowing they could return more easily some other time might well have been more inclined to call it a day and drop back down the screen up which we'd so recently toiled. The Cuillin Ridge had been our objective for 12 months. That compelling skyline traverse of peak after lofty peak — ten of them over 3000 feet and encompassing in its crude six-mile horseshoe a total height of 10,000ft to climb — had chivvied our subconscious brain cells until we just had to complete its course. For me it would be the second time, having traversed the ridge in 1958 with Todmorden's Silver Fox, the evergreen John Wilkinson. Then it had taken us an incredible ten hours, incredible because of the day — lambent skies, two eagles soaring above and rain-starved gabbro. But we had somewhat marred our otherwise perfect day by ending up on Sgurr nan Gillean. With our camp site back in Glen Brittle, the resulting yomp by way of the Am Mhain Pass in darkness is as memorable as the ridge, but in just the opposite way. 

Though discounting any contact with Am Mhain on my second attempt, I had learned the hard way of what was in store in terms of the energy and persistence required for the ridge itself. James, who lived in deepest Essex, had prepared by running endless laps around a large sports ground close to his home. He had also followed a lightweight training regime. For myself, I read up my notes of a Boy's Own Paper interview with Eric Beard I wrote on his cracking the Skye Ridge record (4hrs 9mins), and the inside information he had given me. Just down the road, lived the man who broke Beardie's record, Andy Hyslop (4hrs 4mins). He, too, gave invaluable assistance in times and route preferences. Andy it was who recommended an energy-giving sandwich filling of honey and peanut butter spread on granary bread — a mixture we later found revolting as the taste lingers when the going gets tough. The summer of 1983 had been one of the driest in the Western Isles in living memory. We expected blistering heat stored in the vaults of stone and reflected back off the tar-black rock. And at first it looked as if we might be lucky. Through the Borders every truck and artic lorry had the squeaky clean colours of Dinky toys fresh from the box. Water was not available from garages for windscreen washing. Everywhere the grass was burnt an ochre tint. Yet as we motored north from Fort William, we experienced that feeling of intense disappointment that only climbers know, that choked feeling of someone who has travelled four hundred miles to arrive — and who has suddenly to switch on the wipers. 

Sixty miles on at the Kyle of Lochalsh ferry it was pouring down. Another thirty miles further, at our climbing but in Glen Brittle, nothing had changed. Dining out, according to James, in the hospitable glow of the Sligachan Hotel might seem a better idea than wallowing in self-pity. As he said the meal was on him, I quickly agreed. By the time the pears cooked in port arrived — followed by coffee and a good malt — the rain had stopped. Thick cloud still obscured the mountain tops, and when I rang the Glasgow weather centre I received a non-commital forecast for the day to come. Things MIGHT clear. We returned to the but convinced that they would. By 3am the rain had not returned, and I began making a breakfast of stodgy porridge mixed with sultanas and endless rounds of toast and marmalade — washed down by litres of thick-brewed tea. Then at 4am it was out into the blackness, our eyes straining for any glimmer of light along the moor that leads to the first peak. We progressed marvellously at first, reaching the summit of Gars Bheinn two and a half hours later and well in par time — although the highest tops remained hidden by cloud and the scenario looked oppressive, a muted dawn light picking out a grey forlorn landscape. The moor had proved snuff dry, evidence of the weeks of drought. Any burns we had to cross were dried-out creeks, our Walsh trainers padding the peaty ground in comfort. 

Only the mist remained drifting above in the gloom to threaten bad things and, had we known it, a preponderance of large black slugs on the grass and scree boded the worst too. They know when it's going to rain. Then, on the summit, everything changed. The mist thickened and it wasn't until the wind banged us together like snooker balls that we realised its strength. We were standing on an eminence nearly 3000 feet above the Atlantic, being pelted with rain, strafed by a gale and it showed. Great rifts fell away down into the boiling vapour, each a source of spiralling gusts. As we fumbled into extra clothing and wind-proofs, it was impossible not to feel afraid. The scale of everything suddenly looked so big and of an infinitely more serious nature than the last time when I had stood here those twenty-six years previously. We were on the point of going back down when the wind dropped as quickly as it had come. Things picked up. We decided to start out. "If things become grim we can always descend," I said. "But if the weather clears what a great route it'll be to steal . . ." At first we couldn't go wrong even if we had wanted to. 

The ridge began as a knifeblade and, other than stepping off its edge into thin air on either side, there was no other way to negotiate it. But then the problems began. Great gaps would suddenly appear underneath our feet as if some giant madman with an axe had lopped into its crest from all angles and quite at random. In each case we had to scramble down steep scree and traverse slippery ledges to one side or the other before resuming our ascent on the far side of the gap where the skyline continued into the cloud once more. The further we went, the more difficult it became to piece together these obstacles with map and route card. It was as if we were on some fiendish assault course. And with the rain now starting to pour down in ever-increasing bucketfuls, the mist appeared to turn as black as the densest smoke from burning rubber. Nor do compasses always work on the ridge owing to an abundance of iron ore in the rock. The red needles whirled round uselessly, but then we had thought this might happen and brought them along anyway as each contained a large magnifying glass that made map reading all the easier. We realised we were helplessly lost when James saw me begin to go back the other way he had been coming — towards him and without realising I had made a complete turnabout. 

Arguing the toss was pointless, standing still in that weather was an endurance test in itself. We were in a do-or-die situation on the finest mountaineering trip in Britain and if we didn't resolve things quickly the question of who was right and who was wrong would cease to matter. We had patently failed. Now we had to get out of it alive. Though neither of us said so, we both recognised the circumstances as those of the Killer Peak syndrome which make newspaper headlines about mountain tragedies. Movement was the only way to keep the circulation going. Furthermore, I knew that our chilled fingers, despite being inside gloves, would make a meal of unbuckling a rucksack or opening a vacuum flask without some semblance of cover. To heighten our fear of premature death we did actually seem to be ageing. Worry and strain both did their part. The cosmetic powder of hoary droplets beading our persons did the rest, whitening eyelashes, sideburns and hair. The overall effect was a numbing of the mental powers, an inability to think straight. It was clear that we would have to go down. On which side of the ridge we actually made our descent no longer mattered so long as we lost height safely.

Early image of the Sligachan Inn 

And that was the rub. On either side of our high-wire in the heavens, boulder fields tilted down to the very brink of crags apparently so huge — as glimpsed through windows in the mist — as to defy imagination. Boulders the size of indoor climbing walls threatened to tip and roll at the slightest disturbance — and flatten you.Three times we arrived at the edge of outer space — the summit rim of one or another of those great cliffs below — and had to flounder back to the ridge's crest. Here, once again, it was a case of probing exhaustedly on still further for yet another line of merciful release. Mercifully indeed, within an hour we were besides the raging waters of Alta a' Chaoich (The Mad Burn) which plunges seawards from the skyline down to the Atlantic in a series of wild, leaping cataracts as white as milk. Although we had indeed descended on the "wrong" side of the ridge we could at last see through the mist and wind and our bodies were beginning to feel some semblance of warmth once more. But the resulting hike back the long way round and via the coastline path — and now having to ford burns which although dry when we had crossed them previously in the day were now fast-racing torrents — was the stuff of another ordeal. By the time we reached the Glen Brittle hut we had been on the go for almost sixteen hours, and lucky with it. People have died for less. It must be a hellish way to go.

Tony Greenbank: First published in Climber 1988


Wednesday, 25 November 2020

Allan Austin Interview


I conducted this interview for the Leeds University Union Climbing Club Journal of 1973, the editor of which was Bernard Newman.It is fair to say at that date Allan was a (the?) leading pioneer of Yorkshire and Lakeland climbing.

Dennis Gray: Do you have any fondness for such interviews? ‘Allan Austin tells all!’ Do you think they serve any useful purpose?

Allan Austin: No I don’t think they serve any useful purpose whatsoever. They merely provide an easy way to collect a load of print for a magazine.

D.G. Much of my early climbing was undertaken with the now legendary ‘Bradford Lads’, who were at the forefront of British climbing in the late 1940’s and early 1950’s. I once made out a ‘family tree’ and was surprised at the links, some tenuous, but some close between that group and most of the leading climbers who followed on over the next decade. I believe your early climbing was done with one of the ‘Lads’ – Mike Dixon?

A.A. No, I used to climb with Brian Evans and Mike was a friend of his. The first time I actually climbed was with Ashley Petts, and the next on a Mountaineering Association beginners-course in Llanberis. This was organised by Robin Collomb-and that would be at Christmas 1955.

D.G. You were very lucky in having Brian Evans as a partner in those early days. In my opinion he was one of the steadiest and most under-rated climbers of his generation. When I first met you in 1956, I thought this guy will, either win fame of end up lame! Your climbing was characterised by strength, determination and drive, which often led you out of your depth!

A.A. There is a fair amount of truth in that! We used to climb as a team of three; we needed the third man to rescue the leader after he had run out of strength. We recruited Doug Verity-a big bloke, who could stretch out his hands flat, so I could stand with all my weight on them! I climbed with Brian because he was of my age group. I had transport and I was keen, and he was a good climber with no transport. Brian’s idea was to climb at Very Severe, and he was the only bloke in the club (The Yorkshire Mountaineering Club), besides Ashley who consistently led at that standard. They were not really hard you know, but with the aid of my transport we had a lot more opportunities, and therefore we became very good as a result.

D.G. So initially you feel that Brian Evans was the driving force of your group?

A.A. Definitely: Brian would say ‘We’ll do this route’ or ‘We’ll try up there’. The first big route we pioneered was Stickle Groove on Pavey Ark. Brian had said to me in the club hut at Ilkley, ‘We’ll go to the Lakes and repeat Dolphin’s climb Chequer Buttress’. It had not then been repeated. And then once there, he noticed a big gap near to this, and so we filled in this gap and also climbed Chequer Buttress.

D.G. In the late 1950’s you pioneered many outcrop climbs, but just like many others before, and since, you used aid which has been shown to be superfluous. I am thinking of climbs at Brimham such as Hatter’s Groove and the first pitch of Minion’s Way where you stood on your second’s shoulders!

A.A. No I didn’t. We had spent a month trying it like that, but in the end we climbed it free.

D.G. Well, that is as maybe, but today you are feared by young climbers who do make similar errors, for you will, and rightly so in my opinion speak out against such mistakes. But is this not a case of ‘the kettle calling the pot black?’

A.A. Everybody makes mistakes, and I think I have fewer pitons per foot climbed of any climber of my own time. Up to 1960 we had pioneered two hundred or so new routes, and I don’t think we used aid on any route on gritstone, except for Hatter’s Groove, and in the Lake District, out of a hundred new climbs-only half a dozen pitons. I am not proud of using these, for I am weak like everyone else; but having said that I will stand back and realise that utilising them was a mistake. I for one do not try to back my ‘blunders’ up.

D.G. Having read the recently published, Fell and Rock New Climbs booklet, I was surprised at the amount of aid the new generation of pioneers are allowing themselves to use in the Lake District. Do you think that some climbs are being forced today that should be left until standards rise further in order that they can be climbed without such methods?

A.A. Oh, hell aye! The prime example of this is Peccadillo. This had been tried by-Geoff Oliver, Les Brown, and several other outstanding, leaders; and they had all failed to solve this problem. But along comes a modern team, who also could not climb this route, and so they abseiled down and fixed an in situ sling, which they then used to get them over the difficult section.

I reckon this sling, marks the point at which they failed, and it has solved nothing. It was not a legitimate ascent and it should not be recognised. Climbers now seem to be picking a line up a cliff and using just enough aid to make sure they are successful in climbing it, without really considering if the climb would be possible without this. I am not in a position anymore to change things. Once I might have climbed such routes without resorting to aid, but I cannot anymore. Shouting is not enough; it really needs some very good climbers to be active in the Lake District again. An example needs to be set. If three or four of the areas leading climbers are using a lot of aid then other people are bound to follow their example.

D.G. Don’t you think in some of these cases a stronger line should be take by the Guidebook editors?

A.A. Yes I do. In the new Langdale guide, I have been fairly courageous and have cut out three routes, which had utilised excessive aid. If the artificial section of a climb is the main part, then we have not included it. For example-The Pod on Pavey Ark, that was ascended by John Barraclough, using seven pitons for aid. It has subsequently been repeated using only two. In general there is too much of a rush to climb a new route and then get it into print. This is a very bad thing for the sport.

D.G. Do you think the magazines, are to blame for this?

A.A. In part, the system of first ascent lists at the back of a guidebook is also to blame. I much prefer Dolphin’s system of a paragraph about each crag, picking out the historical highlights.

D.G. I can’t say that I agree with you there. You mentioned Dolphin; you never knew him but you have repeated many of his hardest climbs. In the early 1950’s there was nonsense abroad about Joe Brown having created a ‘new standard’ in rock climbing, a ‘breakthrough’. But I believe that Dolphin had already achieved this on outcrops, as also had Peter Harding before Brown and Whillans.

A.A. You are right, but it was only for a short period. When Joe started pioneering his new routes in Wales, Dolphin’s routes in the Lake District were of the same standard. But by 1953 Brown’s routes such as Surplomb and Black Cleft were of a new grade, but not his earlier climbs such as Cenotaph Corner and Hangover, which were only as hard as routes like ‘Do Not’ in Langdale.

D.G. Dolphin was improving every year though, and for example he had climbed a long way up Delphinus and examined many new possibilities on the East Buttress of Scafell before his death. But returning to your early career, you were amongst the first to try to prick the ‘Rock and Ice’ ‘Bubble’. I do remember your article, ‘The White Rose on Gritstone!’

A.A. Ken Wilson, the editor of Mountain Magazine, described it as one of the most biased articles he had ever read!

D.G. You were a little carried away in your attempt to break down the myths. I can remember you standing on Joe Brown’s shoulders when you got into trouble on the ‘Dead Bay Crack!’ This attitude did tend to grind a little with we Rock and Ice members after witnessing such a performance.

A.A. Well, Joe Brown had pointed Mortimer Smith and myself at this climb and then sat back and watched whilst we failed on it. He had to rescue both of us from the crux but I was the one who led it in the end. It took me four hours!

D.G. I led this climb a short while later and found it reasonable. Was it that you were psychologically embezzled?

A.A. No, it was the fact that it was at the limit of my climbing ability at that date (1956). The same day Mortimer and I had failed on Peapod.

D.G. Do you accept though, that some of your statements in that article were a little outrageous?

A.A. The article was written to be provocative. I decided years ago that if you were not opinionated in an article, then it was not worth reading, so I deliberately intended to annoy the reader. It seems I did not succeed in this, but I certainly did provoke some people! To be honest though; at that date there was no one to approach the Rock and Ice on gritstone. There were odd climbers like Pete Biven, Pete Hassell and myself who were trying their easier routes, but the climbs that they considered hard such as The Right Eliminate, we did not even look at. It took us a full year or more to catch up, and to develop the necessary techniques and standards, but in 1956, we were lucky if we managed to climb any of Joe Brown’s or Don Whillan’s routes!

D.G. It seems to me now looking back over these years, that contemporary climbing historians have a wrong view of events in Wales towards the end of this decade of the 1950’s. A recently published book has it that in North Wales in 1957, only one climber not a member of The Rock and Ice Club was climbing the hard, major Cloggy routes. I am sure you will recall Metcalf repeating some of these big climbs in 1956, and you yourself were making early repeats in 1957. Why do you think these reports are so inaccurate?

A.A. Because they were so parochial, I can remember John Disley telling me that when you had four climbers, leading Very Severes, in the Llanberis Pass, that they represented the climbing strength of Britain. This did not include people like Dolphin and his friends active in the Lake District, or the Creagh Dhu in Scotland who were actually climbing at a much higher standard than Very Severe. He could not see past Harding, Moulam, Lawton and himself. This attitude ran on into the late 1950’s when archivists like Rodney Wilson had prepared lists which included the first five or sixth ascents of routes like Cenotaph Corner. He’d never heard of Metcalf or Pete Greenwood! Rodney once informed me that I had done the second ascent of the Black Wall, but I already knew that John Ramsden had also repeated it four years earlier.

D.G. Why do you think you have always concentrated on rock climbing? You have visited the Alps, but you now seem to confine your activities to West Yorkshire and the Lake District. Why is this?

A.A. My holidays have always been short, a fortnight at the most, and working on a Saturday morning meant that I had to get time off to travel to Wales. Hence nearer climbing areas were of necessity my goal. One holiday I took in the Alps it rained and snowed for two weeks and I did not get up a single route. So we travelled on to the Dolomites, where a break in the weather would also because of that mean there would be no climbing for several days.

At one time however, it did seem that we concentrated and only climbed in the Lake District. But for a five year period before that we alternated weekends between there and Wales, and in fact I had managed all but two of the routes in Don Roscoe’s guide to the Llanberis Pass.

D.G. You never managed many new routes in Wales, but you were always out in the front as a pioneer in the Lake District.

A.A. I thought that the Lake District needed a spur to bring it up to the standard of Welsh climbing, and so I was prepared to sacrifice myself for that cause. We only travelled down to Wales to attempt Joe Brown’s routes. It seemed to me then, that there were bigger and harder routes in Wales, and so we concentrated on the Lake District to try to develop the same there. At that date, 1959, there were ten extreme climbs in Wales for every single one in the Lakes.

D.G. Did you manage to carry this policy out?

A.A. Yes, we pioneered some hard climbs but none as big as the famous Welsh routes. Unfortunately we never found any ‘Cloggy’s’.

All we discovered were climbs like those in the Llanberis Pass, so all the major classics in Wales are unmatched in the Lake District.

There cannot be a dozen climbs in the Lakes, which compare to the top 60 in Wales.

D.G. Can you still do one arm, pull-ups?

A.A. No. I could only ever do those at all on the door of the Ilkley hut, which was at such a height that I could start with my arm slightly bent.

D.G In the last few years there has been a tremendous increase in the use of indoor climbing walls. I have visited the Leeds University wall in the past and last year I became a regular visitor, but this year it bores me. Perhaps it is because I cannot compete against the youths one now finds there, climbers like John Syrett, John Stainforth, and that, long-haired yob Bernard Newman! The last time I saw you there, you were not exactly ‘number one.’ Do you mind being burnt off by the younger generation, or will you keep on going until you draw your old age pension?

A.A. No I do not mind them burning me off. I go to the wall mainly for the social side, to meet other climbers: they are not such a bad lot- really. I went there once on my own and spent twenty minutes before going home because I was bored. It is the people who go there, which make the wall an interesting venue, but it also might be the competitive element as well.

D.G. Climbing in this country is very parochial and I think West Yorkshire climbers are as guilty of this as any, including the Scots. Why do you think these attitudes exist- Lakes versus Wales, Yorkshire versus Derbyshire?

A.A. It is just nationalism I suppose. Everyone likes to believe that they come from a special area. When I first started climbing I did not care two hoots whether it was the Lakes or Wales, that was until I met Joe Brown. His remarks about Yorkshire and the Lakes tended to get my back up, and I guess it all stemmed from that.

D.G. Do you think that was a deliberate tactic on his part?

A.A. Oh, hell aye! Joe has spent his life knocking others; he never stops doing this. One-upmanship is Joe’s life.

D.G Do you think this is because Brown has a superiority complex?

A.A. No, I think he just likes to set people up. It is his form of humour. He hasn’t got a superiority complex and he is not an inverted snob like some of the other members of the Rock and Ice. A typical remark to me after I had failed on a route would be: ‘I always said you were the best climber to come out of Yorkshire, but really there never much good are they?’

D.G Of all the routes which you have pioneered, which gave you the most pleasure and which do you think was the hardest to complete?

A.A. The Wall of Horrors gave me the most pleasure. It had been a long-standing problem and the scene of many previous attempts. Climbing a route with such a long history is always satisfying, even more so than discovering a new line. I had been trying it for a couple of years. Nowadays one might resort to using aid, a peg or a sling, in case someone else came along and bagged it before you.

D.G. I remember Dolphin telling me as a boy, of his top-roped ascent of the Wall of Horrors. And he had decided to leave it to be led on sight by the next generation. He sensed that there was a change in climbing ethics, and considered that on-sight leads should be encouraged for first ascents. I personally was upset when you continually top-roped the route prior to leading it. I think it would have been better if you had led it on-sight. Do you still think that you were justified in your methods when Dolphin had already shown it was feasible?

John Syrett on Allan Austin's 'Wall of Horrors'

A.A. A top rope ascent does not show that the route is possible, and anyway in that era most of the hardest gritstone routes had been top rope inspected before their first ascent. I once saw John Gosling leading a new route at the Roaches in Staffordshire. He was able to clip into a piton, which had been pre-placed on an abseil rope without even looking for it. He made the route look easy! I agree that sight leading is the most satisfying way to climb, but on outcrops where standards have always been pushed, I do not think that top-roping will ever be abandoned.

D.G. You have climbed at Harrison’s Rocks in Kent, do you think that the routes there should be led as a matter of course, instead of being top-roped.

A.A. Yes, climbing at Harrison’s should employ the same technique as any other outcrop, for example Almscliff. The rock is generally quite sound enough.

D.G. Several of your friends have been killed whilst climbing. Do you think that such is worth the sacrifice?

A.A. Climbing is not worth getting killed for, but without some spur you just would not try. The reward in climbing is the intense personal satisfaction of having overcome a challenge with a certain level of danger involved. Without that danger there would be no point in going climbing, you might just as well be in a gymnasium or on a climbing wall! The only reason you go out onto a mountain is because it is such an unfriendly place, and you overcome the difficulties. Nowadays we make up a lot of rules, put them into a straight jacket, and call them climbs.

D.G. I have found that one, of the best aspects of climbing is the Friendships that you might make.

A.A. If you climb a lot you meet other people who climb a lot and who have the same attitudes as you. Under stress, even if it is voluntarily induced, you find a lot out about people and if what you discover is good, then they, become a friend.

D.G. Do you reckon this is why women have not so far fitted into climbing circles, because they are not in a position to strike up these kind of friendships?

A.A. Basically I think women are motivated differently, for they have no need to try. Man’s role has always in the past been the breadwinner, and up until recently women have never been in a competitive situation. I cannot think of another reason why women are not interested in climbing; they are only interested in the blokes, not even in the other women. The proportion of women who climb for ‘climbing’s sake’ is small.

D.G What is your opinion of solo climbing? I refer to the sight soloing of hard routes, because your maxim has been, ‘sane men only lead on sight where there is some protection’.

A.A. I would like to be able to solo, really hard routes. If it gives a climber a kick to solo a climb, then I have nothing against it, because we go to the mountains basically to enjoy ourselves.

D.G. Who-do you think has been the most outstanding climber of your aquaintence?

A.A. The most impressive climbers I have ever climbed with were Joe Brown, Pat Walsh and Don Whillans. Of them all, I think Whillans impressed me the most. I could not understand how Joe climbed, but Whillans climbed like myself only better. I do not know what made Walsh climb, but he also climbed better than-me, although he did not have any sense of dedication as far as I could see. He did not seem to have any drive, his techniques were not marshalled, he-just walked up to the foot of a rock face and ascended it. Whillans climbed just like I did, he thought about a route and arranged protection like I did, only better. Joe’s style was completely different; he never climbed like anyone else I have ever seen. He had a style all of his own and I could not assess how he achieved this.

D.G. I think this was the basis of Joe’s ability to psychologically embezzle the people he climbed with. Moseley failed to follow him on the first ascent of the Boulder, which Ron himself was capable of leading quite easily.

A.A. True, Brown broke almost all the men he climbed with as regular partners. When you think of how good they were when they first started climbing with Joe, they were almost without exception climbing worse when he stopped climbing with them. The only climber who did not was Whillans, presumably he was good at the beginning of their partnership, and he ‘grew up’ with Brown.

D.G. To switch to a lighter tone, the subject of climbing names has always fascinated me. It has been a social commentary almost on the development of our sport. I think you have been one of the climbers who has continually managed to produce excellent names. I am thinking of such as the ‘Ragman’s Trumpet’ and ‘Man of Straw’. How do you keep coming up with names like that?

A.A. Well, generally I am told by other climbers that my names are poor. The people who climb with me generally title the routes; they do not accept my names.

D.G. So someone else deserves all the credit?

A.A. Ragman’s Trumpet was a particular line on Bowfell. The Tomlin team rolled up one day and they declared, ‘We will climb that one day, by God, and we’ll call it the Ragman’s Trumpet!’ They were getting at me I suppose. The Man of Straw was myself; I just did not like placing that peg. I have done the route since without it and there is not much difference in standard.

D.G. Mass circulation climbing magazines are here to stay, and their Circulation’s continue to rise. In my opinion you are no mean writer, some of your articles over the years must be amongst the finest to appear in climbing journals. Why is that you have never contributed to any of the mass circulation climbing magazines?

A.A. The effect that these magazines have on climbing is a bad one. They foster the desire to get into print to the detriment of the sport. For example, if you cannot get up a climb then overcome this by using a piton for aid because you do not get your name into the magazines by failing. The other thing is that it takes me so much effort to write an article, I would rather it went into a journal, where it is kept historically, than a magazine which is thrown away! As for the money they offer, which is not much, I might just as well offer my articles to club journals. I am not interested in forwarding the interests of these magazines; any contribution I can give to climbing is free. The only proviso is that I direct where the article goes-and it must not go to these periodicals.

D.G. I must disagree, for I feel that a good climbing magazine can fill a very useful purpose. Getting back to your climbing, do you consider that your hard routes of today compare with the climbs you were pioneering ten or fifteen years ago? Or do you feel that you reached your peak with climbs like High Street and Astra and although your new routes now might be harder, it’s just the fact that you have become more cunning?

A.A. Modern protection methods enable me to still climb at a high standard. If 1972 were 1955 I would have by now, given up all thoughts of hard new routing. Dolphin thought he was at his peak at 27 and I agree with him. I do not think that a climber can climb past his youthful enthusiasm without good protection on routes. It is guts and stupidity, which makes a climber lead, hard bold routes- and you, can only do that when you are under 30. It’s not a question of being married with a family; it is just that after that age you start slowing down mentally. Modern protection methods are like whiskey, when you are going to try a hard move; you put a nut in.

I would certainly not have been able to make the moves today which I did in 1955, regardless of how hard they are. Until your middle thirties your muscular ability is still good, but after that age, your peak performance begins to drop off, though your stamina might improve. Yet with the aid of the new protection devices you can still make such hard moves, which can only mean in your earlier days you were climbing well below your top standard. The margins of safety then meant that one needed to rely on having good technique, and not to be bolstered by rope work and modern protection. My climbs of today are a lot easier to pioneer, and mentally they only take me one tenth of the effort they once did. It has been years since I was frightened that I was going to be killed.

D.G. You have always been the absolute amateur, climbing mainly at weekends and during short summer holidays. Have you ever been envious of climbers like Bonington and Brown who have managed to spend so much of their time climbing. Do you think that professionalism with its inevitable train of commercialism will in the end be a very bad thing for the future of climbing?

A.A. I think professionalism is bad for climbing. Climbing is essentially a pastime and not a competitive activity; hence the more that professionalism develops the worse it is for our sport. Am I envious? If I had my time over again I would most certainly spend four years at a University, doing a subject that involves the minimum amount of work, and a maximum of spare time. Expeditions-no I am not interested in. The effort involved seems to me to be so great I do not think I would enjoy it. The pinnacle of my desire would be a three- month holiday in the Alps.

D.G. Do you think that you ever give up climbing?

A.A. I hope that I will always climb. I cannot say whether that will always be so. I will find it difficult to drop my standard, but I ought to be leaving a lot of easier routes to climb in the years to come. I think I will always climb. I hope to be like some of the old Fell and Rock Club members, like the present President on his meet at 65 years of age. Borrowing a pair of rock boots to be taken up some Very Severes-that is how I hope I will be at 65, borrowing somebody else’s magic boots and being led up an Extreme climb.

D.G. Many thanks Allan. I think we need to enlighten a new generation of climbers as to why ‘Ragman’s Trumpet’ was in your case so apposite, for your weekdays are spent working in the family business, as wool waste merchants (Once a traditional historical activity in Bradford?)

Update: In later life Allan due to injury turned away from climbing to sailing and his family opened an outdoor retail shop in Bradford, using his name as the identifier. Brian Evans was a founder along with Walt Unsworth of the Cicerone Press, which they sold on at their retirement. 


Dennis Gray: 1973 


Wednesday, 18 November 2020

Robert Mads Anderson's 'Nine Lives'....reviewed


Nine Lives’: Robert Mads Anderson. 208 pages black and white plus 32 pages of colour photographs. Perfect Bound Paperback. £14.95. Vertebrate Publishing.

You have done a very hard thing, but you were lucky’ Reinhold Messner commenting on the Anderson led expedition, which climbed Everest’s Kanshung Face in 1988.

This book recounts nine ‘trips’ to Mount Everest by the author over a period of eighteen years, resulting in a gripping read, full of both triumph and tragedy. Imagine the world’s most massive pyramid, with three faces, replete with rock, ice, snow, altitude problems and avalanches then thinking along the most simple of lines, you would have Chomolungma. Which to climb successfully by any route requires the necessary technical knowledge, almost inhuman perseverance and as Messner observes above, lots of luck, with clement weather and on occasion grim determination.

Everest is a mountain which when discussed by today’s mountaineers, receives either derision by some when considering the South Col, original 1953 route and its many thousands of commercial guided ascents, or keen admiration for such as the ascent of the Super Couloir on the mountain’s north face by the Swiss, Loretan and Troillet in a single push without oxygen in 1986. And though some climbers claim immunity from Everest’s siren call, the list of those whom Anderson met on the mountain or actually climbed with reads like a who’s who of high altitude climbing in the last four or five decades.

The mountain now owns a hundred years plus of history, and so many books, films and videos have appeared bolstering this that it would be possible I am sure to make a good living, following on from Elizabeth Hawley, who based in Kathmandu was a keeper of the Everest record, but now deceased leaves the way open for a new Everest archivist/story teller to take over. If you think on the early attempts of the mountain by the many British pre-war expeditions, attempting the North Ridge route and compare how Anderson approached the climb in 1992, declaring it a magnificent and natural line, a fun snow climb lower down leading to the North Col followed by some even better scrambling up high, except for that rather tricky Second Step on summit day. A great off-season or winter route (this has not yet been achieved!) which is heavily populated in the spring season.

Mallory must be turning in his grave, but as Mummery observed it is the fate of all such climbs to go from the hardest to an easy day over time. And this book does chart the change from the large, extremely expensive expeditions of the early decades post the war to two and four climbers, making ascents in Alpine fashion. Acclimatising on lesser peaks or frequent swift trips to altitude, with even swifter descents, and a wait for a window opportunity and then GO. Many equipment innovations, coupled with the ever increasing knowledge of how best to acclimatise, to avoid Hape and Ace the two oedemas, with a comfortable Base to retreat to in the case of bad weather. And with improved forecasting,; this a crucial element whilst such inevitable waiting occurs.

Anderson admits that he is obsessed with Mount Everest. I think he is the only living mountaineer to have climbed routes on the mountains three faces. Starting out in 1985 with an attempt on the mountains west ridge direct, one of the most convoluted and longest ascents on the mountain, which can be reached either from Tibet via the Central Rongbuk glacier or from the Khumbu(Nepal)side with a 400 metre climb up to and over the Lho La into Tibet. In Nine Lives, Anderson makes two attempts on this ridge climb, reaching 8300m on his first with Pete Athans and 8600m with Jay Smith on a second. This expedition was made up of a large party including some of the big names of American climbing of that era, climbers who had made major ascents in Yosemite, and other USA destinations but who had little or no Himalayan experience and Anderson concluded they really were a rag tag bunch including himself. There was so much to learn because high altitude Himalayan climbing required a different Mind Set. He wanted to try out his own theories of how to approach such ascents, with a small party of climbers, not making use of oxygen to climb which had been the case on this first trip.

Reading Nine Lives I had to think why I never had heard of Anderson and his mates before, for some of them, based in Colorado are cutting edge with new routes in Patagonia and Alaska. Somehow he manages to hold down a business career as an advertising executive, for some time he was based in New Zealand, followed by a sojourn in Norway with some new routing there, then back to the Big Apple (New York). And so his next Everest venture the Kanshung Face in 1988 was to be really something, with just four climbers; three Americans, Paul Teare, Ed Webster, Anderson and one Brit.... Stephen Venables. How the latter came to be involved is surprising, in typical USA fashion Anderson took on a Public Relations expert to help with fund raising and she contacted John Hunt for it would be the 35th anniversary of the ascent by the 1953 team, and he informed that they who would be very supportive if they took with them a British climber, and he then went on to suggest, Stephen Venables! It must have been a shock to Stephen to suddenly find himself so centre stage, but he played his part and fitted in and justified our faith in him. The climb up the Kanshung Face from the Tibetan side, finished at the South Col and the lower sections Venables compared to the Eiger North Face. Unfortunately Paul Teare had to retreat with altitude problems, but Webster and Anderson arrived with Stephen at the Col and then set off up the classic Hilary and Tensing route to the summit. But only the Brit made it and he became the first from our country to do this without oxygen. I guess they thought that they were home and dry, but the descent became a nightmare. With forced bivouacs out in the open, frostbite, storms and spindrift avalanches, it adds up to one of the great escape stories, and I went especially to London to hear about it first hand, with Ed Webster (an outstanding photographer) telling the story at an Alpine Club evening, supported by Stephen Venables. One did not like to pry but Ed’s damage to his hands told their own story.

Post the Kanshung Face climb the author could rightly have rested on his Himalayan laurels, but no once into the 1990’s each year for half a decade, he went back to Everest. In 1990 the Super Couloir, in 1991 a new route, on the same North Face as the previous, but climbed solo and now known as the Anderson Couloir. In 1992 the North Ridge route, in 1993 the Great Couloir route, another climb on the North Face and in 1995 another attempt on this route. On none of these climbs did he and his partners summit, but they often finished at a point where they joined up with a traditional existing route and on one attempt on the Great Couloir, climbing solo he reached 8,400metres. Stephen Venables has noted about the authors optimistic outlook on life and this must have been tested to its limit in the winter of 1999.

His hope was to be either the last person up Everest in that century or the first in the new. For this he chose the North Ridge route, a one man expedition which in the conditions he did well to even reach the mountain. Stymied by high winds and deep snow he made it as far as The North Col! Truly a remarkable achievement in temperatures that the loss of say a pair of gloves could have spelt disaster; the coldest temperature ever recorded near the summit of Everest in winter is almost off the scale at minus 70C, which might be a good temperature to store vaccines, but not to try to climb in.

The writing in this book is of a high quality and there is a spirit of fun and chutzpah throughout. There is however some truly sad events recounted such as the death of a Catalan Doctor, swept to his death in an avalanche on a nearby peak. One that Anderson had climbed just a few days earlier whist acclimatising. He and his climbing partner set out to scour the avalanche debris near the foot of the mountain, and they did find his body. The writing about this and the burial ceremony attended by the climber’s teammates and the author plus partner did bring a lump in the throat. The list of Anderson’s friends and acquaintances met during his nine trips to Everest are listed in an addendum in the rear of his book, which besides reminding me of so many friendships but also some of those who like the Catalan died whilst climbing. One was Hans Christian Doseth, someone who Anderson met and climbed with on his sojourn in Norway; and who I also knew from him visiting the UK on a BMC organised visit. I climbed with him at Almscliff, Malham and the Roaches, seconding him up the Sloth. He died after completing a new route on the Trango Towers in the Karakoram on the descent. Anderson writes of bouldering with him in the fjords and pioneering new routes in the Romsdal Valley together. As fluid and enthusiastic as anyone he had ever climbed with. Sentiments I can only echo.

The story finishes with the author agreeing, against expectations to guide a group of clients for the British tour company, Jagged Globe up the South Col route, during its fiftieth anniversary year 2003. This with all the trappings of a large support team of Sherpas and with another British guide David Hamilton alongside him on the summit day; but even the South Col route can be serious despite all, and having reached the top in glorious still weather, with fabulous views to Shishapangma , far out in the distance, and Cho Oyu, Pumori closer by an epic was about to develop. One of their party; he had stopped a little before the summit complaining of sight problems, and on descending to him the two guides became stunned to find he had developed blindness and could not see. From there on the descent back to the South Col was a nightmare, with one guide behind him and the other in front placing his feet, hold by hold as they descended. This ended successfully back at the Col, but hours later in the dark and as near to disaster as could be. And Everest never gives up being a challenge, for on the descent first the authors party was held up in the ice fall, by a group of Indian climbers, aided by Sherpas towing a body bag through this most difficult of challenges, for they were carrying one of their party who had died in a crevasse fall, and then they watched transfixed as a large Russian made helicopter crashed below them near to their Base Camp. It rolled over and its whirling blades shot off and killed two people nearby. Thankfully the temporarily blind client partially recovered his sight as they descended, but as Anderson notes he was down to the last of his ‘Nine Lives!’

Image: Robert Mads Anderson  

The author has continued with his Everest love affair, returning again to guide the South Col route in 2010. In between times he has climbed many other mountains including the now well known challenge of the 7 Summits, the highest mountains on each continent, except that he managed to do this solo and it is the subject of another of his books. One that I am now enthusiastic to read, for Nine Lives is by a writer with a rare talent for telling it as it really is! The Foreword is by one of Anderson’s closest friends, Peter Edmund Hillary and in that we learn to our surprise that the author is a dedicated family man, and together with both of their families they have trekked to the Everest Base camp. The book is all we have come to expect from Vertebrate Publishers, and it is one to savour and I will read it again....soon. 

Dennis Gray: 2020