Friday, 3 July 2015

Braided Lives: The Vince Betts Story

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The original feature spread

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

Dave Cook: Climber, March 93.

Friday, 26 June 2015

Hamish MacInnes: The Sage of Glencoe

Photo: John Cleare Collection 

I am not a pessimist, but I couldn’t help wondering if I was wasting my time as I packed crampons, ice-axe, head torch, gaiters, climbing helmet and other gear. For the rain was battering on my window, and the weather forecast promised nothing better in the next 24 hours. I was bound for Fort William, to give a lecture, and Fort William and Ben Nevis go together. There was plenty of snow on the Ben, and I had thought it just possible that there could be an overnight change, not only in the overhead conditions, but in the watery eyes, running nose and spluttering cough which were giving me a below-par feeling.
So off I drove after lunch into premature darkness up the side of a Loch Lomond half lost in the gloom of pressing rain clouds – clouds discharging ever more generous measure as I caught the full force of the wind on Rannoch Moor. Then a lift to the spirits as the Buachaille hove into view, its black wedge standing up like a rock skerry amidst a turmoil of vapour bursting from Glen Etive around the lower crags.

Then through the jaws of Glencoe for the descent through waterfalls, spraying out of a gloom so dark that I had to switch on my headlights, though the time was not yet four o’clock. After winding round Loch Leven, half-blinded at times by the glare of oncoming heavy vehicles taking up most of the narrow road, it was a relief to get to Banavie and relax in the house of my host, Dr Allison, who promptly gave me a throat lozenge! My slide lecture that evening was to the local branch of the Saltire Society. It was good to meet old Lochaber friends. It was good, too, to get to bed at half-past midnight and know no more until a rap on the door in the morning told me it was nine o’clock.
“See your doctor and get an antibiotic from him if you are no better by Monday,” advised Dr Allison. Meantime, I drove off up Glen Nevis in the unchanged weather, intent on having a walk through the gorge to Steall.
Even in a downpour you can enjoy the nobility of a place such as this, with the swirling river brimful and spray from it shooting up like steam. This was the spectacle around Polldubh, where the crags close in and the road is forced across to the north side of the glen. And it was just short of here I overtook a smartly-dressed gentleman in city suit and raincoat. He carried a sizable parcel, done up so that it could be gripped like a case. As I stopped to offer him a lift, I thought it strange that he wore no hat on a day like this.
“Thanks, thanks, but I want to walk,” he said in a curiously strangled voice. I drove on, assuming that he must ‘be walking no farther than Polldubh. I had forgotten him by the time the great water-slide of the Allt Coire Eoghainn came into view, a virtual avalanche of white pouring 1200 feet down the gorge wall. That cataract descends the longest and steepest grass slope in Britain, at an average angle of 35 degrees. The actual slide is 1500 feet, but the slope goes on right to the top of Ben Nevis. I once climbed up all the way, and once was enough!

Donning an anorak and water-proof trousers, I took a wee walk along the high path, just to relish this most Himalayan of Scottish gorges. It could almost have been the Rishi itself, and Stob Ban, with its snows, and the clouds scudding amongst its crags, Nanda Devi. All scale is relative, and everything here, the Caledonian pines, the birches, the rowans jutting askew from the crags hemming the thundering river, is in perfect unison, made even more splendid where the Steall waterfall comes into view, blocking the mouth of the gorge in a 350-ft. spray of noble waterfall.

Turning back after that sight, I was soon at the car park and driving down the road again when who should I see trudging steadily towards me but the bare-headed city gent with the parcel. I nearly stopped to offer him my spare hat, if only to find out where he was going, for there is no house other than the Steall Hut, so I can only conclude that this was his destination, perhaps to deliver a parcel to climbers in residence. Yet if that were so, why had he spurned my offer of a lift? Whatever the truth, I hope he had a change of clothes waiting for him, for he was going to need them.

Home, I decided, was the place for me, and despite the foulness of the day there was a queue for the Ballachulish Ferry, so I had time to look at the progress of the bridge as I waited. It is steadily pushing out from both sides, and will soon be meeting in the centre. Forty minutes, and I was over the other side, turning into Glencoe and knocking on the door of a freshly white-washed farmhouse called Achnacon.To my delight, the man himself answered it. Hamish Maclnnes, lean, lanky, a slight touch of ginger in his wispy beard, and a smile of welcome breaking his normally slightly serious expression.
“Great to see a friend. You’re just in time for some coffee. I’m just down off Buachaille Etive Beag. Didn’t go to the top, though. Too wet, nothing to see.”
“Don’t tell me you were climbing for pleasure today?” was my response.
“No, not for pleasure. Just to keep fit.

It was great a week past Friday, plenty of snow, and we cramponed up the Curved Ridge, really good. On the Saturday I was on Bidian nam Bian looking for ice to test out the crampons properly. It’s a new design I’ve worked out, and I think it’s going to be good.”
I told him I had really called to congratulate him on a safe return from the bird-eating spiders, the tarantulas and the scorpions in the jungles and on the Great Prow of Roraima.“It sounded terrible,” I said. “But your book made a fine adventure story, and the television film was superb.“I think you would have enjoyed it, for the wild life was really fantastic.”
Hamish never tries to impress you. He tells his tales in bits and pieces so that you have to quiz him for details such as hunger, illness, hardship and close calls with death. So almost casually he told me he wasn’t doing very much just now except designing equipment for the winter attempt on Mount Everest and working on his novel.“Yes, it’s an adventure novel set in Scotland, and it would never have been started if I hadn’t had that spell in hospital last summer. It’s maybe the closest call I’ve had to death.”
Then he told me a remarkable story almost stranger than fiction.The train of events began at St Abb’s Head on the Berwickshire coast, when a drystone wall collapsed as Hamish scrambled over, and he took quite a bruising on the legs. One of the bruises had been punctured by a pointed rock, and it was so painful that he had difficulty in getting into his car.Next day he had planned to go hang-gliding in the Pentlands (another throw-away line.) I didn’t know he had built himself a hang-glider and was learning to fly it), but the friend who was to join him called off. So with time on his hands, Hamish decided to go along to Edinburgh Royal Infirmary and see if he had a broken bone, for the pain in his leg had worsened during the night and was beginning to worry him.
However, things were moving slowly in the Infirmary that day. Hamish waited and waited for his X-ray, finally got fed up and left. Now we come to the part where the Goddess Luck played her part. Hamish was kept in Edinburgh for a business appointment next day, so instead of driving off immediately to Glen Coe, as he had previously intended, he decided to go back to the Infirmary and try again for an X-ray.

When the doctor in the Casualty Department saw the X-ray plate she recognised on it a tiny pocket of gas gangrene. Instantly she called in the surgeon.Hamish had a shock coming to him. The surgeon did not pull his punches.“We’ve had three people in here with gas gangrene. Two of them died, and the other lost a leg. We’ll have to act immediately, for even the time it takes you to drive from here to Glen Coe could make the difference between saving your leg and losing it. And once the infection spreads beyond the limb, nothing can be done. So it’s a good job you came here today.”
The stone which had punctured the bruise had carried the infection, probably on bird droppings. And I could echo Hamish’s feelings when he said thoughtfully, “It’s quite frightening to know this can happen.”

The surgeon had told him that gas gangrene was a common cause of death by bullet wounds in World War I. Thanks to antibiotics and penicillin drugs, its effects can be arrested today, and, fortunately, the tissue-destroying gas shows up on X-ray plates.Hamish showed me the scar on the region of his shin bone, an angry oval of red flesh.“I’ve made a metal plate to put over it, for I’ve got to see the skin doesn’t break. l began the novel during the 18 days I was laid up in hospital. I’m enjoying it. It’s over 80,000 words, and it isn’t finished yet.”

After that came the next throw-away line by the Grand Master. Not for nothing has he earned the title, “The Sage of Glen Coe”.“Yes, it was handy to go right out to the North Face of the Eiger and get fit again.” I waited as he said ruminatively, “Actually, it was mostly going to work by helicopter. But you did get a bit more climbing every day, so it was an easy way of getting back to fitness again.”
The “work” that Hamish was referring to was his part in the overseeing of the safety arrangements for the Hollywood sex, assassination and climbing film called The Eiger Sanction. Some of the action on the North Face involves a lot of falling, and this is where Maclnnes’s engineering skill came into play. For the most exciting incident he built a gantry projecting out over the face. From this, an actor had to hang from a rope suspended 3,000 feet over a drop, then take a knife from his climbing jacket and cut the rope, to fall clear, and swing on another rope, also attached to the frail-looking gantry.

“Bonington took a real fall while working on the film,” said Hamish.  “Took a clean peel of twenty feet out on the face, but he went back up to his lead point again and got over it. Davie Knowles, who used to work with me in Glen Coe as a climbing instructor, was killed by stonefall on the second day of filming. I’ve lost a lot of good friends in the last few years . . .” .“And now you are planning another tough winter attempt on Mount Everest by the hardest route. I thought you had had enough on your two attempts in the spring and autumn of 1972.”
“I thought so, too,” said Hamish. “I was hoping to go to South America, but l became so involved in the designing of better equipment that I left l couldn’t refuse when Chris Bonington asked me to be deputy leader. It’s really interesting to try to beat the equipment problems Everest sets you when you have to go so far above 27,000 feet. “None of the tents stood up to the conditions last time. I’ve designed a Super Box with curved hoops like the kind tinkers use in the Highlands, but with four longitudinal members bracing it. And as well as a strong outer covering, I have tried out a light- weight metal mesh to go over the top. It’s so strong that the biggest boulder I could throw down on it just bounced off. We’ll have better floor insulation, too. “
“I’ve also borrowed an idea from the old volcano kettle, where the heat is in the centre compartment and the water is in the jacket round it. I am trying out at dixie which fits on to the stove, but the heat goes into an empty cone of metal. You push the snow into the top, and it melts in contact with the hot cone inside, so maybe we won’t have to wait four hours for the stove to melt and boil water at a boiling point of 60˚C.

“The oxygen problem is interesting, too. I’ve been in touch with the Americans and the British Army, and we should have new-type cylinders 26 inches long by 4¼ inches in diameter, weighing only 10 lb, just half the weight and giving every bit as much oxygen as the old type. I’m having special valves made in the States, and I’m experimenting now how to get better control of the supply. The oxygen apparatus on the last trip was hopelessly inefficient.”
“Anyway, we’ll be trying all the gear when we go out to the Alps in January to camp high in the Mont Blanc area. For really big crevasses, I’ve worked out a way of jointing ladders and attaching down ward-pointing stays round which you can run a cable from both ends so that the ladders become one rigid bridge.”

For the new attempt there will be seventeen climbers, six of whom have been on the South-West Face before. Haston and Maclnnes will make a powerful pair, and two Glenmore Lodge instructors will be in the party, Peter Boardman and Alan Fyffe. Mike Thompson, who was with Maclnnes on Roraima, will organise the food, and after the starvation of the Lost World trip, it is to be hoped that the cuisine will be varied and plentiful.

As for the route, this time Bonington and Maclnnes are attacking the crucial rock band farther to the left, where they hope to be able to climb a snow-filled chimney at 28,000 feet and traverse right across the face to reach a gully giving access to the summit. The all- important thing is to be on the mountain as early as possible. It is hoped to have base camp set up by August 25, to give the climbers a chance to make the summit before the cold and the wind become too desperate for survival at these heights.

“Come over and see the workshop. You haven’t seen my new set-up. You know that my job is to design better equipment and work out improved techniques in rescue work, not only on mountains, but for, oil-rig and oil-platform rescues.

I thought what a lot had happened to Hamish in twenty-one years. He emigrated to New Zealand and opened up a lot of new routes there. Then he set off for Everest with Johnnie Cunningham, with only a few quid between them. Now he’s going back to try the most difficult way to the top of Everest, with the most expensive expedition ever mounted, costing £100,000 no less.
Hamish climbed with Chris Bonington when the latter was just starting his climbing career, and now the pair of them must be amongst the best-known and most respected climbers, writers and photographers in the world.

“Strange the way it works out,” Hamish responded to my comment. Then, as an afterthought, as I was about to drive away, he said, “I forgot to tell you. I was out on St Kilda last summer. Joe Brown and I were landed on Boreray to try the big pinnacled face that leaps 1,400 feet up to the summit. We thought it might give a great climb, but it was no use, really nasty, too much grass and too many birds, gannets all over the place. The big stac in Soay Sound is the one we would like to have done, but there was no time. The place I really want to go to most of all is the Trango Towers in the Karakoram. If Everest hadn’t come along I think Chris and I would have gone there. But it can wait.”
It was Tom Patey who first brought back a report on the Trango Towers. He reckoned they were the hardest-looking vertical faces he had ever seen. They will be just right for Maclnnes and Bonington!

Tom Weir: 1976

Friday, 19 June 2015

Across Lakeland in a day: With a little help from my friends


One hears tales of the balmy days of the British presence in India, when walks in the Himalayas were done hands in pockets unencumbered by camping equipment, since the bulk of one's retinue had gone ahead to set the camp up, unfold the armchairs and brew the tea. Alpine literature too gives evidence of ample entertainment in the high mountains. The English milord had not only a guide but porters as well, laden with hams, roast fowl and bottles of wine. W. T. Kirkpatrick, writing about the Alps at the turn of the century, commented that 'the number of bottles that mark the route up many well-known mountains would almost suggest that some persons climb for the sake of drinking.

Even in Scotland a ghillie would arrange for hampers to be taken to the hill on the backs of ponies, so there was no need to pack sandwiches and waterproofs and spare clothing; and the revolting convenience foods which afflict the outdoor life today were unknown. But those expansive days are not wholly passed away. They have their modern counterpart in the supported walk. The first example of the modern supported walk that I came across was as long ago as 1954, when Crosby Fox, George Spenceley and I were doing the Cuillin Ridge. Our pleasure in the excursion was tempered by having to carry a rope, quantities of water and a good deal of food, including a jar containing eleven eggs sloshing about in half a pound of sugar. At two or three points such as the Bhasteir Tooth we met Alpine Club members whose mission was to provide food and drink and a rope for some of the recently successful Everest climbers who were taking a celebratory romp over the Cuillin Ridge. The supported walk par excellence!

The simplest form of supported walk is where you prevail upon someone to drive you to the start and pick you up again at the end. But for the true hedonist in the hills that is hardly enough. A friend of mine once described seeing a well-known Greek shipping millionaire step out of a helicopter at the top of a ski-run in St Moritz. A valet placed his skis on the snow. He stepped into them. The valet adjusted the bindings, handed him the sticks and scurried back into the helicopter, his next duty being to take them off at the bottom. Something akin to that is what we are after. The snag with supported walks is that one can hardly justify support unless one is undertaking something pretty demanding. The support party will play only if sufficiently impressed by the exploit in question. I have the good fortune to know the non-pareil of walk-supporters, Mike Harvey. He will not only support your walk: he will put the idea into your head and then carefully fan the feeble flame of interest into a fire of enthusiasm.

Ever since I drew attention to it in the book 'Big Walks', Mike Harvey had been offering to support the Shap to Ravenglass walk, and he now proposed an actual date, May 2nd. My character is such that I will agree to almost anything if the date is sufficiently far away, so I did not demur. In fact, so long as the whole thing remained comfortably in the future it formed an attractive and absorbing topic of conversation. It is a curious thing that long walks appear to be more attractive than short ones. People who would normally get out the car rather than walk one mile nevertheless flock in hundreds to do the Lyke Wake walk of forty. As Ronnie Faux pointed out in the Times a month or two ago, walking is really rather a pedestrian business, and it needs the spur of inordinate length to goad the imagination a bit.

So several people are now expressing an interest in walking from Shap to Ravenglass and it begins to look as if we are actually going to have to do it. As the date approaches and what has been a pleasing idea becomes an alarming reality my health, never robust, begins to decline perceptibly. I even try to defer the whole thing, but without success because supported walks have a juggernaut effect; once set in motion they take a lot of stopping. However, I have devised a training schedule for events from which escape proves impossible, which I have found most effective. I work up by easy stages to a stern regime of complete and determined inactivity, with long spells of prone and supine lying. This I have found leads to an excess of nervous energy on the day which can carry one through whatever one has let oneself in for.

The final party turns out to be quite small and also quite disparate. The average age is forty-seven years. There is my son, Mike Harvey's son, and Etsu Peascod,* a young Japanese lady who combines a fragile flower-like beauty with the heart of a Samurai. A dream of pastoral bliss with bells in the distance turns into the shrilling of an alarm clock. It is the hour. I wake Etsu and my son Trevor and we head for Shap. The only other car on the old A6 turns out to be Mike Harvey and his son Matty. Well met. We park the cars at Keld, and set off walking at ten past three. To give myself every possible advantage I wear my ancient suede desert boots (known to veterans of the Western desert as brothel-creepers). Down at heel though they now are, and paper-thin in the soles, they weigh only eleven ounces each. I am relieved to note that the young and energetic Matty is wearing stout boots which will hold him in check a little I hope.

I am quite familiar with the footpath that takes one past Tailbert into Swindale, but in the dark it eludes me. Within twenty minutes of starting, my feet are soaked and we are lost among waterlogged tussocks. With forty miles still to go this is discouraging. We give up looking for the path, go through the Tailbert farm buildings and make for Swindale on a compass course. We can see a dark gulf ahead with a pale gleam of water in it that might be a nearby puddle or a more distant river. Before long we come to the Swindale Beck and crossing it at a shallows get at last on to the road.
Our progress on up the dale is marked by the furious barking of dogs at each farm, and we work it out that should a sash window be thrown up and a shotgun appear we will lie down on the ground until both barrels have been discharged before attempting to explain what we are doing. We take the old corpse road and by the time we reach the grassy upland between Swindale and Mardale it is broad daylight. A cuckoo starts calling; it is the first I have heard this year. It is a good experience to walk from darkness into daylight and we know what the man meant who wrote: ' A solemn glee possessed my mind at this gradual and lovely coming in of day' . Furthermore we appear to have picked a winner. The sun is a little obscured by clouds, but they are dispersing. Skylarks ascend, carried upwards by the sheer volume of their song. It is cool and crisp, High Street and Kidsty Pike standing hard-edged against a clear sky. The zenith is already becoming blue. We descend the zig-zags into Mardale and hit the road. Half a mile along it is our support car. ' You're twenty minutes late', says Mike Harvey, serving tea and biscuits. Handing in our torches we go round the head of the reservoir and up towards Blea Water. About level with the tarn there is a right fork in the path and this slants up to the ridge of Caspel Gate.

We go slowly up to the little col and then up the ridge looking down into the deep trough of Riggindale. Soon we are treading the long high back of High Street. There is no simpler and more innocent way of feeling superior than to be out walking on the hill-tops while the rest of the world is rubbing its eyes, groping for a cigarette, or dragging the bed-clothes rebelliously over its head for another ten minutes. We ramble on down the five-mile descent to Patterdale, one of the most enjoyable ways down a hill that I know. The going is easy, some of it level or even mildly up-hill, yet one is traversing steep slopes and enjoying views into the grand side of the Helvellyn range. Angle Tarn is beautiful. As we finally descend into Patterdale the valley lies below, calm and dreamy in the clear morning air, except for a man running urgently across a field. This is Mike Harvey, caught napping by our early arrival, dashing to put breakfast on.

He and his other son, Benny, have the car parked in a tastefully appointed lay-by, with seats, at the point where the footpath debouches on to the road. There is fruit juice, a choice of cereals, porridge, king-size bacon butties, rolls and marmalade, and coffee. The sun beams down upon us, his chosen. We drink to Al Fresco. Our way now leads up Grisdale, the young fellows so charged with calories that they keep disappearing ahead despite their big boots. It is a very pleasant valley, Grisedale, its pastoral charm eventually giving way to more craggy terrain, until it ends suddenly and dramatically at Grisedale Tarn. We trip daintily across the wet ground north of the tarn and drop down through a slot towards Dunmail Raise. The path is muddy and ruinous, and the two lads pull a fast one by going out on the flank of Seat

Sandal and finding a long tongue of snow to glissade down. Our supporting party is drawn up on the grass verge, kettle boiling, luncheon all ready. It is midday and we have come half the distance. From Dunmail we go straight up the side of Steel Fell, and so, at the expense of one stiff pull, gain access to that long upland that carries you right across the centre of the Lake District.

It is a little wet underfoot, with odd patches of old snow, but fortunately skin is a kind of super Gore-tex and our feet remain dry on the inside. For the rest, it is a bright and invigorating day with a few white cumulus clouds. We drift up over High White Stones, that second broad, airy upland on this walk, and slant down on to the top of the Stake, assisted by one or two snow patches. The next section, round the side of Rosset Pike, begins to feel a little long. It is tea-time, and in the natural order of things we should be taking a cup of choice Assam to see us through until we can decently think in terms of gin and tonic. We flag a little, there is no denying it. But we have two things to look forward to in the immediate future; one is reaching our second Angle Tarn of the day and the other is making our final col, Ore Gap.

At Angle Tarn we sit down for five minutes, the two lads having already been there about ten, gathering a little head of steam for the last ascent. It is very pleasant here in this familiar spot and we are in good shape, all moving parts functioning satisfactorily. There is no real urgency about getting on the move again . . . But then we think of our support waiting on the road, and we get somewhat listlessly to our feet. From Ore Gap we can see the sea, and the Isle of Man, and, as like as not, Craig yr Isfa. The sea is still a long way off but it is manifest that there are no hills in our way, and we take heart and even get ahead of the lads for a few minutes in our plunge down into Eskdale. I have spent many a day and night in Green Hole and never found it a dry place, but we stride heedlessly through the luxuriant heavy-contract deep-pile carpet of moss, straight down the valley. We turn aside to look down the waterfalls and into the pot-holes of Lingcove Beck. This is my old home valley and I seem already to  have reached our destination.

We pass the pack horse bridge, the bathing dub at Throstlegarth, Heron Crag, and Brotherilkeld Farm, and come out on to the road at the foot of Hardknott. At the gate are Etsu's own special support party. We hear a sharp report like the popping of a champagne cork. It is the popping of a champagne cork. 'But we've another ten miles to go' , I expostulate, the words impeded somewhat by the passage of bubbly down my throat. Champagne is not to my knowledge much used in the hills, but it certainly has a future. Along the road, in another tastefully-selected lay-by, Mike is ready with delicious viands spread out upon the herbage. It is a splendid calm evening with plenty of day-light still left, just the occasion for a post-prandial riverside stroll. Leaving the road at Doctor's Bridge we walk the delectable footpath along the side of the Esk. It turns out to be one of the most enjoyable parts of the whole walk. Just above Boot Church two iron girders span the river, all that remains of a railway bridge, and we cross here in preference to the stepping stones further down, in case they are under water.

The way now leads through tall woods, and we notice for the first time the decline of the daylight. The woods are delightful after so much time on the open fells. There is no question of going over Muncaster Fell, I am happy to report. We take the entirely satisfactory private road down the side of it, appreciating the evening light on the meadows between us and the Esk. For a mile or more someone has been inconsiderate enough to mend the road, with the result that not only is the ' way strewn with cutting flints' but Trevor, with the infra-red vision of the historian, finds two large examples of Roman brick in a drainage ditch, and we have to carry them in our hands for the rest of the way. It is now quite dark and we lose slightly the sense of time and distance, but we walk buoyantly on, the bit between our teeth and the smell of the sea in our nostrils. The last mile or so is on the road but at last we come to the Ravenglass turning and break into a stately canter. The village street ends in the waters of the estuary. The tide is right up. We let it wash over our toes.

Tom Price and Etsu Peascod's champagne celebration

Tom Price: First published in Climber Oct 81 

* Wife of Climber/Artist Bill Peascod 

Friday, 12 June 2015

Don Whillans.....Climbing like a ruptured duck!

Original Photo: Adrian Bailey
Don Whillans took a firm grip on the undercut handholds, leaned out from the rock and sized the job up. The route was Dovedale Groove on Dove Crag, E1 5b. It is his route. On May 4 1953 (when Colonel John Hunt and his party were establishing their camps in the Western Cwm of Everest) Don and two mates from the Rock and Ice Club, Joe Brown and Don Cowan, parked their motor-bikes near Brotherswater, walked up to the crag and had a go. Don led the first pitch and Joe led the second and that was the job done. August 1984.

The intervening 31 years have brought a lot of changes  to the sport and to Don. When he made the first ascent he was 20 and weighed about 9-1/2 stone. At the age of 51 he admits to 14 stone and looks, if anything, heavier: 'My problem', he said, 'is going to be getting the paunch over the overhangs. That and not using up all my strength in the first bit. I was feeling quite confident on the way here but I'm not so sure now. It looks steeper when you get under it. I might have a struggle. Think it calls for a spot of market research'. He moved up and had another long look at the problem.

Dovedale Groove is one of those climbs where the hardest moves are at the start. There is a vertical wall, perhaps ten feet or so, with no footholds worth mentioning and not much in the way of handholds either. Don had never been back to look at the route — not even in 1960 when he came to the crag to create Extol — but he remembered one thing clearly: 'The crack higher up was easier than we expected. But this bottom part was a lot harder. I hung a sling on a little flake and stepped up in it — that did the trick. But the flake's gone now — you can see the bit of clean rock where it was. So we'll have to fix a sling in this crack somehow and I'll step up on that. It'll have to be a good 'un — a 14-stoner'. He experimented patiently.

He found a  pebble that lodged securely in the crack and adjusted the rope sling to a comfortable length. 'That'll probably do. If I can't do it with that, I can't do it at all. I'm definitely not going to attempt it without some aid'. He descended and scrambled up the easier rock to the left of the groove to study the handhold higher up: 'Christ! It's as round as a baby's bum'. For a man of such bulk he is still compact and surprisingly neat in all his movements. His feet and hands are small and he uses them deftly, with the maximum of precision and economy. Everything is worked out first.

He does not make hasty or clumsy movements — or statements. The Whillans style has not changed with the years. He uses short words and short sentences, sometimes enlivened by a vivid image, and the flat Lancashire delivery increases the effect of directness and confidence. There is no artifice, nothing phoney, no hint of self-doubt. He says what he thinks and when he has nothing to say he shuts up. With Don the style is very much the man, reflecting a unique and positive personality.

'I like to climb at a level where I feel comfortable and this is a couple of grades above that level'. So he was wearing P.A.s — he wore gym shoes on the first ascent — and he was not going to lead it this time. And he was not going to apologise for the fact that he used the aid of a sling when he first did it: 'When you're doing it for the first time, you do everything to conserve your energy. You don't know what's coming next — how hard it's going to be further up. So if you can fix a nice little leg-up, you do it — to save the strength in your hands and arms.

It's all right for those who come later. They can read all about it in the guidebook. They know what's coming. There was no guidebook to this crag in 1953 — there were only three or four routes on it'. On the first ascent they had a nylon rope that kinked badly and half a dozen nylon slings with karabiners with which they hoped to fix a few running belays. That was about it — no helmets, no harnesses, no nuts. On August 17 1984 Chris Bonington and Don were planning to use much the same gear — apart from Don's P.A.s — but in other respects things were very different. They did not even have to walk up to the crag. A helicopter dropped them 200 yards from the foot of the route, along with a small army of attendants.

Climbing for the cameras is slow work — that is why Don had so much time, too much, to study the crux and work out how he would tackle it. The whole thing was to be filmed as part of a series Chris is making for Channel Four about important Lake District climbs (others include Eagle Front and Footless Crow). Luckily, it was a warm day and the rock was bone dry. Finally, everyone was ready. The main camera rolled and Don and Chris walked the last few yards to the foot of the route, pretending to puff and blow a little, then they prepared for the climb and chatted about it. Chris — wearing tennis shoes — tied the nylon rope round his waist with a bowline in the old way and wrapped his nylon slings over his shoulder.

He selected a variety of pebbles and distributed them about his pockets. Don remembered that the rock had been dry on the first ascent and that the cracks had been crammed with gunge. He had had to do a lot of gardening. After the conversation piece there was a lengthy pause while the camera was unloaded and someone came over from the tents with sandwiches and cans of drink. Don, anxious to get cracking, bore it all with patience. The years have mellowed him. It is many years since he dobbed a policeman or any other uniformed interferer. And, after all, he was being paid for sitting around in the sun. So he kept control. When they were ready to resume shooting a voice came through on the walkie-talkies: `Is Don happy?' The reply was muted but loaded with the laconic impact for which he has become notorious: `You'll be lucky'. The cameras rolled, clapper-boards were clapped, the director called 'Action' and Chris moved up past Don, comfortably belayed, to confront the chief problem.

Chris is turned 50, only a year or so younger than Don, but he has kept himself trimmer. They both have beards now but Don's is the more grey and grizzled. They are very different in style and character and conditioning and they have not always seen eye to eye. But they have known each other for 27 years and they have climbed together a lot in the Alps and the Himalayas and there is a mutual respect and trust. Chris carefully fixed two pebble-slings in the crack and clipped the climbing rope into the karabiners. He did not intend to use the slings as footholds and somehow he managed without them. One big upward lunge and and the crux was conquered, unaided. `That first move is quite hard', he called down. Don had been amused to see one of the runners come out as Chris writhed above it: `I've already lost faith in your chock-stoning, 'cos it's come out, the bottom one'. But the higher one held firm and this was the one he would need for his sling foothold.

A few moments later Don was remarking on the propensity of gym-shoes for 'curling off' small rounded holds when Chris's left foot,pat on cue, demonstrated. He quickly found a more secure hold. "Did you see that, Don?' `Aye. Proved the point I was making. I bet that got the adrenalin pumping'. Before long Chris was belaying at the top of the first pitch, and the cameras had to be reloaded so there was another intermission. At last the cry of 'Action' was heard again. `I'll just get my sweater off', Don shouted up. 'It looked a bit hot'. Then he moved up to inspect the sling and test it with a couple of hearty tugs. `It's strong all right but is it 14-stone strong? We'll soon know'. There was a short struggle to get his right foot into the loop, then he transferred his whole weight: `Hang on tight. The pebble's moving. It's going down the crack nicely'. But it held long enough.

Keep the rope tight, Chris. I've got the hold — it's just a matter of heaving this paunch up. Give it the big heave'. And he was there — or, at least, on to slightly easier ground. `Jesus. I don't remember it being that hard. It's a real bollock-stretcher, that. When I tried to get my foot up I hit my belly with my knee'. Soon after, he joined Chris at the belay. The first, worst pitch was done. That was the end of the day's climbing. The helicopter pilot was reported to be worried about the immediate weather prospects so they would stop now and come back tomorrow or the day after to film the second pitch. They abseiled off and the chopper lifted them back in time for a jar or two before dinner.

Alan Hankinson: first published as 'Don does it again' in High-November 1984.