Friday, 12 February 2010

Rock Climbers in Action in Snowdonia: Part Two

"Joe Brown during the second ascent of his own route Spiders Web, high in the natural arch above the sea' John Cleare Mountain Camera Library©

Here is Tony writing about The Master, forty years ago:
"The interesting thing is that Brown himself is not the least bit aggressive. He never raises his voice, and seems to do more listening than talking, except when he occasionally starts reminiscing or theorising, which causes an attentive silence to fall. I have always had the feeling that Brown has no need to be dynamic, conspicuous, and so on when he climbs, as most other 'hard' men are, because he has such an affinity with rock. I once watched a man breaking flint with a hammer into little pieces were to be used in old-fashioned matchlock guns. Every piece, after a few taps, finished up exactly the right size and shape, and it turned out that the man had been doing this work all his life. He was a craftsman, a man who not only produced good work, but understood the material with which he worked, all its foibles, its occasional refusal to behave as expected, its bouts of stubbornness. There was hardly any possibility of his getting upset, and there was certainly no need for an elaborate workshop and expensive tools. In some ways he reminded me of Joe Brown, who understands his own medium with the same timeless instinct and lack of pretence. It seems fitting, perhaps inevitable, that Brown, too, should have a very ordinary background and have been at one time a manual worker, a plumber. I can't imagine someone from higher up in the social order or from the professional classes having the same ingrained skill and almost earthy understanding."
Tony's text captures climbing in Wales, just before the exploration and wide interest in the sea cliffs of Anglesey. The main theatres of activity were still the Llanberis Pass, Clogwyn du'r Arddu and the cliffs of Tremadoc, and with the wonderful gift of hindsight it is clear just how traditional the scene still was. Great changes were soon to come, the likes of Positron and Right Wall were not far away, and the forthcoming advances in vision, nerve and athleticism were to be quite revolutionary within a British context. What the book demonstrates is how Welsh climbing felt before the boom in interest and the increases in general ability that arrived in the late sixties.

These days Tony, who is the son of the great Alpine and Himalayan explorer Frank Smythe, lives in Staveley, just north of Kendal. He is still frequently out in the hills walking and mountain biking, and remains a very fit man. Talking to Tony about the book, I was struck by his modest diffidence, amounting to almost slight embarrassment about it all. When I indicated just what an influence the book has had on so many climbers of a certain age, Tony seemed genuinely surprised and pleased that the work he and John put in was so well regarded to this day. In truth I have always felt that the book captured the spirit and rhythm of the time perfectly and remains a hugely enjoyable read. Tony is particularly good when writing about Cloggy (he later contributed a fine essay about Vember for 'Hard Rock') and because he had genuinely struggled with some of the top routes of the day, is able to give good, honest insights into just what the experience of hard climbing felt like at that time. One has to remember just how new and revealing this type of writing was, and it came across as dynamic and refreshing to many readers. Like Tony, John is still very active in the hills "as photographers don't really retire!" He still climbs as frequently as possible, is a keen ski mountaineer, and has recently taken up long distance mountain biking.

Al Alvarez, writer,critic,poet and rock climber fights his way up MPP a very hard climb in Dinas Mot high above Llanberis Pass at the heart of North Wales Climbing.( Shot for the Observer June 27th/1965)
John Cleare Mountain Camera Library©
The legacy of 'Rock Climbers in Action has proved to be strong one. The superb photographic work of the likes of Ray Wood, Dave Simmonite and Cubby Cuthbertson lean strongly on the work of John Cleare all those years ago. Gradually more written work appeared about Welsh climbing; biographies of Brown and Whillans, The Black Cliff, Welsh Rock, biographies of Menlove Edwards, Kirkus and Herford to name but a few. Despite the passing years, the book is held in great affection by many climbers not least for capturing a particular period so clearly and with such charm. I have met people who can recite pieces of text (honestly!) and its cult status has endured because the book was not produced in great numbers (for many years it was rumoured that there were only 1,000 copies but that is not true.) The book originally retailed at £1,75 (about the price in 1966 of eighteen pints of bitter!) these days copies very rarely crop up on used book lists, it seems that most people who bought the book want to keep it, such is its quality. Very occasionally a second hand copy comes on the market and there are rumours of up to £250 being paid. Like 'The Black Cliff' and 'High Peak', it remains one of the most sought after, and scarce, British mountain books of the modern era. In the USA, copies in good condition have fetched $500.
As I indicated earlier, to climbers of a certain age the book is held in huge affection. I once sat around a campfire in the Alps, listening to people who not only knew the order of the photographs but could also recite the captions almost word for word! (This event was very funny and clearly demonstrated under the influence of cheap wine that male obsession can veer seriously near to mild forms of mental illness!) I have also met Rock Climbers in Action tickers, trying to knock off all the routes in the photographs. The inclusion of The Thing, Erosion Direct, Pellagra and Cloggy's Great Wall have always ensured that that would be no easy task while much of Carpet Slab is simply no longer available, having fallen down in 1986.
While still at school in South London in 1967, I took a copy of the book down from a shelf in Brixton Library. I turned the pages, saw John's photographs and can genuinely say that I was hooked---like many others I wanted to be out there on those routes and be a part of that world. Just revisiting the book both in terms of photographs and text brings back wonderful memories of great days on the crags of mysterious Snowdonia. Forty years down the road, it is full marks to John and Tony, for creating a gem of a book that has brought huge pleasure to so many of us and inspired many a pushy and unforgettable lead! Wales was never to be like this again----the rush across Anglesey to the vertical adventures of Gogarth was soon to sweep over the mainstream and more people then began to look further afield to Europe, the USA and elsewhere but all that is another story.
Pellagra Shadows. Pete Crew in action, February 1965.John Cleare Mountain Camera Library©

Steve Dean© John Cleare©

First published in the Climbers Club Journal. Photographs first published in 'Rock Climbers in Action in Snowdonia' Smythe/Cleare. Published Secker and Warburg 1966.
Special thanks to Steve Dean, John Cleare and The Climbers Club