Friday, 16 April 2010

Up against it

Menlove Edwards remains one of great romantic doomed heroes of Welsh climbing. One of four children born to a country vicar in Formby on the Lancashire coastal flatlands  just north of Liverpool. The maturing Menlove quickly found himself adrift from a conservative society on the cusp of the second world war by virtue of his homosexuality, complex character traits and controversial  political values which included his declaration as a conscientious objector.However, what really guided his sad destiny more than these elements was what was almost certainly, a bipolar condition.

It was Menlove's lot in life to become increasingly obsessed with feelings of isolation and persecution from his professional peers and the climbing establishment. In his career as a psychiatrist,his belief that he had been ignored and scorned with regard to his academic psychiatric theories caused extreme bitterness and anger. Emotions which led to him finding solace in what at the time was an extreme approach to rock climbing.An activity in which he possessed true genius aided by almost unnatural strength,a reckless disregard for bad rock and vegetation and a boldness which bordered on suicidal!
Concentrating his activities on the as yet unexploited cliffs of Llanberis Pass, the traditional venues of Ogwen, Lliwedd and peripheral areas like the Carneddau and Nantlle. Apart from occasional forays to the Lakes and Scotland and his regular sessions on the local Helsby crags on Merseyside, Menlove essentially was a Welsh activist Par excellence!
Here he established routes which were at the cutting edge of the time;Climbs which quite often were hopelessly undergraded ! As a member of the establishment Climbers Club he was often to be found at the club's Helyg hut in Ogwen Valley where he based activities which included work as a guidebook author.A role which saw him pen the club's Lliwedd, Cwm Idwal, Tryfan and Clogwyn du Arddu guides.
As his mental condition worsened, Menlove took refuge in Colin Kirkus's beautifully situated but isolated little cottage of Hafod Owen in Nantmor.Increasingly he threw himself at vegetated disintegrating cliffs and undertook hare brained dangerous activities which included rowing across the storm tossed Irish Sea from the Isle of Man to Cumbria, swimming down the white waters of the Linn of Dee and attempting to row from Scotland to Norway in a leaking little boat. A doomed passion for a young Wilfred Noyce further exacerbated his fragile mental condition and the period from the end of the war until his journeys end in 1958 was marked by suicide attempts,periods of mental hospitals and living alone with his paranoia. Despite periodically returning to north Wales and establishing the odd hard route,his climbing career had wound down to occasional salvos of activity punctuated by an increasing feeling of hopelessness and worthlessness .
Returning home on his motor bike from a climbing trip to north Wales in 1957, Menlove was involved in a collision when he hit a young boy on a cycle and killed him. It was the final straw. Months later he took his own life by swallowing cyanide.
Fortunately for the climbing community, apart from his legacy of outstanding popular climbs,he left a body of work which includes some of the finest essays on the sport ever written.

Recommended further reading...Menlove by Jim Perrin: Ernest Press.

Al Leary on the crux of Route 2. Just before the legendary 'thank God!' holds.Andy Bruce©

We all like to gloat over a thing and as the year goes by we think of summer and what to do in the holidays, whether some great feat, but this year, age creeping on, no I said, this year a rest. It was not to be. Won't tell you why, take too long, but here I was at the beginning of August, four weeks to go, and the four of them booked for Lliwedd – the guide.
We had meant to camp, but what can you do, the rain pouring, the tent blown down, sleeping sacks drowned, and not wanting a repetition who but a fool would do anything else ? We shifted back down the valley.We had a car just then and the climbing? 
 It's no good telling chaps like you trash about all we did. You wouldn't be interested. It's new stuff you want, we weren't really on for that, we had work to do. We had meant to do some, but once we started ... you can't give up climbing, go soft, without an insidious weakening coming on, and so it was with us, we found. We had to do the ordinary climbs first.

We started off on the Rocker Route first day, early start, photograph of cliff in sunshine, last chance for two weeks but we didn't know that, strode over the grass, up the screen and stood panting a little but full of hope at the foot of the Rocker Route. Nice easy climb, but it was on the second pitch I began to wobble, being some way off the ground by then and it's very nervy if you don't trust your footing, then on the fourth pitch I couldn't do it at all but could take a shoulder, and after that, you know what it is, you've got to do it somehow but how, you may come adrift any minute and go for six, but we went on, grim as death we went on, a little light refreshment half way didn't we need it, 3.0 p.m., and the worst is yet to come, but we went on knuckles, scraped knees bleeding, 5.0 p.m., 6.0 p.m., 6.30 p.m., the summit : what a victory : what a life: but if every climb was going to go like that what about the guide, we'd never do it, not in four weeks, not in four years. So Alec and I stout friends, we drew in our belts, shook each other by the hand, swore faith to the end, and that we must be very careful, that we had bargained to be bad, but not quite so bad as this, no, but we had four good pitons and we would keep them ever round our belts. So we couldn't come to too much harm we felt whatever happened. Then as I said, the rain came and we got wet, wet through, and then the tent blew down, and there was nothing for it after three days like that only to go down and cart all the food away again, though we left a little just in case, and bread is such a bulk to carry, though when it's wet it very soon gets mouldy, but the birds might have it. You may think we laughed, but we did not, it was too much for us, and over the next two weeks I draw a veil. It shall cover also the climbing, our cheeks, pale then though now burning, and the fact that we did not quite do one climb per day.

But you say then, how is it, how can it be ? It came thus. It was I who started it, I said we will do the Great Chute, two Rucksackers did it, it can't be too bad – I hope not. Then we got there...... the mouth of the East Gully . . . Yes...... band of quartz . . . " Yes. So we went up, slow of course, and getting higher we said these Rucksackers they lie, and it was all loose, and we were not at all safe, but we went on, not without doubts, and followed it up foot by foot reading what was said about it, and only not doing what we should when it was certainly impossible. Near the top it got harder as it said it would and we stepped with difficulty into the unsuspected crack on the right, as it said we would, then we stepped with difficulty up it, as also told, and dropped a very big block which cut the rope and knocked away the ledge No 2 was standing on.
the rock was not good,so that he hung by his hands and shouted and I hauled in the rope though in no position to do so greatly to my credit, but as I say, the rope was cut, after which we were very careful and we went on and reached the summit. But when we got down again we found the Great Chute went up from near the same start indeed but not up that side of the East Gully at all, the other side, so that what we had climbed was not a climb at all. So we wrote it up new, and said how funny, we would never have done it otherwise, and it has been a great day for us, but hush, not a word about that in the guide. We only did one climb that day too, because we were quite tired out and you know what a strain it is always to be climbing, and if you are frightened, and if you are on one cliff day after day, there is no variety. We gave it a name, the Runnel, which sounded aristocratic, we thought, and au fait.
Graham 'Streaky' Desroy on The Terminator. Al Leary©

Then another week went by, bad as before but not so atrocious. One climb after another we did, one day after another, nearly every one, but not quite, for on one day or more we were too exhausted, so that we could not rise up in the morning but lay there stuporous until the day after. Nothing new except a variation here and there, especially I must say the Birch Tree Terrace Route which wandered heaven knows where all over the place before we did it, but that was a flash in the pan, no true harbinger. Things were altering though. Yes, looking back you could see that, it was D's before and no harder, but now it was Vs too, and VD goes a long way on Lliwedd, there's nothing much on that cliff. And the party changed. One went. Then we tried to find the Great Chute again and it was even harder to see where the words went on this side of the cliff, where it did go, than on the other, the Runnel side, where it didn't. We got tied up a bit and when I was off the route on one side I got stuck, and I got off the route on the other side next and dropped a very big stone again which landed 80 feet below on the side of No. 3's head so he fainted a bit, and when we got down to look at him we had to abandon that climb and get him down, take him to hospital. So another went. And next time, too, that we tried that climb the last chap nearly went, but we digress, we go too far. It happened like this. We got so far, then the steep bit goes up a crack 30 feet which then opens into a great V chute suddenly, a very great one but no stance, not till 40 feet up the great V chute, and I got there, the top of the crack, and feeling giddy with the air and on a good foot hold. For twenty minutes I rummaged and got a first-class thread at the back of the crack, got No. 2 up there and tied him on and a thunderstorm started, a real cloudburst, the sky dark, the birds stilled (there were six that week, very heavy ones). Very soon there was a big stream down the great V chute getting bigger, so I stayed to see what would happen for I felt a little giddy still, and No. 2 with the water breaking over him couldn't move, not more than six inches at all and that didn't take him anywhere, being tied on, but stood on one side, and the storm was over in two hours, praise be, and then I got up, I was soaked right through; so as I say he nearly went, but he was tied on, but we digress.

Hafod Owen. Owned by his friend and fellow rock genius Colin Kirkus and rented by Menlove during the early war years.

Then when three weeks were up he did go and Dodd came. Dodd was good, too good, better than I but less pushing. He had a little MG too which he took along every day to the causeway, we two in it, and that was balm indeed with the long walk otherwise, it put new life into the party. And it is funny isn't it how when you can do a thing the whole cliff is different from when you can't, but we still had a lot to do and no time to do it, but what's the use when all's said, and there's more fish in the sea than ever came out, and there was one thing that really must be looked at – Central Gully, next on the list, hadn't been done,and he said you do the first bit and I'll do the rest, which he knew, and I said, well, I had looked on a rope, because of its reputation, and never had I been in such a filthy place, and it with water down it, and at the first overhang I had fallen and was in difficulties and then at the second overhang I didn't fall but before it started I had said pull now, pull please, and you will have to pull very hard I am finished, but now, I said, I think I am better and we will see. So we did a new bit on the left first, and called it the Squiggle, his name, to warm up, and because there was another party looking on applauding. Then we did the Central Gully as he had said, and there was a piton half way up because a lot have nibbled at it, Central Gully, but we couldn't get it out, tried we never so hard, and the blood streamed from our fingers where we hammered it,
so we left it in but we didn't rely on it, it being battered too, so we said Wales forgive us and went on.

Then we said now we have that behind us, and it has been a great day, what else ought we to do now, but then I said I am tired, and I have got to keep fit, and I have come here for a rest; so we did nothing else that day. But the next day we went to and worked again, there was the East Gully, the right hand branch, which had not been done, the next thing. So we did that, I must admit below the hard part I stuck a piton in to stick my rope through it for you never know, but the piton was loose in anyhow. Then there was Purgatory, that day too, wanted an end, and we did that though such a stretch is needed and my legs so parted got jerks and would have let me down had I not acted, but I will not describe these climbs, you would be bored, you can see for yourself, and I have left some out. But we still could not do more than two that day because of the slowness, and because I was bad, my nerves out of order. We really were going splendidly considering though, and then a man fell off a cliff in some other part of Wales and we had to help, so we stayed in bed next day, tired out we were, and the day after that we did climb again but very badly, something had put a stop, such as it seemed, to our jollity, and we did only one new climb, very easy, and called it, his name not mine, the String Climb, and it was a lovely little climb we thought, and such as in the evening we had longed for, and we said how strange, and life, and so the next day we had a whole day off, we thought better, and we went to see little Miss Temple in Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm at Bangor, then the next day we felt much better and went up from Birch Tree Terrace to Avalanche, which was needed, then we did a new Anklet on which I very nearly came off exploring, then we had to go to the Central Gully again because it was challenging and we looked at one bit on a rope because I was afraid, and then we did it, right up, across, left up, on the walls of the direct part, the first part I hadn't looked at because it was known to me before when the writer of the guide took me up but he had had an accident, so we were finishing off now though it took us a month because we were slow, and if you multiply 28 by 1 or less you don't get many. We did this climb though and we called it Swastika, I did not think of that name, he did. Now we must hurry on, two days left, but boredom came over us ever greater, that comes on also over our reader, days such as the toughest only could stand; no, I have got it wrong, forget, we did this the last day, it was the two days before, we went to the West peak and we did this and that, tidied up the cliff a bit for it needed it, climbed a nasty little brute the Clam, not my word, he said it that damned Clam, and then on we went, finished off Three Pinnacle Gully, the Slabby Patch, three other parties, pioneers avoided it, oh yes and I forgot we had had great trouble there ourselves when wet a few days before, or I had, but been rescued thank heaven not able to stick on, off the side of it. And that was all, but unexpectedly we had another day, extra, with another party, and that day we did the Quartz Babe direct and called it The Sword and that was my name. But this is ridiculous, a mere catalogue, what on earth do you imagine you get from this? Then we failed on another thing and another thing, I don't know why, then we had to go to that Central Gully again, because it exerted a pull, I say it, yes we had to, and we did another route on its walls, left up, right up, right, crossing the other one and we called it Swastika 2, and that was my name also. That was all we did that day, then we came down and for an hour or so we felt joyful, I can remember that, I can look back upon it and testify, and I think I have not felt so conceited in my life, before or since; and as for numbers two and three I do not say what happened to them on these two things, they were out of practice rather and I wasn't.
We ran out of petrol late going home that night, but August was up now, praise be to God, and I was happy I just sat in the car, and I would not ever need to go near the place again, I thought, and petrol or no petrol, I don't care.

Photo: Al Leary©

Menlove Edwards: First Published in the Wayfarers Journal 1939.