Friday, 10 September 2010

Fifty Years of Lakeland Climbing

George Basterfield(L)and Harry Griffin outside the Wastwater Hotel.

Climbing in the Lake District 50 years ago was not strikingly dif­ferent from the earliest days of the sport towards the end of the 19th century.
Several of the original pioneers, including Haskett Smith, Godfrey Solly and George Abraham, were still alive and often, quite active; clothes, equipment and techniques had not changed a great deal, and the number of climbers and clubs can hardly have been one tenth of today's total. Standards, of course had risen considerably since the first assaults on the gullies and chimneys but there were fewer than 300 climbers in the whole area. Today,the total is between two and three thousand.

The hardest climb, by far, in Lakeland in the late 1920s was Central Buttress — described in the guide as "among the worlds hardest". Since its first ascent in 1914- perhaps the biggest breakthrough ever in British climbing; the climb had only twice been repeated. One of the hardest climbs in Langdale was, strangely, E Route on Gimmer and fewer  than twenty climbs were listed in Borrowdale.A section tacked on to the end  the Great Gable guide. "The climbs in Borrowdale," stated the introduction to this guide, "are few and far between". Today, there are at least 400 of them.

Fifty years ago there were no climbing huts or youth hostels in the Lake District, no telephone at Wasdale Head and no cars on the roadside below Shepherd's Crag. This latter climbing gymnasium — apart from an isolated ascent of Brown Slabs by Bentley Beetham and Claude Frankland — had not been "discovered". There were no massed conifers in Ennerdale, Mardale had not been flooded and Millican Dal­ton, Professor of Adventure, was living in his cave in Borrowdale. Few people in England at that time had even heard of Adolph Hitler.

Wonderful, spacious days on uncrowded crags, those climbing adventures in the late 1920s—care-free, youthful days, so long before the threat of war, when the Lake District, outside of holiday time, was still a quiet, secluded paradise with few cars, no caravan sites or litter baskets and the four-in-hands still I going over the passes. It so happens that one day this summer — the actual date escapes me — was the 50th anniversary of my first rock-climbing in Lakeland and the occasion was quietly celebrated in July by a repeat per­formance. 

Every detail of that wonderful day in 1928 comes back to me with startling clarity—the walk to the crag, almost every move on the climbs and even some of our conversation. My first "proper" climb was Woodhouse's Route on Dow Crag, followed by the descent of Easter Gully, the ascent of Arete, Chim­ney and Crack and the descent of Great Gully. George Basterfield, one of the climbing pioneers at the time and, soon afterwards, President of the Fell and Rock Climbing Club, was my leader —and, for 21 years afterwards until his death in 1949, a close friend. He taught me how to climb — as he did scores of others— encouraged me to lead my first severes and very severes, showed me much of the hidden beauty of the Lake District, and introduced me to many of the leading climbers of the day.

It came about this way. I wanted to get my boots nailed with clinkers but had no idea how to go about it. The only climber I knew—by name and reputation only—was George who happened, at the time, to be Mayor of Barrow in Furness. So I went along, a very raw youngster, to seek his advice in the Mayor's Parlour and he not only told me where to get my boots nailed — by George Stephens at Coniston- but offered to take me climb­ing the following Sunday if I cared to meet him on Dow Crag .A typical ges­ture from this kindliest of men. In fact, we met in the old Quarries near Tranearth above Torver and walked up to the crag together, George pointing out the routes as we approached. During the walk he looked down at the track and announced that so-and-so was on the crag that day — he could tell by the imprint of his nails. 

Some climbers used distinctive types of nailing — occa­sionally, with nails of their own man­ufacture — and George, of course, knew them all. To a youngster this smacked of magic! On our way up Woodhouse's George was hailed from the screes by A. T. Har­greaves and Billy Clegg and we descended Great Gully with them —they had been "looking at" Eliminate A. Clegg was to be the author of the 1938 Langdale guide — Basterfield had writ­ten the earlier edition — and Hargreaves was later to be involved in both the Scafell and Dow Crag guides. Har­greaves, one of the leading climbers of the day, sadly met his death on a skiing holiday at Obergurgl in 1952.

Since that first climbing day in 1928 — I don't remember seeing any other peo­ple on the crag — I must have repeated Woodhouse's more often than any other climb—dozens of times, in all weathers, including snow and a descent in dark­ness. Dear, old familiar Woodhouse's B, with its often tantalising third pitch. I have known far better climbers than myself fail at this in bad weather and be forced to continue, instead, up the much harder final pitch of Abraham's Route. It is a source of some satisfaction to we old-timers that Woodhouse's has been upgraded since we first knew it — hard V. Diff. now compared with merely Dif­ficult in the clinkers and hemp rope days. Other routes now graded as harder than when we did them in the late 1920s and early 1930s include Eagle's Nest Direct, Kern Knotts Crack and Smuggler's Chimney — all translated from severe to very severe. Napes Needle, too, has gone from difficult to hard very difficult.

Borrowdale by John Constable

There might have been 50 or 60 people regularly climbing on the Lake District crags 50 years ago — every weekend, I mean, not just in the holidays — and we knew nearly all of them. Little groups of climbers from the Kendal, Keswick, Pen­rith, Barrow and Ulverston areas met frequently on the crags, and at holiday times there was an influx from the uni­versities and elsewhere. The first of the major climbing huts in the district, the Robertson Lamb hut in Langdale, was opened by the Wayfarers' Club in 1930 — six years before the Fell and Rock's first hut, Brackenclose. 

The little private club to which I then belonged, the nine-strong Coniston Tigers, opened its hut, a converted, timber-built garage, in a field at Coniston Old Hall about the same time as the Robertson Lamb. Despite our high-sounding name nobody knew about us, except the regulars on Dow Crag and Gimmer. It was George Bower who, indirectly, gave us our name. Some of us had high hopes of a direct start to Murray's Route on Dow, but George said that only a tiger could get up it. It was the first time I had heard this use of the word "tiger" applied to climbers. I thought, for some time afterwards, that he had meant the animal itself. 

Anyway, we called ourselves, more in hope than in reality, the Coniston Tigers, and when three of us did the first ascent of the climb in 1931 we named it Tiger Traverse. Our best climber, by far, was Jim Porter of the well-known Eskdale family, who could be quite at home lead­ing a route like Black Wall on Dow. Once, to christen a new rope, he made a solo ascent one evening from Eskdale, of Bot­terill's Slab. Unfortunately, a very seri­ous fall on Gimmer put an end to his climbing. Before we formed our little club I used to go to Dow on my own, hoping that somebody might take me up a climb. I had a 60 feet length of Beale rope — discarded by a senior climber after a falling stone had cut his rope in two. I remember that Mrs B. Eden-Smith, Harry Kelly's second in Moss Ghyll Grooves and many other fine climbs, was one of those who kindly took me in tow.

Billy Clegg and the late Geoffrey Barker had a private hut somewhere on Wetherlam a year or two before we began our Coniston venture — almost certainly the first climbing hut of any kind in the Lake District — and there were a few family bases or weekend cot­tages scattered throughout the district. Climbers mostly stayed in hotels and the Wastwater Hotel at Wasdale, under John and Sally Whiting, was the centre of the Lake District climbing. Portraits of Will Ritson and Owen Glynne Jones, with dozens of other pictures of climbs and climbers, adorned the dining room walls, the hall was full of boots, ropes and ice-axes, a chest on the stairs could provide you with socks, shirt or trousers in emergency, and the billiards room had still not been converted to a modern lounge.

One of the regulars at the Wastwater was A. E. Field, a quiet, scholarly figure, who had taken part, with Jones and George Abraham, in the epic first ascent of Walker's Gully in 1899. He was pic­tured on the dining room wall, wearing old-fashioned tweeds and nailed boots, on the slightly sloping holds of Eagle's Nest Direct — looking poised and con­fident in an extremely exposed situation. This Abraham photograph had always fascinated and slightly terrified me and it was a delight to meet the man himself. Some time later I was encouraged to lead the climb by George Basterfield who, as second, made it all seem much easier than the photograph.

George Samson

On one occasion I was fortunate enough to have a week's climbing at Wasdale with George Sansom who had been on the first ascent of Central But­tress with Siegfried Herford in 1914. We did many of the Wasdale climbs and he also took me up the North West on Pillar — my first very severe. Sansom, still alive today in his eighties and still keenly interested in Lakeland and climbing developments, was the quickest and neatest climber I have known.He used to smoke a cherry-wood pipe and eat bar­ley sugar — useful for making fingers stick to small holds, he told me. At that time his favourite climb was Hop­kinson's Gully on Scafell Pinnacle, which he used to ascend regularly, on outings from the south, without doing a training climb first.

Another of the Wasdale company in those days was C. F. Holland, author of the first Scafell guide and climbing com­panion of both Herford and Kelly. Hol­land was deeply affected by the death of Herford during the first World War and believed that sometimes he met his spirit in the fells — on one occasion, an almost personal encounter.

The outstanding climbers in the Lake District 50 years ago were probably H. M. Kelly and G. S. Bower, although by then both were drawing towards the end of their greatest achievements. Kelly, pioneer on Pillar, Scafell and Great Gable, had written the first Pillar guide and Bower, especially active on Dow Crag and in Langdale, the Dow Crag guide. This latter was the first Lakeland climbing guide to be published — the first of the series of excellent, red-backed guides launched by the Fell and Rock. In those guides Dow Crag was written "Doe" and Scafell Crag, "Scawfell". Other prominent pioneers at that time were H. S. Gross, who worked out the Eliminates on Dow and wrote the first Great Gable guide, Basterfieid, G. G. Macphee, H. G. Knight and Fergus Graham. Just emerging as outstanding leaders were A. T. Hargreaves and Maurice Linnell, who together opened up the possibilities of Scafell's East But­tress. 

J. A. Musgrave, who made a point of leading all the new, hard climbs in nails, and F. G. Balcombe, whose routes included the splendid Engineer's Slabs on Gable Crag. It was to be another ten years before R. J. Birkett first began to come into his own as the outstanding leader in the district. A. B. Hargreaves, more active in North Wales at this time, was, however, with Linnell on the girdle traverse of Pillar and also on Esk But­tress. Colin Kirkus, on a rare visit from his beloved Wales, put up the bold lead of Mickledore Grooves in 1931.

One remembers too, some of the very earliest pioneers met in the hills half a century ago — Haskett Smith, with his curious, long coat, his fierce moustache and his gift of ready repartee; Godfrey Solly, with his great, white beard and solemn speech, leader of the first ascent of Eagle's Nest on a cold day in 1892, and George Abraham, still erect and slim, with his stories of Owen Glynne Jones. One day, long before the war, I remember watching Geoffrey Winthrop Young climbing one of the Dow Crag buttresses, led, I think, by George Bower, with a third man helping him to raise his metal leg on to the holds. 

Glancing again at the old, red guides I am reminded that weekend terms at the Crown Hotel, Coniston were 21 shillings inclusive in those days—from dinner on the Saturday evening to breakfast on the Monday. Dinner, bed and breakfast was half a guinea. "Carter's celebrated climb­ing boots" were advertised at £4-12-6, including nailing. We used to use ordi­nary army boots, nailed by George Stephens. Years later I bought my first pair of Lawrie's boots and had to go to Burnley to get measured for them. On the harder climbs we wore cheap, black plimsolls — a size too small to give a tighter fit. 

The best were the cheapest, with very thin soles, costing one and sixpence. We used Beale's "Alpine Club" manilla hemp rope, with its thin red strand down the centre, which got very heavy and almost unmanageable when wet. Sometimes, on climbs with long run-outs or small belays, we used line — partly to avoid the pull of a heavier rope which we must have con­sidered more important than the safety of thickness. We had no slings or karabiners, no pegs, nuts or bits of wire. If a pitch was 80 or 100 feet long you ran out that length of rope without pro­tection. The shoulder belay was uni­versal and abseiling, without a sling, could be rather painful. If there was an accident you dealt with it yourselves as best you could, for there were no moun­tain rescue teams in those days. Some­times, after an accident on Dow Crag, Bill Fury, the Coniston fireman, would bring a horse and cart as far as the shoulder below Goats Water, to ease the carry down the fell.

Dow Crag
Developments in climbing equipment seemed to come very slowly. There were many experiments with nails — some, you screwed in — and the waisted clinker, reducing the effective width of the nail, was hailed as a great step for­ward. I still occasionally use an old pair of "iron boots", finding them excellent on wet, greasy rock and also on hard-packed snow or ice. Fifty years ago George Basterfield was climbing with a pair of ordinary shepherd's boots, curled up at the front, and, many years later, I climbed with Jim Birkett when he was wearing quarrymen's boots with caul­kers, like horseshoes, all round the soles.

 Even so, his footwork put mine to shame. Robert Lawrie was a pioneer of boots made for climbers and Vibrams were then unknown until the flood of footgear from abroad came after the war. We climbed much more often on wet rock than climbers do today, nailed boots being more suitable for these conditions and often added a walk over the tops after our climbing. Anoraks and climbing jackets did not come into reg­ular use until after the war — mostly we used old tweed jackets, corduroy breeches and balaclavas, and just got wet through if it rained. Sometimes, if you were trying something really hard, you wore a white polo-neck sweater, because these showed up well on photographs! I remember Graham Macphee, not long after his epic traverse with F. S. Smythe, of the Aiguille Blanche de Peuterey in appalling weather, showing me, with pride, an anorak he had made himself out of an old mackintosh, with cunningly con­trived cords to adjust the length.

There were no professional guides in the Lake District 50 years ago, apart from kindly old Millican Dalton, the Borrowdale hermit, who would take you up the Needle, make you a tent or rucksack, or cook you a meal in his cave. J. E. B. Wright began his guiding, amid some opposition, in 1930 and Jim Cameron started in 1937. And there were no out­door pursuits centres, either — you worked your way through the lists with a friend, learning the hard way. But today, the holds seem to have shrunk and moved farther apart, and the climbing scene, with very severes the norm and extremes beyond belief, is a world removed from our care-free adventuring fifty years ago.

Millican Dalton in Keswick.

AH Griffin©...first published 1975