Friday, 8 October 2010

The Adventures of Wheech: The life and times of Robin Smith.

Robin Smith: Jimmy Marshall©

In our consumer dominated, media influenced world, the term genius is so overused as to have become meaningless. The term has become devalued and yet British climbing has produced its share: Mummery, Herford, Kirkus, Dolphin and Brown spring to mind and the modern period has produced the likes of Livesey, Littlejohn, Cuthbertson and Dawes all advancing the game with great skill and desire.  It is now forty years since we lost a key figure from that select group. The brilliant and enigmatic Robin Smith whose outstanding ability both on rock and ice left a legacy of wonderful routes that substantially upped the ante in the Scottish mountains.  Not only was Robin astonishingly gifted as a climber and explorer of new routes, but he also possessed an outstanding intellect and an ability as a writer that has continued to inspire the generations that have followed him.  Sadly, his potential as a man was never to be realised.  On his first visit to the great ranges in the summer of 1962, he was killed with Wilf Noyce whilst descending Pik Garmo in the Pamirs. Robin was still only twenty-three. At the time of his death, he was regarded as probably the finest mountaineer to come out of Scotland since Harold Raeburn. His influence was enormous and is still felt to this day.

Robin Smith was born in India in 1938. His family was based there at the time as his father was working for the government as a naval architect. The family returned to Scotland after the war and resettled in the Edinburgh area. Robin was educated at George Watson’s Boys College, where he gained a reputation for daring and unconventional behaviour as well as academic ability. In his later school years he took to hill walking and then to rock climbing with great enthusiasm, and by the time he left school in the summer of 1956, he already had an extensive knowledge of the Scottish mountains. He developed rapidly as a rock climber, soon moving up to the top levels of the day. While still at school, Robin met Jimmy Marshall who was to be a very strong influence on his development as a climber. The Marshall brothers, Jimmy and Ronnie were key figures in a renaissance of Edinburgh climbing that had long been overdue. Their enthusiasm and drive rubbed off on Robin, and was later to also lead the way for Dougal Haston, who was also to be associated with Robin.

By the summer of 1956, Robin was already climbing Very Severe routes (the then full weight Scottish version of the grade) and was a regular visitor to the crags of The Cobbler and Glencoe. Academically he had done very well at school, and that autumn he went to Edinburgh University to study philosophy. Just before starting at university, Robin had an adventure on Ben Nevis that was to demonstrate his increasing ambition and drive, and was to form the basis for one of his best known essays. That September he set off with two mates to climb Route 1 on Carn Dearg Buttress. With that quickly disposed of, they turned their attention to The Crack, Arnold Carsten’s hard route on Raeburn’s Buttress.  The climb proved to be a rather fierce one and it had a mean reputation. The remainder of the party were able to retreat when things got too difficult, but Robin was benighted halfway up the route. He spent the night on a small ledge and made his escape the following morning, determined to avoid the ignominy of being rescued. Those at the C.I.C. hut had clearly been worried, but this character-forming episode ended with no ill effects for Robin. He subsequently wrote about his experiences in an essay for the EUMC Journal called “Twenty Four Hours.” As a piece, it is wonderfully carefree and humorous and points the way forward for his later writing:

“You rush off upwards, but as you rush you feel the wall swing smoothly through 30 degrees, and then you aren’t rushing any more but are strung up on nasty little overhangs topped by the little sloping ledges……..”

Robin seems to have warmed to University life quickly, and he soon made a major impact within the mountaineering club. His already considerable ability and strength of character soon emerged, and he became a key figure in what was at the time a focus of climbing talent that was to include characters like Dougal Haston, Andy Wightman and Robin Campbell. The Edinburgh University club at that time was to be as influential as that that grew up at Leeds in the 1970’s, and it made a substantial contribution to climbing both in Scotland and the Alps. Writing in the SMC Journal, Jimmy Marshall described Robin at this time superbly:

“City wise, he was to be found clad in short Italian jacket, with trousered legs arrogantly bowed and tapering dynamically into once-pointed mangled suedes. Banana fingered hands, a quizzical smile ‘What line today?’ and the odd scar or two and you had Smith. Ready for anything, an extended ‘jar’; a feast of jazz, a midnight slog over the Pentlands or the all-night study. Being truly nocturnal, most of his studies were done at night and, for that matter, a great percentage of his climbing.”

The spring of 1957 saw the start of Robin’s new routes, with his audacious lead of Blockhead on Garbh Bheinn. Climbed with Victor Burton, this steep bold route still warrants at E1 grading, and is both strenuous and serious. It was to be the first of more than forty new routes in Scotland over the next five years. Later that year Robin added new routes on Arran, The Cobbler (the hard Glueless Groove) and on Skye. More significantly, that summer Robin made his first trip to the Alps forming a partnership with the experienced Jim Clarkson. It was a good introduction for Robin and he climbed two particularly fine routes, the Mer de Glace Face on the Grepon, and the South Ridge of the Aiguille Noir de Peutrey. He also soloed the NNE Ridge of the Aiguille de l’M. That summer also saw the first meeting of Robin and a young schoolboy called Dougal Haston.  Dougal was camping in Glencoe with Jim Stenhouse, when Robin approached them and asked if they fancied doing a route. Dougal later recalled the event:

The Cobbler

“We got out of the tent to find a thick-set, medium-height figure with incredibly bowed legs. He was dressed in the then fashionable oilskin jacket, sou’wester and wellington boots.”

Robin led them up Revelation on Slime Wall on the Buachaille, a route only put up the year before. It was an important step for Dougal and the beginning of a strong but turbulent friendship with Robin.
At the end of the year Robin made his first new route in winter, with Long Chimney on the Cuneiform Buttress on the Buachaille. Climbed with Derek Leaver, it is still a respectable and steep grade IV ice climb. That winter, Robin gained a lot of snow and ice experience that was to serve him well in the years ahead. In time he was to become a brilliant ice climber.

At Easter 1958, Robin and Dougal paid a visit to the crags of Snowdonia. It was a wet and windy weekend, as recalled by Richard McHardy:

“I’d met Dougal the year before in Glenbrittle. He was struggling up V.Diffs and Severes like the rest of us. He had obviously improved, and had this very good lad with him, Robin. Despite the weather, Robin ended up leading things like Cenotaph Corner, Cemetery Gates, Hangover, The Grooves, Diagonal and Sickle. This was very impressive as they were all done in poor conditions.”

Robin’s lead of Cenotaph Corner was only about the seventh or eighth ascent, and was a long, dour struggle in very wet conditions.*  The trip to Wales established Robin’s reputation, and with it came the realisation that on rock he was as good as anyone around at the time. A few weeks later he travelled down to the Lakes, and with Derek Leaver added two new routes in a day on the East Buttress of Scafell. Leverage was a good route, but Chartreuse was even finer and both still retain an Extreme grade.

By the end of June further exploration had resulted in the first ascent of July Crack in Glencoe. In addition, Robin had also produced the main part of his first great route in Scotland. The climb in question was YoYo. Robin climbed what was to be the first 120ft of the route with David Hughes, in awful conditions and completed the route the following year. The first pitch of YoYo is the crux, and it is probably never dry. The story goes that Robin climbed it using a towel to try and dry the holds. The route became an absolute classic taking a striking line up the north face of Aonach Dubh in Glencoe. A new star had arrived.

 That June also saw the creation of perhaps Robin’s greatest rock route, Shibboleth on Slime Wall on Buachaille Etive Mor. Robin had looked at the line for some time and produced a brilliant route of great boldness (for the time) and extreme difficulty. Shibboleth takes the prominent groove line up Slime Wall above the start of Raven’s gully. It is a highly impressive place and this climb more than most says much about Robin’s mental strength and determination. The first ascent was marked by an accident to Robin’s partner on the route Andrew Fraser who suffered a broken leg on one of the upper pitches. A ribald rescue followed through the night before Andrew made it to hospital. Shibboleth was a climb at the highest technical level of the day and was particularly notable for its poor level of protection. In the opinion of some, it was the hardest route in Britain at the time. Modern protection has only slightly tamed Shibboleth, and even today the current E2 grade is thought to

* Later immortalised in Tony Smythe’s “Rockclimbers in Action in Snowdonia.”
be harsh by some. It was to be many years before the route was frequently climbed, and it has scared a lot of people.

Robin returned to Chamonix that summer and picked off a couple of top quality rock routes. With Trevor Jones, he made the second complete ascent of the Brown-Whillans route on the Blaitiere in two days, taking advantage of good weather. Trevor remembered an amusing incident where they were preparing for a bivouac and he noticed that Robin didn’t have a duvet. Robin simply replied --------“it’s Dougal’s turn to use it this week!” He also teamed up with Morty Smith to make a swift ascent of the West Face of the Dru. These two climbs effectively placed Robin in the forefront of British alpinism at that time.

An interesting feature of Robin’s student life was the friendship he developed with the veteran of the Brenva Face and Nanda Devi T.Graham Brown. Brown was already well into his seventies when he and Robin first met, and was the EUMC Vice President. He had a house in Manor Place, Edinburgh where he lived in some chaos together with numerous lodgers, almost always people associated with the University mountaineering club. Brown took a great interest in the activities of the club, and became a mentor to Robin. He became increasingly eccentric as he grew older and Robin enjoyed his company enormously. Brown possessed a large library and a great knowledge of the Alps, which he readily passed on to the club members.

In the early part of 1959 Robin made two notable winter ascents on Ben Nevis with Dick Holt. In January they climbed the serious Tower Face of Comb Buttress, and then followed that with the first winter ascent of the Orion Face. Later that summer Robin produced appropriate finishing pitches for both YoYo and Shibboleth in Glencoe, but the great events of that year came later. That summer Robin returned to Chamonix, and with the fellow Scot Gunn Clarke succeeded in making the first British ascent of the Walker Spur on the Grand Jorasses. They reached the top of this magnificent route just a day ahead of a team composed of Don Whillans, Hamish MacInnes, Les Brown and John Streetly. The ascents by the two teams represented a huge psychological breakthrough for British alpinists such was the status of the route at that time. It was a fine achievement by Robin and Gunn, and Robin later recorded it in his essay for the EUMC Journal “Walkering in the Alps”.

“……….and we came out on the final crest of the spur running up into the Pointe Walker. It cut like a knife down either side, and clouds were blowing out above us over the summit ridge. Sometimes it looked like 100 feet, sometimes like 1000, then we were into and over the cornice, wallowing in soft snow and out of France into Italy.”

Full of ambition, Robin headed for Grindelwald and a rendezvous with Dougal Haston to climb the North Wall of the Eiger (at that time without a British ascent.) Alas it was not to be; Dougal had all his gear stolen and returned home much to Robin’s annoyance. It was probably this incident that led to the tension between them, when they teamed up that September to make the first ascent of The Bat on Carn Dearg, Ben Nevis. By all accounts the climb was an epic, and for the time very hard and strenuous (it is still graded E2 more than forty years on.) The climb became the subject of what is probably Robin’s best known essay “The Bat and the Wicked” published in the SMC Journal. English raiders had already put up Sassenach (1954) and Centurion (1956) on this superb buttress, so Scottish pride was at stake! Robin takes up the story as Dougal is having an epic, and shouts that he is coming off:
“It began under control as the bit of news ‘I’m off’, but it must have caught in the wind, for it grew like a wailing siren to a blood curdling scream as a black and bat-like shape came hurtling over the roof with legs splayed like webbed wings and hands hooked like a vampire.”

Still regarded as mean, strenuous and awkward, the first ascent of the Bat was another great effort and was to become the subject of an excellent film made in 1979 by Jim Curran and Tony Riley.

That same month, Robin partnered John Cunningham of the Creag Dubh to produce the bold Long Wait on the Etive Slabs. This fine route is still graded E2 and contains a lot of 5b climbing in its 700ft. What a team though, Cunningham and Smith! The events of that summer firmly placed Robin in the top echelon of British climbing both at home, and in the Alps.

The winter of 1959/60 was quite a hard one in the Scottish highlands and good snow and ice conditions occurred for several weeks. In the February, Robin spent a week at the CIC hut with Jimmy Marshall climbing on Ben Nevis. It was to be a week that re-defined the art of Scottish winter climbing and the pressure was on as Jimmy was to be married the following month! They started with the first ascent of Great Chimney on Tower Ridge (a tough Grade IV.)  The following day (Sunday) saw the first ascent of Minus Three Gullly (IV) followed by a moonlight descent to the hut. The next day they climbed the excellent Gardyloo Buttress (V) sharing one axe! This brilliant route was not repeated for eleven years. On the Tuesday they made the first winter ascent of Raeburns Route on Observatory Buttress (IV) a particularly steep ice route, but even better was to follow. The following day, after a late start, they stormed up Point Five Gully to make the second ascent in only seven hours. After the contentious first ascent, Scottish pride was restored. This was followed by a day off; a walk over the Grey Corries in a blizzard, Spean Bridge, the pub and near arrest! They returned to the CIC by midnight. On the Friday they made the first winter ascent of Pigott’s Route on Comb Buttress (hard IV), but had saved the best for last. On the Saturday they made the first winter ascent of Orion Face Direct (V) one of the great Scottish winter routes. Hard climbing, difficult route finding, poor stances and belays combined with an Alpine scale made this a tour de force by two brilliant climbers. Winter climbing in Britain was never the same again; their efforts that week represented perhaps the highest level of step cutting technique. Their experiences that week resulted in some outstanding writing on the subject. Robin’s “The Old Man and the Mountains” written for the EUMC Journal is full of humour and obvious respect for Jimmy Marshall’s ability as an ice climber. Marshall’s own “Garde de Glace” and “Orion Face” (both written for the SMC Journal) are as fine, and make gripping and entertaining reading. The following month, Robin made the second ascent of Zero Gully, with Dougal Haston and Andy Wightman.

The time is perhaps appropriate to touch briefly on the subject of Robin as a writer. His series of pieces for both the EUMC Journal and the SMC Journal are one of the treasures of British mountain writing. His writing has a delightful, youthful urgency but that is balanced with a steady objectivity and ready humour stressing the importance of having a good time, whatever the circumstances. There is never a hint of egotistical comment, but rather Robin tends to under state the often desperate situations that form the settings for his essays. There is a strong argument for his work to be published together one day, for it repays constant re-reading, and for someone so young, its quality is outstanding.

The summer of 1960 saw Robin establish some more new routes on Scottish rock. Notable among these were Thunder Rib on Skye, Gob on Carmore Crag climbed with Dougal Haston and the bold Marshall’s Wall in Glencoe. Later that summer, Robin returned to the Alps and made an important ascent in the Oberland. Climbing with Brian Wakefield, he made the first British ascent of the very serious Welzenbach Route on the Gross Fiescherwand. They had an epic on this, and it led to the writing of one of Robin’s best-loved pieces “Goofy’s Last Climb.” Despite the title, Robin’s partner that day still climbs hard! Robin also attempted the unclimbed South East face of the Fou with Joe Brown and Dennis Gray but they were unsuccessful. That summer Robin also climbed with a group of Russian climbers who were visiting Scotland. This was to result in an invitation to climb in the Pamirs in two years time.

The following year (1961) was to be a little more subdued for Robin, as his efforts went into completing his University course that summer. He achieved a good degree, and gained a place at London University to study for a PhD starting in the autumn of 1962. In climbing terms Robin’s best effort that summer was the first ascent of Big Top on Aonach Dubh in Glencoe, climbed with Jimmy Gardner. This superb and open climb remains one of the finest in the valley, and has delighted hundreds of climbers over the years. That summer Robin travelled out to Zermatt where he and Dougal attempted the North Face of the Matterhorn. They made very rapid progress up the route, but ended up retreating as a storm came in. On the descent they met Toni Hiebler, who went on to make the first winter ascent of the Eigerwand. Hiebler noticed that Robin and Dougal were wearing thin sweaters and jeans and coined the phrase ‘Das blue jeans’ to describe British Climbers. The term stayed in use throughout the sixties and reflected some continental opinions about the irreverence of British alpinists at the time!

Undeterred by the Matterhorn experience, Robin and Dougal headed east to the Dolomites. Here they made the first British ascent of the very difficult and long Swiss-Italian Direct on the Cima Ovest. They had two cold bivouacs on the route, but it was a fine achievement for the time and formed the subject of Robin’s tale “Snakes and Ladders.” That autumn saw more new routes in Scotland, including the excellent Clean Sweep on Hell’s Lum Crag in the Cairngorms, climbed with Graham Tiso, and Boggle an early extreme on Ben Eighe in Torridon, climbed with Andy Wightman.

Robin spent much of the winter of 1961-2 working as a hospital porter. A winter trip to Chamonix with Dougal proved fruitless, as neither of them could ski! In the spring he almost grabbed the first ascent of Central Pillar on the Esk Buttress (climbed two weeks later by Pete Crew and Mike Owen).  Robin, accompanied by Ronnie Marshall, Jim Moriarty and Graham Tiso, had got a long way up the route but was defeated by failing light and had to retreat.

The Pamirs
Robin had been selected for a British expedition to the Pamirs Range in Russia, that summer. The team was led by John Hunt, and included Malcolm Slesser, Wilf Noyce, Joe Brown, Ian McNaught Davis and Ted Wrangham. In April 1962, Robin made his last contribution to climbing in Glencoe with the very hard Girdle Traverse of the North Face of Aonach Dubh. Climbed over a number of days with Dougal Haston, Robin Campbell and Neil Macniven, this was something of an epic with its share of poor rock and great exposure. In June, just before his departure for the Pamirs, Robin teamed up with Davey Agnew to climb the very fine Needle on Shelter Stone Crag. It was to be his last new route, and is a particularly fine one in a majestic setting, a fitting culmination to a superb period of exploration.

Alas tragedy was to strike early in the Pamirs expedition. Robin and Wilf were descending with two Russian climbers after a successful ascent of Pik Garmo. The Russians stopped to put on crampons, while Robin and Wilf roped up and continued their descent. Soon after, they both fell 4,000 feet to an ice shelf below where they were buried two days later. Wilf, a cousin of Colin Kirkus, was in his late forties and had intended this to be his last expedition. Robin was still only twenty three at the time of his death.

After the expedition, Eugene Gippenreiter, one of the principle mountaineers from Russia wrote to the Alpine Club and the SMC:
“It is with courage that Mrs.M.C.B.Smith met the news about the tragic death of her son Robin in the Pamirs. She wrote to her friends in Moscow that she was not rich and had only a small house but there would always be a bed for one or two Soviet climbers in her house.”

It is the brevity of Robin’s life that leaves one wondering what might have been. His ability, fitness and drive were the equal of anyone at that time. Had he taken up his post at London University as planned, it is likely that he would have soon gravitated towards winter climbing in the Alps and the history of climbing in Wales (particularly on Gogarth) might also have been very different. He and Dougal Haston were planning to climb the North Wall of the Eiger on Robin’s return from Russia, and the future was full of opportunities. Dougal was deeply upset by Robin’s death. He went on to become perhaps Britain’s finest mountaineer, with the Eiger Direct, Annapurna and Everest leading to world fame. In a strange way, an important part of Robin’s legacy was the obvious influence he had on his mate Dougal. Sadly, Dougal was to die while still only in his thirties skiing off-piste in Switzerland in 1977.

Robin’s nickname Wheech, seems to date from his time at University and is strangely appropriate. He would be sixty two now, but the face that stares back from Jimmy Marshall’s excellent portrait is not only questioning, but is eternally young. His loss as a climber and as a writer is beyond measure, and this is reflected by the esteem in which his memory is still held. To conclude, I can do no better than use the affectionate words of the EUMC Journal in describing Robin:

“His achievements were secondary to his enthusiasm for the hills. He was active nearly every weekend regardless of conditions, whether making marathon hillwalks, repelling Sassenachs in the rain, or cutting steps up Tower Cleft with the C.I.C. coal shovel. The mood of happy disorganisation in which he climbed is reflected in his articles. Written in an original and humorous style, they reveal his character far better than any eulogy. Even writing these lines, one can hear his sardonic laughter.”
Steve Dean©

Robin Smith with Dougal Haston: SMC©

Particular thanks to Robin Campbell, Ken Crocket, Jimmy Cruickshank, Dennis Gray and Jimmy Marshall.

Shortly after I wrote this piece Jimmy Cruikshank's excellent biography of Robin Smith 'High Endeavours' was published by Cannongate.Jimmy was at school with Robin and in my opinion it is one of the best climbing biographies.On a par with Jim Perrin's Menlove and Alan Hankinson's fine book abour GW Young...highly recommended ( Steve Dean )

First published in the Climbers Club Journal 2002.Thanks to Steve,the CC and the SMC.