Friday, 29 October 2010

Bowfell Buttress

Lehmann J Oppenheimer:Abraham Brothers©


Lehmann J Oppenheimer was born in Manchester in 1868 and attended the city's art college where he excelled. After studying art and architecture in Italy, he went on to become an expert in ecclesiastical renovation,undertaking commissions at Lille and Armagh cathedrals and numerous Irish churches where he chiefly engaged in mosaic work.His climbing career began on the northern gritstone outcrops before gravitating towards the Lakeland mountains. Amongst the high fells his tenacious approach saw some quite respectable traditional lines such as Savage Gully (HS), North West Climb (VS-4b), Birkness Chimney (HS) succumb to his advances. However, Bowfell Buttress remains his most popular route. A pleasant long V Diff weaving it's way up the impressive 400' buttress facing out towards the Langdale Valley in South Cumbria.
His charming book, 'Heart of Lakeland' published in 1908- from which the following piece is extracted- is considered a mountaineering classic and details the carefree adventurous spirit of that privileged class of Victorians for whom the mountain environment became a place of creativity,achievement and comradeship. Ideals inspired amongst other by the Lakeland based artist, critic and philosopher, John Ruskin.
Lehman Oppenheimer like so many of his generation was killed on the battlefields of France in 1916. Making the exuberance and humour of his Bowfell adventure all the more poignant.


I ALWAYS look back with particular pleasure on a certain June morning when I first met my two oldest climbing comrades, Tom Shaw, and his friend Craig. They came upon me painting away at a cloud effect on Bow Fell in a downpour of rain, and, I suppose out of pity for my drenched condition, invited me to join them in a scramble which would warm me up. I resisted the temptation and kept at my canvas, but in the evening we met again in the Dungeon Ghyll smoke room and talked about mountains and climbing until we almost felt that we had known one another for ages.
My friends were enthusiastic novices,and were highly elated at having discovered, in the course of day's ramble, a fine new climb, as they thought, Bow Fell. 
I had been a novice a year or two more and could therefore talk down to them from heights of great experience, so I laughed at the  idea of any really good climbing being found there. Particularly on the side facing Langdale, in full view of the track. The district had been thoroughly explored by first-rate men and they had probably been deceived by the mist which had magnified minor crag into the huge pillar-like buttress of their report. However they declared there wasno mistake—the pillar was undoubtedly large, and so steep on the face that they feared it could not be climbed on that side.

Often after that, when we were making holiday plans, a visit to Bow Fell Buttress was put down on the list, but it was always displaced by something which appeared at the moment more attractive, so that many years elapsed before we went near it, and then more by chance than premeditated choice. Five of us, staying at the snug little farm of Fell Foot, in Little Langdale, had arranged for a long expedition, but the morning outlook being bad, and the previous day on Doe Crags having been a hard one, we decided to stroll lazily to the Bow Fell Buttress and see whether there was any climb on it worth doing.
Three hours later we sat lunching on a rocky mound opposite the cliff, and I had to apologize for disparaging insinuations uttered so long before that I had almost forgotten them. All disagreement about the crag's worthiness was at an end, but a new one was begun about its height. While we lingered over dessert one of the party was observed to throw himself into mysterious attitudes reminiscent of the Louvre fighting gladiator. Though the heroic and defiant effect was somewhat marred by the shutting of one eye and by a harmless pencil held in the uplifted hand in place of a "warlike shield." As a result of these contortions he informed us, after
jotting down a little sum, that the height was 180 feet.

For the credit of the rest of us I must add that no one believed him. The general verdict was 250 feet, but it proved to be half as high again.
Before walking across to the foot of the cliff we held a consultation about the route. The Buttress stood out commandingly from a wide hollow of screes on the left and was cut off from broken rocks on the right by a gully which wound round to its back, so that the further from the centre we started the shorter the climb would be, but the finest climb was evidently straight up the middle of it. We decided on some slightly marked cracks and chimneys running up the face of the Buttress,—not continuous, but we could see traverses that might join them, and it gave us pleasure afterwards to think that though our estimates of height proved absurdly wrong, we chose our way well, and followed it to within a few yards throughout.It was quickly settled that the discoverers should have the posts of honour and Shaw started off, with Craig to back him up where necessary. Then came West and Hargreaves and I brought up the rear.We started at the lowest point of the Buttress and scrambled  to the foot of a chimney which made a vertical line up the centre of the cliff. We needed to utilize this but found the lowest part overhanging in a very uncompromising way, so our leader took to a short chimney to the right of it. Up we all wriggled after him and reached a terrace which led off the cliff to the right.


It was suggested that we might have reached the same point by going round the cliff some way and walking up the terrace. This was undeniable, but then of course we might also have walked up the screes to the top of the Buttress if we had wished. It was the struggle to attain, not the attainment of the goal that we had come for. Above the terrace the cliff rose steeply, and though the excellent quality of the rock made very small ledges and knobs sufficient for foot and hand hold, the situation was exposed, and Shaw worked back to the left as soon as possible to get into the long chimney, which we had found unfeasible at the bottom. He passed out of sight now, and the next time I saw him he was with Craig, looking down from another grass terrace ,ninety feet above me. The chimney offered no special difficul­ties; we admired, in passing, the design of a little sentry-box in the middle of it, and were soon all together again on the second terrace.
The chimney ended here, but we had noticed from our lunching place that by traversing to the right a little we might find our way upwards by an ill-defined gully. Our leader looked at the entrance to it, and did not like it. It seemed preferable to come back a yard or two and take to a vertical crack which led into the gully higher up. This seemed a good test of power of grip and firmness of climbing nails and the valley dropped lower and lower until an arch was formed which rose from the gloom of Mickleden and swept across the Band into Oxendale—a vast cathedral portal, flanked by solemn walls of cold grey stone, and beyond, outside it, as one so often sees from a cathedral doorway, a blaze of light—the enamelled fields of Langdale glistening, emerald-like, and the Blea Tarn road, dusty in the sunshine, fluttering like a pale ribbon from the tip of the cloud arch down the hillside.

Most of the party were now out of sight, but I could hear words of warning or advice alternating with scratchings of the rock high up and uneasy enquiries as to progress lower down. At last I caught a glimpse of Shaw traversing round a perilous corner far above; after which the cloud dropped a little and I saw no more of him until we met on the summit.I began to suspect our estimates of the rock's height : measured by our rope:The grass terrace where I was waiting was 140 feet from the base, and now word came down that our160 feet of rope was all out and the leader still not the top.I found the crack easier than I had anticipated,when I reached the traverse I felt doubtful whether I should have liked to lead there, for the holds were poor, and, looking down, the base of cliff seemed almost vertical beneath, though it was not really anything like so steep.
Twenty feet higher the man above was waiting to stand on my shoulders. The next ledge was only 10 feet above him, but 10 feet was beyond even Craig's reach, and there was no lower handhold. When my turn came I took a jump up and the rope was pulled in until I could grip something. From, this ledge a chimney 80 feet high led to the summit of the Low Man, where we built a cairn in the orthodox manner and congratulated Shaw and Craig on having discovered and mastered a first rate new climb. Then we scrambled to the true summit of the buttress 30 feet higher and hurried back for dinner two hours overdue. It was suggested that the next day we should retire to some comfortable knoll and lick our wounds; so we basked lazily in the sun listening the call of the cuckoo down below amongst the blackthorn hedges and up above Blea Tarn. We strolled across to Dungeon Ghyll for tea, and made careful distant survey of the Buttress, from we found the height to be 370 feet. We also noted down the details of our climb in the book, but could in no way agree over one miserable little point, about which West reminded us." Don't forget to mention the 'sentry-box' most comfortable spot on the cliff. I felt really happy there." From your looks no one would guess that you ever felt anything else," one replied, for he is always like a beam of sunshine amongst us, with a face ever radiant with contentment and goodwill.

" Ah, I have to dissemble to give you rash boys confidence ! But what a perfect little haven it was. A flat stone to stand on, your body most kindly embraced by the rocks and comfortable elbow rests at the right height. I just closed my eyes for two seconds and thought of dinner and cider, after a hot bath, and it was heavenly." Well, how will this do—'In the long chimney there is a little sentry-box which makes a good. resting-place.Yes, that's all right."' Midway between the two terraces No," from four people at once.Why it's high above the second terrace," from one of them." Yes, of course ; in the gully above the crack," from another.But that isn't the long chimney : you can't call it a chimney at all." Well, that's what we thought you meant. It's just below the large belaying-pin."Above," from three others.But," I said, " I'm quite positive it's not in the gully at all. I remember looking up from the Sentry-box' and seeing you on the terrace beside a crack.

" The conceit of the man !" retorted Craig. " I suppose he thinks that because he has painted the mountain he knows the whole bag of tricks ! The impudence! Next thing I expect he'll be white washing a country church and posing as a theologian on the strength of it." We backed up our assertions with all sorts of circumstantial evidence, but argued in vain, and it became clear that we would have to pay another visit to settle the point, so at six the next morning, after watching the others drive off, homeward-bound, Craig and I set our faces again in the direction of Bow Fell.
Bowfell Buttress:Hard V Diff (US 5.5)

Our early start gave us the sight for the first time of a Lakeland fox-hunt. As we walked up Rossett Gill the whole hollow resounded with the yelping and baying of dogs, and we were surprised at the time we took to locate the noise. A couple of buzzards circling round and round near the Buttress attracted our attention. " Ha," said Craig, " the word has gone forth that there shall be no more solitude on their old nesting-place. I wonder whether they have been boding ill since our climb." But it was something else that made them hover there, for immediately below were the hounds. distinct enough now we had spotted them, but looking no more impressive than a lot of wretched little maggots aimlessly wriggling over the rough ground, in and out of hollows, up and down the rocks, incessantly moving, without making much progress, so that we got almost up to them as they passed the foot of our climb and made away round Flat Crags. 
West wrote to me that he knew from the twinkles in our eyes that we would not go to the rock's base without climbing it again, and we certainly roped and started up without attempting to settle the disputed point from below. It was not long before the one was found to be right and the four wrong, but we had a good excuse for continuing, for we had taken an aneroid with us and thought we would check our survey. For the first few pitches all went well : I made a note of our height in the "sentry-box" " and then climbed up the long chimney while Craig paid out 40 feet more rope. At the top of the chimney the aneroid indicated a rise of only 10 feet. This was discouraging, but I thought I might have made a mistake. We got together again on the upper terrace, and then I climbed the crack and right on until our 80 feet rope ran out. I took the barometer out once more and it again showed a rise of only 10 feet. 

Craig came up and we looked at the aneroid together in silence until, while we watched it, the finger went slowly back to 10 feet below the terrace we started from : then we relieved our pent-up feelings and pocketed the fickle instrument The next part of the climb was the piece that, on the first ascent, seemed to me the most dangerous,but at the start there is a grand belaying-pin and this Craig paid out the rope until I reached the corner. It really felt much easier this time to lead up than before to follow—a thing I have frequently noticed with climbs well within my powers and can only account for by supposing the nervous strain of watching others struggling up in front to more than counterbalance the confidence inspired by having a rope above and a good man to hold it. 
Craig now came up, and, suggesting that the corner might be turned by a detour instead of making a direct attack on it, he led the way, effecting a great improvement in the climb by rendering a shoulder up unnecessary. Throughout both ascents the last man had removed all the loose stones he could find, but this time I distinguished myself by unintentionally sending down from the final chimney a block of two or three hundredweights, which we had all in turn used in climbing. I was backing up with my feet against it when it slowly heaved over, gave one bound against the rock and then flew right out into a gulf of sunlit cloud and rainbows below us and was lost to sight. Some seconds of silence, and then a tremendous crash far down, followed by a fusillade of fragments and the prolonged baying of the startled fox-hounds on the opposite side of Flat Crags. It was lucky that I had just given up the lead and that there was no one in the chimney below. As almost invariably happens, the second ascent robbed Bow Fell Buttress of some of the difficulties which our imaginations had invested it, but still consider it a most interesting climb, furnishing grandly exposed situations, and cannot understand why a cliff so discernible from a frequented path has been so long overlooked. 
It may be that its position on Bow Fell dwarfs its appearance. Most of our Lakeland cliffs are hidden away and only properly seen from some high hollow where the size of the mountains they are on cannot be grasped at the same time, and compared with them. Pavey Ark cliffs, for instance, are 400 feet high, but their impressiveness is only seen from Stickle Tarn, barely 300 feet below them ; Doe Crags occupy over half the height from Goat's Water to the summit, and Great End cliffs almost as much from Sprinkling Tarn, while the Sca Fell precipice owes something of its supremacy in grandeur to the fact that it cannot be well seen without climbing to Hollow Stones. Now Bow Fell's full height is seen along with the Buttress, and the latter, being only a seventh of the whole, is dwarfed into insignificance. Still, this explanation is not a satisfactory one, for the Napes on Great Gable are in just the same position, less in height, and yet look magnificent, and attract climbers as much as any rocks in England. But we are very exclusive in our choice of playgrounds. On Sca Fell. the Pillar and the Gable, we know that we are amongst the aristocracy of climbs, and most of us would rather make a single new ascent there than half a dozen on any other English crags, but their exploration has been so thorough that little has been left for us, and most of us in search of pioneer work have to be content with cliffs of no repute, which nevertheless will often yield as good a day's sport the far-famed ones near Wastdale.                                                                                                                 



Lehmann J Oppenheimer: Heart of Lakeland

Tuesday, 26 October 2010

Coming up: The first ascent of Bowfell Buttress

The Climbers Traverse approach to Bowfell Buttress.

" Above the terrace the cliff rose steeply, and though the excellent quality of the rock made very small ledges and knobs sufficient for foot and hand hold. The situation was exposed, and Shaw worked back to the left as soon as possible to get into the long chimney, which we had found unfeasible at the bottom. He passed out of sight now, and the next time I saw him he was with Craig, looking down from another grass terrace ,ninety feet above me. The chimney offered no special difficul­ties; we admired, in passing, the design of a little sentry-box in the middle of it, and were soon all together again on the second terrace.
The chimney ended here, but we had noticed from our lunching place that by traversing to the right a little we might find our way upwards by an ill-defined gully. Our leader looked at the entrance to it, and did not like it. It seemed preferable to come back a yard or two and take to a vertical crack which led into the gully higher up. This seemed a good test of power of grip and firmness of climbing nails and the valley dropped lower and lower until an arch was formed which rose from the gloom of Mickleden and swept across the Band into Oxendale—a vast cathedral portal, flanked by solemn walls of cold grey stone, and beyond, outside it, as one so often sees from a cathedral doorway, a blaze of light—the enamelled fields of Langdale glistening, emerald-like, and the Blea Tarn road, dusty in the sunshine, fluttering like a pale ribbon from the tip of the cloud arch down the hillside.
Most of the party were now out of sight, but I could hear words of warning or advice alternating with scratchings of the rock high up and uneasy enquiries as to progress lower down. At last I caught a glimpse of Shaw traversing round a perilous corner far above; after which the cloud dropped a little and I saw no more of him until we met on the summit.'

This Friday, an account by Lehmann J Oppenheimer of the first ascent of the great Lakeland mountaineering classic...Bowfell Buttress.

Friday, 22 October 2010

Forty years of mountain skiing.


One winter's day, just after the Second World War, I was walking down High Raise into Easdale when I was passed by three skiers, swooping in great, wide turns down the sunlit snows with apparent confidence and ease. I knew the Lake District Ski Club had been formed in 1936 for many of its members belonged to my own climbing club- The Fell and Rock-but these were the first skiers I had ever seen on the fells. Many years earlier, in the mid-1930s, I had met Walter Ingham — later to become well-known as the leading promoter of winter sports in the Alps, especially Austria and, in return for my introducing him to climbing, he had offered to teach me skiing. Walter was then selling typewriters in Preston. We were to stay — for practically nothing — with a friend of his, Serafin Fender, at Solden in the Tyrol but as it happened, I had already fixed up my first climbing holiday in Skye and most regrettably, had to turn him down. Had I been able to accept his kind offer I would now have been able to boast that I had started skiing 53 years ago, whereas, alas, I can merely claim about 40 years involvement with the sport -most of them at a pretty low level.

The sight of those three ski mountaineers on High Raise — ski tourers they would be called then — inspired me to attempt to emulate them and I acquired a pair of very long, old-fashioned wooden skis with primitive leather bindings but no steel edges and fitted them to my clinker-nailed climbing boots, after gouging out grooves in the heels. The next weekend, after very shaky trials on the fell at the back of the house, I climbed Harter Fell on them from Longsleddale, using sealskins which had been purchased with the skis. Most Lakeland skiers were mountaineers in those days. Skiing being just an interesting winter alternative to ice-axe work in the gullies. They fitted skis to their nailed boots, wore their ordinary mountain clothes, carried axes for the steep, icy places and strapped on their skins when they reached the first snow. It had been in the early 1920s when a few people, mostly climbers with experience of skiing abroad, had begun to explore the winter possibilities of the fells.
Early skiers, in Scotland and the Lake District, considered the ascent of the hills, using skins on their skis and working out the best line through steep or rocky terrain, as important and nearly as interesting as the descent and my ascent of Harter Fell proved pleasant enough. But the descent- since I had no idea how to turn- was a complete disaster. Bruised, battered and covered in snow I was tempted to give up the game but when I remembered the sun shining on the summit snows, the dramatic views across winter Lakeland and the delightful sliding along the easy bit on top found I was hooked on skiing for good. Forty years on I am still trying to ski properly but can at least look back on half a lifetime of the sport on Lakeland fells, Scottish hills, Alpine peaks and, more recently, some splendid mountains in British Columbia and Washington, USA.


We started skiing on Cairn Gorm long before the road was built when the only uphill traction was Bill Blackwood's old rope tow on the Ciste Mhairearaid side of the summit, enjoyed fortnights in Austrian resorts for less than £40 — including the air fare — and, every year, had to learn some new style — the Arlberg crouch, maybe, the Christiania swing, the reverse shoulder technique. Everything about skiing has been changing all the time. We first used long bamboo poles with enormous leather-thonged baskets — more useful for recovery from deep snow than the small metal discs of today — and bindings that included a strap across the toe and a coiled spring contraption at the heel allowing almost unlimited lift. This enabled us to attempt, almost kneeling on one ski, the elegant Telemark turn — usually disastrously. The first cable bindings came much later and modern release bindings later still. With cable bindings you could either have the heels held down on the skis — but not very efficiently — or free to lift for touring. Sometimes we used long leather thongs wound several times round the ankles but, if you fell the wrong way, these merely ensured that you broke bones or tore tendons. Before modern release bindings were invented the hospitals in the bigger towns nearest to the resorts abroad were filled with skiers with broken legs — scores of them in some hospitals with beds crammed into every corridor. Skis started as wooden planks which were then laminated with short sections of metal edges screwed on. These kept falling out and you had to carry a screwdriver and spare edges — then came metal and, finally, plastic. In the early days, if a ski came off, it zoomed down the slope, usually bringing down any skiers in its path or even threatening to decapitate them!  Later we had the back of the skis tied to the boots with a strap or a piece of string — we always carried bits of string, for a variety of repairs, and, when ski touring, a spare ski tip. But the rubber bands used at one time for retaining a detached ski often merely resulted in the skis being swung into one's face, often with unfortunate consequences. For years we used our ordinary mountain clothes, with perhaps ex-army camouflage parkas — even abroad. You could always pick out the British skiers abroad because of their scruffy appearance.

We seemed to be able to ski down the hills using our ordinary nailed climbing boots — not so neatly, certainly, as today but reasonably competently using either snow plough or lifted stem turns. The Christiania turn — the first `christie' — was a revolution in ski technique but the first real parallel skiing I ever saw — by a lady member of my club on Raise in about 1950 — seemed, to me, completely miraculous. How on earth, I wondered, could this possibly be done. It was many years before we came to understand the importance of unweighting; before then the skis were swung round  with brute force and ignorance, with the arms, and the sticks as we then called them, were never planted but merely flayed the air. 
Superseding the climbing boot came the square-toed ski boot — the very best, from Carter's in London, cost £3. 19s in 1936 — and these were in general use for years before the soft, double leather boot was developed. I still have a pair of these comfortable leather boots—useful for gentle ski mountaineering but not nearly precise enough for hard snow or ice — as well as my old 'iron' boots, shod with Stubai waisted clinkers and a scattering of edge tricounis.

Martindale
Occasionally, for climbing or traversing steepish ice or hard snow, we used Harsch-Eisen climbing irons, fastened to the skis, as well as skins, but these devices — and the ice axes we occasionally carried  are beyond the ambit of modern downhill skiing. Belonging, exclusively, to the world of ski mountaineering. Modern plastic boots with clip fastenings and step-in bindings have, of course, completely revolutionised skiing and even persuaded decrepit, old-fashioned skiers like myself that we can — but only when on form and on perfect snow — almost ski.

In the old days we used evil-smelling wax on our wooden skis to make them slide — smoothing it on the night before with a hot iron borrowed from one's mother, wife or girl friend. We skied wearing rucksacks, with a waist strap, for we were collecting summits, not merely skiing down the same patch of pisted snow, time after time, with tows or ski lifts in between. We were nowhere near as competent or as elegant as modern skiers — who seem to be able to ski parallel, in a fashion, within weeks — but perhaps we enjoyed our mountains more. It took us years to progress from stemmed turns to parallels — and then had to start all over again from scratch because we had been skiing the `wrong' way. We tried to ski the Austrian way, with the knees slotted together, but in France they ski with the skis further apart, in Switzerland they teach 'carved' turns whereas in Italy they aim at racing techniques with firm edge control. But, 40 years ago, with our clumsy equipment and uncertain control, we probably got just as much fun and comradeship out of our skiing as the immaculately clad and equipped skiers of today. Snow is there to be enjoyed, whether it is rutted ice with rocks to avoid in foul weather, barely-covered grass, smoothly-pisted slopes, fierce moguls or knee-deep powder — provided you have the enthusiasm and a bit of determination. So, like thousands of others, I am still looking forward to the first snows of winter —although quietly wondering whether I can still cope?

 Photo: The Guardian©















AH Griffin©
First published in High: Jan 1989.

Tuesday, 19 October 2010

Coming Up: Harry Griffin on the early years of Lakeland skiing.

" We started skiing on Cairn Gorm long before the road was built when the only uphill traction was Bill Blackwood's old rope tow on the Ciste Mhairearaid side of the summit. Enjoyed fortnights in Austrian resorts for less than £40 — including the air fare — and, every year, had to learn some new style — the Arlberg crouch, maybe, the Christiania swing, the reverse shoulder technique, the new use of sticks and so on. Everything about skiing has been changing all the time. We first used long bamboo poles with enormous leather-thonged baskets — more useful for recovery from deep snow than the small metal discs of today — and bindings that included a strap across the toe and a coiled spring contraption at the heel allowing almost unlimited lift. This enabled us to attempt, almost kneeling on one ski, the elegant Telemark turn — usually disastrously. The first cable bindings came much later and modern release bindings later still. With cable bindings you could either have the heels held down on the skis — but not very efficiently — or free to lift for touring. Sometimes we used long leather thongs wound several times round the ankles but, if you fell the wrong way, these merely ensured that you broke bones or tore tendons. Before modern release bindings were invented the hospitals in the bigger towns nearest to the resorts abroad were filled with skiers with broken legs — scores of them in some hospitals with beds crammed into every corridor. Skis started as wooden planks which were then laminated with short sections of metal edges screwed on. These kept falling out and you had to carry a screwdriver and spare edges — then came metal and, finally, plastic. In the early days, if a ski came off, it zoomed down the slope, usually bringing down any skiers in its path or even threatening to decapitate them! '

This Friday,an article by the late Harry Griffin who takes us back to the 1930's and vividly describes the history of Lakeland mountain skiing from a first hand perspective and recalls his first faltering steps amongst the snow capped peaks of the north country.

Friday, 15 October 2010

The Bat and the Wicked

Robin Smith hunkers down for the night in a Scottish bothy: SMC©

You got to go with the times. I went by the Halfway Lochan over the shoulder of Ben Nevis and I got to the Hut about two in the morning. Dick was there before me; we had to talk in whispers because old men were sleeping in the other beds. Next day we went up Sassenach and Centurion to spy on the little secrets hidden between them. We came down in the dark, and so next day it was so late before we were back on the hill that the big heat of our wicked scheme was fizzling away.
Carn Dearg Buttress sits like a black haystack split up the front by two great lines. Centurion rises straight up the middle, 500ft. in a vast corner running out into slabs and over the traverse of Route II and 200ft. threading the roofs above. Sassenach is close to the clean-cut right edge of the cliff, 200ft. through a barrier of overhangs, 200ft. in an overhanging chimney and 500ft. in a wide broken slowly easing corner. At the bottom a great dripping overhang leans out over the 100ft of intervening ground. Above this, tiers of overlapping shelves like armour plating sweep out of the corner of Centurion diagonally up to the right to peter out against the monstrous bulge of the wall on the left of the Sassenach chimney. And hung in the middle of this bulging wall is the Corner, cutting through 100ft of the bulge. Dick and I lay and swithered on a flat stone. We wanted to find a way out of Centurion over the shelves and over the bulge into the Corner and up the Corner and straight on by a line of grooves running all the way over the top of the Buttress, only now it was after two in the afternoon.

But we thought we ought just to have a look, so we climbed the first pitch of Centurion, 50ft. to a ledge on the left. The first twisted shelf on the right was not at all for us, so we followed the corner a little farther and broke out rightwards over a slab on a wandering line of holds, and as the slab heeled over into the overlap below, a break in the overlap above led to the start of a higher shelf and we followed this till it tapered away to a jammed block poking into the monstrous bulge above. For a little while Dick had a theory that he felt unlike leading, but I put on all the running belays just before the hard bits so that he was in for the bigger swing away down over the bottom dripping overhang. We were so frightened that we shattered ourselves fiddling pebbles and jamming knots for runners. We swung down backwards in to an overlap and down to the right to a lower shelf and followed it over a fiendish step to crouch on a tiny triangular slab tucked under the bulge, and here we could just unfold enough to reach into a V-groove, cutting through the bottom of the bulge and letting us out on a slab on the right just left of the Sassenach chimney.

And so we had found a way over the shelves, but only to go into orbit round the bulging wall with still about 40ft. of bulge between us and the bottom of the Corner now up on the left. The way to go was very plain to see, a crooked little lichenous overhanging groove looking as happy as a hoodie crow. But it looked as though it was getting late and all the belays we could see were very lousy and we might get up the groove and then have to abseil and underneath were 200ft of overhangs and anyway we would be back in the morning. We could just see the top of the Corner leering down at us over the bulge as we slunk round the edge on the right to the foot of the Sassenach chimney. A great old-fashioned battle with fearful constrictions and rattling chockstones brought us out of the chimney into night, and from there we groped our way on our memory of the day before, leading through in 150ft run-outs and looking for belays and failing to find them and tying on to lumps of grass and little stones lying on the ledges. When we came over the top we made away to the left and down the bed of Number Five Gully to find the door of the Hut in the wee small hours.
We woke in the afternoon to the whine of the Death Wind fleeing down the Allt a' Mhuillin. Fingery mists were creeping in at the five windows. Great grey spirals of rain were boring into the Buttress. We stuck our hands in our pockets and our heads between our shoulders and stomped off down the path under our rucksacks into the bright lights of the big city.
Well the summer went away and we all went to the Alps. (Dick had gone and failed his exams and was living in a hole until the re-sits, he was scrubbed.) The rest of the boys were extradited earlier than I was, sweeping north from the Channel with a pause in Wales in the Llanberis Pass at a daily rate of four apiece of climbs that Englishmen call xs (x is a variable, from exceptionally or extremely through very or hardily to merely or mildly severe). From there they never stopped until they came to Fort William, but the big black Ben was sitting in the clouds in the huff and bucketing rain and the rocks never dried until their holidays ended and I came home and only students and wasters were left on the hill.

Well I was the only climber Dougal could find and the only climber I could find was Dougal, so we swallowed a very mutual aversion to gain the greater end of a. sort of start over the rest of the field. Even so we had little time for the Ben. We could no more go for a weekend than anyone else, for as from the time that a fellow Cunningham showed  us the rules we were drawn like iron filings to Jacksonville in the shadow of the Buachaille for the big-time inter-city pontoon school of a Saturday night. And then we had no transport and Dougal was living on the dole, and so to my disgust he would leave me on a Wednesday to hitch-hike back to Edinburgh in time to pick up his moneys on a Thursday. The first time we went away we had a bad Saturday night, we were late getting out on the Buachaille on Sunday and came down in the dark in a bit of rain. But the rain came to nothing, so we made our way to the Fort on Monday thinking of climbing to the Hut for the night; only there was something great showing at the pictures and then we went for chip suppers and then there were the birds and the juke-box and the slot machines and we ended up in a back-garden shed. But on Tuesday we got up in the morning, and since Dougal was going home next day we took nothing for the Hut, just our climbing gear like a bundle of stings and made a beeline for Carn Dearg Buttress.

This time we went over the shelves no bother at all, until we stood looking into the little green hoodie groove. It ran into a roof and from under the roof we would have to get out on the left on to what looked as though it might be a slab crossing to the bottom of the Corner. I was scheming to myself, now the groove will be terrible but nothing to the Corner and I will surely have to lead the crux, but Dougal shamed me with indifference and sent me round the edge on the right to find a decent belay under the Sassenach chimney. There it was very peaceful, I could see none of the tigering, only the red stripes down the side of Carn Mor Dearg running into the Allt a' Mhuillin that was putting me to sleep if there hadn't been odd faint snarls and scrabblings and little bits of rope once in a while tugging around the small of my back. But once Dougal was up he took in so much slack that I had to go and follow it myself. Half-way up he told me, you lean away out and loop a sling over the tip of a spike and do a can-can move to get a foot in the sling and reach for the sling with both hands as you lurch out of the groove and when you stop swinging climb up the sling until you can step back into the groove; and his sling had rolled off the spike as he left it, so I would have to put it on again. I came out at the top of the groove in a row of convulsions, which multiplied like a spastic as I took in the new perspective.

Dougal was belayed to pitons on the slab under the Corner. The slab and the left retaining wall went tapering down for 20ft  till they merged and all heeled over into the general bulge. Above, the Corner balanced over Dougal like a blank open book with a rubber under the binding. The only big break in the bareness of the walls was a clean-cut black roof barring the width of the right wall. The crack went into the right wall, about six inches wide but tightly packed with bits of filling; and thus it rose in two leaps, 35ft. to the black roof, then out four horizontal feet and straight up 35ft. again; and then it widened for the last 30ft. as the right wall came swelling out in a bulge to meet the top of the great arc of the sky-line edge of the left wall. And if we could only get there then all the climb would surely be in the bag.

Well I had stolen the lead, only some time before I had been to a place called Harrison's Rocks and some or other fellow out of London had made off with my PA's. Now PA's are the Achilles' Heel of all the new men, they buckle your feet into claws and turn you into a tiger, but here I had only a flabby pair of kletterschuhe with nails sticking out on both sides of the soles, and so I worked on Dougal to change footwear at which he was not pleased because we stood on a steep slab with one little ledge for feet and a vision before us of retreating in our socks. We had two full-weight ropes. Dougal had one rope that was old before its time, it had once been 120ft long but it lost five feet during an experiment on the Currie Railway Walls. (This last word to sound like `Woz'.) A Glaswegian who was a friend had one day loaned us the other, and so it was even older, and he mentioned that it had been stretched a little, indeed it was 130ft. long, and so Dougal at the bottom had quickly tied on to an end of each rope which left me with 15ft on the one to get rid of round and round my middle to make the two ropes even. This was confusing, since I had a good dozen slings and karabiners round my neck and two bunches of pitons like bananas at my waist and a wooden wedge and a piton hammer swinging about and three or four spare karabiners and a big sling knotted into steps.

But I could still get my hands to the rocks, and I made slow progress as far as the black roof. I left about six feeble running belays on the way, mainly so that I would be able to breathe. And as there seemed little chance of runners above and little value in those below and nowhere to stand just under the roof and next to no chance of moving up for a while, I took a fat channel peg and drove it to the hilt into the corner crack as high under the roof as I could and fixed it as a runner and hung the knotted sling from it and stood with my right foot in the sling. Thus with my hands in the crack where it came out horizontally under the roof, I could plant my left foot fictitiously away out on the left wall and peer round over the roof into the Corner above. Deep dismay. The
crack looked very useless and the walls utterly bare and I shrunk under the roof into the sling. Shortly I leaned away out again to ponder a certain move and a little twist and then something else to get me 10ft. up. but what would I do then, and then the prepondering angle sent me scuttling back like a crab into shelter. In a while I got a grip and left the sling and heaved up half-way round the roof and sent a hand up the Corner exploring for a hold, but I thought, no no there is nothing at all, and I came down starting with a foot under the roof feverishly fishing for the sling. And there I hung like a brooding ape, maybe there's a runner 10ft up or a secret keyhole for the fingers, but how are you ever to know for sitting primevally here, so for shame now where's your boldness, see how good your piton is, and what's in a peel, think of the Club, think of the glory, be a devil. I found a notch under the roof in which to jam the knot of a sling which made another runner, and I tried going up a few more times like a ball stopping bouncing until I realised I was going nowhere and trying nothing at all. So I jacked it in and left all the runners for Dougal and Dougal let out slack and I dribbled down to join him on the slab.

 CIC Hut

Here I sat a while and blew, then I took my coat of mail and put it on Dougal and Dougal wanted his PA's back and we untied to swop our end of rope so that Dougal could use my runners and I tied myself on to the stance while Dougal rotated into the tail end of the longer rope and the time went by. But Dougal caught it up a little by rushing up to the black roof while I pulleyed in the slack. And here we had a plan. Just above the lip of the roof, the crack opened into a pocket about an inch and a quarter wide. There should have been a chockstone in it, only there was not, and we could find none the right size to insert. If there had been trees on the Ben the way there are in Wales there would have been a tree growing out of the pocket, or at least down at the stance or close to hand so that we could have lopped off a branch and stuck it in the pocket. But here we had a wooden wedge tapering just to the right size and surely it once grew in a tree and so maybe it would not be very artificial to see if it could be made to stick in the pocket. Blows of the hammer did this thing, and Dougal clipped in a karabiner and threaded a sling and the two ropes and pulled up to stand in the sling so that he could reach well over the roof and look about at ease. And sure enough he could see a winking ledge, about 25ft. up on the right wall.

Now Dougal is a bit thick and very bold, he never stopped to think, he put bits of left arm and leg in the crack and the rest of him over the right wall and beat the rock ferociously and moved in staccato shuffles out of the sling and up the Corner. I shifted uneasily upon my slab which tapered into the overhangs. making eyes at my two little piton belays. As Dougal neared his ledge he was slowing down but flailing all the more, left fingers clawing at grass in the crack and right leg scything moss on the wall. I pulled down the sleeves of my jersey over my hands and took a great grip of the ropes. Then there came a sort of squawk as Dougal found that his ledge was not. He got a hand on it but it all sloped. Rattling sounds came from his throat or nails or something. In his last throes to bridge he threw his right foot at a straw away out on the right wall. Then his fingers went to butter. It began under control as the bit of news "I'm off," but it must have been caught in the wind, for it grew like a wailing siren to a bloodcurdling 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. I flattened my ears and curled up rigid into a bristling ball, then I was lifted off my slab and rose five feet in the air until we met head to foot and buffered to a stop hanging from the runners at the roof. I could have sworn that his teeth were fangs and his eyes were big red orbs. We lowered ourselves to the slab, and there we sat in a swound while the shadows grew.

But indeed it was getting very late, and so I being a little less shattered heaved up on the ropes to retrieve the gear, leaving the wedge and the piton at the roof. We fixed a sling to one of the belay pitons and abseiled down the groove  below with tails between our legs and a swing at the bottom to take us round to the foot of the Sassenach chimney. By now it was dusk and we thought it would be chaos in the chimney and just below it was very overhanging, but I knew a traversing line above the great roof of Sassenach leading to the clean-cut right edge of the cliff. My kletterschuhe kept slipping about and I was climbing like a stiff and I put in two or three tips of pitons for psychological runners before I made the 50ft. of progress to peer around the edge. But it looked a good 200ft  to the shadowy screes at the bottom, and I scuffled back in half a panic out of the frying pan into the chimney. Then two English voices that were living in a tent came up the hill to ask if we were worried. We said we were laughing but what was the time, and they said it would soon be the middle of the night, and when we thought about the 700ft of Sassenach above and all the shambles round the side to get to our big boots sitting at the bottom of the cliff, we thought we would just slide to the end of the rope.
So I went back to the edge and round the right angle and down a bit of the wall on the far side to a ledge and a fat crack for a piton. By the time Dougal joined me we could only see a few dismal stars and sky-lines and a light in the English tent. Dougal vanished down a single rope while I belayed him on the other, and just as the belaying rope ran out I heard a long squelch and murky oaths. He seemed to be down and so I followed. Suddenly my feet shot away and I swung in under the great roof and spiralled down till I landed up to my knees in a black bog. We found our boots under Centurion and made off down the hill past the English tent to tell them we were living. When we hit the streets we followed our noses straight to our sleeping bags in the shed, leaving the city night, life alone.

The next Sunday we left a lot of enemies in Jacksonville and took a lift with the Mountain Rescue round to Fort William. They were saying they might be back to take us away as well. We had thick wads of notes but nothing to eat, and so we had to wait in the city to buy stores on Monday, and we got to the Hut so late that we thought we would house our energies to give us the chance of an early start in the morning. Even so we might have slept right through Tuesday but for the din of a mighty file of pilgrims winding up the Allt a' Mhuillin making for Ben Nevis. We stumbled out rubbing our eyes and stood looking evil in the doorway, so that nobody called in, and then we ate and went out late in the day to the big black Buttress.

This time we went over the shelves and up the hoodie groove no bother at all. It was my turn to go into the Corner. By now I had a pair of PA's. I climbed to the black roof and made three runners with a jammed knot, the piton and the wooden wedge and stood in a sling clipped to the wedge. Dougal's ledge was fluttering above but it fooled nobody now. At full stretch I could reach two pebbles sitting in a thin bit of the crack and pinched them together to jam. Then I felt a lurch in my stomach like flying through an air pocket. When I looked at the wedge I could have sworn. it had moved. I seized a baby nylon sling and desperately threaded it round the pebbles. And then I was gracefully plucked from the rock to stop 20ft under the roof hanging from the piton and the jammed knot with the traitor wedge hanging from me and a sling round the pebbles sticking out of the Corner far above. I rushed back to the roof in a rage and made a strange manoeuvre to get round the roof and reach the sling and clip in a karabiner and various ropes, then trying not to think, I hauled up to sit in slings which seemed like a table of kings all to come down from the same two pebbles. I moved on hastily, but I felt neither strong nor bold, and so I took a piton and hammered it into the Corner about 20ft. above the roof. Happily I pulled up, and it leaped out with a squeal of delight and gave me no time to squeal at all before I found myself swinging about under the miserable roof again. The pebbles had held firm, but that meant I hung straight down from the lip of the roof and out from the Corner below so that Dougal had to lower me right to the bottom.



By now the night was creeping in. Peels were no longer upsetting, but Dougal was fed up with sitting on a slab and wanted to go down for a brew. But that was all very well, he was going home in the morning, and then coming back for a whole week with a host of terrible tigers when I would have to be sitting exams. So I was very sly and said we had to get the gear and climbed past the roof to the sling at the pebbles leaving all the gear in place. There I was so exhausted that I put in a piton, only it was very low, and I thought, so am I, peccavi, peccabo, and I put in another and rose indis­criminately until to my surprise I was past Dougal's ledge and still on the rock in a place to rest beside a solid chockstone. Sweat was pouring out of me, frosting at my waist in the frozen mutterings flowing up the rope from Dougal. Overhead the right wall was swelling out like a bull-frog, but the cracks grew to a tight shallow chimney in which it was even blacker than the rest of the night. I squeezed in and pulled on a real hold, and a vast block slid down and sat on my head. Dougal tried to hide on his slab, I wobbled my head and the block rolled down my back, and then there was a deathly hush until it thundered on to the screes and made for the Hut like a fireball. I wriggled my last slings round chockstones and myself round the last of the bulges and I came out of the Corner fighting into the light of half a moon rising over the North-East Buttress. All around there were ledges and great good holds and bewildering easy angles, and I lashed myself to about six belays.
Dougal followed in the moonshade, in too great a hurry and too blinded and miserable to pass the time taking out the pitons, and so they are still there turning to rust, creeping up the cliff like poison ivy. Heated up by the time he passed me, Dougal went into a long groove out of the moon but not steep and brought me up to the left end of a terrace above the chimney of Sassenach. We could see the grooves we should have climbed in a long line above us, but only as thick black shadows against .the shiny bulges, and so we went right and grovelled up in the final corner of Sassenach where I knew the way to go. The wall on the left kept sticking out and stealing all the moonlight, but we took our belays right out on the clean-cut right edge of the cliff so that we could squat in the moon and peer at the fabulous sights. When we came over the top we hobbled down the screes on the left to get out of our PA's into our boots and back to the Hut from as late a night as any, so late you could hardly call it a bed-night.
Some time next day Dougal beetled off and I slowly followed to face the examiners. The tigers all came for their week. On the first day Dougal and the elder Marshall climbed Sassenach until they were one pitch up from the Terrace above the chimney, and then they thought of going left and finished by the new line of grooves. Overnight the big black clouds rolled over and drummed out the summer and it rained all week and hardly stopped until it started to snow  and we put away our PA's and went for hill-walks waiting for the winter. They say the grooves were very nice and not very hard. All that was needed to make a whole new climb was one pitch from the terrace above the chimney, until we decided that the way we had been leaving the terrace as from the time that Dick found it when we first climbed Sassenach was not really part of Sassenach at all. By this means we put an end to this unscrupulous first ascent. The next team will climb it all no bother at all, except that they will complain that they couldn't get their fingers into the holds filled up with pitons.

from THE SCOTTISH MOUNTAINEERING CLUB JOURNAL 1960

 The Bat (crux): Alison Stockwell©

















With thanks to The Scottish Mountaineering Club and Alison Stockwell for the Bat photograph

Tuesday, 12 October 2010

Coming up: Robin Smith's 'The Bat and the Wicked'

Robin Smith on the first ascent of the girdle traverse of Aonach Dubh: SMC©

" Now Dougal is a bit thick and very bold, he never stopped to think, he put bits of left arm and leg in the crack and the rest of him over the right wall and beat the rock ferociously and moved in staccato shuffles out of the sling and up the Corner. I shifted uneasily upon my slab which tapered into the overhangs. making eyes at my two little piton belays. As Dougal neared his ledge he was slowing down but flailing all the more, left fingers clawing at grass in the crack and right leg scything moss on the wall. I pulled down the sleeves of my jersey over my hands and took a great grip of the ropes. Then there came a sort of squawk as Dougal found that his ledge was not. He got a hand on it but it all sloped. Rattling sounds came from his throat or nails or something. In his last throes to bridge he threw his right foot at a straw away out on the right wall. Then his fingers went to butter. It began under control as the bit of news "I'm off," but it must have been caught in the wind, for it grew like a wailing siren to a bloodcurdling 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. I flattened my ears and curled up rigid into a bristling ball, then I was lifted off my slab and rose five feet in the air until we met head to foot and buffered to a stop hanging from the runners at the roof. I could have sworn that his teeth were fangs and his eyes were big red orbs. We lowered ourselves to the slab, and there we sat in a swound while the shadows grew.'

Some climbing essays achieve iconic status. Menlove Edwards,Jim Perrin.Joe Simpson,Jon Krakuer et al,have all produced in essay form,works that transcend their limited span and achieve an epic quality. Robin Smith's 'The Bat and the Wicked' is one such essay which has achieved this status.A poetic work from a unique voice which has more than stood the test of time.

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.

Tuesday, 5 October 2010

Coming up: Steve Dean on Robin Smith: Man...myth and magic.

Carn Dearg

" 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……..”

This Friday...Steve Dean's Adventures of Wheech. The life and times of one of Scotland's greatest ever all round climbers,Robin Smith,who died all too prematurely almost half a century ago.

Friday, 1 October 2010

The gentle art of hitchhiking

Ken dons a cunning disguise and tries out the lost art for old times sake.
Hitting the blacktop for a journey to a place you hope will give you the weekend of freedom seems to be a thing of the past. Where are the boys (and girls) of the road now? Driving BMW’s down the A55 no doubt!
It was whilst driving down the Pass with my wife Clare that bought it to light; she asked why we didn’t see any body hitching these days and it rekindled some memories and questions that seemed to need further answers?  Travelling through the mountain areas of north Wales and journeying to and from Liverpool on a regular basis confirmed the disappearance of the ‘road gang’. Are there any characters left?
                                     
In the late sixties/early seventies the only way we could get to Wales was by cadging a lift in a mates car -rare things- or  by hitching a lift, and it was all part of the weekends adventure to start the journey with a lift in some strange vehicle or worse still - a strange driver who would either want to tell you his life story or wouldn’t say a bloody word.

It all began for me when I started to climb on a regular basis and having to exist on a meagre wage meant no car. Also I had just read On the Road by Kerouac, so I can blame him a little for all the angst. The journey would invariably start with a train or ferry trip as hitching across the Mersey was a nightmare. Once the divide had been crossed then the serious stuff would begin in earnest and there were ethics to adhere to. I kid you not. It was all important to walk the short distance from the ferry terminal or the underground at Birkenhead to the Welsh road and the open highway, the direct link to the hills. Unfortunately,  this meant that you had to pass the horrendous stench of the leather tanning works which would turn even an extreme leader’s stomach to jelly in one small swift nostril full !  It will remain in the memory as one of those reminiscent aromas of ones life forever like sherbet dips or pear drops, but it was a small price to pay for the trip ahead.
There would invariably be one or two other guys in line for a lift and we would take it in turns when offered a seat and it was all very courteous and you would often meet the same crew from week to week.

The Kit.
Of course the traveller needed the right kit to get a lift and this contained the essential lift getter. The climbing rope.... the rope would not be tucked away out of sight in your sack but had to be carried around the neck and be in full view of the oncoming car. It was meant to symbolise the fact that we were not just plain hitchers but men on a mission.
The use of the rope became a good badge in later years when I was living in Wales and needed to hitch to go shopping. It never failed, but we did get some strange looks from Mrs Williams and her brood as we trundled around the Co-op in Caernarfon. The cardboard sign was also an invaluable tool for the hobo and it was possible to choose your destination by writing it in large enough letters. I used this to great effect on one trip, I had decided to spend the weekend travelling and thought that for a change I would head up North, maybe the Lakes. The M62 Rocket Roundabout was a mere mile from home so that seemed like a good place to start. Arriving at the Rocket I was confronted with a long queue of other hitchers with various signs ‘the Lakes’,  ‘Coventry’, ‘Leeds’ etc. I thought’ I’m in for a long haul here if I don’t come up with something’. Out came the new piece of card and on it I wrote in big black letters ‘Anywhere'. Within two minutes I was heading for the Peak in a brand new articulated lorry. Of course I could well have been heading for Hull or Norfolk but that was the buzz- you didn’t know where you would end up? During my stay at Bigil where I managed to live in the same house as Al Harris and lived to tell the tale- we had an essential hitching tool to enable us to travel from the wilderness of Dinorwig to Bangor or Caernarfon. The ‘petrol can’ was our version of trade plates and would be used with great effect on drivers who obviously felt sorry for us. There was a special hiding place in the hedge at the Llanberis/Bangor junction where the can would be stashed for emergency use if lifts were not forthcoming. We must have ran out of petrol on a regular basis.

The Enemy.
There were only a few things that would make it difficult to get a ride in the old days..
1 Rain........This was a pain in the arse; invariably you would only get lifts in grotty old vans delivering car parts. Rain would mean that a chance of a lift in a decent motor was out of the question if you looked like a drowned rat.

2 Rutger Hauer..........Rutger Hauer starred in a movie about a psycho killer who hitched lifts to get his hits; this film called ‘The Hitcher,’ did for hitching what ‘Das Boot’ did for applications to join the submarine corps. Good old Rutger.

3 The Law........Maybe it was just me that looked like a suspicious hippy but I was confronted by Her Majesties Officers on more than one occasion. They would ask the most absurd questions as to why you were thumbing a lift carrying a rucksack and rope ,” where are you going son?”  “Bondage classes officer”  “nawfin suspicious then eh?........ On yer way lad”

The most bemused policeman ever was a Gendarme in Chamonix (more of that later). A mate and I were called over for jaywalking and were asked to empty our rather full rucksacks, this we duly did on the side of ‘la rue’. All was fine until  he came to a small plastic bag containing a white powder ‘Zut a lore, vat ave we ere’ vous may wish to phone ome, no Monsieur?'
It took over twenty minutes to convince the poor man that it was climbing chalk,(early days, Magnesium Carbonate in those little blue and white boxes from Boots.... who remembers them?) He tasted it several times ( he may well have been an addict) and we were convinced that we were to be sent to the guillotine, eventually all was well and he wandered off muttering something about wanting ‘la toilette’. 

The Vehicles
I have had lifts in hundreds of run of the mill vehicles but one or two stood out from the rest.
 
Thanks for the lift pal!

1. The Bedford Camper:
My mate Bob and I had decided to meet up with a few of the lads who were camping in Betws y Coed and started hitching on Saturday afternoon. We were only going for a few beers so not much gear was carried but we had ‘the rope’ so all would be well. It was a fine summers day and most of the traffic were holiday makers on their way to Wales with their kids. We waited a long time and seemed to do a lot of walking but eventually an ancient Bedford Camper van stopped, the driver and his wife were off for ‘A jolly little trip’ and could they give us a lift. Eight hours later we were dropped off at the bridge in Betws, the van, a 1950s classic had a top speed of approximately 25mph (down hill) and the driver and his wife had a combined age of 186. We of course missed the beers and couldn’t find the campsite (but the old dears may well have reached their destination by now ?

2. The Black Cab:
This was a very strange trip, again it was with Bob -he must have attracted them- and we were hitching at the start of the Welsh road. Many vehicles passed but eventually a black cab drew up, I said to Bob he must be mistaken and thinks we were flagging him down for a fare but no the cabbie insisted that he give us a ride as he was off the meter and going to Talacre to pick his wife and five kids up. Fair enough we thought, loads of space to stretch out and we duly got in.  We’ve all been in an old black cab at one time or another- usually at about 2am as you fell out of the ‘Cabin Club’ after a heavy night and trying to remember where you left that phone number she gave you!  This one was a speciality version as we weaved a merry journey towards the coast. It was a particularly hot day and the cabbie, a large portly chap who was dressed in a string vest and shorts asked if we were thirsty? He duly passed over a lemonade bottle, we noticed the label was missing and assumed he had filled it from home with orange juice, that’s what it looked like to us anyway.It seared the throat like your first secret swig of your parents scotch when you were a kid. It turned out to be home made tea wine with a 80% proof warning, We handed it back and the cabbie happily drank it as we swayed our way to the seaside. Whether he made it to his destination was debatable?

3. The Bentley :
I was stuck in Betws y Coed and holiday traffic was making it rather difficult to get a lift. Eventually a rather sedate 1940s Bentley stopped, I assumed the driver was looking for directions but no, he pulled up, wound the window down and asked if I required a lift...." Yes I’m heading towards Beddgelert” I replied “jump in young feller we’re headed that way”.
As we travelled majestically towards our destination he regaled me with tales of all the hills he had bagged and how he loved a jolly ramble followed by a dip in a cold mountain stream, I was rather concerned as to his intentions at this point and was hoping he wasn’t about to invite me for a ramble to show me some puppies and was quietly working out if it would be possible to leap out at some opportune spot James Bond style and roll down some grassy bank as they do in the movies. I worked it out rather quickly that this is obviously a good way of shortening your life, so I had to stick with his lordship till the journey ended. He kept on about how much he enjoyed coming to Wales, and that he was off to fish a little known lake at Rhyd Ddu , “damn fine rainbow my boy, a sporty fish, needs a cunning skill”. A quality of which I would of course not possess. “That wouldn’t be Llyn y Gader would it” I asked “.Ah, yes young feller, know of it do you?” “Know it my arse, part of the family estate don’t you know” I replied, hope you’ve got a licence guv. Needless to say his attitude changed somewhat after that. He dropped me right outside the front door and his only words as I was getting out of the car were “well I’ll be buggered”, ....... often, I thought.

4. The Boy Racer.
The boy racer was a real loon, I was on the A5 at Cerrigydrudion when a rather battered Triumph GT6 stopped. Just about enough room for two and a small rucksack I thought and jumped in.He was a farmer’s boy but liked to play about with cars apparently,( I think that’s what he said over the din) ? He had been able to squeeze a ‘blown’ Rover engine that his mate had then race tuned for him into this tiny car, the engine might have been in good fettle but unfortunately his mate had neglected the other essential bits, such as decent brakes to slow the thing down and the body work was held together with non sticky glue and string. I actually closed my eyes at 130 mph and just thanked Telford for designing a really straight piece of A5 at this spot. He was obviously proud of his car and wanted to show it off to me and was determined to see how fast it was capable of going without actually taking off, I managed to shout loud enough that I was meeting someone at the pub in Pentrefoelas and we screeched to a halt by the bridge, I fell out and he muttered “shame your not coming through the Padog Bends boy, then you could see what she  really handles like”! After he had disappeared in a cloud of rubber smoke I spewed up over the wall, and believe me I am a real speed freak. (This chap must be either long dead or testing nitro packed cars on some drag strip somewhere. God help him if he is anywhere with bends in the road !
5. The Furniture Van.
Once again I was with Bob and we were returning after a disastrous hitching trip to, wait for it- Belgium. Don’t ask.... Bobs idea, he had never been to Belgium and just fancied a trip there. If your thinking of having a hitching trip then remove Belgium from the map. Walking to the north pole pulling a pallet of lard would be easier than hitching in this country. We decided to return to home soil after having to sleep in a skip, in a shop doorway, under the trailer of a lorry, a rather grand golf course- that we only discovered that we were on when the morning mist cleared to find us bivied on the green. Such comfort was never before experienced, perfectly groomed and flatter than a billiard table, the tent pegs were pushed in with such ease! And finally, the luxury of a church grave yard which was when we accepted defeat. The return journey to the coast was undertaken by train and was pure relaxation. Bob then decided that he hadn’t been to Cornwall either and now seemed as good a time as any to experience clotted cream and pasties. The drag along the coast was very difficult to get a lift on as every other bugger was towing a caravan or was full to the gunnel's. A white van pulled up and enquired as to where we were heading “Penzance mate” we replied “OK lads no problem I’m heading in that sort of direction” He got out of the van and proceeded to open the rear sliding door “sorry lads but I’m not supposed to give any lifts but you can get in the back” In the rear of the van was the most expensive looking leather three piece suite imaginable. “just use that boys, it’s destined for some famous actor’s summer ouse an ee wownt know will ee... make yerself at ome” He slid down the door and we sat in comfort for what seemed hours without a clue as to our where about or destination. Eventually the van drew to a halt and we were a couple of miles from our destination, I wondered for many years whom the owner of the leather furniture was, not old Rutger Haeur I hope!
Patron saint of hitchhikers

The Big Trip

Every once in a while life changing moments make you do the strangest things, for me it was the break up of a long time relationship that led to the big trip. After gathering my thoughts and life in general together I decided to pack in my job and see the world. Well a bit of it anyway and a mate (Dave) was willing to join the venture. We gathered our gear together and decided that we should head for the Alps and strange as it seems the trip was to start at the Rocket Roundabout once again. With what seemed to be the biggest and heaviest rucksacks imaginable we set off as early as possible and to our surprise within minutes we were in a lorry headed towards London and the port of Dover. We ‘foot passenger’ ticketed it across the channel and hey presto a totally knackering 36 hours after leaving Liverpool we were camped up in Chamonix. Things were about to change though. It took a while to recover from the mammoth hitch and we took it really easy for a few days. One morning at some ungodly hour a rustling sound coming from outside the tent woke us up .’Ay up youth ,oi eard you were ere, any chance of a brew loike, I wuz wonderin if yer fancoid doin a route loike?' This very famous mountaineer will have to remain nameless to protect the innocent and keep Interpol at bay. He was equipped with no more than a safari suit, plastic shopping bag, a pair of EB’s and a bank card (not his own) and was determined to attach himself to us so it looked like we were stuck with him for a few days. As luck would have it the weather turned foul on the hills so we were spared the major rescue that we would have found ourselves in had we been tempted to follow our ‘mates’ advice and ‘knock off a couple of rock routes for starters'.

As it happened another mate was heading out for the Alps for his honeymoon and said he would meet up with us in Argentiere for a drink so off to the pub we set off only to find the place deserted. We would try another day, meanwhile it was getting more and more difficult to avoid the hanger on and he was looking more and more like Fagin in his looks and antics. The next evening we attempted to sneak away to the pub under cover of darkness but he appeared out of the gloom and sort of invited himself along. After a few beers with the honeymooners it was time for us to head back to Cham and for the honeymooners to go and do what honeymooners do. The reason they had not appeared the previous day was because they had mistakenly gone for a short walk, without food or much water into the Verdon Gorge without realising it was a long way down and had only an in and an out exit. Approximately 17 miles apart.  It was impossible to hitch back as all good French folk are in bed asleep by eight and the newlyweds were doing the same thing, but not the sleeping bit obviously.
A short while later Fagin, who had disappeared to relieve himself announced that he had found our transport back to the campsite, we humoured him and went to have a look sure enough there in the car park was what looked like an abandoned 2CV, the doors were open and Fagin said he could get it going and that we shouldn’t worry as he was accustomed to borrowing other peoples cars without their knowledge.

Drunk as we were we weren’t really sure that this plan was a good idea but the prospect of a long stagger back to base didn’t appeal much either. We clambered in and Fagin had the motor running in no time and we prepared for the long trip to the local nick. Unfortunately, despite Fagin’s skill at hot wiring the vehicle he had failed to release the steering lock and we did a perfect 360o of the gravel car park. This was now becoming a farce and we weren’t too keen on this idea of Fagin’s that borrowing other people’s cars was the done thing, plus the cold air was having a sobering effect. We said that the walk might do us good and that we might see him back in the camp site in the next few days.
After weaving down the road for a few minutes we heard the sound of a vehicle, we put our thumbs out hoping for a lift. What we got was what we weren’t expecting, Up pulled a council tipper wagon and driving it was Fagin. He was adamant that we should get in and we were too knackered, drunk and afraid to argue with him.

Arriving in Chamonix in the middle of the night in a ‘borrowed’ council truck was bound to arouse suspicion but not a soul was about and Fagin happily parked the truck in a lay- by as if he did this sort of thing on a daily basis (he probably did), he then set off at great speed mentioning that he knew where we could raid an ice cream machine. It was time to do a quick disappearing act before the three of us spent the rest of the holidays breaking rocks on an unnamed island somewhere in the Pacific!
The weather in the Alps was very poor and Dave was beginning to suffer with flu symptoms so we decided to head back towards home to gather our thoughts and sanity together after the excitement of being Fagin’s boys for a few days. It had been a doddle to get there so we assumed it would be the same on the return journey, don’t you believe it. The return journey was to take five gruelling days of weaving our way around the French road system including a trip down the Mulsane Straight at Le Mans in a very fast articulated wagon. The driver let us sleep on his floor and during the small hours a noise woke us up. In the darkness we could just make out the shape of a rather well endowed female, before long much grunting and moaning was heard, Christ youth she’s having an asthma attack I said to Dave who was also rather bemused as to what was going on. In the morning the driver calmly asked us if we had slept OK and that we weren’t woken in the night by his girlfriend who he described thus’ I ope you vernt voken in ze nite , my voman is what you say,a ladee of ze night yes’ . A very mad Algerian with a suicide wish, three women and a baby (which was sat on Dave’s knee when they hit another car head on) and a yoghurt selling hippy in a Morris Minor without any seats in it.... apart from all that it was all pretty plain sailing really! Needless to say the hitching bug was rapidly wearing thin and it was time for a bit of role reversal.

The American

After a while I decided that a semi permanent move to Wales would be a good idea, this semi permanent move meant that I could still take my washing home and indulge in some home cooking which would be a change to Al Harris’s famous omelettes or chips with chips which was staple fare to us dwellers of the spare room at Pete’s Eats. It was whilst I was working at Pete’s that I met the American (we shall call him Bud for that was what he called himself) I had been up to Capel Curig and was using Pete’s van. This van was an ex Post Office affair and has seen better days to say the least. The doors  had an alarming life of their own, they would be impossible to open on some days and required an acrobatic entrance through the windows on other days. Occasionally they would swing open as you drove along. This was pretty scary if you were a passenger and required the skills of a sidecar racer to avoid falling out. On my return to Llanberis as I was descending the pass there was a guy in the lay-by opposite to the boulders who was hitching. As a fellow traveller it was the norm to give lifts and I duly stepped on the anchors, I eventually stopped after approximately 100 metres (the brakes were also only slightly better than your grannies pushbike) and reversed back, I felt the van rise slightly at the rear and an alarmed face appeared at the passenger window ‘oi mate ya just backed over my backpack’ ‘ sorry la ....you’re lucky I stopped when I did other wise you would have had to walk to Llanberis to catch up with me, throw your pack in the back and get in’. Of course the door was jammed and Bud had to climb in through the window. So where are you heading to then Bud and where have you just hitched from? I’m trying to get to Llanberis and I’ve been told to head for Pete’s cafĂ© and I’ve just hitched from Czechoslovakia, I met up with a guy called Alan Rouse out there and he gave me a list of routes to do and told me I’d be OK if I headed to Wales .Oh you’ll be OK Bud me old mate, welcome to the crazy gang hideout. At every party at Al Harris’s or on every cassette that we all had, the favourite song that we  could relate to was Desperado by the Eagles . for that’s what we were for sure, we even looked like them
.
An American Hitchhiker......What Bud might have looked like.

I asked to see the routes list and recognised Alan’s handwritten scrawl. He had given Bud a fair mixture of stuff to do and he was as keen as mustard to get on the rock. First he had to have somewhere to stay so he sort of attached himself to the ‘second floor room gang’ at Pete’s and joined in with great gusto, over the next few days we managed to do The Corner and Grond and he was well pleased with the quality of our ‘small brutal little climbs’ (his words, not mine, which would later return to haunt him). One evening as we were all in the Padarn Lake having a pint and Bud was touting his list around and was asking for climbing partners for a trip to Gogarth, who should appear ghost like from the throng was our old mate ‘ Fagin’ , “oim up fer a  cwple o rewts mait loike, gis a lewk at yer list”. The list was slowly being ticked like all good lists should be but so far Gogarth had been missed. Little did Bud know he was in for a real treat. The story of the day was described to us over a pint and it was pure theatre. Fagin had arranged to meet Bud in the lake side car park and would pick him up at ten in his car, this was a good start as Fagin didn’t possess a vehicle of any sort but had ‘ borrowed’ someone else’s-nothing new there then- a rather classic Morris Traveller, It was to get much better as the story unfolded. Fagin decided that to get to Gogarth they would travel in style and had informed Bud that they were going to use his ocean going yacht to get there, Fagin didn’t posses a boat either. As they travelled towards Portdinorwig in their borrowed car they turned off into the marina and parked up. By this time Bud was thinking that he had struck gold with his new climbing partner. He was told to wait in the car and Fagin would call him when they were ready to set off. After a short while he heard a shout and was called over to the dock wall, there on the water was a small tender with its engine running and innocent old Bud got on board. The small boat then took them out to a 40ft ocean going vessel that wouldn’t have looked out of place in the harbour in Monaco and they secured the tender to the boat and climbed aboard. At this point things began to go a little pear shaped. They were on deck but Fagin was having a little difficulty gaining  access to the cabin as he had left the ‘key ‘ at home, suddenly to Buds surprise  there  was an all mighty crunch and lo and behold the door was open. According to Bud they spent the day on deck quaffing fine wines till the sun went down and abandoned all thought of Gogarth and its climbs. What would have happened if the real owner of this yacht had turned up and found this wayward duo helping themselves to his cellar doesn’t bear thinking about. Strangely Bud and his list quickly disappeared shortly afterwards and was never heard of again. Once was enough.

One weekend Robbie Mallinson and I were heading out to Wales and were offered a lift with Tom Hurley, those of you who remember that fine fellow will no doubt know what’s coming! We were picked up in what can only be described as a ‘wreck’ .This car an Austin 1100 had been around the world at least twice and most of that had been under water by the state of the body work’, Clean but rusty’ as it would be advertised in the local rag. We duly set off and were almost overcome with the petrol fumes emanating through the non existent floor pan, as we approached the Betws Bends- for yes dear reader we got that far without passing out ! Although alarmingly, Robbie did put his climbing helmet on which caused me some concern as I’d left mine at home. Tom must have been a sailor in some past life as steering this car was akin to being at the helm of a tea clipper in a storm. We veered from side to side as if this was a normal way to drive..... probably was for Tom! Time was rapidly moving as were the dry stone walls which were alarmingly close at times, when our hero decided that the pub in Llanberis was just out of reach before official closing time so a very fast right turn was taken by surprise and we were heading rapidly over the Ugly House road. After a while we raced past the Towers Outdoor Centre and suddenly there was an almighty grinding and crunching noise,
After coming to a halt and inspecting the outcome of the sounds we discovered that the very, very bald tyre was shredded and to make it for a pint would need Ferrari Formula 1 team wheel changing speed! On opening the boot a spare was extricated but was very, very, very bald, which is one more baldness than the one that was punctured- also a slight problem was the fact that Tom had omitted the wheel jack. Robbie pulled a gate post from the wall, I gathered some stones and Tom amazingly lifted the car up bodily as we constructed this home made effort. Good enough for constructing pyramids good enough for the boys, and girls, as Tom’s future wife was also on board but muttered not a word from journeys beginning to end. Amazingly we made it to the pub in Llanrwst and quaffed a few but the rest of the weekend is totally wiped from the memory. I went round to Tom’s house a few weeks later as we were going to Frodsham or Helsby. He offered me a brew and I said that I would fill the kettle as he got his gear ready. The sink was full of cogs and sprockets and kick-starters from various motorbikes. His harness was on the floor next to a greasy rag and bits of slings were every where. What a man- what a hero.... as rapid as a sten gun as mad as a box of snakes... very sadly missed.

All this revelry and rivalry was coming to a head and it was time to move on, I moved back to Liverpool and gained a job with the stunning title of ‘New Vehicle Sales Executive’ the job was absolutely crap but it meant that I was given a new car every month so it was ideal for repaying all those poor other buggers hitching out to the crag. It lasted a while ,until some nice bloke armed with a sterry milk bottle full of four star and an old hankie chucked it through the showroom window one night and started the Toxteth riots. So that was that, nothing for it but another long weekend at Ellis Brighams.

Now, where did I put that piece of cardboard?



















Ken Latham©
first published in the CC journal.