Monday, 12 December 2011

Alf Bridge....The art of falling and other stories

Alf Bridge (front 2nd right) and members of the Rucksack Club at a 1929 meet.
Maurice Linnell (back extreme left) and Colin Kirkus (Back 4th right) included.

There is a photograph of Alf Bridge in Byne and Sutton's book High Peak: it was taken in 1928 when he was at the height of his powers. Even in his climbing gear their is no hiding his stocky, muscular frame and sturdy legs. For those who have not heard of his repu­tation as an anti-establishment figure, his determined stance and strong jawline in many ways reflect Alf's unyielding approach to mountaineering and life.

Alfred William Bridge was born in Longsight, Manchester in 1902. After attending Grammer school be worked in a drawing office as a trainee draughtsman. Within a few years his father died and Alf took on the mantle of the primary breadwinner — there were three younger siblings to consider He decided to become an apprentice steeplejack, the extra danger money he earned was crucial in the household budget - It was an early and revealing insight into his values and strength of character

Like many Mancunians of his generation be was attracted to the local gritstone edges, both as an escape from the depression and as an out­let for his restless energies. This was a few years before the Kinder Scout Mass Trespass when huge swathes of the Peak were patrolled by keepers and virtually became  no go areas.
Confrontations were fre­quent, although these would have held little fear for Alf who could look after himself. With little money and no transport he accepted that the long approach trek from his home was part of the day To get the most from the short weekends most people worked Saturday mornings- Saturday nights were usually spent  bivouacking under the cliffs where Robin Hood's Cave at Stanage was a particular favourite

He was soon to gain a reputation as a strong and forceful climber but he first sprang to prominence as an endurance walker with the Bogtrotters Club. Many of these walks are recorded in High Peak although it is thought his most remarkable effort was a solo 24-hour circuit from Greenfield to Chinley in which he climbed on Laddow (three climbs), Stanage (four climbs), Cratcliffe Tor (two climbs), Robin Hood Stride (one climb) and Castle Naze (two climbs). Shod in gym shoes and carrying a Primus with a minimum amount of food it was a lightweight expedition in the purest sense. Eric Byne wrote, 'Few would have been capable of such a feat'

In the early '30s he joined the Rucksack Club but it proved to be a short-lived union that was to highlight his confrontational personality. The problem occurred after a tiring day in the Lakes when he turned up at the Wayfarers' Robertson Lamb Hut in Langdale, hoping to use the Rucksack Club's reciprocal rights. It is said that Alf was told in no uncertain terms; there was no room for him due to a Wayfarers' Meet. Words were exchanged and, whether or not it was the leader's aggres­sive manner when he squared up to Alf is uncertain, but his antagonist suddenly found himself spread-eagle on the stone floor, courtesy of Alf's right hook!  Alf then left. A complaint was made and he was called to a meeting of the Rucksack Club Committee to explain the incident. No doubt,objecting to being called to account, he promptly resigned his membership.

It was on Stanage FAgr in 1931 that Alf and Maurice Linnell led a couple of promising climbers from Sheffield railed Cliff Moyer and Eric Byne, up Manchester Buttress and along the Black Hawk Girdle — the same pair later went on to produce at least 20 new climbs on Stanage. In the same period Alf pioneered Robin Hood Innominate (VS) and then, at his muscular best he powered up Cave Gully Wall (VS) in the snow, for a first ascent. Forty years later a climbing guide described the route as 'needing care, being hard and dangerous'.
The running belay had yet to be developed and it was about this time Alf started to practise his skill of jumping from heights. He argued that if a leader was in danger of falling he should turn and leap for a suit­able landing spot Eric Byne wrote, Visits to Stanage were often enlivened by Alf Bridge who would demonstrate his "Technique of Falling," an art of which he was a master. His deliberate and controlled falls of 30ft and over on such climbs as Black Stab, Christmas Crack and Black Hawk Girdle 'were something once seen could never be forgotten'.

Alf had first met Maurice Linnell in the late '20s at Cratcliffe Tor and it was after this meeting they recorded over 60 consecutive climbing weekends together.. In 1929 they visited Black Rocks where Alf led the direct start to Birch Tree Wall.This thin,curving crack had surpris­ingly defeated Jack Longland.,and it was there, with Longland and Ivan Waller  a couple of years later, that Alf made his incredible, on sight lead of Lean Man's Superdirect.He became totally committed high in the Crack and struggled to reach a thin pocket hold that felt spongy as he pulled up on it, then, to his horror, discovered he had squashed and killed two fledglings in their  nest!

His friends followed but persuaded him not to claim the route thinking it was unjustifiable. Peter Harding led the climb 13 years later thinking it was a first ascent. Tony Moulam considers Alf's effort as -'perhaps the greatest single feat teat on these rocks. His visits to the Lakes were no less exciting. Alf and Linnell used to meet on a Wednesday evening in a Manchester cafe to plan their climb­ing trips. The Girdle Traverse of Pillar Rock (VS) was mooted there in April 1931 and completed the following Whit. Linnell led the route with Alf and A B Hargreaves in support. The climb is 1,300ft in length and took seven hours, spread over three days and contains many of the finest pitches on Pillar.

Then there was a remarkable incident on Central Buttress, Scafell when Alf was attempting to lead a first ascent of the Flake Crack with­out assistance or a belay at the chockstone and fell out of the layback position, but somehow managed to grab the chockstone with his left hand on the way down. On The Oval below, Linnell and A B Hargreaves watched open-mouthed as he eventually found a foothold and tied on. The route was then completed in the conventional way.
The same team, in 1931, with the addition of W Dyson turned their attention to Esk Buttress. Standing in splendid isolation at the head of a remote valley its potential was obvious, yet in those days contained only one route. In 1920, George Bower picked out his fine climb on the more forgiving right-hand section (Bowers Route- Hard Severe).

Nine years later, after completing the third ascent with Colin Kirkus, A B Hargreaves spotted a possible line up the imposing Central Pillar but three years were to pass before the little man returned with his friends. 'We tanked up in the Old Dungeon Ghyll Hotel until late Saturday night 'A B wrote-'and walked until it was dark- then slept under an overhanging boulder alongside Angle Tarn'.Their enterprise was rewarded as the following day dawned fine and clear and they reached the crag via Esk Hause. It had been decided earlier that Alf would lead. The difficulties were well within his capabili­ties, until he reached a point where the 1974 route The Cumbrian (E5) now goes and was forced leftwards. What followed was a brilliant piece of route finding which produced one of the finest climbs, for its grade, in the Lakes. As a tribute to Alf the route was named after him (Bridge's Route- Hard Severe) Interestingly enough the headwall of The Central Pillar was to deflect the finest climbers of the day, including Dolphin and Birkett, until Pete Crew made the first ascent 30 years later.

Esk Buttress

Alf was part of the Kirkus-Linnell partnership that featured in the first ascents of Curving Crack and the Direct Finish to the East Buttress on Clogwyn Du'r Arddu . Providing a fascinating snapshot of those days Alf wrote,  I remember, one day in winter being on Clogwyn du Arddu with Colin and we almost forced a route now known as Vember. We were in boots and the sole of one of Colin's boots had come adrift and he tied the two parts together with string. Of course, we had very little money and used six inch nails for pitons-. We did without mid­week lunch each Saturday to gain a little extra for the weekend.

As a steeplejack he became a respected figure and formed his own firm. On one occasion he won a tender, against stiff competition, for a structural inspection of the Eiffel Tower. He carried out the job, solo, with little more gear than a rope and gym shoes. There was another episode when he became detached from a high building and fell through a glass roof into a typing pool. Amazingly he was not badly hurt and was offered a cup of tea while the girls wanted to know where he had come from!
Looking to the future, he attended night school and qualified as a structural engineer then, later as a Chartered Engineer. He specialized as an industrial boiler inspector that led to work on the QE2 where he helped to overcome the ship's ongoing boiler problems.

When the Second World War broke out he was in his middle years and became a part-time civilian mountaineering instructor for the Armv based at Helyg, The Climbers' Club hut in the Ogwen Valley. Later there was a spell at the Commando training unit at Achnacarry in Scotland where he taught mountain craft and how to live off the land. It was part of Alf's remit to pay the farmer for any livestock that ended up in the soldiers' pot. There was also a period of duty at the Commando Assault Wing at Bosigran, Comwall. During one training exercise a Commando survived a 100ft fall from the top of the cliffs. He later said he remembered Alf's instruction and jumped for a narrow rift at the cliff base where the sea rose and fell. He hit the sea just as a high wave came in and escaped with little more than a dislocated shoulder.

Some may wonder why,with all his rebellious tendencies he did not upset the Army establishment?  Perhaps part of his contribution to the war effort was to toe the military line?  However, he was proud of his association with the Commandos and for many years wore a green beret as a token of respect for these men.
Despite the generation gap he became close friends with Peter Harding who helped him to run weekend courses for the Central Council of Physical Recreation. Although, as a rock-climber he was past his best, his powers of endurance were undiminished and he continued with his marathon walks. They were frequent companions on the fells, often ending up at Alfs home at Dore on the outskirts of Sheffield where he lived with his wife Dorothy-they never had children.

He joined 'The Climbers' Club in 1931 and became Hon Secretary in 1950 and a year later he resigned from the Club. The reasons were complex and difficult. He vigorously campaigned for a change in CC policy to provide structured training for younger members. Perhaps he was too outspoken and ran into fierce opposition with those he called 'The Mandarins of the Club'. It was said there was a clash of personalities with Stuart Chantrell, the Custodian of Helyg and when Alf's honesty was called into question in  the form of mischievous gossip, he handed in his resignation. Looking back on the problem A B Hargreaves wrote, 'It could have been possible for him to retire with honour,  so to speak, to a Vice Presidency but he would not co-operate in this to the great disappointment of his friends and supporters'.

Some years later he was persuaded to rejoin the CC, then under David Cox's presidency, but he became embroiled in what has been described as 'local difficulties.' And once again he resigned. Com­promise did not appear to be part of Alf's make up. He also served as President of the Manchester-based Karabiner Club and The Stonnis Club, which takes its name from Cromford's Black Rocks.

The Climbers Club Helyg Hut in Ogwen Valley-North Wales

After the end of the war he became friends with near neighbour, Eric Mensforth, then managing director of a business called Normalair that manufactured breathing apparatus — it was a fortunate meeting for British mountaineering.
Mensforth expressed an interest in mountaineering and under the guidance of Alf they had several seasons together in the French Alps and the High Atlas. It was about this time Alf joined The Alpine Club and became heavily involved, together with Mensforth, in the development of the oxygen equipment used in the successful 1953 British ascent of Everest. Mensforth was eventually given a knighthood and there was talk of an award for Alf but he would not have any of it.

When retirement beckoned, Alf and his wife settled at Colwyn Bay but unable to adjust took on a partnership with a firm of engineers in Sheffield. Three years later, in September 1971, the climbing world was stunned to hear that Alf Bridge, who had never ailed throughout his life, collapsed and died at the age of 69 whilst shop­ping with his wife.

In his lifetime he had been described as a stormy petrel, an impos­sible, rumbustious character with a prickly personality and Alf would probably have no problem with that. Despite these flaws many saw him as a loyal friend, with more than his share of dry humour, who could be counted upon in a tight situation. There is also little doubt that in any pre-War climbing'Who's Who' Alf would be up there with the best of them.

 Ken Smith: First published in HIGH


Mountaineering in Britain-by Clarke and Pyatt
Climbers' Club Journal-Alf Bridge's Obituary
A Century on the Crags-by A Hankinson
High Peak-by Byne and Sutton
The Black Cliff-by Crew/Soper/Wilson
I am especially grateful to Peter Harding for his kind help and interest.