Thursday, 12 January 2012

Ron Fawcett-rock Athlete...Review

The following review was originally penned for inclusion in one of The Climbers Club publications and left with the then editor, Tim Oliver. Tragically Tim died quite suddenly and the review and other material disappeared. I've managed to unearth the original review and offer it here somewhat belatedly in the hope that it may stimulate some fresh interest in the work of one of our most iconic rock climbers in the post 70's era.

For those who began climbing in the 1970's and 80's, the name Ron Fawcett was never far from the front pages of the climbing press.  Alongside Pete Livesey- playing the role of the cynical and slightly arrogant John Lennon to Big Ron's more wholesome McCartney figure- the pair were hugely influential in the new age of rock gymnastics. Those who devoured the climbing media in print or film in this halcyon era could not avoid 'sausage fingers' and ' four eyes' leering out at them. All singlets, sweat and brutal intensity!

However, as Livesey reached his peak and observed a future of decline which presaged an early exit from the game, Ron Fawcett picked up the baton and took  young pretenders like Jerry Moffat and Ben Moon head on. Now the story of those golden years has been told with great success (Winner of the 2010 Boardman Tasker Award) in 'Ron Fawcett-Rock Athlete'. Ostensibly this is the Fawcett autobiography although as the whole world and his wife is aware, it was actually pulled together by respected outdoor writer, Ed Douglas. Ghost written autobiographies are always difficult to deal with.Suggesting a Cheryl Cole-esque trip through La La land.Charmless,superficial and in truth,a waste of good trees!  It is to Ed and Ron's credit that such a readable work has emerged from this much maligned creative structure.

The book opens with a famous Fawcett article which appeared in High magazine in 1987,detailing a memorable day when he set out...and climbing 100 'extremes' in a day.By using this as a device to set the scene, Ed Douglas has cleverly unveiled his subject as someone who was clearly out of the ordinary. Now the scene is set for those readers who are not that familiar with this Fawcett guy. A household name perhaps for those of a certain age and based in the UK, but for Fred Schelp sitting on his porch in Boulder Colorado or 19 year old Ben Krank in Basingstoke, the name Fawcett stirs just a vague echo from the past.A prince from a lost kingdom which is now impossibly remote from the perspective of a new century.

From his working class Yorkshire roots in the small Yorkshire village of Embsay, Ron emerged from the fag end of sixties hedonism and forged out a career in climbing at a time when earning a living from the activity was a rarity. His professionalism built on a reputation for stirring first ascents of future classics like The Cad, Lord of the Flies and Strawberries. With Pete Livesey carving out his own niche with routes like Right Wall and Footless Crow, Big Ron pushed the envelope even further by using the appliance of science to ratchet up the ante.

Religiously training in the manner of a modern day MacLeod or Pearson. Eschewing the party animal life in order to tweak out that extra one arm pull up or add an extra dozen press ups to the 2000 he usually did before breakfast! This was one lean mean climbing machine! Interestingly,one of the few climbers operating at Fawcett's rarefied level at the time and very much considered a rival was North Wales based John Redhead. In the book Fawcett recalls that the Redhead big ticks such as Margins of the Mind and The Bells-The Bells were considered as rites of passage even to rock gods like the Yorkshire brothers in arms.

This actually leads us into an area where the remarkable Fawcett story could be seen as lacking that extra dimension.. Despite his supreme skill and devotion to the art,Ron is very much the Yin to Redhead's Yang. Whereas as Redhead was the seen in the role as the wild bohemian misfit.Climbing death defying routes through magic and meditation; Antagonising the climbing establishment at every turn. Ron Fawcett was very much the sort of climber who fitted into the mainstream.He was respectable,hard working and even had a moustache.I'm sure even Geoffrey Wynthrop Young would have approved of this quiet self effacing figure!

In autobiographies it is usually found that the darker the character the more interesting their life and hence their work. In Rock Athlete you will not read of Ron soloing a desperate E7 in a heroin induced haze, chasing German climbers around Snell's Field with a fire axe in a drunken rage or participating in wild orgies in dank Welsh caves!. Ron doesn't do the Sex & Drugs & Rock and Roll thing. He was much too concerned with keeping his body as a temple and his mind finely tuned. However he does reveal that in a dark period in his life he was prosecuted for shop lifting. I'm sure that made the front page of the Oswaldthwistle and Heckesslike Bugle..Oh... and did you ever hear of the time Paul Williams slipped a vodka into Ron's half a shandy? Got quite merry he did!. OK...I made that last one up but you catch my drift.

Another thing that comes through is the fact that Ron Fawcett was very much a parochial north country rock climber as opposed to the all round mountaineer. Apart from the odd sortie to Yosemite,Verdon and the odd European venue-often accompanied by friend and fellow rock master, the late Wolfgang Gullich--Fawcett was never much of a winter climber, Alpinist or explorer of the greater ranges. In fact even within the UK, Ron's tale is essentially concentrated in his beloved Peaks or North Wales were he lived with Gill Kent for four years. The Scottish mountains,Lakeland crags and Cornish sea cliffs do not appear to have fallen very often within Big Ron's regular orbit ?.

However,as one of the UK's first climbers to actually earn a sponsored living from the sport,Ron was never far from the visual spotlight with seasoned film makers like Sid Perou and Leo Dickenson putting him through the paces. Leading cutting edge routes such as 'Lord of the Flies' upon which what might be considered his catch phrase emerged..'Come on arms...Do your Stuff'!'  as well as friends looked away in fear... some of his well reheased routes.

For some readers of this review who have picked up on the lack of variety in his climbing regime and the sheer ordinariness of his personal life,might be led to deduce that Rock Athlete is not for them. A somewhat one dimensional trip down memory lane or rather a lane with the Peak at one end and North Wales at the other.
However,even allowing for the lack of geographical variety and despite lacking the sort of edgy character that stimulates a host of Whillans-esque anecdotes,there is more than enough within these pages to engage the reader and lead on to the quite poignant final chapters.

With middle age approaching and after setting such a high standard for such a long period,Ron inevitably fell off the pace as the new generation of rock athletes nosed in front. In this period he took to the relatively new sport of parascending and like a lot of climbers he embraced fell running with a passion. Quickly gaining experience in both sports, it was in fact to parascending that he turned to develop a new career as an instructor. Working professionally for High editor, Geoff Birtles' outfit. It was while working as an instructor that he suffered a serious injury in a fall to earth which virtually ended his career as a leading rock climber.

Despite this injury,after recovery he continued to climb although with less passion and commitment.As the 90's and the new millennium unfurl, Ron is still very much the athlete.Mixing more modest ascents with parascending and fell running although it is within the latter activity that he finds some success and satisfaction as a competitor in the veteran category. Competing for the famous Dark Peak Runners and winning many events.

In his personal life,his relationship with Zanda brought him two lovely daughters and new responsibilities.As parents and friends gradually departed the stage,Ron's life followed a predictable course until,sadly, by the latter part of this decade his marriage had ended and Ron had to define a new role for himself- as a single parent in straightened financial circumstances. As things stand in 2010/11 Ron appears to have recovered his equilibrium and adjusted his life accordingly. Still to be found at the Climbing Works wall in Sheffield,out sporting himself on some sun dappled boulder on the moors or gliding up hill and down dale on those long spindly legs of his.

The other week I was wandering through the Gwydr Forest in North Wales with one of Ron's few equals on the rock face in that era,the aforementioned John Redhead and I mentioned that I'd been reading Rock Athlete....'Ahhh yes'..mused John R... 'Really nice bloke Ron...really nice'. I guess there are worse things to be called than nice and at the end of the day it goes to show ; even nice guys can do extraordinary things.

John Appleby