Wednesday, 14 March 2012

Pete Livesey: As the crow flies

Pete Livesey on the first ascent of Downhill Racer: (1976) Froggat Edge,Derbyshire PL

Pete Livesey drove British rock climbing to new standards during the Seventies. His speed, strength and stamina were developed young as a Yorkshire schoolboy running at national champion level. The seniors in his club included Derek Ibbotson, who had the current record for the mile, and the young Livesey developed the same kind of competitive dedication.

 He also had a natural talent for other outdoor sports, branching out into canoeing, rock climbing and caving. For a while he concentrated his efforts underground, becoming one of the best cavers in the world, joining expeditions to Jamaica, Greece and Ghar Paru, in Iran. It was only in his late twenties that he turned seriously to rock climbing.

His impact on the climbing world was almost immediate, starting in 1971 in the intimidating gorge of Gordale Scar with the first free ascent of Face Route, previously climbed only with the aid of steel pegs. That was the first of many bold, strenuous routes up fiercely overhanging limestone. As his close friend and climbing partner, John Sheard, put it, "For Pete to apply the definition `rock climber' to himself, it had to include the unspoken prefix `best'; anything else was playing around." A few might niggle over "best" but all would probably agree that Livesey brought a whole new attitude to the sport.

First there was his athletic background. The stamina, strength and speed developed as a schoolboy gave him a natural edge, which he honed by systematic training on the then new indoor climbing walls, particularly during his exile for a year's teacher training practice in the lowlands of Scunthorpe. That dedicated approach to training was new, but mere athletic skills were not enough to succeed hundreds of feet off the ground on steep, potentially dangerous, rock, following incipient lines of tiny holds which others had never tried to link before. Here mental control was everything.

John Sheard, who followed him up countless routes, observes: "Pete was totally competent and safe on things which would have killed the rest of us. He had an amazing ability to hang around and rest - and place fiddly protective equipment - on overhanging rock. When you got there you just couldn't see how he had done it."

Pete new routing in the Sierra Nevada mountains in 1977:PL

Livesey left his mark far beyond the microcosmic world of Yorkshire climbing, particularly in 1974, when he discovered the tenuous, improbable line of Footless Crow, on Goat Crag, in Borrowdale. Later that year he travelled to Snowdonia to leave his signature on a cliff redolent with history - Dinas Cromlech. This was the scene of Joe Brown's great Fifties climb, Cenotaph Corner. Twenty-two years on, Livesey tackled the seemingly blank right wall of the great square-cut corner, linking a complex series of moves up tiny flakes of diorite. Right Wall is now an exhilarating classic enjoyed by hundreds of competent climbers, reared on a hundred gyms and armed with sophisticated modern protection devices. Twenty-four years ago it was an imaginative step into the unknown.

Beyond the parochial confines of British climbing, Livesey sought the scale of grander cliffs. In Norway he made the second ascent of the 5,000ft- high Troll Wall. In the Dolomites he free-climbed some of the great walls climbed originally with artificial aid. In Austria's Kaisergebirge he amazed the locals with his speed and stamina. In Provence, he showed what could be done in the stupendous Gorge du Verdon; where local experts rested on in situ steel pegs - and pulled up on them when things got a bit tough - Livesey climbed free, relying on ingenuity and the strength in his fingers.

His most elegant and celebrated new route here was Piche Nibou, although his own knobbly-kneed climbing style was more effective than elegant. He also dressed in the kind of stylish hand-me-down rags which would appal today's lycra-coordinated Gallic athletes.

Livesey also left his mark in California's famed Yosemite Valley. A partner on the first ascent of "Carbon Wall" recalls that, unknown to the rest of the team, Livesey made a recce the day before the climb, abseiling down the 500 feet of the route to inspect the difficulties. "It was typical of Livesey: he was always one step ahead of everyone else, particularly Ron Fawcett - he had to find ways to outwit Ron, because Ron really was the best climber in the world."

The young protege, Fawcett, eventually surpassed the master and, after climbing his Cheedale swansong Golden Mile in 1981, Livesey more or less quit rock climbing. He turned to orienteering, excelling at that pursuit just as he had done at all the others.

Pete Livesey directed the well-respected outdoor pursuits course at Ilkley and Bradford Community College and served on several committees of the British Mountaineering Council, but his greatest legacy is the actual climbs he created and the impact he made on rock climbing. He took his own climbing very seriously but the inner intensity was masked by a mischievous sense of humour and by moments of inspired theatricality, such as the time he made one of the first free ascents of the famous Welsh climb Tensor, solo, in Hush Puppies.

Pete Livesey during the Footless Crow-Lakeland Rock filming session. Photo-Adrian Bailey

Peter Michael Livesey, mountaineer: born Huddersfield 12 September 1943; married Soma (one daughter); died Malham, North Yorkshire 26 February 1998.

Stephen Venables: Originally published in The Independent:17th March 1998. My thanks to Stephen for permission to republish.