Thursday, 10 May 2012

A glimpse or two into the Sumner Mid Wales guides

The king and queen of mid Wales climbing.John and Jill Sumner.

So here I am holding John’s author’s copy guides in my hands, battered covers falling apart and stuck together with whatever came to hand by the look of it.  The binding has sustained the punishment of being owned by a guidebook writer.  The guides are waterworn with dried out paper that has survived with ink runs through several pages, making mono print images.  There are endless notes on what needs checking and detailed corrections- God knows what John would have done if he had lost them whilst working on a new guide- and all I can see are John’s big strong, straight fingered hands holding them.  I am going to shed a few tears writing this but hopefully there will be some laughter too.

These climbing guides have taken me on an unknown foray.  To see the five guidebooks John wrote in my hands there are so many stories underneath the text.  There is a naivety about the first guide, then the development of new areas and to finish with the Meirionnydd Guide covering a huge area of Wales. John has given a vast part of his life to these guidebooks but most of all he loved finding great routes and sharing them with other climbers.

John had a reputation for being dictatorial, but only because he wanted to get the best results for the climbers who would use the guides.  He was always bothered about his integrity and reputation as a climber.  I think (although he probably would not agree) that he attacked the guidebook writing like his he did his day job-as an electrical transformer design engineer.  He wanted a good clean design, accurate descriptions and for his own routes to be his gift to other climbers. I am now going to tell you a few tales you may or may not have heard before.  These are  random memories of how these guide books were part of my life.

Starting the guides
Larry Lamb persuaded John to write his first climbing guide.  John was reluctant at first but once he had started it was as if he was born to write.  He would chronicle his big Alpine routes for magazines or write articles on the development of new crags.  John had never looked back or wanted to recall historical climbs on the Yorkshire overhangs.

Research for ‘Central Wales’ guide started with a visit to Joe Brown.  This was treated like a royal visit.  We entered Joe's kitchen in Llanberis.  It felt a bit like a meeting the Godfather, I was definitely on my guard.  John nodded with reverence and said, ‘Joe’. Joe said, ‘Ow do Fritz’ and we sat down.  Things were going well.  John asked what Joe knew about new routes in mid Wales.  Joe knew that there were routes done on Gist Ddu and Bodlyn by Martin Boyson.  John must have considered this information because there was a pause, then, Joe said with a frown and absolute authority, ‘There’s no slouch in Boyson’.  The phase stuck as a sort of saying between us every time Boyson’s name was mentioned after that, I think you have to be born and bred in Lancashire to completely understand it.

Dolgellau area was difficult to research as there was a long history of climbing on Cadair Idris.  Books were reserved from the British Library written by the climbing pioneers of the late 19th to early 20th century, they documented the popularity of the mountain in these times.  John would hear a rumour that someone, such as Bowden Black, had put up routes then made enquires and chased any lead he got.  There has been a long history of co-operation between the local farmers, Snowdonia Nation Park (SNP) and climbers.  This helped when writing the Dolgellau guidebook as there was never any strong objections to climbing on the mountain.

Bones found on Cadair
A group of Mountain club members were sitting by the fire at Bryn Hafod (The Stafford MC hut in Cwm Cowarch) one cold frosty Saturday night.  It had been dark for ages and there was no sign of John and Bob.  They had gone over to Cadair to hopefully do the first winter ascent of 'Central Gully' on the north face of Pen-y-Gadair.  Everyone kept looking for lights coming up to the hut.  Eventually they arrived bursting to tell us what had happened but refusing to do so; as they had been sworn to secrecy.  We all sat by the fire and persuaded them to tell us their tale and promised not to tell anyone either.

The upper part of 'Central Gully' was just in condition with a small amount of snow, frozen turf and ice.  John spotted a huge bone stuck in the gully near the belay and hacked it out.  Bob arrived at the belay and John said, ‘Put that in your rucksack chap’ giving him the bone.  Bob reluctantly placed the bone in his sack with the unknown bits and pieces frozen on the bone.  As they climbed on up to the summit of Cadair Idris they passed more and more bones and frozen material stuck in the gully.  The bone was taken to Dolgellau Police Station.  John duly slapped the bone on the counter and said to the Policeman behind the desk ‘What do you think to that?’. The Policeman measured the bone next to his femur and established that it must be human.  According to Bob, there was a right rumpus after that, with police statements having to be written and pledges of secrecy until the body had been recovered, identified and the next of kin informed.

JS (left)and 'Tappers'.

The Mountain Rescue and John went back up the gully to bring down all remains the next day.  The body had been in the gully for about six months and was of a young man last seen in a café in Barmouth the summer before.  It was assumed that a strong wind had blown him down the gully or he had missed the path in the mist, I remember a letter from his family.  It was all very sad in the end, with John being summoned to give evidence at the Inquest, which gave an open verdict.

The tale of the falling dentures
Relations between the climbers and Aran farmers were strained, for a number of reasons.  When work for The Climbers' Club (CC) Mid-Wales guidebook was well underway, a number of meetings were held to discus access.  The farmers also wanted to air their objections about the climbing guides.  The meeting in this tale was on neutral territory along the lane in the Cywarch Valley between Bryn Hafod and the Common.
I remember the day was warm with mottled sunshine.  The important people arrived for the meeting, not quite in their Sunday best but looked spruced up; the farmers had set faces with bottled umbrage in their shoulders.  The meeting started with criticising the previous three climbing guides.  One objection was that some of the crags had English names.  Everyone seemed to think this was a valid point and John agreed to find the missing Welsh crag names.  Then there was objection to the English route names and John said he would try to use more Welsh when naming routes.

I still smile about what happened next and remember the farmers where from staunch Methodist stock.  The farmers had a zealous objection to the route 'Crucifix', aptly named because the climber was strung out with arms extended like Jesus on the cross whilst doing the crux move.  The climbers looked bewildered by the objection.  I do not know why, maybe the devil got into me but I said, ‘Well we are thinking of calling a new route The Holy Grail’.  That is when it happened, a farmer’s mouth dropped open and his false teeth nearly fell to the ground, only just saved by his hand and it quickly replaced back into his mouth.  Silence.... John caught my eye with a look that said, for goodness sake don’t laugh.  I remember I had to walk over to the stream to smother a smile pretending to be looking at a trout! Hence, 'Crucifix' was changed to 'The Technician’; 'The Holy Grail' was never used and just for the record 'Nigger in the Wood Pile' was changed to 'Troublemaker' for more obvious reasons.

A tale of rivalry for Darker Angel
Bentham and Shaw entered the new-route scene on Cadair Idris in the early guidebooks adding many first ascents mainly on Craig Cau.  Geoff Milburn wrote in the CC Mid-Wales Guide; ‘Undoubtedly their finest route was the magnificent Darker Angel, on the Great Gully Wall of Pencoed Piller, one of the best routes in Wales….’The Bentham and Shaw team had started their new routing on Cadair as though they had an invisibility cloak.  No body seemed to know where they came from or where they went to?  They built a base camp under a huge bolder beneath the Crag Cau and would stay up there for days; climbing an incredible amount of lines in a very short time and giving them names from Omar Khayyam. 

This peeved John because during the week whilst he was working at the drawing board they were clicking off the routes but he had respected them as committed climbers.  At first he was not too bothered, but more and more they encroached on his ‘ear-marked’ lines, until suddenly, 'Darker Angel' was under threat.  John defiantly wanted the line and would have done it his way which was to abseil down, clean the route and find the best line.  But 'Darker Angel' fell to Bentham and Shaw, they explored routes from the base and often used pegs.

I only remember meeting Ben twice.  The first time was at Cywarch after coming back from the Alps when John climbed 'Pamplemousse' and a month later 'Crack of Cau' with Ben.  The second time was nine months later one Friday night in the Red Lion pub.  We were greeted by the grinning faces of Bentham and Shaw.  I could see John’s heart sink; he’d  been weather-watching all week because he had an inkling they were going for 'Darker Angel', and while he was working, Bentham and Shaw deftly polished off the one route he really wanted on Craig Cau.

The 1988 CC guidebook to Mid Wales written by John Sumner. Photo shows John on the classic E2-Darker Angel:Photo Geoff Cope

My recall is second-hand, most likely from sitting snug in bed drinking tea and listening to John telling me about the latest comings and goings in Mid-Wales.  It was when I was out of action, due to child rearing.  But I do know it was one of the turning points in the mid-Wales new routing history and John had serious competition for the first time, a classic line had been snatched by ‘outsiders’; a route that he had been weighing up and been left far too long.
Ben latched onto Cau, after seeing the sensational backdrop of practically unclimbed rock above the breathtaking beauty of Cwm Cau.  My impressions of Ben are that he was like a roguish, eccentric, tramp.  John told me, shaking his head with a ‘can you believe this’ look on his face, how Ben would walk into shops and asked for free bacon ends or stand at a pub bar opening a battered tobacco tin which contained his money, poking about the coins looking for enough money to pay for his pint, until someone found some money or a benevolent landlord let him off.

John took the defeat well and it probably made him more careful about showing ‘new comers’ where the unclimbed rock was.  Nevertheless, John was enthusiastic to show Martin Crocker and John Harwood some good lines he thought were out of his league.

Martin Crocker enters the valley
There had been reports about a climber excavating routes somewhere near the 'Shark’s Fin' and the next weekend John met Martin Crocker under Tap-y-Gigfran on 19th May 1990.  Crocker remembers John looking up at him on the crag with his broad grin and a quizzical look, as if to say, ‘What are you doing there, have I given you my permission to climb’?  John told me how Crocker abbed down and introduced himself and said, he thought he would meet him sooner or later on the crag.

I remember the first time I met Crocker, he was cleaning some dire looking route under the huge overhang next to ‘Purge’, Beverley was belaying looking like she had just walked out of a beauty salon immaculately dressed in a pink jumper.  Crocker spotted John on the track and hailed down like a headmaster, ‘John; stay there, I’ll come down, I want to talk to you’!  No one spoke to John like that.  Beverley said, ‘You go if you want to’, as if to say he’s gone too far this time.  But we stayed.  As Crocker told me there was always a sort of power struggle between them, as well as, mutual respect.

John was pleased some harder routes were going up, as often he had the comment that Mid Wales lacked harder grades and was not worth going to.  Crocker started the important development of higher graded routes in the area.  Crocker's way of climbing was to push the boat out all the time, falling off was normal.  John's style of climbing was different, so much so, it was practically unheard of for him to fall off.  Crocker remembers telling John off for letting him drop several metres on a fall.  Both were disgruntled, but John grudgingly said he would do better next time or words to that effect.

Climbing arrangements started with a phone call to our cottage.  One of the kids would answer and then yell for John, wherever he happened to be, ‘Daaad, Crocker on the phone’. I remember John coming off the phone once laughing because Crocker had said, ‘Will you tell your children to call me Martin’.  I don’t think they ever did, they were always inventing names for John’s climbing mates, like ‘take in Bob’ or ‘the Vegan’.
Fear of being ‘gripped out of your skull’ was something lots of John’s seconds felt when going off climbing with him, checking that they had their prussic loops.  John seemed oblivious to this sense of trepidation people had, until he climbed with Crocker.  The tables had turned and you could see the worry creeping in.  John would come back from climbing with tales of scary ascents and falling off; he had never been to the physiotherapist with so many injuries.  The routes ‘Blood of an Englishman’ and ‘Learning to Fly’ pay tribute to this.

I thought that it was good for him sometimes to have some insight into what life was like on the blunt end. Crocker did not squander any climbing time and after it had gone dark would often be eating by his car on the common before going to sleep in some obscure place, like a up a pass or under a tarpaulin in the Idris Gates car-park under Cadair.  For some reason, so as not to ‘lose face’ I suppose, John went to this car-park, once, and prepared to bivvy by the car.  To John’s astonishment, Crocker just pulled a weathered, old tarpaulin over him and went to sleep.  After several hours with no sleep and rain dripping through the trees John gave up and slept in the car.  When he woke in the morning there was a note on the car saying, ‘see you on the crag’.  It was around this time that John began to ‘collar’ keen young climbers to second Crocker, while he returned to easier climbs.

I remember one Sunday John, the kids and I were on a walk under the crags (for a change, as John was usually on the crag, getting back far too late for the drive back to Stafford, when there was school in the morning) and by chance we met Crocker, who was surprised to see that John was not climbing and suggested they did a route.  John said, ‘Oh, no, can’t, have to get back for the kids to watch The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe’.  This still makes me smile and shake my head, as it never normally bothered him.  The kids and I exchanged raised eyebrows and half smiles all round and I do not think Crocker swallowed it either. John was always proud of the guarded friendship he had with Crocker.  He frequently reminded me when he wanted to put me in my place, ‘Now, don’t forget, I am Crocker’s hero’ with a cock of his head and a mock stern look.

John Sumner new routing in mid Wales

Route names
I can safely say that I had some influence on John’s route names, although I can not remember how they all came about.  Seldom names where to do with John’s day job like 'Vapour Phase', 'Georg Machine' and 'Phase Shift'.
It was important to John to find the right name for a route.  The first new route I climbed with John was ‘Click’.  We struggled over ‘Will-o-the-Wisp’, which eventually become a classic.  'Will-o-the-Wisp' left a huge white scar on South Buttress on Crag Cywarch.  Sometimes looking up at the crag from Bryn Hafod through sheets of rain advancing up the valley, the scar looked like a wisp of suspended mist.  Cywarch can be a mystical place with abandoned mines and dwellings and there are stories of silver being found in the lead mines.  So, eventually from all this enchantment came the perfect name, 'Will-o-the-Wisp'.

Favourite songs often influenced route names; ‘Shade of Pale’ or John would hook into a band and just play it, forever, very loud driving to and from Cywarch.  Genesis produced ‘Paper Lace’, I found out that the lyrics are actually ‘paper late’ but I misheard them.  The route had masses of dried up Pennywort plants which had to be cleaned off; I linked the song because they looked like paper lace doilies for fairy folk.
‘Curley Fringe Frown’ is named after a goat and a serious moment on a narrow ledge whilst I was belaying John.  This ledge is half way up Bird Rock.  I was sitting taking up the whole width of the ledge, when this huge Billy goat trotted along and wanted to get past.  It lowered its’ horns and frowned at me through a curly fringe hanging over its eyes.  I froze and tried to call John but to no avail.  The goat looked at me for sometime, then backed off, thank goodness and I live to tell the tale.

‘Pear Tree Blues’ was from when we were doing up our cottage and all our spare time was taken up gutting and rebuilding, climbing had to take second place and it was getting John down.  ‘Bionic woman’ comes from the same time.  The front door was not on hinges and was just propped up with a bit of wood (as we had lowered the floor).  A door-to-door salesman knocked on the door, I moved the wooden prop and picked up the door put it against the wall.  The salesman looked surprised and said, ‘A bionic woman’, and quickly disappeared.  This amused John when I told him and of course later 'Bionic Woman' ended up being a route name.

Jill Sumner 2012: A version of this article first appeared in The Climbers Club centenary journal

Many thanks to Matt Munro, Pete Cockshott, Barbara Conn, Martin Crocker, Robin Thorndyke, Bob Short and most of all to Bob Allen for asking me to write these memories.

John 'Fritz' Sumner died in 2004. An in depth obituary appeared in the Climbers Club 2004/5 journal and can be accessed online via the journal archives.