Friday, 20 July 2012

The Paul Ross interview...part one

Paul Ross after making the first all British ascent of Salathe Wall.

Paul Ross remains an iconic figure in the post war history of English rock climbing. Born in Gateshead but brought up in the north Lake District town of Keswick,he began his climbing career on the local Borrowdale crags in the early 1950's, as a feisty young teenager looking for birds eggs. He quickly developed what was to become an all consuming interest in rock climbing and within a short time,was making hard first ascents in the district. Never one to let the climbing game interfere with his other interests,Paul Ross quickly gained a reputation as something of a 'climbing teddy boy'. Someone as likely to found rucking and jiving on the dance floors of the local towns or tearing through the Lakeland passes on his motor bike. This apparent take it or leave it approach to climbing inspired non other than Don Whillans to christen him 'Holiday Bollocks'! However, behind his perceived laid back approach burned a passionate interest in new routing.Often on vegetated,undeveloped virgin cliffs in the district.

In this,Ross never felt obliged to fall in with the prevailing UK climbing ethics of the time and was often the target of the self appointed 'keepers of the faith' for using pitons on some of his new climbs. However,even this aspect of his climbing career appears somewhat exaggerated and his bold ground up approach more than made up for any perceived ethical misdemeanors.

After leaving the UK for the US in the late 60's,he continued his passion for new routing on American soil before returning to the UK twenty years later. A return which saw him rekindle his climbing career with,amongst others, the late great Pete Greenwood. Paul Ross returned to America and picked up where he left off. Climbing hundreds of new routes across New Hampshire, Colorado and Utah. Now in his mid 70's and resident in Colorado, he admits to hankering after the ever dependable north Country English rain after spending so much time amongst the sun baked plains and deserts of the US South West.

As a keen breeder of champion Jack Russell Terriers, Lake District walkers and climbers would be advised to keep an eye out in the not too distant future, for super fit septuagenarian wandering the Cumbrian fells with a Jack Russell or two in tow. Savoring the gusting bands of rain sweeping in from the West. A sharp contrast with the wall to wall sunshine and 100+o temperatures he normally experiences this time of the year in the States!

What follows is a comprehensive Q&A session which Paul kindly participated in for Footless Crow which is published in two parts. a working class lad living in Keswick in the 1950's, what lit the blue touchpaper which ignited your climbing career?

We were four Keswick grammar school lads aged 15/16. Bird egg collecting was a country lads hobby, not malicious robbing but we would take one egg out of a full clutch -our collections were small.We somehow heard that Jackdaws nested on some crags in the Borrowdale Valley .We biked there and came to the bottom of what we later found out was Brown Slabs on Shepherd's Crag. We saw marks on the rock (caused by nailed boots) and without hesitation started up Brown Slabs Direct VD. One after the other- as one took his foot of a hold the one below used it as a hand hold. About half way up we heard shouts from our left from two '”real” climbers with ropes and stuff that were on The ArĂȘte route. In retrospect they were obviously not happy about what must have looked very foolhardy. None of use had been on rock before but we were all enthusiastic tree climbers so we were quite unfazed by the anger/concern by the party to our left.

A young (15 year old) Paul Ross solos up Little Chamonix.

We all continued to the top then reversed the climb in the same manner we use on the ascent.I think we all thought this was great fun and proceeded to walk along the crag looking for more nail scratches which we now realized were caused by mountaineers. The bird nesting was now forgotten. The next scratches we found was the first pitch of Little Chamonix VD. Three of us set off this climb on arriving at the tree filled ledge the other two opted to climb up to the left ( Crescendo?) I decided to go up to the right on what turned out to be the final two pitches of Little Chamonix. The fourth member of the party had my brownie box camera and was waiting at the top of the crag and took the photo (see photo) as I was near the top of the climb. Note my footwear was dress leather sandals.Myself and one other of our gang were hooked .

I later looked in George Abrahams photo shop (now George Fishers outdoor shop) of his photos of climbers with ropes. I left school that summer  and went to work on the forestry. I thought it would help my climbing .The rest is history...later my first day with a rope I pulled off a loose block and hit the ground from fifty feet up. Fortunately landing in sphagnum moss with only a slight cut to the head ... good start!

I'm guessing that like most of us,you began by repeating the existing trade routes.How soon after you started climbing did you get the new routing bug?

With reference to the first answer my first climb with a rope. The rope my friend Fred and I borrowed from a coal shed next to the once KMC hut above Honister Pass was a 80’ old hemp. We smuggled it out up my jumper when on the lunch break from a working party at the club hut.We were told that the real climbers from the club would take us climbing sometime if we helped with the work!

We knew how to tie in with a bowline (from the scouts) and tie an overhand knot to put over a spike if one found a spike on which to belay.We had spotted a crag about a half mile away.I think it is called Round How. I took off up the crag for about 70’ and reached a sloping grass ledge no belay. I brought up Fred and traversed out right this is where I pulled off the large block . Me and the block took off 50’ down the crag (the crag sloped up to the right) both the block and I landing in deep sphagnum moss.

Lucky for Fred as he had no belay he had let go of the rope when it burned his hands. When I looked up he was on the edge on the ledge getting ready to jump about 70’ as he thought it better than being dragged off !! Fortunately this did not happen and eventually he somehow managed to scrambled off to his left. I washed the blood from my face put on a hat and we sneaked back to the work party, never daring to tell them where we had been and done.They gave us a bollocking for slacking off ; So I guess one could say my first go at “real” roped climbing was an attempt at a ground on sight first ascent ! What I still consider today as being the only true rock climbing experience.

My hero at that time was a member of the the Keswick MC a Gunter Franc an Austrian who worked on the Forestry Commission, he was later killed when his rope broke  after falling from the direct finish to Central Buttress on Scawfell. He was the only one that ever took me and a friend  up a v diff on Great Gable before I had bought a used 120’ rope for 6 pounds and took off, learning by my own mistakes. Which to date have fortunately  not been fatal !

The Napes on Great Gable was our adventure area. Valley climbing was still frowned on. We biked from Keswick to Seathwaith often two to one bike taking turns who rode on the cross bar. We first tackled the various ridges and chimney climbs. These were great days out ...four of us tied into one 120’ of rope together with four US army framed packs and often in extremely wet conditions. You can imagine what could have happened me leading on 30’ of rope my second climbing at the same time... hauling packs. Good training for ascents of El Capitan in Yosemite.As from the advice from our older mentors we had to prepare to be mountaineers not rock gymnasts.

An early ascent on The Napes

They laid out the rules . As we staggered back to the cafĂ© in Seathwaite after a wet sock climbing epic they asked what we had climbed ...for example Eagle Nest Chimney ..they then said did you continue to the summit of Great Gable if our answer had been no then they said we could not count our rock climb as successful. Hard school ! At that time VS was the top grade that we all dreamed of. I was seventeen. One day as we again hiked up to the Napes I bumped into a Mike Thompson at Kern Knotts ( with whom I later wrote  a pirate guide book to Borrowdale ) He was at that time a student at St Bees school on the coast of Cumbria.He offered to take me up Innominate Crack - my first VS. After climbing it second and finding it easy ..came down and led it.  These were the days when the only protection we had were quarter inch gold line slings.From that time on I was off on the VS trail. About this time at seventeen, I used to solo Sepulche and solo down Kern Knotts Crack in 2.5 mins ...strange but true. Amen to that .There were other climbing epics on Gable but that’s another story.

Most of the time up to and around I was 18 I was climbing with local lads. One who worked  with me on the Forestry named David Sewell -big strong lad. He forgot his gym shoes one day and followed me up Kipling's in old flat bottomed ski boots he was using as hiking boots - he did not ski! Another time on the second pitch of Hells Groove- Scawfell he in white gym shoes-I was in black- He kept falling. His cries echoed around the East Buttress shouting...“my fecking feet are too  big for the footholds !!!”

While I was still seventeen, Des Oliver of Keswick took me to Black Crag in Borrowdale and pointed me up what turned out to be my first new route . The Super Direct  HVS . From then on I was hooked on first ascents.The week of my 18th birthday I teamed up with two older climbers from the Carlisle MC. A Robin Scot and Denis Wildridge. They proceeded to send me up unclimbed rock.. a couple of easy ones on Round How (after sending me up an overhanging wall that I had to descend and jump the last 10’ back onto the belay ledge). They then fired me up on sight a new climb on Kern Knotts - The Cenotaph HVS 5a- I led from top to bottom with no protection as in those days 1955 one had only slings over spikes for protection.

At the end of the week I was pleased to lead a group of the CMC members up Central Buttress,a big route in those days.Not long after this on on Shepherds Crag with Robin Scot we met up with Peter Greenwood and his group.Robin introduced me and asked him if he would take me climbing as I guess he felt I had some hidden talent or Robin was fed up of falling off as a second ? Pete said he was hiking over to Langdale and would I like to come? I said yes. Over a couple of days we swung leads on the 5th ascent of Do Not in White Ghyll and next day he took me up Kipling Groove. (Pete said 12th ascent). I was so elated when I found Kipling Groove fairly easy I set off soloing it. Peter demanded I stopped . I was half way up the first pitch so I retreated. He said I am not bothered about you killing yourself but it disrespects Arthurs' route (Dolphin was deceased by then ).

 The Ross party in foreign parts....Langdale !

Peter had a great regard for his friend Arthur Dolphin.That Saturday night in the Dungeon Ghyll it was like the wild west .Various groups went crazy throwing beer bottles and pint mugs  at each other... spilling out into the car park fists flying as we quickly retreated to the Wall End barn. Not much peace there either. Meeting Greenwood was my break though. We got on real well ,both on the crags and more importantly having fun in the pubs and local dances. I soon lost interest in known rock climbs. Usually when I went to a crag I would look to see what the hardest climb was, do it ,then start looking for unclimbed lines...or get into Holiday Bollocks mode with the girl friend or whatever. Climbing was still a pastime- something fun to do with your mates when the pubs were closed. Those early climbing days were really great times,so much has changed.

You are indelibly linked with Borrowdale as your personal climbing fiefdom in the same way as Bill Peascod is seen as the high priest of Buttermere and Newlands climbing. Was this a case of having so much quality on your doorstep that you didn't need to explore further afield or was a case of transport logistics?

Transport was very limited in my early days. I used a push bike in my first year then bought a 1937 girder fork 350 Royal Enfield. Used to take a pint of oil to get from Keswick to Seathwaith and back-16 miles. So even Langdale was a long trip. Had several minor crashes.First day avoiding a car went through a garden and hit a building next to the Lodore Hotel. Hitched to Wales a couple of times ..both times wet but did one or two of the classics like Cemetery Gates.

There was quite enough in the Lake District to feed my new route appetite. I later moved up to a 500 BSA. This was real dangerous fast bike. Local Police  were on my back a bit as I was reported a few times for carrying up to 4 passengers with packs down the Borrowdale Valley. It had a good long seat.It was about this time that the Borrowdale locals coined the title Crag Rats. My final crash on this bike was in Langdale with “allegedly” a lass on the pillion (after 3 tests  I was still an L driver for all my biking years).  I hit a flock of sheep doing 70 MPH .The farmer claimed the girl flew though that air and killed one of the three sheep that lost their lives. The girl was unharmed I had a week or two  off work with various injuries.I then got a Bedford Van.

Apart from your occasional sorties on outlying lakeland crags, in the 50's; did you see much action further afield. In Scotland or North Wales for example?

Did not go much to Scotland or Wales in the early days. When I returned from the States in 1988 for 10 years in the UK I spent a lot of time in Scotland hiking over 50 Munros and creating a couple of new routes on the Point of Stoer. I climbed a couple of times on Grit- once with Henry Barber and once with my son. Sorry I was not overly impressed with these little crags. I guess better than nothing if you live in the cities. I really got into hiking when I came back for that 10 year stay in the UK. I did manage another 60 more first ascents. Hiked around every lake and most of the tarns in the Lake District, with two friends Pete Greenwood and Denis Peare. I also hiked up EVERY hill above a 1000’ in the Lake District National Park area....that was fun. 

You've been portrayed as something of a 'climbing Teddy boy'. Someone who enjoyed rucking and jiving as much as climbing. Is that a fair reflection of the young Paul Ross?

Teddy Boy? Well I think what you don’t understand is in the mid 1950’s all young active lads were involved with dancing and Rock and Roll and at times dressing in the latest fashions- which was drain pipe pants and padded shoulder jackets.Bill Haley and the Comets were the top group. Don Whillans had all his records of such groups stored at my house and we used to practice R and R throws together.

However we never got a female to do them ! Whillans was a better dancer than a climber, but not as good a rock and roller as me. Every Climber that I knew in the 50’s and 60’s got drunk and made a happy fools of themselves on the dance floor both in the Keswick and the Rosthwaite halls. Most times we were dancing in Vibram soled boots. We were not a good example of the hard core Teddy Boys but some of my local mates liked to fight at the dances.... ask Al Parker about that !

Styhead 1954

A lot more good clean fun in those days. I do have to smile when I see some of the daft things that have been written about what was quite normal behavior for teenage lads in the 1950’s. What do normal people think you do when your eighteen except run after the lasses, dance and have a few pints? Climbing during the day gave you a good thirst and an adrenalin rush start to the evenings activities.

Can I ask you about your rivalry with another Lakes legend Allan Austin. Stories abound about you deliberately winding up the Langdale activist. For example turning up at Castle Rock with your mates and keeping up a barrage of abuse as they climbed a new route on the crag. Was this rivalry good natured or was there a darker edge to it?

Myth and distortion..I once talked with Joe Brown about the myths...he laughed saying folk had him capable of one arm ,maybe one finger pull-ups!  He said bloody hell I can hardly do a couple of normal two handed pull-ups. In the book Whose Who in British Climbing I counted 15 bits of misinformation in the piece written about myself. Dear old Allan the rag man. Well if he was only nobbled (barracked) once in his climbing career he was lucky. By the way, they were not on a new route on Castle Rock they were on one of my routes- The Last Laugh  (so I’m told ..I cannot remember the that bit of fun). Nobbling was certainly quite common in those day among the  various climbing groups. The Langdale lads -often led by Pete Muscroft were quite a deadly team to avoid as were the Craig Du who caught me twice. Their shout on seeing any climber with a rope was “Been up Great Gable Jock” Then when you were on a climb a steady steam of misdirection and good fun nobbling ..all part of the era of that time. As well as give it you had to take it. Need I say more. There were a few climbers who did not have much fun in their lives and took it all far too seriously.However Austin was futuristic in his approach to some new routes by using aid on the true first ascent then later returning and climbing it with less aid or no aid,then writing it up. We always thought you had to mention what ever you did when you FIRST did the first ascent. So for about six of my first ascents all of these done on sight ground up cleaning as you go I got the reputation of being the mad Borrowdale pegger.. ...and rightly so you say!

 Going back to your perceived rock & roll lifestyle. Is it true that Whillans referred to you as 'Holiday Bollocks' and was bemused by your take it or leave it approach to climbing?

Holiday Bollocks- Well this title Whillans laid on me was not to my face but I learn about it from other acquaintances... I now sort of like it as it set me apart from the climbers whom I mentioned did not climb for fun with mates that liked a laugh. Don and and I had a checkered relationship. I climbed with him quite a bit in the Lakes until he got miffed off - something to do with my girl friend- and later on the Dru  where we both almost came to blows. See my description of that climb in the book “Climb” by Cameron Burns. Of course we were both young lads full of testosterone and many years later when I met up with him in his forties both he and I had mellowed ,and unlike his youth he had became a droll and amusing chap......

I wanted to ask you about one of your old climbing muckas, Pete Greenwood. Contemporaries of Pete suggest that he was on a par with Joe Brown during that era and could have even surpassed his achievements if he hadn't have given up so suddenly. Is that how you see it. Could Pete have become a household name?

Pete Greenwood. From I was 18 Pete and I became great friends and climbing partners. We both knew if one of us could not do it the other would.We both loved to sing in the pubs ..very common during the 50’s in the Lakes climbers pubs such as the DG Langdale and at various pubs in Keswick. The Golden Lion,The Lake Road Vaults,The Central and others as we were moved on from pub to pub due to over enthusiasm. Pete did give up climbing very early from being very poor (sometimes washing dishes at my parents B&B ) to getting married,becoming a building millionaire-losing it all- but still kept cool and had a happy life with his wife Shirley after retiring to Keswick .

It was with great sadness to me when he died a few years back. However when I returned to Keswick in 1988 after 20 years in the US we got together and once again climbed some first ascents.Great times.Pete had talent. I nicknamed him rubber legs as he had great foot work twisting his legs in all directions. Yes I think if he had not packed in climbing so early in his twenties he could  have been one of the all time greats of the rock climbing world, however he did pretty well as it was with such first ascents as Hells Groove-Thirlmere Eliminate-Angels Highway etc etc.Spitting on the protection peg put in Kipling's by Joe Brown as he did the fourth ascent.A good lad.

Another climber of the later 50’s era that was climbing as well as anyone at that time was my friend Peter Lockey who partnered me on such first ascents as Post Mortem,The Bludgeon,Route One- Falcon Crag (he led crux on this climb ) all in Borrowdale .He later climbed with me on my return in the 90’s, on Ozymandias E3 5c Honister Crag Buttermere and Swan Song E2 5c on Scawfell. Peter like Greenwood later eased out of aggressive climbing and with Gordon Davidson concentrated on their new outdoor manufacturing company- Berghaus.

Interviewer John Appleby:
All Photos Paul Ross Collection.

Part Two next week.