Friday, 27 July 2012

The Paul Ross interview....part two

Paul Ross on the summit of Aiguille de Geant 1959

Now...I wanted to ask you-appropriately enough-about Footless Crow.the route that is! You made the first ascent of the line which became Pete Livesey's famous route via an aided line which you called 'The Great Buttress'. You suggested that given your ground-up ethic and Livesey's modernistic top rope inspection and practice of the line, your own earlier ascent could be seen as at least of equal historical importance. Any comments ?

It was 1965 when Adrian Liddell and I first climbed the 130’ first pitch with 8 points of aid the climb on Goat crag we named the Great Buttress. After almost a decade Pete Livesey after practice and cleaning from above free climbed this area of rock renaming it Footless Crow. Liddell’s lead on the aided first pitch on sight and ground up was I feel as commendable ascent as Livesey’s . Top roping a climb ,marking holds with chalk does make a vast difference to the grade and commitment.I myself on returning from the States in 1988 at times used this now accepted technique and I contend its lowers the climb by at least  two grades. I do not think anyone did a second ascent of The Great Buttress before Livesey produced Footless Crow. I guess I can leave it at that.On returning to the States and first accenting on multi pitch sandstone towers and walls gave one no alternative but for  ground up ascents, my true love of rock climbing.

Great Buttress Climb-first ascent-which evolved into Livesey's Footless Crow

By this time you were making your mark in the Alps but you never appeared to have consolidated yourself as a committed Alpinist. Was it a case of giving it a whirl and finding that it wasn't your bag or were there other reasons?

The Alps.When I was 18  I read the book by Guido Magnone (sp) on the first ascent of the West Face of the Dru. From that time on my ambition was to climb this face . Overall in the 50’s UK rock climbing was still regarded as practice for the Alps.By I was 20 in 1957 I saved enough money for two weeks in Chamonix.I had an epic getting there starting off in a motor bike side car  that broke down ending up on the train.

With Denis English from Carlisle we quickly  climbed a couple of routes one ED on the minor L’M and the TD East face of the Moine finding both fun and we easy beat the guide book times.I then heard that a chap called Joe (Morty) Smith was looking for someone to climb the West face of the Dru... To cut a long a long story short we made very fast time to about mid height them we had an epic descent in a extremely violent storm that killed 20 climbers in the Chamonix area ( see my account in a new book - Climb-  edited by Cameron Burns).

So ended my first Alpine season .I was back again the next year this time Don Whillans had asked me if I wanted to join him in an attempt at the first Brit ascent of the Walker Spur. I had already arrange my trip but told him I would meet him there .The first week the weather was terrible so it was spent in the bars . We opted for the first Brit ascent of the Bonatti Route on the Dru as the Walker Spur was snow covered. By chance  we met up with McInnes and Bonington and two Austrians and the four day epic has been well described  in various books and my myself in the above mentioned book “Climb”. I found that ascent less pleasant than my time with Morty mainly due to the grumpy Whillans .

I was back again in 1959.. A fun season with my good friend Bill Aughton and the Newcastle lads.With Eric Rayson we first climbed the South face of the The Dent du Giant then with Bill the Bonatti route on the Grand Capuchin.. other minor climbs then with Jock Connell. I free climbed in boots with no protection the fissure Brown on the West face of the Blaitiere. We got a few pitches above this pitch then I took a 80’ fall  leaning out holding onto a piton that popped while talking to Jock . I hit him as I passed breaking his little finger . Same time it stormed so we descended ... lost my cap !.I was really hooked with the Alps and at the end of that year moved to Chamonix finding a job as sports master in a small private school my intention to find French partners to climb with. This did not materialise ,my only climb before winter set in was a 16 minute solo of the NNE ridge of the Aiguille L’M.

Paul biviing on the Dru

 I returned again the next year with an Alpine beginner . I took him up the south face of the Midi as a training climb our intention was the Walker Spur. We did get caught in a storm near the top of the Midi He then declared  alpine climbing was not for him .As it happened my back was starting to give  me some trouble. I met up with one of my Alpha Club pals who was into a bit of Chamonix social life which for once proved very successful so the rest of my couple of weeks was spent enjoying the bright lights of Chamonix .

Rock and Roll rather than just Rock.. I was at that time working at Ullswater Outward Bound School and my back (slipped disks they said) was giving my lots of trouble. In 1963/4 I ended up in hospital encased in a body plaster for a year and still in a plaster cast for three months after I was let out . Two specialists had two different opinions... one an infection of a disc and the other damage . Most likely the latter due to motor bike crashes or various other tumbles. In any case they waited for a natural fusion to take place and later  produced a leather and metal  back brace. The doctor telling me not to do anything strenuous the rest of my life......I was 25. Thus for quite some time my climbing ambitions ended .Now married and  to make ends meet  I  became  a coffee bar owner (The Lamplighter ) and folk singer in the town of Keswick like it or not.

Can you fill us in on your experience running your Keswick climbers caff . I gather it was during this period that habitues of The Lamplighter became known as 'Crag-Rats' ?

I had the Lamplighter cafe for about four years ... My back problem with the resulting  year in hospital was the deciding factor to get into this business as initially I thought my climbing days were over, During these years I did not do that much climbing.  Only tempted out with the possibility of a new route.  It was the Borrowdale farmers that first gave us the title of Crag Rats .The cafe was a hang out for climbers, school kids , the new hippy movement plus of course the folk club two nights a week.During the winter there was little business in Keswick, my wife Christine opened the cafe at weekends .

Homage to Lakeland 'Crag Rats'.A popular beer brewed in Cockermouth by Lakeland brewery-Jennings Ltd:

I took off to Aviemore and worked organising folk song nights. We had just bought a new house and had  our son Andrew so had try and make money to pay the bills..One of the winters Aviemore folk nights partners was Eric Beard . Tom Patey used to drive over from Ullapool meet us after our folk session . We would then go to Carbridge  and with Tom on his accordion us on guitar and banjo drink and sing to the early hours....Great times.Tom used to try and get me out ice climbing no avail,after a night with him  I was always way  too hung-over!

What sparked your 60's move to America. Was it to escape the famous Borrowdale rain!

Escape to America... Both Christine and myself had by now had quite enough of the cafe folk singing business. She decided to go back to teachers training collage in Edinburgh I decided to explore America via a 6 months offer of work as the Rock Climbing Specialist at an Outward Bound School on an island off the coast of Maine.Just before I left for the States in the spring of 1968 I took yet another trip to the alps with Bill Aughton with an intention of doing some winters ascents. This did not happen as I badly sprained my ankle skiing and Bill put a hole in his foot during a winter ascent of the famous statue in the center of Chamonix.We then limped around the bars for a couple of weeks,still quite a  good holiday!

 You've made a huge mark in the US through your frequent first ascents in places like Colorado and Utah. Do these give you the same buzz as your 50's and 60's Lakeland efforts?

After arriving at the OB school they decided they wanted to keep me on a permanent basis .It was messing about developing short climbs on the islands granite quarry for the OB students that I realised I could still climb at a reasonable high standard.We used to have four days break between courses and I would take off on the mainland just driving around exploring the Maine and New Hampshire country side. It was on one of theses trips I saw the thousand foot Cannon Cliff ,went into a local climbing shop and saw the known routes marked on a photo of the crag.I immediately noticed this crag had some wide open spaces. It was July 1971, once again new routing became a major interest.

The very next break I came back to Cannon Cliff with my OB assistant and  spent two days climbing with mixed aid a very complex 1000’ high area of overlaps .We named the climb The Labyrinth Wall-my first major new route in the States. I learned later some of the local climbers -one at that time being John Porter- were not too happy to find unknown climbers reclining in hammocks in the middle of one of the most spectacular section of their local crag.I returned the same month with another OB worker John Bragg and my assistant Mike Peloquin  and we climbed another two new routes, namely The Ghost and Vertigo that later became a New Hampshire four star classic. Then in 1972, again by accident, spotted Cathedral and White horse Ledges.

On a bivy .First Ascent 1000’ Labyrinth Wall Canon Cliff New Hampshire.1971

I was never a one for reading instructions or guide books unless I was looking for unclimbed rock .I changed jobs and directed the EMS climbing School in North Conway- New Hampshire.My first new route on Cathedral was the 400’ climb- The Prow using mostly aid which we left in place  allowing the free climbers to have five foot runouts while over a year various parties ran it into submission . Its now recognised  as  “The”classic climb to do in New Hampshire using aid or free at about 6b.I went on to open up the 500’ south buttress of Whitehorse Ledge and in all climbed over 80 first ascents in the New Hampshire area. Your question if I got the same buzz as my climbs in the 50 and 60’s is yes. However I remember every one of my Lake District climbs with great fondness. My first ascents in the States  were of course much longer and mostly multi pitch climbs.

 I introduced girdle traverses to America ,first with a 2000’ traverse of Whitehorse, both left and right using different lines.Girdled Cathedral 3500’ in length (two days ) first with Henry Barber and a reverse of the same crag different line with a Doug Madara both in the E3 5c range . Then a six thousand foot girdle of Canon Cliff again with Barber,climbed in just 6 hours using some solo and simple rope climbing.I went to Yosemite climbed Salathe Wall and later checked out the possible girdle of El Cap-alas was beaten to it. Apart from the odd trip with John Porter to Quebec climbing a 1500’ route next to a massive waterfall this information I passed on to a friend Kurt Winkler and later became the famous Pomme du Or ice climb, I stayed in North Conway and with two friends,one being my old Brit climbing partner Bill Aughton,  opened out a climbing shop International Mountain Equipment plus a climbing school.

After four years we thankfully sold the shop. The last four years I lived in NH I ran out of what I considered worth while new lines. I took up dog breeding ,showing and judging together with a pack of over a dozen  Jack Russell Terriers. Feeling bored and stressed out with various small businesses,a climbing school and a big house in 1988 I packed in everything and returned to Keswick for ten years bringing with me two of my Jack Russells.In 1991 one took Best of Breed at the famous Crufts dog show.Now I was back (between showers) new routing in The Lake District. My first New route on my return to the Lakes in 1988 Prodigal Sons E3 6a in Borrowdale with Denis Peare.

Paul's Crufts winning Jack Russell

After about 60 first ascents in the Lakes and bunch of new routes in Morocco, in 1998 after a holiday with my son  living in Utah and seeing all the unclimbed rock, I left again for the States to one of the driest places on earth ! In the 12 years since I returned back to the States climbed  over 250 first ascents on Red Rocks- Nevada; Colorado  the majority in the deserts of Utah . Some most memorable in 2001 we girdled the most famous tower in the desert Castleton Tower a traverse of 900’ 5c C2 . Still unrepeated.  A new climb up the east face of the massive 800’ Texas Tower.5c C2. Overall 30 new previously unclimbed towers . Hundreds of slab and wall first ascents up to 2000’ in the San Rafael Swell. Unlimited unclimbed rock..still is..Now age is catching up  and a lack of social life, maybe its time to return to Cumbria ? I do miss my friends .. Does it still rain there?  Just  too much sun here.

Can I ask you about your friendship with Chris Bonington.In some ways it seems like you represent different worlds. The Northern working class lad made good and the home counties, public school educated knight of the realm. You appear to have a solid friendship though. How did this come about?

It was in 1958 when I first met  Chris and Hamish McInnes. Don Whillans and I were walking  up to the foot of the Dru to do the Bonatti  Pillar when noticed four figures watching our approach. The other two with Chris and Hamish were two Austrians Walter Philip and Riccardo Blanc.The four day epic is well documented and more recently by myself in the book “Climb” by Cameron Burns. I never saw Chris after that until about the mid sixties when his wife Wendy would come to the Lamplighter Folk night and sing.

On a good night Wendy voice was hardly distinguishable from Joan Baez and I am not kidding.At times after the folk night we would retire to my house with other friends and play cards for pennies..Wendy always won Chris always lost! Around that time 1965 I think was the first time we climbed together since the Dru .We did a new route together on Pillar Rock. It was also about this time I organised one of his early lectures in Keswick and we shared the profit. I think about 15 pounds each. When I returned from the States we did a couple of more FA’s.  The 1500’ complete girdle of Shepherds Crag we named Just Another Expedition  and another Last of the Summer Wine on Gowder.  This time also in the party was my old friend Pete Greenwood.

Paul and Chris Bonington after climbing 'Knight's Errant'

We had more fun doing new routes when he visited me in Colorado. Climbing in the deserts of Utah. On his first visit in 2001 we climbed a 2000’ first ascent in the Black Canyon of Gunnison .Chris loved the adventure of on sight adventures . We named the climb Way of the Ancients.  In later years we did other first ascents in the deserts Utah in the San Rafael Swell naming two of the nearly 1000’ climbs- Knights Errant and another- The Cumbrian; so I guess as we mellowed from our impetuous youth we get on quite well together.

Is there any possibility of a Paul Ross autobiography in the future?

Well if I manage to get back to the UK and its still really bad weather I might get bored enough,but  not sure its worth the effort or that it would be interesting to today's climbers. I do not like the hold to hold type of stories but what happens between climbs with friends.As I see it autobiographies are usually one day wonders that end up on Amazon Books for a couple of quid .

Finally Paul...Can I ask if you would ever consider coming back as Bill Peascod did after his 25 year sojourn in Australia, and living out your dotage amongst the Lakeland Fells?

Yes I decided I do not want to die in America, although many folk think I have tried hard enough with my run out climbs on friable sandstone. I want to walk again around Derwentwater with my two terriers. I am at present  trying to sell my house in Colorado. Even then I will not be able to afford a place back in what I consider my home town of Keswick ( contributions gratefully accepted ) but perhaps somewhere in Cumbria.

I feel like I have (again) done what I came over here to do in America  namely to climb unclimbed rock . I now feel my old war wounds are starting to play up.  I would like to see  those who are still around; of  my old friends and perhaps make some new ones. Socially where I live in this Western part of the US  has great weather,lots of unclimbed rock,is quite beautiful but socially is a dead end compared to true civilisation.

Hopefully this is not the end .   All The Best... Paul Ross

 Big Country! Paul Ross 'out there' in Utah.

Interviewer John Appleby
Photos:Paul Ross Collection