Wednesday, 22 August 2012

Steve Dean reviews Alpha Males-The story of the Alpha Club

The Story of the Alpha Mountaineering Club.
ISBN 978-184426-906-8 Fastprint-274 pages.Also available direct from Al Parker Tel:  01457 855240 )
£10-99 PB/£16-99 HB.

Richard's climbing improved week by week and pretty soon he and I were climbing at the same standard. Around this time we got to know a group of climbers from the Rotherham area, some of whom were coal miners. They were a tough bunch with some good climbers in the group. One climber who was outstanding was Len Millsom, who later did the first ascent of Millsom's Minion at Stanage. When we first met them Len climbed all manner of things in pit boots with metal studs in the soles. I remember he once traversed from Robin Hood's Cave to the Balcony Cave wearing pit boots and with a lighted primus stove in one hand!

Al Parker recalls early days at Stanage.

Now, this is a fun read and a book to enjoy. Al Parker was a founder member of the Alpha in 1956 and has put together a very readable account of the history of the club focusing on its heyday in the early/mid sixties. Good stories and laughs abound in this tale of a crucial period in British climbing history. The role of The Alpha in the development of British climbing in the late fifties and during the sixties in particular, is of huge significance and Al Parker recounts all the crucial deeds and misdeeds, all the triumphs and the occasional tragedy.
All the usual suspects are there; Al Parker himself, Richard McHardy, Pete Bamfield, Bob Brayshaw, Les Brown, Paul Nunn, Pete Crew, Barry Ingle, Martin Boysen, Tanky Stokes, Gerry Rogan, Paul Ross and Clive Rowland to name but a few. The Alpha was never a large club, normally having only twenty to thirty members at any one time. Membership was sought by many, but not everyone was invited! Organisation was kept to a minimum, and usually only extended as far as a riotous annual dinner and a small and widely respected badge.

From a small group who met in a tiny barn in Edale in the autumn of 1956, the club grew into an outstanding element of the development of gritstone, in North Wales and The Lakes in the early sixties. Sterling deeds were also done in The Alps and further afield and in the mid-sixties the club was a who's who of top British climbing talent, from both the Manchester and Sheffield sides of the Peak.
This book belongs on your bookshelf alongside Don Roscoe's wonderful Llanberis North, Hughie and Pete's 1963 Cloggy guide and the now revered "The Black Cliff". This is the heartbeat of Peak and Welsh climbing in particular in the period 1959-1966, when modern rock climbing in Britain really arrived.

More than anything Al Parker's work is a lovely comment on the social context of climbing at that time    young, energetic ambitious young men busting out of Manchester and Sheffield and the economic and social constraints still prevalent in the 1950s, to produce a whole new climbing scene that was democratic and welcoming. Just like the verve, energy and lust of the music of the Beatles (itself a soundtrack to the great years of the Alpha) was the result of hopes, expectations and cravings that had built up in the social straitjacket of Harold Macmillan's Britain, so the drive, ambition and sheer ability of this outstanding group helped to define the character of British climbing up to the present day. Those of us, who have come later, have stood on the shoulders of groups like The Alpha and have benefited from the knowledge both of their triumphs and hardships.

Full marks to Al "Mr Stanage" Parker, for this is a story that needed to be told. The early to mid sixties is a time now often maligned in our climbing history, but some very hard stuff was done then, long before modern footwear, chalk, sophisticated protection and the huge benefits of indoor walls. It was a period of healthy consolidation of ability and the breaking down of many myths and shibboleths that all helped lead to the great increase in standards ten years later. The Alpha's role in this process was hugely significant and the book tells the story well and with a lot of laughs.

Jim Perrin once described Manchester climbing in the early 1960s as 66 ... "one big community and its component parts and gathering places." Al Parker's lovingly constructed story of the Alpha puts you right there; on a sunny Friday night, on the back of someone's motorbike hammering ,down to Wales to make last orders in the pub, with all the delights of The Pass, Cloggy and Gogarth waiting your youthful energy.....there's no doubt about it, nostalgia ain't what it was!

Essential reading for anyone who really wants to understand the core of our climbing culture.

Steve Dean