Wednesday, 19 December 2012

Dead Climbers Society

About twelve years ago, I turned up at the family home in Llanrwst, North Wales of John Kerry, a long deceased climber of local repute. I was hoping the family had found the late climbers journal which detailed all his first ascents in the area. An extensive domain which stretched from the lower reaches of the Conwy Valley around Betws y Coed to the sea.

Some decades previously,Tony Moulam- who was in the process of writing a new Climbers Club guide to Carneddau- had also visited the Kerry home, accompanied by Harold Drasdo where the local tiger showed them his comprehensive journal detailing his first ascents in the area.The fascinating thing for me- who at the time had a small part in a forthcoming Meirionydd guidebook-was the fact that most of the Kerry climbs were on unknown and unlisted crags in the area. If we could find 'The Kerry Files' it would open up a whole new area of climbing in North Wales.

John Kerry was hardly a household name nationally, but amongst the local climbing fraternity in the 60's and 70's, his name was synonymous with hard first ascents in the area. Most of these new routes were on isolated crags and quarries scattered down the Conwy Valley. An area which to this day has never had it's many isolated crags and climbs documented. It might surprise climbers who believe that pretty much all of North Wales and indeed UK climbing venues have been recorded, documented and published through guidebooks, but in fact dozens if not hundreds of crags and climbs have never seen the light of day in a guidebook. Many of these 'new' crags will belatedly feature in the next Carneddau guidebook for the first time when it is published, but not the Conwy Valley crags which still retain their mystery.

John Kerry had died in his mid 40's of heart failure induced by a bout of pneumonia. He was found in a caravan during a harsh Scottish winter. A painfully premature death of an unsung Welsh hero far from his home in the small market town near the head of a valley, which is in character is lush and fertile. In contrast to the harsher uplands of Hiraethog and Carneddau which contain it.

As a local activist, John had created something of a personal fiefdom within the valley on crags which even to this day never see the white paw of a climber. Crags like Rhyd y Creuau which looks down on the A470 near Betws y Coed and where- according to Harold Drasdo,another local activist-  he had made over twenty first ascents in the 1970's. Many which were hard extremes. As someone who climbed about six lines on spec there in the 90's, I can say that the crag is never going to become a post modern classic by virtue of the encroaching trees and its vegetated face. Certainly on a recent visit the crag looked dank and unappetising. However,who knows what gems lie beneath it's green mantle?

I imagine that when Kerry climbed there 40 years ago,it was relatively open and clean as the mix of mostly oaks and birch trees would be mere saplings then. I can remember climbing there with Harold Drasdo one warm summer's day and nearly falling off the climb I was on as a sudden dark shadow fell over me. Was it a tumbling boulder... a giant bird.. a falling climber??? was a hang glider practically clipping the top of the crag above my head!

Al Leary on John Kerry's classic E1-Dinas Mawr Eliminate:Photo Mike Bailey

Last week,on my way up the valley towards the coast, one of John Kerry's mystery crags hove into view as I rounded the straight towards Tal y Cafn. It's pale stone face capped with impressive overhangs stood out, illuminated in the searing winter sun set in a deep blue sky. A mile further on I had a 'sod it' moment and turned the car around and headed back to take a look. The ground below the crag  is heavily wooded and the frozen, steep ground made the going tough. Reaching the crag I discovered the path beneath the crag had been taken over by vicious blackthorn trees and brambles. However,the main cliff looked impressive beyond its thorny barrier, with a dramatic outlook looking straight down on the  languorous Afon Conwy winding its way to the nearby sea while in the distance, the snow capped Carneddau range completed the painterly vista. Another impressive piece in the Kerry Gold jigsaw...another slice of the mystery.

It appears that the Kerry journal is still lost and his-quite possibly-hundreds of first ascents are lost with it. Although there are some recorded climbs we know about in the Betws y Coed area, many of which are starred routes or at least will be when the new guide comes out. At least a fair few of his many climbs were recorded via the conventional channels. It has now become common for us when engaged in exploring a remote local crag within Kerry's fiefdom, to find a rusting old peg in an outrageous position and shout down, 'looks like John Kerry's been here'!

Those years ago when I followed in Tony Moulam and Harold Drasdo's footsteps and arrived at the Kerry household, his sister brought out a rucksack which had been brought down from Scotland after his death in 1991 and which had not been opened since. With all due reverence and respect I carefully emptied it out on the living room carpet. Amongst the usual tat of the crag rat, a school exercise book with some notes. Sadly, they only related to some new climbs he had done in Scotland. I looked at his passport.  His photograph showed a bearded aquiline face with a fixed intense stare. Just as I imagined he would look. A hard climber.. 'a loner' according to his sister but a loner who had found the uncharted cliffs and quarries of the Conwy Valley a perfect arena for intensive pioneering. Will the Kerry files ever turn up? Probably not but I for one think his exploits and what he represented is worth remembering and bringing to a wider audience.

Some climbers with a far inferior pedigree in terms of creativity are relatively well known while John Kerry is now largely forgotten. Like so many other talented climbers who saw their star burn briefly and brightly before disappearing over the horizon into the void.

*Following the publication of this article, I was contacted by Colin Ogilvie from Glasgow who climbed with John Kerry in Scotland. Colin offers this fascinating insight into JK's activities up North......

"I still live in Glasgow where John was resident from about the mid to late 1970's, and climbed and socialised with him on several occasions. John continued his pioneering of routes on Welsh crags that others had failed to see the potential of here in the west of Scotland, notably in Kircudbright on such sea cliffs as Meikle Ross in 1975, and close to Glasgow at Craigmore where he gardened out numerous good short routes and also at Auchinstarry and other quarries near Kilsyth, where again the Kerry ice axe and brush were used to good effect and some excellent routes discovered.

Most of these routes are still popular with local climbers. John had no personal transport of his own (like many of us) and often travelled by bus to these crags, complete with gardening equipment!
Auchinstarry, like many quarries is partly flooded and soon after the first routes were done in about 1976 or '77 the water level started to rise making access more difficult. It so happened that the Planning Officer based in Cumbernauld at the time who had responsibilty for Kilsyth was a Mr John Kerry, and before long the the Council had been persuaded of the potential of the quarry as a recreational resource! The water level was lowered, and it was made safe for water sports. A level path was constructed around the water perimeter giving access to the climbs; landscaping and a car park were built, all due to our man. This area is still in use today, and enjoyed by many local people.

It does not surprise me that records of John's new climbs in Wales are hard to obtain. He did not record any of his climbs in Scotland in the established Journals, though he did contribute to a Guide book to the aforementioned crags, published about 1977 by a local shop, Highrange Sports, entitled Western Outcrops, Volume 2. What he did do was create a lot of good routes from some pretty unpromising raw material, a fact not appreciated by many people.

Many other climbers active at the time in this area besides myself will remember John well, having like me held his rope whilst being bombarded with falling debris on occasions. Names that spring to mind are Jim Reader, and Ken Johnstone. As far as I know his ice axe was reserved for gardening crags, not climbing snow and ice. John was a good rock climber and as well as his pioneering of local outcrops in Scotland did some of the established hard classics in Glencoe such as Yo-Yo, Unicorn, Carnivore and Shibboleth.

 I don't know of many ventures farther away except for a whole sunny week spent at Creag and Dubh-Loch in the Cairngorms with  Ken Johnstone, where John was allegedly sustained by tins of Irish Stew as was his habit. Other than that, I heard that he later gave up climbing and had gone underground as a caver! "...CO: Glasgow...January 2013

One of John Kerry's 'lost crags' in the Conwy Valley.

John Appleby 2012