Wednesday, 12 December 2012

Echoes of a Dream - a crag rats

Cover/Richard on Hanging Crack, Doverstones: Gordon Stainforth

I was flicking through Colin Wells' bumper mountaineering book- 'Who's who in British Climbing'-  trying to find to no avail, Alan 'Richard' McHardy amongst the 'Mac's. Despite a full compliment-from MacInnes to Macleod...McHaffie to McLure- there was no mention of someone of almost semi mythical status? A true hard man and post war tiger who like his more famous contemporaries from the great Northern working class climbing communities, was in the creative vanguard. Forging standards and creating classic climbs on the as yet under-developed cliffs of northern England and north Wales.

A frequent visitor to The Alps with people like Tut Braithwaite and Pete Minks, Richard became a central player in the English invasion during the 50's,60's and 70's. A time when northern hard cases arrived on motorbikes and in beat up vans and created a disparate community of climbing bums to the disdain of their sophisticated continental cousins!

But first things first. Alan Richard McHardy was born in the Manchester area in the early 40's and graduated towards the great outdoors via the frequently trodden path of Peak and Pennine exploration. After scaring himself on easy peak routes he finally discovered that actually, the rock climbing malarky was something he was quite good at and went on to became a talented original member of the Alpha Club who boasted people like Paul Nunn and Al Parker amongst its brethren.
From these early days,he went on to become a highly respected member of UK climbing's' elite. Not least for his incredible soloing exploits where his calm disposition and astonishing strength saw him soloing climbs which were at the forefront of of UK standards at the time.

Richard McHardy on Fork Lightning Crack-Heptonstall Quarry

In common with his working class contemporaries,trips abroad had to be financed through a variety of manual jobs,from factory work to joinery although he did find himself engaged from time to time as an outdoor pursuits instructor.Including a stint at Plas y Brenin in North Wales. It was while working at PyB that Richard experienced a life changing event from which he was lucky to survive. In a chapter prosaically entitled 'broken head' Richard recalls how a serious fall from a chossy route on Carreg Wasted saw him unconscious and at death's door for four days before doctor's considered him well enough to be put back together again.

 The shattering of his skull brought on an epileptic condition which was triggered at intervals,by physical trauma. Not an uncommon event if you were climbing at the cutting edge. Despite the condition and despite suffering occasional epileptic fits, Richard never gave up his life style and simply tailored his work and his outdoor life accordingly. Thankfully,he never suffered an epileptic episode when soloing a route like Cenotaph Corner or Vector !

Despite his foreign campaigns in the Alps and Yosemite producing a series of British firsts-including,the first all British ascent of Salathe Wall with Paul Ross- his forays into the world of mountaineering in greater ranges,brought only frustration and disappointment. He decided the Himalayas just weren't worth the effort and concentrated on UK/ European and occasional US jaunts.

For those like me who are fascinated by that unique era of British climbing in the second half of the twentieth century,when working class climbers gathered in their parochial tribes and went forth and established themselves on the world stage; Echoes of a Dream is a real treat. Absorbing, fascinating and illuminating. As Richard says in his final passage..'Most climbing books describe monumentally difficult achievements or major epics. I hope I have described the life of the ordinary crag rat and of all the other climbers I have met along the way'...Most people reading this would agree that Richard is rather modest in describing himself as 'an ordinary crag rat'. 99% of active climbers will never go anywhere near touching on his incredible life and times on the crag face.

RM and Paul Ross on Mammoth Ledge, Salathe Wall, El Capitan 1973: George Homer

For lovers of atmospheric climbing shots originally captured on print and slide,'Echoes' is liberally illustrated with evocative images,showing the man himself and many of his former partners,in action on iconic climbs and crags.

Written in an honest and understated style, Echoes of a Dream fully deserves to reach a wider audience.Particularly for those readers who find the post 50's era, something of a golden era in British mountaineering.A time of rapidly developing standards,of larger than life characters and of course,of incredible achievement. It's certainly one of the best books of its type to illustrate the unique northern climbing culture which sprang out of the great northern conurbations in the post war era.

Privately published, Echoes of a Dream-A Crag Rat's tale' can be ordered from the author's website

John Appleby