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

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.

Friday, 13 July 2012

Beyond the haloed mountain

Storm Lantern....Cwm Hesgin

Force twelve assaults
finally relent;
the curfew is lifted here.

We're out walking tonight,
the first time in two weeks.

The plough has our windowlight
in tow, another star
swept from the hill
by those storms.

Our moonlit chimney
unbraids its smoke-shadow,
wind darkens on stone...

when I turn off the lamp
there's a hole in space.

Clyde Holmes

The bowling wind sweeps up Cwm Hesgin from the west and skitters up  the frowning flank of Graig Ddu- The black crag.Across the cwm, Foel Boeth and Carnedd Filiast are draped with black cloud and the suggestion of rain which halfheartedly spat in timouress salvos less than five minutes ago has developed a cruel momentum. Unfortunately, the elemental onslaught  has caught me out somewhat ill prepared.I had deliberated about crossing the fast flowing Afon Hesgin and heading up to the little llyn high up at the head of the cwm. Should I stay or should I go? I went and paid for it! The rain increased in proportion to the diminishing light and all I had tucked away in my tiny day pac was a poncho and space blanket. In the interests of rigorous gear testing I can declare that ponchos might be fine for sitting in a Wimbledon shower but do not cut the mustard  in the face of a fast fermenting uplands squall!

 It hadn't been like this ten days ago on my last visit to the area. On that occasion I had wandered up to the summit of Carnedd Filiast; a 2100 Arenig outlier, accompanied by lilting skylarks and tumbling ring ouzels; the mountain blackbird who appears to find the rough bounds of the Migneint to their liking as a summer abode before the fall fires them back to the High Atlas mountains of north Africa.

Over the years I have developed a fondness for this area of Arenig hinterlands. The Migneints' last throw of the dice before the land tumbles over into  greener pastures beyond the cwm's northern door; entering a patchwork land of small farms divided by neat stone walls within which fat Welsh Black cattle share the pasture with the ubiquitous hardy sheep.

Llyn Hesgin:Clyde Holmes

Carnedd Filiast stands as a last easterly beacon-literally when I was there on the night of the royal jubilee-which offers it's cairned summit as a panoramic view point to take in as fine and varied a mountain vista as can be imagined.  It's fine summit can be reached via a wide track which switchbacks through the Migneint's heathery bounds before coiling around the eastern flank of Foel Boeth-The warm mountain-to steeply rise above the empty void of Cwm Hesgin.

'Empty'..well; not quite empty for standing in the jaws of the cwm lies a little white washed cottage sheltered within a rare cloak of foliage. For over 35 years from the early 1970's it was the home of Artist and poet, Clyde Holmes and his family.
I had first come across the Holmes family when I read an article in what was then-the mid 1980's-a fairly new quality newspaper in the UK-the Independent. I recall The Indy were running features on people they deemed interesting and living lives less ordinary. In this case,it detailed a family living in total isolation in a remote cottage in the Welsh hills, without mains water or electricity. To add to my interest,it appeared that the main focus of the piece, was an artist and poet with a conservationist bent.

In the early 90's I began to bump into Clyde's German wife Gudrun on my frequent visits to the little town of Bala.Occasionally I would see Clyde himself at the Welsh language bookshop,topping up the card rack outside the shop with postcards of his paintings. It must have earned him coppers but then,living the life of an artist in north Wales is never going to be a get rich quick scheme!
Eventually I met Clyde outside his little cottage in Cwm Hesgin. I had been up to Llyn Hesgin high up and hidden in the maw of the cwm and was returning via a rough track which ran past the cottage. After introducing myself as a fellow artist of sorts I was offered a cup of tea. In contrast to the June 2012 maelstrom which whipped me into retreat, this particular June day in the mid 90's shimmered under a fat blue sky.

Sitting outside the cottage on the cropped grass I sipped tea with the artist and his son and tried to unlock his thoughts on art, ecology and the fortunes of Tottenham Hotspurs- Londoner Clyde's team. Unfortunately, Clyde appeared to be stone deaf-perhaps it was a ploy to get rid of unwelcome visitors?- and his son had to act as an interpreter. After that visit I never saw him again, nor will I, for Clyde passed on in 2008 to leave the cwm as it was,before his words and brushes had narrated its timeless story.

Clyde's lifelong interest in conservation and the natural environment began as a student back in his native London in the 1960's where he studied for a degree in entomology-the study of insects. Not surprisingly-this is the 1960's we're talking about-Clyde kicked entomology into touch, joined a band and enrolled at Hornsea College of art where Ray Davies, legendary founder of The Kinks was also a student. While Ray was studying Waterloo sunsets,Clyde moved on to St Martins School of Art. After a short spell working in The British Library in London, Clyde began to hanker for the wilderness experience and left London never to return.

It was while travelling around  southern Ireland with his new wife Gudrun in a Gypy vardo that the call of Cwm Hesgin was first heard. With a lame horse and the travellers life on hold, a timely call from a friend informed him of an estate in south Snowdonia - North Wales that had cottages to rent at modest rates. The first couple of cottages viewed proved unsuitable but as an afterthought,the estate manager told them, of a remote derelict cottage which they could view if they wished.

Despite it's dilapidated state,for Clyde and his partner it proved to be an incredible opportunity to live a life far from the madding crowd in a vast empty cwm which would become their own personal fiefdom. It had previously been occupied by a shepherd on the Rhiwlas Estate who had been forced to leave when he was caught out in the bleak winter of 47 and had to fight his way through the skylight as the drifting snow had buried the cottage. A frightening arctic trek down the cwm brought safety and liberty but he had seen and experienced enough. He never returned. For 23 years the traditional crog lofted stone cottage stood empty and devoid of life save the nesting jackdaws, field rats and sheep which had barged through the gale splintered door and mired the slate floors in spilling broth of peaty mud and foul dung! It would take Clyde three years to reclaim the cottage from the dominion of the beast.

Clyde Holmes
Clyde's landscape paintings and his nature poetry was hewn from the craggy tawny earth of his chosen homeland. A curlew....vehicle of the wind's roaring owl...foretelling death above our glaring mound. His paintings restrained in their use of colour unlike his fellow Migneint artistic narrator James Dickson Innes  whose colourful fauvist paintings of the area wind back from Clyde's era some seventy years. Clyde's landscapes are bold,sweeping and accomplished but the palette is usually limited to the clutch of colours which detail the barren land and ever changing sky .

Recognition of sorts came in 1997 when the BBC ran a six part series narrated by Anthony Hopkins-Visions of Snowdonia. Clyde was featured in the programme and a coffee table tome of the series followed,written by Jim Perrin and illustrated by Ray Wood. The book is still available through sellers like Amazon although the BBC have never released the series on Video or DVD.

Gudrun died in tragic circumstances just after the series was aired and then Clyde himself appeared to go off the radar to the extent that I only learned of his own premature death at the age of sixty seven  in 2008, this year.

In an age when an out of control growing global population consumes the earths finite resources at an unsustainable rate, simply to sate our fathomless appetite for junk, Clyde had what many would see as a fatalistic vision of the future. Seeing a few remaining oasis of the natural world existing,where nature unsullied by mankind survived. Writing the forward to his words and images work, Skywalls, he wrote

 that flora,fauna and even indigenous people will only be able to survive in small protected the ever increasing need and greed of humanity will use and destroy most wild areas by the turn of the century.
Cwm Hesgin and its immediate surroundings is one of those islands.I feel that my concern and love for it is best conveyed through painting and poetry. I use as few words as possible as I like to express the restraint and simplicity of a day at Cwm Hesgin where light,or the lack of it,is a vital feature. I have tried to do the same with my paintings,exploring the uplands and its solitude. I'm committed to expressing the wildness of the Welsh landscape for its own sake,its left aloneness. It is essentially an unfixed, mysterious place with light and shadow constantly moving over its surface. I am always shifting my preoccupations to paint this ephemeral flux. Both my poetry and my painting are celebratory acts springing out of my concern for the wilder aspects of nature. We're possibly seeing the gradual disappearence of landscape painting. To my knowledge no new generation iust coming up with a special interest in the genre. It's conceivable that landscape painting will fizzle out like the landscape itself.

After aborting my mission to walk up to Llyn Hesgin  I turned back.The little white cottage was still in view and I imagined someone with binoculars at the window following my movements,declaring 'hey there's a madman in an orange poncho out on the hill!' The walk back was interminable. The track acted as a swollen sluice through which my earthkeeper boots- fine for an Edward Abbey-esque walk in Arizona; not so good for the North Wales climate-sloshed through with very little gay abandon. My springer spaniel would occasionally create a Catherine wheel of spray as he shook himself but at least his perpetually wagging tail showed that someone at least was enjoying himself.

After an age I stumbled into the forest where, out of the storm, I could finally take a drink and a bite of sodden flapjack. Across the moor, great bands of rain pulsated with malice. Arenig Fach, just visible behind the elemental shroud stood cold and detached. This was day when only words would do to set the scene. Oils and watercolours cannot compete with a Welsh summer squall. My camera remained stashed in my sack as my white rain pruned fingers hauled my rucksack over aching shoulders and I stumbled through the steaming forest and fell out onto the A4142.


Each glance takes off
from rush-flames.
Drystones,relieved of earth's burden,
still surge through time
to clouds' sculpture,
shrug off wind's weight.
Their crests carved from light and shade
are swooping, rising.
Here the rock keeps flying.

Clyde Holmes

John Appleby: 2012

Skywalls is available from Carreg Gwalch
Guardian Obituary
Clyde Holmes website

Saturday, 7 July 2012

Wisdom Buttress

The palatial Carnmore Bothy

In the bright evening light at Carnmore bothy.climbers relax after a day on the bold famous routes above them — Fionn Buttress, Cob and Dragon — Scottish VS and HVS every inch of the way. But as they lean back against the bothy wall they see the dying sun catch the majestic architecture of Beinn Lair's north face across the other side of Fionn Loch. They half wish they could allow themselves the further uphill walk for the lowly grade of Wisdom Buttress, the most remote quality V Diff in Britain. The upper arete of this narrow tooth glows in the sun as the yearning is displaced to another trip, and recedes even further at the thought of a 14 mile walk in for a V Diff.

I was that climber four years ago when Jim Curran and I, gloating after getting up Fionn Buttress, promised ourselves Wisdom Buttress 'next year'. Well, that didn't happen and yesterday I was 'unfaithful' as Jim quaintly anticipated. Today I am lying in the heather under Wisdom Buttress gloating again. Actually I am snuggled in a bivvy bag (it is Whitsun, but this is Scotland) beside a roaring stove, doing my bit as support team for the second project of this trip — the north face of Beinn Lair is having its portrait painted.

Somewhere over the rise further back from the crag Julian Cooper has a huge canvas pegged to a peat bank, bulldog clipped to the alloy frame he carried in a ski bag round his neck. In it, along with the roll of canvas, he also carried his secret weapons — metre long brushes that could only be acquired by a special Channel Tunnel trip to Paris. You can see that for him the climb is only another kind of preparation for the real thing, which he is working at now. I'm not supposed to look while he's painting, so I'll tell you about Wisdorn Buttress in between the spitting mists that drift over these craggy teeth like bad breath, slightly smudging these words.
He's working in oils, so he's not worried.

First of all, getting here. You don't have to walk in all of those 14 miles. We now have the Letterewe Accord negotiated for us with the Letterewe Estate. `Mountain bikes are only allowed on vehicle tracks.' So you can ignore the sign on the gate, lift your bike over it, and take at least two and a half miles off the walk. It's on the way out you appreciate it most, as you free-wheel back to Poolewe. This time I left my bike hidden in the heather beyond the farm. The other good news is the new keeper, who has moved up recently from Wensleydale. He actually suggested I left it even further on, in the larch trees. Julian had declined to use the bike I'd borrowed for him after a little trial ride the evening before had left him in a ditch with a scarred face and, even worse, a bruised painting arm.

Unfortunately, tyre tracks in the moor on our walk in showed that some people cannot accept a reasonable compromise patiently negotiated on their behalf. I wish we'd met them. But there's another way to reduce the walk in to Beinn Lair. Past our camp (yes 'low impact' camping is now accepted under the Letterewe Accord) there walked a lone Scottish weekender who had walked from Kinlochewe to Letterewe House above the north shore of Loch Maree and in, through a good track over Bealach Letterewe This must be most pleasant approach and is only 10 miles.

I keep having to retreat inside this bivvy bag and zip the showers out. But I've got a whole day to write with the crag right in front of me. The climb itself is a masterpiece of route finding up this narrow soaring buttress of interlocking slabs and overhangs. It feels intimidating because in its 700ft there always seems to be an overhang above you. But the incut horizontal strata of the hornblende schist gives constant encouragement against the equally constant exposure. Right from the start there's also an overhang below. That's assuming you can find the start. So you're into Scottish route finding before you leave the ground, with a distinctly tight-lipped description from the guidebook, (Howett 1990).

I made two attempts to traverse the steep gully wall on to the undercut buttress, but I couldn't even get started: 'This isn't V Diff,' I kept saying, and 'this can't be right,' as I moved further up the gully. I was about 30ft above the chockstone in the gully before I found a traverse line left that was anything like V Diff. I see from the Climbers' Club Journal that Hamish Nicol approached Wisdom Buttress as 'a VS Scottish V Diff' and just accepted that the start was an overhanging finger traverse on rounded holds that I'd rejected.

My down-sloping footholds and series of sidepulls higher up gave entry to a huge slab of incut strata and a nut belay that was not to be missed. This route's reputation as having poor belays and little 7rotection had sunk in and so did my old Moac. A rising gale threatened to rip us from the stance. I iced on now, anxious to make up for lost time. The cruise leftwards up the slab ran out a rope length which only two runners were possible, but a belay appeared at the right moment. Then the rain struck. `Are we committed, now, to doing this in the rain?' asked Julian, remembering last year's epic scent of the Central Buttress of Beinn Eighe when the upper tier was awash and the outcome slightly uncertain.
`It does say the rock gets greasy in rain,' he added, anorak flapping in the wind.
`If we can find a route at V Diff we can do it in the rain.' I said. I was motoring on these holds that were hidden from below because they dipped so delightfully inwards.

`The rock is certainly absorbing the rain,' Julian observed, as the amalgam grey of the Wisdom tooth turned black before our eyes. Julian recognised that our luck was repeating itself as, after a fortnight of dry weather, just when it broke we were committed on a big route again. This was not a place to slip on greasy rock. Although runners did, in fact, appear before every crux, people pass beneath this crag rarely and getting a rescue team here would take a day. I looked up. I'd belayed below a small overhang on the left edge of the buttress. This was the natural place to end up since the ground to the right steepened considerably. From our little platform we looked out through the rain upon acres of unpeopled emptiness. This is the fabled Last Great Wilderness of mainland Scotland into which we'd come all this way to climb.

So I pushed on up, turning the overhang on its right (good nut here) and gaining entry to a smaller slab. As I pressed on the rain stopped, rewarding the climbing spirit. I was gaining Wisdom, slowly. Another steep step right was rewarded with a final slab capped by overhangs. I followed a weakness on its left and stopped on a ledge, feeling the need to regroup. Thank goodness I'd not been tempted to lighten my load for the walk in. A crack by my knee whispered 'my old Moac nut'. It was more than friendship it wanted. It was love at first sight. I turned away. Now I could relax.

Julian has just come over for a cup-a-soup lunch and the painting is going well apparently. Now that he's returned to work I'll tell you about this key section of the route. I was 20ft below the roof and a traverse line out right seemed possible. I called down to Julian as he was climbing to ask if he had a big overhang to his right. I sensed that this might be the crucial place to cut right between overhangs. It was. The traverse out to the edge was sheer joy. I even got a runner in early on. Side pulls and a toe ramp led up to the edge.

A look round the arete was disheartening. More overhangs. But a delicate step across to small platform above the void was again rewarded with a comfortingly solid block belay. I called round the arete to Julian: 'You've got to be bighearted to get up these Scottish crags. I can't believe there's a way through above here at V Diff'
But when it came to it, of course there was. The overhang was turned on the right once again by steep pulls on great holds on its right wall. I cut back left on to the very nose of the buttress where exposed climbing led to a huge unexpected sloping platform. Here I persuaded Julian to take the lead, not realising that this was the crux pitch. He barely paused to put in gear under another small overhang before swinging leftwards under it and romping up the crest of the ridge to which the buttress had now narrowed.

As I came up to him I looked past him and exclaimed: 'Yet another feature. This route is amazing.' The guidebook's casual 'Continue up the crest of the buttress' suggested a scramble, but here was more steep rock. The incurs kept a-coming and the position was the closest you'd get to an eagle's view, soaring over the wilderness. Heathery blocks led to the top, which could be the only reason for giving this route two stars. But that's the last memory and not typical of the route as a whole, which provides all the holds. It just keeps you guessing as to where they go. The rain is setting in, again. Can't write any more. I'm going over to look at that painting.

That Painting
took 3 days, 6 Vesta meals and a 28 mile walk to make.
It was in black and white(and grey):lead white, storm black,
on a 6ft by 5ft primed canvas on an alloy frame,

bulldog clipped,carried on a rucksack rolled up with brushes in a ski bag.Two litres of turps sloshed about in the rucksack with light pegs for anchoring the whole sail on a heather bank a butt,

under the most majestic, neglected, inaccessible crag in Scotland: the north-east face of Beinn Lair. Hornblende schist gleams grey,bristling its beautiful forms: Butterfly Buttress, The Tooth.

We climbed Wisdom Buttress in the spitting teeth of a gale,
the artist's fingers feeling their way up the earth's hard core
a long way from rescue, a pint, a car, all other oil painters.
Back up next day at 11, position chosen, charcoal outline
in the frame, a wild mile of rock reduced to its incisors.
The painter does not think of commitment courage, the risk
of failure on a large scale in big mountains for out

which the later sunset down Fionn Loch would not pay for,
nor the evening rainbows above the tent and Dubh Loch because
at 3 o'clock in a deluge that painting was washed away.

Julian Cooper:Photo/Nigel Mallard-The Telegraph

Terry Gifford: The Joy of Climbing