Monday, 21 January 2013

George Shields...climbing's lost prophet

Kipling Groove-on Gimmer Crag:Photo-Gordon Stainforth
Scottish climber George Shields was a member of the famous Glasgow based Creagh Dhu climbing club. George was one of those unsung climbers who was with out doubt  one of the top climbers in the UK from the early 1950’s well into into the 1970’s and beyond.  It was in my early youth in the Lake District when I heard rumours that perhaps it wasn’t Joe Brown who had made the second ascent of the then and now still famous Kipling Groove (on Gimmer Crag in the Langdale Valley) but some Scottish climber!. 

In the 1950’s Kipling Groove- first ascent 1948- was looked on as we now look on one of today’s very  hardest trad climbs.  Only the top climbers of that era did early ascents.  One might wonder why there were so few early ascents of a climb only graded HVS 5a. Consider that your only protection was with quarter inch slings (some times doubled ) over spikes if there were any; Ex army steel karabiners and two and sixpence gym shoes from Woolworths This presented the adventure in a very different light.  I cannot remember at that time there  being any protection on the first pitch.  To say the least, falling off leading could have a very serious consequences.  Even in 1955, seven years after the first ascent, when with Pete Greenwood I did an ascent of the route, Pete thought it was only the 12th ascent.  

The rumour of a Scottish second ascent faded into obscurity and for many years Joe’s effort was given credit as the  second ascent. Outcry about Joe’s ascent arose from the fact that very prudently, he placed a piton not far below the crux moves - prior to this a very long fall onto thin sling protection would have been the outcome.  It may be pointed out here that Arthur Dolphin who did the first ascent top roped the climb several times before he actually led the route. Pete Greenwood, a big mate of Dolphins, was upset at the so called desecration of Arthur’s route by Joe and promptly did what was then thought to be the third ascent, spitting on the offending peg as he passed it without using it as protection!

  In the 1950’s climbing information was limited pretty much to word of mouth, there were no magazines, and the few guide books were always well out of date. A tatty new routes book at the DG (Old Dungeon Ghyll Hotel) in Langdale was the only way to get a clue about any new developments in the whole of the Lake District.  In 1952 a young George Shields and  Mick Noon both members of the Glasgow based Creagh Dhu were at Gimmer Crag . An email from George to me early in 2012  told this  story.  George spotted a great looking line and proceeded to climb it on sight, seeing no evidence of it being climbed, (4 years after the FA)  no fixed piton as this would occur later.  Elated to find such a perfect line they went down to the DG hotel with the intention of recording their first ascent in the new routes book. Hearing this Sid Cross, owner of the hotel and himself a climber, informed them that they had in fact done the second ascent of Arthur Dolphin's route Kipling Groove .  The fact that this climb had been first practiced on a top rope before being led it makes George's clean on sight ascent by any standard one of the great efforts of that era.  When I recently contacted some of Georges old climbing partners, one being his second on Kipling Groove, eighty year old Mick Noon now living in California, I found this was no surprise to him, as his close friends were quite aware of his outstanding athletic ability.

George made first ascents in in the Northern Cairngorms with well known climbers such as John Cunningham  and Rab Carrington.  George was on the sharp end of the rope on first ascents in Coire an Lochain such as The Vicar E1 1969, War and Peace HVS 1968, Nocando Crack E1 1968. On Stac an Fharaidh in 1969 he did some VS climbs with John Cunningham and in 1971 George led a party up The Deluge E3. On Coire an T Sneachda- Fiacaill Buttress Direct HVS and on the Shelter stone with Rab Carrington- Snipers E2-  both done in 1969. According to one of his climbing partners, George Adam, Shields had other unrecorded first ascents on Beinn Bhan and Fuar Toll .In these early days both in Scotland ,Wales and the Lake District the guide books were strictly controlled be the older traditional mountaineering clubs such as the FRCC, SMC and the CC.   Quite often, the small group of friends type clubs such as the Creagh Dhu  were looked on with a certain amount of disdain.

 They were of course mainly working class and not afraid of a bit of boisterous behavior.  Hence some of their  first ascents were  not written down or ignored by the powers that be.  One epic and still  unrecorded climb on Beinn Bhan, in Coire nan Fhamair is a route Shields climbed in 1972  “The Messiah” .  Adam has taken  photos of the face and George recently sat at the computer and drew the line of his ascent, the line has been agreed by all the participants that were involved with the climb. The route is about 240 meters long  and according to the following  account could be  anywhere up to the E3 grade?  The route took a few attempts, due to various partners having problems! The second attempt was with the well know member of the Creagh Dhu, non other than Big John McLean. John was not known as an early riser and the late start saw them having to bale out above a rather large roof.  
George Shields/Bob Jarvie's lost classic-'The Messiah'

John had forgotten about the roof and abseiled off only to find himself way out from the rock and unable to swing back in, time was passing and daylight fading. George still above on the belay decided to cut one of the double ropes and make his way back under the roof in a series of small abseils, eventually George got into a position where he could throw Big John a line and haul him in , John still had to cut the rope he was attached to and swing back onto the rock. A series of small abseils eventually get them to the ground. The third and final attempt and completion of the route was done by George and Bob Jarvie, although Bob took a huge flyer on the last pitch.  The above account was given to Adam by Shields. George Adam gave the name The Messiah to the climb as he felt it was an apt name for one of Shields' climbs. George for many decades was employed as the Aviemore cobbler. He died this last December 1st at 82 years of age, active right up to his short illness . He will be greatly missed by all his friends and family .   

Paul Ross 2013