Friday, 14 June 2013

Meeting John Taylor

John Taylor has died.Who was John Taylor? He was an ordinary unknown student climber,serious and ambitious about his climbing,but you won't have read his name in the magazines, until his death was announced. He won't get an obituary and I can't write one. I know nothing about him, but for one wet weekend in a hut and one conversation beside the fire amongst the steaming socks. I knew John Taylor for one night and I liked him. I can't let his death pass without recalling that weekend and the quiet, friendly impression he made on me. Doesn't the death of an unknown also deserve a moment's pause, for aren't these fleeting moments in the hut also part of the sport?

John Taylor was killed when he and Andy Fanshawe were avalanched whilst descending from the summit of the Ben in the dark of New Year's Eve. They'd climbed Observatory Ridge, moving together most of the time, and reached the summit at 4.30 p.m. They then put into operation their descent plan. After taking 100 paces due south they walked on a bearing of 270° through a snowstorm. They found themselves contouring a slope after some time and were not unduly worried by the condition of the snow. They were still roped together, about 10 metres apart and with Andy carrying the coils when they simply started to slide.

"22 yrs old from Leicester and a student at Stirling University' read the newspaper report of his death. The Stirling University Mountaineering Club was a band of surprisingly jolly people considering they'd had three days of continuous rain when we arrived at the CC Hut in the Llanberis Pass on the Friday night. I remember it was raining so hard that night that Norman didn't bother to close the boot of the car after grabbing his gear and running into the hut. I was trying to dry out photographs I'd brought to show Tim in the pub later, grumbling at him yet again. 

Some students cleared three bunks for us and we opened a bottle of sherry to wash the drive and rain away. They must have thought this was a CC ritual that was obligatory after signing in. They were all very damp and very kind. John Taylor did not stand out. Their wild-haired leader was organizing their booze and when we got back from the pub a girl offered us a nightcap from their wine-box. How could we refuse? We went to bed with minds on Mousetrap. We weren't the only ones.

It was raining in the Pass. It rained over the Menai Bridge. It rained across Anglesey but at South Stack it stopped. As usual. But Mousetrap was wet with black streaks and Castell Helen eventually became a substitute after we were battered by indecision in the gale swirling around the abseil ring at the top. Whilst we played a rap on an empty wall, John was also deciding not to do Mousetrap, although he gave it a long look, and retreated with his mates back to the hut.

When we came in he was chopping dozens of cloves of garlic for the lentil stew he was in charge of. After we'd wolfed our pathetic Vestas John offered us a taste of his vegetarian speciality and it was a gift of genius. For some reason not everyone agreed, but John took it all – the piss-takes and the hidden compliments – with a quiet smile.

We got into a long chat that night. He didn't look to be in the modern mould of climbers, physically. Rather than the long-boned trendies we've come to expect in the university clubs, John seemed, under his jumper of holes, to have the compact, steely physique of the young Don Whillans. Under the gentle, unpretentious surface I sensed a tough determination. We talked about routes I wanted to do that he'd done and about his own climbing writing – he'd just offered his first piece to High. 

He calmed before the fire in a way that suggested deep inner resources. He took the jibes from the student gang with a kind of patient wisdom. And he gave what he had quietly and openly. I just liked the guy, the kind of mate you make in an evening in a hut. And I'd like to record the passing of an unknown person who I sensed could give and take in the best spirit of the sport.

Terry Gifford:First published in The Joy of Climbing: Whittles Publishing