Tuesday, 29 January 2013

Funeral in Courmayeur


Where were you when you heard that Arthur Dolphin had been killed?

I was entering the main street of Courmayeur, where he is buried. just got down from the Noire. After climbing the South Face of Geant, Arthur had slipped during the unroped descent of the easy but exposed plinth of the Aiguille. I was in time for the first funeral I'd have any cause to attend.
It was an afternoon graveside service under a scorching Italian sun. Present: Andre Collard, the Belgian with whom he'd been climbing, Jack Bloor and Mike Dwyer from Yorkshire; Geoff Holmes, from London ; the British consul from Turin;  Keith King, and myself...., and the priest.

I think that's right. The cleric raced through the ceremony, perhaps in a shortened form for this unknown foreigner of some unknown faith. The words, having no meaning for me, ought to have been powerless But the frantic haste of performance, the urgent shouted rhythms of the declarations, actually and strongly communicated a poetry of desperation through the barrier of language. Man's days are as grass. I'm not sure in what sense I could say that I was moved. Perhaps for most young men, grief is always contaminated by a sense of the drama of violence on occasions like this. I remember, in fact, feeling a kind of anger, an intense wish to get away quickly. I even felt a real anxiety that I might faint if I were to stand still much longer in an airless heat that seemed insufferable.

Eventually the coffin was lowered and the first shovelful of earth was thrown down upon it. The soil was dry and full of stones and made a loud, startling, conclusive rattling on the wood. With that, tears I couldn't conceal suddenly ran down my face and within a couple of minutes all those who'd known him had joined me for solidarity. He'd never been one of us. He was older and from a different social background. He'd been a hero before we'd started climbing. But he was transparently innocent. His schoolboy humour, his childish delight in weak puns and tongue-twisters, his interest in people and his enthusiasm for the sport overrode any barriers. Having spent several years estab­lishing himself as the leading Lakeland expert he'd found that, from behind and immediately, new challengers were arriving. His instinc­tive response was to inform and to encourage us. 

We'd begun to join him for highly competitive Wednesday evening bouldering sessions on gritstone. After his ascent of Deer Bield Buttress he'd written out descriptions for Pete and for myself and invited our opinions. On hear­ing of North Crag Eliminate he'd glanced at the line and then suggested that we meet for a day on Castle Rock, an invitation so daunting to me that I never took it up. By the summer of 1952 he'd already accepted Pete in an equal partnership which immediately produced routes as impressive as anything seen in the Lakes up to that date. That partnership was over now. He'd made space for us and left us on our own with his monuments.
 
At Duncan Boston's first ingathering in 1986 we were all thinking back to the end of those years and to the courses of our lives. One thing struck me. Jack Bradley had arrived, still larger than life and once again a focus of attention during the weekend. Never a very good climber but always a moving force, his picaresque adventures built a legend. After forty years, and now his death, it's still tasteless to report some of these tales. He had a mischievous, often cruel sense of humour and I pass over this.

He also had an extraordinary ability to effect narrow escapes. Once, his party of four spent a weekend in Gaping Ghyll, bivouacking in the Sand Caverns. On the Sunday night, wet, muddy, hungry, and with combined resources of a shilling and eight pence, they were faced with the task of hitch-hiking back to York. Jack led them into a moorland transport cafe and ordered everything the group could possibly eat. His simple plan was to offer their services afterwards for washing up. The lengthy meal drew to a close and no-one else came in so that the only washing up would be their own. The proprietor chatted with them, a likeable man, and finally delivered his bill for twenty-eight shillings. Jack picked up their single shilling, put it in a slot machine, drew out thirty shillings and paid up. Is this story true? Ask Mike Hollingsworth? I tell it as told to me within a month of the event.


I'd last seen him in Ambleside bus station in 1954. He'd just got the sack from his job as plumber or bricklayer but he had four pounds in his pocket. He was about to hitch up to Skye where it would last him a fortnight and he could think up a scheme. Twenty years later Valerie Brown drew my attention to an article in a women's magazine. Four ladies had written on what it was like to be married to a millionaire. And there was a photo of Jack, confident as ever, standing on the steps of his manor, his lady on his arm, two or three well-groomed dogs at their feet.

Yes, that was the unsettling thing about this and subsequent reunions. There were too many millionaires for so small a gathering. The fact made a poor fit with the ragged-trousered, easy-going bunch I remem­bered from Wall End Barn. We almost all came from working-class families. We almost all left school at fifteen or sixteen. But the ways in which these fortunes had been accumulated didn't seem specially uplift­ing. Jack had run building firms, haulage firms, had even made the first commercial aluminium gliders. These enterprises had varied in longev­ity and reputation. Would I have stepped inside a house that Jack built? I'd have taken a pretty good look at the outside first.
The property developer who'd arrested one of my falls, now nursing a tray of drinks through the crush, seemed to have made smoother progress than Jack. Apparently he was into nursing homes. Were they the sort of ventures in which the life savings of Britain's aged are rapidly eroding? The figure wedged in the corner was apparently here by chance. I'd never seen him in the barn anyway, though he was one of Dolphin's associates and he was certainly in Langdale in those years.

 Wall End Barn: George Kitchin
 He was said to be the inventor of the spirograph and his name appeared on those expen­sive children's toys. The senior partner of a juke box and pool table empire wasn't present though he'd used the barn from time to time. His consortium was shortly to be sold for more than ten million. The lady I'd taken on her first Lakeland climb wasn't here either though her sister (not badly off?) was with us. No doubt she was hard at work, minister­ing to the neuroses of the affluent by promoting a G-plan diet.I looked around in curiosity. There were others I guessed might be members of the same club. I turned to Mike Dixon in perplexity. "Are you a millionaire as well, Mike?" I asked. He was amused but chuckled a little uncomfortably. He shifted his feet. "Well," he said, with some reluctance. "I suppose so. But it doesn't really mean anything nowadays, does it? Not like it used to."
He brought himself back to the present and fixed a stiff price for the second-hand, obsolete, slightly faulty word-processor he was about to sell to me.

 At the first reunion we checked through the dead and the missing. We'd never meet George Elliott, Alf Beanland, John Greenwood, Frank Weirdon, Alan Bullock, Dave Gibbons, or Charlie Salisbury again. Mountains, other accidents, and now, dismayingly, illness or old age. Some, like Pete Thomson and Ernie Leach had been located but refused to associate with climbers any more. ("Climbers are the lowest of the low.") Others were lost and now someone asked about the Morrells. Oh, they'd been in the art world, hadn't they, they'd moved to London. Then they'd separated. They were thought to have been on the fringe of the drug scene, they were probably dead by now. I'd never really known them to talk to, they were older than me, but I remembered Mary well.

 A hot day on Gimmer a lifetime ago, the cliff under siege. My partner and I were sharing a narrow ledge for half an hour with Mary, her hus­band and the friend who was their frequent escort. We were blocked by a very slow party in front and we were pressed by a queue of teams behind. There was no breeze and the men were sitting shirtless, soaking up the sun. Mary, daringly, had also removed her shirt and was filling her bra with outstanding success. Beautiful girl. Suddenly she made some exclamation, an expression of impatience, of exasperation, of oh ­what-the-hell clouded her pretty face, and with the panache of a magi­cian Mrs Morrell flicked off the bra. Shocking. No big deal nowadays but this was before perfect strangers on a rock-climb high above the Langdale valley in the reign of King George the Sixth. Also electrify­ing. Mr. Morrell stared moodily into space. The rest of us tried to con­centrate our attentions upon the contours of Pike o'Blisco but found ourselves, every two minutes, casually scanning the skyline from end to end.
 
Scissors cut paper, paper wraps stone, stone blunts scissors. Amongst other things this is a book about the appeal of mountains. Now I have to report that in an instant, it seemed, the sun had perceptibly dimmed, the greens of the valley had become a little parched, even the rock was some­how just dead rock. Notice was being served that life would be filled with competing claims.

I relate this incident for another reason. Only a couple of days after the suggestion that Mary was probably dead I discovered that she was alive, well, and still living in London. She was, unbelievably, the clos­est friend of my closest non-climbing friends in North Wales. But she was a surname further on, and though they'd often spoken of her as an artist they'd never thought to mention that she'd done a little climbing when young, or that she came from Yorkshire. A year or two later I met her. We wouldn't have recognised each other but an hour of reminis­cence gave me serious cause for thought.
She'd only climbed for a few years, gritstone, the Lakes, Wales, Skye, and the climbing world she remembered was grossly different from mine. It had centred on days of unhurried fun on classic easier climbs. No­body ever got hurt. And, for her, the mountains would remain forever fresh and miraculous, untarnished by familiarity. "The best years of my life," she said. By contrast I'd gone on and I'd come through carnage. Say, twenty-five or thirty climbers I'd shared a rope with had died climb­ing, and a similar number I'd known on first-name terms. That sort of count is common to most climbers of my age. So what Mary had to say made me consider my investment in mountains. Might a law of dimin­ishing returns operate even here?

And, yet, my own life has been full of compromise. I could never have believed that possible in 1953. In that autumn, belatedly, I'd be going to college. Abandoning the idea of a career in hospital adminis­tration I intended to qualify myself as a teacher of English. From that summer forward I'd have long holidays and soon I'd be earning enough to travel more easily and to buy some decent equipment. I felt certain that I was capable of more difficult climbs than any I'd yet done and I. was confident that great achievements as climber and mountaineer lay ahead of me. My plan was simple. I'd test every one of the enticing unclimbed lines I'd noticed in Britain. I'd get to grips with the most famous routes in the Alps. When I was too old for serious alpine climb­ing I'd visit the Himalaya. And when I was too old for Himalayan moun­taineering I'd take up skiing.

In every detail this plan came to nothing. The summer of 1953 was to be, precisely, the end of the most intensive phase of my climbing. Until then all other activities had been subordinated. From then on, climbing would have to mesh with other purposes. While some of my contempo­raries soldiered on I amused myself. In the summer of 1956 I'd be in Paris with a girl-friend, wandering around the Louvre and exploring the Left Bank. Five years later, as old acquaintances began to go on Hima­layan expeditions I'd join an expedition a hundred thousand strong for a four-day Aldermaston March; my longest roadside vigils would be at Holy Loch and at Greenham Common, before the women discovered the place. Ten years on and I'd be driving to Tangier, enjoying sun and sea. Fifteen years  and I'd be on the road to Istanbul admiring buildings and great cities.

 Harold Drasdo
 At the same time, I never considered giving up. At the end of the spell in Paris, Frank Davies passed through, I negotiated a loan, and unforgiv­ably let the girl find her own way home. In no time at all, it seemed, we were on the summit of the Aiguille de Roc. After one Aldermaston March, married now, my wife and I went straight on to climb in Corn­wall; from an affray at Holy Loch we sailed magnificently away down the Clyde so that a couple of days later we were on the Rosa Pinnacle. On that first drive through Spain I stopped by the roadside to look at an impressive rock peak of which I couldn't discover the name; a few years later I returned to make a route on it. The Istanbul trip was broken up by mountain excursions.

Further, although I lost any need to prove myself against others I en­joyed periods of strenuous activity whilst writing rock-climbing guides. I went on from teaching English to work in Outdoor Education, moving to the mountain area in which I live to this day, spending a great deal of time on the hills and staying in touch with new developments. I kept my eyes open for every chance at home or whilst travelling. And I learned that I'm an incurably serious climber in this sense: that whatever anxie­ties or responsibilities I may have on my mind, these are erased the instant I lay hands on rock; and that however badly I may be performing from time to time, once engaged I've no choice but to check my limits. Finally, the images of climbing, the kinaesthetic memories, the resultant set of impulses, are a permanent and substantial part of the life of my mind.

My brother once reflected that for decades after the death of Dolphin we still considered him our unmatchable master; whilst in fact, despite his famous routes, his career was brief, his travels restricted, his experi­ence limited compared with our own. It sounded like heresy but on consideration I had to accept it. The rest of this book, by transect, by device and by abstraction, is an attempt to make some sense of my own experience.



Harold Drasdo:First Published as 'An end' in The Ordinary Route: Ernest Press 
 

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 
 

Monday, 14 January 2013

The Sweet Science-Wide-Boyz review

Grunt and grind: Wide-Boy Tom Randall gives 'The Hastonator'a ride encouraged by Pete Whittaker.Photo..Hot Aches

And so it begins... Brit hot shots, Tom Randall and Pete Whittaker meet at the Edge in Sheffield with Randall the elder deciding that Kid Whittaker might be the answer to his prayers. This particular divine calling being an attempt at the 'world's hardest off-width problem'. Century Crack in Utah. A sensational roof crack which breaks out the echoing shadows into the searing light of the red desert.

Discovered by US off-width specialist, Phil 'Crusher' Bartlett-who despite his moniker looks more like a geography teacher who is into real ale and bell ringing than brutal climbing problems. Crusher- who realizes that it's beyond his powers- hands the project over to legendary Brit hard case,Stevie 'Mad Cow' Haston, who gives it a whirl but who also quickly realizes that he's bitten off more than he can chew. Apart from a valiant  failed attempt, he does achieve one thing. An On the Edge article about the line and his attempts to subdue it ...enter Randall and Whittaker. Stevie's OTE piece lights the blue touchpaper for the intrepid pair who quickly set themselves a two year goal of leading the desert route.

This two year muscle fest kicks off with an unofficial world record for climbing the most routes in a day- 550 !!!- before moving underground. To Tom's Sheffield cellar where,like a mad sado- masochist,he has created all manner of torturous devices, designed to cause maximum pain and maximum muscle.

According to Stevie Haston- whose gnomic interviews act as a narrative throughout the film - 'there are no classic off-width problems in the UK or even Europe'....Really? Certainly Cobalt Dream E5, in North Wales looks the bizz when Pete Whittaker grunts his way through the roof, but perhaps it's not a true offwidth? It's interesting for the average UK climber seeing American climbers like Jay Anderson, Bob Scarpelli, Phil Bartlett and Brad Jackson, each  bearing the subtitle 'offwidth climber'.  I wasn't aware that in the US climbing had evolved a technical sub culture although in the case of off-width crack climbing,that indeed appears to be the case. Bob Scarpelli, who looks and sounds like he used to play bass in The Grateful Dead, offers the philosophical view that this climbing sub-culture is like boxing. Brutal but at it's best...'a sweet science'.

However, before our boys get out there they have to put in a shift in Tom's basement. Lots of almost homo-erotic footage of naked flesh (see pic), rippling torsos oozing sweat and with the participants shouting things like 'Yes..yes...you can do it, just give me one more' as they insert themselves in devices like 'The Hastonator'-bearing  slogans like 'fuck the pain' ! Going back to the SM theme. Things look decidedly unpleasant as the boys increasingly torture themselves with props like a 45lb weighted gilet... what looks like a butane bottle-for pull ups- various weights and dumb bells which you have to crank while spilling out of The Hastonator. It looks wicked but according to Tom Randall..'we loved every minute of it!'......Weird!

When the duo eventually get Stateside,they offer themselves as innocents abroad to their hosts. Brits...what do we know about your funky US passions! However,it soon dawns on the natives that these guys haven't arrived for the sun, sand and sights. After demolishing various classic OW problems,the time has come for Crusher to take them on a 4 hour 4x4 drive into the desert and introduce them to 'it'!


The Century Crack footage is actually fairly concise and wrapped up in quite a short period. It had to be as the film itself is actually quite short. Around 49 minutes. After a prelim session on the crack which leaves lots of cams in situ, the pair return next day and after tossing the tape roll to see who leads, Tom Randall gets first shot and to his great surprise finds himself pulling out of the shadows and into the light. Quickly followed by PW....job done. But not quite. Despite this historic 'lead' things go awry when news reaches the UK. No surprises when the ethic police and trollmasters of UKC give their ascent short shrift as Tom had used pre placed gear. However, their initial elation is even more brutally dashed when 'Mad Cow' himself-Stevie Haston- goes on record to declare that the route still awaiting a first ascent...bugger!

Not surprisingly, given the mixed reception they receive back home, Tom and Pete have no option but to cut short their US road trip and.....well... you probably know how it pans out but I'll leave it for for you to see how it's captured in all its technicolour glory.

Overall,like all Hot-Aches productions,an entertaining fun film which ticks all the boxes required by the climbing movie viewer. Little wonder the film won best climbing film and the people's choice at Kendal in autumn.


Wide Boyz is directed by Paul Diffley and Chris Alstrin and is available through Hot-Aches' as a download or DVD.












John Appleby:2013



Thursday, 10 January 2013

Bonington storms out of charity group over Zip wire decision

Sir Chris Bonington...not so sweet on Kendal based charity group.

Britain's foremost mountaineer, Sir Chris Bonington, sensationally resigned his role as Vice Chair of The Friends of the Lake District, after National Park planners once again, threw out a planning application from the Honister Slate Mine company to construct a zip wire from Black Star- close to the summit of 2.126' Fleetwith Pike-descending 1500' to the mine site at the head of Honister Pass.The original zip line planning application was instigated in 2010 by the then Honister Mine owner, Mark Weir who was tragically killed in the middle of the planning process when his private helicopter crashed close to the Honister Mine.

The controversial proceedings which at the time of the original planning application, were being recorded by filmmakers and broadcast on BBC4's National Park Stories in late 2011- See Something in the air-highlighted an increasingly acrimonious dispute between Mr Weir and his supporters in the tourist and leisure industry, and environmental campaigners. Most notably,The Friends of the Lake District who saw the development as having an adverse effect of the mountain's delicate ecology.

At the original planning enquiry in 2011, the elder statesman of UK mountaineering spoke in favour of the application and was  shown to be visibly perturbed when the application was thrown out. After the latest setback for the Honister mine company which prompted his resignation, Bonington was said to be 'appalled by the arguments put forward by the charity'. He went on to say,"I'm sad for Jan (Wilkinson), the owner of Honister, and all those at the mine that have turned it not just into a great visitor attraction, but something that is informative and educational. "The zip wire would have been something that would have given people a lot of enjoyment and excitement and would have been good for the Lake District as a whole."

Bonington's position in support of the controversial application put the mountaineer at odds with other mountaineering organisations to which he was attached; most notably The British Mountaineering Council who opposed the original plans.

While The Honister company and Sir Chris were condemning the planning decision, The Friends of the Lake District went on record to declare their satisfaction at the result of the process. The charity body put out a statement which read;"We are pleased that the Lake District National Park Authority members agreed that the scale of this proposal in this location was inappropriate and the open fell should remain free from man-made developments, protected for everyone’s benefit "This is the best decision for the Lake District’s wider tourism economy now and in the longer-term. “The decision reaffirms the previous refusal, recognizing that recreational activities reliant on man-made infrastructure and harmful to the landscape should not be allowed in sensitive locations. “Zip-wires and GoApe tree assault courses are best located in forest settings as they are in other parts of the UK.”

Company owner and widow of the late Mark Weir, Jan Wilkinson was bullish after the latest setback,declaring that she was 'just waiting for the paperwork to come through from the authority' before putting in an appeal against the decision.

Chris Bonington who is a long time resident of Hesket Newmarket in Cumbria has since been removed from the Kendal based Friends of the Lake District list of trustees on the charity's website.

Saturday, 5 January 2013

Snakes and Ladders

Robin Smith: Original photo-Jimmy Marshall

Here is a note in English on the first Scottish ascent of the least vertical wall in all the Alps.
We went for a week or two among the greater mountains, the first, of course, the Matterhorn, a noble pile, so a day or two later we came to the Dolomites. We hairpinned up to Lavaredo, 3 in 1 and 2 by 2, S. and R. for the wheel and meals and Haston and me for the Cima West. The cold at dawn would have blackened the toes of a brass monkey. So around 10, Haston and me, we ambled round to under the North Wall (having made a cunning plan with S. and R.) with 300ft. of rope, doubled, 1 sack, 1 camera, 2 hammers, 6 slings, 8 etriers, 40 karabiners, and (cunningly) 300ft. of line to save us taking bivvy gear.

Cassin climbed it years ago, two men and three days and just a few pitons, 800ft. up the far right edge, then 500ft. of hairy traverse- above the biggest overhang you ever saw- in to the middle of the wall, then, 1,000ft. up a couloir and over the top in a thundering storm, babbling. But nowadays they go for Diret­tissimas, straight up the biggest overhangs with a great beating of pegs and drums. A first ascent can last for years, with time off for rest cures, with an average of more than a piton a yard, and just a few expansion bolts where the rock won't take pitons, and just a few free-climbing moves rudely disrupting the rhythm of swinging free.

The powers of the pioneers to pitoneer and persevere are far beyond the grasp of Stone-age Britons, but all the pitons are left in place so that later ascents are comparatively easy. In 1959, inevit­ably, they finished a direct start to the Via Cassin; and here is how we cunningly climbed it.
We tied on to the double rope, and divided the gear, and one man took the sack, with the line and the camera, and the other took the krabs and stepped up off the path. For 20ft. you climb the rock, because it's only vertical.

The wall has the look of an elephant's hide, flat and smooth from a distance, but riddled all over with pocks and warts, piton-cracks, sharp little finger holds, crumbling jugs, loose flakes, shallow grooves, sharp little roofs, and ledges to stand on once in a blue moon. The route is a wandering line of pitons, 400ft. hither and thither up a shallow, gently overhanging bay, to under the monstrous arch of a roof jutting out about 80ft., and then 200ft. along a magnifi­cent zig-zag piton crack, twisting up and out and leftwards all at once, and round the lip of the roof, and then by another 400ft. of gently overhanging wall easing off to the plumb vertical just as it joins the Via Cassin at the end of the hairy traverse under the couloir.

But we had had but a nibbling foretaste of unelementary piton­eering. So up we bumbled, up two down one, clawing krabs and thrashing air, hurling holds at audiences, otherwise avoiding the rock like a hot tin roof, but nonetheless trapping fingers, baring knuckles, dripping gore on krabs and ropes and beating knees to black and blue balloons. To play it cool, you harmonise your ropes. "Tight on white, and slack a bit of red." Only ours were both a dirty white, synchronically turning speckled red, obtusely-clipped at acutest angles, writhing into tumorous kinks, and hideously twisted like a pair of loving snakes, with the man who was climbing too throttled to speak and the man at the reins too sleepy to listen and the two of us linked by nothing but hate and discord. One man would follow the pitons till he ran out of rope or krabs or couldn't drag the rope any further, then he would sit and swing in his ladders while the other man followed, collecting all the krabs, and clambered over the first, man and up the next pitch. Easy; but night fell at the end of four pitches, which is to say, right away out on the lip of the monster roof.

This was not cunning, but we had a cunning move in hand, and scanned the gloomy screes below and bawled to left and right. But no S. and R., so we passed a worried hour spinning our webs for the night. Haston was laughing, he was at a belay, a rugosity for his seat and one foothold. He faced out, lopsidedly crucified across a ring of pitons, head jammed under a bit of roof, and held in at the belly by Criss-cross bits of hoary abandoned rope. I was 20ft. down and right, hanging free from a holdless scoop, but with pitons all around. So facing in, I wove a net of krabs and ladders and bits of sling, slung around me under my armpits, under my seat and under my knees, with toes against the rock an inch above the biggest bit of roof, seated, as it were, on a bottomless closet, and feeling that way too.

Robin Smith-left and Dougal Haston:Original Photo SMC

I had the sack, so while Haston yelled the odds I took out the line and unravelled it 300ft. down into the night. This was the first, but we feared it was the last of the steps of our cunning plan. But then the plaintive voice of S. rose from the screes. We answered warmly. They had driven down to town to buy us fruit and goodies and bread and jam and butter and chocolate full of brandy, and cooked a thermos of coffee and a dixie of stew and potatoes, and wrapped them in duvets and sleeping-bags with knife and fork and spoon, and tied them all into a great rucksack. But then, it seemed, they had taken the sack to the wrong mountain; and only by chance had S. happened to hear us. So S. went off to fetch the sack and R.

By now it was so dark that I couldn't see more than a blur of Haston, but we both untied from the double rope and undoubled it, with some confusion, into a single length of 300ft. Then Haston tied onto one end, and I tied the other end to the top end of the dangling line and carried on lowering so that the bottom end of the line would reach all the 500ft. to the screes. But meanwhile, hanging loops of rope had embrangled themselves around the dangling line, and as I lowered the rope the line came back up in a loop-the-loop, and I found myself lowering it all over again. A fankle ensued. So I went to work like a fizzling computer, speaking coaxing words to all the little knots, with Haston somewhere up above turning cold and repetitive.

 Meanwhile S., with the sack and R., had been back for quite some time; we could see them waving torches at the bottom. In two hours all but the kernels of fankle were solved, so I lowered as much as I could, and sure enough they caught it in the beam of a torch, snaking down to the screes 100ft. out from the base of the wall. They fixed the sack to the end, and I rigged up a pulley of krabs, and then they beetled off. back to camp and I pulled up the sack. From where he was, Haston was useless, he just froze and swore and moaned, while the rope came up in tiny jerks and down in the depths the invisible sack was monstrously spinning and leaping through the night.

The pulley was all wrong, and once in a while there were bits of fankle to get past the krabs, and the more I pulled in the worse the fankles grew, till even my arms were all seized up in knots, and not until the first faint glimmer of dawn did the sack swirl into sight. I gaffed it to a piton and slumped in my slings, but then I was roused by Haston's groans, so I put on a duvet and sleeping-bag, and gobbled coffee and handfuls of goodies and stew, and Haston pulled up his share, with goodies and stew unhappily all mixed up, and then we slept.

Well into the morning S. and R. returned, so loth as sloths we unbedded ourselves and packed the rucksack, keeping duvets and goodies. Then I lowered it, that was easy, but the ropes were so fankled it stuck half-way, so I had to pull it up (pull it up) and start all over again. Next time it stuck about 60ft. from the 'screes, but I wasn't going to pull it up, so Haston untied from his end of the, rope, which gave me another 20ft., and I added a chain of tatty' slings, and S. stood tip-toe on a rock and got hold of the sack and took it off, and the ropes sprung back so high in the air that I hardly needed to pull them up at all. Then I took our cunning line and hurled it back to the screes, and Haston recovered an end of rope and we tried to redouble it for climbing, but the strain had left it twisted and kinked in psychopathic convulsions, and not for a dismal number of hours did we start to climb.

The climbing was just the bleeding same, with nothing but the beginnings of cunning to balance the loss of blood and vigour. We reached the hairy traverse of the Via Cassin just in time for an hour of beating sun-set, and here was the very first ledge of the climb with plenty of room for two. So we settled for a reasonably typical hunched-up twitching, chittering, wriggling, burbling, hellishly freezing bivouac. Then half an hour of tepid sun-rise hustled us onwards. The Direttissima really finishes up a lot more pitons just left of the Via Cassin couloir. But it looked daft and we were sickened, so stuffing our ladders away, we finished up the crumbling, tumbling couloir. At noon we came out in the frizzling sun and hobbled down the other side all sweat and blood and stiff and sore, with fists rolled up like hedge-hogs, and they never opened till S. and R. had fed us full of food and wine and wheeled us home to the land of rolling Munros.

Robin Smith


from THE EDINBURGH UNIVERSITY MOUNTAINEERING CLUB JOURNAL 1960