Friday, 10 January 2014

The Scottie: How the first climbing nut was created in Wales.

Pitch three of Scottie Dwyer's classic Central Route

History records that 1950’s English climbers were the first to use what we recognize today as the ubiquitous nut as a means of protection when lead climbing.Using drilled machine nuts, northern climbers like Jack Soper, Joe Brown and Don Whillans, had extended and improved the practice of inserting pebbles in cracks to provide a running belay, by carrying a selection of engineering nuts of different sizes threaded on thin hawser cord.

By the early 60’s, climbers like John Brailsford saw the commercial potential and developed ‘The Acorn’; the first climbing nut that was produced and marketed as climbing protection.Brailsford very soon had improved the design and gave the climbing world, the legendary Moac. However,evidence unearthed several years ago by north Wales climber Ken Latham, suggests that the modern climbing nut- as we know it- was developed in North Wales as far back as 1946. Its inventor being one Scotty/ie Dwyer. A minor figure in the world of North Wales climbing but someone who was responsible for several classic first ascents including one of the regions great VS climbs;the superb 400’ mountaineering route, Central Route on Llech Ddu in the Carneddau.

Put up in the same year(1946)as his remarkably modernistic sliding nut was developed. Another Dwyer route is Excalibur, a two star esoteric outing above the beautiful lake of Llyn Gwynant.In the 90’s I named and claimed it as a first ascent,only to discover that Scotty Dwyer had climbed it back in 1965. The little crags hereabouts abound with unclaimed SD routes which he had put up while working as an instructor in a local outdoor education centre. The link at the foot of the page detailing the history of the climbing nut, mentions ‘the Scottie’ but let Ken Latham himself explain how the climbing nut was first created in North Wales.

During the summer of 1972, I was managing the Ellis Brigham shop in Capel Curig. On the staff at that time was George 'Scottie' Dwyer. I can't remember now if he was just helping out as a favour, or working there on a regular basis; but from what I recall, he was retired from guiding and just came in to sort out the hire equipment. He hadn't climbed for many years. Indeed, a hip replacement had curtailed his mountaineering activities some­what (remember in those days, hip jobs really were a bit of a nut and bolt affair).
It was during a quiet day that we got talking. Generally, he kept him­self to himself most of the time, so it was a real bonus when he came through to the rear of the shop, carrying a couple of brews and began telling stories of his exploits. Some of the expeditions in the forties and fifties, driving overland to the Himalaya, seemed fantastical: encounters with hoods and bandits were commonplace. He also talked about his climbing in this coun­try and of course, his first ascent of Central Route on Llech Ddu.

As the day wore on and Scottie became more forthright, he handed me a metal wedge on a thin piece of line. He seemed to hold back as I examined this crude bit of gear, but asked me for my thoughts about it. I was used to Moac and Clog wedges that were then on the market and I remember being fairly unimpressed at first. It was only a while later that this encounter took on a special significance. Scottie told me he had been working on some ideas for protection devices for rock-climbing, but did not have the means to get them made up. The nut he showed me was a rough mock-up of one he had made in 1946. I was astounded.. He said that he had never used it on a climb and was unsure of its holding properties. The line available then was hemp and would in all probability not have withstood the stress of a leader fall. Scottie told me he had re-discovered the nut as he was clearing out some old equipment and had promptly forgotten about it. He asked me to keep it as he had no use for it anymore. I returned to Liverpool and sadly, Scottie died soon after, while still only in his sixties.

The remarkably modernistic 'Scottie' from 1946.Photo Ken Latham

Almost twenty five years later I was having what everyone will recog­nise as one of those loft-cleaning sessions in which everything must go, when I came across a long forgotten 'sack. Rummaging through the gear it contained — Moacs, Leeper pegs and Peck runners — I found the 'Scottie' nut.. I considered what to do with it. Reluctant to show it around at first, though interested to find if anyone could shed light on other bits of its history, I took it to the CC Centenary Dinner. Many eminent members looked at it, and when they heard its story, commented that it seemed entirely possible it did indeed originate in the year Scottie claimed. It may well be that Scottie couldn't countenance introducing such a piece of equipment in the 1940s; it would no doubt have been seen as unethical. Then he mislaid or forgot about it for years until he told me about it.

If Scottie had found a maker for his nut in the 40s and launched it on the growing market, who could say how the history of British rock- climb­ing would read today? The design — combining variable, sliding camming and multi-faceted placement — was at least fifteen years ahead of its time. I showed it to Joe Brown recently and he was convinced of its authenticity; he also commented that he hadn't used any machined nuts himself until about 1961, as he thought they were unethical. Slings on pebbles were still In widespread use.

If anyone can throw more light on this unique nut — which I'll continue to call the 'Scottie'--- I'd be delighted to hear from you.

Liam Appleby on pitch one of Scottie Dwyer's esoteric minor classic-Excalibur

Ken Latham: First published in the CC Journal 1998