Friday, 6 June 2014

Central and then

Herford on the first ascent of Central Buttress in 1914

Just forty years ago this spring the most remarkable achievement in British rock climbing up to that time was carried out on a tremendous, vertical crag in the heart of the Lake District, and a great sport, which is still a subject for controversy, entered a new era. The Crag was the impressive north face of Scafell, which faces the summit slopes of Scafell Pike, the climb - as any present-day climber will tell you - was Central Buttress (C.B., for short), and the climbers were Siegfried Herford (the leader), G.S. Sansom and C.F. Holland.

The climb was the most daring ever achieved in this country, and although several harder routes have since been done in the Lake District and in North Wales, Central Buttress still remains a climb of great severity and character and will always be regarded as one of the really ‘great’ climbs in Britain. In these days, when more people are climbing steep rocks than ever before, when the standard of British mountaineering has reached its highest standard so far and when ill informed criticism is so often heard, it may be rewarding to look back on this great achievement of 1914, for in many ways this was the start of rock climbing as it is practised today.

Some young rock climbers nowadays lay themselves open to criticism and on occasions have given a noble sport a bad name. Not a few are gymnasts, not mountaineers. They are not really interested in mountains but only in thrills, rather like ‘wall of death’ motor cyclists. Although not lacking in courage, a few are inclined to neglect elementary precautions. Sometimes they come to grief, and the general public is liable to condemn rock climbers altogether. A few of these young people are too prone to boast of their performances in public, and some of us have even heard them bragging of their falls instead of being ashamed of them.

But fortunately for the future of the sport in the Lake District and elsewhere, these people whose courage is being misapplied are not truly representative of the sport, and this small, reckless minority cannot claim to be the successors of Herford and his friends. Men like Herford and the great climbers of the past were mountaineers and lovers of mountain beauty, not merely rock gymnasts; they were excessively modest about their exploits; and they were painstakingly careful, knowing their own limitations with an exactness that comes only from experience.

Herford, a friend of Mallory who died on Everest, was undoubtedly a great man, besides being a magnificent climber, and it was one of the tragedies of British climbing that he should be killed in action in France in the First World War. Sansom and Holland, one a university professor, the other a schoolmaster, are both alive, I believe, and I have climbed with them both. To Holland, a man of great culture and imagination, Herford was the greatest man he had ever known. Before the era climaxed by the ascent of Central Buttress, rock climbing in the Lake District - and, indeed, in Britain - was concentrated on the discovery of the easiest routes up vertical cliffs and the ascent of gullies, chimneys, ridges and other ‘natural’ ways up crags.

The new era brought the forcing of routes up the great open walls between the gullies and later the traversing of the crags, and modern climbing is the development of this technique to the farthest limits of possibility. Central Buttress goes up the centre of the Crag for 470 feet in a series of steep walls and delicate traverses, and the crux of the climb is the ascent of the 65 feet high Flake Crack, which is mostly vertical and is slightly overhanging at the top. The whole route is sensationally exposed. When Herford and his companions finally climbed the Flake Crack, after several unsuccessful attempts, it was done by the leader standing on the shoulders of his second, as he (the second) hung in loops of rope just below the overhanging portion. 

This method (there are several variations) is still used by most people tackling the climb. Once on the top of the Flake, the climber finds himself on a remarkable knife edge of rock, with a tremendous drop to the screes below and the difficult traverses above. Herford’s first reconnaissance of the buttress was made in January 1914, and the ascent was completed on 22 April on a snowy afternoon. The second ascent of Central Buttress was not made until August 1921, the leader being the late C.D. Frankland and his second, Bentley Beetham, the well-known mountaineer, who has pioneered scores of Lake District climbs and has climbed in the Himalayas.

In 1925 Dr Mabel M. Barker of Caldbeck accomplished the first ascent of the climb by a woman, and in August 1931 a most remarkable climber, Dr I.M. Edwards, made the first ascent of the route without assistance at the Flake Crack, a feat that has since been repeated a few times.I believe that  Jim Birkett, the well-known Little Langdale climber, made the first ascent of Central Buttress in nailed boots-previous ascents had been made in rubber shoes - and the first woman to lead Central Buttress was Mrs S.H. Cross of the Dungeon Ghyll Hotel, Great Langdale. I think it was in 1936 that the first descent of Central Buttress was made, the last man on the rope being I. Carswell of Workington, and the first, appropriately enough, being Dr Barker, then fifty years of age.

New starts and new finishes have also been made to the original route, and nowadays Central Buttress is ascended several times each summer, but it is still a climb for experts in tip-top condition. People who have seen Central Buttress at close quarters or, better still, have climbed it can realise something of the courage and tenacity of the young man who first led it in days when nothing of this severity had been attempted in Britain before. Holland has since written of Herford as ‘the finest and bravest man I have ever known’, and he knew him better than anybody else

I would like to think of Herford’s example of modest self effacement, his quietness of manner and his balanced caution when climbing being followed by the climbers of today. So far as I know Herford never once fell from a climb.

 Leo Holding Climbing Central Buttress.

AH (Harry) Griffin.
First published in The Lancashire Post. January 1954.