Friday, 7 August 2015

Slim Sorrell: Northern Grit

The Ox: Joe Brown and Pete Cargill get a lift from Slim Sorrell.Photo-G Kitchen Collection.
There'll never be another Slim Sorrell. Powerful climber and instructor, Gritstone and Cloggy pioneer, founder member of the Rock and Ice and a friend who was always cheerful in the face of adversity—Slim had many qualities. In fact it was the many good sides to his knockabout nature which highlight even more the manner of his death at the age of 47 in a macabre shooting incident at Cardiff. Slim, a hard-up pipe-fitter from Stockport, served his climbing apprenticeship in the tough, clinkers and-clothes line Manchester school of the late forties. The mines of Alderley, the barns of Castleton, clashes with the tar-pouring farmer of Windgather, bivvying in all weathers on Kinder and gritstone edges of the Peak. He was one of the early rope-mates of Joe Brown and the two of them joined one of the greatest of all small clubs, the now-defunct Valkyrie from the Derby-Nottingham area.

Nat Allen, Wilf White, Don Chapman, Chuck Cook and Don Cowan were among the leading spirits of The Valk. Slim and Joe joined them in exploring the Froggatt-Curbar escarpment when new routes were ripe for the plucking in those golden days of 1948 and 1949. Joe and Slim produced the impressive Eliminates and The Peapod and Slim's, name is perpetuated in Sorrell's Sorrow and Sorrallion. Over at Stanage Slim seconded Joe on the first ascent of the Right Unconquerable, one of the classics of grit. And when the 1957 Stanage and Froggatt guide was produced Slim was an obvious man to join the writing team. The Rock and Ice was the natural successor to the Valkyrie Club and in 1951 Slim helped to get it going with Joe and other names which were to become bywords in cragsmanship. Don Whillans, Ron Moseley and the ever-present Nat Allen.

Down in Wales Slim took part in the first ascent of Hangover on Clogwyn y Grochan and Diglyph and Octo on Cloggy. Joe led all three and Slim- ever-resourceful- seconded part of Diglyph by swarming up a knotted rope when the climbing became too technical even for him. My happiest memories of Slim are of those halcyon days when the Rock and Ice bivvied under Stanage or Froggatt and slept among falling plaster in the ruined farm of Bryn, Coch near the Snowdon railway. After a hard day on the crags Whillans and Moseley would be competing to see who could do the most press-ups or pull-ups. But it was Slim, with his boyish sense of fun, who invented the wilder games. When he tired of wrestling (having won all the bouts) he would organise a stone-throwing battle up and down the Llanberis Pass, an eating competition, or just a plain sleeping-bag fight.

Stories about Slim are legion. Once while bivvying on Dovestones in the Peak one wintry weekend he threw away the sheep's heart which was part of his ration. Next week the inseparable Brown and Sorrell were there again. Running out of food, Slim went to search for his sheep's heart, found it preserved in the snow and cooked and ate it! One raw, foggy day Brown was demonstrating the Cave Crack at Froggatt. Climbing in nails he moved out under the overhang, grasped the knob which was the key to the climb and pulled up into the jamming crack. When he was belayed Slim, a heavily-built character, began to follow him up. All went well until he came to the pull-up, when his hand slipped off the wet rock and he fell backwards. The rope broke and the horrified onlookers saw him plunge head first among the sharp boulders.

Brown descended with incredible speed and everybody ran to help what they assumed to be the injured climber. But Slim had fallen luckily and his main concern seemed to be the rope. He and Brown tested it with their hands . . . and once again it snapped. "My God," mumbled Slim, "to think we were using that rope on Cloggy last weekend!" Eventually the burly Slim became Constable Merrick Thomas Sorrell of Stockport Police. (Only his wife Dot ever gave him his Sunday name of Merrick among our gang). He won many commendations from his chief for when it came to chasing and apprehending, no thug or thief was any match for Slim. While on point duty in the centre of Stockport Slim would mischievously hold up four lines of hooting traffic while he strode across to a Stanage bound car and discussed the latest routes.

One of his jokes while in uniform was to grab one of his climbing friends in a Stockport street. Only after a curious crowd had gathered, thinking they were watching a smart arrest, would Slim let the victim go. After 13 years in the police Slim became an instructor at Ullswater Outward Bound School in the Lakes and later at Ashburton Outward Bound School in Devon. Slim put a brave face on one of the great tragedies of his life. His wife Dot had been one of the most adhesive woman climbers in the Peak. She is pictured leading Allen's Slab on Froggatt in the 1957 guide, and Dorothy's Dilemma on the Roaches is named after the problems she had in seconding the first ascent. 

But she caught polio and became an invalid. Eventually the marriage ended in divorce. Then,while they were doing Gillercombe Buttress above Borrowdale in 1972, Slim's instructor companion fell to his death. Slim eventually married his friend's widow and suffered a certain amount of innuendo in the Press. He was shot dead at a Cardiff college- ironically while 120 police constables were sitting an examination nearby. Slim's death shocked the members of the Northern climbing fraternity-particularly Joe Brown (Slim was best man at his wedding) and his former friends of the Valk and Rock and Ice. We cherish the Memory of one of the great characters of the crags.

Tom Waghorn: First published in Climber and Rambler Jan 1976