Friday, 11 September 2015

Fell Tiger....Harold Drasdo Obituary

Harold Drasdo, who died in hospital in Bangor, North Wales, last week after a short illness, was in the vanguard of the remarkable post war ascendency of working class Northern English rock climbers. Activists from the great Northern cities who challenged the previously entrenched dominance held by the middle class professionals who in the main, had had the field to themselves before the war.

Born in Bradford in 1930, Harold and his younger brother Neville, like so many northern activists, began their climbing careers by exploring the local Yorkshire crags and quarries. Inspired by  fellow Bradfordian, the legendary Arthur Dolphin, they soon began to look to the mountain areas of the Lake District, North Wales, Scotland and notably Ireland, where the challenges of the hardest routes of the era were accepted and first ascents began to fall.

As a leading light of the loose affiliation of Bradford born climbers known as ‘The Bradford Lads’ Harold began to rack up the number of first ascents in the Lake District with routes like North Crag Eliminate, Grendal, Anarchist and Sostenuto amongst his classic collection.

Despite mainly climbing within his Bradford circle, there was a friendly rivalry and cooperation with climbers from other clubs like the Manchester Rock and Ice club-of Brown and Whillans fame- and the rival Alpha Club. Activists from all over the north would  arrive each weekend-  wage slaves on Monday-Free men on Sunday- to share the same dosses, barns and huts in the main climbing arenas. Swopping tales of gnarly first ascents, irate shotgun wielding landowners and hinting at recently discovered unclimbed crags of rich potential!

Bradford Lads...and Lasses in Langdale. Photo Neville Drasdo
In the early 1950’s, Harold and brother Neville became the first British climbers to explore the great unclimbed cliffs of The Poisoned Glen, in Donegal in the far west of Ireland. At the time, Donegal really was the back of beyond and it took a great deal of planning and effort to just get there. However, their reward was several first ascents on the beetling 1000’ cliffs. Their activity piquing the interest of top British climbers like Chris Bonington and Allen Austin who came over and made their own mark on the cliffs.

Towards the end of the fifties- Harold who had trained as a teacher and was by now working as an outdoor instructor in a Peak District outdoor activities centre- took on the authorship of the Fell and Rock Club’s first climbing guidebook to Buttermere and the Far Eastern Fells. A daunting undertaking for someone who usually had to hitch-hike between some of the remotest crags in the Lake District in all weathers and often had to solo the climbs due to a lack of willing partners.

Throughout the fifties and sixties, as working class British climbers began to find the ways and means to extend their orbit to the continent, his explorations included trips to the Alps, the USA and Spain. It was while climbing in the Alps with amongst others the legendary Scottish climber Jimmy Marshall, that he met tragedy when a member of the party was killed during an abseil descent and on another occasion, he returned from a successful ascent to discover that Bradford hero and inspiration, Arthur Dolphin had been killed on a neighbouring mountain. His attendance with a handful of fellow English climbers at Dolphin’s funeral was movingly described in his autobiography, The Ordinary Route’.

In the early sixties he had secured a position as warden and chief instructor at The Towers Outdoor Pursuits Centre in Capel Curig within the Snowdonia National Park and had married his lifetime partner, Maureen with whom he had worked at an outdoor centre in the High Peak. He was to remain in North Wales for the rest of his life. Despite his demanding full time position, his spare time was still spent climbing and exploring the cliffs of north Wales, with first ascents like Traditional Route and Plato’s Cave falling to his advances. During this period he had continued to write articles and essays for magazines and journals. Usually works of rare quality and insight, for within a sport which boasts a disproportionate number of  cerebral participants, Harold was a true intellectual, refined scholar and a first rate mind. Someone for whom the Greek classics and works of politics and philosophy were devoured as enthusiastically as the latest climbing guidebooks.

During this period in the late sixties and early seventies, Harold was working on the Climber’s Club guidebook to Lliwedd.  He became the first guidebook writer to pen guides for both the Fell and Rock and the Climber’s Club. His guide published in 1971 was-he liked to boast-the slowest selling guide in guidebook history, taking 30 years to sell out! However, for the uninitiated, the grim, vegetated 1000’ Welsh cliff did see it’s heyday in the Edwardian era and had long since been considered an esoteric venue. The previous authors, Archer Thomson in 1909 and Menlove Edwards in 1936 had both committed suicide by poisoning. Happily Harold survived ‘the curse of Lliwedd’ and lived on into old age.

In this period he authored the highly influential’ ‘Education in the Mountain Centres’ A work which emphasised the positive value of teaching young people to appreciate and value the natural environment whilst using its natural resources as an arena for learning outdoor skills and appreciating it’s fragile beauty. A message which was remarkably prescient at the time.

By the end of the 70’s he had jointly edited ‘The Mountain Spirit’- with US climber and academic, Michael Tobias. The work was an anthology of writings based on philosophical and spiritual interpretations which writers throughout the ages had placed on the global mountain environment.

After retiring from his role at The Towers he and Maureen threw themselves into rebuilding their smallholding home high above the market town of Llanrwst. A beautiful elevated abode which looked  out over the spectacular Northern Snowdonia mountains. With more free time on his hands, he continued to write-finishing his autobiography ‘The Ordinary Route’ - published by Ernest Press in 1997- and explore the crags of north Wales. By the mid nineties-and now in his mid sixties- he began a climbing love affair with the sprawling south Snowdonia mountain of Arenig Fawr. A peak which had never had a chronicled climbing history and more interestingly, a mountain which had inspired a unique Edwardian art movement- ‘The Arenig School’-led  by leading lights, Augustus John and James Dickson Innes.

Over a short period he established around two dozen first ascents on the cliffs of Arenig and continued to establish new routes on previously unclimbed cliffs in remote parts of Snowdonia.

After undergoing a hip operation in his early seventies, his climbing career began to wind down although he still got out into the hills regularly. With the demands of keeping on top of a smallholding becoming more of a thankless chore than pleasure, he and Maureen retired from the country life and settled in the historic north Wales coastal town of Conwy.

One of Harold's last climbs;The verdant Canyon Rib in Aberglasllyn Pass

A lifelong political anarchist and environmentalist, Harold’s attraction to the movements were based on an intellectual affinity to progressive ideals and a natural distaste for top down governance. He had penned a number of articles over the years for political journals based on his beliefs. As the new century progressed, his outdoor essays and articles became rarer and were generally limited to club journals.
Suffering a series of niggling health problems in his latter years, his activities by now, were restricted to less demanding coastal walks and his nightly visit to his local pub. It was after suffering a fall outside his local that complications quickly set in and he died a few days after being admitted to hospital. He leaves behind a rich legacy of rock climbs, writings and of course the gratitude of thousands of youngsters who had thrived through his enlightened approach and instruction in outdoor education. He is survived by his wife Maureen.

Born Bradford 1930- Died Bangor, N Wales 2015.