Just about ten years ago there died far from the hills, in distant Dorset, a lonely old man whose name will be revered in Lakeland and in many places scattered about the world so long as men come to climb the rocks and walk the mountains. His name was Walter Parry Haskett-Smith, and when he died, far from his friends, he was eighty-five years old. He was the 'father' of British rock climbing, the pioneer of the very earliest routes on half a dozen different Lakeland crags, and the man who first discovered and climbed Napes Needle. Haskett-Smith first saw the Needle- a graceful pinnacle among the Napes Ridges on the Wasdale face of Great Gable- on a windy, cloudy day in the early 1880s. He has written: 'The outermost curtain of mist seemed to be drawn aside, and one of the fitful gleams of sunshine fell on a slender pinnacle of rock standing out against the background of cloud, without a sign of any other rock near it and appearing to shoot up for about 200 to 300 feet.'
At that time nobody had ever examined the Napes Ridges — the steep slopes of scree below them had kept explorers away and given the impression that the whole crag was dangerously rotten.
But Haskett-Smith, the young Oxford graduate and barrister,decided to track down the slender spire and climb it if possible. At his first attempt he failed to locate it, but at the second he found it but left its conquest to another day. Some years later he was exploring on the mountain quite alone and decided to work his way down from the summit to the ridge, now known as Needle Ridge, up which he had climbed two years before. He had with him a long fell pole, which gave him some trouble by continually dropping and jamming in cracks and crevices, but eventually he got down to the gap behind the Needle and decided, as climbers say, to 'have a look at it'. There was nobody about on the mountain to help if he was to fall, and there were no mountain rescue teams in those distant days, but without hesitation the young man began to work his way up the tall spire, which seems to hang over Styhead.
At first he used for his fingers and toes, a crack, which in those days was blocked with stones and moss, and eventually he reached what is called the shoulder of the Needle and here he could study the final problem. The summit of the Needle really consists of two tremendous blocks, one perched on top of the other, but the young man had no real means of knowing whether the top block was secure or whether, if pulled on, it would overbalance and crash with its victim to the screen 100 feet below. Today, of course, we all know it is safe, and if three climbers balance on one side it can be gently rocked, but on this day seventy years ago only two or three people had even seen the Needle and nobody had climbed it.
The young man was also anxious to know whether the summit of the top block was reasonably flat so that he could perch on it, in the event of his getting there. But, even more important, he thought that a flat top would mean that the edges of the top block would not be rounded and so would give him a good grip for his fingers. He therefore cast about for two or three flat stones and threw these up in turn, hoping that one would stay on top. At last one did so and he started up, 'feeling as small as a mouse climbing a millstone'.
He balanced himself up onto the Mantelshelf, with the steep drop on his right, shuffled along a horizontal crack, sidled round a comer, up the face on small holds and then, reaching up for the top, clambered up to the summit and sat down on his tiny, airy perch.
The summit of the Needle is a sloping oblong, only a few feet across, and when you are sitting or standing up there it is easy to imagine yourself very high above the world and almost sitting out in space. This sort of perch is common enough in the Alps but very rare in Lakeland, and there is nothing quite like the Needle anywhere else in the British Isles. People have stood on their heads on top of the Needle, lit fires up there, shaved and done a hundred and one other strange things, but Haskett-Smith just sat down, admired the view —and wondered how on earth he was going to get down. Before he began lowering himself down, he left his handkerchief jammed in a crevice for all to see, and it must have been something of a relief and a moment of pride to get down the top block safely and be able to look up at the bit of linen fluttering in the breeze.
Since those days the Needle has been climbed thousands of times by seven or eight different routes, it is photographed dozens of times eve, week during the summer, and its shape is known in many parts of the world. Small boys and girls have been hauled up it in fine weather, stunt climbs and record attempts have been made on it. It has been filmed and televised, painted and sketched, but the Needle — although nowadays regarded as a comparatively easy route — is still a climb of character and a remarkable memorial to a very great man. On the fiftieth anniversary of his first ascent of the Napes Needle, Hackett-Smith, then a man of seventy-four, went up again, roped between Lord Chorley and the late Mr G.R. Speaker. Many hundreds of people, sitting and standing on the rocks around, watched the slow, careful ascent on Easter Sunday 1936, and when the old man clambered onto the top of the most famous bit of rock in English climbing the crowd below him gave a cheer.
Hackett-Smith had a reputation of never being at a loss for words, and his gift for repartee did not fail him even on this particularly important occasion. 'Tell us a story,' shouted someone from the crowds below, and the old man seated on the spire a hundred feet above their heads replied, in a flash: 'There is no other story. This is the top storey.' This fine mountaineer had climbed in the Alps, Norway, the Pyrenees, North Africa, the Balkans, the Rockies and the Andes, but it was on Lake District climbing that he left his most permanent mark.
He was a man of strong personality a brilliant speaker and a man of wide reading and culture, but often eccentric in his habits and dress.At formal evening functions he would often appear, without the slightest embarrassment in the most careless array, while for outside excursions he would turn out, on the hottest days, in a long, heavy, check tailcoat fitted with huge outside pockets. Nobody can be claimed as the 'inventor' of British rock climbing, but this tattered Old Etonian, with his ragged moustache and a glint in his eye, probably came nearer than anybody else.
Men of his individuality are not so often seen today, and I often regret that I never met him. He was little seen in the Lake District after the first world war and some of the modern generation of young rock climbers have perhaps never heard of him. But his name will be kept green by the little climbed gully named after him, a couple of slim books on climbing, a few articles and Napes Needle. In a way the finest memorial that anyone could have.
AH Griffin: First Published in the Lancashire Evening Post.February 1956.