August 3, 1913
'W. P. Haskett Smith Dies in Canadian Rockies'
Such newspaper headlines, would without any shadow of a doubt, cause consternation among the climbing world of today, let alone at the turn of the 20th century when he was at the pinnacle of his unwanted fame. But in August 1913, this could well have been the headlines in British newspapers of the day, putting a shocked climbing fraternity in mourning, for the loss of a climbing pioneer who was hailed as the ‘Father of British Rock Climbing’, as a result of his solo ascent of Napes Needle on the slopes of Great Gable on 2nd or 3rd July,1886. In essence, this was the first recorded rock climb undertaken, not for Alpine training as was generally the norm at that time, but for pure aesthetic pleasure of movement up rock for enjoyment, thus making it a sport in its own right as opposed to being a ‘gentleman’s Alpine training playground’.
Climbing organisations such as the Fell and Rock, Rucksack Club, Alpine Club and Climber’s Club, would on hearing such devastating news, work frantically to get obituaries written for their next Journals. Talk around the smoking rooms of the Lakeland Hotels climbers frequented at weekends and holidays, and in particular, the Wasdale Hotel, would endlessly centre on such an event, as it sent turbulent ripples through the small but close knit climbing community that was growing in the United Kingdom, none more so than in the English Lake District. Memories would be invoked of a similar event six years earlier, when such clubs were saddened by the death of another pioneering climber – John Wilson Robinson, a close friend and climbing partner of Haskett Smith’s. How could the climbing fraternity lose two such climbing icons within a decade of each other, both being viewed as an intricate part of the Lakeland climbing scene of the day!
Questions would have been asked: ‘Why did he go to Canada?’; ‘Who was he with when the accident happened?’; ‘How did the accident happen?’; ‘Where did it happen?’; ‘Who or what was responsible?’ among endless other searching questions, climbers were eager to find answers to.Having spent the last 14 months researching material for his biography, the potential seriousness of this incident can now be told in full.
W. P. Haskett Smith and his younger brother Edmund L. W. Haskett Smith, had been climbing together constantly since 1881 when Walter P. first visited Wasdale in the English Lake District, leading a combined Oxford/Cambridge classics reading group over a two-month period. It was here that he became acquainted with Frederick H. Bowring, an ardent and prolific walker of the Lakeland fells and mountainsides. It was said of him, that he knew the Lakeland fells and mountains like no other, including hidden gems yet to be discovered by any resolute climber.
Early days;The Wasdale Inn.Photo F&R Club
Bowring often took groups of reading parties on walks along little known tracks, leading them under and alongside the many crags and gullies that can be found on the Lakeland mountains. In effect, he became Haskett Smith’s walking and climbing ‘mentor’, encouraging him to climb and explore the gullies, those already climbed and those waiting to be climbed. Haskett Smith and Bowring, formed such a close friendship, that in order to honour his ‘mentor’, Haskett Smith sent him an inscribed copy of his 1894 first climbing guide – ‘Rock Climbing in the British Isles, England, Volume 1’.
Throughout the 1880’s and 90’s, Haskett Smith climbed prolifically in the Lake District as well as other places in the UK, mainly with his younger brother Edmund who he was close to. His 1886 solo ascent of Napes Needle, an iconic object in its own right, is well known throughout the climbing and mountaineering world, as is many of his other first ascents. What is not known widely, is his keen interest in sailing and cycling which he did with his good friend Maurice Byles in the early years of the 20th century. They frequently cycled to Dover, took a ferry to France and then cycled around the Benelux countries, often putting their cycles on board a sailing boat, sailing along the French and Dutch coast lines and stopping off to explore new countryside by bicycle. Once they had satiated themselves, they returned to their sailing boat, stored the cycles aboard, then sailed off again to seek other new places to explore.
Whilst he had many climbing friends and associates throughout his rock climbing years, it was his brother Edmund who he was closest to and who was in effect, his ‘best friend’. From 1882 onwards, both brothers regularly travelled to Wasdale together and whilst they did not always climb or walk together, they enjoyed spending time in each other’s company, possibly because both were introverts, being relatively shy and having no need to enter into constant conversation when in company, preferring the quietness and beatitude of their situation.
Such was their close ‘brotherly’ bond, that when in 1898, Edmund moved to Nova Scotia in Canada to live, Walter P. felt bereft at losing not just a brother, but a close friend and climbing companion. Both of them were aware, that Walter P. (or Haskett Smith as he was, and still is known by), was receiving all the attention from the climbing fraternity, in relation to the many first ascents he is recorded as doing, especially in the 1880’s.It would appear, that it is Haskett Smith’s name (meaning Walter P. and not Edmund), that not only appears in climbing guide books as being the person who made the first ascent, but that climbing history does not give Edmund a mention at all. This despite the fact, that whilst they climbed unroped and it would be Walter P. who summited first, the fact that Edmund followed within minutes, appears to have gone unrecognised.
However, for his part, Edmund was happy with this situation for two reasons: first he had great respect for his older brother, and secondly, he was happy with not being in any ‘spotlight’, shunning attention of any sort.
Haskett Smith was pleased when Edmund returned to England in 1904, as it gave them opportunities to continue their adventures together, although Edmund was less interested in climbing and more interested in traveling and seeing ‘new worlds’. Things would not last however, as Edmund returned to Canada again in 1912 with his family. And so it was, that a few months after he led a small group on the 2nd ascent of Gillercombe Buttress Gully (May 5th), and which in retrospect, was one of his last climbs, Haskett Smith sailed for Canada to visit Edmund who was now living in Tatamagouche, Nova Scotia.
Within a few weeks of arriving, the two brothers lost no time in going out walking to explore the wide expanse of wilderness that surrounded the small town. Edmund by now had a camera, and whilst his images are generally too far away to get a clear glimpse of his subjects (sometimes of the landscape and other times of his brother Walter), his diary and photo album captured the spirit of Haskett Smith as an individual, free from the constant attention others made of him for no other reason than to feed their own egos by saying they ‘rubbed shoulders’ with the ‘Father of British Rock Climbing’. (And who says that the birth of celebrity status is a modern phenomenon!)
In late July, he and Edmund travelled by train to Calgary, calling in at Banff on their way to Jasper, before making their way to Mount Robson where they had been invited by Arthur Wheeler, founding President of the Alpine Club of Canada, to call on him during their month long annual summer expedition camp, which was being held from 28th July to 9th August in the Mount Robson Pass area. Due to the high numbers attending the camp that year, two subsidiary camps were set up, one about six miles down the Smokey River and the other beside Calumet Creek in Moose Pass. In both camps, seventy-three people were under canvass including a native from Penrith in Cumberland – Horace ‘Rusty’ Westmorland, who when aged 11 back in 1897, had met Haskett Smith in the Lake District.
At the time they met, the Westmorland family were having a picnic beside Grisedale Tarn above Ullswater, when they saw a climbing party descending Tarn Crag, walking towards the tarn where they were picnicking.The party consisted of Haskett Smith, Geoffrey Hastings (who knew Thomas Westmorland), Ellis Carr and John W. Robinson. They had been trying to make the first ascent of Big Gully on Tarn Crag (now called Chockstone Gully), but were unsuccessful due to loose boulders and stones festooning the gully floor, making movement difficult and potentially dangerous. Haskett Smith later wrote about this attempt: “As any attempt far outweighed the sport, retreat was the better course of action, and so we traversed off the route by the grassy ledge that separates the lower and upper two pitches.”
On meeting, Hastings introduced the others to Thomas Westmorland and his family who invited the four climbers, to sit awhile and partake sustenance from their picnic hamper.
For his part, Thomas Westmorland was a well-known local climbing and fell walking pioneer, known for being adamant, that it was not the done-thing to use a climbing rope, under any circumstances. The Westmorland family as a whole, were very ardent outdoor enthusiasts, spending two weeks every Easter and eight weeks every summer, camping on the shores of Ullswater near Howtown, from where they would frequently explore the confines of the Northern Fells and beyond.
Thomas’s only son Horace, (who received the nickname Rusty whilst serving in the Canadian Army in France in 1914), has the distinction of being taken to Norfolk Island aged one by his parents for an open air over-night bivvy; then three months later, being carried to the summit of Helvellyn in order to celebrate Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee at the country’s biggest mountaintop bonfire; at aged four years being taken by his father, to climb (unroped), the rough rock strewn walls of Brougham Castle, just as he himself had done when he was the same age; and in 1901 aged fifteen, being taken up to the summit of Pillar Rock via the Slab and Notch route (unroped of course), by his father, making him the youngest person at that time to have done so. [His sister Alice was also with them, but she was aged 16!]Now, sixteen years later, Haskett Smith and Rusty Westmorland were to meet up at the Alpine Club of Canada’s annual camp, where both took great delight in reminiscing, not just about the Lakeland climbing scene and mutual acquaintances, but also about Rusty’s first ascent of Chockstone Gully (Big Gully) on Tarn Crag in 1910, the very route Haskett Smith along with Hastings, Robinson and Carr, had attempted back in 1897, but had failed.
It was unfortunate that the weather around Mount Robson for the first few days, was not conducive for climbing or ascending major peaks, although this did not deter Rusty from making several first ascents himself as he was hoping to impress Wheeler, who ultimately decided who should be invited to become a member of the Alpine Club of Canada. As Rusty wanted a job as a mountain guide, he knew that being invited by Wheeler to become a member of the Club, it would ‘open doors’ for working in an area where there were innumerable virgin peaks waiting to be climbed.As it happened, after five days of rain, they all woke to a cloudless azure blue sky without a rain cloud in sight. This spurred the members to form climbing groups and decide on where they would go. As Rusty knew that the Haskett Smith brothers were leaving in a few days’ time, he agreed to lead them on a long walk up to Robson Pass summit, as he knew the route through the uncharted wilderness.
As they approached Emperor Falls area, there was a great deal of water runoff from the rocky slopes towering above them, and as they negotiated a narrow part of the trail, the waterlogged rock slope started to slide downwards. Whilst Rusty and Edmund managed to get clear of the falling stones and rubble, Haskett Smith did not and was hit on the legs.
His injuries were so bad, that he had to be carried back to camp by other members who were luckily nearby. However, their camp was too far away from civilisation for anyone to be called in to treat his leg, and very quickly, his injuries led to blood poisoning. This in turn made him dangerously ill and so he had to be carried down the long mountain trail to a suitable place where he could be transported by vehicle to the nearest medical centre in Jasper.
He remained ill for several weeks which did little to ease the turmoil Wheeler was experiencing, at the thought of possible headlines: ‘W. P. Haskett Smith, English visiting climber dies as a result of a rock slide during the Alpine Club Canada’s annual camp’. This was clearly something he did not want to have ‘on his watch’.
History as we now know, tells us that Haskett Smith recovered from his injuries and his blood poisoning abated, allowing Wheeler to breathe a grateful sigh of relief.It is interesting to note, that after this incident, there is no record of him ever rock climbing again. Indeed, it was from this period in his life, that his siblings noticed a change in his behaviour, in that he started to shun being with groups of people. Indeed, it is well recorded in the Fell and Rock Journal, that he often went out walking with groups on a club meet but at some point, walked off on his own, making his own way back home, or to the club hut they were staying in.In addition to ‘wandering off’ from his group, there was a subtle change in his personality and general demeanour as well as his dress code. His family noticed that he began to develop a general negative ‘couldn’t care less’ attitude towards material possessions such as the Trowswell family estate in Kent and its contents, which he inherited on his father’s death in 1895.
Whilst we can only speculate as to the effects the accident may have had on his demeanour and general attitude in later life, what we do know, is that there were several cases of his family members suffering from some form of mental illness, indeed, his parent’s first children were twin girls (Thermuthis and Henrietta, born 1854). Thermuthis died in 1864 aged 10, and Henrietta spent her life (she died aged 60 in 1914), in and out of mental institutions and never appeared on any family census data. Then there was his older brother Algernon, who died under strange circumstances when a shotgun he was cleaning, ‘accidentally’ went off shooting him in the head.
Being a member of the infamous Canning Club, a popular Victorian haunt for upper class homosexuals, which included titled gentry and a grandson of Queen Victoria, coupled with the fact that another member of the Canning Club was Montague John Druitt, who after his mysterious death by drowning in the river Thames, became a suspect for being Jack the Ripper, may of course, have had nothing to do with Algernon’s death!
And finally, it is recorded in various climbing club journals as well as being known to his relatives, that not long after the rock slide incident, he tired of attending climbing club annual dinners where he would always be called on to ‘tell a story’ or to give a talk, and was known occasionally, to give ‘short shrift’ to such requests, leaving onlookers, perplexed and bewildered at this unexpected retort.
This aside, it is fortunate, that any newspaper headline stating: ‘W. P. Haskett Smith Dies in Canadian Rockies’ was never written. If it had, we would have been sadly deprived of a plethora of written articles, not just on climbing and climbing personalities, but also on his other areas of interest: genealogy; philology; etymology, and all things antiquarian.
Note: Haskett Smith’s on-going biography, already some 70,000 + words, is still looking for a publisher!