Friday, 25 March 2016

Tinkerbell...Ronnie Lee Remembered

Ronnie was born in December 1926; she was christened Veronica. In early childhood, to her elder twin sisters and friends, she became the little fairy, the ubiquitous Tinkerbell, that tiny nymph of J.M.Barrie's immortal Peter Pan, someone 'whose light, like that of a star, only went out when she was asleep.' In 1941, when I first met her, everyone called her ‘Tink’. Keen on games, swimming, on all athletic activity, Tink had a natural gymnastic agility and wanted to be a gym mistress but such opportunity never came; there was a war on. She left school at 16 to start work at Derby's telecommunications centre. Cycling then became her prime recreational sport and provided energetic introduction to the hills and dales of her native Derbyshire. She loved the hills, their rocky tors, so it was almost a natural progression from cycling to climbing.

Late in 1943, after attending a Walter Poucher lecture and marvelling at his wonderful colour slides of Snowdonia, two cycling-club friends suggested going to North Wales for Christmas; they even managed to procure some second hand, clinker nailed boots and a rucksack too. Our journey to Wales at Christmas was by a mixture of trains and bike, to reduce cost and provide transport to get to those mountains. The first was rocky Tryfan by its Heather Terrace. Next we scrambled up Crib Goch and over the Crazy Pinnacles to reach the summit of Snowdon. On our last day, in mist and rain, we went up Moel Siabod. These three, wonderful, mountain days made the light shine brightly for Tinkerbell; she lost the gossamer mantle of Peter Pan's capricious little fairy companion to become more mature Veronica, her proper name, later shortened to Ronnie. Soon in 1944 our roped rock-climbing began at Cromford's Black Rocks; the light shone brighter still.

There followed four full years of intense climbing activity; intense, that is, by standards of the day, for wartime im-posed its own restrictions and working hours, longer then, were spread over six days, sometimes seven.Black Rocks was the nearest crag and became our most frequent haunt where, occasionally, one might meet other climbers; the Dyke brothers, who cycled from Mansfield, or Ernie Phillips, (whom Ronnie later married), he cycled out too, from Burton-on-Trent. Sometimes we would go further, to Cratcliffe, but visits to more distant gritstone crags and to Wales or the Lake District were rare and usually confined to holidays.

Peter Harding on the first ascent of Black Rocks'Promontory Traverse,July 1945.Photo: Ernie Phillips
By 1945, a small group of Black Rocks habitues, Veronica Lee, Johnny Wellburn, Tony Taylor and me, with a young newcomer called A. J. J.Moulam, formed the Stonnis Club, (Stonnis being the old local name for Black Rocks). It proved to be a stimulus for the climbing there; Ronnie was soon the first woman climber to complete all the existing routes, leading most of them. The quest for new lines then began and she was in on the first ascents of Moulam's Green Crack, V.J.Crack and a hard climb we named Lean Man's Superdirect. Later this was found to have been led, 15 years earlier, by Alf Bridge. His second, Ivan Waller, considered it to be unjustifiably severe and left it unrecorded.

Ronnie was now climbing to a very high standard and it was fascinating to study her technique. Due to her diminutive build she developed a style all of her own. Cycling had already given good stamina and a steadiness of leg which enabled her to balance on the smallest holds, in rubbers or in nails. Light of weight combined with strong arms gave exceptional power to weight ratio. But her speciality was `mantelshelving`; this was practiced with either hand until it could be performed on steep slabs or walls using only the slightest undulations in their surface. In this way she managed to climb pitches where the normal holds were spaced well beyond her reach, simply by making intermediate mantelshelf moves. They often looked impossible.

For dealing with cracks, of course, she knew the secret of hand-jamming, in the days when so few climbers did. Without doubt at this time she was one of the leading women climbers and it was on gritstone and sandstone where Ronnie really excelled, competently following climbs which were then at the very highest grade of difficulty; Frank Elliott's Unconquerable at Cratcliffe, Jim Birkett's Morgue Slab on Helsby, (a second ascent), the Promontory Buttress at Black Rocks where she seconded Norman Millward's third independent traverse, (the first by a woman), and Goliath's Groove on Stanage. However, the crowning exploit, one which confirmed her as the top woman gritstoner, was on Suicide Wall at Cratcliffe when, in May 1946, she seconded its first ascent. During those years a Stonnis Club guide to Cratcliffe and Black Rocks had been compiled by Tony Moulam and myself, with Ronnie giving great help and support.

She was presented with her own, personal, leather-bound copy and in 1948. I borrowed it back, (it was the only copy still intact), for updating and later publication by the Climbers' Club. Afterwards our paths diverged and I only saw her again on two or three isolated occasions though she continued to take an active interest in climbing for many years, first with the Valkyrie Club, (forerunner of the Rock and Ice), then later joining the Oread. Some years ago, at an Oread dinner, she told me her interest had moved on from climbing to skiing, the enthusiasm with which she talked on skiing showed the light still shone.

At some more recent time the light failed and earlier this year, in May, just 41 years after her brilliant conquest of Cratcliffe's Suicide Wall, Ronnie found the wall of life too steep and escaped from it, tragically, incredibly, by suicide.

Author Peter Harding at the Roaches in 1995:Photo-Gordon Stainforth

In every generation of climbers, bright stars emerge to shoot across the mountain firmament then fade and disappear. Their brilliance is not always reflected by lists of new routes led, but sometimes in the memories of friends,. and by the light they shed. Tinkerbell was such as star. 

Peter Harding: First published in High November 1987