Friday, 19 May 2017

The Man Who Abolished Guilt

"Yes, I know there's a gap in the market, but is there a market in the gap?"... "You bet there is," Johnny replied, "...'think of all the men you know — fathers, husbands, students, workers, wankers — whatever hat they are wearing, guilt keeps them in line. It must be the same with climbers." I gulped nervously. In this mood Johnny's imagination bounced about like a fire-cracker. You were never sure where his comments were going to land. "Look," he explained maliciously, "think of you and Jane. Guilt rules your relationship.

Each time you go climbing and leave her alone with the kids for the weekend, you spend the next week in a frenzy of 'new mannery', beating your breast and stroking hers, trying to amass sufficient points to cancel out your guilt and her anger." "Nonsense," I barked back, "it's called give and take — something you wouldn't know too much about." Johnny tilted his head and grinned, pleased to have drawn first blood. "Listen dummy," he purred, "it won't work. You are so transparent there isn't even a watermark.

‘Do you think she doesn't know that all your lovey dovey stuff is a con — the price you are prepared to pay for a week-end away from her. God — it's positively evil. When was the last time you were nice to her spontaneously, rather than as a crafty scheme to stack up the points?" Ouch — on the chin — footwork — get out of range. When Johnny punches like that I leave the ring.

"That's what marriage is like," I countered weakly, "without guilt there can be no morality. You're right, It does keep us in line." "You are full of shit" he stated sadly as if I was a no-hope case. "I'm going to abolish guilt from my life. It's a dangerous emotion. You can be paralysed by it, and deceived by it. And in the end it's just window-dressing. Most people parade their guilt to show how 'right-on' they are, but when it comes to the crunch it means nothing. Selfishness rules. Best have the reality on the table."

It took Dostoevsky 700 pages to say something similar. I felt as if his collected works in hardback had fallen upon me. In the years to come I often remembered Johnny's fighting words. We met occasionally — on the crag or in the bar — and he never lost a chance to remind me that his memory was also good. He said that a cloak -remorse and lost opportunities- hung around me like mist on the Ben, and even used to sing me 'The Guilty One' by Jerry Lee Lewis to rub it in. Don't think I didn't try to change things.I didn’t like being under heavy manners like that. Jealousy and envy — no problem — seeing them off was easy, but the big G was a different matter.

Just as the old Soviet Union is finding out with virulent nationalism — something it thought had been relegated to the history books — guilt kept bouncing back in my life and slapping me across the face. Johnny, on the other hand, seemed to thrive on his diet of emotional lobotomy. Women, he said, liked his honesty.

"Make your wants explicit" he was fond of saying. "Then people can make up their own minds without bullshit." He was good on the rock as well. I guess most people have to jettison half the baggage they carry around in their heads to deal with climbings simplified reality. Johnny had done it already. He was always ready for the crux. You will understand by now that we are talking real love-hate' here. We were 'mates', but the chemistry was occult. Which probably explains why we climbed together so infrequently. Yes, our careers had swirled us in different directions — geographically, socially and financially — but the mountains span wider gaps.

As so often it was a funeral that united us. Among climbers no party or celebration seems able to issue an invitation with a greater attractive power. Across the windswept churchyard was ranged a class photograph from every corner of our contrasted lives, a unique cobweb of partners and memories from rock faces the length of the land, as if the names from the columns of my annotated guidebooks had all assembled. However at the end of the service, only one strand of the web was in my hand. "We must do a route" I found myself saying. "I've got the gear in my car" Johnny said. As always he was ready. The valley cliffs were damp and cold, but the west facing quarries beckoned. Johnny had done several first ascents in the early days, necky ungardened leads that had earned him a big reputation.

One of them, the ugly jumbled wall above the pool, still awaited a repeat. After the Ball Johnny had named it. I had tried it several times, but on each attempt midnight had always struck before I got committed. "Don't suppose you'd fancy a second ascent?" Johnny looked at me curiously. "You mean, would I take you up it?" he responded tartly. He led the first section in fine style, then disappeared from view above the overhang where the angle fell back. The upward movement of the ropes slowed to a halt and the half-way marking tapes seemed to shuttle-cock across my stitcht-plate.

Funny how sometimes the static flickers along the nylon. Geiger-counter palms can sense a leader's cry of desperation before your ears pick up the sound waves. The runners stopped him below the roof — an honest thumping fall, devoid of malice. May they always be so clean. "Not like I remember it" Johnny grunted. Up he went again. This time no wind-mills, just up-draught, surging to the top. "Shit — the whole top wall has been chipped." His anger crackled back down the rope, jump-leading through the metal in my hands.

Indeed it had. Hewn incisions cat's-eyed the vertical slate. I paused for a long time beneath them, searching for alternative holds. There were none. The wall was unclimbable without the chopped finger-pulls. "How did you do it on the first ascent, Johnny?" I shouted. His face craned over the rim, guilt-edged against the evening sky. "The loose flake has gone" he replied, "whoever chipped the holds must have pulled it off." "You did it, you bastard, you chipped that route. If that's how you live your guilt-free life, you can stuff it."

Johnny looked up startled, the rope half coiled across his hand and composure skidding across his face. A snarly smile fought to retain control; harsh words trying to accelerate out of danger. "Always so quick to judge, aren't you? Do you honestly believe that I would have taken you to the scene of my crime if it had been me? Today I fell off the first time trying it without the chiseled holds. Sure, I used them eventually, just like you. But on the first ascent the upper wall was unmarked — no chips — right? " It was hard to tell which was worse — the crime or the cover-up.

His own route description in the guidebook, extolling the quality of the rock, impaled the lie in the widening space between us. We walked back to the car-park in silence; my suspicion and his feigned betrayed friendship, eye-balling each other across the path. That's how it ended. We never climbed together again. Years later he called me out of the blue. "How about a weekend in the Lakes?"
Dave Cook: Photo Ian Smith
I prevaricated clumsily in reply. "Don't worry about the last time" Johnny urged, "life's too short. I bet you've been eaten up with guilt. No need. I forgot it straight away." "Forgot what" "Calling me a liar and a cheat among other things," he answered cheerily. "You are forgiven." 

I didn't go to the Lakes that weekend. 

Dave Cook: 
First Published in the CCJ 1991

Friday, 12 May 2017

Bill Tilman-The Last Hero? Two Book reviews


‘Put on a good pair of boots and walk out the door!’
‘The Nepal Himalaya 1952’ and ‘Ice with Everything 1974’ published by Lodestar Books and Vertebrate Publishing. £12 each in paperback.

These two volumes are the latest in a bold undertaking to re-publish the whole oeuvre of Tilman books; seven based on his mountain and eight about sailing/climbing adventures. Two such books, a mountain and a sailing one have been published every quarter since September 2015, and the whole will be completed in June 2017, when the fifteenth in the series, ‘Triumph and Tribulation’ is published, along with a reprint of the 1980 biography ‘High Mountains and  Cold  Seas’ by J R L Anderson. An imprint has been created especially to cover these publications, Tilman books, and as perfect bound paperbacks, the layout and styling plus the many maps and photographs belie what one normally expects from this design format. Each volume has a new Foreword, and in some cases an Afterword, written by those who knew Tilman or have a unique insight into his approach to climbing, sailing or navigation.

In the first of these two reviewed books, ‘Nepal Himalaya’ we celebrate the opening up of Nepal to climbing expeditions in 1949, and Tilman was one of the first to take advantage of this act of serendipity for a mountain explorer like himself. True to his long held belief in the lightweight approach, and along with four Sherpas (including Tenzing Norgay) he and a companion trekked into the Kathmandu Valley, then on to the Langtang and an exploration of the Ganesh Himal, before moving onto the Jugal range. Some minor peaks were climbed, but one quickly appreciates it is exploring that Tilman is really about. However he was back to the country in 1950 with more serious intent and in the company of Charles Evans and Jimmy Roberts, they first essayed Manaslu, but after a close look at its approaches decided to leave this ‘to better men!’ From where they moved on to the Annapurna range to attempt Annapurna lV, which they very nearly succeeded in climbing, driven back by bad weather with the serious climbing below them.

For me reading this section of the book was a memory arouser, for I knew both Evans and Roberts quite well. In 1964 at the end of the Gauri Sankar expedition, left behind in Kathmandu on my own to complete expedition chores, I often met up with Jimmy who was a permanent resident in the valley, and who it is fair to claim was the initial instigator of the now  popular activity of trekking in that country. And Charles I knew first from my days as Secretary of the Alpine Climbing Group from 1961 onwards but later when he was President of the Alpine Club and I was a committee member for my sins.

At the end of the 1950 season, Tilman met up with what might now be seen as one of the first trekking parties to the Solo Khumbu region and Everest, including the well known American mountaineer, Dr Charles Houston. Leaving behind the then little known Sherpa village of Namche Bazaar and its doughty inhabitants, the pair headed north to Pumori from off whose flanks they could look into the southern approaches to Everest, then a totally unknown prospect. Gazing as best they could into the mountains Western Cwm and up at the South Col with the finishing South-East ridge leading to the summit, they were none committal about the possibilities of success to climb the mountain from that approach. But Tilman does observe in ‘Nepal Himalaya’ that ‘Any party which pitches a tent in the Western Cwm, overhung as it is by two such tremendous walls, it might easily become their grave’. I guess a rather bald statement, but not a few Everest climbers have unfortunately found these words to be true.

This proved to be Tilman’s last outing for what he referred to in his own vein of self mockery, Himal Bill. He was finding that now into his ‘fifties, high altitude mountaineering was no longer for him, and typical of an honest review of his fading abilities in this respect, was that he finished ‘Nepal Himalaya’ with a quote from Beowulf, ‘Harder should be the spirit, the heart all the bolder, Courage the greater, as the strength grows less’. And with the following statement, ‘If a man feels he is failing to achieve this stern standard he should perhaps withdraw from such a field of high endeavour as the Himalaya’.

I got to know Tilman by persuading him to come and speak at a BMC National Mountaineering Conference in 1976. At which he displayed all the traits for which he had by then become legend. Speaking without any supporting materials (slides, photographs, music etc) he held the audience in high good humour with his talk, extolling the lightweight approach. He advised a full house at the Buxton Opera House, ‘to forget computers, forget sponsors, ignore-oxygen’ and whilst waving a small brown envelope observed ‘that any expedition that cannot be planned on the back of an envelope, is suffering from over organisation!’ Perhaps the outstanding quote from his spiel was his observation that ‘in 1938 on Everest the problem at 27,300ft was that I suddenly began to suffer from the Mountaineers disease. Namely an inability to put one foot in front of the other’ His writing is full of such quotable observations, and although it may now be an outdated prose style, it still fits the man and his life history perfectly.

But what can a man do turning away from exploring the Himalaya, who has been a heavily decorated war hero twice over (in both world wars), has lived an almost unprecedented life of adventure from his late teens; new routing in Africa, cycled alone across that continent, achieved such notable first ascents in the Himalaya as Nanda Devi (25,643ft), taken part in two pre war Everest expeditions, and spent much of his life exploring new terrain; in China, in Afghanistan, Assam and Burma. Tilman could not just settle down to being what we call in Yorkshire, a bun eater! No he took up sailing to enable him to access remote mountain areas, buying a boat, a pilot cutter Mischief.

This was the start of a whole new way of life, and it is impressive how quickly he mastered the navigational and boat know how to subsequently sail to Patagonia, where he crossed the vast ice cap, to Baffin Island making the first ascent of Mount Raleigh and sailing so many times to Greenland. In ‘Ice with Everything’ this book describes three of those latter journeys in 1971, 1972 and 1973. I had not read this his fourteenth work before, having stalled post reading two of his previous sailing ‘Mischief’ volumes, but once I did get into this work, I found it amusing(on occasion laugh out loud), in parts gripping, and in others a teach in about small boat sailing and how to navigate.

The first voyage in 1971 describes Tilman’s attempt to reach the remote and ice bound Scoresby Sound. His first such to try to reach this had cost him his first boat, Mischief in 1968. This is the largest fjord system in the world, and was named by the Whitby whaling captain, who first charted the coastline in 1822, and in 1971 Tilman was to be defeated once more in gaining entrance into the fjord by impenetrable sea ice. Refusing to give up his quest, he returned the following year when a series of unforeseen, but serious events ended by his second boat, ‘Sea Breeze’ being crushed between rocks and an ice floe. Fortunately no one was injured and the crew survived. So many of the Tilman stories are set around of how on his sea voyages he put together a crew, usually ad hoc, somebody knew someone who might be willing to take part in such a challenge. But on occasion he had to resort to advertising for the same in The Times, maybe Shackleton is most famous for his honest advert in this paper for a crew, but his advertisement has never been found.

Tilman’s however is well documented, ‘Hand (man) wanted for long voyages in small boat. No pay, no prospects, not much pleasure’. I guess recruiting in such a manner, you would be lucky to recruit star small boat sailors, in fact many who did sail with him he had to train in seamanship and hard living. He even had to suffer ‘a polite mutiny’ on one of his Greenland voyages, and stories emerged via malcontents that he was too demanding, impervious to living off hard tack, to the cold and difficult life conditions. But it cannot have been so bad for a mutual friend, Charles Marriott, sailed with Tilman four times, and when one realises that one of those journeys, sailing over 20,000 miles to Patagonia and back lasted for over a year, then they must have got along pretty well. Mind you Tilman did write that Charles was ‘more of an eccentric than himself’, which compliments my own memories of that great character.

Safely back in the UK he began a search for yet another boat, remarking ‘One cannot buy a biggish boat as if buying a piece of soap’. ‘The act is almost as irrevocable as marriage and should be given as much thought’. Pilot cutters were becoming rare, but after months of searching Tilman found yet another one, ‘Baroque’. And after much expense and refitting out of it’s on board facilities, in 1973 with a scratch crew he set off once more for West Greenland. Any such new boat; that is to a new owner needs like any other mode of transport to be run in. Reading Tilman, his boats almost seem to have separate lives of their own and be a part of his family. ‘Baroque’ over the next four years, sailed to Spitzbergen, East and West Greenland and in the year of his death to Iceland.

Tilman’s last voyage was in 1977 in his 80th year, when he was invited to be a crew member En Avant, skippered by one of his former young protégés Simon Richardson. This was to be a mountaineer’s journey to climb on Smith Island, in the far south Atlantic. They reached Rio de Janeiro successfully, but thereafter en route to the Falkland Islands to meet up with two New Zealand climbers, they disappeared without trace; perhaps, a fitting Viking type of a funeral ending for Tilman; but a tragedy for the mainly young crew and their families.

Reading the whole of Tilman’s works is a challenge. For a notoriously taciturn man he was an astonishingly prolific writer, but those of his books I have read; more than half of his output, they are always educational, funny and erudite. Even Shipton, his original mountaineering companion; who was an equally iconic figure in mountain exploration, and another fine writer, could not match Tilman in this respect. Many have wondered about what drove the man, certainly his early experiences in the First World War, into which he was pitched at 18 years of age, surviving despite being wounded, and fighting at the Somme and being twice awarded the Military Cross for bravery, must have had a real affect on his psyche. I am sure he will continue to be read when so many other explorer travel writers have faded into obscurity. His books are his memorial, one that will continue to enthuse and amuse mountaineers and sailors I believe for many generations yet to be born.

Dennis Gray 2017 


Friday, 5 May 2017

The First ascent of Suicide Wall

In the 1930s and 40s I fell deeply in love with Clogwyn y Geifr, otherwise known as 'The Kitchen Cliffs'. I haunted the place and was not really happy unless I was wading up through the vegetation of one of its messy, dirty routes. The classic Devil's Kitchen route I knew by heart, every handhold was engraved on my memory. I had been up or down it some 50 odd times, mostly in bad weather. We used nails on the Kitchen Cliffs, or sometimes socks, it never seemed dry enough for rubbers.

On one occasion I had 26 climbers on my rope. As soon as I had brought up a reliable second or third, I vacated the stance at the top of the cracks, waltzed over the traverse and ran down the track in order to ascend another route. I managed four routes that day before my last man had ascended the Kitchen Route. During one of my numerous outings to this delectable area, I met David Cox, who was the Commanding Officer of the advanced field training course stationed at Llanberis.

I had been introduced to some of his tutors, one of whom was a little chap named Chris Preston, who was a splendid climber. He soon shared my love for the Kitchen and we went up and down a few classic routes. On one of our descents from the Kitchen I pointed out a line on the right hand wall and mentioned to Chris that I thought it might go. No sooner said than we were roped up at the bottom, Chris, myself and Dan McKellar.

One and a half hours later we were at the top of the new route (which we subsequently called Advocate's Wall) congratulating ourselves on a fine new line which, for the Kitchen, was on sound rock. Chris Preston really impressed me. His climbing was so sure, so steady. His reading of a line of rock face was superb. Once embarked on a chosen line he rarely had to retreat.

I mentioned to David Cox that here was the man, if any, to solve the old problem of Suicide Wall. David agreed but stipulated, as Chris's Commanding Officer, that Chris should abseil the wall first to have a look at the proposed route. Some days later he did just this and pronounced the wall climbable. So, there and then some three or four of us roped up to Chris and he climbed the first pitch up to the ledge which we promptly labelled Preston's Ledge. Much to his dismay not one of us could follow. He decided against a solo ascent as he thought that the first 10ft off the ledge would be the crux of the climb and he would like a second man there.

 He gave a quick glance around the ledge and then called for a top rope and then proceeded to climb the second pitch faultlessly. On returning to Mother Earth, Chris told us that the ledge was completely devoid of belays and that there were no cracks for pitons. You must realise that pitons or pegs were not used very much in those days and if we had them we were not very expert in using them. The weeks that followed were mainly spent arguing as to how we could arrange a suitable belay on the ledge. Lump hammers and chisels were shouldered up in order to open up a crack but all that we succeeded in doing was to make a groove half and inch deep. There was some talk of using a 'beehive', which I understood was a plastic explosive, to blow a hole or crack in the wall or on the ledge.

Fortunately nothing came of this proposal and the whole problem was shelved for some weeks until one evening in a pub in Capel Curig someone mentioned that there was now a patch of damp on the wall. Bad weather would soon be along and unless we really had a go at it now it would probably get wetter and wetter and have to wait until next summer. That did it. Whether it was the numerous pints we had drunk or not we shall never know, but we all agreed that we were climbing as well as we ever should; we were fitter than when we had tried the route before; we could arrange some protection on the ledge when we got there and if we could not we would let Chris climb on a slack rope. He would hit the ground before he pulled us off. Mind you, this was entirely Chris's idea. He said that the first 10ft were the hardest and we reckoned that with two of us on the ledge we could protect Chris for that distance and afterwards he was on his own.

The next day saw a large party at the foot of the intended route. Chris, myself and Jack Haines were to be on the rope. Chris was soon up on the ledge and now it was my turn. We were all climbing in socks as the wall was slightly damp. I could not make head nor tail of the first few feet so elected to have a shoulder from Jack Haines, the third man. Once thus launched on the wall I proceeded up to the ledge and Chris, but I made heavy weather of it. I was over 40 and did not really try to keep very fit, apart from rock-climbing and many, many pints of beer. Jack came up as third man without a shoulder and suddenly there were three of us on the ledge. We busied ourselves trying to arrange a belay.

I eventually got myself tied on to a couple of pegs which were in about half an inch. Jack Haines, a big, powerful chap, was holding me as well. I was looking after the leader's rope. Away went Chris. Nowhere did he stop or retreat. He had made up his mind as to the correct line and he stuck to it. He was soon over the so-called crux - Jack and I breathed easier. Jack pointed to the pitons, one of which had already fallen out. Chris was now at the damp patch which, from below, looked desperate, but he did not stop, on and steadily on he went until he reached the top of the wall and disappeared looking for a belay.

He shouted "Come on". I threw away my fag end, tightened up my belt, said a few quiet things to myself such as "Why aren't you in a nice quiet pub just now" and started off up the second pitch. I nearly made the first 10ft, nearly. I think that if I could have made a few more moves I would have been all right but I came off. The holds to my 'aged' hands were nowhere near large enough. Back on the wall again, a pull for a few feet (Chris by now, had a lot of willing hands to assist) and then I climbed again. 

 The wet patch humbled me. I fell off three times and, in the end, was hauled up, exhausted and crestfallen. Haines came up without falling off and without a pull on the rope but he told me afterwards that he had a good tight rope. Chris Preston had made the whole climb look relatively easy, never seeming to stop or even hesitate. A wonderful climber. I wonder where he is now? 

RG Morsley: First Printed in the MCNW Journal. (Date Unknown) 

Friday, 28 April 2017

Return to the Buachaille

Len and I thought we knew everything that the Buachaille Etive Mòr can produce, but our old friend of innumerable ascents had a surprise in store for us on a bleak cloudy day when the air was full of damp as we donned our boots.We had been trying to arrange this climb for quite a while. Len had been out of action due to leg trouble and it was two years since we had been linked by the rope.

He had been telling me how much he had been missing rock climbing and the zest for living you feel at the end of a hard day.Right now our arrangement did not look quite so attractive as we slung our sacks and set off up the north-east face as we have done on many other ascents.

Len wrote the two-volume SMC Climbers’ Guide to Glencoe, so has a unique knowledge of these crags.As yet we hadn’t discussed what we might climb. We simply kept going until we found steepening chutes of grey-pink stones becoming rock and struck up until we found ourselves in Crowberry Gully.

A sharp exit on its left wall and we were soon at the foot of its retaining ridge which is one of the great classics of Scottish Mountaineering.It was climbed direct for the first time in 1900, four years after its very first ascent by its easiest route.

Normally we scramble up to Abraham’s Ledge without the rope, but we found the introductory cleft so awkwardly slippery that we were glad to rope up for the next 60 ft. pitch where I made full use of the excellent handgrips.My feet were slipping on holds that felt as if they had been soaped and I would have been glad of the friction of old-fashioned tricouni nails.

Len’s rubber soles were doing the same.“I’ve never known these rocks so greasy,” he said. “It must be the result of the summer we didn’t have.”He surprised me however by not taking the line of least resistance but setting off on Greig’s Ledge which has a very awkward and exposed move.

I was not sorry when its slippy surface persuaded him to take the easier and lower detour of the original route, though even it required exceptional care, it was so slimy.Back on the airy crest I took over the lead again hoping for better things on cleaner rock. This section is steep and pleasant as a rule, but not that day.

At the end of my rope I came on a young climber belayed on the only ledge watching his leader trying to make a turning movement round an edge which would take him out of sight of us.He made it just as Len joined me, but there seemed to be something holding him up beyond and all of us on the ledge were getting very cold.

Just as the leader was running out of rope he shouted that he had found a stance.“Come on!” he called to his second—easier said than done for the youngster hadn’t a clue how to tackle the problem. After he had swung off on the rope three times he shouted up that he wasn’t going to make it.

“You’ll have to,” came the not very reassuring answer. “You’ve got to get up.”Len and I had been quietly discussing an alternative route out to the right. He set off on it, while I took the worried climber in hand.

“There are some holds there that you’re not using. Now if you do what I tell you you’ll get up all right. Don’t hurry your movements. Place your feet, keep your balance and try to keep moving.”He nodded and then by way of explanation added, “I’ve never climbed before today.”

He did well, placing his feet as I had suggested, and while he was moving Len had gone right and was above him ready to give a hand if he needed it.

But he got over the bulge which was the crucial bit, and in two more rope-lengths we were all up, passing a third party on the ridge so that we had the delightful crest of the Crowberry Tower to ourselves, even if it was only a point in space with no horizon.

Now we were in great spirits. Even if the ascent had not been “enjoyable ” because of the grease, the concentration required had worked its magic. As we went back down by the Curved Ridge we felt we had had a great day.

Tom Weir : First Published in The Scots Magazine 1980

Friday, 21 April 2017

Hard Travelling

A recent trip with an enthusiastic group of Chinese climbers, reminded me of what the sport was like in the UK before ease of travel changed perceptions about the distant hills. On that occasion we travelled first across the huge city of Kunming by local transport to reach the northern bus station. Then by bus for several hours to reach Fuling County where we hitched a lift on a horse and cart to take us up a dirt road into the Fuling Hills of Yunnan. This for a weekend rock climbing in a deep limestone valley in that range. The journey took so long that there was only time to climb Saturday afternoon and Sunday morning before we had to start back for town. We slept out beneath an overhang and to say my companions were boisterous and good company is true.

No one owned a car; all had to work or study and this small group was made up of the only really active climbers in Yunnan, a province with a population as large as England. In recent climbing commentaries the reasons for the ever upward, spiralling standards of performance have been placed on technical and equipment innovation, and the modern trend for enthusiasts to eschew the bar for the climbing gym in search of greater strength and fitness. No commentator seems to appreciate that ease of access provided by modern transport has also helped to bring these developments about. This allied to the change in general affluence and with more leisure time being available to Joe climber. It is now feasible from the north of England via the budget airlines to have long weekends in Fontainebleau or Chamonix.

When I started to climb in 1947 at the age of eleven none of the activists I knew owned transport, petrol was rationed, and the only way we could travel was by train or bus. My first trip to the Peak District in 1948 from Leeds was like an expedition. We arrived by train in Sheffield and although we had heard of Stanage, we did not know where it was. We wandered around the city centre asking if anyone knew how to get there. Eventually a kindly soul (we must have struck it lucky for there is not many of them to be found in south Yorkshire) advised us to catch a bus out to a terminus above the Rivelin valley, and we walked from there. I guess that was a feature of the age, if you were not prepared to walk you did not get to climb. Until 1950 we were mostly confined to West Yorkshire outcrops, but at Whitsuntide that year petrol rationing finished and my companions and I discovered, hitch-hiking!

To the uninitiated this is a relatively simple activity, you stick out your thumb and if you're lucky a vehicle will pick you up. But nothing could be further from the truth! To be a good 'hitcher' requires tactical ability, territorial positioning and cunning to outwit any other would be riders. There were still very few cars on the road, but people were much more willing then to give lifts, and by this method I travelled most weekends to the Lake District, or Wales and for my main holidays visited Scotland. In 1951, aged 15, I hitched on my own to Glen Brittle, a journey which took three days and nights. You could reach parts of the Himalaya now in that time span. However hitch-hiking often proved to be slow and tedious, and soon rising affluence meant that nearly any climber who could raise the deposit, bought a motor-bike on the never-never (HP). For a while the adventures that this mode of transport inevitably provided many narrow escapes, and multiple crashes became centre stage in the climbing-raconteurs repertoire. This was the golden age of the British motor cycle industry with models like AJS, Norton, Ariel, Royal Enfield, BSA and Triumph dominating the market. And like my contemporaries I survived several crashes, including a five-bike pile up in Ennerdale.

Climbers and motorbikes proved to be a lethal combination and by the mid-fifties most had moved on to vans. These proved to be ideal for a weekend climbing, you could sleep in them, carry masses of gear and bodies and some had a surprising turn of speed. My first trip abroad was in 1955. Travelling by train via France I visited the Inn Valley, the Wilde Kaiser and the Dolomites. Such a journey was then a major undertaking, for the French Chemin de Fer was not then the TGV of today. The steam engine broke down at Chalons, and we had to wait 24 hours before a replacement could be found. In 1958 I went to Chamonix (with Joe Brown, his wife Valerie and Joe Smith) again by train. It took so long to get there that today you can reach Tibet in less time.

I bought my first motor car for thirty pounds off a school friend in 1955. A pre-war Y type Ford, and the following year I replaced it with an Austin A40 van. After the 1958 trip most of my continental journeys were by using private transport, but even then sometimes the delays were considerable. The worst being when the right wheel front suspension of my van literally collapsed, and I just made it to a garage north of Paris, limping through its front door, at which the wheel gave up the ghost and fell off! Much to the amusement of the French mechanics working there, who then took three days and hundreds of pounds to get me back out on the road again.

In 1961 I made my first visit to the Greater Ranges (shades of Rum Doodle?) and we travelled to Bombay by a first class passenger liner from Liverpool. A journey which took a month, and which was a revelation to such as myself, a working class lad from Leeds 6. We had to dress for dinner and on the return journey we even made it onto the Captain's table! By the time we reached India I had almost forgotten the purpose of our journey, and I have to confess I could have made a profession out of being a gigolo on such a liner. My second such journey to the Himalaya in 1964 was to be an epic of endurance, driving out from Leeds to Kathmandu, which took six weeks to complete. We needed to drive because of financial stringency. After many days in the mountains, I had to come home alone across Nepal and India to Bombay with our equipment, in heavy shipping crates (in that era you had to take out what you brought in or pay massive customs dues) and from there I sailed back to Liverpool.

The whole trip lasted for me from June 1964 until January of 1965. To greet me at the end of this marathon on the pier at Liverpool was one of our expedition members, Don Whillans. Who greeted me thus, 'Don't think have come to meet thee. Have just come to get me bloody gear!' At least you always knew where you stood with the Villain. In 1966 I made an equally long trip to South and North America. Sailing on a cargo boat from Liverpool to Peru, with the expedition equipment, on which I was a supernumerary, and for which I was paid one shilling (5p) a day. This again took a month and the only entertainment was to watch the same pornographic film every night which was shown in the galley. It was called 'The Witches Brew' and the crew knew what little dialogue there was just as well as the 'porn stars'.

After climbing in the Cordillera Blanca, and visiting Cuzco, Machu Picchu I set forth on my own to journey to Yosemite. I travelled via Ecuador, then on to Mexico City and from there, as my funds had dissipated, I had to hitch hike. It took me ten days to get to The Valley, a journey I will never forget, for once into the USA so many 'characters' picked me up that they are still etched on my consciousness almost forty years on. Such as a member of the John Birch Society who was armed ready to defend himself in case of race riots, and a gentle muscle Mary, a giant body builder from Los Angeles's Venice beach, an early member of the then fledgling Gay Liberation Front!

 I guess the 'sixties were probably the last decade when necessity forced climbers to undertake such lengthy journeys time-wise, but I do not envy modern day expedition members, for they often miss out on a possible wider experience by simply concentrating solely on their climbing objectives. Air travel is now so comparatively cheap and available, that in the time it took for us to drive to Kathmandu in 1964, they have been and come back. My last big journey in that decade was via another expedition to the Indian Himalaya in 1968, after which I set out on my own to travel the subcontinent north to south. I left Delhi in August and ten weeks later fetched up in Sri Lanka.

Travelling by bus and train I had of course adventures and I think damaged my digestive system irrevocably. In Madras having eaten curry every night for weeks, I decided on the ultimate—a Madrasi. The Indian curries you eat in the UK are nothing like the real thing, and so I wandered into a famous such restaurant in that city. When I ordered the waiter looked at me as if I was mad, 'Oh very very hot, Sahib!' he advised. Nonchalantly I passed this off with a `Jaldi!' and so the steaming concoction eventually arrived. It proved to be the atomic bomb of curries, but I could not lose face as the whole of the staff gathered to watch me eat it.

Somehow I managed to get most of it down but I have never really liked hot curries ever since. Like many other climbers before me, lack of funds forced me to undertake what were in retrospect very educational journeys. They opened my eyes to other cultures, other languages and to some of the problems facing us all as the citizens of a fast shrinking world, dogged by over population, poverty, disease, famines and a universal lack of access to education and health services, allied to long term environmental destruction and degradation.

Such journeys were also an adventure. And before anyone declares doubt about such a statement I can assure them that when I was hitching, on my own late one night at Fresno, California a huge gorilla of a guy ambled over out of the darkness and aggressively demanded I give him some 'chocolate', I was more frightened than I have ever been whilst actually climbing! 

Dennis Gray 2006: First Published in Loose Scree July 06 

Friday, 14 April 2017

Little Brown Jug

My first brush with Little Brown Jug was the worst. It happened on December 26th., 1962, the first day of the great freeze-up in that terrible winter that helped kill Sylvia Plath. In an excess of Christmas enthusiasm, Peter Biven and I decided to attempt the second ascent of Peter's high-level girdle of Bosigran, Diamond Tiara. In those days. Diamond Tiara seemed particularly well named; it was considered to be one of the hardest climbs on the cliff, and it was certainly the longest -nine hundred feet of Hard Very Severe. We took three days to complete it, but, for me, the first day was the nastiest since it entailed reversing part of the top slab of Little Brown Jug.

A blizzard was blowing across the top of the crag - so hard, mercifully, that none of the snow was sticking to the face. Even so, teetering with frozen fingers down the small, widely-spaced holds, with nothing but air between the lip of the slab and the wild sea below, was not quite what I had had in mind as a cure for turkey, Christmas pud and booze. 

Since then, I have climbed LBJ four times - with Peter again, with Mike Thompson, and twice with my then teenage son, Luke - and the slab has always given me a bad moment before I started up it, although each time it has seemed easier, despite the fact that, at my last ascent, I was unfit, overweight and fifty-five.  Knowing the route helps, of course, but pleasure helps even more. The top pitch of LBJ is one of the finest on Bosigran and, for me, Bosigran is the best of all possible places to climb. The granite is steep and faultless, the approach is short and horizontal, and the views are sensational: waves thundering in around Porthmoina Island, seabirds wheeling and crying, and, off to the west, headland succeeding headland, with Pendeen lighthouse sticking up like a white thumb against the horizon of the Atlantic.

Although I know, rationally, that I must have climbed on Bosigran on dull days or in the rain, all my recollections of the place, apart from that winter blizzard years ago, are of warm rock, blue sea and sunshine. LBJ combines all of Bosigran's best qualities: it is delicate, technical and strenuous by turns, and the rock is always steep and faultless. It begins at a smooth, pale wall that, at first glance, appears to be almost blank. But the line of little nicks that cross the wall diagonally to the left feel positive, even comfortable, to the fingers, and the angle is not as fierce as it looks from below. The upward traverse ends at a shallow, blackish corner below a vertical crack. The top of the crack overhangs slightly and is often damp, but it leads to a large ledge with a piton belay at its left end.

This belay is shared with three other climbs - Doorpost, Bow Wall and
Thin Wall Special - so, on a sunny holiday weekend, it can be as busy as Victoria Station at rush hour. The second pitch is the mixture as before: an ascending diagonal traverse - to the right this time - across a slabby wall that is sometimes wet. It is shorter than the first traverse, a little harder to start, but far easier to finish. It leads to a jumble of large blocks which are crossed by Doorway and Ledge climbs - another rush-hour tangle of ropes, but at least you have the belay to yourself.

The rock above overhangs and is as strenuous as it looks, as well as technical -hard for a short man to start, hard for a tall man to finish. A difficult layback up the blunt edge of the overhang brings your face level with a sloping shelf beneath an impending wall. At the back of the shelf, low down, is the little brown jug itself - a slot, like a miniature letter-box, to sink your fingertips in. The problem is to step up delicately onto the shelf while preventing the wall above from pushing you out of balance. In the wall at the upper end of the shelf, there is a piton for protection. Off to the left, and level with piton, a little lump of rock protrudes from the base of the slab above.

The lump is oddly shaped - like a stone gargoyle on a cathedral, with all its features smoothed away by the weather - and the move you have to make to reach it with your left foot is also odd - at once balancy, strenuous and committing. There are only little nicks on the slab above to help pull yourself across, while your right foot bridges out onto nothing in particular. Another nick, another pull, and you are standing on the stone head at the bottom of a steep slab. You move up the slab delicately, cautiously, on very small finger flakes. Halfway up, the footholds run out, but there is a vertical slot for the right hand which brings you to within a move or two of a large ledge and a belay. 

Above the ledge is another overhang, big and brutal and split by a rough crack. It is intimidating to start and far too steep to allow you to pause and insert pro-tection. But the edge of the crack is perfect for laybacking - up to the overhang, around it, and on up - laybacking all the way until you are standing upright in the sunshine among the mossy boulders on the top of the cliff. For myself, I can guarantee the sunshine. Ever since that first Christmas descent of the pitch, I would never again go near the route in bad weather. 

Al Alvarez 

Friday, 7 April 2017

The Huge Music

Dropping down from the craggy heights of Dyniewyd into the pastoral valley of Nantmor.
The car park near Gelli Iago was surprisingly full for the middle of the week. I had never considered this quiet land of modest whale backed hills and ewe sprinkled moors to be anything other than the haunt of the occasional iconoclastic rambler. After all, the nearby mountains of Yr Wyddfa, Moel Hebog and Moel Siabod would, I might have thought, offered themselves as more tempting targets for the typical Welsh peak bagger. I suppose the Gelli Iago track up Cnicht is a common approach to this popular wee peak so I reassured myself that most of the cars almost certainly belonged to walkers who at that very moment, were trudging up the rutted tracks and shifting scree which zig zagged up to Cnicht's crenellated ridge.

Nantmor ribbons through the quilted tapestry of Snowdonia like a gilded thread. A slumbering hint of wilderness which generally retains its character and tranquillity by virtue of its modest range of vertically challenged hills. Moel Meirch..Yr Arddu..Moel Dyniewyd and Mynydd Llyndy; minor stations of the cross when compared to the brooding massif to the north. Liam a son of fifteen years and a remarkably tolerant, accommodating and good humoured soul that you could wish to meet- considering the places I had dragged him up to!-accompanied me to this quiet backwater. Both encouraged by a rare window of good weather which had opened up within the generally dreary summer we had experienced so far. Leaving the old quarry we sheep tracked through the cropped pastures twixt Mynydd Llyndy and the shattered grey spoil heaps. Our destination hidden within the folding hummocks of bog cotton grasslands and the rusted outcrops where Nantmor's invasive rhododendrons wore their brightest colours.

The robust seed of these distant interlopers carried on the hard winds which came in from the Irish sea beyond the tapering mane of the Moelwynions and rooted within the poor earth in a display of tenacious colonisation. The land hereabouts is studded with old sheepfolds and the occasional crumbling hafod...a summer agrarian dwelling....which meld into the land like stone nests.Roofless and lifeless save the odd crow who preaches from the stone lintels and the world weary ewe who crawls in to die. One hafod we passed nestled impressively within the maw of a beetling cliff—both human and natural facades wrapped in the deep viridian cloak of rampant ivy. Tiny lizards exploded like rip-raps on the warm rocks as our passing shadows startled them into life. Striking west towards the sea, we fell under Llyndy's lower cliff..Craig Mwyner Crag of the miner..and continued up the purple slopes to reach the impressive upper cliff, now re-named Dyniewyd East by the Climbers' Club guide book team. 
Dyniewyd East: Paul Work's Llyndy Arete takes the obvious rib on the right 
The cliffs hereabouts were not known to me as a traditional climbing venue although I was aware that new router extrordinaire, Pat Littlejohn, who lived locally, had put up some new routes in the past five years. A new routes report in High had suggested that another team had put up the first new lines in nearly 50 years on Christmas Buttress. I vaguely recalled that an old Climbers' Club guide to South Snowdonia had mentioned something about Mynydd Llyndy but regardless of ancient and recent history, I was sure that Liam and I would get something new chalked up before the day was out. A bright sun set in and the clearest blue sky was not enough to overcome the westerly wind blowing in off the sea which cooled us to a degree where each was glad to have brought some warm togs. Pulling on an old baggy top and blowing on cold hands I weighed up the most obvious line, a short clean cracked arete which bookmarked the right edge of the cliff. It looked as if it must have been climbed before and turned out to be a little gem. I wrote this up as Spare Rib and felt it worthy of Mild VS before discovering that it was in fact a 1947 Paul Work route, Llyndy Arete which area guidebook compiler Dave Ferguson had graded at a more modest Severe. 

Paul Work was a minor figure in the Welsh climbing scene in the years around the second world war. A Merseysider who had the unique honour of being proposed and seconded for membership of The Climbers' Club by none other than Menlove Edwards and Colin Kirkus, fellow Merseysiders who dominated the pre-war climbing scene in North Wales. Paul Work lived with his wife Ruth Janette Ruck on an 83 acre smallholding in the shadow of Moel Dyniewyd. The harsh realities of wringing a life out of the poor earth of Dyniewyd's western fringes were recorded by Janette and published to popular acclaim in the 1960's. Place of Stones and Hill Farm Story chronicle lives of struggle yes, but also detail the ample rewards of living far from the urban sprawl. 

Time consuming as running a smallholding was, Ruth and Paul still found time to leave their agrarian responsibilities behind occasionally and climb amongst the red rocks of their enchanted valley. Paul Work's most popular climb - a relative term considering Nantmor's status as a climbing backwater - remains Christmas Climb, an excellent severe on Craig Dyniewyd, less than half a mile from their home at Carneddi. 

With Liam, I had the pleasure of putting up a direct VS version 12 months previously. This came fifty years after Paul Work had established the original. Culturally and philosophically, I felt a great empathy with Paul Work.The chronological dovetailing of our two routes gave me great satisfaction. Christmas Climb and Llyndy Arete were both put up in 1947, a time of ration books, bomb sites and the developing cold war. Political and social upheavals come and go but the stone remains. The climbers' words written indelibly upon a cold page. Apart from exploring Nantmor's lonely outcrops, Paul Work developed a serious - some would say perverse - interest in the equally unfashionable cliffs of Moel Hebog and Aberglaslyn Pass where he established the majority of his routes.

The empathy I felt with Paul Work extended beyond his enthusiasm for lonely, eternally neglected cliffs and outcrops to his rejection of the market orientated rat race where most of his contemporaries remained after the war. His rejection of the dominant social mores and lifestyle choices of that bleak era chimes with anyone who has ever been seduced by the lure of what we describe today as the alternative society. He may have been a minor figure in the climbing firmament but nevertheless, his life was an inspiration to anyone who values creativity and a quiet contented mind over material acquisitiveness and climbing the career ladder.

Liam Appleby leads Orbita watched by Henry Hobson
After completing the arete we tackled the capped left slab which gave another entertaining climb through the overhangs at 4c. An unusually clean edge which should have held a clump of vegetation alerted me to the fact that someone else had passed this way before? Later it transpired that guidebook contributor, Dave Ferguson had climbed this line although our lines had deviated above the overhangs. Finally we really did nail a new route. Tao of Stone was another VS which climbed a slab and shattered groove before finishing up a fine, airy arete. Two more new routes on the lower cliff were dispatched before we set off for home. Vasco VS and Orbita VD, were named after two ships my late father had served on. Both within site of Bryn Castell - Menlove's knoll -where I had scattered the old man's ashes and those of his trusty hound Gypsy, seven months previously.

The following week, Harold Drasdo was dragged along. My enthusiasm overcoming his well founded reservations based on previous experiences of my 'fantastic discoveries'! After completing Llyndy Arete I tried another couple of unclimbed lines but not without almost killing Harold when a ledge I was standing on suddenly departed from the cliff and just missed him by an arm's length! Giving up on the upper cliff we picked our way back down to the lower cliff to try out an obvious line which I noticed on the way up. This perfect, sharp edged arete was striking in its purity. It stood proud of the main body of the cliff like a serrated knife. Taking care with some more loose rock within the V groove at the base I bridged up and pulled out onto the arete. Easier climbing led to a half way ledge above which the arete narrowed to a razor's edge before gaining some girth near the top.

Unavoidable loose blocks prevented a direct ascent this time so I tackled a shallow groove on the left. Although short it was quite thin in places and demanded a long, committing reach to settle upon what appeared to be a good jug. When tired fingers finally grasped the thank-God hold it turned out to be a Jesus Christ! hold instead. That rattled alarmingly and threatened to cut short my pioneering activities in the blink of an eye. Affixed to the rock by faith and friction I managed to fiddle in a trusty moac and, breathing more easily, managed to swing up to reach better holds above. This line turned out to be Stonecrop El 5a.

It was clear that the line needed to be completed as first conceived. One week later I returned with Liam and his young friend Henry Hobson to straighten out Stonecrop. The fine line between life and death occasionally emerges from its cliché ridden lair to confront us with the chilling reality of its meaning. June 7th was just another summers day like any other—it could have been Liam's last on earth. I had decided to abseil down the arete to prise off the loose blocks which barred passage to the knife edge arete. Abseiling down a sharp arete is a tricky business. One slip and you find yourself hurtling into the confines of one of the retaining gullies. After struggling to find a sound anchor point I eventually set off and crept down towards the halfway ledge and began to prise loose the most prominent of the rotten flakes which stood like a fang at the base of the arete.

This fang, or perhaps tombstone, would have been more appropriate, rattled alarmingly in its socket. Some cursory pushing and pulling suggested that a good sharp shove should remove it from its root and send it spinning down towards the gully's scree fan 50' below. With Henry stationed across the gully taking photos, I instructed Liam at the base of the arete to take in the slack which trailed beneath me and tuck himself in around the corner at the foot of the arete. I gently rocked the flake back and forth until its unstoppable momentum gathered pace. Increasing the rocking action the fang finally was torn from its socket and, totally unexpectedly, took off on a gravity defying trajectory which was a full ninety degrees out of my calculations. Instead of exploding harmlessly in the gully below, the flake twisted and exploded into space, hurtling down the arete with the accuracy and intensity of a heat seeking missile. At the last nanosecond it glanced off the rock and exploded 'n a thousand sharp fragments through the branches of the holly tree at the base of the arete. 
Stonecrop Direct
Liam felt the screaming rush of air as the rock practically parted his hair. Despite being a fraction from certain death, Liam just brushed himself down and calmly stated ..that was a bit close! From my vantage point high above my heart pounded like a drum as the sulphurous smell of exploded rock drifted across the void between us. As calm descended I carried on and finished the line which turned out to be a fine little route...Stonecrop Direct VS-4b. The rest of the afternoon wound down as a series of repeat climbs and gentle rambling twixt crags. After repeating Paul Work's original Christmas Climb we followed the sheep tracks and streams to the old footpath which meanders through the oak woods beyond Carneddi, each lost in our own thoughts but gathered in the solidarity of our labours. Despite the scare I still love Nantmor as much as I ever did. Its texture woven from ancient skeins..its huge music filling an empty sky.

Through tumbled walls

Is accompanied
By lost jawbones of men
And lost fingernails of women
In the chapel of cloud
And the walled, horizon-woven choir
Of old cares
Darkening back to heather
The huge music of sightlines
Every step of the slopes
The messiah of opened rock  
Ted Hughes: Remains of Elmet- Faber & Faber

John Appleby: First published in Loose Scree. November 2005.

Friday, 31 March 2017

Shooting ghosts at midnight

THE last link with the splendid early days of British rock-climbing is still living quietly, surrounded by his mountain photographs, in a Keswick house that looks out over one of the finest views in England. He is Mr George D. Abraham, pioneer climber, photographs and writer and, at 93 years of age, perhaps the oldest living mountaineer.

Thousands of climbers must have been brought up on his British Mountain Climbs or The Complete Mountaineer and his other writings of half a century ago. And generations of mountaineers were first attracted to the sport by his thrilling photographs, still displayed in the windows of the family business at Keswick. But how many of the thousands of climbers who pass through Keswick each year on their way to the crags realise that the man who almost started it all is still alive, and that he still lifts his eyes every day to the hills that have been his whole life? When Mr George Abraham discovered his first new climb in 1890 — Sandbed Gill in St. John's-in-the-Vale near Keswick — there were only about 20 rock climbs in Lakeland. Today there must be nearly 2,000. He climbed with the legendary Owen Glynne Jones and knew all the great men who laid the foundations of our sport —W. P. Haskett Smith, Geoffrey Hastings, W. C. Slingsby, J. W. Robinson and many, many more. But all are long since dead and Mr Abraham is left alone with his memories of great adventures 50, 60, 70 and nearly 80 years ago. And Mr Abraham is not only the very last of the deerstalker and Norfolk jacket pioneers, but the first man to popularise the sport with his photographs and his writings.

With his younger brother, Ashley, now dead, he lugged heavy plate cameras into desperate places to picture — for the first time — determined looking men hanging on to rocks by their eyebrows. And the two — the Keswick Brothers as they were called — found new ways up crags in Scotland and Wales as well as in their native Lakeland.

When he was in his 70th year Mr Abraham decided to take his wife up one of his most famous discoveries — the Crowberry Ridge on Buchaille Etive above Glencoe. and she told me the other week: "When we were about half way up George said he knew of a good place where we could have our sandwiches, but it turned out to be a ledge about nine inches wide overlooking a vertical drop". This was one of his last climbs in this country but he was climbing and walking in Switzerland up to five years ago. Flying over there every summer and visiting old friends in Interlaken, Grindelwald and Zermatt. And there is a jagged aiguille high above Chamonix that still bears his name. Remarkably, his memories of adventurous days 50 or 60 years ago are almost as sharp today as the wonderful photographs that line the walls of his home.

He even remembers his very first climb nearly 80 years ago — Pillar Rock by the old Slab and Notch with the help of his mother's clothes line. "There were some Alpine Club men on the Rock that day" he told me "but instead of frightening us away or laughing at us they offered to lend us a proper rope and gave us all the help they could. I remember thinking at the time 'What wonderful men!' and I made up my mind there and then to become a climber". How well George Abraham succeeded in his aim may be seen from a study of the guide books for most of the climbing areas in Britain, for they show him as the leader of many first ascents and the companion of O. G. Jones in many of his more desperate adventures. One of these was the first ascent of Walker's Gully on Pillar Rock — "the last big unclimbed gully in Lakeland". They left Wasdale Head one January morning and walked to Pillar through a storm of rain and sleet — Jones, George Abraham and A. E. Field. The climb was iced with a waterfall splashing down between the icicles and the party was wet through and frozen before they reached the limit of previous exploration. Jones led with George Abraham as his second and to climb the crux took off his boots and his Norfolk jacket and used a rope loop to help him up the worst corner. And thus, with the gully era at an end, was the way opened for a start on the great face climbs of Lakeland and elsewhere.

This combination of Jones and Abraham was perhaps the most formidable in British mountaineering at that time and between them they privately laid plans for an attempt on Kangchenjunga in the Himalaya. But before they had finalised their plans Jones fell to his death on the Dent Blanche, and the development of British climbing was held back for years as a result. George Abraham tells me that Owen Glynne Jones was the finest climber he had ever known, either amateur or professional and he was including the great Siegfried Herford, leader of the first ascent of Central Buttress on Scafell. "Jones was immensely strong in the arms and fingers", he said, "but he was also extremely neat in his footwork. The young climbers of today still don't use their feet enough and rely too much on their arms". 

George Abraham was involved in a great deal of exploration in Skye and in the English North Wales his favourite climb remains The New West on Pillar in his beloved Lakeland. Discovered by him and his brother in 1901. And it is still a classic route — not a hard climb but the easiest way up difficult rock and a wonderfully natural route. It was the last climb the two brothers did together in the Lake District in 1936.

The very first new climb discovered in Lakeland by the Keswick Brothers was Sandbed Gill in the hills to the east of Keswick. They climbed it in 1890 when George was 19 and Ashley only 14 and Mr Abraham still clearly remembers the day. "But I can't remember what we called the climb except that it wasn't Sandbed Gill" he told me. "People often altered the names of our climbs and sometimes put our own name on them — those two buttresses on Dow Crag, for instance. We never called them Abraham's Routes".

"I remember having a drink in the gully above St. John's in the Vale when we came to a steep bit about half way up with a waterfall coming down it, and when we got up the pitch we found a dead sheep lying in the water. That night I was very sick". And he clearly remembers their first ascent of Walla Crag Gully in Borrowdale in 1892. On this climb the brothers made use for foothold of the withered root of an old holly tree projecting out of the vertical rock, and as their weight came on the twist of dying fibre it sagged but did not snap and they were able to reach the holds above. Perhaps 60 years later, after I had repeated the climb, I happened to be chatting to Mr Abraham about it. And his first question was: "Is the old root still there?" It was very pleasant to be able to tell him that it was, that it still creaked ominously, but that it seemed likely to remain there for ever. 

Sandbed Gill

Mr Abraham was born in Keswick and went to school in Manchester where he also studied art. His father, Mr George Perry Abraham, had established a photographic business in Keswick but George's first ambition was to paint Lakeland scenery rather than photograph it. In his study today hangs a splendid oil painting of Skiddaw as seen from Ashness Bridge done by young George when he was only 14. But eventually the young painter went into the family business where he was able to use his gift for colour in other ways. For example, another remarkable picture in his Keswick home is a magnificent photograph of the Matterhorn, taken by Mr Abraham and coloured by him — one of the best mountain pictures I have ever seen. His photographs mostly fall into three categories; exciting pictures of climbers balanced on tiny holds above tremendous drops or jammed in dark gullies or straddling knife edges of rock; studies of the giants of the Alps; and quieter, restful pictures of the Lakeland fells at all seasons of the year.

 But his most successful picture from a commercial point of view and perhaps his own favourite is a photograph of Crummock Water, titled 'Solitude', taken on a quiet November day 60 years ago. Copies have gone all over the world. To take their pictures on the Lakeland crags the Abraham brothers had to manhandle heavy equipment up the rocks and sometimes had to do their own developing and printing in shaded tents close to running water. Some pictures show the only photographs in existence of pioneers like Owen Glynne Jones and J. W. Robinson, the Cumberland climber, whose memorial is the Robinson Cairn near Pillar.

Now and Then: The Abraham Studios in Keswick now George Fishers.

Very many people have been attracted to the hills and crags by the Abraham pictures displayed outside their Keswick shop and the photograph that first drew me to the crags as a boy was one of a climber on Eagle's Nest Ridge on Great Gable. And Mr Abraham still remembers taking that picture and has told me the name of the climber and most of the details of that day generations ago. He and his brother began their climbing on Castle Head near Keswick in the days when rock climbing was a sport practised by only a handful of people.

Mostly university men. They first began exploring the smaller crags in and around Borrowdale and then, as they became more expert turned their attention to the biggest crags and then to Scotland and Wales. And all the time they were pioneering, photographing and writing. The crags looked much different in Mr Abraham's day. "There wasn't a scratch or a mark on them" he told me "and you could climb almost anywhere and be on rock where nobody had ever been before. But there was a lot more grass and lichen about and sometimes we had to do a lot of gardening to find the holds". Mr Abraham has held office in many of the big climbing clubs but he is chiefly proud of the fact that he is an honorary member of the Alpine Club. But he was also the founder president of the little Keswick Mountaineering Club and walked up to the club hut high in the hills for the opening ceremony when he was over 80.

The old man is also proud of a 'signed photograph of the late Prince Consort of the Netherlands. Many years ago he was asked to take the Prince for a walk over Scafell Pike, he and his wife, the former Queen Wilhelmina were holiday-making in the Lake District at the time. They went up from Seathwaite and came down into Langdale, the cars having been driven round. And as they came down Rossett Gill they found the Queen sitting sketching "in a tatty old woollen dress" not far from the sheepfold in Mickleden. Today Mr George D. Abraham can no longer climb the rocks and roam the fells but his memory and that of his brother will always be kept green among climbers by the well known Keswick Brothers climb on Scafell; two climbs on Dow Crag near Coniston that bear their name; many fine routes in Lakeland, Wales and Scotland and their photographs and writings. But Mr Abraham can still look out on the Lakeland he has helped so many people to enjoy and still look back with pleasure on many, many wonderful days of high adventure and mountain beauty. 

A Harry Griffin: First published in Climber: January 1965 

An exhibition of Abraham Brothers photographs is currently running at the Keswick Museum until May 12th. 

'This exhibition celebrates their work with a range of their iconic climbing photographs and some of the well loved views they popularised and which are still admired today. It accompanies Henry Iddon’s exhibition of photographs taken in 2016 with the same Instanto camera, and featuring contemporary celebrated climbers.' KM

Friday, 24 March 2017

Blind Date at Orco

Ed Drummond on Itaca Nel Sole: 'Possibly the most beautiful route at Orco':  Original Photo Dave Cook
'I 've broken my ankle bouldering at Hobson Moor Quarry," Pat Devine said apologetically over the phone. "So you won't be coming to Orco?" was my unnecessary and selfish reply. After a wet fortnight at Verdon and nine arm wrenching days at Finale on my cycle journey to the East, I was rather keen on some Alpine granite and my impatience showed. "No, but Ken's got a replacement from Tuesday night with whom you'll be delighted. I'm sworn to secrecy about the name. Just be at the sports fishing campsite as arranged." I feared the worst. Having closely observed the mischief making potential of the various climbing "hubs" with which Wilson has been associated, whether as axle or spoke, a link that extends back through Altrincham, the Crown at Highgate, Wolverhampton to Shirley in South Birmingham in the '50's, and now looks set to homogenise both sides of the Pennines via the "Tuesday Team". The idea of Ken Wilson playing Cilla Black filled me with foreboding.

In the days when records had flip sides, "Blind Date" was coupled with "Stood Up-Broken Hearted". My own experience had been a bit like that. On the other hand, who could it be? My imagination ran riot as images of some of the climbing characters I knew flicked through my mind. The telephone's warning clicks brought me back to reality. "OK, I'll be there," I said, none too sure. Some days, several hundred kilometres and thousands of feet of steep pedalling later, it seemed my worst fears were about to be realised. I had shared the brutally steep ascent from Noasca to Ceresole with a fair share of Turin's Sunday drivers, most of whom seemed to imagine themselves at Monza. The normally tranquil campsite rendezvous was adjacent to a major road widening scheme along which JCB's thundered. What's more, at 9pm there was still no sign of my "delightful partner". With a start I remembered it was Tuesday. Would the Tuesday Team be chuckling at this very moment over their beer?

Suddenly powerful headlights flooded the field and a lorry coughed to a halt.Vast amounts of gear thudded to the ground  from the cab followed by a tall figure anxiously scanning the darkness for a red bike. It was Ed Drummond. You could have knocked me down with a proverbial feather. Although I had met Ed briefly I knew him more by reputation — major new route pioneer, poet and politic who combined his sport with "climbs for causes." Pat was right in his judgement. I was delighted. Ed's name had not featured in my wildest fantasies.

And nor had Fissura Della Disperazione as a first route. As I had waited in the field below, looking up at the climbers on El Sergent's great southerly face. One thing had become very clear; this six hundred foot crackline, the best looking line on the cliff, had remained deserted. Al Churcher's guide book, "Italian Rock", provided the explanation, "man-eating off-widths and a grade of E 10 5b." (Yes E10!) There did seem to be a certain implication here. It didn't take us long to discover that if the grade was a printer's error, it was definitely a Freudian one. Ed, whose climbing at the time was restricted to soloing gritstone routes he had done many times before, was anxious to get on to the big ones, "the more like Yosemite the better." Disperazione fitted several bills. It was big, butch and very Californian. The so called 5b pitches were cruel, unrelenting, strenuous and poorly protected. We learned later that Galente's first ascent in 1974 had used gigantic bongs for aid. No wonder the Friends wouldn't fit . . .

Fortunately, the guide book described other, easier routes that ascended big cliffs, and next day we hitched down to Noasca and hiked up through glorious beechwoods to Torre Di Aimonin, another magnificent granite bastion further down the valley. Our objective was Pesce D ' Aprile, (April Fool), a six pitch Hard VS with an attractive dierdre as its crux. An old friend, Mike Kosterlitz who, while living in Italy twenty years ago had been an important pioneer of free climbing at Orco, had done the first ascent. The Curbar style crack by the campsite which bears his name is one of the most famous boulder problems in the country, and is highly at risk from the road works. Italy is reported to have been a "jam-free zone" before his arrival, although this is hard to credit. How did they get up all those towering cracklines in the Dolomites more than 50 years ago if this was the case? Pesce d'Aprile also introduced us to another Orco regular, the mid-afternoon thunderstorm. From then on no day, and usually no crux, was complete without the sudden building up of cloud, menacing tension and the sudden release of exploding rain. We saw too our first glimpse of the incredible wildlife for which the Gran Paradiso National park is famous.

A file of Chamois tiptoed across a vast bulge of holdless slab, breathtaking in their beauty and their audacity. It was at least E10! In the course of the next few days we saw Ibex, beaver, martens and several varieties of deer, foxes and goats. The Italians tend to shoot anything that moves, and some of these species would be extinct without the haven the park provides. In complete contrast to National Parks in Britain, there was an absence of regulation notices, waymarking and information points.

The only one we saw stated simply, "These fields belong to the mountain people — Respect please." Usually on a holiday in a new climbing area there is a route you cannot dodge. Guide book recommendations, compelling line and general reputation impel you towards it. In Orco, Itaca Nel Sole, on the SW face of Caporal, is the one. Indeed, Churcher's guide implies that you would be a halfwit not to do it. "A stupendous route . . . the most sought after classic in the whole of Orco . . . there is little on this side of the Atlantic to rival the experience it offers." Well, I suppose that's what guides are for! Itaca is really two routes, and this ideally suited our party. Ed could use the modern name Tempi Moderni and the completely free grade of 6A and I could revel in the old fashioned original E2 5c/A 1 .

Of course all routes have this option, but few have it legitimised in guide book print in quite the same stark way. In the event the rains came early on our first attempt, and we abseiled off after only one pitch. Saturday followed, and this time we were not alone. Indeed every climber in Turin seemed to have joined us. However, we were first. Picture the scene. Two elderly Brits head the queue; one of them determined to free climb every move, the other making less resolute efforts. Behind them a lengthening file of Italians grows, at first respectfully interested in this strange obsession, but later, especially as the afternoon thunderstorms threaten, increasingly impatient. The Brits take a belay in the wrong place. Smiling politely, the Italians begin to climb over them. The younger of the two Brits, wearing a beret, is at grips with the second 6A pitch. His friend, anxious that there should at least be the option of an unoccupied foothold for his partner, begins to speak harshly to the Italians.

To no avail. Clearly the race is on ...Ecco . . . Ecco. Amazingly, Anglo-Italian relations survive the conflict. On the summit Ed was soon negotiating a translation deal for his book, A Dream of White Horses, with those who minutes before had been elbowing him in the ribs. Our two main rivals for handholds insisted in showing us a brilliant descent route and pointing out Diedro Nanchez, another mega classic from the boots of Galente. They waited for us at the road, and soon we were exchanging beer instead of gloves. Nor was Italian kindness over that evening. As we cooked supper on our building site field a lone figure approached us out of the gloom. "Are you Cooki and Drummond, les Inglesis con bicyclette?" At least that was the gist of what he said. Loved ones back home, alarmed at our lack of contact had phoned Ken, who having been portrayed in a somewhat Machiavellian part hitherto, can now adopt a very commendable role in this story. A long series of international calls had followed, involving the Alpine Club, Italian Guides, and eventually our lone messenger who had driven up the valley in search of two Inglesis in a haystack.

We phoned home, heartened by this brilliant example of international climbing fellowship, not to mention detective work. Next day saw us back at El Sergent, to sample some of the shorter climbs. Orco is a conflict zone. An older, adventure climbing tradition rules this fantastic valley, but it is under pressure from modern sports climbing ways. The huge plaques of granite are climbable, but without bolts there will be few takers. With them, they will fall at the rush. Sergent, closest to the road, is where the issue will be decided.

Incastro Mania gave me the 100ft S-shaped 5b jam crack of my dreams, and Nichia Della Torture, E2 5c, another Galente 1970's classic, gave us both whatever a torture chamber gives you. So far no problem. We placed our own (ample) protection. Next came Paperinic Colpisce Ancora, E3 5c, no natural pro, but brilliant slab climbing. The ethical dilemma smote us in the head and below the belt. We clipped. We enjoyed. Fired up by these successes we wanted a big one for our last day. Ed, exultant at the re-discovery of his old "real climbing" form, suggested Casa Degli Specchi (The House of Mirrors) back on Torre di Aimonin. Myself, exultant at the possibility of discovering it, agreed.

Fissura Della Disperazione: Ed Drummond leads the 5c Chimney: Original photo Dave Cook

Although graded no harder than some of the things we had done already, (E4 6a), it obviously was. You just had to look at its first pitch zig zagging up an impending wall to know we were contemplating a different league. Ed led the crux in majestic fashion, and I, thrilled beyond belief at the spacewalking moves, managed to keep my hands away from the oh so tempting quickdraws. The next pitch, a big overhang, was my lead. Fortunately, right on cue, the downpour came .. . We met in Courgne that night, for a bye bye meal, Ed flying back to Derbyshire and myself pedalling East to Valle di Mello. The test of a blind date is if you make another. We already have. 

Dave Cook 

Originally published in Climber and Hillwalker-October 1989