Friday, 23 June 2017

Climbing in the War Years

At the end of a month of glorious weather in August 1939, when the only clouds were those of impending war in Europe, My wife Joy and I were walking with the Lake District artist Heaton Cooper, down Far Easedale, after a relaxed day's climbing on Lining Crag, below Greenup Edge. Only the day beforehand I had received a telegram, awaiting on our return to the Old Dungeon Ghyll from a day spent climbing on Gimmer Crag. I was instructed to report at Greenock on 2nd September, only three days later, to join the first troop convoy of the war.

I was due to sail on 3rd September, the third anniversary of our marriage.We strolled down the dale with a deep sense of things ending; of parting and uncertainty about the future. I recall saying to Joy: "Whatever else changes, these hills will still be the same when it's all over." 

Self-evident though they were, these words implied the fun we had enjoyed during July and August of that year. We had rented a bungalow at Braithwaite, and later taken a cottage in Grasmere, after returning from India. Our stay in the Lakes had been intended as a retreat from my studies for the Army Staff college exams. But as the days passed, bringing war even closer, that work became ever more irrelevant. In fact, we spent everyday climbing during those eight weeks; I still have the long list of climbs we did during that run-up to the declaration of war. The prospect of an end to those happy days, and to other days spent in Snowdonia during our three years of marriage, weighed heavily on our minds on our way back to Grasmere.

As things turned out, I had a rather good war as far as the mountains were concerned. I ran a training course at Helyg for members of my Brigade, and trained Commandos to climb in the Cairngorms and Snowdonia, and overseas there were times spent on Olympus, Athos and in the Appenines. There were opportunities to ski in the Vermion mountains, in the Peleponnese and on the hills surrounding Athens. But most memorable were the brief opportunities to return with Joy to the Lakes and North Wales during spells of leave from abroad. The first of these occasions was, to say the least of it, unfortunate. I had returned from India during the summer of 1940, and our first chance to return to the hills was in December of that year. We were expecting our second child early in 1941, so Joy would not be climbing and we would not go far afield.

We decided to spend the day following our arrival at Ogwen Cottage in the area surrounding Llyn Bochlwyd. It was one of those rare mid-winter days, with a clear sky after an overnight frost. Aware of my lack of form after 12 months since I had last climbed; conscious, too, of my forthcoming paternal responsibility, I resolved to do only a few modest climbs. I soloed happily up several routes on Bochlwyd Buttress, and moved on up to the Alphabet Slab on Glyder Fach. Beta and Delta presented no problems. It was now past mid-day; time to rejoin Joy, who was patiently waiting for me beside Llyn Bochlwyd. Should I do one more climb? 

With growing confidence I started up Alpha. All went well until I reached the final pitch, which I remember as requiring a pull-up on small holds from an exiguous stance. Alas! I lacked the strength to make it. With a sense of resignation about the inevitable outcome, I lowered myself gingerly to the small ledge where I had stood. Once again I tried to pull up, yet knowing the hopelessness of it. This time toes failed to find the stance, and I was 'off'. I fell.... the grey rock flashing past my vision like the walls of a lift when you descend to the basement. There was no sense of fear. I felt — or was aware of — a terrific bang, before floating into nothingness. I had fallen 100 feet before hitting the screes, and may have rolled a few more yards down the slope. Close by were the rucksacks of a CUMC party who were engaged on the Direct Route. They found me a further impediment to their baggage when they returned from their climb.

Eventually help arrived from the valley in the persons of a policeman and a doctor from Bethesda; mountain rescue was not an organised business in those days. With the Cambridge party acting as carriers of the stretcher which had been brought up from below, and with Joy in close attendance, we descended to the road. So much for paternal responsibility! A year later, in December 1941, I had recovered from the accident and we were again staying at Ogwen Cottage. Once again it was a perfect winter day when we prepared to start out on what, in view of the limited daylight hours, was a somewhat ambitious programme. We proposed to cross Bwlch Tryfan on our way to Lliwedd, climb the East Buttress via the Avalanche Route, traverse Snowdon, Crib y Ddysgl and Crib Goch and return to the cottage: all this was on foot, of course, for we had no car in those days. This time we had a companion. Marco Pallis was a climber with Himalayan experience; he had climbed in Sikkim with Freddie Spencer-Chapman. He had also led an expedition to the Gangotri area of the Central Himalaya in 1933.

Llyn Bochlwyd
He was also a competent rock climber, who had pioneered Birthday Crack on Clogwyn du'r Arddu with Colin Kirkus and Maurice Linnell. From his Himalayan experience he had adopted the Buddhist faith which, I suspect, had some bearing on our fortunes during that December day; he was imperturbable and oblivious to the passage of time.

Joy and I had planned an early start, but Marco arrived very late and it was mid-day before we were able to leave the cottage. It took us three and a half hours to reach the foot of Lliwedd. Marco was out of practice and unfit, so we made slow progress on the climb. By the time we had finished the route we were in total darkness, and had some difficulty in climbing the easy Terminal Arete. On the summit of the East Peak, having no torches, we were in real trouble. To continue over Snowdon and along the Horseshoe ridge was out of the question. Indeed, so minimal was our vision that we resorted to crawling on hands and knees, hopefully heading for the scree gully leading down to Llyn Llydaw, anticipating disaster from a fall over some minor crag on our way. During the descent Marco sprained an ankle, making progress even more snail-like.

At Pen y Gwryd we had a stroke of luck when we met a member of the Home Guard coming out of the hotel, who gave us a lift to Capel Curig. Here, by another fortunate coincidence, a good samaritan appeared in the person of Ifan Roberts, a local quarryman and botanist who was to become a good friend to myself and many other climbers. He was on his way home after duty as a member of the Observer Corps and he, in turn, gave us a further lift to Ogwen Cottage. It was nearly 2am. Great was the relief of Mrs Williams and her daughter, who were just about to report our absence to the police. I recall that episode with affection and respect for Marco Pallis, whose serenity and patience throughout the expedition was an object lesson to myself. And there were other friends who joined us during further visits to Snowdonia, before I was again posted overseas in 1943.

Indeed, our climbs, enjoyable though some of them were, were less important than the company we kept. I remember a splendid day in the Great Gully on Craig y Isfa with Alf Bridge. Alf, a perfectionist, was a dynamic and loveable character, who resigned at various times, from both the Climbers' Club and the Alpine Club on matters of principle, but remained a close friend of many climbers. He had helped me run the training course at Helyg and was later to play a vital role in the assembly and dispatch of our oxygen equipment on Everest in 1953. I recall a much smaller climb with Wilfred Noyce during that Helyg course: on Chalkren Stairs, Gallt yr Ogof, when he, a brilliant rock climber, 'came off' while climbing the final slab, and I had the privilege of holding his fall and then giving him a top-rope! During the Commando courses I enjoyed the company of Frank Smythe of Everest 1933 fame, and David Cox. Frank, a gentle and most unwar-like person, was commandant of the Commando and Snow Warfare school. He was a member of the party which made the first ascent of Longland's on Clogwyn du'r Arddu; but he, like Marco, was no longer in his prime on hard rock.

1963 Everest reunion at the Pen yr Gwryd

With David Cox I did a number of climbs from our Commando Training base at Braemar. I also recall a very pleasant route we did on Craig yr Isfa, in the Arch Gully area of the crag. For David, Wilfred and myself, those years marked the beginning of a very happy partnership after the war, in Britain and in the Alps. With Wilf, that shared experience later extended to the Himalaya and the Pamirs. I remember how peaceful were the hills in wartime.

How remote they were from the global conflict. In Snowdonia, the roads were narrow and winding in those days, bordered by the ancient dry stone walls and burdened by a negligible flow of traffic. No tourist industry brought visitors in their thousands at at weekends to the 'honey-pot' areas of Beddgelert, Capel Curig, Betws y Coed, Pen y Pass and Llanberis. There were few climbers or walkers around. Apart from mainly sea training orientated Outward Bound Centre at Aberdovey, no activity centres had been established, to add their colourful anoraks to the scenery and to create congestion on the more popular climbs. Plas y Brenin was still the historic Royal Hotel. At Pen y Pass, the Gorfwysfa Hotel, famed for the reunions convened by Geoffrey Winthrop Young at Easter, was still in business.Ogwen Cottage was still a humble inn for the likes of Joy and me.

The mountains were not under threat from new hydro-electric schemes or other equally unfriendly development. There was no perceived need for planning controls; it would only be a decade later that the Lake District and Snowdonia would be designated as National Parks. When we were able to return to those hills in 1946, the words I spoke on the way down from Far Easedale on that glorious evening at the end of August 1939 were still true.....'These hills will still be the same when it's all over." 

John Hunt: First published as 'Some memories of climbing in war time' in the CCJ 1995