Friday, 1 September 2017

They Took Me Climbing!

Here is another of those excellent short stories by Kevin FitzGerald, which while continuing his theme that ours is a ludicrous sport, hints that it might perhaps be something rather more.

Twenty five years ago there were some minor differences in what I believe is called 'the climbing scene' from what you would find in the North Wales of today. For example all the inns and hotels, all the eating places had a notice outside the public rooms, 'No nailed boots beyond this point, please', and there were various regulations, now deemed absurd, like putting on some kind of jacket if you were having a meal. But the men and women and the talk were all much the same, with one major difference. There was an immense amount of evening- indeed practically all night, activity. Everyone, but everyone, indulged in some eccentric display of skill or feat of strength. Groups took off at midnight to run round the Snowdon Horseshoe by moonlight; rooms were traversed, and chairs climbed round; loops of rope were climbed through, and wrist grips exchanged; heads were balanced on, and impossible steps were made across unbridgeable fireplaces.

Dead bodies were simulated and lifted, knots were practised, and peculiar athletic challenges were issued and at once accepted. People raced each other over the Glyders in the dark, or found out who could run from Pen-y-Gwryd to Pen-y-Pass and back in the fastest time. Much later, in the early sixties, the Editor of this Journal* was unbeatable at that particular exercise. There were not so many of us, of course. That was the real secret. We all knew each other, were glad to be meeting each other again and always felt in the mood for nonsense. I remember one such week-end of activity with peculiar intensity, largely I think because it created more confused disturbance in a limited space than I would have believed possible, and because it produced a brand new climber of all round excellence from the unlikeliest piece of material, other than myself, I have ever encountered in the mountain world. It all took place at PyG and it centred on a bag of golf clubs.

It was early winter, and half a dozen of us had been walking over Carnedd Llewelyn, enjoying on the return journey a marvellous snow glissade nearly half a mile in length. We were all in high spirits, kicked off our boots in the bar and sat round in stockings waiting our turn for a hot bath and talking the same nonsense you would hear today. There was a little man in a corner who sat watching us and saying nothing. He was wearing (I can see it still) a rather nice suit of dark grey with beautifully polished brown shoes and he had what I think is still called a 'crisp' military moustache. We were all in breeches and anoraks, one or two of us wearing the red stockings now somewhat out of fashion but then signalling that the wearer had made a first ascent of some importance. The little man must have thought that he had wandered into the clowns changing room in a circus. All of a sudden he spoke. 'What's the golf like round here?' he asked.

In those days he might just as well have asked if anyone had a boa constrictor they were not using, and he produced what is still called I think 'a stunned silence'. No such question can ever have been asked before in that place although I have since heard people there talking about fishing, the archaeological interests of the neighbourhood, and whether anyone would care to make up a four at bridge. But in those days if you were not climbing or walking, or preparing to do either, or keeping fit for both, you had no business in that part of the world at all. We all looked at the little man in silence. Then someone said, 'I've heard that there is a golf course at Harlech and I've been told there's something of the sort down in Bangor'. 'No,' the little man said, 'I mean round here. I'm told there's a lot of good golf round here.

Two of my friends are arriving in Capel tomorrow and they've told me to be sure and bring my clubs'. Even in those far off days, five years before Everest, I was pretty old to be in that company at all and I thought perhaps I ought to speak first. I remember so well that as I replied one of our future 'greats' was working his way round the specially strengthened picture rail in the old fashioned bar of those days. He had just passed the cash register and, in accordance with strict custom, had rung up `No Sale' with his stockinged right foot big toe.

You had to do that or your traverse didn't count. 'There's no golf immediately round here,' I began in my fatherly way, 'this is a climbing inn and everyone who stays here, or comes in for a meal or a drink, either climbs or walks.' `I think you are mistaken,' the little man said, 'my friends are very reliable.' We left it at that and I recall that after dinner we all tried climbing round a chair brought in from the kitchen. The little man watched these antics for a bit and then got up to go to bed. 'This place seems like a mad house to me,' he said, quite mildly, as he left the bar. We instantly forgot about him. The following day we all went off to Tremadoc, those admirable 'wet day on Snowdon' cliffs discovered by Dave Thomas flying over them during the War.

We got back late, just after the early winter dark, and the little man was sitting in the bar alone. He was a terrifying sight, white as a sheet, filthy dirty, his hands all scratched, a pair of flannel trousers ripped to pieces about his knees. He looked as though he had been run over and, indeed, I thought that was what had happened to him. I asked him if he was all right. 'I think so,' he said, 'but you were quite right yesterday —there is no golf round here. They took me climbing.'
I addressed him with great seriousness, and with all the earnestness I could get into my voice. 'Get away from here,' I said. 'One more experience, just one, and you will never escape from these people for the rest of your life. You will never escape from places like this, or worse. You will always be wet, cold, and in misery. All your friends will be ghastly fit men running up and down mountains for what they call fun. In all probability your wife, if you have one, will divorce you within the next couple of years; you will get fond of obscenities like tents and packed lunches, you will take great rucksacks with you wherever you go and they will be filled with rotting meat and Kendal Mint Cake, if you know what that is. Naturally, arriving like that, you will be refused admittance at all civilised lodging or eating houses throughout the world. You will have to know about map reading and the setting of compasses.' I almost went down on my knees to this little torn-to-pieces man. 'Go out into freedom,' I implored him, 'go out into safety and comfort, go back to a loving wife'. I took a deep breath and uttered blasphemy for his battered sake, 'Go back to some bloody golf course,' I cried, almost shouting, 'and be happy'. 

Not tonight,' he said, 'I'm too tired, too much hurt.' We all went into dinner. That night there was 'traversing' in the bar. Several people had got round and I, as usual, had fallen off, only, that time, hurting an ankle a little bit. Everyone was pretty happy.

Suddenly there was a disturbance; the little man had begun shouting. 'Damn and blast you all,' he cried, 'every last one of you'. He kicked off a slipper. 'And damn and blast this place and every place like it in the whole wide world.' He stood up in his socks and flung himself at the picture rail, muttering curses all the way round, but never touching the floor. He arrived at the cash register and I expected to see him lash out at it. Instead, with a most dreadful and sinister smile, he looked down over his feet and, with an infinity of care, rang up 'No Sale' with his right foot big toe.

He completed the traverse and sat down by his slippers. 'So much for all that blankety stuff,' he said, 'And so much for all of you. Good-bye'. He limped out of the bar. But it's nice to be right sometimes. It's not five months since I last saw that chap, and I see him pretty often as the years go by. He belongs to most of the recognised climbing clubs and organizations. I always say the same thing when we meet, and I said it then. 'How's the golf going,' I asked him, 'Not too good,' he replied as he always does, a man who hasn't touched a club for a quarter of a century, 'but I tell you what, Kevin.

That climb on El Capitan they call The Fairway is tremendous. It's miles above my standard now but at least I've seen it, and been on the first pitch and a bit of the second. Talk about hard!' `I don't know about it,' I said, 'but I suppose it's named after one of those big chaps, Nicklaus, Palmer, or Jacklin; one of those'. `Oh them,' he said, stooping to his boots, 'imagine footling around on some golf course when you could be walking about on a hill.' He went off to have a bath. Even his language had improved.

Kevin FitzGerald insists that the whole story is true — The chap DID come to play golf, he DID get taken up East Gully — and I never saw a man so frightened as he was that night. I DID beg him to go away, he DID fall off the boulder and he DID make the traverse round the bar. In later life, he preferred sleeping out of doors in a bag, and two years ago — while we were having lunch in London —he actually said to me 'let's do something bloody silly, like walking from here to Wales.... Now!'

Kevin Fitzgerald: First published as 'Be sure to bring your clubs' in * Mountain Life-April/May 1975