Friday, 9 February 2018

The Iron Lung

In the late 1930s my brother Ron bought a motor-bike and sidecar for £5. It was an old side-valve Ariel which never went very fast but slogged away all day without any trouble. We called it the 'Iron Lung' and indeed it was a lung; a transport to the fresh clean air of the moorlands and the hills. Ron quickly learnt to drive and after a few sorties to such places as Ilkley and Almscliffe we travelled further to the Lake District and then to Scotland. It was on the Isle of Skye we saw our first rope slings and a strange artificial contraption called a karabiner in use by a small team of climbers. We were surprised that such artificial aids and safety devices could be used in a sport we felt depended mainly on personal skill, judgement of difficulties and conditions and assessment of one's own ability.

Years later I trained people in the use of such equipment but always felt strange carrying such extraneous gear as chocks, slings,karabiners, harnesses and helmets. However, though we climbed the hardest routes in Britain up to the coming of the war, they would not now rate as hard — but we had a grand time doing them, sometimes in rubbers, often in nails, occasionally solo, but generally the two of us together. Linked by a Beales three red-stranded hemp rope, there seemed to be no problem in the whole wide world other than getting up the next stretch of intriguing and alluring rock. In the 1930s Hopkinson's Crack, or Hoppy's, on Dow Crag above Goats Water was graded as the top severe on’t crag'. Though not the highest standard climb, the big corner crack gave a good natural line full of interest. The day before we climbed the crack on a winter’s day in 1937,my brother and I drove to Coniston Copper Mines Youth Hostel with the Iron Lung.

In those days powered vehicles were forbidden but Mrs. Mowitt, the hostel warden, always turned a blind eye if you were a climber. This was a piece of vital information passed on to us by Charlie Wilson and the Thompson brothers. The next morning was grey and cold and promised to remain so. Probably ice on the rocks, I thought, and shivered, but warmed up trudging over Little Arrow Moor, fortified by a breakfast of Mrs Mowitt's bacon and eggs. The crag was strangely silent, no wind, no sounds of running water, and no drip, drip of liquid from the overhangs. As I'd suspected the rocks, normally damp, were now glazed with ice.

Ron, as always, was not deterred, his decision brief and to the point. "No sense hanging about today. Leave the rope and we can each solo!" "Might as well," I agreed, "the hemp rope will soon be difficult to handle," but I felt distinctly unenthusiastic. In Easter Gully we arrived at the huge chockstone that blocks the way to the Amphitheatre and the foot of Hopkinson's. Its left-hand route known as the Cave Pitch was normally easy but this day fingers were quickly numbed and progress slow as with our nailed boots we kicked at the ice knobs to reach the rock beneath. Then at last there was the crack — direct, honest, not long, perhaps 150 ft., but long enough for such a day. Ron found no problems. "He's got methylated spirits in his bloodstream. Doesn't seem to feel the cold at all," I thought.

Three or four moves and my fingers were numb with cold, totally lacking in feeling. I beat them, blew on them, stuck each of my thumbs in my mouth feeling pain when the blood came throbbing back. I was thinking, "Don't hang about here. Ron's kicked ice from most of the footholds but there's still lots so kick again." I did so, each time making progress for a few more feet. At 80 ft the crack became really thin, the rock walls steepened and the small finger holds were covered with frost.

Finger nails scraped and dug into the verglas and I realised Ron's ascent had looked deceptively easy. Pausing for a re-warm, I looked around and across the gully and noted the rime on the Bandstand Wall. There was an increasing greyness to the day and between my feet I caught a fleeting glimpse of the fan of large boulders above Goats Water. I failed miserably on my first attempt at the final few feet of the crux. "Try facing right", advised Ron— and I did. That's how I climbed the crux, but seemed to gain most of my adhesion from my rough tweed jacket freezing to the crag. 

Once over the crux my spirits rose and we climbed immediately behind each other without pause following the crack to the last steep section but with good holds. Back at the Youth Hostel we quickly packed, mounted the Iron Lung and sped back home, having had from start to finish twenty-four hours of living life to the full. 

John Jackson:  
First published in the Fell and Rock Club Journal 2002