Friday, 9 April 2021

The Decline of Tremadoc


Harold Drasdo on an obscure and rarely ascended Tremadog VS 'Wanda'. Look out for Adders if you ever fancy having a go at this slice of Tremadog esoterica!

"Dismantle Milestone Buttress stone by stone, and rebuild it in the Pass, and you could blow up the rest of Tremadoc for all the good it is.". So spoke Pete Crew. Strange words, especially as more people climb there than ever before. Does not this popularity make Crew's words paradoxical to say the least? How is it possible to speak of "the decline" of a climbing area when the latest guide to it states that it is no longer a bad weather alternative, but an important centre in its own right? Every period in the development of Welsh rock climbing has featured certain crags as the venues for its greatest achievements, as a barometer of its whole conception of high standard climbing. For a brief period Tremadoc came near to fulfilling such a role, and perhaps it actually occupied such a position in the years at the end of the 1950s; between what has been called the 'Brown Era' and the more modern period that began in 1961 on Clogwyn dur Arddu. During those few years most of the hardest routes were climbed, and everyone wanted to know about Snowdon South. Today the barometer has certainly moved elsewhere, back to the big high cliffs, and to the area that may become Wales's next major bad weather centre, the sea cliffs of Anglesey.

There are some interesting reasons for the decline in status that Tremadoc has suffered. First an obvious one—there are not many good routes there. Some people have prophesied a trend away from majesty of line, and towards concern with technical detail, as the next stage of Welsh climbing. So far they have been wrong. Advanced technique has been used to open up better lines. Look at three of the technically most difficult routes in the' new Llanberis South guide "Beorn", "The Great Buttress" and "Nexus"; all great climbs up really impressive `weaknesses'. In fact it is at Tremadoc that the difficult, but less worthy, additions seem to have been made. Also, there has been a social revolution in Welsh climbing. Greater prosperity for young people has made motor transport accessible to thousands of climbers who previously had to be content with local outcrops at weekends. This has made 'weekending' in Wales regular instead of exceptional—but there have been less obvious changes, towards which the peculiar characteristics of Tremadoc have contributed. The aura of impregnability that surrounded the hard routes of the 1950s has often been described, but the role played by Tremadoc climbing in undermining these myths, is not so well known.

The discovery of the area's possibilities helped to make Welsh climbing an all-the-year-round affair. It became worth going up to Wales on a winter weekend (as well as possible). Routes could be done even if rain blanketed Llanberis. It was inevitable that the hard routes in Snowdon South, should provide the first introduction to high standard Welsh climbing for many of the outcrop-trained newcomers. (The North side of Llanberis Pass of course played a similar role). What's more the short, sunny, accessible and well-protected Tremadoc climbs provided an exceptionally homely and unexacting introduction. As late as 1964 it was possible to do early ascents of routes on high crags that were technically much easier than the hard problems in Snowdon South, which had already become standard routes. There were plenty of 'myths' of course, even at Tremadoc, in these `early' days, but they were myths that crumbled fast. Climbs seemed to hold their reputations for a year at most, and only routes of really stupendous quality such as 'Vector' survived this process of devaluation. 

Maggie Reenan climbing at Tremadog for a TV special. See linked interview below. 

By 1964 Tremadoc has done its work well. The floodgates were open. A new wave of high standard climbing swept the big cliffs, and achievements by the sea just didn't seem to matter any more. Last summer a party did "Red Slab", "Troach" and "Shrike" in one day. Three years ago this would have been a good summer's ambition for most climbers. Most Welsh regulars will probably agree with Crew's debunking statement with which the article began. It may seem a little unfair to be so hard on the training ground that has played so important a part in making the big routes much more accessible,but the other side of the coin to the 'decline of Tremadog' is the enjoyment of really great routes by more and more climbers.

Dave Cook: First published in The Climber: April 1967

Maggie Reenan interview 


Monday, 22 March 2021

Scafell : The finest climbing ground in England


There are only a few places in Britain where you can see more rock in one glance than you can from around Mickledore—and they are nearly all in Scotland. For the great cliffs of Scafell are the biggest and most forbidding precipices in England—the best climbing ground in the country and really the place where it all started about a hundred years ago. True, there had been something like 50 ascents of Pillar Rock by the time men in deerstalkers and Norfolk jackets discovered the North Climb and Mickledore Chimney, but these were mostly scrambles up fairly easy ways requiring little knowledge of cragmanship. And, besides, the very earliest climbing enthusiasts had been accepting the challenge of an isolated pinnacle with a summit that cried out to be trodden, whereas on Scafell the pioneers were not trying to reach a summit—easily attainable by walking—but deliberately seeking out steep rock for its own sake. Pillar Rock is just as high, but perhaps not so steep, as the steepest cliffs on Scafell which embrace several crags, and Scafell became the Mecca of the climbing world long before the turn of the century. And, to a greater degree than anywhere else, it was on these unrelenting cliffs that rock-climbing became a sport in its own right. Today, the development of rock-climbing in England—especially free climbing—may be said to have reached its present peak on Scafell, but the experts declare there are still new lines to discover, still a great deal of unclimbed rock which some day may be scaled.

You can glean the story of this surge of development, from the easy routes up obvious ways by pioneers in heavily nailed boots to the delicate balance moves of today up vertical or overhanging rock, by a study of the new guide to the Scafell Group. This is the second in the new series published by the Fell and Rock Climbing Club and edited by John Wilkinson—the new Langdale guide was published last year. The Scafell guide has been written by Geoff Oliver and Joe Griffin who have been responsible for several of the new routes, and, commenting on their labours, the editor writes: "certainly nowhere in the Lake District are so many routes of such superlative quality and difficulty to be found." Something like 150 routes are listed in the guide, and half of them are in the very severe or extremely severe category, a remarkably high proportion. Of the eight routes in the highest grade, five are on East Buttress—the "Cloggy" of the Lake District. In the very earliest days development was slow indeed, When the North Climb and Mickledore Chimney were discovered in 1869 the only known way to the top of the crag was by the scramble up Broad Stand, a route which adventurous shepherds had used for years, but it was to be another 13 years before anything else happened .on the crag. Then Haskett Smith found his way up Deep Ghyll and the pioneers began to work out the obvious routes. All the great names in the first decades of British climbing—Haskett Smith, Owen Glynne Jones, W. G.., Slingsby, the Abrahams, Siegfried. Herford and H. M. Kelly—were associated with the development of Scafell Crag.

But for more than 30 years now the emphasis has shifted across the other side of Mickledore to East Buttress, the dark, overhanging cliff that the pioneers , considered impregnable. Here, and especially since the war, routes have been put up .which approach the limit of possibility and on many summer weekends climbers may be seen, high up among the overhangs, trying to force even harder routes. Perhaps the art of free climbing reaches as high a standard on the East Buttress of Scafell as it does anywhere in Europe. The pace has increasingly quickened with the discovery of harder and harder routes. By 1900 there were only 22 climbs on Scafell including Collie's Moss Ghyll, only forced after he had hurled the gauntlet at convention by clipping a foothold in the rock with his axe. Perhaps the most remarkable achievement up to that time had been Owen Glynne Jones's great lead up the Pinnacle Face in stockinged feet on an April evening in 1898. But by the outbreak of the First World War there were -78 climbs in the area, one of the highlights of this period being Fred Botterill's ascent of the slab that bears his name—in nailed boots and carrying rucksack and ice-axe. This was in 1903—the most daring lead in Britain up to that time, and even today a delicate route for experts only, still holding its very severe classification after 65 years. 


It was followed by the great climbs on the Pinnacle, Face by Herford and Sansom, their girdle traverse of the crag and finally, a few months before war broke out, their ascent of Central Buttress. This was probably the biggest single breakthrough in standard in the history of Lakeland climbing. Central Buttress is unremittingly steep and the crux is the ascent of the overhanging Flake Crack. On the first ascent the second man sat in a cradle of rope loops from the chockstone below the flake, the leader gaining the top of the overhang by standing, first on his second's knees, then on his shoulders and head, and finally reaching up to grip the tip of the flake. Nothing like this had ever been attempted in Britain before and it was many years before anything harder was achieved. Central Buttress is probably the most famous climb in Lakeland and is still regarded as a route of great difficulty and character, although there are now at least eight routes in the Scafell area alone that are today regarded as much more serious undertakings. Many years ago I climbed on several occasions with G. S. Sansom, a very neat climber indeed in rubber plimsolls, moving quickly up smooth rock with little effort and just as nimble in descent. He was a man who must have kept his form even when far from the Lake District, for on his rare visits he always liked to start with Hopkinson's Gully, still a hard severe. After the First War H. M. Kelly became the outstanding leader on Scafell, Moss Ghyll Grooves being one of his finest discoveries, and in 1931 the late Colin Kirkus began the assault on the bulging walls of East Buttress with his magnificent Mickledore 'Grooves, which involves a run-out, on its last pitch, of up to 140 feet of rope.

He was followed by others, including the late Maurice Linnell, the late A. T. Hargreaves and finally, just before the war, by Jim Birkett, the Little Langdale climber who was to dominate Lakeland climbing for nearly ten years. All these rising standards, however, were eclipsed in 1952 by the extremely difficult Hell's Groove, led by the late Arthur Dolphin, and climbs like Trinity and Phoenix put up a few years later by Don Whillans and Ron Moseley carried on the new tradition. And standards continued to rise in more recent years with remarkably exacting routes by the late Robin Smith from Scotland, Les Brown, Geoff Oliver and others, some of the new climbs being on Esk Buttress, on the opposite side of Mickledore, below the summit of Scafell Pike. Indeed, so advanced has become the climbing in the district that the "very severe" category has had to be divided into three sections and a higher grade of "extremely severe" added. Most of the eight climbs in this highest grade are on East Buttress, as I have written earlier, two are on Esk Buttress and one on Scafell Crag itself—straight up the steep wall to the left of Central Buttress. The very names of some of the hard routes on Scafell betray something of their flavour—names like Hell's Groove, Holy Ghost, Armageddon, Gargoyle Direct, Ichabod, Black Sunday and Overhanging Grooves. 


All have been put up by a new breed of climbers who seem safer on smooth, sloping holds half an inch wide or less, than some of us may be on ledges you could walk along. The writer has had no personal acquaintance with these harder routes on Scafell, but has watched some of them being climbed and has marvelled at the difference between their standard and that of the climbs we considered hard 30 years ago. Many times it has been stated that the crags of Lakeland are worked out, but more new climbs than ever are still being made and already the new Scafell guide can be said to be slightly out of date. It is still impossible to forecast when saturation point will be reached and when the limit of human achievement will arrive, and the authors of the new guide tell us: "There are still new lines to explore on Scafell, protected more by their isolated situation than their difficulty. So should the Mickledore chairlift ever become a reality, let Scafell beware." Mercifully, I'm sure there'll never be a chairlift up to Mickledore, but I'm equally sure that within the next few years several new ways will still be found on the crags of Scafell—the most challenging rock in England. And while this is happening I hope, on occasions, to be active enough to potter about the sun-warmed rocks of Pikes Crag and look across at the great face of Scafell Crag where,for a hundred years now, men have found adventure and, in some cases, rediscovered their youth. 

AH Griffin: 1968. 

First published in Climber-April 1968 


Thursday, 11 March 2021

A Dream of Edwin Drummond....Reviewed


Ed Drummond was always something of a climbing hero to me. In fact I was aware of him before I had even started climbing through his well publicised ascent of Nelson's Column with Colin Rowe to protest against the apartheid regime in South Africa. An ascent since described as the first political protest climb in history. Eventually as a climber, I would become all to well aware of his unique place within the sport and for myself, his achievements and his buccaneering persona only cemented his place in the pantheon of heroes.

Now Paul Diffly and his Hot Aches team have delivered something of a late Christmas present for those like myself who remain in awe of this climbing poet, activist, explorer and all round renaissance man. In ' A Dream of Edwin Drummond' the makers have captured the essence of the man through contemporary footage and interviews shot when he was alive, and through the prism of current rock stars, James McHaffie and Robbie Phillips who are drafted in to recreate some of Drummond's more memorable chapters. Drummond's classic Dream of White Horses above the foaming Irish Sea at Gogarth-first climbed with Dave Pearce in 1968- is recreated by James McHaffie with Dave Pearce's son Alexis sharing the rope. Shot in appropriately sixties 'technicolour', James Mac and Lex shuffle their way across the classic HVS using the protection and footwear contemporaneous to the first ascent.

Before that, JM solos a knife edge arête on one of the gritstone edges of England and takes on a hard route on Cloggy's Great Wall. “ Above me the wall gleamed rainy, bald as a whale' The iconic white helmet-a JB perhaps?- clamped over his head. A counterpoint against the dark cliff which rears up and disappears into the mist. Scottish hard chaw Robbie Phillips recreates Drummond's performance art which featured at climbing literary festivals across the world, and which I believe was first performed at a Leeds mountain literature festival, organised by Terry Gifford and David Craig. Twirling on scaffold frames and flexing and uncoiling amongst the bars. Still bearing the iconic white helmet, RP elegantly recaptures the feline ballet which defined a Drummond's performance.

'A Dream of Edwin Drummond' essentially concentrates on his extraordinary climbing career. The well documented darker chapters of his life where tragedy stalked him for many years and which were at the heart of Simon Beaufoy's 1993 film 'Shattered Dream' are absent here and why should it be. For the film is a celebration of an extraordinary climbing life,not a warts and all biopic.

With the end nigh, Drummond now held in the grip of the Parkinson's condition which had defined his later years, finds himself back at St John's Head in The Orkney's. Scene of one his his greatest climbs. The Long Hope Route-E7- which he completed over several gruelling days with a fresh faced Oliver Hill. He was back with the Hot Aches film who were filming Dave MacLeod's attempt to free the crux headwall which went eventually at 8b. Poignantly, its creator looks across the bay at the route and finds himself awe struck that he could ever have climbed in such an intimidating place!. The footage and interviews at the time shows someone at peace with themselves and accepting of the place they were in.

These different elements of the film which blends the old and the new each time returns to a beautifully animated image of the man himself. Head and shoulders resting against a pillow. Eyes closed and face content. Topo lines and faint route names appear on the pillow. A red line occasionally snakes across the image. The 'throbbing red rope' or is it blood pulsing through a tired body? Whatever interpretation you make, it can't but help evoke a death bed scene. Quietly reposed,calm and accepting. Where the man at the end of his life dreams of white horses.

A Dream of Edwin Drummond is now available on Vimeo


John Appleby: 2021



Thursday, 18 February 2021

Whillans at 'Treemudrock'


John Cleare's classic shot of 'The Don'.

His reputation was already established when I first met him in 1962. He had agreed to come to Derby and give a lecture at our youth club and was to meet me at our home before the 'Do'. I was apprehensive, a word which my ex wife always says is my euphemism for 'shit scared.' Anyhow, he turns up, says "How do?" and lies on the floor to play with Elaine, our one year old daughter. He asks for a fee of £5 for the evening, which covers his petrol and a couple of pints, a phrase I come to know well over many years. He has already eaten at Nat Allen's. He gives a great lecture, not only to the club but to Derby climbers in general and no words of mine can express his unique style. Not only did he entertain on that Friday evening but he came out to Stanage the day after and climbed with the lads, obviously enjoying himself. Don became a friend and a regular visitor to Derby. There are so many memories but a couple stand out as if they occurred only yesterday. I was alone this particular weekend; the family were at Granny's in Liverpool. In he walks, "Ow yer diddlin? Fancy a day out?" "Do you want a brew?" I ask. "No, ta, I've gorra mate with me, the Gaffer in fact, he's called Arthur. He's alright, but I need a bit of support like." "Where do you want to go?" I ask. "Treemudrock." Well, that's settled then, he doesn't muck about making his mind up doesn't Don.

"I'll see you at Erics in a bit; I'll get my gear sorted and follow on." I overtake them at Rhyd Ddu, Arthur's old builders van isn't fast anymore. Arriving at Eric's cafe I get the teas. The van arrives before it has gone cold and I ask how many sugars. "British standard climber," is the answer I get. That means two lumps, spoonfuls or whatever is going. I think the expression started with Pat and Baz Ingle. In those days the locals had a lot of colour in their speech. It had something to do with the mix of origins. North Wales in the 60's was a retreat for so many climbers from England & Scotland or wherever. Don said that he had never done 'First Slip', so we knew what we were on. Arthur hadn't said much, but as we made our way up through the trees he said "Is it hard?" "It all depends on if you get it right," was as much consolation as he got from Don. Arthur sat by the tree at the start of the first pitch, I tied on after offering Don the sharp end, which he refused. I thought he was scheming to get the long, main (and best) pitch. I arrived at the stance. There was a tree there in those days and it was occupied by two Americans.

I said nowt and brought Don up. He immediately started up a conversation with the second, whilst the leader appeared to me to be struggling above. Don was in good humour so I suggested bringing Arthur up to the stance. "Leave the bugger down there, there's no room up 'ere." The leader was definitely scrabbling in the main, crux, groove above us, I nudged Don. Sure enough, a few seconds later the U.S.of A. flashed past. Don stops short his banter, "That makes it your turn Barney, he says aloud, then whispers in my ear "You can bloody do it, can't you ?" The Americans are dismissed in an instant, I climb past the somewhat shaken second and place a runner high up under the roof. Hand traverse, followed by this thin, open groove then the jug for the left hand and I'm on the stance. His head appears quickly at the bottom of the groove and I notice for the first time that he's wearing boots not PAs. I say nothing and watch. He swings to face left, grabs the vertical arete and laybacks calmly up. "Bloody hell, I've never seen it done like that before," I tell him as he perches on the ledge alongside me and lights a fag.

"Ow did you do it then ?" he asks. I tell him, shoulder against the left wall, finger tips in crack and at the jug, bridge out. "Why didn't you tell me then?" he grunts "I'm telling Whillans how to climb am I?" " Bring Arthur up then" I do as I'm told . Arthur isn't a natural. Beneath the overhang are a set of very good hand holds, boot scrapes and, with a little up swing, one lands on a really 'comfy' ledge. He gets it wrong and falls off. Fortunately he arrives directly beneath the groove and, with a bit of help, installs himself on the ledge below the difficulties. "Barney will tell you how it's done," Don says. "He wouldn't tell me though, the bugger." I explain, he starts upwards. The first two moves are thin and he falls a couple of times. "Arthur, we're climbing today, not bloody flying." Arthur finally arrives, shattered, at the stance. Don doesn't move, he isn't belayed and he still has his fag to finish. He looks disdainfully at his Gaffer. "John's led us so far, so that makes it your lead." Arthur's face says it all, "Is it hard?" I assure him that it isn't and that the pitch is well protected and not strenuous. 

The irrepressible 'Barney' Brailsford (Left)
 With courage he moves up, slowly, until he reaches the trees into which he disappears, the ropes run out, then stop. His temporary ordeal is over. Don has gone, he ambles out of sight whilst I go through the ritual of all seconds, shout "Climbing," and follow up to the top of the route. "What's next then, Don?" I ask. "Tensor, I haven't done that either." Arthur sidles up close, mouth to ear, "Is it hard?" he asks. Back in Eric's cafe I ask Don why he climbed in boots. "I realised halfway here that I'd left my PAs at home, your place was near and I knew you'd come out and lead." Crafty sod, but we had a good day. A few weeks later Arthur and his son, Roy, were lost on the Matterhorn. 


John Brailsford 2006 


First published in Loose Scree- March 2006 


Wednesday, 27 January 2021

Remembering Slingsby

William Cecil Slingsby’s book, Norway the Northern Playground, was first published in 1904. It is a tale of exploration, adventure and the exuberant joy of high endeavour. It was one of my earliest inspirations and I still have my 7/6d (37pence) 1941 edition. Born in 1849, he visited the country over twenty times between 1872 and 1921 and is considered the ‘Father of Norwegian mountaineering’. It was said of him: “There are two patron saints of Norway – St Olaf and Cecil Slingsby.”

Climbing in the early 1950s, when I began, was far more esoteric than it is today. It was rare to meet anyone who knew anything about it. In the northern Peak District where I grew up, scrambling in my pre-teens on what were then famous gritstone cliffs such as Laddow and Dovestones, I only glimpsed ‘real’ climbers a couple of times though never actually met them. For me, books like this were an introduction, temptation and escape to the climbing world. I read them avidly and dreamed of exploring wild mountains.

Slingsby and other early pioneers opened my eyes to the climbing world. Winthrop Young, another world class mountaineer of that period, comments in his Biographical Notice to Slingsby’s book about “the all consuming zest for adventure in high places which was at the core of Slingsby’s life”, saying, “his business instincts were not a little jeopardised by his picaresque sympathy for schemes and enterprises with names suggestive of forest and cañon and mountain fastness and far, sun-tinted lands and places”. Exactly!

Walt Unsworth observed, “[Slingsby] spent a dozen short "seasons" in the Alps, and [was] the first to climb several formidable peaks… He climbed with friends, but without guides - an almost unheard of thing in those early days”. On Slingsby’s passion for Norway, Walt wrote, “Time and again he made the journey across the North Sea, pushing his way over remote glaciers and wild valleys to forgotten hamlets and farms; exploring, climbing, making friends wherever he went. On these journeys his guide would be a local farmer.” In fact, although he also made some first ascents in England, Norway’s mountains were Slingsby’s consuming passion. On his first visit, he saw the Hurrungane Massif in the Jotunheim, later writing, “I shall never, as long as I live, forget my first view of Skagastølstind, the grandest European mountain north of the Alps. Our guide told us that it was the highest mountain in Norway, that it had not yet been ascended, and that no doubt this was impracticable. Can it be wondered that I determined, if possible to make the first ascent?”.

His routes were made by preference with local mountain people. They will be found from Lyngen in the far north on peaks with “wild beauty and eerie forms” but plagued by “the musical mosquito and the bloodthirsty klegg”, all the way down to the Jotunheim, “the finest mountains in Scandinavia”, to which much of his book is dedicated, and south again to the ice cap and mountains above Hardangerfjord. He writes about this golden age of pioneering and often bold mountain exploration with the same attention to detail and happy, unassuming style in which he made his climbs, both benefiting from the same joie de vivre.

It is hardly surprising therefore, that Norway was to be my own first experience of real mountain exploration. We set out in the summer of 1962, armed with the Northern Playground and some thin but inspirational paperback guides to Rock Climbs in Norway written in 1953 by Per Prag. They were sprinkled with Slingsby’s first ascents and tantalising references to unclimbed walls. The Arctic islands of Lofoten were our destination. Slingsby had climbed there in 1903 and 1904 making first ascents, often with Norman Collie, of peaks that variously “rise precipitously out of the ocean”, “resemble the Drus” or have “climbing of the very best Chamonix aiguille type”.

Like Slingsby, we had a great time, climbing two or three known routes and adding numerous climbs of our own. It was wild and remote. The weather was at times either glorious or foul. Almost penniless from the start, we eventually ran completely out of money despite the hospitality of fishermen and farmers who displayed, as they did to Slingsby, “the kindness and gentle attentions … of a race that we are nearer akin than to any other in Europe”. The die was cast. With the aid of Slingsby, mountains became a lifelong obsession.

Hitching south, we passed through the magnificent Romsdal valley, tempted there by Slingsby’s tales of “good sport” on its many peaks, and also by curiosity about Trollveggen, the Troll Wall, which was then Europe’s greatest unclimbed rock wall. Though partially rain shrouded, this awesome vision gnawed at us for three more years until, in 1965, we climbed it. Slingsby’s eye, however, was drawn to the classic alpine peaks above and beyond the other side of the valley where the partially concealed ridge of Vengetind was an irresistible attraction. He made the first ascent of both its summits with Patchell in 1881, saying “the scenery is too grand to describe”.


Standing guard at the head of Vengedalen and looming high above Romsdal, the great truncated tower of the Romsdalshorn dominates the view. Slingsby climbed it in 1884 with his wife Alizon, the first woman to reach the top, commenting “The mountain is more difficult than the Matterhorn when in good condition”. They returned in the following year with Bowen for the first ascent of the neighbouring fang of Kvandalstind which he described rather enthusiastically as “the steepest mountain in Europe”.  It was also a peak I was keen to climb, rising between two glaciers with the dramatic pinnacle of Torshammer standing between it and its grander neighbour, Vengetind. Slingsby who discovered it in 1875 had named it Thors Hammer, quoting from Olav Trigvasson’s Saga:    

“I am the God Thor,
 I am the War God,
 I am the thunderer!
 Here in my Northland,
 My fastness and fortress,
 Reign I forever!” 

Together they present as alpine a scene as it gets in Romsdal. It was good to ascend the glacier in their footsteps to reach the foot of Slingsby’s North Ridge, but I have to admit we were tempted away to explore its unclimbed six hundred metre North East Face which turned out to be both easy and enjoyable. Part way up we climbed a small pinnacle sticking out above the Miolnir Glacier, naming it Hrungnir after the giant killed by Thor with his fearsome hammer Miolnir. The final steep wall to Kvandalstind’s summit was the crux, which is as it should be, keeping the conclusion in doubt to the end, but at 3+ the route was only around V Diff which left us with plenty of time to climb Torshammer.

Still in alpine mode and tempted by our close view of the jagged Vengetind ridge, another top we hadn’t climbed and the highest in Romsdal at 1852m, it wasn’t long before four us decided on a three day trip from Åndalsnes, making a circuit of the hanging valley of Vengedal by following the ridge straight from town to the Romsdalshorn, over that and the smaller Lille Romsdalshorn, round the head of the valley to Kvandalstind and Torshammer, then along the impressive Vengetind ridge and back down to the fjord. It sounded like fun, and was. We left late one morning and bivouacked near the col under Romsdalshorn. It was a beautiful evening with great views of our cirque, the Troll Wall and the Kongen massif, whilst a long grey finger of cloud drifted up Vengedal and settled beneath us giving us some cause for concern. 

Waking early, the morning was fine and we romped up Romsdalshorn’s classic North Ridge to its flat topped summit then down by abseil to the gap between it and the smaller Lille Romsdalshorn which we then climbed before descending again to the col at the head of Vengedal. Then easily over to Kvandalstind and Torshammer where we bivied again. On our third day the weather was looking doubtful but Vengetind’s jagged South Ridge looked far too good to miss, traversing above a glacier over two smaller tops beyond which, with the weather worsening, we chose the easy but exposed Gallery Route to the cloud-capped summit. By now it was snowing and we were greeted by thunder and lightning, our axes and metal gear buzzing alarmingly. It was no place to linger in an electric storm so we quickly negotiated our way down through the white-out and falling snow until we felt confident enough to glissade blindly down in the general direction of Vengedal. Once beneath the clouds we walked down to the fjord and hitched back to town after a wonderful mountain trip. 

But back to Slingsby! When in Romsdal, he stayed at Aak, an idyllic small farm and hotel used by climbers since the1860s and still a popular hotel today. His route descriptions can be found in the guest book. We stayed there twice in the1990s, enjoying the company of old friends and familiar mountains before returning south, past another haunt of Slingsby’s, the delightful Hotel Union at Øye in Sunnmøre. There, he and others including Raeburn and Patchell, climbed peaks like Slogen, which he called “Norway's prettiest peak" with, according to his entry in the hotel guest book, “the proudest view in Europe”. He was also active in Nordmøre, where he attempted “the fearsome-looking” 3,500 feet Furuveita Ghyll in 1906, only to be halted by a waterfall near the top of “the grandest ghyll it has ever been my good fortune to enter”. He found the neighbouring alpine peaks rather more attractive, writing, “there is an air of mystery and romance about Vinnufjell and its great snowfields”. Unsurprisingly, Slingsby made the first ascent, climbing it by two different routes, just four days apart in July 1906.

I have not yet had time to explore these peaks, nor those of Europe’s great ice cap, Jostedalsbraen, whose “snow solitudes, glaciers and ice-fields were a joy” to Slingsby. To their east is the great Jotunheim Massif “Home of the Giants” and beneath is Turtagrø Hotel, still one of Norway’s pre-eminent centres for mountaineering. Slingsby spent many happy days there and mementoes remain though tragically, the old hotel burnt down in 2001. “What a jolly time we spent at Turtagrø!” he wrote. “Is it heresy to say that the ‘off days’ picnicking were as enjoyable as the days spent on the mountains?”  Here are the most alpine peaks in Norway. In the distance is Galdhøppigen at 2469m, Norway’s highest though Glittertind is a close second. I have climbed both, which, in fair weather, are nothing more than enjoyable snow and glacier routes compared with Slingsby’s favourites, the Hurrungane Group, “with great glaciers and dramatic peaks, none more so than Skagastølstind”.

For me, this alpine spire has remained elusive but Slingsby considered it “Norway’s crowning glory”, epitomising, like the Matterhorn, all that is most appealing about mountain architecture. He made its first ascent in July 1876, four years after first seeing it and two years after making the first traverse of the range, to get better acquainted with his ultimate objective. This traverse was itself considered of great significance to Norwegian mountaineering, crossing the only region of the Jotunheim still unexplored. When he finally succeeded on the mountain itself, he climbed the last five hundred feet alone, leaving his companions over-awed at the head of the glacier, asking him “Should we declare it inaccessible?”. Its north summit is still named Slingsby’s Fortopp in his honour. The 1953 guidebook says “The ascent made climbing history in Norway … it is still a first rate climb with a splendid variety of ice and rock”.

 I continue to be tempted back to Slingsby’s ‘Northern Playground’ whenever opportunity permits, and trust his book will still give others equal inspiration.


Books: Norway the Northern Playground, William Cecil Slingsby, 1904 and 1941.The 2003 edition was published by Ripping Yarns, with an introduction by Tony on which this article is based.
Tony is also author of Troll Wall

Quest into the Unknown also climbing and/or trekking guides to the Peak District, Norway, Palestine and Jordan.

Norway the Northern Playground, William Cecil Slingsby, 1904 and 1941.The 2003 edition was published by Ripping Yarns, with a useful Appendix to Mountaineering in Norway Today by Dave Durkan and an introduction by Tony on which this article is based.
Norway Images all supplied by the author.
Top..L to R: Vengetind and its south ridge, Kalskratind and Romsdalshorn> Photo Øyvind Heen.

Middle..Kvandalstind with its north ridge below.Photo Kyrre Østbø 

Bottom..Kvandalstind and Torshammer. Photo TH.

© Tony Howard 21 Jan 2021.


Tuesday, 19 January 2021

A Dark Shadow Falls : The Tragic Hopkinson Family.


DURING the second half of the last century British mountaineering boasted several remarkable families whose exploits have gone down in history. The Walkers, the Matthews, the Pilkingtons—these, and others less well known, helped to found the sport in Britain and the Alps. Of all these families, none has a more remarkable story than the five Hopkinson brothers from Manchester. Their father was a mill mechanic who by hard work and flair rose to become Mayor of his city and an Alderman. Their mother was one of the Yorkshire Dewhursts, related to the Slingsbys and Tribes, and mountain walking was a long tradition on both sides. The young Hopkinsons grew up with an intimate knowledge of the Yorkshire dales and the Lakeland fells. Often they were accompanied by their cousins, W. C. Slingsby and W. N. Tribe, so it is little wonder that they soon became involved in the new sport of rock-climbing.

The eldest of the five was John (1849-98) then came Alfred (1851-1939), Charles (1854-1920), Edward (1859-1921), and Albert (1863-1949). Perhaps because he was the eldest, perhaps because he was a genius, John was always looked up to by the others; but in fact each and every one of this remarkable family was talented in the extreme. Quite apart from their climbing, it is worth while to glance at their careers so as to appreciate more fully the intellectual stature of these men. John was a consulting engineer with a brilliant academic career—Senior Wrangler at Cambridge, Doctor of Science of London, Fellow of the Royal Society, twice President of the Institute of Electrical Engineers. He was one of the founders of modern electrical engineering, perhaps best known to the public as the man who built Liverpool's famous tram system. Charles and Edward were also engineers and often worked with their brother. Edward it was who first introduced London to underground electric trains in 1890; the start of the modern tube system.

The other two brothers broke with the family tradition of engineering but both reached the top in their chosen professions. Sir Charles Hopkinson was lawyer, M.P., and Vice Chancellor of Manchester University. When he was elected Treasurer of Lincoln's Inn he had to adopt a crest and motto, so he consulted his other brothers as to what the motto should be. It is significant that they chose "Who shall separate us?" Youngest of all was Albert, who took medicine as his profession. He became a leading Manchester surgeon and eventually lecturer in Anatomy at Cambridge, because, he said, "Cambridge found it could not do without a Hopkinson"—a reference to the close ties the family had with the university. Details about the early climbs of the Hopkinsons are not easy to find, but they certainly descended the East Face of Tryfan in 1882, which is four years before Haskett Smith climbed the Napes Needle. However, their interest turned to the Alps, where, among other climbs, they made new routes on the Unterbachhorn and in the Fiisshorner. Their first major contribution to British rock-climbing came in 1887 when, in the September of that year, Charles, Edward and Albert Hopkinson, with W. N. Tribe, attempted to descend the steep face of Scafell Pinnacle. 

They were stopped at a point about 250ft. from the screes, at a narrow ledge. At this point Edward Hopkinson erected a pile of stones. Hopkinsons' Cairn acted as a magnet to all the best climbers of the day. Attempt after attempt was made to reach the tantalising pile of stones from below. Charles himself led the first attempt in December of the same year but failed about 150ft. up, due to ice. In 1903 an attempt to reach the cairn caused the death of three climbers—the first major climbing accident in Britain. * The problem was not solved until 1912, when the incomparable Herford, climbing in stockinged feet, ran out 130ft. of rope on the crucial pitch. The Hopkinsons found an easier way to the top. By climbing Deep Ghyll they gained a wide rift which they called Professor's Chimney in honour of John. In 1888 a famous party attacked Scafell by way of Steep Ghyll. The leader was W. C. Slingsby and with him were Edward Hopkinson, W. P. Haskett Smith, and Geoffrey Hastings. At the foot of the great pitch of the gully they turned out onto the face and Slingsby, running out 110ft. of rope, climbed the chimney which now bears his name and which was to become one of the most popular climbs in the Lake District.

That same year Hastings led Great Gully on Dow Crag and Edward Hopkinson was with him once again. The gaunt buttresses of Dow must have appealed to him, for a few months later he returned with his brothers when they climbed the gully again, this time leading the first and most severe pitch direct. There is little doubt that the Hopkinsons must have put up many new climbs which went unrecorded and it is a fair criticism of them that they failed to appreciate the part they were playing in the formation of a new sport. In fact, their greatest 'discovery' was not recorded for three years; the northern face of Ben Nevis. In 1895, however, they reluctantly published a small paragraph in The Alpine Journal mentioning the fact that in 1892 they had enjoyed some interesting scrambles on the mountain. In fact, they had made the first ascent of the North East Buttress (though it is not known by what route) and the first descent of Tower Ridge. They had tried to climb Tower Ridge but were stopped by the Great Tower. There can be little doubt that it was the enthusiastic reports of the Hopkinsons to their climbing friends that led Norman Collie to make his visit in 1894, the start of real rock-climbing on the Scottish mainland. In 1895 the brothers revisited Dow Crag where they made the two climbs by which they are best known today. Edward and John, with a climber named Campbell made the first ascent of Intermediate Gully; a very strenuous and severe climb and on the same day Charles was leading Hopkinson's Crack, a tour de force which still ranks as one of the hardest severes in the district. 

The Haunted Mountain: The Petite Dent de Veisivi where tragedy struck the family.

But in 1898 an overwhelming tragedy struck this brilliant family. The summer of that year saw John Hopkinson, with his wife, four sons and two daughters staying at Arolla in Switzerland. They did a number of the popular climbs, guideless, including the difficult Arolla face of the Za. On August 27th, the father, together with his son Jack, aged 18, and his two daughters aged 23 aid 19 set out to traverse the Petit Dent de Veisivi. When they did not return that evening a search party was organised and the next morning their bodies were discovered below the south face of the mountain. They had obviously fallen from a point near the top, but whether from a slip or through falling stones, it was impossible to tell. It remains to this day one of the most poignant of Alpine tragedies. The remaining four brothers rushed out at once to the scene of the disaster, but nothing they could do could lessen their grief. John, their favourite, was gone. They never climbed again. So ends the story of the brilliant Hopkinsons, and yet there is a pathetic little footnote—both of John's remaining two sons were killed in the Great War. 

* The Scafell Tragedy


Walt Unsworth: First published in Climber-February 1966 


Monday, 4 January 2021

Saved by the Burn

It wasn't until the wind blew the two of us off-balance that we realised its strength. Until we actually cannoned into each other near the summit cairn of Gars Bheinn I had persuaded myself that it wasn't too bad. It was tearing shrilly across the exposed ridge, as bitter and as numbing as a dental anaesthetic. It seemed certain our long-awaited traverse of the Skye Ridge would end in an untimely retreat. But, as so often happens with climbers from south of the border arriving in Scotland bent only on the routes of their dreams, we were then lulled by an improvement in the weather. The wind dropped, and though the weather remained oppressive with low cloud hiding the highest peaks, the rock was dry and the weather report had not been altogether bad. "Let's give it a go," I said to James and he agreed. Scots climbers, knowing they could return more easily some other time might well have been more inclined to call it a day and drop back down the screen up which we'd so recently toiled. The Cuillin Ridge had been our objective for 12 months. That compelling skyline traverse of peak after lofty peak — ten of them over 3000 feet and encompassing in its crude six-mile horseshoe a total height of 10,000ft to climb — had chivvied our subconscious brain cells until we just had to complete its course. For me it would be the second time, having traversed the ridge in 1958 with Todmorden's Silver Fox, the evergreen John Wilkinson. Then it had taken us an incredible ten hours, incredible because of the day — lambent skies, two eagles soaring above and rain-starved gabbro. But we had somewhat marred our otherwise perfect day by ending up on Sgurr nan Gillean. With our camp site back in Glen Brittle, the resulting yomp by way of the Am Mhain Pass in darkness is as memorable as the ridge, but in just the opposite way. 

Though discounting any contact with Am Mhain on my second attempt, I had learned the hard way of what was in store in terms of the energy and persistence required for the ridge itself. James, who lived in deepest Essex, had prepared by running endless laps around a large sports ground close to his home. He had also followed a lightweight training regime. For myself, I read up my notes of a Boy's Own Paper interview with Eric Beard I wrote on his cracking the Skye Ridge record (4hrs 9mins), and the inside information he had given me. Just down the road, lived the man who broke Beardie's record, Andy Hyslop (4hrs 4mins). He, too, gave invaluable assistance in times and route preferences. Andy it was who recommended an energy-giving sandwich filling of honey and peanut butter spread on granary bread — a mixture we later found revolting as the taste lingers when the going gets tough. The summer of 1983 had been one of the driest in the Western Isles in living memory. We expected blistering heat stored in the vaults of stone and reflected back off the tar-black rock. And at first it looked as if we might be lucky. Through the Borders every truck and artic lorry had the squeaky clean colours of Dinky toys fresh from the box. Water was not available from garages for windscreen washing. Everywhere the grass was burnt an ochre tint. Yet as we motored north from Fort William, we experienced that feeling of intense disappointment that only climbers know, that choked feeling of someone who has travelled four hundred miles to arrive — and who has suddenly to switch on the wipers. 

Sixty miles on at the Kyle of Lochalsh ferry it was pouring down. Another thirty miles further, at our climbing but in Glen Brittle, nothing had changed. Dining out, according to James, in the hospitable glow of the Sligachan Hotel might seem a better idea than wallowing in self-pity. As he said the meal was on him, I quickly agreed. By the time the pears cooked in port arrived — followed by coffee and a good malt — the rain had stopped. Thick cloud still obscured the mountain tops, and when I rang the Glasgow weather centre I received a non-commital forecast for the day to come. Things MIGHT clear. We returned to the but convinced that they would. By 3am the rain had not returned, and I began making a breakfast of stodgy porridge mixed with sultanas and endless rounds of toast and marmalade — washed down by litres of thick-brewed tea. Then at 4am it was out into the blackness, our eyes straining for any glimmer of light along the moor that leads to the first peak. We progressed marvellously at first, reaching the summit of Gars Bheinn two and a half hours later and well in par time — although the highest tops remained hidden by cloud and the scenario looked oppressive, a muted dawn light picking out a grey forlorn landscape. The moor had proved snuff dry, evidence of the weeks of drought. Any burns we had to cross were dried-out creeks, our Walsh trainers padding the peaty ground in comfort. 

Only the mist remained drifting above in the gloom to threaten bad things and, had we known it, a preponderance of large black slugs on the grass and scree boded the worst too. They know when it's going to rain. Then, on the summit, everything changed. The mist thickened and it wasn't until the wind banged us together like snooker balls that we realised its strength. We were standing on an eminence nearly 3000 feet above the Atlantic, being pelted with rain, strafed by a gale and it showed. Great rifts fell away down into the boiling vapour, each a source of spiralling gusts. As we fumbled into extra clothing and wind-proofs, it was impossible not to feel afraid. The scale of everything suddenly looked so big and of an infinitely more serious nature than the last time when I had stood here those twenty-six years previously. We were on the point of going back down when the wind dropped as quickly as it had come. Things picked up. We decided to start out. "If things become grim we can always descend," I said. "But if the weather clears what a great route it'll be to steal . . ." At first we couldn't go wrong even if we had wanted to. 

The ridge began as a knifeblade and, other than stepping off its edge into thin air on either side, there was no other way to negotiate it. But then the problems began. Great gaps would suddenly appear underneath our feet as if some giant madman with an axe had lopped into its crest from all angles and quite at random. In each case we had to scramble down steep scree and traverse slippery ledges to one side or the other before resuming our ascent on the far side of the gap where the skyline continued into the cloud once more. The further we went, the more difficult it became to piece together these obstacles with map and route card. It was as if we were on some fiendish assault course. And with the rain now starting to pour down in ever-increasing bucketfuls, the mist appeared to turn as black as the densest smoke from burning rubber. Nor do compasses always work on the ridge owing to an abundance of iron ore in the rock. The red needles whirled round uselessly, but then we had thought this might happen and brought them along anyway as each contained a large magnifying glass that made map reading all the easier. We realised we were helplessly lost when James saw me begin to go back the other way he had been coming — towards him and without realising I had made a complete turnabout. 

Arguing the toss was pointless, standing still in that weather was an endurance test in itself. We were in a do-or-die situation on the finest mountaineering trip in Britain and if we didn't resolve things quickly the question of who was right and who was wrong would cease to matter. We had patently failed. Now we had to get out of it alive. Though neither of us said so, we both recognised the circumstances as those of the Killer Peak syndrome which make newspaper headlines about mountain tragedies. Movement was the only way to keep the circulation going. Furthermore, I knew that our chilled fingers, despite being inside gloves, would make a meal of unbuckling a rucksack or opening a vacuum flask without some semblance of cover. To heighten our fear of premature death we did actually seem to be ageing. Worry and strain both did their part. The cosmetic powder of hoary droplets beading our persons did the rest, whitening eyelashes, sideburns and hair. The overall effect was a numbing of the mental powers, an inability to think straight. It was clear that we would have to go down. On which side of the ridge we actually made our descent no longer mattered so long as we lost height safely.

Early image of the Sligachan Inn 

And that was the rub. On either side of our high-wire in the heavens, boulder fields tilted down to the very brink of crags apparently so huge — as glimpsed through windows in the mist — as to defy imagination. Boulders the size of indoor climbing walls threatened to tip and roll at the slightest disturbance — and flatten you.Three times we arrived at the edge of outer space — the summit rim of one or another of those great cliffs below — and had to flounder back to the ridge's crest. Here, once again, it was a case of probing exhaustedly on still further for yet another line of merciful release. Mercifully indeed, within an hour we were besides the raging waters of Alta a' Chaoich (The Mad Burn) which plunges seawards from the skyline down to the Atlantic in a series of wild, leaping cataracts as white as milk. Although we had indeed descended on the "wrong" side of the ridge we could at last see through the mist and wind and our bodies were beginning to feel some semblance of warmth once more. But the resulting hike back the long way round and via the coastline path — and now having to ford burns which although dry when we had crossed them previously in the day were now fast-racing torrents — was the stuff of another ordeal. By the time we reached the Glen Brittle hut we had been on the go for almost sixteen hours, and lucky with it. People have died for less. It must be a hellish way to go.

Tony Greenbank: First published in Climber 1988