Friday, 10 December 2010

Forgotten Tigers

The Wayfarers Club's Robertson-Lamb hut, Langdale in the English Lake District.

One of the real delights for me as a member of this grand old club, is meeting the wide variety of folks you encounter staying at RLH; banking the fire up and chatting about climbing and the mountains long into the night or at least until the booze runs out. I often wonder what similar conversations were like in the very early days of RLH back in the early nineteen thirties. No doubt the lads of that era had their own heroes and villains, and the club had some big names batting for it in those days; Jack Longland, Bill Tilman, Alan (AB) Hargreaves, Ivan Waller, Colin Kirkus and John Menlove Edwards to name but a few. Having had the opportunity to delve into the history of climbing in the 1920s and 1930s whilst examining the exploits of Colin Kirkus (one of the most famous Wayfarers) I'd like to use the opportunity of the Centenary Journal to throw some deserved focus onto two men, who were both Wayfarers, and were both close friends of Colin Kirkus and AB Hargreaves.
They were in their day brilliant rock climbers, but neither to my mind ever got the credit their great ability warranted. The men in question are Ted Hicks and Bob Frost and I'd like to tell something of their respective stories, and their part in the history of our club.
Much has been written about the brilliant climbing exploits of such as Jack Longland, Ivan Waller, Colin Kirkus, John Menlove Edwards, A.T.Hargreaves and the particularly gifted Maurice Linnell. The late 1920s/early 1930s was a time of huge improvement and consolidation in British climbing after the slow recovery following the First World War. By the late 1920s Ted Hicks was the equal of just about anyone climbing in Wales or The Lakes and in 1929 had a particularly fine year producing ten new routes, two of which were of outstanding quality.

Ted was brought up in the Birkenhead area, and after leaving school he went to St Catherine's College, Cambridge and gained degrees in classics and mathematics. Whilst at Cambridge he became involved with the particularly talented group that constituted the University Climbing Club at the time. Through this involvement, he also joined both the Climbers Club and the Wayfarers Club in 1929. Though not tall, Ted had a powerful physique and was outstandingly fit. He took to rock climbing very quickly and soon moved up through the grades and was leading Very Severe routes within a couple of months of starting.
In the summer of 1928 he started to acquire something of a reputation in the Lake District and by that time had also become established as an expert night roof climber at Cambridge, a breeding ground for many a good cragsman. Ted made the second ascent of Gimmer Crack (a climb that held a mean reputation for years) and strolled up it wearing an impressive pair of Oxford Bags. Later that summer he added direct starts to Terrace Wall Variant on Tryfan and to Holly Tree Wall and climbed extensively at Helsby and on the Gritstone edges of The Peak District.
His great year as a climber was undoubtedly 1929. In April of that year he made the first free ascent of Piton Route on Holly Tree Wall. Of even greater significance was Ted meeting Colin Kirkus in the June of that year. He accompanied Colin on the first ascent of Lot's Groove on Glyder Fach, a brilliant route and the Cenotaph Corner of the 1930s, a major psychological  breakthrough in the way rock would be climbed. Following this he climbed frequently with both Colin and AB though a wonderfully warm and dry summer and early autumn.

Ted proceeded to produce a number of good quality new routes of his own around the Idwal slabs and Holly Tree Wall area. Ash Tree Wall was an excellent and exposed introduction to the East Wall of the slabs and is very enjoyable. He later added Heather Wall (further to the right) a bold excursion that still rates top-end Very Severe, on small, sloping holds. Another addition was a variation finish to Faith on the Idwal Slabs. Of even greater significance were Ted's two visits to Cloggy that summer. In July he made the third ascent of Pigott's route (Fred Pigott himself having led the route in 1927 and again in 1928) with AB Hargreaves and E.A.Stewardson (all three of them were members of the Wayfarers Club) This was considered to be just about the hardest route in Wales at that time and they had something of an epic on it, and a bad accident was only just avoided. 

In September, Ted led the fourth ascent of Longland's route on the West Buttress, climbing with C.V.A. Cooper and W.E.Wousnam Jones. These ascents on Cloggy, together with a rapid ascent that summer of Central Buttress on Scafell, with Colin Kirkus and AB Hargreaves (it was the seventh ascent of the route) placed Ted firmly in the forefront of British rock climbing.

Colin Kirkus

Ted was involved in three other good quality first ascents in Wales that remarkable summer. He partnered Colin Kirkus on Rake End Chimney and then led the Girdle of Holly Tree Wall another exciting route still regarded as top end VS. However, the climb Ted remains best known for was a very delicate affair away to the right of the Idwal Slabs. This was the superb Rowan Tree Slabs, a climb that instantly gained a considerable reputation. Years later an excellent (and hard) variation pitch was added to Ted's original starting pitch by Jim O'Neill making this a top class Wayfarers Route par excellence! Still graded Extremely Severe, it is an excellent climb and a fine memorial for Ted and Jim.
After 1929, Ted never again climbed with quite the same passion, but he remained very capable and he led an early repeat of Colin Kirkus' Great Slab on Cloggy in 1931. In 1933 Ted took part in Marco Pallis' Wayfarers Expedition to the Gangotri Himalaya. It was on this trip that Colin Kirkus and Charles Warren managed to make the first ascent of Bhagirathi III alpine style, a superb achievement that went relatively unrecognised for years. Ted gave them a lot of support on the expedition and frequently entertained everyone at Base Camp with his excellent singing and general good humour. Later in the expedition, Ted made the first ascent of the 21,000ft Dolmetch Peak with Richard Nicholson. Ted and Colin had to return home earlier than the other members of the expedition, and had an entertaining trek back to Calcutta together and then the month long sea voyage back to Liverpool.

In the mid 1930s, Ted was involved in a bad winter accident in Deep Ghyll on Scafell when his partner was badly injured. After this he climbed very little, but continued to walk on the hills and to ski with great enthusiasm. Throughout the late 1930s he was a regular user of the RLH and knew the Lakeland Hills in great
detail. In 1935 he started working at the Dragon School at Oxford as a teacher and apart from the War Years, continued working there until he retired in 1966. He became a Housemaster at this most prestigious school, and he was greatly loved there both for his great academic ability and for his wide involvement in the overall life of the school.
Ted had an interesting time during the Second World War, where he enlisted in a Light Infantry Regiment. His unit was captured at Dunkirk and Ted spent the remainder of the war in a succession of prison camps. He attempted to remain a constant thorn in the side of his captors and by all accounts was the life and soul of all the camps he was in, and also continued to study until the end of the war. AB told a lovely story, of how Ted not only repaired over 1,000 watches during the war, but when prisoners from the Dieppe raid came handcuffed into his camp, Ted speedily found a method to unlock all the handcuffs with an adapted sardine tin opener. He was clearly quite a character, in an excellent Wayfarer tradition!

For many years after the war Ted sailed for a hobby (indeed he won the British Moth championship in the early sixties, and sailed across the English Channel many times.) After his retirement from teaching in 1966, he became Sailing Master, Skipper and Navigator of the Yacht Noryema VIII, working for the owner. This resulted in him making many long distance voyages and he sailed across The Atlantic twelve times. It was said that he was not only an excellent sailing master but a quite outstanding navigator. In 1972, as skipper of Noryema VIII he won the Bermuda Cup and was given the Yachtsman of the Year award. Late in life he suffered badly from asthma and suffered a heart attack while at sea, only his outstanding physical condition saving him.
Ted died suddenly in 1978, at the age of seventy while preparing for yet another voyage across The Atlantic. AB referred to Ted as just about his dearest friend and a man of many talents, and outstanding qualities. Once when I visited AB at Ulverston, we had been talking about Colin Kirkus, Jack Longland and of course Ted. AB wondered off to the kitchen at one point, as we had run out of wine. I heard him chuckling to himself: "Ha ha,.........    good old Ted!" It was a lovely moment and a chuckle of deep affection. AB then uncorked another bottle.

Compared with that of Ted Hicks, the name Bob Frost may not mean a great deal to many club members, but in the mid-nineteen thirties he was one of the finest climbers in the Wayfarers Club. The bulk of my information about Bob, come from several conversations I had with the late John Watson. John joined the Wayfarers Club in the early 1930s and provided me with a great deal of valuable information about the club at that time and the Idwal Hostel scene, and was of great help to me in writing "Hands of a Climber." Sadly, John died before the book was published in 1993. He was great company and had a wealth of stories about the club in the pre-war era. John was a close friend of Colin Kirkus and in the period 1933-1938 climbed a great deal both with Colin and with Bob Frost who was Colin's main partner for much of that period. The picture that John painted of Colin and Bob at this time was both fascinating and revealing. Both Colin and Bob were very modest and self effacing characters, but I was left in no doubt that Bob Frost was an outstanding climber both on snow and ice, and on rock. Relatively little is known about this gentle and modest man but the very high regard Colin Kirkus and AB Hargreaves had for him is important to reconsider, as Bob left little record of his exploits. What has emerged, is that in the period 1935-1937 Bob was climbing as well as anyone in Britain at the time and was a Wayfarer Tiger in the true sense of the word.

Following his awful accident on Ben Nevis at Easter 1934, when Maurice Linnell was killed Colin Kirkus took a long time to recover both physically and mentally. He was tormented by guilt over the accident (Colin was leading at the time) and shattered by the loss of Maurice who had become a close friend. Colin gradually returned to climbing and sought solace in the company of a few friends who had gravitated to the scene at the Idwal Youth Hostel. Amongst these were some Wayfarers, including John Watson, Bob Frost and later a young Hal Jacob. Colin had felt increasingly distant from associates in the Climbers Club and the Rucksack Club after the accident and increasingly spent his weekends either at Idwal Hostel or at RLH, places he particularly loved.

Idwal Cottage:Photo YHA©

Colin increasingly climbed with Bob Frost from the latter part of 1934, the two men having met one weekend at the Idwal Hostel. Bob was from Liverpool having been born on Merseyside in 1912. He obtained a clerical job with the Liverpool Corporation Trams Department and joined the Wayfarers Club in 1933 at the age of twenty one. Like Colin Kirkus, Bob was devoted to the mountains and virtually every weekend saw him at Idwal, RLH or out at Helsby rapidly gaining the experience that was to make him one of the finest rock climbers of the period. Like Colin, Bob usually got a lift to Wales or to The Lakes either from John Watson or from Graham Macphee of the Rucksack Club. Graham was also heavily involved at this time in preparing a new guidebook for Ben Nevis, and he and Bob made the first summer ascent in August 1935 of Gardyloo Gulley. By all accounts the ascent was a difficult one, and the climb retained its Scottish VS grade for the next forty years

Throughout the summers of 1935 and 1936 Bob climbed a great deal with Colin Kirkus, and hit a period of considerable form. Having already climbed Roper's notorious routes on Dow Crag (Black Wall and Great Central) and Central Buttress on Scafell, Bob succeeded in repeating all the then known routes on Clogwyn du'Arddu, including an early ascent of Maurice Linnell's Narrow Slab (originally put up in 1933.) Perhaps the most notable of these was a successful ascent of Pigott's East Buttress Route, arguably the hardest route on Cloggy until Joe Brown's ascent of Diglyph in 1951 (1 know that some people will argue for Bow Shaped Slab or the West Buttress Girdle, but they are just not as consistently nasty as Pigotts!) Bob climbed the route with Colin, in damp conditions and given the poor protection of the period it must have been quite a struggle. Certainly AB Hargreaves told me that the route was regarded with considerable awe by climbers until well after the Second World War

In July 1936 Bob travelled out to Chamonix with Colin, where they spent a fortnight dodging the showers and grabbing what action they could. For both men it was to be their only visit to the Mont Blanc range and for working lads of the time quite an enterprising effort. John Watson remembered recalling Bob's awe and delight at how far he had to tip his head back to see the tops of the mountains! They made a successful traverse of the Aiguille d'Argentiere, and the following day did the classic Forbes Arete on the Aiguille de Chardonnet. They were caught in a fierce storm on the descent and had a pretty grim time getting back to the hut almost at midnight, quite exhausted. This was something of a baptism of fire for Bob, as this was his first visit to the Alps. Bad weather moved in for the next few days, but they managed to climb the Ordinary Route on the Aiguille du Moine and the South West Face and Main Ridge of the Grand Charmoz before they had to return home to Liverpool. Commenting on the Chamonix trip Colin said: "It had been a most glorious holiday, in spite of the weather. People often find it hard to get on together through all the difficulties and discomforts of an Alpine holiday, but in Bob Frost I had found the perfect companion."

As I write this, I have in front of me Colin's album of photographs of that holiday of seventy years ago. It makes poignant viewing, given the respective fates of the two men over the next six years.


Despite being a top class rock climber (Colin Kirkus regarded him as being almost in the same class on rock as Fred Pigott and Maurice Linnell) Bob only made a few first ascents. Frost's Climb on Castel) Y Gwynt is very pleasant, while Arch Gully, Main Gully Ridge, Two Pitch Route and Five Pitch route were all done with Colin in the period 1935/36 when they were putting together the Glyder Fach guidebook (1937.) None of them are particularly outstanding but the two on Bochlwyd Buttress are a delight on a sunny evening.
In describing Bob as a climber, John Watson had this to say in the Wayfarers Journal of 1938:
"One remembers overhearing the remark, passed by an onlooker, as he watched, that "he made it look easy.' And truly, with his beautifully neat style and his perfect safety and composure on the most difficult problems, he did make it look so easy, and therein stamped himself as a supreme artist.

Bob continued climbing with Colin through the summer of 1937 and he helped in completing the draft of the Glyder Fach guidebook that was to be published at the end of the year. They did not visit The Alps that summer, but Colin and Bob did climb a great deal together and it is thought that Bob's enthusiasm was rapidly drawing Colin back into climbing really well again.
Alas, tragedy was to strike in the October of that year when Bob was travelling on his motorbike to Blackpool to see the illuminations. With him was Geoffrey Furness who had just applied for membership of the Wayfarers Club. The two men were involved in a collision with another vehicle just outside Rufford and both were killed. In five years Colin was gone too, lost in an RAF night bombing raid over Bremen.

It is almost certain that Ted Hicks and Bob Frost would have known each other, as their respective memberships of the Wayfarers Club overlapped by some years. I like to think that through the mutual friendship of Colin Kirkus and AB Hargreaves, they would have met on occasions, perhaps at RLH at the end of a good day on the hills and crags. The history of the Wayfarers Club contains the exploits of some great names in the evolution of British climbing. This is an opportunity in the context of the club's centenary to remember two lesser known characters who demonstrated with great effect what the Wayfarers Club was all about. Both men were experts on the crag and climbed at the highest standards of the day. Of far greater importance, is the considerable affection with which they were both remembered by their friends in the club. You get the feeling that they would both have been excellent company around the fire at RLH, with a fund of stories. Remembering them is also a nice reminder of a time when the Wayfarers Club was very much at the cutting edge of British Climbing, when it had come of age and become what the founder members in 1906 had cherished hopes for. Here's to Ted and Bob, and to their contribution to the history of the club.

AB did tell me on more than one occasion that "Colin and Ted quite easily got a long way up Suicide Wall at Idwal but neither could commit to the top part of the wall, regarding it as unjustifiable." AB wasn't able to clarify any further whether they were top roping or attempting to lead the climb, but it is a fascinating point to ponder on. John Watson also told me that Colin had looked at Suicide Wall, with Bob Frost, some years later.
The first ascent of Suicide Wall Route 1 by Chris Preston in the autumn of 1945, was an extraordinary achievement (albeit much rehearsed) and was incredibly bold even given the poor protection generally found on hard routes at that time. It is likely that the route did not get a second ascent until the early nineteen fifties, when it was led by Joe Brown.
I have often wondered if the line Colin and Ted attempted in 1929 was that now taken by Suicide Groove, some distance to the right of Preston's masterpiece. It is a far more amenable climb, notwithstanding its current grade of El 5b, and the groove line may well have caught their eye while exploring the East Wall area of the Idwal Slabs. I would love to have known more, but neither AB nor John Watson had further details to give me. Given the fierce standard that Colin, Ted and Bob were climbing at on Helsby, they were almost certainly capable of climbing Suicide Groove. The route was finally climbed in 1948 by the gifted John Lawton, but what a Wayfarers triumph that could have been!

Steve Dean©....first published in The Wayfarers Club Centenary Journal