Friday 1 April 2011

Bentley Beetham...the song remains the same.

About the Author..Ken Smith
Ken left the RAF,at the age of thirty-six to study Outdoor Activities at Northumberland Teachers' Training college where he was first introduced to mountaineering.
He was soon drawn to the high classic rock  climbs in the Lakes revelling in the ratified atmosphere of  a full mountain day on Scafell, Gable or Pillar.It was a far cry from the back lanes and rows of grey houses of the east end of  Tyneside where he was brought up.

He climbed on a regular basis for the next 30 years and if pushed he would probably nominate the magnificent  Mickledore Grooves on the East Buttress of Scafell, with its thought-provoking 140' run-out on the final pitch, as his most enjoyable route. Others in contention are Engineer's Slabs on Gable, Gimmer Crack and  perhaps Eliminate A on Dow.Deer Bield Crack also left its mark as did Central Buttress on Scafell more so when someone mentioned it was first climbed before the first World War.
There was the usual pilgrimage to Snowdonia and the Scottish Highlands picking out  many of the established classics. In Wales The Main Wall Climb on Cyrn Las, Piggotts route on Cloggy, Soap Gut on Milestone Buttress and Direct Route on Dinas Mot linger in the memory.

Across the border West Flank Route and South Ridge Direct on Arran are outstanding.His wanderings  took him to the French Alps, the Dolomities and the Julian Alps yet despite their grandeur the mountains of UK were his real interest. His respect for the early pioneers and what they achieved with little more than pair of sand-shoes and a  hemp rope  soon galvanised his interest in their exploits and he wrote his first article on Graham Balcombe, in the early seventies, about whom very little was known, at the time. Since then other biographical studies soon followed in Climber & Rambler,The Climber,High Magazine and SMC Journal.
After a lifetime of  football and climbing,his knee joints began to send out a message and he was advised to take up cycling. He now enjoys cycle tours around UK and is a great way of keeping fit and seeing the country but it will never take the place of climbing!

On a wet day in the summer of 1921 two mountaineers were walking, back from Wasdale along the Borrowdale road towards Keswick.
Not far beyond the Borrowdale Hotel they caught a glimpse of a clean sweep of rock through the trees and stopped to investigate. Scrambling up through the jumble of mossy boulders they found an interesting, sepia-coloured slab and climbed an obvious rib of surprising quality For whatever reason they did not explore fur­ther, went on their way, and did not give it a second thought. The climbers were Claud Deane Frankland and Bentley Beetham and the route they found is now known as Brown Slabs Arete. It was the first recorded climb on Shepherd's Crag.
Twenty five years later, at the age of 60, Beetham rediscovered Shepherd's and began his extraordinary and painstaking dissection of the crag. In the process he unearthed over 30 routes. Some were to become minor clas­sics in their own right. Climbs such as Brown Slabs (1946), Monolith Crack (1946), Little Chamonix (1946), Chamonix (1946), Donkey's Ears (1947) and Shepherd's Chimney (1946) have all stood the test of time and are still among the most popular routes in Borrowdale.
It is generally thought that after Shepherd's. Beetham became a victim of his own success. His speciality was to link out­crops of rock. often scattered about on the same hillside and describe it as a single route. A few had merit. such as a nomadic excursion called Pilgrim's Progress VD, which picks its way, for over 2.000ft. up the flanks of Lingmell, close to Piers Gill, above Wasdale. However, many others were more easily dis­missed, especially on the glaciated outcrops in Combe Ghyll,") as little more than enjoy­able scrambles.

In the Borrowdale guide, published in 1953 Beetham wrote, perhaps as a means to justify his approach: 'Many of these new climbs in Borrowdale do not follow a line of least resistance up frowning cliffs, but choose a difficult way up comparatively easy rocks... once the route has been decided 'upon we must follow it scrupulously or regard our efforts to do the climb as a failure'.
It was an approach that inevitably brought criticism. Most of it, however, was usually good-natured and his solitary figure could often be seen pottering around Borrowdale, with his brush and spade, digging out possi­ble routes. 'The trouble with Bentley', said one local 'is that he's always on the lookout for another Shepherd's'.
It should be emphasized that it would be a mistake to judge Beetham solely on his asso­ciation with Shepherd's or his legacy of indif­ferent rock-climbs. There is certainly more to the man than that. Apart from his abilities as a skilful Alpinist and Himalayan moun­taineer, in his prime. he could hold his own with the best rock-climbers of the day And as a dedicated and highly motivated schoolmas­ter. not only did he introduce scores of youngsters to the crags and hills of northern  England, but taught them through natural  history to understand and reflect on what. they saw around them — the debt many them owe him is immeasurable.
In 1899, at the age of 13, be became a pupil at Barnard Castle School and joined the Natural History Society, it was one of the turning points of his life and it was through the Society he enhanced his skills as a bird watcher and photographer. Later, he gained a national reputation as a respected ornithologist and wrote several books on the subject.  It is thought that he trained as an architect but did not stay long in the profession. He returned to the school, as Second Master in 1914 to teach Natural History and retired in 1941 — it was an association with the school that spanned over 30 years.
Those were the days when firm discipline was accepted as the norm — if any pupil stepped out of line they accepted the consequences. With all of the Harris tweed politics of a country squire and the intimidating presence ­of a provost sergeant, Beetham's reputation at the school was formidable —misbehaviour in his class was unheard of. It is thought he became interested in rock-climbing through scrambling on sea cliffs whilst photographing birds. His newly found hobby took him to Wasdale where he met T H Somervell, who became a life-long friend.
After the war years, together with Bower Somervell and Meldrum, they managed to persuade Godfrey Solly, the distinguished mountaineer, then aged 60, to introduce them to Alpine climbing. After two seasons learning-  their trade with Solly, they started to climb guide less and ascend many of the popular summits of the day Notably, Aiguille du Midi, Mont Blanc, Matterhorn, Aiguille du Tour and Aiguille du Grand Charmoz.

Beetham soon established himself as a skilled rock-climber and partnered Bower on the first ascent of Innominate Crack on Kern Knotts in 1921. He seemed to hit it off with Frankland, a fellow schoolmaster, and togeth­er they made first ascents of Troutdale Ridge on Black Crag (1921) and Woden's Face (1921) in the Bowderstone area. He became a mem­ber of the F&RCC, the Rucksack Club and The Alpine Club.
Eight years after Herford and party had first climbed Central Buttress, Scafell the climb still awaited a second ascent or, strictly speaking, a complete first ascent. In 1914, CB was climbed initially in three separate stages over several days. Justifiably regarded as the hardest climb in Britain it required a physiological breakthrough. On the morning of 20th August 1921Beetham and Frankland arrived below CB.They had done their homework and brought 80ft length of rope and a shorter one, of 50ft. for use on the chockstone. It was decided to climb the awkward slanting rib to The Oval and did not follow the original line that traversed in from the right. Their variation is now the accepted start of the ordinary route.
Frankland led off and had a hard time on the Flake. After about half an hour of various contortions and unable to make it go he went down to The Oval. Beetham was confident and said so, Frankland, who was on the sharp end was more uncertain. In the middle of deliberations they saw Bower and Kelly looking down at them from the top of the Flake. It
appears that they were prospecting downwards before their own attempt. Perhaps it the sudden appearance of unexpected competition that was just the spur needed. Without hesitation, Beetham climbed up below the chock stone, tied on, and invited Frankland  and to climb over him to gain height. The manoeuvre worked and with the crux behind them all four joined forces and finished the the route.
It was a magnificent effort, although R S T Chorley, editor of the F&RCC Journal, probably reflecting the backward looking attitude of establishment, thought the ascent, because it had been led without previous inspection on from a top rope, was pure but perhaps risky mountaineering.

After the 1921 and 1922 Everest expeditions another team was assembled in 1924 and Beetham accepted an invitation to join the party Short,muscular and designed to go the distance Beetham, seemingly oblivious to pain and discomfort, was known as a tenancious mountaineer. It was probably Somevell , a member of the 1922 expedition, who recommended him. Under the leadership of General Bruce, the nine climbers included Somervell, Norton, Odell, Noel, and Mallory.
 The expedition was particularly unlucky experiencing some of the worst weather for 30 years and with leading members struck down with illness. General Bruce was forced to return to Darjeeling after contracting malaria and Beetham developed a serious stomach infection during the walk in. Noel later wrote, 'Beetham, who is one of the stoutest men of the Alpine Club — a man with a marvel of pace and endurance on the mountains. A climbing companion who Somervell himself could not out rival in the Alps nearly died of dysentery But such was the strength of his constitution and determi­nation that he was able to go on...'
Later, Beetham developed an acute attack of sciatica and did not get higher than Camp 3. In Somervell's opinion he would certainly have been a contender for the summit. But it was not to be. After Norton and Somervell, who were forced to turn back less than 300ft below the summit, Irvine and Mallory made their ill-fated attempt and were never seen again. A memorial cairn was built, at Base Camp, on which Beetham carved an epitaph to those who lost their lives in the 1921-23 and 24 expeditions — the Chinese destroyed the monument after their occupation of Tibet.

In the years leading up to the Second World War Beetham acquired something of the reputation as a globe-trotter and this saw him climbing in Norway, the Tatra Mountains in Czechoslovakia, the Drakensberg in Natal, the New Zealand Alps and the High Atlas in Morocco which he visited four or five times and made several first ascents. It was proba­bly an injury to his ankle, which was sus­tained on the Grandes Jorasses, which caused him discomfort for the rest of his life and probably affected his standard on the rock face.
In 1929 he introduced rock-climbing to his pupils on Goldsborough Carr, a gritstone out­crop on Cotherstone Moors. Climbing trips there became a regular and popular part of the curriculum and formed the beginning of the Goldsborough Club. A few years later, the school acquired a Nissen hut"' in Borrowdale, which gave a new dimension to a day on the crags. From there the better climbers, under the leadership of Beetham, could enjoy many of the classic routes on Great Gable an Scafell.
These excursions to the Lakes became a important feature of school life for 15 years until the lease of the hut finally lapsed in September 1950. The hut was dismantled soon afterwards and with it the end of the Goldsborough Club. It should be said that not all ex-pupils have nostalgic memories of climbing days with Beetham. Arthur Best who later became an outside broadcasting engineer with BBC and ITV, recalled being scared stiff on his first and only rock-climb with 'Old Bentley'. Arthur later said: "He made it clear that he disproved of anyone showing fear. My grades in Biology had always been high and I feel certain, as a  consequence, they were marked down by Beetham."
It is quite probable that Beetham had fixed ideas on character building and thought that there was more to climbing than 'shinning up rocks. On the subject he wrote, `... "there is the carry to the climb, the safeguarding and helping of each other, the negation of self, the tired return when wet ropes have to be done up and carried, the adverse weather, the success, the failure, the fellowship and camaraderie, all of these are but the threads that go to make the weft and woof; the fabric is mountaineering, or, if you like, life itself'.

He never married and coming to terms with retirement could not have been easy and gone forever was the esprit de corps that formed his life with the school. Now with few commitments and his fitness still remarkable,he intensified his exploration, especially in Borrowdale. Joe Williams remembers meeting Beetham during this period: "We have a vivid memory of him on Raven Crag in the Combel Ghyll Valley: we were belayed at a stance during  an early ascent of Summit Route when some distance to our right a hand holding a brush appeared over the edge, daintily swept it clear of earth and moss and withdrew, to be followed by two hands and then by Bentley's cheerful, though somewhat grubby, counte­nance. He was engaged in 'gardening' a new route, equipped with a brush, a saw and other implements." Modern environmentalists may well be horrified by his gardening exploits and the surprising conflict of interests between his love of climbing and natural his­tory In Bentley's defence it could be said that, 60-odd years ago, environmental issues were not a high-profile issue they are today.

It was on Raven Crag, on the 10th June 1950, climbing solo, at the age of 62, he dis­covered Corvus, (D) which must be a con­tender for the finest route of its grade in Borrowdale. Beetham's fitness and strength of purpose certainly left a graphic impression on a young Bill Peascod when he wrote, 'He wielded an ice-axe better than anyone else I ever knew. On a perfect day on Great End, in the mid-40s, Beetham, who was 40 years my senior, was leading. Although there were sev­eral other parties above us... Beetham declined to use any of the steps others had made and cut his own. His skill held me spell­bound... two steps required three strokes... these were made with a clockwork rhythm and at such speed that, I, who was following, could barely keep up'.

Simon Raven on one of Bentley Beetham's most popular routes, Corvus (Raven) on Raven crag,
Borrowdale in the English Lake District: Photo Jayme Morgan/Simon Raven collection

In the '40s he took a serious fall in Raven Crag Gully, broke his skull in five places and sustained a compound fracture to his wrist. It was his only serious fall in a lifetime of climb­ing. He lay unconscious in Keswick hospital for three weeks and there was talk that he would not pull through, but he recovered and on his first day out of bed, took leave of absence and went for a walk up Helvellyn. He worked hard to regain fitness and took up squash where his ultra-competitive nature made him a difficult opponent. Later, he revisited the Himalaya, with Murray, but returned gaunt and underweight. Some feel he never really recovered from the damage to his head and some of his eccentric behaviour, in later years, probably stems from this old injury.
In 1959 he announced his retirement from climbing and settled in a small cottage in the village of Cotherstone, near where he lived as a boy and where he  hoped to see out the rest of his life. He said that to die in the hills was an acceptable way to go  but reality was depressingly different. He became incapacitated after a stroke and was destined to spend his final year in a nursing home. During his final deliriums it was said he asked for his climbing boots to be brought to his bedside and soon afterwards,on the 5th April 1963 he died aged 76.

His ashes were scattered from the top of Shepherds Crag near to Brown Slabs where many youngsters are still given their first introduction to rock climbing- it was a fitting and moving tribute to an old war horse.

Ken Smith©

Bentley Beetham historic Photographs courtesy of the Beetham Collection: Durham University

First published in High 252