Friday, 29 April 2011

Gritstone Visionary

 I'll just do one more  move and see what happens! 
John Syrett (frequently and in increasingly precarious situations) Photo Gordon Stainforth©

John burnt with such an intense flame and yet in the end in some mysterious way, he'd become the moth to his own flame. Jim Perrin

In High magazine in November 1994, there was published an excellent article by Dave Pegg, called "Dangerous Crocodile Snogging" - a perceptive view of the dangerous world of modern gritstone climbing.  To most climbers it would have made for highly gripping reading, with accounts of extreme technical difficulty linked to extraordinary levels of boldness.  Dave's article made it clear that modern gritstone at E7 and beyond, is about as committing as British climbing gets, combining a huge demand for courage with the most sophisticated of technique, in awesome situations.  His own quote sums it up well:

"Real climbers are addicted to an intensity of experience which goes beyond the mundane, and the gritstone edges will always provide an arena which will appeal to those with the most excessive personalities.  And why not?  If you are going to be a bear, you might as well be a grizzly."

History will of course tell us that this has always been the case.  Gritstone has proved to be the cutting edge of climbing development in Britain for generations, and has always had its bold innovators; key figures pushing the current levels increasingly into hazardous situations.  Their names are rightly revered; Frankland, Dover, Ellis, Birtwhistle, Dolphin, Brown, Whillans, Austin, Livesey, Fawcett, Dawes leading to the current achievements of John Dunne, Seb Grieve, Robin Barker and others.  The process is usually a gradual one, but on occasions a quantum leap occurs that redefines a whole period.  To my mind, the world Dave Pegg wrote about had its true beginnings in the early seventies, when a vast leap in standards occurred initially on the Yorkshire outcrops.  The key figure in this process was, of all things, a southerner!  To some extent his efforts are now somewhat forgotten or overlooked by the modern cognoscenti but his contribution on gritstone, more than twenty years ago, was fundamental in the developments that resulted in the brave new world of Dave Pegg's article.

John Syrett came from a village in Kent called Green Street Green, near Dartford, and after leaving school, where he was an outstanding gymnast, he started a degree course at Leeds University in the autumn of 1968.  Despite no previous climbing experience, he became a regular visitor to Don Robinson's famous climbing wall at the University, and soon demonstrated exceptional natural talent.  He took to visiting the local gritstone crags with the University Climbing Club, and formed an early partnership with another first year student, John Stainforth (twin brother of the writer/photographer Gordon Stainforth.)  The two Johns made a formidable team with great keenness allied to considerable ability.  On their first day out on gritstone they cruised up the Sloth (still a big deal in the late sixties.)  John's ability on the climbing wall soon became legendary, although he was just one of a highly talented group that included characters like Roger Baxter-Jones, Bernard Newman, Alex MacIntyre, Ken Wood, Al Manson, Pete Kitson and Brian Hall.  Angela Soper (née Faller) remembers the period:

"John was brilliant on the climbing wall - he could do moves with a gymnastic grace and strength that no-one else could get near.  He was then able to reproduce this dazzling ability on the gritstone crags.  He was quite extraordinary!"
The climbing wall, the first important one in Britain, was fifteen feet high with a hard landing.  Some of the problems were very bold indeed.  Dennis Gray recalled seeing John in action there:

"To see Syrett doing his now classic roof traverse, laybacking at the top of the wall on small undercuts with a fractured spine as a real possibility if he parted company . . . I guess that was adventure by anybody's standards, and nobody in the early seventies seemed keen to emulate the feat!"

Syrett leading Shrike on Clogwyn du Arddu:Gordon Stainforth©

John was developing into an exceptional rock climber, and in the summer of 1970 spent several weeks climbing in North Wales with the Stainforth brothers and Tim James.  He set about repeating a large number of hard classics gaining considerable confidence.  That autumn, back at Leeds, he set about the local gritstone extensively, his standard rapidly rising.  At that time the absolute bench mark on gritstone was Allan Austin's Wall of Horrors at Almscliff.  Rumoured to be unrepeated since the first ascent in 1961, and combining the top technical difficulty of the time with no protection, the climb had an awesome reputation, not least because of some big falls Austin had taken on it before making his ascent.  Wall of Horrors gradually became an obsession for John, who continued to train hard on the climbing wall determined to make his breakthrough.  One late autumn day, John abseiled down the route, and found a possible point for nut protection beneath the crux.  The following day he made the first ascent of the Brutaliser at Brimham, and then the next day returned to Almscliff with John Stainforth and Chas McGuirie.  It was a raw, windy November day, but John was determined to make his attempt at repeating Wall of Horrors.  Despite the poor conditions, he quickly disposed of the very technical starting moves, and then spent ten minutes fixing two small nuts beneath the crux moves.  He then cruised the crux, and climbed steadily to the top with increasingly cold hands.  Repeating this famous climb was a marvellous achievement, for the reputation of Austin's masterpiece had grown with the passing years.  John's own quote in Extreme Rock is revealing:

Yes - I'm up - I've done Wall of Horrors - it will never be like this again (and it wasn't)."

John Stainforth remembered that cold day at Almscliff:

"Chas belayed, while I took photographs.  John climbed the route with ease, making it look like any other route.  Neither Chas nor I were able to do the starting moves, and abseiled down to recover the runners.  The rope was whipped out over the top of the crag by the almost gale force wind."

John's ascent was not surprisingly big news (although it turned out to be a third ascent, Tony Nicholls of the Rimmon Club having made a bold ascent in 1965.)  I remember a grainy full-page photograph of John's ascent in Rocksport magazine, John crouched below the crux as the wind bowed the ropes away to the left - a dark, sombre image from a past age.  The significance of this was considerable.  It did not represent the creation of a new route or the breakthrough of a new grade, but it was more importantly the emergence of a new attitude and from a strangely charismatic character.  As would be expected, others made plans to climb such routes, something of a spell had been broken and training crept into the equation.  By the mid-seventies it would be commonplace.  In some quarters John was initially marginalised as a climbing wall created star, but those long hours on the wall were coupled with exceptional talent, and increasingly a drive to make new climbs.  In addition to ability on the crag, John applied, and expected in others a very high level of safety and rope management.  Gordon Stainforth who climbed with him both in Britain and the Alps, recalled John's qualities as a very safe and encouraging partner.

Physically John was of average height, a graceful man with thick, dark, curly hair, striking saturnine features and haunting eyes.  In flared denims and EBs he became something of an icon of that period - a tough role for a sensitive personality.  In many respects a genuine child of the sixties, there was a strange purity about John, almost an 'other worldliness.'  Contemporaries remember him as great fun to be with, gregarious and yet somehow distant.  His approach to climbing was one of complete honesty, and nil bullshit.  During a period of confusing, and indeed dishonest, ethics regarding the use of aid on some free routes, John adopted a level of integrity that was greatly to his credit, particularly when one considers the huge jump in standards and attitude he was to be part of.

Over the next year the multi-talented and highly competitive Leeds group put the standard volcanic and grit test pieces to the sword.  A new era dawned, most particularly on the long neglected outcrops of Yorkshire.  Fierce training on the University wall, combined with the stimulus of group pressure, and the accessibility of places such as Almscliff and Caley, served to produce a series of superb new climbs, and with them the emergence of a new approach to the game.  Ron Fawcett put forward the suggestion that Yorkshire Gritstone was the true crucible of the huge leap in free climbing standards in the early 1970s, and the evidence was clear to see.  John was a central figure in this process, perhaps the most talented on rock of an exceptional group, that included gritstone masters such as Al Manson and Pete Kitson.  John was to enjoy a golden period from 1970-1973, when he produced over forty new routes on gritstone and removed aid points from a number of others.  Most of his new contributions were of the highest quality, and at the highest standards of the period.

Jim Perrin wrote of this time:

"The list of John's new routes reads like the recitation of a Yorkshire gritstone connoisseur's test pieces: Joker's Wall, The Brutaliser, Propeller Wall, Earl Buttress, Encore, Brown Sugar, Thunderclap, Midnight Cowboy, Syrett's Roof and The Big Greeny - the last of these, the impending, pocketed wall above Frankland's Green Crack at Almscliff, which he climbed in 1972, being one of the two or three most significant outcrop climbs of the post-Brown era."

Stories of the Leeds group abound from this period; superb climbing, combined with high levels of drinking, partying and drug abuse!  Competitive sessions on the indoor wall with John outstanding, and lively visits from characters such as Al Rouse and 'Hot' Henry Barber.  Hitching all over Britain to pick off hard and rarely repeated classics - the full flowering of the post-hippy climbing scene before it all got very serious by the end of the 1970s.  John soon reached the top standards achieved in Yorkshire and Derbyshire and repeated many hard classics in good form.  Mike Mortimer remembers him cruising up The Rasp with only two runners, at the end of a long day, while John Stainforth recalled John bursting into his bedsit in Leeds, having just repeated Our Father at Stoney Middleton (one of the hardest routes in the country at that time) and saying: "You've got to do it John, it's only about V.Diff!"

After some initial setbacks, John soon became very capable indeed and began to produce bold new routes at a standard rarely seen before.  At Brimham, Joker's Wall and Brutaliser were hard test pieces that defeated many in the years ahead.  Joker's Wall was snatched in some desperation from the predatory hands of a visiting Al Rouse, and had already cost John a broken ankle on a previous failure.  At Ilkley he produced the extraordinary bold Propeller Wall in the Quarry.  So the story goes, John laid out his sac on the ground below the route and then set off up it solo, cruising the scary wall above the break and declaring it "a tough little VS!"  The route is now graded E5 5c, and sees few ascents today.  Other highlights were three new routes at Earl Crag, including the excellent Earl Buttress (E2 5c), and the technical masterpiece The Pocket at Deer Gallows.  At the neglected Guisecliff, he made two outstanding contributions; one was to free Dingbat of its two points of aid, to give a very steep and strenuous route (now graded E3 6a), while the other was the first ascent of the thrilling flake of Guillotine.

Ken Wood remembered the day at Earl Crag:

"Hatchet Crack and Earl Buttress were in fact done on the same day.  It was a sunny day so we went to Earl.  We both had scores to settle there.  I'd nearly got up what was to become Hatchet Crack (it was a chop route) and John had taken a flyer off Earl Buttress on an earlier occasion, when his fingers went numb on the crux one freezing day.  This time I romped up Hatchet Crack, and thus we went to the other end of the crag where John bombed up the superb Earl Buttress."

"John was a pleasant,modest and unassuming sort of guy.He was pretty intense too-not particularly ready or willing to talk about his background, himself or his aspirations.He was a powerhouse climber.We were at Burbage one day and I pointed him at Goliath, which I'd struggled up a few months earlier.It must have taken him all of three minutes!'    Ken Wood   

It is, however, at Almscliff that John best left his mark on gritstone.  Following his early ascents of Wall of Horrors and Western Front, he proceeded to add five new routes and numerous boulder problems.  Of the new climbs he added there, two are particularly spectacular and bold; Big Greeny (E3 6a) still retains a formidable reputation with a hard crux in a thrilling position.  Incredibly the route was led on-site with no prior top-roping, and was named after the Nº 56 Leeds Corporation bus.  On an early attempt, John was alone at the crag and persuaded a passing tourist to belay him!  John proceeded to plummet from the crux moves high on the face above Frankland's Green Crack, causing the tyro belayer to shoot up at great speed.  Appropriately Big Greeny is immortalised on the front cover of the current Yorkshire Gritstone guidebook.  A first ascent photo was taken by John Harwood on a beautiful sunny evening; the black and white image captures John pulling into the crux sequence, wearing an old jumper, flared jeans and battered old EBs (early seventies climbing chic!)  Big Greeny was bold for the time, years before the arrival of Friends and modern footwear, dependant upon technique and courage backed up by only primitive nut protection.  Further left on Almscliff's North West Face, John added Encore, an enterprising and gymnastic line through the overhangs above Finale Slab, a first ascent photo later appearing on the cover of  Mountain Magazine.  John also made a number of attempts on a thrilling line over the Goblin's Eyes Roof, but was beaten to this one by a bold push from Hank Pasquill (Orchrist E4 6b) later in 1973.  Almscliff already had a superb reputation as a bouldering spot and the early seventies saw a number of hard new problems created.  John was a star on the boulders as were several of the Leeds boys, and perhaps his best effort was Syrett's Roof (necky 6b).  On occasion he would dismay would-be suitors by cruising up it in the wet, the reward for failure a badly snapped ankle.

John was less active on Yorkshire Limestone, but did create two very fine routes at Malham.  Memory Lane is both fierce and technical, while Midnight Cowboy on The Terrace is quite brilliant, with a bold technical ramp followed by a very steep 'gorilla' flake.  The route only succumbed after a monster fall on an early attempt, and an unusual form of aid was required to complete the route in failing sunlight.  John Stainforth describes this ascent with some humorous recollections:

"I had spotted this superb, compact stretch of unclimbed limestone above The Terrace at Malham, which I thought would be just the thing for John: gritstone purity, made of limestone.  And so John waited patiently (with growing impatience) while Brian Hall and I took turns to strip ivy off the lower reaches of the wall.  Finally John grabbed a few runners and threw himself at the wall.  He went straight to our high-point (a small nut at fifteen feet) and then launched himself straight at the wall to the left.  Brian was belaying at the time, whilst I had a perfect view lying in a small tree growing out into space from The Terrace ledge.  John went straight across the ramp feet smearing all the way; he looked like he was falling and moving upwards at the same time!  In about ten seconds he reached a flake crack where he placed his only large nut - a MOAC; and then laybacked straight up the crack.  At the top of the crack he decided he needed a point of protection to do a hard move.  Trouble was he had used up his supply of runners so he down-climbed the crack, took of the one decent runner on the pitch, and climbed back up to the top of the crack, placed the nut into the crack and then fell back onto it!  For John this immediately rendered his ascent imperfect and was the reason he described the route as having a point of aid.  However, being John, he decided to give us something else - a gymnastic display!  So he arched over backwards, until he was totally upside down, waving his arms around waving his arms around and saying "this is great up here!" - forty feet above our heads.  I was thinking that this must be the mother and father of nut placements, since from where I was lying, I had a perfect view of this nut pivoting up and down in the crack.  Suddenly, John was flying out into space, as the nut ripped, and Brian was swept off the ledge, but to his credit managed not to lose control of the rope (in those pre-Sticht plate days, we used Woolworths gardening gloves and traditional belaying techniques).  Ah, John Syrett a wild party animal, and yet a total purist, a stylistic puritan on rock."

John also came very close to snatching the much coveted first ascent of Central Wall at Kilnsey Crag, but was just beaten to it by a determined assault by Pete Livesey and John Sheard.  In the early seventies Pete Livesey produced a whole string of extraordinary ascents all over the country that heralded in a major advance in overall standards.  Pete was subjected to a lot of early criticism, particularly in the Lake District  and Yorkshire, but John was a great admirer of his early efforts, and a quote of his summed it up:

"Wellington Crack is utterly brilliant - the first true extreme on gritstone".

"Hell! he's got big arms - and that blue-eyed god-like expression doesn't help either.'
Pete Livesey talking about John, in "Arms Like a Fly" (1972)   

John graduated in the summer of 1972, with a degree in Applied Mineral Sciences, but remained in Leeds for a number of years.  Perhaps his best year on the crag was to be 1973 by which time his ability and fitness were at their peak.  However, late that year disaster struck which was to have a profound effect on the remainder of John's life.  At a typically drunken party at Leeds, he cut his hand badly trying to open a can of beer (pre-ring pull days) with a serrated kitchen knife.  It is the kind of stupid thing we've all done when drunk or stoned, but in an instant the damage was done and the major tendons in two fingers were severed.  The accident was a very serious one, John delayed in getting adequate treatment, and it was to be many months before he could even attempt to climb again.  Despite prolonged and painful physiotherapy, the recovery was only partial and John was forced to confront the realisation that climbing at the level he desired might never return - he was just twenty-four.  He did visit Yosemite in the summer of 1974, and made a number of early British repeats, but he was to climb only infrequently after that.  The Leeds group gradually fragmented, and from here the story begins to darken.

John Stainforth takes on the thuggish crux of Sloth E1-(US 5.10) with John Syrett on belay. The Roaches, Staffordshire England.Photo G Stainforth©

Mike Mortimer recalled his last meeting with John, at Easter in 1974, some time after the accident.

"Bob West and I were up in Scotland, and had just reached the summit of the Ben in atrocious conditions, when who should appear out of the storm but John having just soloed up Gardyloo Gulley.  Afterwards, we stayed with him in a caravan he had rented off an American student at Leeds, somewhere in Glen Nevis.  He was up there throughout the winter, soloing classic routes on the Ben, and then hitching back to Leeds periodically to collect his dole.  In a strange way, John seemed to really enjoy that lonely period of climbing on the Ben and hitching to and from Leeds."

John spent much of the mid-seventies in Leeds working nights as a petrol pump attendant, and later stacking shelves at Safeways.  At this time he was living in a flat at Birchett Place, climbing very little.  By all accounts he developed an intense frustration at missing out on much of the development then taking place in Yorkshire, and became increasingly paranoid and bitter, gradually distancing himself from people.  Friends were aware of the complexities involved, but were unable to really help him.  Together with the anguish and frustration of the injury, John suffered a number of emotional traumas over relationships that complicated the situation.  Jim Perrin expressed the view that John's very considerable physical beauty and charm tended to provoke strong and often strange reactions from people.  This often led to a considerable instability in his emotional life, that caused great pain and anxiety to an essentially honest and straightforward character.  It was almost certainly deep problems in this area of this life, as well as the consequences of damage to his hand, that culminated in John's tragic decline after the age of thirty.  John had great integrity in his dealings with other people linked to a magnanimous spirit, but seemed by his late twenties to have become increasingly hard and unforgiving towards himself.

John finally left Leeds in the summer of 1978, and embarked on a physiotherapy course in Newcastle that autumn.  He started to climb regularly again, and soon acquired a solid reputation amongst the Northumberland lads for boldness and skill.  Occasional stories drifted south of long solitary bike rides out to the remote sandstone outcrops, and courageous attempts to recover that magic touch that had been lost with the accident.  His last new route was in Northumberland, on the serious little crag at South Yardhope.  Stella (E4 5c) is a very bold line up some poor flakes - the grade says it all; something of the old drive was still there.  After completing the course at Newcastle, John worked on the North Sea oil rigs for some time - happy memories of sun-kissed Almscliff or Brimham must have seemed light years away from the austerity of this often dangerous work, and the almost constant cold.  He left the rigs in 1984, following a fatal accident to a workmate.  The event upset John deeply, and he blamed himself despite being officially cleared of any responsibility.  The gradual retreat into solitude, alcohol and periods of depression, already well advanced, now worsened.  With this process came the increased peril of perceived isolation.

Ken Wood remembered meeting John around this time:
"I last saw John in the early '80's.  He arrived at my place out of the blue (he had a habit of doing that) and we chatted about various things over a pint.  I happened to mention the blitz which had been taking place over the previous few years on Yorkshire Limestone.  He turned to me and said, with an indescribably sad tone in his voice: "Ah yes, but where were we when all this was going on".  Missing out on the great limestone revolution had really hurt him.  No doubt in my mind, but for his injury, he would have been there at the forefront."

"It never occurs to you that your friends could be alcoholic.  Even when he started to pack a bottle of Scotch to go out to the crag, you still imagine it's just for a laugh."

Bernard Newman talking about John in 1987   

One evening in June 1985, John turned up unannounced at Pete Livesey's house in Malham carrying a sac containing only Scotch.  They drank and talked through the night, and the following morning John departed.  He spent the following night alone on the top of Malham Cove, and at first light next morning he fell to his death.  Suicide?  A misadventure caused by alcohol? - We will never be sure.  Angela Soper knew John during his years at Leeds, and commented:

"There were essentially two Johns; there was more than a hint of schizophrenia there and in the end the depressed side got on top, due to a number of factors.  It was a terribly sad business.  The Coroner took a very humane and considerate view.  He concluded that as there was no-one else at the top of the cove when John fell, and no note left behind, that it could have been an accident.  An open verdict was returned that he fell from the top of Malham Cove."

John's funeral was an occasion of particular sadness, and in just over a year Al Rouse had gone as well, lost on K2.  The inspired young gods of our generation on gritstone and in Wales, both taken in their mid-thirties.  The image of Syrett and Rouse, both barely out of school, battling it out on the Leeds Wall and on gritstone, or the time the two of them  'found' a crate of Scotch on the pavement in Chamonix and returned in triumph to the campsite for a mega party!  Somehow such things sum up much of the energy and flavour of the early seventies.  Both men were so talented, and yet both were seemingly driven by demons that would in time claim them both.  In the history of British climbing, John's place is assured as the torch bearer of a whole new and exciting era.   He combined a technical brilliance with a lot of neck, and the vision to create a series of wonderful new climbs.  In an obituary written in 1985, Pete Livesey remembered John as "an iconoclast,"  and indeed it is the perfect description; a breaker of images, someone who attacks cherished beliefs to pursue a savage freedom.  In climbing terms there is no higher praise.  By all accounts he was an intelligent and generous spirit, and would probably be highly impressed by the incredible boldness at the top end of gritstone climbing.  His own contribution and push more than twenty years ago, did much to lead to the current developments.

"He was the best climber to watch on rock that I have ever seen - only Boysen at his best coming close.  And he was rigorously honest.  Without once preaching the gospel of purism, John embodied it."
    Jim Perrin   

There is a not unreasonable viewpoint, that the overall experience of climbing both physical and mental, is so powerful and meaningful for some people when they are young, that it can seriously disrupt the remainder of their lives.  It is almost as if a deep restlessness is stirred that nothing else can satisfy.  It can develop into a dependency as strong and malevolent as any generated by emotion, alcohol or drugs.  Was such a situation the core of John's fate, or was it something much deeper?  In his essay about Almscliff in "Extreme Rock" he concludes with a poignant paragraph.

"The crest of the wave was soon to break, to quote Wood.  Oh those halcyon days!  On the crag with barrels of beer, parties in Leeds, the Stones, rasping and grasping at Brimham - it all seems a thousand years ago."

With the obvious benefit of hindsight, these words now seem tinged with a sense of loss, isolation and not a little sadness.  Perhaps John's particular genius was itself a function of that very isolation; an isolation that was to prove too much once his central form of self-expression was denied him.  It is now eleven years since he died.  Some of my closest climbing friends knew him well, and climbed with him.  They still talk about John frequently, as I'm sure do many others.  To our sport he brought a particular talent, grace and attitude that enriched it, and inspired others to follow and in turn make their own journey.  He deserves to be remembered.

I wrote this piece fifteen years ago and it is now some twenty six years since john’s tragic death at Malham.  Since the early 1970s, a major feature of British climbing has been the increase in technical standards and boldness on gritstone in particular.  John was a major figure in this process at the outset and his place in the history of British climbing is well established.  In his recent autobiography Ron Fawcett gives particular credit to John and to Pete Livesey, for the huge impact they had on Yorkshire climbing and the inspiration they were to him as a youngster.

Particular thanks to:
Mark Clark, John Harwood,Pete Livesey,Mike Mortimer,Bernard Newman,Jim Perrin, Angela Soper, Gordon and John Stainforth,Phil Swainson, Michael Ward and Ken Wood.

Steve Dean©: First published in Climber August 96