Thursday 26 May 2011

Colin Kirkus: Gemini rising.

Legend has it that the Welsh cliffs of Craig yr Ysfa were discovered by telescope from Scafell. Perhaps through the same mystical -spyglass we can look back across more than half a century. to 1927, and focus on a moment of human drama being played out on this mountain situated in the remote Cameddau. High up in B Gully, a solitary youth has been struggling for some time, to overcome an awkward chock stone in the main pitch. His position has become quite serious as the normally greasy crack has been made even more inhospitable by heavy rain. Hanging by one hand he frantically scrapes some mud from a crevice in an effort to make it go, but it is now an uneven contest and as his strength gives out he slips backwards and falls about 15ft to the bed of the gully. Pride dented, though otherwise unhurt, he rushes again at the crack and is again deposited at the bottom, this time sliding dangerously near the edge. It was only then he decided to call it a day and make his way back to his holiday digs in Betws y Coed.

Later that week, after climbing solo on Tryfan. the young tyro found himself spread-eagled on the exposed crux of a climb called Lazarus. far above Idwal Slabs — once again, climbing alone, he became committed on a large mountain crag, with no one to help if he got into difficulties. Unable to make the hard move, he lassoed a small spike with a length of line and escaped by clambering up the rope. Anyone who has done the route will know exactly where this incident took place.Colin Kirkus, nudged by providence, miraculously survived that holiday. He was 17 years old and was serving his time in the hardest possible school of solo climbing. The following year he joined the Climbers' Club and with the guiding influence of more experienced climbers, especially Alan (AB) Hargreaves, this shy gangling youth. for the next seven years, strode like a Colossus across the British climbing scene. During this time he made about 40 first ascents, many in the upper grades of difficulty. he demonstrated, by example, what was possible on Welsh rock, and his routes, characterised by long, unprotected run outs on steep open rock, represented the aspirations of an age.

Then in 1934, a fatal accident to his climbing partner. Maurice Linnell, on the icy slopes of Ben Nevis.was a body blow from which he probably never really recovered and extinguished most of his interest in serious exploration.
He was born in 1910 and as a boy spent many of his annual holidays in North Wales with his family, often scrambling on outcrops with his younger brothers. At the age of 12 he acquired Abraham's British Mountain Climbs and it was this publication which, like so many of his generation, directed his interest in classic rock routes. It should be remembered that there was very little general climbing literature around at the time. Later, he worked as a clerk in a Liverpool Insurance Office, and during those early formative years would sometimes walk or cycle to the crags in Snowdonia — a round distance of 90 miles.*

*(Actually Liverpool to Central Snowdonia and back is more like 120 miles )

It was during one of Kirkus's solo outings when he met up with a group of CUMC members, including Ted Hicks,one of the Cambridge Club's leading climbers, and Charles Warren. Memories of that day in 1929 are tantalisingly rare, but Warren recalls the incident with some surprising clarity:" Hicks and I had been climbing on Tryfan and were at the foot of Terrace Wall, we were about to embark upon Ivan Waller's classic climb when a solitary figure appeared from below. Now, in those days, we were strictly brought up in the traditions of the Club and climbing solo was something to be deplored. And here was a climber on Tryfan unroped. We accosted him and invited him to join our rope. It was Colin Kirkus. We thereupon proceeded to climb Belle Vue Bastion. After that  we realised the fellow was no ordinary person and was the dominant leader throughout the rest of the day when we went to climb the Direct Route on Glyder Fach. Kirkus then indicated he would like to attempt a narrow groove on the East Buttress, previously unclimbed. At first he explored it on a top rope then led it soon afterwards. The crux being the last 20ft, preceded by a difficult overhang, when there is no looking back — the route was duly christened, Lot's Groove. Hicks was the only one able to follow".

The modern grading of Lot's Groove is Hard Very Severe 5a. The following day the party met at the East Face of Tryfan where Kirkus proposed to try a new line on Terrace Wall which resulted in Central Route, considered somewhat harder than Lot's Groove, even Hicks could not follow. This tour de force by an inexperienced 19 year old was remarkable, of his technical ability there was no doubt, but his apprenticeship on big rock walls was still to be made and someone was needed to keep him on a loose rein.
It was at Helyg, the Climbers' Club Hut in Ogwen, where he first met Alan Hargreaves; their first climb together was Holly Tree Wall, a polished, classic VS in Idwal which they did in nailed boots. Kirkus's reputation for solo climbing had preceded him and many established members regarded him as reckless. Despite this, the pair climbed together on a regular basis, both in North Wales and the Lakes. It is interesting to speculate how long Kirkus would have survived if ABH had not taken him on.

The diamond shaped Craig Lloer in the Carneddau range.Home of one of three classic 'Kirkus Routes'in N Wales

On first acquaintance they were an unlikely partnership, Kirkus, rather shy and remote, not easy to get to know, was in direct contrast to the diminutive Hargreaves, six years older than Colin, with a forceful personality and a prickly disposition, but tempered with an impish sense of humour.
When unable to reach Snowdonia, he honed his instinctive skills on the sandstone outcrop of Helsby Crag, where he reinforced his belief in himself and his ability to move up vertical rock, relying on finger strength and what ABH calls his 'extensible reach'. Supported by ABH, Kirkus and Hicks forced 25 climbs here and produced a new guide for Helsby.

He was not considered a smooth performer on rock, to some onlookers he gave the impression of awkwardness, almost akin to an ungainly colt. On Derbyshire gritstone he looked un-coordinated, yet he left, for posterity, Kirkus's Corner on the Flying Buttress at Stanage Edge. At a techni­cal grade of 5b, and now El, it was probably unrepeated for 20 years.
By 1930 Kirkus came of age and was acknowledged as the outstanding climber in North Wales. With ABH he made the second ascent of Longland's on Clogwyn du'r Arddu, taking four and a half hours in the process and removing vast quantities of rubble and vegetation — it had all the epic qualities of a first ascent. After that there was a sortie to the Lakes for a fifth ascent of Gimmer Crack and an eighth of Central Buttress. Although the year did not begin well when Colin took a 70ft fall from the Great Central Route on Dow Crag breaking his toe and turning ABH upside down on the belay stance. Apart from the fact that he was facing the wrong way on the South American Crack, Hargreaves thinks lack of fitness and over-confidence were the main causes. Kirkus later returned and became the first to lead the ex­tremely difficult Bandstand Wall without aid. It justifiably retains a technical grading of Hard Very Severe 5b — many modern climbers avoid this move and climb the alternative corner.

The next few years were memorable ones and under the stimulus of talented campaigners, such as Alf Bridge, Graham MacPhee, Ivan Waller and the brilliant Maurice Linnell, he was to change the face of Welsh climbing. In an analysis of pre-war climbing, Clark & Pyatt's Mountaineer­ing in Britain had this to say..........
 From 1930 onwards, Kirkus was, perhaps, the most outstanding leader operating in North Wales. He appeared dedicated to the creation of difficult and ever more difficult routes. Between 1930 and 1934, Kirkus radically altered the contemporary assessment of what was possible on Welsh rocks.

In June 1930, he pioneered Great Slab, the first route on the West Buttress of Clogwyn du'r Addu, with Graham MacPhee. Many had looked at this area of rock, especially Fred Pigott, but were intimidated by the rampart of over­hangs which guard the lower cliff. Kirkus, not to be denied, found a weakness which allowed a flanking attack. The initial traverse was the crux pitch and the key to the climb. Unlike Kirkus, modern climbers can protect this move, 'The traverse was Very Severe', he later recorded, 'there was one sloping hold where my rubbers would not grip at all, so at last I took them off and managed to get across in my stock­ing feet'.

Because of the scarcity of stances MacPhee tied two ropes together and Kirkus found himself climbing, at times, on a vertical, grass roller coaster — it was an impressive lead by any standard requiring a combination of nerve, skill and an impressive degree of moral fibre. Today's relatively clean route, no more than Severe in its upper reaches, yet still inescapable, is light years away from the loose and vegetated ascent which he faced 62 years ago. It was probably Kirkus who coined the nickname, 'Cloggy' for the cliff.
Soon afterwards, he laid siege to the open section of slabs on the nose of Dinas Mot, the subsequent climb took five and a half hours in the making. The final crack was climbed in stockinged feet, where they took a battering — he then attached his bloody socks to a tree, like a 'talisman', where they remained. for a long time, above, what was destined to become, one of the finest of Welsh climbs — it was of course, Direct Route (Very Severe).

After Great Slab. there was an all too brief love affair with 'Cloggy'  which produced Chimney Route, with Menlove Edwards. and Pedestal Crack, which he climbed with  Maurice Linnell. On the 19th June, 1932, he led Linnell up Birthday Crack. (by coincidence they were born on the same day), then in the afternoon, a joint effort solved the dilemma of Curving Crack on the East Buttress.
The penultimate pitch of Kirkus' magnificent eponymous VS(5.8) climb in Cwm Silyn

Other notable routes which fell under his prospecting include a classic Very Severe, on the isolated Great Slab of Craig yr Ogof in Cwm Silyn, which bears his name. There was a return to Craig yr Ysfa where, perhaps seeking some form of retribution, he soloed a Severe line on the exposed upper cliff which he called Pinnacle Wall.
With Ivan Waller, he provided the solution to another outstanding problem on Dinas Mot — it required a typical Kirkus lead, requiring total commitment on the long serious runout, and was quite modern in its concept. It was eventually called West Rib, with a present day grading of Hard Very Severe 5a. After that, they went up and down the Nose of Dinas Mot. Waller, a few years younger than Kirkus, and a fine performer in his own right, found climbing with Colin hard. He told him that he was taking things too near the limit.

Some of Kirkus's contemporaries did question his judgment  on occasion. Ernest Wood-Johnson, recalled one incident on the East Wall of Idwal Slabs, when the face was running with water, and Colin was attempting to force a route up Heather Wall.... he was quite high off the ground and obviously in trouble with his feet sliding down this sloping ledge. Precariously balanced, he was unable to accept a top rope and had to be lassoed, cowboy style, before a rescue could take place'.

On another occasion he fell from Fergus Graham's Javelin Buttress, while trying to bring some circulation into his cold hands by flapping them about. Hargreaves was to save him again, in 1932, on Craig yr Ysfa, when a piton he intended using for aid, in an effort to make a direct start to Pinnacle Wall, popped out and Kirkus fell about 30ft, hitting a ledge on the way down, before he was fielded by ABH —to his knowledge this was the only occasion Kirkus had used pitons, which at the time was extremely controversial, 'I was shocked' Hargreaves wrote, 'because we two generally agreed that steeplejack's ironmongery was out of place on crags, British crags at any rate...'

He was the first to open up the East Buttress of Scafell with his magnificent Mickledore Grooves — a masterpiece of route finding. It was much sought after, attempted by many of Lakeland's leading climbers, including H M Kelly. Some years before, Kelly made a serious attempt to reach the big groove by traversing in from Mickledore Chimney. Kirkus led a direct attack by climbing the short, overhanging wall, below the steep grooves, which led to a platform, from where he was able to launch his assault on the undercut slab. Unhappy with the lack of friction in his sand shoes, due to the large amount of damp vegetation, he climbed in socks an took an hour to lead the slab pitch — there was no protection on the 140ft run out.

The cluster of pitons on the slab ap­peared after the first ascent and brought a sharp rebuke from Kirkus in the Wayfarers' Club Journal — he was not averse to the use of pitons. but he reasoned that if a climb is first led without them, their subsequent use could well tarnish the first ascent. The route today is considered delicate and sustained at Very Severe 4c. Pioneered in 1930, Mickledore Grooves, in mane ways. was a warning shot across the bows of Lake District climbing, reminding them that the balance of exploration had swung firmly towards North Wales, and it was to stay there for almost a decade.

Hoping to be named for the 1933 Everest Expedition he set himself an intense training programme, this included a series of stamina-testing walks and climbs. During a 24 hour period in 1932 he biked 135 miles to Capel Curig, from where he walked over to Pen Helyg, Camedd Llewellyn, Glyder Fawr, Crib Goch, Crib y Ddysgl and back to Capel Curig. Seemingly oblivious to cold and discomfort, he trained his body to endure hardship and slept in the open on Ben Nevis in winter conditions, probably to prove a point.

Although he did not show it, Kirkus must have been bitterly disappointed when he learned of his exclusion from the Everest party. His limited Alpine experience was one of the reasons given and there were reports he suffered from altitude sickness — this probably came from Frank Smythe who had climbed with Kirkus in the Alps and was an influential member of the Alpine Club. It is generally thought that Kirkus, who was not ex-public school or an Oxbridge graduate. was considered not the 'right stuff — It was elitism in the worst possible taste and an all too familiar example of the pre-war class system in this country.

There was some compensation when he was invited on the Marco Pallis Himalayan Expedition to the Gangotri Glacier in 1933. Among the peaks ascended was the unclimbed Bagirathi South (6,866m). Charles Warren remembers Colin's brilliant lead on the most difficult section of the climb, without which the party would not have have reached the summit. In a report in the Alpine Journal, Warren recalls:
`At the period when it was accomplished this ascent was perhaps deserving of greater recognition than it received at the time, because it demonstrated what could be done on a difficult Himalayan peak. of considerable altitude, by a small party carrying its own equipment'.
The Easter weekend of 1934 saw Kirkus and Linnell camping on Ben Nevis. They had travelled up on Linnell's motor cycle. overnight from Kendal. After spending Good Friday skiing. they embarked the following day on a me­dium-difficult snow climb in Castle Coire. Towards 3pm in the afternoon they were not far below the summit plateau, with Kirkus in the lead, the snow conditions were good as he prepared to negotiate the final pitch.

Without warning a snow-step broke below Kirkus. He fell, feet first, down the slope, attempting to brake  with his ice-axe but to no avail and Linnell was pulled from his stance as Kirkus was swept, a full rope length, over the cliff. They both plunged another 200ft or so and were only stopped when their rope became snagged. When Kirkus regained consciousness, he found Linnell dead, strangled by their climbing rope. Despite his injuries, including impaired vision, he secured Linnell's body and climbed to the summit for help. After the accident, Kirkus recovered in hospital at Fort William and Linnell was buried in a small graveyard in Glen Nevis. Sadly, Linnell's parents, no doubt overcome with grief, accused him openly of causing their son's death.

Kirkus was taken down to Idwal Cottage in North Wales, by Connie Alexander, a close friend and Warden of the Youth Hostel to convalesce. For a long time he did blame himself for the tragedy, suffering from severe bouts of depression A great deal of credit must go to Connie Alexander for his rehabilitation. Gradually he rekindled an interest in the mountains, soloing around the crags in Cwm Idwal, alone with his thoughts. There were a couple of modest, new routes on Cwm Cneifion,towards the end of 1936, and two years later, a trip to the sea cliffs of Cornwall. He was commissioned to produce a new Climbers' Club Guide for Glyder Fach, published in 1937 and described by Kretschmer as " perhaps the best liked and most useful guidebook for the average climber'. The project helped to show he had not lost all his nerve and ability but it was a passing phase, the real spark had gone.

A great deal of his time was spent encouraging and coaching novices on simple climbs. Later, he wrote Let's Go Climbing, a book for beginners in which he displayed his communication skills simply and clearly — like the man, it was without pretensions. When war broke out, in the autumn of 1939. there was no specialist training in mountain warfare. To counteract this, the War Office set up various military units in North Wales, Cornwall and Scotland with top climbers, such as Alf Bridge, Wilfred Noyce and David Cox as mountaineering instructors. Kirkus would probably have been ideal for this venture, but instead he enlisted in the RAF and was trained as a navigator and bomb aimer. It is said that he hoodwinked the military medical board, hiding the fact that his eyes, damaged by the accident on Ben Nevis, were defective — a surprising decision by him, considering his aircrew duties. Perhaps he felt the need to volunteer for the RAF because his elder brother was killed in 1939, when his plane was shot down over Keil in an early RAF air raid over Germany.

Colin Kirkus climbing at Bosingran- Cornwall

After training, he was transferred to Operations Bomber Command, eventually becoming a member of a specialist `Pathfinder' squadron, laying flares, at the target, for the incoming bombers. He took part in the first 1,000 Bomber raid on Cologne. All through the war RAF casualties, on night bombing raids, were depressingly high and a limited tour of duty was introduced. After 25 operations, aircrew were given the opportunity of standing down. Few thought they would ever make it. Kirkus, in the latter stages of his service, when he was approaching his 25th 'op', had a sense of foreboding as to his ultimate fate, and said as much in a letter to Connie Alexander, shortly before his plane was reported missing over Bremen, in September 1942.

Kirkus was 24 years old when he withdrew from the forefront of British climbing, probably we did not see the best of him — certainly his partnership with Maurice Linnell, which had all the hallmarks of greatness was, potentially, the best balanced team since the days of Herford and Sansom.

Perhaps it is appropriate for Alan Hargreaves to have the final word:

As a man he was a delightful companion on the hills, full of fun and interest in the things around him... to those who did not know him well he may well appear dull, but this was not so — he was a simple soul, not much interested in the complicated ways of modern life, finding his escape and true expression in mountaineering.

Ken Smith: First published in High September 1992