Tuesday, 29 January 2013

Funeral in Courmayeur

Where were you when you heard that Arthur Dolphin had been killed?

I was entering the main street of Courmayeur, where he is buried. just got down from the Noire. After climbing the South Face of Geant, Arthur had slipped during the unroped descent of the easy but exposed plinth of the Aiguille. I was in time for the first funeral I'd have any cause to attend.
It was an afternoon graveside service under a scorching Italian sun. Present: Andre Collard, the Belgian with whom he'd been climbing, Jack Bloor and Mike Dwyer from Yorkshire; Geoff Holmes, from London ; the British consul from Turin;  Keith King, and myself...., and the priest.

I think that's right. The cleric raced through the ceremony, perhaps in a shortened form for this unknown foreigner of some unknown faith. The words, having no meaning for me, ought to have been powerless But the frantic haste of performance, the urgent shouted rhythms of the declarations, actually and strongly communicated a poetry of desperation through the barrier of language. Man's days are as grass. I'm not sure in what sense I could say that I was moved. Perhaps for most young men, grief is always contaminated by a sense of the drama of violence on occasions like this. I remember, in fact, feeling a kind of anger, an intense wish to get away quickly. I even felt a real anxiety that I might faint if I were to stand still much longer in an airless heat that seemed insufferable.

Eventually the coffin was lowered and the first shovelful of earth was thrown down upon it. The soil was dry and full of stones and made a loud, startling, conclusive rattling on the wood. With that, tears I couldn't conceal suddenly ran down my face and within a couple of minutes all those who'd known him had joined me for solidarity. He'd never been one of us. He was older and from a different social background. He'd been a hero before we'd started climbing. But he was transparently innocent. His schoolboy humour, his childish delight in weak puns and tongue-twisters, his interest in people and his enthusiasm for the sport overrode any barriers. Having spent several years estab­lishing himself as the leading Lakeland expert he'd found that, from behind and immediately, new challengers were arriving. His instinc­tive response was to inform and to encourage us. 

We'd begun to join him for highly competitive Wednesday evening bouldering sessions on gritstone. After his ascent of Deer Bield Buttress he'd written out descriptions for Pete and for myself and invited our opinions. On hear­ing of North Crag Eliminate he'd glanced at the line and then suggested that we meet for a day on Castle Rock, an invitation so daunting to me that I never took it up. By the summer of 1952 he'd already accepted Pete in an equal partnership which immediately produced routes as impressive as anything seen in the Lakes up to that date. That partnership was over now. He'd made space for us and left us on our own with his monuments.
At Duncan Boston's first ingathering in 1986 we were all thinking back to the end of those years and to the courses of our lives. One thing struck me. Jack Bradley had arrived, still larger than life and once again a focus of attention during the weekend. Never a very good climber but always a moving force, his picaresque adventures built a legend. After forty years, and now his death, it's still tasteless to report some of these tales. He had a mischievous, often cruel sense of humour and I pass over this.

He also had an extraordinary ability to effect narrow escapes. Once, his party of four spent a weekend in Gaping Ghyll, bivouacking in the Sand Caverns. On the Sunday night, wet, muddy, hungry, and with combined resources of a shilling and eight pence, they were faced with the task of hitch-hiking back to York. Jack led them into a moorland transport cafe and ordered everything the group could possibly eat. His simple plan was to offer their services afterwards for washing up. The lengthy meal drew to a close and no-one else came in so that the only washing up would be their own. The proprietor chatted with them, a likeable man, and finally delivered his bill for twenty-eight shillings. Jack picked up their single shilling, put it in a slot machine, drew out thirty shillings and paid up. Is this story true? Ask Mike Hollingsworth? I tell it as told to me within a month of the event.

I'd last seen him in Ambleside bus station in 1954. He'd just got the sack from his job as plumber or bricklayer but he had four pounds in his pocket. He was about to hitch up to Skye where it would last him a fortnight and he could think up a scheme. Twenty years later Valerie Brown drew my attention to an article in a women's magazine. Four ladies had written on what it was like to be married to a millionaire. And there was a photo of Jack, confident as ever, standing on the steps of his manor, his lady on his arm, two or three well-groomed dogs at their feet.

Yes, that was the unsettling thing about this and subsequent reunions. There were too many millionaires for so small a gathering. The fact made a poor fit with the ragged-trousered, easy-going bunch I remem­bered from Wall End Barn. We almost all came from working-class families. We almost all left school at fifteen or sixteen. But the ways in which these fortunes had been accumulated didn't seem specially uplift­ing. Jack had run building firms, haulage firms, had even made the first commercial aluminium gliders. These enterprises had varied in longev­ity and reputation. Would I have stepped inside a house that Jack built? I'd have taken a pretty good look at the outside first.
The property developer who'd arrested one of my falls, now nursing a tray of drinks through the crush, seemed to have made smoother progress than Jack. Apparently he was into nursing homes. Were they the sort of ventures in which the life savings of Britain's aged are rapidly eroding? The figure wedged in the corner was apparently here by chance. I'd never seen him in the barn anyway, though he was one of Dolphin's associates and he was certainly in Langdale in those years.

 Wall End Barn: George Kitchin
 He was said to be the inventor of the spirograph and his name appeared on those expen­sive children's toys. The senior partner of a juke box and pool table empire wasn't present though he'd used the barn from time to time. His consortium was shortly to be sold for more than ten million. The lady I'd taken on her first Lakeland climb wasn't here either though her sister (not badly off?) was with us. No doubt she was hard at work, minister­ing to the neuroses of the affluent by promoting a G-plan diet.I looked around in curiosity. There were others I guessed might be members of the same club. I turned to Mike Dixon in perplexity. "Are you a millionaire as well, Mike?" I asked. He was amused but chuckled a little uncomfortably. He shifted his feet. "Well," he said, with some reluctance. "I suppose so. But it doesn't really mean anything nowadays, does it? Not like it used to."
He brought himself back to the present and fixed a stiff price for the second-hand, obsolete, slightly faulty word-processor he was about to sell to me.

 At the first reunion we checked through the dead and the missing. We'd never meet George Elliott, Alf Beanland, John Greenwood, Frank Weirdon, Alan Bullock, Dave Gibbons, or Charlie Salisbury again. Mountains, other accidents, and now, dismayingly, illness or old age. Some, like Pete Thomson and Ernie Leach had been located but refused to associate with climbers any more. ("Climbers are the lowest of the low.") Others were lost and now someone asked about the Morrells. Oh, they'd been in the art world, hadn't they, they'd moved to London. Then they'd separated. They were thought to have been on the fringe of the drug scene, they were probably dead by now. I'd never really known them to talk to, they were older than me, but I remembered Mary well.

 A hot day on Gimmer a lifetime ago, the cliff under siege. My partner and I were sharing a narrow ledge for half an hour with Mary, her hus­band and the friend who was their frequent escort. We were blocked by a very slow party in front and we were pressed by a queue of teams behind. There was no breeze and the men were sitting shirtless, soaking up the sun. Mary, daringly, had also removed her shirt and was filling her bra with outstanding success. Beautiful girl. Suddenly she made some exclamation, an expression of impatience, of exasperation, of oh ­what-the-hell clouded her pretty face, and with the panache of a magi­cian Mrs Morrell flicked off the bra. Shocking. No big deal nowadays but this was before perfect strangers on a rock-climb high above the Langdale valley in the reign of King George the Sixth. Also electrify­ing. Mr. Morrell stared moodily into space. The rest of us tried to con­centrate our attentions upon the contours of Pike o'Blisco but found ourselves, every two minutes, casually scanning the skyline from end to end.
Scissors cut paper, paper wraps stone, stone blunts scissors. Amongst other things this is a book about the appeal of mountains. Now I have to report that in an instant, it seemed, the sun had perceptibly dimmed, the greens of the valley had become a little parched, even the rock was some­how just dead rock. Notice was being served that life would be filled with competing claims.

I relate this incident for another reason. Only a couple of days after the suggestion that Mary was probably dead I discovered that she was alive, well, and still living in London. She was, unbelievably, the clos­est friend of my closest non-climbing friends in North Wales. But she was a surname further on, and though they'd often spoken of her as an artist they'd never thought to mention that she'd done a little climbing when young, or that she came from Yorkshire. A year or two later I met her. We wouldn't have recognised each other but an hour of reminis­cence gave me serious cause for thought.
She'd only climbed for a few years, gritstone, the Lakes, Wales, Skye, and the climbing world she remembered was grossly different from mine. It had centred on days of unhurried fun on classic easier climbs. No­body ever got hurt. And, for her, the mountains would remain forever fresh and miraculous, untarnished by familiarity. "The best years of my life," she said. By contrast I'd gone on and I'd come through carnage. Say, twenty-five or thirty climbers I'd shared a rope with had died climb­ing, and a similar number I'd known on first-name terms. That sort of count is common to most climbers of my age. So what Mary had to say made me consider my investment in mountains. Might a law of dimin­ishing returns operate even here?

And, yet, my own life has been full of compromise. I could never have believed that possible in 1953. In that autumn, belatedly, I'd be going to college. Abandoning the idea of a career in hospital adminis­tration I intended to qualify myself as a teacher of English. From that summer forward I'd have long holidays and soon I'd be earning enough to travel more easily and to buy some decent equipment. I felt certain that I was capable of more difficult climbs than any I'd yet done and I. was confident that great achievements as climber and mountaineer lay ahead of me. My plan was simple. I'd test every one of the enticing unclimbed lines I'd noticed in Britain. I'd get to grips with the most famous routes in the Alps. When I was too old for serious alpine climb­ing I'd visit the Himalaya. And when I was too old for Himalayan moun­taineering I'd take up skiing.

In every detail this plan came to nothing. The summer of 1953 was to be, precisely, the end of the most intensive phase of my climbing. Until then all other activities had been subordinated. From then on, climbing would have to mesh with other purposes. While some of my contempo­raries soldiered on I amused myself. In the summer of 1956 I'd be in Paris with a girl-friend, wandering around the Louvre and exploring the Left Bank. Five years later, as old acquaintances began to go on Hima­layan expeditions I'd join an expedition a hundred thousand strong for a four-day Aldermaston March; my longest roadside vigils would be at Holy Loch and at Greenham Common, before the women discovered the place. Ten years on and I'd be driving to Tangier, enjoying sun and sea. Fifteen years  and I'd be on the road to Istanbul admiring buildings and great cities.

 Harold Drasdo
 At the same time, I never considered giving up. At the end of the spell in Paris, Frank Davies passed through, I negotiated a loan, and unforgiv­ably let the girl find her own way home. In no time at all, it seemed, we were on the summit of the Aiguille de Roc. After one Aldermaston March, married now, my wife and I went straight on to climb in Corn­wall; from an affray at Holy Loch we sailed magnificently away down the Clyde so that a couple of days later we were on the Rosa Pinnacle. On that first drive through Spain I stopped by the roadside to look at an impressive rock peak of which I couldn't discover the name; a few years later I returned to make a route on it. The Istanbul trip was broken up by mountain excursions.

Further, although I lost any need to prove myself against others I en­joyed periods of strenuous activity whilst writing rock-climbing guides. I went on from teaching English to work in Outdoor Education, moving to the mountain area in which I live to this day, spending a great deal of time on the hills and staying in touch with new developments. I kept my eyes open for every chance at home or whilst travelling. And I learned that I'm an incurably serious climber in this sense: that whatever anxie­ties or responsibilities I may have on my mind, these are erased the instant I lay hands on rock; and that however badly I may be performing from time to time, once engaged I've no choice but to check my limits. Finally, the images of climbing, the kinaesthetic memories, the resultant set of impulses, are a permanent and substantial part of the life of my mind.

My brother once reflected that for decades after the death of Dolphin we still considered him our unmatchable master; whilst in fact, despite his famous routes, his career was brief, his travels restricted, his experi­ence limited compared with our own. It sounded like heresy but on consideration I had to accept it. The rest of this book, by transect, by device and by abstraction, is an attempt to make some sense of my own experience.

Harold Drasdo:First Published as 'An end' in The Ordinary Route: Ernest Press