Friday, 8 March 2013

Mark 'Sam' Phillips...obituary

On Monday the 25th of February, a man died on Ben Nevis. The circumstances of his death remain under investigation, and I won’t speculate on them here, although many in the press seem to have made up their own minds already about what happened.
That man was Mark Phillips, 51 years old, and a resident of Spean Bridge, Lochaber, in Scotland, where he lived with his wife, Caroline, and their son, Ruaridh.
Mark was my friend. Ours was one of my oldest friendships, going right back to our shared schooldays in the 1970s, when we both attended Pudsey Grammar School, in Pudsey, near Leeds, in the West Riding of Yorkshire.

Back then, although we knew each other and were friendly enough in school, we rarely mixed outside the school gates. Our roots lay in different social circles, both of us from separate junior schools and, as you do in adolescence, you cling to those of your old mates whom you’ve carried forward to your new school.
Everyone liked Mark. He was good-humoured, gentle and intelligent and, despite his precocious height, whereby he towered over most of us, he was never aggressive or bullying.
His nickname, oddly enough, was ‘Sam’, a carry-over from his previous school, and which was never fully explained. It may have been derived from Sam Phillips, the former owner of Sun Records. If that seems a stretch of the imagination, for such a link to be made by pre-teen boys, consider this: his best mate, Anthony Brearley, bore the nickname ‘Harry’, after the Sheffield man who invented stainless steel; Harry Brearley.
Never let it be said that kids can’t think outside the box.Whatever its origins, everyone knew Mark as ‘Sam’. Even the teachers called him that. 

Right: Mark ‘Sam’ Phillips at Pudsey Grammar School, in 1978

As I said, we weren’t close friends at school, although we got on fine. My most vivid memory of him from those days is from 1977, in an O-level biology class. It was the summer of punk, and Sam was having no truck with it. I remember him turning to me after I said something about the Sex Pistols, and saying ‘That Santana record, She’s Not There, now that’s what I call rock music!’ Said Santana single was a big hit in the charts at the time. Sam wasn’t keen on The Pistols.
What really brought the two of us together was climbing. Both of us had long been keen walkers and lovers of the hills and outdoors generally. School residential trips to Buckden, in the Yorkshire Dales, had given us a taste of more esoteric outdoor pursuits, including caving and climbing, although I don’t think either of us harboured ambitions to take up either activity as a hobby.
It was a mutual friend, Andrew Sugden, known as ‘Suggy’, who persuaded me to take up climbing. Having been bitten by the climbing bug on said school trips, he had persuaded a couple of the teachers at school to take him out on the local crags, and decided this was what he wanted to do.
Suggy talked me into investigating some local disused quarries, and we made some exploratory climbs on the crumbling sandstone atop Post Hill, aided by a rope he had purchased, tied around our waists. It was trial and error time, as we tried to remember how to belay and tie on properly, but we soon got the hang of it, and began to skip Games at school, running down to Post Hill to climb instead. We even began to train on the disused railway bridges of the old Leeds to Halifax line, which ran nearby.
We were in the 6th form by this time. Sam had left school after his O-levels, but Suggy was still in touch with him and, one day, he persuaded him to come out climbing with us.
Another lad from school, also in the 6th form, was Craig Smith. He heard about our climbing exploits and decided to tag along, on our first trip to Caley Crags, a ‘proper’ crag, where he strolled up climbs the rest of us couldn’t do.
So, in the summer of 1979, a nucleus of me, Andrew ‘Suggy’ Sugden, Mark ‘Sam’ Phillips and Craig Smith came together, a short-lived group who discovered climbing by exploration and experimentation, and had loads of fun in the process. They were magic days, climbing in EBs, no chalk, waist belays, even using waist tie-ons before we bought our first harnesses.
Craig proved to possess outstanding natural ability and Andrew, who trained hard and had ambitions to climb harder, gravitated to climb with him. As a result, me and Sam, as I still called him, began to climb as a partnership, the intimate partnership which inevitably develops when you trust another person on a regular basis, with your life. I remember our first trip to Wales, Craig driving us down in his dad’s plumber’s van, in 1980. We camped in the Llanberis Pass, in superb weather, and climbed on our first multi-pitch routes. I remember Craig leading Cemetery Gates, and Sam seconding, as me and Suggy watched through binoculars from the valley. It was a sign of Craig’s talent that he made leading it look easy, but of Sam’s determination and cool head that he was able to second that long, intimidating pitch.

Above: traversing in to the start of Galactic Co-ordinator, Triple Overhang Buttress, Pembroke, 1984

 A trip to Chamonix in 1981 introduced us to bigger mountains. Less successfully for me: I only visited the Alps once again after that, and bailed out of an ascent of Mont Blanc due to altitude sickness (like the worst hangover ever), whilst Sam continued up to the summit alone, in characteristically stoical and determined fashion. He liked the big mountains, whereas I regarded them as too much hard slog and objective danger for limited reward.

Craig was by now climbing hard, in the company of the climbing illuminati. Suggy was climbing with other people much of the time, so Sam and I would be off most weekends, in his Vauxhall Chevette, to explore some new crag or hill. We both both loved walking as much as we did the rock, and were as happy to visit an obscure grassy summit in mid-Wales as to climb a classic rock route.

We dabbled in caving too, a particular highlight being the classic through-trip of Dowber Gill Passage, with its complex vertical navigation in the narrow rift, and a strength sapping laddered descent and re-ascent of Bar Pot, which took us to the awesome main chamber of Gaping Gill.
Sam was a delight to climb with. Our abilities always more or less matched one another, and neither of us were inclined to train too hard to push the grades, preferring just to go out and climb, at whatever level suited. He was a thoughtful and steady belayer, good with the ropes, to the extent that I had utmost confidence in him.
My favourite day from those years was one spent soloing routes on Stanage, from Stanage End along to High Neb, on a mild late summer afternoon. We both moved with ease on the rock, bantering and swapping routes as we went, culminating in a late afternoon, golden solo of High Neb Buttress, the rock warm and dry under our fingers, turned to bronze in the low sunlight.
We were also temperamentally suited, and I can’t remember a single argument in years of climbing together, even when bad weather conspired to thwart our ambitions. On crappy, wet mornings, when my enthusiasm flagged, and I tried to linger in my sleeping bag, Sam would be urging me to get up, and I’d soon be grateful for his good-humoured enthusiasm, as we enjoyed spectacular or exciting moves on rock, snow or ice, or tromping over heather moors. A day out with Sam was inevitably a good day, even if the weather was awful.
In the mid 80s, I remember us driving to Wales, and him telling me ‘I’ve taken the plunge and asked Cozi out!’
‘Cozi’ was the nickname of Caroline Schofield, derived from her drumming skills, after Cozy Powell, ex Deep Purple drummer, and Sam had fancied her quietly for a while. Now though, he’d taken the step which would lead to her becoming Caroline Phillips, and to the birth of their son, Ruaridh.
I was so pleased for him, and I could sense his pride in himself at this, because like me, he was shy around girls, and was surprised when Caroline responded positively to his approach. He introducd her to climbing, and she took to it immediately.

 On top of Am Bodach in the Mamores, on a bitter late December day in 1983
L-R: Anthony ‘Harry’ Brearley; Liz (Andrew’s girlfriend); Mark Phillips; Andrew Sugden
We continued to climb together, but he climbed more and more with his beloved Cozi, and we began to see less of each other. Our friendship was always there though, a true friendship, which simply picks up where it left off, even when years might intervene. At the end of the 80s, I got married and, as often happens, married life led me away from climbing. Mark and Caroline moved house, to live in Saltaire, on the outskirts of Bradford, and we saw less and less of each other.

It was a chance meeting in a shop in Pudsey, in 1999, that brought us back together. Talking as if it was ten days, rather than ten years, since we’d last seen each other, we discovered that we’d both just bought mountain bikes, and resolved to go riding together. This was the start of a new period of our friendship, mountain biking at weekends, soon followed by climbing once more, as I dusted off my ancient gear and once again tied onto Sam’s ropes.
We had some magical times, and it was as though the missing years had never happened. I think my favourite day from this latter period was climbing at Reiff, that Stanage by the sea, in warm sunshine in early March 2004, where we spotted a new route potential and produced the modest memorial of Old Farts At Play, MVS4b. Because that’s what we were becoming; two middle aged men, reminiscing and grumbling and climbing for the fun and the craic. In fact, it’s what we always were, because we were just the same at 25.
Mark was by now vastly more experienced a climber than me. He never stopped like I did, never had that hiaitus in his exploration of the outdoors. His face was becoming ruddy and creased from exposure to the elements, and he had developed a sinewy, graceful physique, moving with assured ease and quiet confidence. The sparkle of fun in his eyes was still there though. He loved the hills and the rocks and the outdoors as much as he ever had, and I envied him those lost years.
He and Caroline moved to Scotland, to Spean Bridge, in 2001. Distance and circumstances meant that, once again, we saw less of one another and in latter years, our meetings were restricted to the unofficial school reunion at Leeds Beer Festival.
I always meant to arrange something, to maybe meet up halfway and have a mountain biking weekend or something, but I never did and now I never will.
Bye Sam. Your rope still connects us, and it’ll be my turn to follow soon enough.....Good lead.

Sam and Cozi

Brian Trevelyan 2013