Friday 26 June 2015

Hamish MacInnes: The Sage of Glencoe

Photo: John Cleare Collection 

I am not a pessimist, but I couldn’t help wondering if I was wasting my time as I packed crampons, ice-axe, head torch, gaiters, climbing helmet and other gear. For the rain was battering on my window, and the weather forecast promised nothing better in the next 24 hours. I was bound for Fort William, to give a lecture, and Fort William and Ben Nevis go together. There was plenty of snow on the Ben, and I had thought it just possible that there could be an overnight change, not only in the overhead conditions, but in the watery eyes, running nose and spluttering cough which were giving me a below-par feeling.
So off I drove after lunch into premature darkness up the side of a Loch Lomond half lost in the gloom of pressing rain clouds – clouds discharging ever more generous measure as I caught the full force of the wind on Rannoch Moor. Then a lift to the spirits as the Buachaille hove into view, its black wedge standing up like a rock skerry amidst a turmoil of vapour bursting from Glen Etive around the lower crags.

Then through the jaws of Glencoe for the descent through waterfalls, spraying out of a gloom so dark that I had to switch on my headlights, though the time was not yet four o’clock. After winding round Loch Leven, half-blinded at times by the glare of oncoming heavy vehicles taking up most of the narrow road, it was a relief to get to Banavie and relax in the house of my host, Dr Allison, who promptly gave me a throat lozenge! My slide lecture that evening was to the local branch of the Saltire Society. It was good to meet old Lochaber friends. It was good, too, to get to bed at half-past midnight and know no more until a rap on the door in the morning told me it was nine o’clock.
“See your doctor and get an antibiotic from him if you are no better by Monday,” advised Dr Allison. Meantime, I drove off up Glen Nevis in the unchanged weather, intent on having a walk through the gorge to Steall.
Even in a downpour you can enjoy the nobility of a place such as this, with the swirling river brimful and spray from it shooting up like steam. This was the spectacle around Polldubh, where the crags close in and the road is forced across to the north side of the glen. And it was just short of here I overtook a smartly-dressed gentleman in city suit and raincoat. He carried a sizable parcel, done up so that it could be gripped like a case. As I stopped to offer him a lift, I thought it strange that he wore no hat on a day like this.
“Thanks, thanks, but I want to walk,” he said in a curiously strangled voice. I drove on, assuming that he must ‘be walking no farther than Polldubh. I had forgotten him by the time the great water-slide of the Allt Coire Eoghainn came into view, a virtual avalanche of white pouring 1200 feet down the gorge wall. That cataract descends the longest and steepest grass slope in Britain, at an average angle of 35 degrees. The actual slide is 1500 feet, but the slope goes on right to the top of Ben Nevis. I once climbed up all the way, and once was enough!

Donning an anorak and water-proof trousers, I took a wee walk along the high path, just to relish this most Himalayan of Scottish gorges. It could almost have been the Rishi itself, and Stob Ban, with its snows, and the clouds scudding amongst its crags, Nanda Devi. All scale is relative, and everything here, the Caledonian pines, the birches, the rowans jutting askew from the crags hemming the thundering river, is in perfect unison, made even more splendid where the Steall waterfall comes into view, blocking the mouth of the gorge in a 350-ft. spray of noble waterfall.

Turning back after that sight, I was soon at the car park and driving down the road again when who should I see trudging steadily towards me but the bare-headed city gent with the parcel. I nearly stopped to offer him my spare hat, if only to find out where he was going, for there is no house other than the Steall Hut, so I can only conclude that this was his destination, perhaps to deliver a parcel to climbers in residence. Yet if that were so, why had he spurned my offer of a lift? Whatever the truth, I hope he had a change of clothes waiting for him, for he was going to need them.

Home, I decided, was the place for me, and despite the foulness of the day there was a queue for the Ballachulish Ferry, so I had time to look at the progress of the bridge as I waited. It is steadily pushing out from both sides, and will soon be meeting in the centre. Forty minutes, and I was over the other side, turning into Glencoe and knocking on the door of a freshly white-washed farmhouse called Achnacon.To my delight, the man himself answered it. Hamish Maclnnes, lean, lanky, a slight touch of ginger in his wispy beard, and a smile of welcome breaking his normally slightly serious expression.
“Great to see a friend. You’re just in time for some coffee. I’m just down off Buachaille Etive Beag. Didn’t go to the top, though. Too wet, nothing to see.”
“Don’t tell me you were climbing for pleasure today?” was my response.
“No, not for pleasure. Just to keep fit.

It was great a week past Friday, plenty of snow, and we cramponed up the Curved Ridge, really good. On the Saturday I was on Bidian nam Bian looking for ice to test out the crampons properly. It’s a new design I’ve worked out, and I think it’s going to be good.”
I told him I had really called to congratulate him on a safe return from the bird-eating spiders, the tarantulas and the scorpions in the jungles and on the Great Prow of Roraima.“It sounded terrible,” I said. “But your book made a fine adventure story, and the television film was superb.“I think you would have enjoyed it, for the wild life was really fantastic.”
Hamish never tries to impress you. He tells his tales in bits and pieces so that you have to quiz him for details such as hunger, illness, hardship and close calls with death. So almost casually he told me he wasn’t doing very much just now except designing equipment for the winter attempt on Mount Everest and working on his novel.“Yes, it’s an adventure novel set in Scotland, and it would never have been started if I hadn’t had that spell in hospital last summer. It’s maybe the closest call I’ve had to death.”
Then he told me a remarkable story almost stranger than fiction.The train of events began at St Abb’s Head on the Berwickshire coast, when a drystone wall collapsed as Hamish scrambled over, and he took quite a bruising on the legs. One of the bruises had been punctured by a pointed rock, and it was so painful that he had difficulty in getting into his car.Next day he had planned to go hang-gliding in the Pentlands (another throw-away line.) I didn’t know he had built himself a hang-glider and was learning to fly it), but the friend who was to join him called off. So with time on his hands, Hamish decided to go along to Edinburgh Royal Infirmary and see if he had a broken bone, for the pain in his leg had worsened during the night and was beginning to worry him.
However, things were moving slowly in the Infirmary that day. Hamish waited and waited for his X-ray, finally got fed up and left. Now we come to the part where the Goddess Luck played her part. Hamish was kept in Edinburgh for a business appointment next day, so instead of driving off immediately to Glen Coe, as he had previously intended, he decided to go back to the Infirmary and try again for an X-ray.

When the doctor in the Casualty Department saw the X-ray plate she recognised on it a tiny pocket of gas gangrene. Instantly she called in the surgeon.Hamish had a shock coming to him. The surgeon did not pull his punches.“We’ve had three people in here with gas gangrene. Two of them died, and the other lost a leg. We’ll have to act immediately, for even the time it takes you to drive from here to Glen Coe could make the difference between saving your leg and losing it. And once the infection spreads beyond the limb, nothing can be done. So it’s a good job you came here today.”
The stone which had punctured the bruise had carried the infection, probably on bird droppings. And I could echo Hamish’s feelings when he said thoughtfully, “It’s quite frightening to know this can happen.”

The surgeon had told him that gas gangrene was a common cause of death by bullet wounds in World War I. Thanks to antibiotics and penicillin drugs, its effects can be arrested today, and, fortunately, the tissue-destroying gas shows up on X-ray plates.Hamish showed me the scar on the region of his shin bone, an angry oval of red flesh.“I’ve made a metal plate to put over it, for I’ve got to see the skin doesn’t break. l began the novel during the 18 days I was laid up in hospital. I’m enjoying it. It’s over 80,000 words, and it isn’t finished yet.”

After that came the next throw-away line by the Grand Master. Not for nothing has he earned the title, “The Sage of Glen Coe”.“Yes, it was handy to go right out to the North Face of the Eiger and get fit again.” I waited as he said ruminatively, “Actually, it was mostly going to work by helicopter. But you did get a bit more climbing every day, so it was an easy way of getting back to fitness again.”
The “work” that Hamish was referring to was his part in the overseeing of the safety arrangements for the Hollywood sex, assassination and climbing film called The Eiger Sanction. Some of the action on the North Face involves a lot of falling, and this is where Maclnnes’s engineering skill came into play. For the most exciting incident he built a gantry projecting out over the face. From this, an actor had to hang from a rope suspended 3,000 feet over a drop, then take a knife from his climbing jacket and cut the rope, to fall clear, and swing on another rope, also attached to the frail-looking gantry.

“Bonington took a real fall while working on the film,” said Hamish.  “Took a clean peel of twenty feet out on the face, but he went back up to his lead point again and got over it. Davie Knowles, who used to work with me in Glen Coe as a climbing instructor, was killed by stonefall on the second day of filming. I’ve lost a lot of good friends in the last few years . . .” .“And now you are planning another tough winter attempt on Mount Everest by the hardest route. I thought you had had enough on your two attempts in the spring and autumn of 1972.”
“I thought so, too,” said Hamish. “I was hoping to go to South America, but l became so involved in the designing of better equipment that I left l couldn’t refuse when Chris Bonington asked me to be deputy leader. It’s really interesting to try to beat the equipment problems Everest sets you when you have to go so far above 27,000 feet. “None of the tents stood up to the conditions last time. I’ve designed a Super Box with curved hoops like the kind tinkers use in the Highlands, but with four longitudinal members bracing it. And as well as a strong outer covering, I have tried out a light- weight metal mesh to go over the top. It’s so strong that the biggest boulder I could throw down on it just bounced off. We’ll have better floor insulation, too. “
“I’ve also borrowed an idea from the old volcano kettle, where the heat is in the centre compartment and the water is in the jacket round it. I am trying out at dixie which fits on to the stove, but the heat goes into an empty cone of metal. You push the snow into the top, and it melts in contact with the hot cone inside, so maybe we won’t have to wait four hours for the stove to melt and boil water at a boiling point of 60˚C.

“The oxygen problem is interesting, too. I’ve been in touch with the Americans and the British Army, and we should have new-type cylinders 26 inches long by 4¼ inches in diameter, weighing only 10 lb, just half the weight and giving every bit as much oxygen as the old type. I’m having special valves made in the States, and I’m experimenting now how to get better control of the supply. The oxygen apparatus on the last trip was hopelessly inefficient.”
“Anyway, we’ll be trying all the gear when we go out to the Alps in January to camp high in the Mont Blanc area. For really big crevasses, I’ve worked out a way of jointing ladders and attaching down ward-pointing stays round which you can run a cable from both ends so that the ladders become one rigid bridge.”

For the new attempt there will be seventeen climbers, six of whom have been on the South-West Face before. Haston and Maclnnes will make a powerful pair, and two Glenmore Lodge instructors will be in the party, Peter Boardman and Alan Fyffe. Mike Thompson, who was with Maclnnes on Roraima, will organise the food, and after the starvation of the Lost World trip, it is to be hoped that the cuisine will be varied and plentiful.

As for the route, this time Bonington and Maclnnes are attacking the crucial rock band farther to the left, where they hope to be able to climb a snow-filled chimney at 28,000 feet and traverse right across the face to reach a gully giving access to the summit. The all- important thing is to be on the mountain as early as possible. It is hoped to have base camp set up by August 25, to give the climbers a chance to make the summit before the cold and the wind become too desperate for survival at these heights.

“Come over and see the workshop. You haven’t seen my new set-up. You know that my job is to design better equipment and work out improved techniques in rescue work, not only on mountains, but for, oil-rig and oil-platform rescues.

I thought what a lot had happened to Hamish in twenty-one years. He emigrated to New Zealand and opened up a lot of new routes there. Then he set off for Everest with Johnnie Cunningham, with only a few quid between them. Now he’s going back to try the most difficult way to the top of Everest, with the most expensive expedition ever mounted, costing £100,000 no less.
Hamish climbed with Chris Bonington when the latter was just starting his climbing career, and now the pair of them must be amongst the best-known and most respected climbers, writers and photographers in the world.

Image: John Cleare
“Strange the way it works out,” Hamish responded to my comment. Then, as an afterthought, as I was about to drive away, he said, “I forgot to tell you. I was out on St Kilda last summer. Joe Brown and I were landed on Boreray to try the big pinnacled face that leaps 1,400 feet up to the summit. We thought it might give a great climb, but it was no use, really nasty, too much grass and too many birds, gannets all over the place. The big stac in Soay Sound is the one we would like to have done, but there was no time. The place I really want to go to most of all is the Trango Towers in the Karakoram. If Everest hadn’t come along I think Chris and I would have gone there. But it can wait.” It was Tom Patey who first brought back a report on the Trango Towers. He reckoned they were the hardest-looking vertical faces he had ever seen. They will be just right for Maclnnes and Bonington!

Tom Weir: 1976

Friday 19 June 2015

Across Lakeland in a day: With a little help from my friends


One hears tales of the balmy days of the British presence in India, when walks in the Himalayas were done hands in pockets unencumbered by camping equipment, since the bulk of one's retinue had gone ahead to set the camp up, unfold the armchairs and brew the tea. Alpine literature too gives evidence of ample entertainment in the high mountains. The English milord had not only a guide but porters as well, laden with hams, roast fowl and bottles of wine. W. T. Kirkpatrick, writing about the Alps at the turn of the century, commented that 'the number of bottles that mark the route up many well-known mountains would almost suggest that some persons climb for the sake of drinking.

Even in Scotland a ghillie would arrange for hampers to be taken to the hill on the backs of ponies, so there was no need to pack sandwiches and waterproofs and spare clothing; and the revolting convenience foods which afflict the outdoor life today were unknown. But those expansive days are not wholly passed away. They have their modern counterpart in the supported walk. The first example of the modern supported walk that I came across was as long ago as 1954, when Crosby Fox, George Spenceley and I were doing the Cuillin Ridge. Our pleasure in the excursion was tempered by having to carry a rope, quantities of water and a good deal of food, including a jar containing eleven eggs sloshing about in half a pound of sugar. At two or three points such as the Bhasteir Tooth we met Alpine Club members whose mission was to provide food and drink and a rope for some of the recently successful Everest climbers who were taking a celebratory romp over the Cuillin Ridge. The supported walk par excellence!

The simplest form of supported walk is where you prevail upon someone to drive you to the start and pick you up again at the end. But for the true hedonist in the hills that is hardly enough. A friend of mine once described seeing a well-known Greek shipping millionaire step out of a helicopter at the top of a ski-run in St Moritz. A valet placed his skis on the snow. He stepped into them. The valet adjusted the bindings, handed him the sticks and scurried back into the helicopter, his next duty being to take them off at the bottom. Something akin to that is what we are after. The snag with supported walks is that one can hardly justify support unless one is undertaking something pretty demanding. The support party will play only if sufficiently impressed by the exploit in question. I have the good fortune to know the non-pareil of walk-supporters, Mike Harvey. He will not only support your walk: he will put the idea into your head and then carefully fan the feeble flame of interest into a fire of enthusiasm.

Ever since I drew attention to it in the book 'Big Walks', Mike Harvey had been offering to support the Shap to Ravenglass walk, and he now proposed an actual date, May 2nd. My character is such that I will agree to almost anything if the date is sufficiently far away, so I did not demur. In fact, so long as the whole thing remained comfortably in the future it formed an attractive and absorbing topic of conversation. It is a curious thing that long walks appear to be more attractive than short ones. People who would normally get out the car rather than walk one mile nevertheless flock in hundreds to do the Lyke Wake walk of forty. As Ronnie Faux pointed out in the Times a month or two ago, walking is really rather a pedestrian business, and it needs the spur of inordinate length to goad the imagination a bit.

So several people are now expressing an interest in walking from Shap to Ravenglass and it begins to look as if we are actually going to have to do it. As the date approaches and what has been a pleasing idea becomes an alarming reality my health, never robust, begins to decline perceptibly. I even try to defer the whole thing, but without success because supported walks have a juggernaut effect; once set in motion they take a lot of stopping. However, I have devised a training schedule for events from which escape proves impossible, which I have found most effective. I work up by easy stages to a stern regime of complete and determined inactivity, with long spells of prone and supine lying. This I have found leads to an excess of nervous energy on the day which can carry one through whatever one has let oneself in for.

The final party turns out to be quite small and also quite disparate. The average age is forty-seven years. There is my son, Mike Harvey's son, and Etsu Peascod,* a young Japanese lady who combines a fragile flower-like beauty with the heart of a Samurai. A dream of pastoral bliss with bells in the distance turns into the shrilling of an alarm clock. It is the hour. I wake Etsu and my son Trevor and we head for Shap. The only other car on the old A6 turns out to be Mike Harvey and his son Matty. Well met. We park the cars at Keld, and set off walking at ten past three. To give myself every possible advantage I wear my ancient suede desert boots (known to veterans of the Western desert as brothel-creepers). Down at heel though they now are, and paper-thin in the soles, they weigh only eleven ounces each. I am relieved to note that the young and energetic Matty is wearing stout boots which will hold him in check a little I hope.

I am quite familiar with the footpath that takes one past Tailbert into Swindale, but in the dark it eludes me. Within twenty minutes of starting, my feet are soaked and we are lost among waterlogged tussocks. With forty miles still to go this is discouraging. We give up looking for the path, go through the Tailbert farm buildings and make for Swindale on a compass course. We can see a dark gulf ahead with a pale gleam of water in it that might be a nearby puddle or a more distant river. Before long we come to the Swindale Beck and crossing it at a shallows get at last on to the road.
Our progress on up the dale is marked by the furious barking of dogs at each farm, and we work it out that should a sash window be thrown up and a shotgun appear we will lie down on the ground until both barrels have been discharged before attempting to explain what we are doing. We take the old corpse road and by the time we reach the grassy upland between Swindale and Mardale it is broad daylight. A cuckoo starts calling; it is the first I have heard this year. It is a good experience to walk from darkness into daylight and we know what the man meant who wrote: ' A solemn glee possessed my mind at this gradual and lovely coming in of day' . Furthermore we appear to have picked a winner. The sun is a little obscured by clouds, but they are dispersing. Skylarks ascend, carried upwards by the sheer volume of their song. It is cool and crisp, High Street and Kidsty Pike standing hard-edged against a clear sky. The zenith is already becoming blue. We descend the zig-zags into Mardale and hit the road. Half a mile along it is our support car. ' You're twenty minutes late', says Mike Harvey, serving tea and biscuits. Handing in our torches we go round the head of the reservoir and up towards Blea Water. About level with the tarn there is a right fork in the path and this slants up to the ridge of Caspel Gate.

We go slowly up to the little col and then up the ridge looking down into the deep trough of Riggindale. Soon we are treading the long high back of High Street. There is no simpler and more innocent way of feeling superior than to be out walking on the hill-tops while the rest of the world is rubbing its eyes, groping for a cigarette, or dragging the bed-clothes rebelliously over its head for another ten minutes. We ramble on down the five-mile descent to Patterdale, one of the most enjoyable ways down a hill that I know. The going is easy, some of it level or even mildly up-hill, yet one is traversing steep slopes and enjoying views into the grand side of the Helvellyn range. Angle Tarn is beautiful. As we finally descend into Patterdale the valley lies below, calm and dreamy in the clear morning air, except for a man running urgently across a field. This is Mike Harvey, caught napping by our early arrival, dashing to put breakfast on.

He and his other son, Benny, have the car parked in a tastefully appointed lay-by, with seats, at the point where the footpath debouches on to the road. There is fruit juice, a choice of cereals, porridge, king-size bacon butties, rolls and marmalade, and coffee. The sun beams down upon us, his chosen. We drink to Al Fresco. Our way now leads up Grisdale, the young fellows so charged with calories that they keep disappearing ahead despite their big boots. It is a very pleasant valley, Grisedale, its pastoral charm eventually giving way to more craggy terrain, until it ends suddenly and dramatically at Grisedale Tarn. We trip daintily across the wet ground north of the tarn and drop down through a slot towards Dunmail Raise. The path is muddy and ruinous, and the two lads pull a fast one by going out on the flank of Seat

Sandal and finding a long tongue of snow to glissade down. Our supporting party is drawn up on the grass verge, kettle boiling, luncheon all ready. It is midday and we have come half the distance. From Dunmail we go straight up the side of Steel Fell, and so, at the expense of one stiff pull, gain access to that long upland that carries you right across the centre of the Lake District.

It is a little wet underfoot, with odd patches of old snow, but fortunately skin is a kind of super Gore-tex and our feet remain dry on the inside. For the rest, it is a bright and invigorating day with a few white cumulus clouds. We drift up over High White Stones, that second broad, airy upland on this walk, and slant down on to the top of the Stake, assisted by one or two snow patches. The next section, round the side of Rosset Pike, begins to feel a little long. It is tea-time, and in the natural order of things we should be taking a cup of choice Assam to see us through until we can decently think in terms of gin and tonic. We flag a little, there is no denying it. But we have two things to look forward to in the immediate future; one is reaching our second Angle Tarn of the day and the other is making our final col, Ore Gap.

At Angle Tarn we sit down for five minutes, the two lads having already been there about ten, gathering a little head of steam for the last ascent. It is very pleasant here in this familiar spot and we are in good shape, all moving parts functioning satisfactorily. There is no real urgency about getting on the move again . . . But then we think of our support waiting on the road, and we get somewhat listlessly to our feet. From Ore Gap we can see the sea, and the Isle of Man, and, as like as not, Craig yr Isfa. The sea is still a long way off but it is manifest that there are no hills in our way, and we take heart and even get ahead of the lads for a few minutes in our plunge down into Eskdale. I have spent many a day and night in Green Hole and never found it a dry place, but we stride heedlessly through the luxuriant heavy-contract deep-pile carpet of moss, straight down the valley. We turn aside to look down the waterfalls and into the pot-holes of Lingcove Beck. This is my old home valley and I seem already to  have reached our destination.

We pass the pack horse bridge, the bathing dub at Throstlegarth, Heron Crag, and Brotherilkeld Farm, and come out on to the road at the foot of Hardknott. At the gate are Etsu's own special support party. We hear a sharp report like the popping of a champagne cork. It is the popping of a champagne cork. 'But we've another ten miles to go' , I expostulate, the words impeded somewhat by the passage of bubbly down my throat. Champagne is not to my knowledge much used in the hills, but it certainly has a future. Along the road, in another tastefully-selected lay-by, Mike is ready with delicious viands spread out upon the herbage. It is a splendid calm evening with plenty of day-light still left, just the occasion for a post-prandial riverside stroll. Leaving the road at Doctor's Bridge we walk the delectable footpath along the side of the Esk. It turns out to be one of the most enjoyable parts of the whole walk. Just above Boot Church two iron girders span the river, all that remains of a railway bridge, and we cross here in preference to the stepping stones further down, in case they are under water.

The way now leads through tall woods, and we notice for the first time the decline of the daylight. The woods are delightful after so much time on the open fells. There is no question of going over Muncaster Fell, I am happy to report. We take the entirely satisfactory private road down the side of it, appreciating the evening light on the meadows between us and the Esk. For a mile or more someone has been inconsiderate enough to mend the road, with the result that not only is the ' way strewn with cutting flints' but Trevor, with the infra-red vision of the historian, finds two large examples of Roman brick in a drainage ditch, and we have to carry them in our hands for the rest of the way. It is now quite dark and we lose slightly the sense of time and distance, but we walk buoyantly on, the bit between our teeth and the smell of the sea in our nostrils. The last mile or so is on the road but at last we come to the Ravenglass turning and break into a stately canter. The village street ends in the waters of the estuary. The tide is right up. We let it wash over our toes.

Tom Price and Etsu Peascod's champagne celebration

Tom Price: First published in Climber Oct 81 

* Wife of Climber/Artist Bill Peascod 

Friday 12 June 2015

Don Whillans.....Climbing like a ruptured duck!

Original Photo: Adrian Bailey
Don Whillans took a firm grip on the undercut handholds, leaned out from the rock and sized the job up. The route was Dovedale Groove on Dove Crag, E1 5b. It is his route. On May 4 1953 (when Colonel John Hunt and his party were establishing their camps in the Western Cwm of Everest) Don and two mates from the Rock and Ice Club, Joe Brown and Don Cowan, parked their motor-bikes near Brotherswater, walked up to the crag and had a go. Don led the first pitch and Joe led the second and that was the job done. August 1984.

The intervening 31 years have brought a lot of changes  to the sport and to Don. When he made the first ascent he was 20 and weighed about 9-1/2 stone. At the age of 51 he admits to 14 stone and looks, if anything, heavier: 'My problem', he said, 'is going to be getting the paunch over the overhangs. That and not using up all my strength in the first bit. I was feeling quite confident on the way here but I'm not so sure now. It looks steeper when you get under it. I might have a struggle. Think it calls for a spot of market research'. He moved up and had another long look at the problem.

Dovedale Groove is one of those climbs where the hardest moves are at the start. There is a vertical wall, perhaps ten feet or so, with no footholds worth mentioning and not much in the way of handholds either. Don had never been back to look at the route — not even in 1960 when he came to the crag to create Extol — but he remembered one thing clearly: 'The crack higher up was easier than we expected. But this bottom part was a lot harder. I hung a sling on a little flake and stepped up in it — that did the trick. But the flake's gone now — you can see the bit of clean rock where it was. So we'll have to fix a sling in this crack somehow and I'll step up on that. It'll have to be a good 'un — a 14-stoner'. He experimented patiently.

He found a  pebble that lodged securely in the crack and adjusted the rope sling to a comfortable length. 'That'll probably do. If I can't do it with that, I can't do it at all. I'm definitely not going to attempt it without some aid'. He descended and scrambled up the easier rock to the left of the groove to study the handhold higher up: 'Christ! It's as round as a baby's bum'. For a man of such bulk he is still compact and surprisingly neat in all his movements. His feet and hands are small and he uses them deftly, with the maximum of precision and economy. Everything is worked out first.

He does not make hasty or clumsy movements — or statements. The Whillans style has not changed with the years. He uses short words and short sentences, sometimes enlivened by a vivid image, and the flat Lancashire delivery increases the effect of directness and confidence. There is no artifice, nothing phoney, no hint of self-doubt. He says what he thinks and when he has nothing to say he shuts up. With Don the style is very much the man, reflecting a unique and positive personality.

'I like to climb at a level where I feel comfortable and this is a couple of grades above that level'. So he was wearing P.A.s — he wore gym shoes on the first ascent — and he was not going to lead it this time. And he was not going to apologise for the fact that he used the aid of a sling when he first did it: 'When you're doing it for the first time, you do everything to conserve your energy. You don't know what's coming next — how hard it's going to be further up. So if you can fix a nice little leg-up, you do it — to save the strength in your hands and arms.

It's all right for those who come later. They can read all about it in the guidebook. They know what's coming. There was no guidebook to this crag in 1953 — there were only three or four routes on it'. On the first ascent they had a nylon rope that kinked badly and half a dozen nylon slings with karabiners with which they hoped to fix a few running belays. That was about it — no helmets, no harnesses, no nuts. On August 17 1984 Chris Bonington and Don were planning to use much the same gear — apart from Don's P.A.s — but in other respects things were very different. They did not even have to walk up to the crag. A helicopter dropped them 200 yards from the foot of the route, along with a small army of attendants.

Climbing for the cameras is slow work — that is why Don had so much time, too much, to study the crux and work out how he would tackle it. The whole thing was to be filmed as part of a series Chris is making for Channel Four about important Lake District climbs (others include Eagle Front and Footless Crow). Luckily, it was a warm day and the rock was bone dry. Finally, everyone was ready. The main camera rolled and Don and Chris walked the last few yards to the foot of the route, pretending to puff and blow a little, then they prepared for the climb and chatted about it. Chris — wearing tennis shoes — tied the nylon rope round his waist with a bowline in the old way and wrapped his nylon slings over his shoulder.

He selected a variety of pebbles and distributed them about his pockets. Don remembered that the rock had been dry on the first ascent and that the cracks had been crammed with gunge. He had had to do a lot of gardening. After the conversation piece there was a lengthy pause while the camera was unloaded and someone came over from the tents with sandwiches and cans of drink. Don, anxious to get cracking, bore it all with patience. The years have mellowed him. It is many years since he dobbed a policeman or any other uniformed interferer. And, after all, he was being paid for sitting around in the sun. So he kept control. When they were ready to resume shooting a voice came through on the walkie-talkies: `Is Don happy?' The reply was muted but loaded with the laconic impact for which he has become notorious: `You'll be lucky'. The cameras rolled, clapper-boards were clapped, the director called 'Action' and Chris moved up past Don, comfortably belayed, to confront the chief problem.

Chris is turned 50, only a year or so younger than Don, but he has kept himself trimmer. They both have beards now but Don's is the more grey and grizzled. They are very different in style and character and conditioning and they have not always seen eye to eye. But they have known each other for 27 years and they have climbed together a lot in the Alps and the Himalayas and there is a mutual respect and trust. Chris carefully fixed two pebble-slings in the crack and clipped the climbing rope into the karabiners. He did not intend to use the slings as footholds and somehow he managed without them. One big upward lunge and and the crux was conquered, unaided. `That first move is quite hard', he called down. Don had been amused to see one of the runners come out as Chris writhed above it: `I've already lost faith in your chock-stoning, 'cos it's come out, the bottom one'. But the higher one held firm and this was the one he would need for his sling foothold.

Keep the rope tight, Chris. I've got the hold — it's just a matter of heaving this paunch up. Give it the big heave'. And he was there — or, at least, on to slightly easier ground. `Jesus. I don't remember it being that hard. It's a real bollock-stretcher, that. When I tried to get my foot up I hit my belly with my knee'. Soon after, he joined Chris at the belay. The first, worst pitch was done. That was the end of the day's climbing. The helicopter pilot was reported to be worried about the immediate weather prospects so they would stop now and come back tomorrow or the day after to film the second pitch. They abseiled off and the chopper lifted them back in time for a jar or two before dinner.

Alan Hankinson: first published as 'Don does it again' in High-November 1984.

Friday 5 June 2015

Alfred Wainwright-Northern Soul

Once there was a town hall official in Cumberland who was so enthralled by the mountains that he walked and walked them, penetrating every byway, surveying every vista. To amuse himself he drew them and wrote about them, year after year. And the more his marriage languished, the more he walked, and drew, and wrote, until the seven volumes of A Pictorial Guide to the Lakeland Fells were complete. His public grew and grew, following in his steps, his books in their hands, until the paths through the dales and up the fellsides were ground deeply into stony grooves, and the man himself was heard to wonder if he had ‘helped to spoil the place’.

A typical double-page spread from one of Wainwright’s guides consists of a densely-woven montage, half-map, half-picture. Inspect it closely and it turns into a wonderfully clear instruction on how to find, then climb a Lakeland mountain or walk through a Northern dale. A wedge of hand-lettered text, cunningly shaped to fit the spaces between the pictures, describes the terrain. It is packed with knowledge, salted with asides to the reader, spiked with warnings against falling off or getting lost. An assortment of facts and captions is pieced into any neuk that remains. The vignettes themselves depict a looming massif, instantly recognisable, garnished with one or two wee extras – a stark outcrop, a slatestone pillar like a totem, a lone barn, a rock-mouth funnelling down into the bowel of the limestone.

If you read closely between the lines of Wainwright’s treatment of the Buttermere fell called Haystacks in his Western Fells of 1966 – the seventh book of his series on the Lakeland fells – a physical and emotional identity between the man and the place begins to stare out at you:

Seen from a distance, these qualities [‘great charm’ and ‘fairyland attractiveness’] are not suspected: indeed, on the contrary, the appearance of Haystacks is almost repellent when viewed from the higher surrounding peaks: black are its bones and black is its flesh. With its thick covering of heather it is dark and sombre even when the sun sparkles the waters of its many tarns, gloomy and mysterious even under a blue sky. There are fierce crags and rough screes and outcrops that will be grittier still when the author’s ashes are scattered here.

   Yet the combination of features, of tarn and tor, of cliff and cove, the labyrinth of comers and recesses, the maze of old sheepwalks and paths, form a design, or a lack of design, of singular appeal and absorbing interest. One can forget even a raging toothache on Haystacks.
This is him – this is the man himself. He was reclusive and hard to know, surly and taciturn. He liked to walk alone and in perfect silence, even when a rare companion (such as his second wife, Betty) was allowed to go along with him. He was ashamed of his own unattractiveness, as he saw it: his inability to chat, his coarse red hair, which he ceased to hate only when it turned into a white mane. In a Scots word, he was crabbit – which shares that fricative ‘cr-’ with so many kindred words: crusty, cross-grained, crag, craggy, crozzley, crooked.

Wainwright wrote and drew himself onto his pages with an unequalled completeness and an obstinate devotion. His prose is old-fashioned and could be mistaken in snatches for Victorian English – ‘gloomy and mysterious’, ‘of singular appeal’. Earlier in The Western Fells, Great Gable is described as ‘a harsh and desolate peak thrust high in the sky above the profound depths all around’. In the conclusion to the third book in the same series, The Central Fells, he waxes nearly Wordsworthian: ‘an inexpressible humility fills the heart ... I must hasten now to the Scafells, noblest of Lakeland’s cathedrals, while good health and appreciation of beauty and simple reverence and gratitude remain with me, for when I have lost these blessings I shall have little left.’

He likes to address his readers directly, even while he labours to instruct them. His remark about toothache being forgotten on Haystacks is characteristic. In The Central Fells he draws himself, foregrounded, in a vista of Raven Crag Thirlmere, with the pawky aside that this is meant to be ‘a special treat for readers’. In the conclusion to The Western Fells he sets up a familiarity with his readers when he assures them that although the main series is now complete, ‘I also have a good title for another book: FELLWANDERER.’ This is all the more Dickensian for being commercially long-headed as well as endearingly matey.

Wainwright’s close-grained determination to incorporate himself into the Cumberland and Westmorland that he so loved shows through poignantly in his reference to the scattering of his ashes on Haystacks. Fellwanderer (1966) ends with these sentences:

But time is running out. Every day that passes is a day less. That day will come when there is nothing left but memories. And afterwards, a last long resting place by the side of Innominate Tarn, on Haystacks, where the water gently laps the gravelly shore and the heather blooms and Pillar and Gable keep unfailing watch. A quiet place, a lonely place. I shall go to it, for the last time, and be carried: someone who knew me in life will take me and empty me out of a little box and leave me there alone.
Then, as this threatens to become too Little Nell, he adds: ‘And if you, dear reader, should get a bit of grit in your boot as you are crossing Haystacks in the years to come, please treat it with respect. It might be me.’ And so it might. As Hunter Davies tells us in his thorough biography of the man, two months after he died in January 1991 at the age of 84, his wife and an old friend, both in their 70th year, climbed up to the tarn at seven in the morning by way of Honister old quarry and consigned his dust to that hummocky moorland.

When I took on Haystacks and its cliffs for the Fell & Rock Climbers’ guidebook to Buttermere eight years ago, I tried to evoke the bristling stature of the place, drawing on my own experience of its trickling and collapsing gullies, which few people have penetrated. I wrote that it was a ‘handsome mass of mountain, deeply gullied, spurred with broken buttresses, the first of which hides a fine hard climb in its oozing innards – a route that has everything – areas that make Lego look solid, avalanches of flowers, and a traditional chimneying pitch of tremendous stature’. The Club didn’t like it at all – too literary, and too favourable to places that lacked the clean-cut glamour of Napes Needle or Gimmer Crag in Great Langdale.

I got my way, with difficulty. Wainwright’s feat was to dispense with all such mediation. He sent the Westmorland Gazette – a weekly Kendal paper founded by Lord Lowther in 1819 to propagandise against the Radicals – pages that were exactly ready for the press: the correct size, so no reduction or enlargement was needed; hand-drawn and hand-lettered in waterproof Indian ink, so no typesetter was needed; and of course no illustrator. The Gazette, as Hunter Davies recounts in detail, used no middleman, no representatives. They took no advertisements and used no promotion on radio or TV. Their author refused all interviews or appearances until late in his life – although he took that puckish delight in drawing and writing himself into his pages.

Those pages, many hundreds of them – seven guides to the Lakeland fells, five books of Cumbrian mountain drawings, six of Scotland, guides to the Pennine Way, the Yorkshire limestone country, a coast-to-coast walk and on and on – were mostly drawn and written in Wainwright’s evenings. He was Borough Treasurer of Kendal. His small house on the Green had one public room and here he worked while his wife and son, who had nowhere else to go, were made to sit in silence. No telephone, no television. Precious few friends. ‘There was never a single free evening when I didn’t apply myself to the task with the eagerness of a lover.’ When his first wife, Ruth, had some friends to tea and Wainwright came home unexpectedly from the office, she shooed them out of the house: ‘Everybody out,’ she cried, ‘he’s back!’

His son Peter shared Wainwright’s walks when he was a boy. Touching black and white snapshots show him neatly dressed, standing alone in a green trod between limestone walls, dutifully consulting a map. In his fifties he had to retire early, joints swollen with arthritis. Wainwright, who died worth a quarter of a million, left him nothing. Davies thinks Peter was resented because he was ‘Ruth’s son’ – and Wainwright had been on Trappist terms with his wife for decades by the time he started secretly courting a prettier, more bourgeois woman and the faithful, selfless Ruth left home at last.

Here is Wainwright’s account of the breakup, from Ex-Fellwanderer (1986): ‘Three weeks before I left the office for good, my wife walked out of the house also for good, unable to tolerate any longer obsessions of mine that left her out in the cold, and I never saw her again. I was not greatly concerned.’ Hunter Davies quotes this and glosses it, or glosses over it, by saying that Wainwright was ‘trying not to hurt the feelings of all concerned’. The economy with the truth here matters more than that. Wainwright had been corresponding passionately with his Betty for two years. Davies has evidence that it was a letter of hers, rashly brought home and found, which drove Ruth from her home. When a separation was negotiated, she undertook to wash and bake for him once a week – he accepted, of course, but she had the spirit to revoke the promise almost at once. They had never been suited.

Wainwright breaks the chief rule of decency in these cases – not to miscall your erstwhile partner: ‘I was climbing the ladder to a professional career, but my wife, a mill girl, had no wish to leave the bottom rung.’ In fact Ruth took to holidaying on the Continent, she bred dogs, she read novels (which he did not); and she might have accompanied her man on his endless stravaigs if he had made her welcome. She walked for two and a half hours every afternoon with a woman friend for 21 years, so she was at least fit. But she was a mill girl, and she had no ‘qualifications’, and he despised the Lancashire accent, although he was from Blackburn himself, the fourth child of an alcoholic stonemason and a woman who took in washing.

Wainwright’s deeply compacted and introverted character is what we would want a biography to light up. Hunter Davies at least supplies the information, while eschewing analysis except of the most obvious kind. All that silent, lonely walking, across and down every least co-ordinate of the English highlands – was it chosen or was it perforce? Davies argues for the latter and points out that Wainwright happily organised group outings when he was a young accountant’s clerk. When the couple became estranged, he argues, Wainwright accepted the necessity of being solitary and manufactured virtues from it. It seems more complex than that. I think he embraced the necessity. Assiduously he secreted the hard, thick shell inside which he could be himself.

When he at last appeared on television, walking round the Lakes and the Scottish Highlands and sitting down on selected rocks to be plied with interviewers’ prompts, he was comically taciturn. He cut off with perfect readiness from his son, from his first wife, and from his most faithful associate, Henry Marshall, who ran a one-man Wainwright distribution network from his own home for ten years and then was suddenly dropped.

Wainwright was a loner. His habits were frugal in the extreme and monotonous in the extreme. If people called, he never came downstairs. He invariably finished his weekend outings with a solitary fish supper (and took pieces of fish home in his pocket for his beloved cat). He amassed – not coin but miles, paces, summits, routes, stones. This flowed straight into his style, its laboriously minute detail, its sameness from district to district and season to season. He was a master of topography all right, and you have only to compare his work with other professionals in the field, John and Anne Nuttall in their Mountains of England and Wales (1990), for example, to appreciate his mastery. Their drawing style is rectilinear whatever the subject; rocks become blocks and right-angles creep into the skylines. Wainwright does much subtler justice to the variety of rock types and land forms and to do so he had to spend that much more time, take that much more care.

‘Every page of my ledgers should be fit for framing,’ he remarks in Fellwanderer. Here is the juncture where die bookkeeper morphoses into the draughtsman-writer. Every figure in each column must be just so, and so must every stone in every wall and every boulder strewn down every slope. The Lake District is stony, to be sure, textured throughout with granular outcrops and scree-slopes like great robes of tweed. Need they have been drawn quite so speckled and hatched, so dotted and pelleted that the fell-sides begin to seem like cross-sections of some colossal haggis?

By the same token need he have specified each walk quite so minutely?
Take the rising branch-path from the Traverse into Needle Gully, and go up this to the base of the pinnacle; a scrambling track opposite climbs up to a ledge known as the Dress Circle, the traditional balcony for watching the ascent of the Needle. From this ledge a higher traverse can be made along the base of the crags, going below the Cat Rock into Little Hell Gate, but there is a tricky section initially and this is no walk for dogs, small children, well behaved women and the like.

Midway between the two Hell Gates, Needle Gully and a branch gully, full of scree, cut across the South traverse ... If proceeding west (i.e. from Sty Head) the two rising branch-paths may be followed by mistake without realising that the traverse has been left, they being the more distinct, a circumstance that does not arise when proceeding east.

And so on and so forth, for something like two hundred fells. Should we really treat the exploration of wild country like this? Wainwright doted on the Ordnance Survey maps and used them to plan his walks. I have used them to pick out precise sites for family camps in Harris, Benbecula, Jura, Wester Ross – spotting with their help the windbreaks, the curving beaches, the freshwater sources – then gone there and found them to be so.

Is this not as much help as the explorer needs? In the first review of a Wainwright book, Harry Griffin wrote in the Lancashire Evening Post in May 1955 that the author ‘ran the risk of taking all the adventure, the joy of discovery, out of the fells by the very completeness of his work’. There was no stopping him. He was expressing himself – recording his own experience of poring over his beloved uplands – and his books are best treated as a person

David Craig : A version of this article first appeared in the London Review of Books-1995