Friday 18 March 2016

Whisper the Wind

John Syrett and Gordon Stainforth: Chamonix 1972.Photo Andy Long

Whisper the wind around the rocky outcrop
Moving the long grass at the base of the Crag
Listen carefully to the noise it keeps making
Sighing and dying as it rises then falls

It tells of a warm day at the height of a summer
And the three young climbers who came here to play
Their laughter remembered as I reach the rock face
Their faces I recall as I stand beneath the Green Crack

Above are the first two verses from a poem included in my published collection, ‘On the Edge’*. This was about a visit to Almscliff Crag in the summer of 1969, by John Syrett, Roger Baxter Jones and myself. At that date we all three were studying at Leeds University, I unlike the other two being a part time student. Both of my two companions subsequently made their mark in the history of British climbing, but each suffered a tragic death. Verse three is intended to set the scene of how we felt and enjoyed our activities at that date.

But the wind is rising and I cannot now confirm
Just who led and who lay out bare back in the sun
We were happy then for it seemed to be never ending
A life without strife with such good friends it was fun

Both John and Roger arrived at Leeds for the Autumn term of 1968, the first to read mineral sciences the second to study English. They were 18 years old at that date, and fetched up as members of the University climbing club, which over the next few years was to also include other outstanding activists such as John Porter, Brian Hall, Alex MacIntyre, Bernard Newman, John Stainforth and a host of others.

John Syrett on Cloggy's Shrike: Gordon Stainforth

John hailed from a village in Kent, and when he arrived in Leeds he was almost a novice rock climber, but immediately he settled to assiduous practice on the then famous university climbing wall. It seemed any time you visited that facility he would be there, and he quickly developed into one of its star performers. It is hard now to appreciate the standing of the Leeds Wall in that era, with the massive developments that have taken place in such facilities subsequently, but it is fair to report that it was then the most important wall in the UK. Only 15 feet high, it nevertheless boasted a hard landing, and some of the problems were very bold, and not a few fractured limbs resulted from falls at the facility. John’s climbing style was quickly developed as being particularly adventurous, and to watch him on his classic roof traverse, at the top of the wall, laybacking on small undercuts with a fractured spine as a real possibility if he fell, was real commitment and nobody else in the early 1970’s seemed keen to emulate the feat.

Thus John was one of the first to realise what such wall training could achieve in developing rock climbing skills, and within a few months he was transferring these learned abilities out onto the local gritstone outcrops. I first met him at the wall and in February 1969 arranged to climb at Ilkley with him. I had recently married and my wife and I were staying with my father in North Leeds, whilst working to refurbish a weaver’s cottage we had bought out of the city in Guiseley. On the Sunday morning early, John arrived having run the five kilometres from his shared flat in Leeds 6. He was wearing flared jeans, desert boots, and an open neck white shirt, assiduously ironed and clean. In each hand he carried a P.A. rock boot; that is all, despite it being an icy cold day with snow on the ground. My former wife Leni, later remarked on John’s startling good looks, being of average height, lithe, with sharp lit blue eyes, topped by a mass of thick black curly hair. Pete Livesey noted his ‘blue eyed god-like expression’.

That first time climbing outside with John made me realise what a phenomenon he really was. Ilkley Moor is known for its biting cold, yet he spent most of the day outside soloing, wearing only his open neck shirt, and jeans whilst my wife and I cowered in our ancient Dormobile sheltering from the elements and brewing up to combat the cold.
Over the next four years John was to pioneer some of Yorkshire’s finest routes, it was to be his golden period with over 40 new routes on gritstone, such as Joker’s Wall and the Brutaliser both at Brimham, Earl Buttress at that Crag, Propeller Wall at Ilkley and some of Almsciff’s outstanding test pieces; The Big Greeny, Encore, and his eponymous ‘Roof’ still a 6B challenge, plus many more and one of the earliest repeats of The Wall of Horrors. Most of his new climbs were at the highest standard of the day, and although he tended to concentrate on the gritstone outcrops his new climbs on limestone, such as Midnight Cowboy at Malham were also challenging to the other activists of that period.

Image: Brian Cropper
John graduated in the summer of 1972, but stayed on in Leeds for he seemed to then be enamoured of the climbing, social and clubbing scene. I once saw him disco dancing at a climbing club dinner,and he really was a mover but disaster struck in late 1973 when at a drunken party, he cut through the tendons on the fingers of one of his hands, opening a beer can. His climbing was never to be the same again and though he continued to be active, he was to be limited by these injuries. He visited Yosemite in 1974, and spent the winter of that year in the Ben Nevis area, soloing classic routes on that mountain.

He remained in Leeds until 1978, but then moved to live in Newcastle where he embarked on a physiotherapy course. He continued to do some climbing and pioneered an E4 5C on Northumberland sandstone, Stella at South Yardhope. Finishing his studies in Newcastle, he took up a position working on the North Sea Oil Rigs. A mutual friend, Mark Clark who met him around this time, reported back his worries about John’s behaviour which he found to be concerning, erratic and drinking heavily whilst worrying about a fatal accident to one of his workmates, for which he seemed to believe he was somehow partly responsible, although an enquiry into the incident absolved him from any blame.

One weekend in June 1985 I was at Malham, and early on the Sunday morning a climber came running into the camp site to tell there had been two accidents which had occurred up on the Cove. Could we go and help. One of these was up on the right wing, so my companion and self headed up there, to find a Scots climber lying at the foot of Wombat. He had set off to solo this, but he had fallen from low down on this route. He was badly cut in the thigh, but with support he could stand and between us we helped him down the hillside and then along to my car. As we moved away from the Cove we met Pete Livesey who was heading up to help at the other accident. All he knew at that juncture was someone had fallen from the top of the Central Wall of the Cove.

We drove the Scots climber to hospital, to accident and emergency, where he needed several stitches to close up his injury, and then I took him to catch a transport back North. He assured me he would be OK doing this on his own! Arriving home late that night, Pete Livesey phoned me with the terrible news that the body they had found at the foot of the Cove was John’s. He had turned up at Pete’s home in Malham the previous evening, holding a bottle of whisky. They had drunk most of this whilst talking late into the night whence John had insisted on going off into the gloom to sleep at the top of the Cove. There is a large cave up there at its right side and on arriving John was to find two other climbers in residence. He bedded down alongside them, but almost at first light he went outside, walked to the edge of the Cove and leapt off.

Pete informed me that there was a note attached to his body, and he definitely had intended to carry out this tragic action. He had taken the note off his body, and he would hand this to John’s relatives in confidence. Pete and I were good friends, and I agreed with him that this was for the best.
So ended the life of John Syrett in only his 35th year, a star that had burnt so bright in his rock climbing career, but who set himself such high standards, that when he could no longer meet these, his life moved on to what seemed to be an inevitable slow sad demise. He remains however in my memory forever young, and inspirational to recall the way he moved up a rockface.  Below is the fourth verse of Whisper the Wind:

It is a long time though since we were here together
And alas it never can be again, for I am the only survivor
The others were killed by their love of the mountains
Leaving me to grow old and trying to remember them

Roger Baxter Jones was from London, and I first met him in late 1968 at Almscliff where we ended by sharing a rope, and climbing together. I was immediately taken by his extreme good humour and strong personality, which led on to some of the other members of the university club to note that ‘It is all the way with RBJ’.  Subsequently I met him occasionally in the Pack Horse pub, the meeting place of the university climbers, but unlike John he was not a regular at the Climbing Wall, preferring to concentrate on spending time on a nearby dry ski slope, set up in an old chapel building on the edge of the campus and he eventually became a highly proficient off-piste skier. He was however a solid rock climber, but he would have been the first to admit that he could not emulate the outcrop feats of John, although they did several difficult climbs together such as the Great Wall on Clogwyn du’r Arddu, with Roger in the lead in 1970.

Roger Baxter-Jones on Rimpfischorn: Morgan Friis Andersen

From his earliest climbing however Roger was orientated to mountaineering, he had a powerful physique, above medium height, but during his first alpine season in the summer of 1969, he suffered a serious accident whilst climbing on the Piz Badile. This meant a long period of recovery and a drop out from his studies in Leeds. On his return, he began to work in Centresport (one of the first climbing/skiing specialist retailers), and to teach dry slope skiing at which he had become highly competent.

Once fully recovered he returned to alpinism, and from thereon he accepted that this was where his all round abilities were best employed. After summer successes he began to also visit the Alps in winter, and a significant climb for him in that season was the Super Couloir on Mont Blanc du Tacul. In summer 1972, he took part in hosting along with myself on a BMC invitation visit to Snowdonia by a party of French climbers, which included such outstanding performers as Simone Badier, Patrick Cordier, and Jean Afanassief. They made a big impression on Roger and were for him a booster to his growing sympathies for all things French.

He then studied at Sheffield, and finally obtained a degree, and a standout climb for him at the end of this period in 1977, was the second ascent of the Whymper Spur Direct on the Grandes Jorasses with Nick Colton.  And later still the first winter ascent, solo of the North Face of The Aiguille des Grands Charmoz.

Over the next half decade his life was dedicated to climbing in the Himalaya, commencing in 1978 with a bold alpine ascent of Jannu with Rab Carrington, Al Rouse and Brian Hall. In 1980 he attempted the south east ridge of Makalu with Doug Scott and George Bettembourg. In 1982 he played a notable part in the successful ascent of a new route on Shisha Pangma, by its south west face with Doug Scott and Alex MacIntyre. In 1983 he summited Broad Peak with Jean Afanasieff, and subsequently took part in two attempts to climb K2 climbing alpine style.

Back in Europe, more and more he became enamoured of the Mont Blanc range, in which region he became a leading exponent of first winter ascents, allied to his by then highly developed abilities in off piste skiing. He also became a disciple of inner game theory, a system of mind control developed by Tim Gallwey (USA), and adopted by some skiers besides other sports enthusiasts.

Roger continued with his French odyssey, in language, tastes and attitudes. In 1983 he married Christine Devassoux, he took French nationality, and became the first Briton to become a Chamonix Guide, whilst setting up with Christine their marital home in that valley.

Old friendships remained, and that winter when my eldest son Stephen had an accident above Le Tour, Roger was the first to offer to help us. But following his dangerous calling, where he specialised in guiding experienced clients up major climbs, he was to die guiding the North Face of the Triolet when a serac broke away obliterating all in its path, including Roger and his partner on the 8th July 1985 (Dying just one month later than John Syrett!).

Trying to make sense of both John and Roger’s life and deaths is  difficult, but they were two outstanding personalities who eschewed conformity and followed, their own chosen paths. Few of us have the courage or ability to be so bold. Here is the final verse of ‘Whisper the wind’.......

Whisper the wind around the outcrop
Moving the long grass at the base of the Crag
Listen carefully to the noise it keeps making
Sighing and dying as it rises then falls

* 'From the Edge Selected Poems' .Published by The Flux Gallery Press, 2012. Limited edition,quickly sold out. 

Dennis Gray:2016