Friday 13 May 2016

Two Short Summers: A profile of Brian Kellett.

On the 11th September, 1944, a search for two missing mountaineers was launched on Ben Nevis. The climbers in question were Brian Kellett, a cragsman of the highest calibre, and a woman climber of vast mountaineering experience called Nancy Forsyth. Miss Forsyth had come to Fort William to spend a weekend climbing holiday with Kellett. They stayed at the C.I.C. but in Coire Leis and nothing was heard of them until the following Tuesday when Miss Forsyth, a schoolteacher, failed to arrive for work at her school in Dumfries. Her relatives, naturally concerned, informed the police at Fort William who despatched Police Sergeant Boa and a colleague of Kellett's to investigate. This was before the formation of the established mountain rescue teams when police, local shepherds and farmers were often called upon to perform rescue work. On arrival at the but they found signs of occupation by the missing pair and items of personal gear, but were unable to determine the climbers' whereabouts. A major search was organised by the police the next day who were later joined by many experienced mountaineers from all over Scotland, who had read or heard of the incident which had been given wide coverage in the local and national press.

After a search lasting several days, two climbers, thought to be Nancy Forsyth and Brian Kellett were seen lying together at the foot of Cousin's Buttress, situated between the North-West face of Carn Dearg and Raeburn's Buttress. Eventually, a stretcher party led by J. H. B. Bell reached the spot and their worst fears were realised — the missing pair were both dead, having fallen at least 200 feet. It was a distressing and harrowing experience for Bell, for he knew the couple, having previously introduced them to each other. Despite an inquiry set up by the S.M.C., the cause of the tragedy was never established. It was presumed that they had finished a climb (probably Cousin's Buttress Ordinary, graded ‘Very difficult’) and were moving together above the main difficulties when the accident occurred. Most of the rope was coiled neatly across Miss Forsyth's shoulder with the remainder, 10 to 15 feet, tied to Kellett's waistline. What happened must remain a mystery.

Could a rock fall, or a loose hold, or a slip on the wet rock have been responsible? None of the rescuers felt inclined to prospect higher to check for any visible signs on the rock face, which in the circumstances, is hardly surprising. Kellett's tragic death severed an amazing climbing career — in only two short summers, from 1943 to 1944, he discovered more than forty new routes or variations, many done solo, and at least half of them at a severe grade or above. A glance through the Ben Nevis climbing guide gives an indication of Kellett's meteoric career and his insatiable appetite for prospecting new lines. His knowledge of the complex, precipitous north-face of Ben Nevis was unsurpassed, perhaps rivalled only by the Ben's other two well-known devotees, Dr. J. H. B. Bell and Graham MacPhee. His identification with the mountain had much the same quality as Herford's exploration on Scafell or Edwards's infatuation with the Three Cliffs in Llanberis Pass. He was in many ways a victim of the times — as a conscientious objector at the beginning of the second world war he spent some time in prison before volunteering for service with the Forestry Commission in Scotland — his first choice was Skye, but as there were no vacancies in that area, he agreed to go to Torfundy, near Fort William.

And yet, for all his important contribution to Scottish climbing, little is known about the man. He appears as a solitary, almost mystical figure on the historical tapestry of Britain's highest mountain. Brian Pinder Kellett was born at Weymouth, England on the 15th May,1914, he attended Kingwell Hall Prep. School near Bath before moving on to Bloxham Public School. He was described as an all-round athlete and represented his school in the first team at rugby and cricket. He used his powerful build to good purpose in the boxing ring and was a keen soccer and hockey player. Kellett had the reputation as an accomplished chess-player and was at one time chess-champion of Lancashire.

It was on Dartmoor Tors as a boy where he first cut his teeth at rock climbing, but it was not until his late twenties that he became a committed cragsman. After he qualified as an accountant,he did some forestry work in the Lake District where he ascended many of the classic routes, normally solo, and usually without a guide book. Although his mother and sister did not share his convictions as a conscientious objector (his father, a naval officer, had gone down with his ship, HMS Flirt, in 1916) they stood by him, believing that his views were absolutely genuine. These were traumatic days for Kellett and his resilience and moral fibre were put fully to the test. Mrs South, a Quaker, who helped conscientious objectors and who was instrumental in seeing his third appeal was successful, had this to say about him: "I had a deep respect for Brian . . . he was a brave man — his courage was there for all to see ... I can see him now challenging the might of the Court Martial . . . he would have been happier in the more liberal days of the 18th Century when straight-forwardness and moral courage were rated higher than brute force ." 

Brian Kellett was not alone among climbers who were registered conscientious objectors — the pacifist views of Menlove Edwards are well known and John Jenkins, a leading British mountaineer, who was an engineer by profession, was compelled by the authorities to spend some of the war working as a miner at Ashington Colliery in Northumberland.

After his release from prison in 1942 Kellett was assigned to Torlundy Forestry Village, near Fort William, where he quickly settled into his duties, feeling no bitterness or resentment for the punitive measures imposed upon him. This is more than can be said for some of the other conscientious objectors at Torlundy at the time. His popularity among his colleagues is summed up by ex-fellow workmate, John Elder, who spent most of his working life at Torlundy: "Brian always gave one hundred per cent effort and one would think that he had been born to work upon the land; nothing was too much bother and his great strength was a tremendous asset. I do not recall seeing him training to keep his fitness — forestry work, regular cycling and mountaineering seemed to be enough. He was an excellent chess-player and I have seen him playing chess against his workmates and at the same time repairing his clothing.

He learned Gaelic from books, probably to understand the meaning of Scottish mountain names, which he could pronounce as if he had been born in the Highlands. I recollect he stayed in a bothy with twelve other workers mucking in with them quite easily. I feel sure roughing it in the mountains helped him in this respect. I was the person, described in newspaper reports, who went with Police Sergeant Boa to the C.I.C. but when Brian failed to report for work — as soon as we entered the but we had a feeling of foreboding, as though some-thing terrible had happened—for one thing the fire had not been kindled for several days."

On the 30th August, 1942, Kellett gave a preface as to his future activities by ascending, with J. A. Dunster, the unclimbed No. 2 Gulley of Ben Nevis. It was a desperate place, stacked with loose blocks, hanging scree and wet, mossy holds. It's understandable why previous attempts on the gully by Raeburn, and later, by MacPhee were aborted.Needless to say the climb still holds a full very-severe grade! It is rumoured among some of the older Scottish mountaineers that B.K. climbed hard and solo to prove he was not a coward, despite his refusal to join up — this opinion was certainly held by the highly respected J. H. B. Bell — but present research into the background and character of the man would seem not to support this theory; Kellett was an individual of strong will, who appeared to care little what people thought of him, and it's worth remembering that he climbed solo before the start of the war.

Arnot Russell, who climbed with Kellett on a number of occasions looks back across 36 years: "I consider the view that Brian climbed solo to prove he was not a coward to be nonsense — he enjoyed climbing and did not climb solo because he wanted to do so. We enjoyed his company as he did ours. He seemed to be lonely, although outwardly seemed self-assured and self contained. My experience with Brian showed that he was always a very stable and careful climber. We always roped up and moved singly on anything more than "cliff' standard. We respected him and admired the way he climbed. I remember well the way he used to say quite seriously, 'it would be rather hard,' when we pointed out some impossible looking overhanging route to him."

He first met Arnot Russell on the 9th June, 1943; earlier that day B.K. had made a solo reconnaissance of the upper reaches of a line to the right of Route 1 on Carn Dearg Buttress. It seemed feasible, so he called into the CIC but looking for a partner to belay him on the untried lower section. Russell, who was staying there with a group from the St. Andrews University Mountaineering Club, volunteered his services and after using the start to Route 1, they managed to negotiate the greasy slabs, which were the crux of the climb, and register only the second route on the crag, which they named logically enough — Route 2. Watching from the sidelines was a young climber called Donald McCall who recalls that day: "All I remember is a cold dull morning, with cloud not much above 3,500 feet. We were looking up at the Ben from the door of the but when this stocky character arrived in shorts, wearing thick-lensed glasses. He was looking for someone to join him on a new climb attempt. Russell was the only really competent rock-climber among us, so he went off with Kellett, while Ed Carrick and I climbed the Direct Route on the Douglas Boulder. From time to time we watched with awe, and not a little fright, as Kellett and Russell worked their way out,up and right from Route 1 and under the big overhang on green shiny slabs. They had abandoned nailed boots for stocking soles and picked up their boots again at the end by descending Route 1, itself a Severe." 

Brian Kellett on Route II, Carn Dearg,1943: Photo Lorna Kellett

Among the proliferation of routes that he discovered on the Ben, the more out-standing ones include Kellett' s Climb on the North Wall of Carn Dearg, his 1944 Route (VS), on the South Trident Buttress, the Left Hand and Right Hand Route (both VS), on Minus Two Buttress and probably his most daring lead — Gardyloo Buttress (VS). His climb on Gardyloo Buttress was the climax of weeks of painstaking investigation and was a magnificent solo-lead on a problem of long standing. There had been attempts on the Buttress during the early forties by strong Scottish parties; the first in July, 1940, by Ogilvy and Piercy who made considerable progress, but were repulsed by rain and made their escape by abseiling into Gardyloo Gully, leaving behind them two rope slings and two karabiners. The following June saw Messrs. Scroggie, Ferguson and Ritchie, in stockinged feet, reach Ogilvy' s highest point before they erred on the side of caution and roped down leaving four pitons and one karabiner.

Kellett mentions finding this hardwear in his notes and also records that he experienced much difficulty on the crux — a 15 foot, exposed overhanging corner which took an hour to climb — the total time for the route was about 3 hours. "I had hoped to accompany him on several of his latest routes," wrote J. H. B. Bell,  .. but bad weather and wet rocks made this impossible. It is only fair to say that Kellett' s climbing, for sheer daring, was often uncanny to watch . . . His account of the first ascent of Gardyloo Buttress, matter of fact as it appears at first reading, is enough to bring out a sweat on the brow and the palms of a reader who has seen the place and is aware of the previous unsuccessful attempts on the formidable and sinister cliff. He invited me to join him on a second ascent. It was a high compliment, but the onset of bad weather relieved me from facing a difficult decision." Kellett never did a second ascent — Dougal Haston claimed this fourteen years later. When not active on Ben Nevis, Kellett sometimes spent his leisure time walking on the Mamores or cycling to Glencoe, where the Buachaille Etive Mor was a great attraction. 

His burning ambition to climb in the Isle of Skye was never realised — during the war years all land north of the Great Glen was out of bounds to visitors, and this included Skye. Before his tragic death Kellett was involved in three falls — this may have invited criticism, but it should be remembered that he spent literally hundreds of hard-climbing days during his short and concentrated mountaineering career, exploring severe and often untried rock in all weather conditions. He suffered his first recorded fall in January, 1943. He was high up in Glover's Chimney, climbing solo, when he slipped and shot down hundreds of feet, over the lower 150 foot ice pitch, to land safely in snow above Garadh na Ciste. Seven months later he fell in the short chimney on Route A on the North Wall of Carn Dearg — a loose chockstone is thought to have been the cause. Then there was a fall whilst attempting a new variation of Luscher's Route with J. H. B. Bell and Nancy Forsyth. Bell later described in his climbing log what happened:

"Kellett started off, Nancy belayed near foot of chimney. I was unroped as I was coiling up the 100 foot line which was no longer necessary. A rumble from above and I caught sight of B.K. flying downwards past me. At the same moment I felt a blow on the head, not sharp but dull, and my head began to flow with blood. Nancy shouted to me to grasp and try and stop the rope — it was of course, utterly impossible. The thing was running so fast and jerking about, then it stopped and Nancy was drawn up sharp against the belay in a strained position — then there was silence. The rope to Kellett was taut . . . then he shouted up. One had no time to think at all. Everything happened so quickly. To our enquiries he said he was unhurt but shaken a bit with hands numbed. He was hanging with just faint pressure on the rocks and no real handholds." After several minutes of devious rope engineering they managed to extricate Kellett from his precarious position.

He probably owed his life to Nancy Forsyth's prompt action in arresting his fall from which she suffered a severely lacerated hand. An incident of cruel irony when one considers future tragic events. The drama of the day was not yet over. On the way down Kellett, still badly shaken, slipped when a hold gave way and he fell about 5 feet, seriously injuring his left knee and damaging his left hand when it was struck by a falling stone. It was later diagnosed that he had a cracked patella and a broken finger. Kellett's refusal to be intimidated by excessively steep or overhanging rock is illustrated by his attempts to climb the fierce central mass of Carn Dearg Buttress. One such attempt on the 6th June, 1944 is described here by Robin Plackett: "Brian took us along to Carn Dearg Buttress to see whether any further progress could be made on a climb which he had already prospected.

The first part was a very steep wall at right angles to the main face, about 50 feet high. This finished on a sloping ledge with a large boulder, secure enough for the next stretch. Brian now wanted his jacket so my wife Carol who was in the party, went back for it to the hut. The climb offered a gangway and a crack with few holds. We disliked the start of the gangway but explored the crack above the ledge (finding a line loop) and found a higher traverse impossible. Carol returned to find us in retreat. I was lowered and Brian abseiled for the first time under Carol's tuition. We returned to the hut for sun and supper." 

The line they tried is undoubtably the first pitch of Centurion, climbed twelve years later by Whillans and Downes. It is interesting to note the evidence of the old sling, suggesting that someone else had been up this pitch before Kellett. He later returned to Centurion Corner and effected a breakthrough rightwards across some slabs in an attempt to reach the prominent chimney feature. His effort failed, but the line was eventually forced in 1954 by Brown and Whillans, who used a direct start and named the climb — ‘Sassenach’. Kellett had designs on this line as early as the summer of 1943 and mentioned his intention to Bell who doubted its feasibility. After his unsuccessful foray he heeded Bell's advice and left the proposed route to another generation. It was Kellett who named Point Five, Minus One, Minus Two and Minus Three Gullies — he contemplated Point Five Gully as a summer climb, but never got round to it. Alex Small, who was secretary of the Junior Mountaineering Club of Scotland during these years, recalls some memories of Kellett:

 "He was a reserved, undemonstrative fellow, who didn't enter the hut unless invited (unlike many nowadays) and was grateful for any hospitality we offered him. Powerfully built, we still remember his massive legs. At the time he was examining routes up the Douglas Boulder, walked up from Torlundy after his Forestry work was over, returned to the hut to note his routes in one of his famous notebooks, using his preferred system of Cartesian coordinates to mark the features and after his final cup of tea, murmured his thanks and disappeared into the dusk down the track.’

Kellett soon afterwards joined the J.M.C.S. which gave him ready access to the C.I.C. hut and occasionally, partners to climb with. The famous notebooks mentioned by Alex Small which were a model of accuracy and precision were published in total in the 1943/44 S.M.C. Journals and it is sad to relate that the latter publication also contained a short note recording Kellett's death; future climbing historians may look at his achievements and question why a worthwhile obituary was never printed. I think Kellett's climbing career was so fleeting and transitory that few mountaineers, if any, had a long enough acquaintance with him to feel qualified to write an appreciation of him. If that is so, then this tribute to him is long overdue! Alex Small probably puts it into perspective when he said: "His appearance and deeds caused little acclaim at the time; there were few climbers about to appreciate his exploits. His fame was very much muted and posthumous." 

On the 11th September, 1944, Brian Kellett at the age of thirty, a confirmed atheist, was buried in the small cemetery at Glen Nevis, overlooked by the mountain that meant so much to him in his later life and which helped to crystallise his freedom of expression. Although his grave is now distinguished by a granite headstone to bear testimony to his passing, he left a more tangible proof of his vitality for life on the steep ramparts of the North-face of Ben Nevis. 

Ken Smith: First published in Climber and Rambler July 1981