Friday 29 July 2016


Ashes. Now there are only ashes. Scattered on the wind. Falling far and free.

Who was he?  When I first met him, he was struggling to stand in a sling on the bolt of Darius. He’d never made an aid move before. What a place to begin! His face, normally pale and thin, was red and beefy with effort. There was far more slack in the rope than I’d have liked. He seemed indifferent.

We met again soon afterwards on the wall in Endcliffe Park. His gentle ribbing of my own risqué tactics at High Tor showed an unexpected sensitivity in one so young. He had a slight, almost girlish frame. His face was ingenuous to the point of pity.

He came sailing along the low-level traverse, only to skid wildly off the crux. Muddy boots he explained, abashed, then confided he’d soloed Great Slab earlier that afternoon. “Hope your boots weren’t muddy then,” I jested, inwardly appalled.

After that, he was everywhere. For a time, he seemed inseparable from Jerry. And yet he never struck me as sorcerer’s apprentice, Jerry’s clone. They were both fuelled with energy, eager to get out on the rock and make it happen. Shared dreams; different realities.

Other times he would be out on his own, soloing. Rumour had it that, come ten to eight each morning, he’d be at the bus stop at Hunter’s Bar, punctual as any commuter, never mind the weather. He’d be out in the Peak all day every day. Dedication he had. Naturally, inevitably, 5b became 6b.

I always thought him an odd, quixotic figure. Even in an impoverished existence, respectability clung to him like rags. This was no child of the streets. Somewhere there was a loving family, the warmth of acceptance. And, somewhere else, rebellion, a necessary battle for identity. We all struggle with our demons. Perhaps his struggle was harder than most.

So many come into climbing, young and foolish, to pay dearly for their maturity. Only perhaps in combat is experience so hardly earned. Through the long, long litany of faces I have known, his was the most fragile, the most innocent, the most vulnerable. In life, it earned him the cruel nickname which he bore with pride.

Once, in Stoney caff, I remember him sitting with Kim and Ron and Gill. Company indeed. And making some ill-favoured remark about lazy Aussie climbers. Kim’s acid riposte – “Well, I wouldn’t exactly term all those mega-routes at Arapiles the products of indolence…”  He blushed furiously, nodded spasmodically.

If, by his own admission, he lacked talent at climbing, it was elsewhere in abundance. Absence of guile came from a mind which was too open, too questioning, where other, lesser ones were narrow, closed. All the while he was learning the bitter lesson that possession of intellect is more apt to be curse than blessing.

We’d meet out on grit or lime, exchange banter, solo together. I liked his company. Mutual reticence precluded a deeper understanding. This I now regret.

What he did when he wasn’t climbing, I never know. He once said that you could have real fun in the Poly television room. I wondered at that. What kind of life was it where you could have real fun in the Poly television room?

The last time we climbed together was at Stoney. Unfit from exams, I’d gone there to do Kingdom Come, only to discover that the crucial protection bolt was missing.

He offered to clip the peg above the crux. In momentary weakness, I acquiesced. My relief ebbed, then abruptly died as he started to forcefully undercut creaking, unprotected flakes out to the right of the normal route and harder. Suddenly losing the sequence. Twitching and gibbering above the void.

Instinctively I grabbed the ropes to belay him, then realised there was no belay, he’d simply take me with him. As quickly, I let go, before shamefacedly wrapping the ropes around me again. Some things you can’t do.

Above his juddering body lunged, dark against brutal overhangs. Taut fingers scrabbled at the crucial layaway. The harsh click of metal against metal as he clipped the peg. Against all odds, we were still alive.

We finished the route, then drifted down to Rheinstor, in deference to my unfitness, played around on easier routes all afternoon. I never saw him again.

The first accident happened that summer, in Pembroke. A hold broke. He fell, from high up, and hit the ground. They said it wasn’t his fault, it was the sort of accident that could have happened to anyone. Except that it happened to him.

At first he was in a coma. He left hospital with brain damage. An ironic, bitter handicap to such a mind. The childlike prettiness of his face disfigured.

I meant to see him but didn’t, maybe couldn’t. Soon he was climbing again, not well but strong. Four hundred pull-ups a day. Not lazy at all, you see, he was never lazy. But life… what was life? He wanted, they said, to die in the hills.

He did. He died on the Wastad, soloing a pokey, nasty little route that anybody could have failed on. A terrible, searing, bloody landing. No more.

Gail told me, in a back-street pub in Sheffield. One more death in a litany of deaths. But this one, I knew instantly, was the one from which I would never recover. For his face was the most fragile, the most innocent, the most vulnerable. Gently she led me, uncontrollable with grief, out of the pub, past the sniggers and the uncomprehending stares.

His funeral; I’d missed it. But at least others came. For an awful moment, I feared there would have been next to no-one.

They scattered his ashes at Stoney, which truly had been his home. Even now, years later, as I drive along the dale, I glance up, quickly, instinctively, half-expecting to see him bouldering above Windy Ledge. No more.

When they scattered his ashes, a certain notable was bouldering in the bays. Some of the ashes swirled past on the wind, drifted onto a crucial hold. Our notable thus bounced up his problem, ironically commenting, “I always knew the little bugger would be good for something, after all.”

Some people can inspire hatred. This was one such.

So, even after death, ignominy continued. A magazine article blatantly disparaged when there was no need. What further misery may his mother have endured?

But now he is gone. Long gone. The ignominy and the loneliness far behind him. And the soloing… a harsh medium indeed in which to decipher one’s troubled image.

Talent there was in plenty. But talent bloodily uprooted before ever it had a chance to nurture, to bear testimony.

Ashes. Now there are only ashes.


Noddy (Neil Molnar) was a member of the early 1980s Stoney coterie. He was a friend of Jerry Moffatt and is mentioned in Jerry’s autobiography, ‘Revelations’. Although it’s more than 30 years since he died, he’s still remembered.  

Micheal Ward: 2016 

Friday 22 July 2016

Slippery Jim

Joe Brown: Painting by Keith Bowen:Image KB
I prefer to look forward and not back, but occasionally it is good to sit and remember. I do hope however, that climbing never becomes anything more than a pastime for idlers.  

‘Vroom’ a boulder the size of a human head smashed into the scree landing near to Joe ‘Morty’ Smith, Joe Brown and myself. ‘Where the hell did that come from?’ we chorused, craning our necks and looking up the East Gully Wall. Peering through the gloom and the light snow that was falling. It was March 1958, and our day had started many hours before. We had left our tents at the Grochan field early that morning, four of us- for besides the three now straddled across the foot of the wall- Don Whillans had been with us when we set off.

We had driven to Hafod Newedd, walked up past a deserted half-way house, then across the main Du’r Arddu. We had been shocked by the amount of snow around and there had been a disagreement about objectives. Joe was fixated on trying the steep wall rising out of the East Gully which he later ascended as Shrike. Whilst Whillans had suggested another possible line, somewhere over on the Far East of the cliff, but as we had skirted above the Llyn, tempers had flared as Don declared that the whole outing was now ‘bloody mad’.

It ended with him stalking off. In those days there was no reasoning with him. Joe as always was phlegmatic in such situations and Morty and I were too young, and too inexperienced to interfere. Joe was the senior, and both Morty and I used to defer to him on all matters to do with climbing. He was just so much better, older and wiser about mountaineering than we were so we were happy to follow him wherever he led.

Soloing up the first part of the East Gully had been no joke, covered in a light dusting of powder snow it had been a frightening experience, at least for me! In such situations I never knew whether it was only I, or if the others were also gripped, but if they were they never showed it. Normally the East Gully is a scramble except for the last hundred feet or so, but a covering of snow can transform anything, especially easy angled rock. The East Gully in winter is an impressive place, a natural amphitheatre it is flanked on all sides with steep rock walls. Easy rock lead in summer up into this bowl, which has only one straightforward exit, the Gully climb itself, graded Very Difficult.

At the base of the wall, we had roped up onto over-weight single nylon ropes; two 150 feet lengths of hawser-laid which had become like wire as we struggled to retreat. Joe had led us up the first pitch of the East Gully Wall and Morty and I had then spent a couple of hours on a cramped belay while he battled with the unclimbed rock face above. But the cold, and then the snow which had started to fall had made it difficult going. In the end somewhere out on the edge of even his abilities he had decided it had become too much. The retreat had been orderly and we had assembled at the bottom of the Wall, still in good spirits. We knew we had to get off quickly for there was not much daylight left, but the thought of trying to climb back down the easy slabs in the falling snow, frightened me in no small measure.

Joe traversed to the bottom of the final pitches of the East Gully climb. ‘We’ll go up there!’ he decided pointing up to where at about 30 feet there was a bulge covered with ice. ‘Up you go Morty’. Grumbling, swearing, Morty set off whilst I belayed him and Joe sat on a nearby rock, smoking, like a reclining Buddha. ‘Vroom’ another boulder, this time the size of a football hit the rock above Morty and then shot off into space. ‘Bloody Hell’ Morty cried, whilst I jumped sideways, only Brown was unmoved. ‘Must be a goat or sheep up there’ he declared.

Rock and Ice icons gather in The Peak, 1957. Back Row left to right...Nat Allen,Don Roscoe,Ron Cummaford. Second Row...Les Wright,Joe Smith, Ray Greenall,Eric Price, Don Whillans. Front..Dennis Gray, Joe Brown.Photo Doug Verity   

‘Look Joe, this is bloody desperate’ our leader advised. ‘Oh get up it you little ninnie’. After such a statement, Morty had no option but to continue, however at the ice bulge he was stuck. The snow increased, the wind began to whip it into the gully and holding the rope I was uncontrollably shaking from the cold.
‘I can’t do it, its just too bloody desperate today’ Morty shouted down.
Fortunately, he had managed to get a sling on above his head to protect him, a full weight one over a large spike. So at least he looked safe. ‘Get on with it!’ shouted Joe, but the next minute Morty had to grab hold of the sling as he slipped into space, his feet shooting off the ice. The spike held his weight, so it was sound. ‘Let me down! Let me down!’ cried Morty and this time I obeyed. He arrived, swinging in and as usual was full of good humour. We were climbing in boots as we had been all day, with vibram soles. ‘Did you see the rubber on ice moves?’ he laughingly demanded.

‘Vroom’ another boulder came whining, down the face, to land once again some distance from Brown, Morty and myself, ‘Bloody hell! That goat ought to be fielding for Yorkshire, it can throw so accurately’ I advised. ‘Often happens, there are many sheep and goats always wandering around up there’ advised Joe. The dreaded thing then happened, Brown offered me the lead. ‘You do it’.
I pleaded, but to no avail. ‘No he told me, Morty has been fined a brew for his failure and if you don’t get up it your fine will be worse’. Joe had evolved a system of incentives to improve our climbing, if we failed we were fined a number of brews (making communal cups of tea), if we succeeded then good scores were given to knock off our cumulative totals.

We never managed to get into credit and Morty was such a staggering number of brews in arrears that we had lost count….. Joe had not! I set off feeling determined and gritted my teeth. I had a tight top rope for the first thirty feet for Morty was giving me G sharp. To my surprise I then managed to climb up and over the ice bulge. It was very hard, but I felt in control until ‘vroom’ another rock smashed into the wall on the left-hand side of me. The noise as it came screaming down the gully filled me with absolute dread, and in the next instant I found myself, hanging by both hands to the sling Morty had fixed up on the good rock spike. Somehow I had climbed back down and then grabbed hold of the sling as I descended.

‘Let me down, let me down’ for now I was choking, having let go of the sling, and hanging off my waist. Joe grabbed the rope, and insisted I give it another try, ‘You had it cracked’ he yelled up. ‘No, No I am too gripped’ I insisted gasping for breath, with my ribs constricted by the rope biting into my body. So in the end they lowered me back down. Morty and I were now both scared, for the barrage of falling stones had completely unnerved us. ‘Joe, come on, you lead it’ we both pleaded.

For some reason and though I believe we were reasonably articulate, when we were climbing we always addressed each other in a mono-syllabic fashion. No long discourses communing with nature or even about the ever rising price of tea! ‘I’ll lead it for a brew each…….’ he offered. ‘No way, No way’ we both objected, but just then ‘vroom’ down came another boulder to land in the snow to the side of us. It was the largest so far, and the noise it had made as it roared down on us, hurtling through space had been awesome. ‘Bloody hell….. O.K’, ‘O.K’ we both quickly changed our minds.

I belayed as Joe set forth and up he went. Through the snow and gloom easily over the ice bulge, and up into the far reaches of the gully, mysteriously no rocks fell whilst he was climbing! It was this ability that above all others which stamped Joe out as our supreme master, this command of being able to climb in bad conditions. He was in a word a phenomenon. He belayed in the Gully near its head. Sheltered, from the wind and falling snow in a deep recess.

First, he brought Morty up and then myself. In truth, it was not too bad on the end of a tight rope. Morty and I should have been able to lead it, and Joe had been right about that, but just as I had once again pulled over the ice bulge, ‘vroom’ it happened yet again, a rock the size of my fist smashed into the rock wall nearby. ‘Tight, Tight’ I screamed and I literally then ran up the rest of the route to join Joe and Morty in the recess. ‘You can finish it off ‘ Joe then told me, and on this occasion I did just that. It was not too hard and after I had pulled out over the top of the cliff, and started to set up a belay in what was quickly becoming the darkness of night, I was startled by a figure emerging from out of a nearby cleft in the rocks. Flat cap pulled down; hands set deep in pockets, short, squat and powerful.

I was relieved to recognise Don Whillans through that gloom. Scared Yer didn’t a?’ he chuckled. ‘Bloody hell, Don, those boulders were close’ ‘They were meant to be!’ was the laconic reply. (In all truth they were probably a long way out from us, but the noise they made, flying down through the
air was frightening and enough to scare most climbers?)

That summer occurred an incident that I have kept buried until now and not talked about much, for it revealed something about myself I do not like. I have always professed to be a pacifist, and when I had to do National Service, I served as a non-combatant, but on two occasions my pacifism evaporated. Once when in a fracas I lashed out and unfortunately hit a police sergeant and the other is the occasion I have in mind now. That was the day we fought Joe Brown, we being Morty and I.

It started like so many of the Rock and Ice stories in good humour, as a joke, but developed. Morty had been behaving particularly badly in Joe’s eyes, failing on the odd route, crashing motor bikes, doing untold physical damage in many of the Club’s rough games to the other participants. And so by the summer of 1958 he had run up a spectacular deficit in brews to be made, and because of this he decided to go on strike and refused to make any more cups of tea.

This could only lead on to one thing: a physical challenge. I talked this over with Morty and he felt the time had come to challenge the master! I was incredulous at first, Joe was quite a wrestler and he loved to tackle such as Slim Sorrell (his original climbing partner) in a friendly bout on occasion. But what Morty was suggesting was something different, in trying to wrestle with Joe, he would easily beat him in a real set to. ‘No he won’t’ declared Morty grinning ‘because you are going to help me’ ‘You have got to be kidding’ was my reaction. ‘I am not a fighter, I have never physically been in such a set too in my life’ I advised.

‘You bloody big girl!’ Morty responded. ‘Alright I’ll take him on by myself!’
This put me on the spot. I knew Morty would have no chance against Joe, although pound for pound he was the strongest physically amongst us, but he was also the smallest. He was no match for a hardened street fighter like Joe, who had grown up in Ardwick and Longsight, and of necessity had been dealing with the local heavies in those deprived areas of Manchester from an early age. Morty then was in reality still a boy, and on his own he had no real chance of besting Joe. This for me was a moral dilemma, rather like the last war.

‘O.K, I’ll help, but we need a fighting strategy’. This was hammered out between us, and we agreed that Morty would face up to Joe head on, whilst I crept around behind him. I consulted with Slim Sorrel beforehand, who was something of an expert in unarmed combat because of his position in the police, and he taught me an unbreakable strangle-hold, which if I could affix around an opponents neck, meant certain surrender. After which Morty and I decided we were ready for the fray. Morty then duly refused to carry out his task of making brews and offered to wrestle Joe instead. I was present when this happened, and I was included in the challenge. The master laughingly accepted our challenge.

'Joe limbering up before our wrestle' DG: Grochan Field, Llanberis Pass. In the background,Dennis Gray's A 40 van.Photo-Doug Verity 
We were camping under Clogwyn y Grochan in the Llanberis Pass. This was in an age of wild camping……. anywhere. A beautiful green sward, it served as a campsite, a cricket and football pitch and now it was to have a wrestling ring. Gleefully the rest of the Rock and Ice present marked out a ring with stones. There was a referee, Les Wright, a genial giant who could have physically sorted out any other member of the club if he had been so inclined, and it was agreed that it was to be a no holds barred contest! This meant it was no use crying about a spot of blood or even such as the odd fracture. These lads were tough and played it hard. I realised we had to be absolutely ruthless; otherwise we would get short shrift from Joe.

As I lined up with Morty I was shaking with fright, but my younger companion seemed to be not so concerned. Les clapped his hands and the action started, and Morty closed in punching out like an automaton. It was all that Joe could do to hold him off, and I realised that our agreed tactics were working, so I danced round behind our adversary, but he then realised the danger and lashed out at me with his feet. But Morty kept on advancing forward in a flurry of punches, oblivious to Joe’s counter blows. It was again as much as the latter could do to hold him off, and though if he been on his own Morty would soon have had to give it best, it enabled me to get in behind Brown and the next minute I had him by the throat, and began to apply pressure using the stranglehold Slim had taught me.

He thrashed about wildly, but could not shake me off, and Morty just kept on coming forward at him. I put on more and more pressure, and at that moment I should have stopped, but something I have never been able to explain just kept me on squeezing. Suddenly we both fell down, with Joe on top of me, his back pinning me to the ground, unable to see anything, I just kept squeezing with all my might. He thrashed around, and tried to break loose, and then Morty was on top of him and both of them were lashing out at each other. ‘Let go, let go’ my inner voice was commanding, but I felt I could not and just kept applying pressure. Suddenly I felt Joe go, limp and then I did let go.

He had lapsed into unconsciousness, and fear welled up inside me about what had happened. I was by then so sorry for our actions, Joe was the greatest man either of us had ever known, we were truly fond of him but that was not the kind of sentiment working class lads ever let themselves show to one another, and now we had killed him! Or so I thought. Les and the rest of the Club then broke it up and pulled Morty and I off of Joe, who was lying comatose with a purple face, and a bruised neck.

We were all of us very concerned and relieved when a few minutes later he sat up gasping and choking. ‘You bloody little swine’ was all he could gasp out, but there was a tinge of admiration in his rasping voice. A strong arm then grabbed my shoulder and at the same time the same thing happened to Morty. It was Whillans! ‘What’s wrong Don?’ I stuttered. ‘Just hang on a tick’ he told us, ‘I’ll lace up me boots’ then he bent down to do this. ‘Why?’ we wanted to know.

Joe under Cloggy: Painting Keith Bowen.Image KB
‘Tha’s done for him’ he told us, ‘Tha better have a doo at me next!’ he said. ‘No way’ we both chorused. I began to run away, but became conscious that the Villain was on my heels, and trying to catch me. Why had he not gone after Morty, I wondered as I ran off up the Pass? He was not as good a runner as I, but I realise now he had seen something that he understood, someone had acted in an unreasonably aggressive manner, and that I was the culprit. And I needed teaching a lesson. Fortunately, for me, I was a faster runner than Don, and he could not catch me, but his voice is still with me now as I write this, for he stopped and hurled after me the following epithet. ‘You’re a bloody Slippery Jim’ ‘A bloody Slippery Jim’ he cried.  

Dennis Gray   

An abridged version of this article first appeared in High 

Keith Bowen Artist website

Friday 15 July 2016

Climbing Days....Reviewed

Author, Dan Richards in the words of the publisher’s blurb, ‘is on the trail of his great,great aunt, Dorothy Pilley, a prominent and pioneering mountaineer of the early twentieth century’. For reasons I’m not quite clear about, Dan recycles the original book title used by his subject. Is this an attempt at creating familial and literary synchronicity....not sure? However,‘Climbing Days’ -version two- it is, and most would argue that if an author spends years of his time,effort and funds researching and writing a fairly substantial book, then they can title it as they please!

Dorothy Pilley’s contribution to mountaineering obviously warrants a fresh take on her life and times and if its a family member who undertakes the role then at least they will probably be able to open doors which might have remained shut to an outsider.

For those perhaps unfamiliar with the subject-and outside of a dwindling number of traditional climbing anoraks that must represent probably the majority of climbers under 30 or even 40-then its fair to say, her contribition to and impact on what was an overwhelmingly male dominated sport was pretty unique for its time. It would probably be easier to just borrow the Mountain Heritage Trust’s potted biography at this point....

Pilley was one of the scarce band of female all-round climbers operating during the 20s and 30s, ranging throughout the Alps as well as the crags of Britain. But even more prescient, she actually sought the company of other women to climb with in preference to men, and was one of the leading lights in instigating the formation of the World’s first all-women climbing clubs, The Pinnacle Club. As well as these robust feminist credentials (or ‘feminine’ as she quaintly preferred to characterise her philosophy), Pilley is widely known for her famous semi-autobiographical book, Climbing Days, in which she recounts her splendid adventures in Wales and the Lakes, through to Scotland to the Alps. It all sounded like one long glorious summer of climbing fun, all washed down with lashings and lashings of ginger beer.
Further reading: Climbing Days, Dorothey Pilley. Secker & Warburg, (1935)

Pilley, despite her close links to the all female Pinnacle Club and frequently sharing a rope with fellow female climbers, created her most memorable routes with her husband and lifetime partner Ivor (IA) Richards. A respected and renowned English Educator, literary critic,rhetorician and all round Clever Clogs! With Richards she recorded what is probably her most significent and well regarded first ascent, that of the north ridge of the Dent Blanche,in the Alps with Joseph Georges and Antoine Georges. However, UK activists will more more familiar with Idwal Slabs perennial favourite 'The Ordinary Route'.

But that enough about her place within the mountaineering firmament, what about her Great Great Nephew’s account of her life and times and his personal pilgrimage across Europe to retrace her clinkered steps? Well, there is no doubt that Richards is a fine writer who has meticulously investigated every element of Dorothy Pilley’s life and laid it out on the page in fine detail. After saying that, I would have to say from the start that at nearly 400 pages long it would have certainly benefitted by some rigorous editing to cut out the padding and whittle it down to a more coherent and hence more readable 200+ pages.

As something of a hybrid-part biography,part travelogue, part personal musings-coming at the book from a climbers’ perspective, I found- as others will I’m sure- the rather wandering structure of the book, hard to follow at times. The author’s early steps literally learning the ropes in Wales and at Glenmore Lodge; commenting on the architecture in Barcelona; describing a meal in an Alpine hut. You might think that it’s the tiny details that add to the narrative and help build the bigger picture but in this instance,for me at least, it becomes a wee bit ‘off piste’ for my liking and somewhat undermines what the author is trying to achieve.Given the significance within climbing of the subject and wide palette to draw from, a little less superfluous detail and a greater degree of concentrated focus would have created a more rounded and definitive work I feel..

I will freely admit though, that perhaps I suffered from a form of inverted snobbery, for I found it hard to warm to the subject herself. There is no getting away from the fact that Pilley and Richards were products of their age and class. Despite being portrayed as some sort of proto feminist, daringly changing from long skirts into knickerbockers at the crag and encouraging 'sisters to do it for themselves', Pilley was very much someone from that privileged class. Those fortunate enough to be able to indulge their passions without having to worry about trifling things like having to work. I certainly didn’t pick it up from the book any mention of her ever having held a job or pursued a career? Swanning around Europe and climbing mountains with guides while staying at comfortable hotels, does somewhat undermine any attempt to present her as some sort of enlightened mountaineering revolutionary.

Of course that was how society was structured in the early 20th century and at least credit Pilley for having the tenacity and drive to make her mark in a man's world. Being a social butterfly within London's cafe culture would have been the easier option for a middle class gel in those socially stifling times. 

Despite my reservations, there is still enough material in Climbing Days to enjoy and which will further enlighten our knowledge and understanding of an interesting figure in 20th century British climbing. Not a book which will draw in a wide number of readers from outside the climbing/mountaineering fraternity-unless they are drawn in by IA Richards role in Pilley's story - but certainly a book which will appeal to students of mountaineering history .

John Appleby:2016

Friday 8 July 2016

The Ballad of Idwal Slabs

Idwal Slabs: Artist Aled Prichard Jones 
Editor's Introduction *: The climbing world of thirty years ago seems a very innocent place viewed in retrospect. The days of Wall End Barn or Scotty Dwyer's annexe when climbing, boozing and laughing all seemed part of the same game, seems a million miles away from our competitive modern scene. Most of our songs then were culled from rugby clubs and therefore by definition dirty— but we did have our own 'poem': a doggerel verse by Showell Styles. It was recited and even acted at club dinners. I mean of course The Ballad of ldwal Slabs. It was published in The Mountaineer's Weekend Book, but that has been out of print for many years now— a pity, because the Ballad forms a distinctive footnote in our climbing heritage and shouldn't be lost. Others evidently feel the same, for it was revived at a couple of dinners this year, so I make no excuse for reprinting it here. I asked Pip Styles how it came about, and this is what he says:

"1947. Hemp climbing-ropes, clinkers and tricounis, crampons a bit of a snigger and piton a dirty word. Christmas at Glan Dena, the M.A.M.'s North Wales hut.Plucking and drawing of the Christmas dinner goose achieved with the aid of two medical students who insisted on dissecting its ear. Ears,eyes and nose full of goose down,muscles comfortably slack after leading Zigzag and Home Climb on Griben Facet.

Voice from the kitchen 'What about something to get the fun started after the dinner?. Ejecting goose down,collecting pencil and paper,invoked the muse of doggeral and 'The Ballad' was produced at a sitting.SS

* WU-1981 

THE BALLAD OF IDWAL SLABS (To be spoken dramatically in costume: deerstalker hat, side-whiskers, and with alpenstock)

I'll tell you the tale of a climber; a drama of love on the crags; A story to pluck at your heart-strings, and tear your emotions to rags. He was tall, he was fair, he was handsome; John Christopher Brown was his name; The Very Severes nearly bored him to tears — and he felt about girls much the same.

Till one day, while climbing at Ogwen, he fell (just a figure of speech) For the President's beautiful daughter, named Mary Jane Smith — what a peach! Her figure was slim as Napes Needle, her lips were as red as Red Wall; A regular tiger, she's been up the Eiger North Wall, with no pitons at all!

Now Mary had several suitors, but never a one would she take, Though it seemed that she favoured one fellow, a villain named Reginald Hake; This Hake was a Cad who used pitons, and wore a long silken moustache, Which he used, so they say, as an extra belay — but perhaps we are being too harsh.

John took Mary climbing on Lliwedd, and proposed while on Mallory's Slab; It took him three pitches to do it, for he hadn't much gift of the gab. He said: "Just belay for a moment — there's a little spike close to your knee—And tell me, fair maid, when you're properly belayed, would you care to hitch up with me?"

Said Mary, "It's only a toss-up between you and Reginald Hake, And the man I am going to marry must perform some great deed for my sake. I will marry whichever bold climber shall excel at the following feat—To climb headfirst down Hope, with no rubbers or rope, At our very next climbing club meet!"

Now when Mary told the Committee, she had little occasion to plead, For she was as fair as a jug-handle at the top of a hundred-foot lead. The Club ratified her proposal, and the President had to agree; He was fond of his daughter, but felt that she oughter Get married, between you and me.

There was quite a big crowd for the contest, lined up at the foot of the Slabs; The Mobs came from Bangor in Buses, and the Nob's came from Capel in Cabs. There were Fell and Rock, Climbers and Rucksack and Ramblers and the Pinnacle Club (in new hats) And a sight to remember, an Alpine Club Member, in very large crampons and spats!

The weather was fine for a wonder; the rocks were as dry as a bone. Hake arrived with a crowd of his backers, but John Brown strode up quite alone; A rousing cheer greeted the rivals; a coin was produced, and they tossed. "Have I won?" cried John Brown as the penny came down. "No, you fool!" hissed his rival. "You've lost!"

So Hake had first go at the contest; he went up by the Ordinary Route, And only the closest observer would have noticed a bulge in each boot. Head first he came down the top pitches, applying his moustache as brake; He didn't relax till he'd passed the Twin Cracks, and the crowd shouted, "Attaboy, Hake!" 

At the foot of the Slabs Hake stood sneering, and draining a bottle of Scotch; "Your time was ten seconds," the President said, consulting the Treasurer's watch. "Now, Brown, if you'd win, you must beat that." Our hero's sang froid was sublime; He took one look at Mary, and light as a fairy, run up to the top of the climb.

Now though Hake had made such good going, John wasn't discouraged a bit, For that he was the speedier climber even Hake would have had to admit. So, smiling as though for a snapshot, not a hair of his head out of place, Our hero John Brown started wriggling down — but look! what a change on his face!

Prepare for a shock, gentle ladies; gentlemen, check the blasphemous word; For the villainy I am to speak of is such as you never have heard!  Hake had cut holes in the toes of his boots, and filled up each boot with soft soap! As he slid down the climb, he had covered with slime every handhold and foothold on Hope!

Conceive (if you can) the tense horror that gripped the vast concourse below, When they saw Mary's lover slip downwards like an arrow that's shot from a bow! "He's done for!" gasped twenty score voices. "Stand from under!" roared John from above. As he shot down the slope, he was steering down Hope —still fighting for life and for love!

Like lightning he flew past the Traverse — in a flash he had reached the Twin Cracks — The friction was something terrific —there was smoke coming out of his slacks —He bounced on the shelf at the top of Pitch Two, and bounded clean over its edge! A shout of "He's gone!" came from all — except one; and that one, of course, was our Reg.

But it's not the expected that happens — in this sort of story, at least; And just as John thought he was finished, he found that his motion had ceased! His braces (pre-war and elastic) had caught on a small rocky knob, And so, safe and sound, he came gently to ground 'mid the deafening cheers of the mob!

"Your time was five seconds!" the President cried. "She's yours, my boy — take her you win!" "My hero!" breathed Mary, and kissed him, while Hake gulped a bottle of gin, And tugged his moustache as he whispered, "Aha! my advances you spurn! Curse a chap that wins races by using his braces!" and he slunk away, ne'er to return. 

They were wed at the Church of St. Gabbro, and the Vicar, quite carried away, Did a hand-traverse into his pulpit, and shouted out "Let us belay!" John put the ring on Mary's finger — a snap-link it was, made of steel, And they walked to the taxis 'neath an arch of ice-axes, while all the bells started to peal.

The Morals we draw from this story are several, I'm happy to say; It's Virtue that wins at the end of the day- long silken moustaches don't pay; Keep the head uppermost when you're climbing; if you must slither, be on a rope; Steer clear of the places that sell you cheap braces — and the fellow that uses Soft Soap!

Showell Styles

Original Cartoons: Ivan Cumberpatch

Republished in Climber and Rambler July 1981

Friday 1 July 2016


Ken Wilson: Photo John Cleare-Mountain Picture Library
‘It’s an old Ken Wilson maxim, a picture is worth a thousand words, so snap away, snap away, snap away!’

(From a song by the author)

Not many sports can have spawned a character like Ken Wilson. A photographer and publisher of outstanding talent with an unequalled track record in producing high quality work, but a climber who is always at the centre of controversy.

On a book shelf in my home is a full set of Mountain magazines (at least there was until I lent out a couple of none returned copies), and just a quick review of these illustrate what Wizz is about. Opinionated, hard hitting, tight editing, first class graphics and photography, with in depth interviews, and no dodging of the issues .As Tom Patey observed, ‘Mountain was the magazine that all climbers were seething about!’

Ken took over the old house magazine Mountaincraft of the Mountaineering Association in 1968, and turned it into a highly respected, bimonthly review that was widely acknowledged as the number one mountaineering magazine in the UK.

My own first meeting with Wizz was when I gave a lecture, in the winter of 1964/5 on the Gauri Sankar expedition, at the Westminster Hall in London. After which the Chairman, Raymond Japhet invited questions. Enter Wizz, and he subjected me to a barrage of questions from the back of the hall; ‘Why had we failed to reach our summit? Why were we so badly funded? Why had we needed to drive overland etc?’ From the stage, this young guy with dark hair, and of medium height, a loud strident voice and flashing eyes and teeth seemed to me to be some new kind of nutter. I had never then been subjected to such a cross- examination and Raymond who could have doubled for Mr Magoo, was too kind and polite to close him down. We simply ran out of time, the caretaker threatening to put out the lights, and so we continued with a shouting match in the pub.

My next meeting with Ken was to be even more dramatic, and it occurred during that summer. I was climbing on Cloggy with Harry ‘The Kid’ Smith and we were attempting an early repeat of Taurus on the Pinnacle when there was the sound of a huge rock fall from the West Buttress. A guy came rushing to the foot of the East Buttress to shout up that there had been an accident on the Great Slab and could we go to the aid of the stricken climbers.

Harry and I descended and rushed over to the West Buttress, where we could see a team at the bottom of the 40 feet Corner who were obviously in distress. Smith shot up a full rope length, without placing any protection and I joined him and then led through to reach the injured party. On meeting them I was surprised to find two fellow Rock and Ice members, Ray Greenall and Don Roscoe tending an unconscious Steve Glass, lying at the base of the Corner. Steve like the other two was then an instructor at Plas y Brenin. Above our heads was another party, and the second on a top rope held by his leader, was shouting down excitedly.

‘Crikey’ I realised it was Wizz. It transpired that Ken following Graham Gilbert, in order to avoid the crowded 40 feet Corner had decided to climb up the wall out to the right, which is actually an alternative in the guidebook description of the West Buttress Girdle, the climb they were following. Wizz had mantled onto a large basalt block, which then collapsed under him, and it had fallen away raking a large portion of the cliff. It was a miracle that only Steve had been hit and by the time Harry joined me he was regaining consciousness, but was obviously injured.

Although it must have taken quite some time, eventually a rescue party arrived with a stretcher and we pulled it up, set up some belays, then between us we lowered Steve down the cliff. He was then carried off to Bangor Royal, and happily he made a complete recovery from this accident.

Ken was born in Birmingham in 1941, and originally began to train as an architect but found he was better suited to Photography, and after following a three-year course in that subject at the Birmingham College of Art, he fetched up in London working as an Architectural Photographer. Anyone who studies Ken’s photographs, particularly of crags will note these influences in his work. And it was whilst he was engaged in this arena that he took the bold step to set up Mountain Magazine. Unless you were active in that era, it is hard now to understand the impact this organ then had on British climbing, and to a lesser extent on similar activities in the USA, for Ken using his contact with American climbers, particularly Royal Robbins built up a large circulation base there.

Initially Mountain was on a knife-edge financially and Wilson took a serious personal risk, giving up a safe position to take over Mountaincraft. He produced only one issue under that title, dedicated to developments in Patagonia, which to publish he had to double the cover price to meet his costs, but it worked and at this his first attempt at editing the issue sold out. He then launched Mountain and for the next decade he lived, ate and slept the magazine for 24 hours a day establishing its reputation as the outstanding British climbing magazine.    

By the time I joined the BMC, as its first ever professional officer at the end of 1971, Ken had also established a reputation as a climbing politician, referred to rather impolitely on occasion as ‘The London Lip’ (shades of Cassius Clay?) And I immediately began to find out why, for he seemed to spend a large proportion of his time ‘phoning people at home and abroad, discussing what he saw as the key climbing issue of the day. Trying to cajole and persuade the listener around to his point of view, myself included. But he was always good value and an important sounding board, and so he was invited to take part in the first BMC Future Policy Exercise in 1973/4 under Alan Blackshaw’s chairmanship. And as a matter of historic record, Wizz is the only committee member to have taken part in all three such exercises that have taken place over the last 30 years.

This in retrospect was the initiative that set the Council on its modernisation phase, and when the BMC moved from London, it was Ken who because of a contact with a group of Manchester University climbers, suggested we locate ourselves in the Precinct Centre of that body. Tiring of London and wishing to move himself, a few years later Ken transferred his publishing activities to the north, first basing himself in Altrincham, then Macclesfield where he is still living.

Being a realist he realised he could not edit and publish Mountain magazine for ever and so in 1978 he sold out to a group based in Sheffield, headed by Tim Lewis, his wife Pat and Paul Nunn.

Wizz then set up the first of his book publishing enterprises with Ken Vickers as his partner, and this new imprint, Diadem, quickly made its mark. He had already edited The Black Cliff (1971 jointly with Pete Crew and Jack Soper), Hard Rock (1975) and Classic Rock (1978) whilst working with other mainstream publishers, but now he took on the whole of the publishing process for himself. In quick succession he produced further titles in the ‘Classic’ format: Cold Climbs, Extreme Rock and Classic Walks. But there were also some other groundbreaking titles such as, The Games Climber’s Play, Mirrors in the Cliffs and Irvine Butterfield’s ‘The High Mountains of Britain and Ireland’. This latter being referred to as the bible of the native Peak bagger, and several reissues of out of print classics and omnibus editions of such as Shipton’s and Tilman’s classic books.

There is a long tradition of national publishers having an interest in producing mountaineering books, although this seems to depend on who is running a company at any particular time. It was Longman’s who sent Edward Whymper, a young wood block engraver to the Alps for the first time in order to prepare a series of Alpine sketches for them. Another Company with a long history of publishing climbing books was Hodder and Stoughton, and in 1989, aware of a dynamic presence in this field, they made a bid for and took over Diadem keeping Ken as the Managing Editor. Initially this worked well with two outstanding coffee table picture books being produced, Chris Bonington ‘Mountaineer’ and Doug Scott ‘Himalayan Climber’, both of which were best sellers. But then with the onward march of globalisation, and the swallowing up of smaller fish by bigger ones, Hodder’s was taken over by Headline, and Diadem was decided by them to be surplus to requirements. And so Ken struck out on his own and formed a new publishing company in 1993,called ‘Baton Wicks’

This has continued where Diadem left off, in 1994 Dermot Somers’ ‘At the Rising of the Moon’ and in 1997 Paul Pritchard’s ‘Deep Play’ were both Boardman/Tasker Literature Prize, winners. In 2002 W.H.Murray’s autobiography, ‘The evidence of things not seen’ won the Grand Jury Prize at Banff. Ken’s latest project is a complete re-vamp of Classic Rock with new photographs and up to date graphics. This will be something like his 60th publication!

When Wizz moved north to live in Altrincham he was soon drawn in to attending Tuesday night climbing meets of the All Stars. This group formed from Manchester/Peak based climbers and included such as Martin Boysen, Trevor Jones, Dave Pearce, Malcolm Howells, Chris Bonington, Mark Vallance etc. Apart from Boysen, Howells and Pearce they were more alpinists than top rock jocks, but when they zoned in on a crag on the appointed mid-week evening, they were good value for an exciting evening. Ken fitted in well as the group’s publicist and a journeyman climber.

On several occasions the All Stars visited our local West Yorkshire outcrops. And sometimes they experienced difficulties. The first indication we Tykes had that they would visit was a warning phone call from Wizz. On one occasion I met them at Almscliff and was invited by Ken to be his local expert. I pointed Wilson and a youthful partner at the Traditional Climb (VS), and the kid was sent forth to lead this. He managed about ten feet of ascent, then winged in a large Hex into the crack, the next moment he was pulling on this, and then gasping he persuaded his second to first hold his weight then to lower him back down to the ground.

Ken whispered to me, ‘I can’t understand it, he led Slanting Slab on Cloggy at the weekend’. ‘Maybe he is still tired out from that effort?’ I suggested. Snorting like a bull Wizz pulled the rope through and then set off to lead the route himself. It was a case from thereon of hands, knees and bumps a daisy, but using the friction from off his moleskin breeches and Helly Polar jacket to the full he wobbled his way to the top of the route. ‘Bloody fantastic’, ‘Frankland (who made the first ascent circa 1920) must have been a great climber’ ‘Incredible jams’ etc, was then shouted out at full volume around the Crag.

You always know when Ken is on a crag and he is always up front with his comments. Instance his turning up at Almscliff on another occasion and seeing a young climber soloing such routes as The Wall of Horrors and Western Front shouted up at him, ‘Oy…… are you  that guy Ron Fawcett?’ ‘Am I climbing that bloody bad?’ was the laconic reply from one Mike Hamill, who at that date could fairly have been seen as a rival to fellow local boy Ron.   

On other West Yorkshire visits members of the All Stars were to find our climbs even more unforgiving. On one occasion at Caley Crags they were falling like the Autumnal leaves, and the result was a dislocated shoulder and a sprained ankle and on another occasion a badly fractured leg at Greetland Quarry. Mike Browell who unfortunately was the victim on that occasion has written that these meets were testosterone fuelled, solo, fests!

One of my own keenest memories of Wizz was when he and I were the BMC representatives on the Plas y Brenin Management Committee, and we met to appoint a new Director of the Centre. Ken a great devotee of the novels of C P Snow loves the cut and thrust of such gatherings, and thus it was that he earned the sobriquet of ‘The BMC’s tame rottweiler’.

In a committee meeting he is a tireless debater, and a handful for any Chairman to deal with. However on that occasion, Jack Longland who had been in the Chair for a very long day, when I apologised if in our enthusiasm to get our candidate, John Barry, into position, Wizz had overplayed our hand, responded with an ‘Oh no!’ ‘ Ken is actually a real sweetie!’

Without reference to me Ken challenged two young hot shots of the Welsh scene at that time to a ‘race’ up Dinas Mot as soon as the meeting had finished. And when we arrived at the base of the crag they were waiting. It was agreed that Billy Wayman and Nigel Shepherd would climb up West Rib (HVS), whilst Ken and I would tackle Western Slabs (VS). We set off climbing when Wizz shouted out ‘OFF!’

I had not climbed the route before, but in the lead I was levitated up the cliff by Ken urging me on in full voice. ‘I had not realised how good you were!’  ‘Faster, they are catching you.’

I had never previously been keen on such an idea as racing up cliffs, and when I had seen the Russian climbers at the Munich Olympic Games in 1972 give an exhibition of their speed climbing, I found this both hilarious and worthless. However with Ken’s enthusiasm driving me on I ran out about 140 feet of rope at speed. Ken then came running up the cliff, and shot into the lead to climb a steep groove above our heads. I then seconded this and led another short groove and we were on the top, well ahead of the local experts. The losers had to buy the drinks and we repaired to the bar of the PYG, where news of the appointment of Captain John Barry as the new Director of Plas y Brenin had preceded us. For some reason Chris Briggs then the landlord of the PYG and his wife were not best pleased about this. I guess it might have been because they were friends with some of the other candidates and I was subjected to some harsh criticism as this was seen as a BMC organised coup. For once Ken kept his head down, and enjoyed watching me take the flak, while nodding serenely in agreement as if he was a total innocent in the whole matter.

Ken’s love of climbing is still as keen as it ever was, and although he is now travelling on a Bus Pass, his enthusiasm for traditional British rock routes is undiminished. The new edition of Classic Rock will testify to this, as will his continued campaigning to preserve all that is best in this area of our sport. His contempt for bolts and particularly retro-bolting are so well known that the message does not need repeating here. He does on occasion to cement his arguments over egg his pudding, but it is good that such a vigorous and outspoken character is always ready to defend our tradition of bold and self protected climbs. And long may it be so!

 Dennis Gray:Loose Scree March 2007