Friday, 29 September 2017

A Family on the Crags

Pillar Rock
The Cumbrian who,with his brother, gave his name to the Westmorland Cairn on Great Gable—from which point of vantage they considered the finest view in all Lakeland could be obtained—died just 50 years ago. And now, with fitting timing, a cragsman's climb on Dove Crag, Patterdale, one of the steepest cliffs in England, has just been renamed Westmorland's Route in honour of his son—Lieut Colonel Horace Westmorland of Threlkeld.

Surely one of the sprightliest septuagenarians in Lakeland- or anywhere else- today. Although Colonel Westmorland —" Rusty" to a host of climbers and skiers all over Britain and in many places abroad—has been climbing steep rocks for 60 years he is still able to tackle some of the harder routes and, only a short time ago, led his party of youngsters up a " very severe " in his beloved Borrowdale.

He would climb every day if he could find the companions; as it is, he has to content himself with three or four days a week in summer, and perhaps only a paltry two or three in winter. Only the mountains count; one can easily imagine him sulking in cities. At 73 years of age, Rusty Westmorland is not only an extremely good rock climber and competent skier, but also manages, with or without conscious effort, to look the part. To many people, unfamiliar with the mountain scene, he must represent exactly their idea of the bold cragsman, bursting with health and determination. 

The clipped moustache, the erect bearing, the polished boots, and the neat, efficient clothes reflect his military background, while the tanned face, the clear, twinkling eyes, the jaunty Austrian hat, and the springy step suggest the mountaineer. The  Mountain Rescue flash on his shoulder—he it was who revived the Keswick Mountain Rescue Team several years ago—is worn for use, not for ornament, and his general neat, well groomed appearance on a climb is in striking contrast to that of the many dirty, bearded youths, clanking with ironmongery, who often decorate the crags today.

The yeomen forbears of Horace Westmorland farmed at Milburn under the shadow of Crossfell—they had taken their name from their native county—but Rusty himself was born at Penrith, just over the Cumberland border, where his father had a leather business. Right from his birth the mountains were in his blood. His father, Tom Westmorland, his uncle Ned and his aunts were scrambling and camping in the Lakeland fells last century long before the joys of steep, remote places had become as commonplace as they are today. One of his aunts—Mary (May) Westmorland — was the second woman to reach the summit of Pillar Rock, on July 24th, 1873, The first having been a Miss A Barker who had achieved the feat just three years earlier. May went up, un-roped, with her brothers Tom and Edward and on the summit, where they  found a bottle containing the names of  the 10 previous conquerors, they stood to attention and proudly sang God Save the Queen.

Later Tom celebrated the occasion with a poem, A Summer Ramble, which describes the day in detail. A photograph taken at the time shows May to have been a short, sturdy, good  looking girl and her brothers to have been most determined looking men, sprouting youthful beards. May wore a smart, close fitting jacket, a short skirt and trousers rather like plus fours, with collar and bow tie and a peculiar hat. Not unlike a sailor's. Her brothers wore the outdoor clothes of the period and heavy shepherds' boots, and all three carried poles at least six feet long. Another memorable day for the Westmorland brothers was when they skated the full length of Ullswater from Pooley Bridge to Patterdale and back to Watermillock, but the day they put their name on the map was a summer afternoon in 1876 when they built the Westmorland Cairn on Great Gable. 

Dove Crag
They were not bad judges, too, for the sight of the patchwork fields of Wasdale Head nearly 3,000 feet below, the ring of the highest mountains in Lakeland all around, with Wastwater flanked by the frowning Screes, and the sea in the distance, is always a memorable picture. To-day the precipice below the cairn also bears the name of Westmorland Crags, and a rock climbing route up the centre is called Westmorland Ridge. This was young Horaces' legacy and he made full use of it. At eight years of age he went up Crossfell, the great, sprawling Pennines peak above the home of his ancestors and later the same year we find him scrambling along Striding Edge. 

Each summer after that he and his father and their family and friends scrambled, camped, rowed, sailed and walked the fells, and when he was 11 years of age the boy first saw and met real climbers—with ropes. They were a formidable party: Haskett-Smith, the first man to climb Napes Needle; John Wilson Robinson, the Cumbrian whose memorial is the cairn on the High Level Route to Pillar; and Geoffrey Hastings and Ellis Carr, two very prominent mountaineers. They had just been " looking at the big gully of Tarn Crag on Dollywaggon Pike without success, but the following year, fired with a new enthusiasm for verticality, the young Horace,again with his father, managed to get about 20 feet up the great unclimbed pitch.

The climb remained a challenge to the boy and 12 years later, as a young man of 24, he succeeded in leading his two cousins in the first ascent of the whole route. And a few days later Horace Westmorland led the same party up the upper part of the route on Dove Crag which has now been renamed Westmorland's Route in acknowledgment of Rusty's contributions to climbing in this, as well as in other, areas. As a boy of 15 young Horace had been taken—again by his father—to the summit of Pillar Rock by way of the easy Slab and Notch route, and exactly 50 years later, in 1951, Col Westmorland achieved his great ambition by making a jubilee ascent of the Rock.

The route chosen on this occasion was the considerably harder North Climb which Rusty, then 65 years of age, led throughout without any difficulty. The event being fittingly celebrated on the summit with a bottle of wine. Since that day, eight years ago, the old warrior, who looks no more than a cheery 60, seems to have been climbing increasingly harder things, to the frequent embarrassment and shame of companions only half his age. And yet, 15 years ago, this same man, after 31 years service in the Canadian Army and half a lifetime of surveying, climbing and skiing in the Rockies and other exciting places, had been invalided home to England, and told to take things easy in his retirement.

Rusty Westmorland standing next to the eponymous Cairn on Great Gable. Image supplied by Frank Grant
Already his remarkable fitness is becoming legendary. That and his gallant penchant for the company of young lady climbers and his affection for steep rocks remains unabated. " The weather doesn't bother me," he told me the other day, " and I don't mind steep, exposed stuff on tiny holds. But I don't like too many of these arm pulls. Overhangs seem to be harder these days." 

AH Griffin: First Published in Cumbria Life-February 1960