Friday, 5 October 2018

Rough Shoot

ME AND THE LADS I guess I never told you about me and the lads, did I? Well, I mean, it was all so long ago — back in the fifties, like, when we thought the world was young, and really it was only us.... What? Oh, me and the lads . . . no, we weren't a club really. We just used to go out in the hills together at weekends, y'know, and meet most nights at Sullivan's Cafe. Out on the Bolton Road . . . what? No, they pulled it down years ago... . There was the four of us went round together, like. Me, Big Harry, Sorrowful Jones and Toddy. He were the quiet one, Toddy, but Big Harry — well, he was big and blonde and noisy, with a bushy beard like Father Neptune. It was him as picked me up on the Preston by-pass, as then was, did I tell you? Well, maybe I will some day. Got me started climbing, did Big Harry. Sorrowful Jones? Ah, now there was one of the lads, if ever there was one. Small and scruffy,

We sat at our usual table in Sullivan's Cafe, idly eating lumps of sugar from the bowl, and ignoring the malevolent glances of Sullivan. He was a bit put out because his wife had returned unexpectedly from London one evening a week back and had caught Fanny Cranshaw doing overtime. She cut up dead rough about it, too, by all accounts; but she always did strike me as a narrow minded bint, and anyhow, as we pointed out to Sullivan, who was to say what she herself had been up to in the gay Metropolis? He asked us not to mention it. The last lump of sugar had gone and Big Harry was just about to lean over to the next table for another bowl, when the swing door opened to admit two of the roughest characters in the business — any business — Louis the Bum, and his dark familiar, The Bat. In the normal way of things, I am the last person to criticise the failings of my fellow men, but I have to admit that Louis and The Bat were a couple of uncouth sods. For a start, they looked uncouth: small with dark greasy hair which tumbled about their ears and ferret like faces which even a magistrate wouldn't trust. They looked like brothers, terrible twins, for they dressed alike in black leather jackets decorated with brass studs, and black jeans of an outrageous slimness, in the pockets of which they invariably hooked their thumbs. 

In point of fact they were in no way related, except in spirit, although they had shared many vicissitudes and several mistresses together. A gentler age would have called them louts, and I always felt that had they lived in medieval times they would have been the boon companions of Richard Crookback, and had a hand in clobbering those kids in the Tower. They were not prepossessing and young coppers were known to avoid them. Yet Louis and The Bat had their shiny side like most human beings: joined together by a nylon rope, they were one of the finest rock-climbing teams in the country. Because of this they were tolerated, and their opinions carried great force. "What you been doin', then, Louis?" Asked Harry. Meaning we hadn't seen them around for a while. "Me an' the Bat 'ere, we been walkin' these last few weekends. S'right, ain't it, Bat?" "S'right," confirmed his shadow. Harry looked shocked, as did we all. "You don't mean walkin' — on foot as it were?" He demanded incredulously.

"S'right, mate." "Stone the crows!" We all sat stunned at the thought that two of the best rock-climbers ever to disgrace the bar of the Pen y Gwryd should have spent their week-ends walking when they could have been performing miracles of balance on rock faces. Not that we offered any open criticism, mind you, because Louis the Bum is adverse to criticism, and The Bat, too, for that matter, and it pays to stay friends with both. Fortunately for the conversation, Louis offered to enlighten us. "It were all on account of this book, see?" He began. "You ain't been readin' again, Louis?" chided Sorrowful Jones, very much as a mother might scold a child for stealing jam tarts from the pantry. "Belt up will yer?" Louis replied sharply. "An' let me try an' knock some faggin' sense into that dim 'ead o' yourn. "Like I were sayin': I got 'old o' this 'ere book on mountaineerin' by some famous bloke or other—can't remember 'is name, an' anyhow you ignorant sods wouldn't know 'im an' in this book it said as how walkin'were an essential part o' mountaineerin'." "It were all wrote down," confirmed The Bat, who couldn't even read the four letter words in Lady Chatterley. 
Walt Unsworth: Image Cicerone
"Yeah, well. This bloke reckoned proper walkin' were very important; an he 'ad a lot o' little pictures showin"ow it should be done, like." "An we was doin' it all wrong," said The Bat. "Funny ain't it? I been walkin' ever since I were a kid, an' then after all these years I find I been doin' it all wrong." Louis gave The Bat a withering look and asked who was telling the tale? The Bat said Louis was, so Louis requested permission to continue, and added that if he had any further interruptions he would place a well aimed boot in The Bat's groin. The Bat, who valued that part of his anatomy, fell silent. "There's just as much skill in walkin' as there is in climbin'," Louis the Bum continued. "Only it's different, o' course. It's a question of , rhythmical balance an' conservation of energy, an all that balls. Once yer gets the 'ang of it, yer can do bloody long walks an' set up records an' things." "'Ow many records 'ave you set up then, Louis?" Asked Sorrowful Jones, tongue in cheek. "Well, we ain't set up any as yet," admitted Louis, "'cos we only been at it a few times, see? An' anyhow, its the technique I'm interested in, mate, not bloody records."

Sorrowful nodded in mock sympathy. "Competition don't do nobody any good, mate," he said. Personally I thought Sorrowful was asking for trouble, taking the mickey out of Louis the Bum like that, but Sorrowful knew his man. Louis never rumbled. The Bat pointed out the time on Sullivan's plastic clock. "What about them two judies, then, Louis?" He asked. Louis looked at his own watch and nodded." We're off," he announced. "Gotta see a coupla tarts. See yer." "See yer." we replied in chorus. "Did you ever 'ear such a load o' bull in all your life?" demanded Toddy, when they had gone. Big Harry looked thoughtful and stroked his voluminous yellow beard. "I dunno," he said slowly. "I reckon there's summat in this walkin' racket."

"Come off it! It's a load o' balls. Who can't walk up to a crag an' back? Apart from which, who wants to walk at all?" Toddy looked disgusted at the thought. Big Harry shifted his bulk back on his chair so that the legs creaked ominously. Like Sullivan said: he wished Harry would sit some-where else for a change because no one chair was designed to take such a constant hammering, but Harry pointed out that he couldn't move because Sorrowful Jones and Toddy had a side bet of five bob as to when the chair would collapse. Big Harry said, "I been thinkin' about this for some time: Louis the Bum has just brought to a head the whole problem, as yer might say." "An' what problem is that?" asked Sorrowful Jones, who was something of an expert on problems, being one himself. "Our attitude, that's what mate; our attitude. We reckon we're mountaineers, but we're nothin' of the sort — just bloody rock technicians. We do buggar all but climb rocks an' even then its rocks what are near a road like Borrowdale or Llanberis. I tell you this, mates: we've been turnin' the cathedrals of the earth into soaped poles!" "You read that somewhere," accused Sorrowful Jones. "So what? It's true ain't it 'Ow often do we pause to consider the beauty of our surroundings? Never, mate! We get stuck on some bit o' rock an' all we sees is dirty cracks an' grooves, lengths o' rope an' metal pegs. Do we ever think o' the Eternal Hills? Do we faggin' hell! "All we thinks of is how the next pitch is a layback an' we wish we'd never started the bloody climb in the first place. "So we end up as bloody good rock-climbers, maybe, but somewhere along the road we lose our real purpose." Harry's outburst shook us rigid.

Sorrowful Jones said," You gone all philosophical, ain't you mate? Been watchin' B.B.C. telly, or summat?" "Then there's the other side of it," continued Harry, ignoring him. "What about when we go to Skye? Walkin' an' route findin' become major problems in a wild place like Skye." If Big Harry's professed love of natural beauty cut no ice with the lads, his last remarks went home. The fact was, we had all agreed to take a few days off work at Whitsun, and by combining them with the Bank Holiday, arrange to have a full week in the Cuillins; that northern mecca of British climbers. None of us had ever visited the misty Hebridean island and it was an omission which was keenly felt; partly because of the reputation of the place but mostly, I think, because of Piss Eyed Pete. Pete had been there— once — and he never missed an opportunity of telling us so, since modesty is not Pete's dominant characteristic. We had only to mention some obscure crag or mountain for him to say, "Well, it's alright I suppose, but it don't compare with the Cuillin o' Skye. You lot ain't never been to the Cuillin, 'ave yer? Believe me, mate, the Cuillin are the only real mountains in Britain." The inference being, of course, that anyone who hadn't been there could in no way be regarded as a real mountaineer. 

So what with the visit to Skye on our minds and everything, Big Harry's point was well taken. "You may be right an' all," Sorrowful Jones conceded. "The Cuillins is a pretty rough place. I remember Paddy the Wop once come down on the wrong side o' the main ridge in a mist, an' e 'ad to walk over twenty miles back to 'is tent. 'E were bloody 'ungry an all by the time he got back, seein' as 'ow 'e dropped 'is butties down the Cioch Slab in the mornin'." Harry welcomed the support. "Well there it is, ain't it?" he demanded. "I reckon we ought to practise this walkin' caper."
Between you and me, there are walks and there are walks, when it comes to a question as to whether one is a good walker or not. Like Toddy said, anyone can toddle up to the foot of a crag and back, if it isn't too far and the weather is right, and nearly everyone can reach the top of a hill without undue peril. I base these surmises on the yobs one encounters from time to time in such elevated positions as the summit of Ben Nevis and the Snowdon Hotel. But not everyone can do a walk. Walks, in these present times, have become things of contest between man and mountain, and man and time. It is no longer sufficient to stroll around the hills: today a walk —a proper walk— is a challenge as stern in its own way as the stiffest rock climb. There was a time, and not so very long ago either, when the admission of inadequacy in the mountains was contained in the phrase, "I'm only a walker", meaning that the speaker felt himself unable to comment on the mad rich world of the mountains in the same way that the more romantic rock-climbers did. Rock-climbers tended to look down on walkers (although they would never admit it) and say, "Well, each to his own pleasure old chap," when what they really meant was "The poor sod. The poor inferior sod." But times change. 

The bloke who goes clanking up Borrowdale with a hundred krabs dangling from his waist and two miles of rope round his shoulders is probably a novice out to climb Brown Slabs, whilst the youngster in training shoes, who looks as though he hasn't yet begun to shave, is like as not the newest hard man. You just can't tell. So when a bloke today says modestly, "I'm only a walker," you look at him sideways, because his idea of a quiet weekend is likely to be a double traverse of the Welsh Three Thousand Footers or a quick run along the main ridge of the Cuillins. There are more walkers today than climbers, it seems to me, and you meet them everywhere — on top of Napes Needle, for example. They are a remarkable breed these modern walkers, with adhesive feet and the stamina of a yak. Never under any circumstances offer to go for a walk with one, or you are likely to be convalescent for the following two weeks. They concentrate on accepted routes done within acceptable times, the records for which make you feel slightly sick. 

We decided to make our first serious attempt at walking one cold February day, when there was a sprinkling of snow on the Pennine moors and the clouds drooped like veils of lead. Big Harry knew a bloke who did a lot of walking — a little chap called Amen Smith, who was as bandy as a cowboy and looked as though he couldn't walk across the road, let alone the hills, although in fact he could move like a chamois with a thunderflash up its arse. He had told Harry that one of the best walks was over the moors between Marsden in Yorkshire and Edale in Derbyshire. It was on Amen's recommendation, therefore, that we rolled into Marsden at 8 a.m., cold and sleepy, with Sorrowful Jones moaning away and a whole hunk of wild moor between us and our ultimate destination. There is something about the hills of Wales or the Lakes which makes them seem friendly to man, so long as he doesn't try to mess them about. Even in Scotland, where things are on an altogether bigger scale, there exists an atmosphere of muted challenge, as though the hills knew that man wanted to play on them and were not altogether adverse to the idea. But in the Pennines; in the bleak, wind swept, grough riven peat hags of the Pennines, man is an intruder. These are hills without emotion, without compassion. They have neither form nor beauty and they don't give a damn. 

Their sombre grit begrimed faces betray no trace of the eternal challenge between man and mountains and yet you get the message alright: their vastness mocks and says Put one step wrong here, mate, and we'll kill you. And they would, too. Our own route for the day ahead lay over three identifiable lumps of moor: Black Hill, Bleaklow, and Kinder Scout, separated by deep valleys. At one time, there existed four pubs, equidistant along the line of march, and some do say that it is for this reason that the walk was originated. That the whole thing was nothing more nor less than a sophisticated pub crawl. Such is progress, however, that the first two pubs have been pulled down; not surprising really, when you learn that they were owned by the local water board and therefore in direct competition, as it were. The first few miles from Marsden lay along a good cart track by the side of reservoirs and we made very rapid progress. Even Sorrowful Jones ceased to complain; the air was crisp, the incline gentle, and we exerted ourselves just sufficiently to keep warm. It was a piece of cake, we said, and we liked walking, we said. Then we hit Black Hill. The track vanished and there was nothing but the white, snow speckled acres of moor rising to an indefinite summit. 

The going was rough and boggy, and we were bothered by the deep groughs where surface streams had cut into the peat. Our speed slackened, and we cursed as we stumbled forwards and up. The summit never seemed to get any nearer, and to cap our misfortune, the leaden sky turned a deep violet. "I don't like it, 'Arry," gasped Sorrowful Jones, crawling out of a grough. "It's gonna snow." And for once he was dead right. Hardly had he spoken when the first fine flurry of white needles came swirling down and within minutes we were trapped in a white-out. I don't think any of us had ever been in a white-out before, and the experience is not one to bolster self-confidence, especially if, like us, you haven't got much idea of your exact position. The world as we knew it simply vanished. Land and sky blended into a diaphanous whole so that you could not tell where the one ended and the other began, and we stepped forward into a never ending wall of vapour. It was a dream-world, a nightmare, where there was no future and no past, where the only substance was self and the rest was the white dawn of nothing. 

We stopped, huddling together into a tight group, the snow falling with sinister gentleness all round. " 'Ere's a fine how dye do," complained Big Harry, blowing into his gloved hands. "What the faggin' Hell do we do now?" "We get off these faggin'moors a bit sharp-ish," replied Sorrowful in a gloomy voice, "before we all dies of exposure. Where the hell are we, anyhow?" That, of course, was the nub of the matter. We had concentrated on picking our tortuous way through the peat hags towards the summit of the hill, and we had never thought of checking our location on the map. Apart from the knowledge that we were somewhere in the vicinity of Black Hill, we were lost. Big Harry pulled out a map from his anorak pocket and Toddy surprised us all by contributing a compass which he had pinched for the day from his kid brother who was in the Cubs, and we tried to combine the two with our inadequate knowledge of navigation. But without landmarks to guide our futile efforts it was hopeless from the start. We gave Toddy back his compass, telling him what his kid brother could do with it, and Harry put back his map, all soggy and wet with snow. We had been standing still for five minutes and our feet had begun to freeze. We decided to press on, regardless. For ages we trod the Slough of Despond which is the summit of Black Hill. It is aptly named: black ooze, positively primeval in concept, squelched over our boot-tops at every step until in the end we didn't care anymore. 

Then, joyously, the land began to descend. For better or worse we seemed to be entering some kind of upland valley; whether or not it lay in the right direction we neither knew nor cared. All we wished for at that moment was escape from the cursed moors and the white-out. I think we panicked. Soon we were walking along an ill defined sheep track in a narrow defile. The white-out vanished as we descended, although it still continued to snow, and even though our vision was limited to a few yards it restored our self confidence to be able to see again and regain contact with reality. The track improved at every yard, and a quick check with the compass showed us that it did indeed run in the right general direction, which was a piece of good luck. "If only the snow would stop, we could see where we was," Harry shouted over his shoulder at us. "I reckon we must be in one o' them side valleys near Holme Moss." Toddy agreed. "The compass sez we're headin' south" he affirmed, "so I reckon you're right, mate. This track should lead us down into Crowden." "The compass don't mean nothin'," said Sorrowful Jones gloomily. "This valley could bend in the next half mile, an' then where are we?" "Up the creek without a paddle, mate," replied Harry, effectively ending the conversation. The valley began to widen until we could no longer see the opposite bank because of the snowflakes which were still swirling down. It was obvious, though, that it was a vale of some size, for it boasted stone walls and fields. It had about it a faintly familiar air. "I gotta feelin' I been 'ere before." Big Harry commented, with a puzzled air on his face. 

"Ello, then. What's this?" Through the snow-mist there had loomed up before our path a mound of earth some six feet high and stretching away into the dim distance. It was bordered by a trench as deep as the mound was high, and containing some rusted wood and iron contraptions. It was not the sort of thing one expects to find on the Derbyshire moors, or anywhere else, in our experience. "Maybe it's for catchin'rabbits wholesale," suggested Sorrowful Jones, pondering the enigma. "One thing's for sure though —some poor bastard will fall into that trench one day and break 'is bloody neck." We walked along the side of the trench and entered upon a country straight out of Alice in Wonderland. All about us, for as far as the snow would allow us to see there were more of these strange constructions, arranged in roughly parallel lines. The valley looked as though it had just witnessed a convention of mad archaeologists. Then the snow stopped, suddenly and without warning, as snow does in mountains. We stopped too, in amazement. Bang! Bang! Ping! Its a funny thing, you know, but even if you've never heard the sound of small-arms fire in your life before, you still know when some buggar is firing at you. And somebody was firing at us. 

Simultaneously, we all four dived into the nearest trench and lay there quaking. "The bloody rifle range!" exploded Harry, when we eventually picked up enough courage to sit up. "You know — the one in the valley that leads up to Laddow Rocks. The Army uses it every Sunday; an' we've walked right into the bastard!" "No wonder the valley looked familiar," said Toddy. "We must 'aye passed the Range a 'undred times on our way to the rocks." A sudden thought struck him and he grinned. "Anyhow, the old compass was right lads: this valley leads straight to Crowden." "If we ever get out alive," added Sorrowful Jones. After the first, frightening fusillade, the firing stopped, although none of us volunteered to peer over the edge of the trench to see why. Instead, we sat tight and began to prepare some Nescafe. The idea of looking for a better hole did not appeal to us, one bit, and anyway, our hole was comfortable enough as these things go. In fact, we were just beginning to feel at home when the officer in charge of the shooting party arrived. Apparently he had spotted us through his field glasses; too late to prevent the first burst of fire by his trigger happy platoon, but not too late to give us a bollacking. He was very annoyed, you could see that at a glance, but he was wasting his breath on the lads. He was a young twat of about twenty with a little moustache and a Sam Browne belt you could have seen to shave in. He stood on the edge of the trench looking down on us and he had a little cane which he flicked angrily in his leather gloved hands, for all the world like a schoolmaster who has discovered some juniors smoking in the toilets. 

"What do you people think you are doing down there?" he demanded aggresively, in that peculiar accent which seems to afflict all regular army officers. "Shelterin' from you lot," replied Big Harry. "Don't be impertinent! I want to know what you are playing at." His cane flicked violently in tune with his temper. Big Harry stood up and eyed him severely. "We're not playin' at anythin', mate," he replied. "It's you lot what are playin' soldiers. Is there a war on or summat?" The subaltern went livid. "Get out of there!" he stormed. "This is War Office Property, and you are trespassing. Get out ! D'ye hear?!" "Keep yer shirt on," Harry said quietly, packing away the petrol stove. "We're goin'." We scrambled out of the trench. Big Harry towered above the officer and smiled down at him sweetly. "There's just one thing, mate ..." he asked. "And what's that?" "Which side is winnin'?" The subaltern lost all control over his emotions. Waving his stick around like a demented bell-boy he let fly a string of oaths which even Sorrowful Jones thought was first class. "Get the faggin' hell out of here or I'll report you to the Major!" He ended. "And I'll tell the vicar," added Harry. 

We ambled away, with his curses still ringing in our ears. "He's only a young bloke, ain't 'e? But 'e ain't 'alf got a marvellous command of English," commented Sorrowful Jones, wistfully. "I wonder what 'e is?" "That mate," explained Big Harry, "is an officer an' a gentleman." We walked down into the Longendale valley, where the huge reservoirs flashed in the new found sunlight. Our misadventures on Black Hill and the rifle-range had cost us remarkably little in the way of time, and although we were well behind our original over optimistic schedule, we felt confident of success. Black Hill lay behind us: all we had to do now was cross Bleaklow and Kinder, and with the weather markedly on the mend, we felt that the job was as good as accomplished. At Crowden railway station we paused to eat our sandwiches and make our postponed brew of Nescafe. Before us, Bleaklow rose in one great two thousand foot sweep of heather, with the sun glinting on the wet rocks of the numerous gritstone tors which are such a feature of the hill. 

Away on our right, a fine ridge of grit was etched against the winter sky and pointed the way to the top. After the ordeals we had suffered that day, the ridge came as blessed relief. Here was something which we understood — rock —and although it wasn't steep enough to be called climbing in the proper sense, after the miry wastes of Black Hill it was a sheer delight. It could have gone on forever, that ridge, but it didn't; within half an hour it debouched us onto the summit plateau of Bleaklow. "Hell fire!" ejaculated Sorrowful Jones, meaning who would have thought that there could be a place so vast and utterly barren as that which stretched ahead? As far as the eye could see there was nothing but miles of undulating moors rising to a whaleback of a skyline. No hummock of curious shape, no startling tors of gritstone, nothing to break the awful monotony of the great plateau. It was truly the most God forsaken piece of country we had ever seen. "Well, it's flat, at any rate," said Big Harry. "We should zoom across this lot." But it wasn't and we didn't. What from a distance looked all smooth and level turned out in reality to be as rugged an area as you could find in the whole of Britain. The entire plateau was as riven with groughs as a gorgonzola cheese is with blue veins. 

Some of these ditches were large, some were small, but all contorted and twisted like a million snakes, crossing and recrossing each other every few yards. There was nothing for it but to push forwards, in and out, up and down, like poor bloody infantry of the First World War scrambling to the attack across the shell holes of No Man's Land. Time and our energies wasted together, yet the skyline seemed to grow no closer. As we advanced the groughs seemed to get bigger. There were some. I recall vividly which seemed thirty feet deep: great canyons of peat, the crossing of which was extremely laborious. In the end, we abandoned all pretence of method; simply falling down one side of the grough and scrambling as best we could up the other. Conversation was at a discount, but we all had a feeling of panic; a feeling that we were trapped on that labyrinthine moor. The walk we were supposed to be tackling was utterly forgotten; degenerated into a frantic struggle to escape from Bleaklow, lest we leave our exhausted bodies forever in some unknown grough. 

The short day of winter began to draw to a close and as the light faded the air grew cold. The peat, once soft and cushion like, started to crackle beneath our steps as it was gripped by the night frosts. In desperation we quickened our pace — if pace it could be called —although each and every one of us was dead tired. How long had we been on that cursed moor — two hours, three? It seemed a lifetime. Then the groughs ceased, suddenly, and we knew we had at last breasted the crest of the hill. As the final rose tints of the sun died on the skyline we struck across a narrow, deep valley, and inside a quarter of an hour we were free of Bleaklow, standing on a metalled road. We leant against a small stone bridge, buggered. "Well, we made it lads." gasped Harry. "This 'ere's the Snake Pass." "All we gotta do now is cross Kinder Scout," said Sorrowful Jones gloomily. He got no reply. When at last we were sufficiently rested we set off down the pass towards the point where a small track leads off it over the great massif of Kinder. We were now hours behind schedule and dog-tired. Nobody spoke, all our thoughts being concentrated on the agony ahead. 

We had gone rather more than a mile along the road when we saw a blaze of lights in the trees which fringed the left hand side of the road. It turned out to be an attractively lit white building with big lattice windows through which we could discern luxury, warmth and the magnetic clink of ale glasses. We had reached the Snake Inn. Big Harry halted. We all halted. "It's another four or five mile over Kinder ..." Big Harry began, his voice uncertain. "We'll never do it in the dark," added Sorrowful. Big Harry sighed as he pushed open the door to the Bar. "They didn't ought to put a pub in a place like this," he said savagely,"it weakens a bloke's resolution." We sank into luxurious chairs, pints in our hands, and just let the ache drain out of our tired bodies. For five whole minutes we just sprawled there, eyes closed in sheer bliss, and then we took good long draughts of the excellent ale. "Why do we do it?" asked Toddy, stretching his legs against cramp. "Why do we bloody well do it?" "Because we're faggin' stupid, mate, that's why," replied Big Harry. "But it don't 'alf make the ale taste good, don't it?" 
 Walt Unsworth 1978. Illustrations Ivor Cumberpatch.

First published in Climber and Rambler November 1978. 

Remembering Walt Unsworth

Friday, 21 September 2018

No Easy Way- ....Reviewed

No Easy Way’ (The Challenging Life of the climbing taxman) Mick Fowler. 244 Pages, Perfect bound paperback: Published by Vertebrate £14.95.

A sight to make an old man young’ Tennyson

Recently I was invited to attend at the Leeds Central Library, for there on the third floor was a large double door safe, which had not been opened for three or four decades and the keys lost in the mists of time. Professional safe crackers had been brought in and finally the doors opened. Inside was a huge amount of historical climbing material, lantern slides of Slingsby and Frankland, some of the latter leading Whisky Crack, Central Climb and the Green Crack at Almscliff routes which he had originally pioneered; there were old Journals, and a stack of black/white photographs mostly by the Abraham brothers etc. One item that I found more than interesting was a copy of the ‘Times’ supplement celebrating the first ascent of Mount Everest in 1953.

This illustrated how different Himalayan exploration was at that date compared to the ascents now being made by such as Fowler and his contemporaries. These climbs rely on the fact that there are hundreds of lesser altitude unclimbed Himalayan objectives around the 6000/7000 metre mark, many of which provide challenging, multi-day technical ascents; possible for two well drilled unsupported climbers to attempt, and importantly without recourse to using bottled oxygen to climb or as an aid for sleeping and physical recovery.

No Easy Way’ was a must read for me, as many of the Himalayan regions featured in the book I have also been fortunate to visit, albeit not to attempt the kind of technical climbs achieved by Fowler and a partner. The book begins with an illuminating chapter on how since joining the Inland Revenue in 1977 the author has managed to deal with the competing priorities of his life. Somehow he has managed a work life balance that most climbers will envy; marrying, raising a family and moving up the Civil Service grades whilst continuing to climb at a high standard, particularly in achieving greater-range ascents, with such a trip planned almost every year. 

In this first Chapter he mentions the climb he and Paul Ramsden made in 2002 of an impressive ice streak on Mount Siguniang in China’s Sichuan Province. I think it was this climb which was to be the basis of his approach to similar challenges from thereon; noting that the ideal objective should boast a striking line leading directly to a summit, be unclimbed, be visible from afar, be technically challenging, be objectively safe, be on an eye-catching mountain, be in a remote interesting area, somewhere he had not previously been to, and have an aesthetically pleasing-and different descent route. Phew! I have been to Mount Siguniang and the ice couloir that he and Ramsden climbed meets all of those criteria, and over the years the author has gathered a huge file of many such potential objectives throughout the Himalaya. 

 'The Stone Bell Tower' : Southern Altai Mountains of Xinjang; DG
Also noteworthy is how in his later life when he moved to work in the tax office at Nottingham, he settled with his family to live in the Peak District, and where to keep his body trim and increase his stamina and general fitness for climbing he took up fell running. However he was already trim before this, being just above medium height, rangy and bony.
Somehow by an ability to manoeuvre his work commitments, right up until his recent retirement in 2017 he managed to save up a sufficient holiday entitlement each year to around 30 days. Enough time for the author and a companion to attempt a major Himalayan ascent. And what is most impressive for me is the same tight circle of climbing friends he has been able to draw on to take part in his different climbing activities; chalk climbing on the White Cliffs of Dover, shale climbing in the South West, rock climbing in Orkney, ice climbing on Ben Nevis, ascents in the Andes of Peru, and of course the Himalaya. This was borne on me the first time I attended in the 1970’s at the Pindar of Wakefield pub in Kings Cross where the North London Mountaineering Club used to meet and this was where Fowler and or his friends usually met up (later at the Sobell wall, and later still The Palm Tree in Mile End). 

Present were Ben Wintringham and his wife Marian, Slippery Vic Saunders, Chris Watts, Mike Morrison, Steve Sustad etc all of whom apart from Ben (who died in an abseiling accident in Morocco) appear in ‘No Easy Way’. I grew to marvel at their planning to take off on a Friday night after work to drive to destinations like Ben Nevis, Kintail or Cornwall, climbing through Saturday and Sunday to arrive back at work on Monday morning. The author claims they never missed that deadline which if true would be an impressive tribute to their driving skills.
There are in the early chapters of the book two impressive climbs on mountains in Eastern Tibet, Kajaqiao 6447mtrs and Manamcho 6264mtrs, the reader may be wondering how Fowler knew about such objectives? 

The internet has changed such research, and a key figure in identifying suitable objectives is the Japanese Tom Nakamura. A retired business man he spends a large slab of time each year trekking with companions like him of an advanced age, through different unexplored (for climbing) Himalayan regions, and subsequently publishing photographs and maps of the surrounding peaks he has noted on his travels. It is from such that many impressive objectives have been garnered by those keen on Himalayan ascents in Alpine style. However gaining permits to climb in these areas is fraught with bureaucracy and needs patience, contacts and good luck to achieve a successful outcome.
There are some light hearted chapters away from the multi-day high mountain ascents; a sea cliff extravaganza with Steve Sustad to South Orkney, a short lecture tour and climbing jaunt in Ireland , and two chapters about participating in the Paps of Jura fell race. The first detailing his failure to successfully complete the race being timed out, the second a year later when after some more applied training he was successful in completing this gruelling 28kms race, and the thousands of feet of ascent and descent within the time schedule. I have not so far noted Fowler’s ability at writing with a wry humour, and it shines through in these diversionary chapters away from the high mountains, including secretly climbing the walls of Nottingham castle with Paul Ramsden who like Fowler worked in that city. 

On the second occasion they were apprehended after completing their climb early one morning by a security guard, who sent for the police. This ended amicably when the police decided they really could not charge the two miscreants for they had caused no damage but suggested that in future they obtained a permit to climb from Nottingham Council! 
Another engrossing chapter away from the remote-ranges is the one about the bizarre events that led the author to become President of the Alpine Club. When first approached to stand for election he was undecided about accepting aware that it would mean a lot of extra work, but eventually he agreed. A few weeks later he was stunned to learn that an older, more senior member, Col Henry Day had decided to stand against him and it was suggested because of decorum he should stand down, for it would be the first contested election in the 150 years history of the Club. But bolstered by his proposer Paul ‘Tut’ Braithwaite and his second Joe Brown he decided to take this on. I attended the AGM meeting having been lobbied to be there or else dire consequence might befall, for only those attending could vote and our man Fowler was appointed. This meeting was typical of the theatre which occurs about once a decade at the Alpine Club. Passionate speeches, one by a senior judge, another by a lawyer, and yet another by a young tiger made for a truly memorable event, leaving the author with the task of mending fences and getting on with the reforms he had promised in a Hustings speech.

Back to the greater ranges and in 2010 a trip to the Chinese Tien Shan mountains in Xinjiang, which the author confesses he knew little about before his visit which had been difficult to organise due to the riots of 2009 in Urumqi, when the internet and international phone connections had been closed down in that City the capital of the Province. I was there during the riots when 200 people were killed and a 1000 injured, mainly Han Chinese. I am afraid for once Fowler has some detail about the history of the Province wrong, particularly viz a viz the Uighurs and the Han the two biggest ethnic groups (there are 12 others). The Uighurs do not make up only thirteen per cent of the population as he states, they are the largest grouping and make up almost 50%.

It is outside the scope of this review to explain more, except to inform that I have travelled throughout Xinjiang, been there 10 times and undertaken two research projects in this the biggest Province in China. It is the most impressive place I have ever been to with five mountain ranges and the two big deserts of the Taklamakan and the Gobi. My ‘discovery’ of Keketuohai situated in the southern Altai on the border with Mongolia in the autumn of 2009, has led on to visits there by Tommy Caldwell of Dawn Wall fame, Jeremy Collins and Mark Jenkins reporting for National Geographic who declared the valley ‘awesome’. Mike Dobie an ex-pat climber has also become a visitor and the valley is now referred to as the Yosemite of China with its impressive granite walls, domes and towers? 
The objective for Fowler and Co in the far west Xuelian mountains of the Tien Shan was a mountain called Sulamar 5380 metres and partnered once again by Paul Ramsden, the author had an almost near death experience whilst crossing a snow covered glacier and falling into a deep crevasse. Despite being roped up the fight to get out of this predicament nearly cost him his life. Post this trip Fowler and his friends found it ever more difficult to obtain climbing permits to Tibet or the Tien Shan and their expeditions were from thereon in West Nepal and the Indian Himalaya. At the first of these destinations they headed for a mountain Mugu Chuli 6310 on the Nepal/ Tibet border, and once again just as in Nick Bullock’s book ‘Tides’ appearing in yet another cameo role is one ‘Streaky’, Graham Desroy. 

I suspect if I was persuaded to watch ‘Love Island’ (unlikely) there on the beach would be a character wearing a bandana on his head and sporting a flower shirt and white painter’s trousers. He does rove far and wide and last night I received a mail from him on a climbing visit to Madagascar. Post this ascent there are impressive further climbs detailed in the Indian Himalaya, on Hagshu 6515 mtrs, the Prow of Shiva 6142 mtrs and in the north-west of Nepal to Gave Ding in 2015.
For me the most amusing, finest writing in the book is the final ‘big’ climb, Sersank 6050mtrs in the Indian Himalaya when Fowler teamed up again with ‘Slippery’ Vic Saunders, their first climb together since the Golden Pillar of Spantik, Pakistan in 1987; a climber of equal merit and achievement as the author. Their getting back together starts with their reliving a boxing match between them to settle a dispute in a seedy east London pub, but at which they were jeered at during their fight for a lack of aggression by the audience, which led to them being replaced by a stripper!

In 2016 Fowler was coming up for retirement aged 60 and Saunders was 66 years old. They were like a couple of escapees from Dad’s Army, and they certainly could have moonlighted as the ‘odd couple’. But they completed a difficult climb of the 1100metre north buttress of the mountain in eight days in a round trip from Base Camp. To report that the pictures of the route are gnarly is a half truth and the author’s advice that you are ‘Never too old’ seems to hold good.

'The Royal Arches'.. Xinijang; DG
The book is replete with colour pictures and is well designed and produced, meeting the standards we have come to expect from Vertebrate. But it concludes with an Epilogue on a truly sombre note as the author is diagnosed with anal cancer, and needs to undertake both chemo and radiotherapy to combat this, torpedoing his plans for a trip to Sikkim, again with Slippery Vic. Post treatment after two clear scans, a further monitoring visit reveals the cancer is back, and an operation may now be necessary. However he remains as ever positive, and his dream of visiting Sikkim is still being planned as he decides, ‘anything is possible’ 
This historically important work is a book to savour, and one to recommend any tyro reading as they start out wishing to also emulate such an adventurous life style. I applaud Fowler’s attitude to bolts, he eschews them in the high mountains and explains why, and although he has been awarded three Piolet D’Or, the so called Oscars of the mountaineering world he appreciates the limitation of such awards, and likewise as when he was awarded the soubriquet of ‘The Mountaineer’s Mountaineer’ in a poll conducted by the Observer. 

Mick Fowler: Image BMC
Times change and he was lucky to be active when world travel made such ascents possible in a short holiday time span. Whatever, as long as the sport of mountaineering continues to be keenly followed worldwide Mick Fowler will be a name to give tribute to, the more so for the adventurous way and the spirit in which his climbs were achieved. 

Dennis Gray : 2018 

Friday, 7 September 2018

Waymaking.... Review

WAYMAKING: An Anthology of Women’s Adventure Writing, Poetry and Art.
Edited by: Helen Mort, Claire Carter, Heather Dawe, Camilla Barnard.
Published by Vertebrate £17.99. 280 pages. Paperback.

For what is a play without a woman in it?’ Thomas Kyd.

Whatever else this book is about my first response on perusing a copy was how bold and innovative this appeared to be and the contents did not belie such a consideration. I had a thought though as I commenced reading, namely would women’s writing about outdoor adventures be different in a fundamental way to a male’s? And I soon decided as I read on, that the answer was YES! The author’s revealed themselves as more caring, less heroic in their claims for self, and gentler in their approach to life and all of its demands; relationships, family, children, and place. I will contradict myself here, for there is nothing gentle in Lily Diyu’s essay ‘Running on the roof of the world’, a seven-stage sky race set around Manaslu the world’s eighth highest mountain. But again there is perhaps less of the heroic within the story than if this had been written by a man?

In WAYMAKING the contents are broken down into four sections, under titles headed as follows, ‘Vicinity’ ‘Heart and Soul’ ‘Water’ and ‘Union’ and each of these contain essays, poems, and paintings/cartoons which more or less fit such headings. This is not however a feminine version of ‘The Games Climber’s Play’, an anthology of mountain themed writing, for it is much wider sourced than that. It does include some hard core climbing, but the range of content is probably wider than most other such compendiums.

The essays are so varied and cover so much ground physically, set in the Antarctic, Patagonia, Ireland, Nepal, Wales, Scotland, the Lake District, Australia, the Peak District, and many more such destinations. Most of the subjects covered are straightforward adventure activities; bouldering, swimming, canoeing in rivers and oceanic waters, urban running, peak bagging etc but a few are more challenging, and for instance ‘Leaving for the edge of the world’ by Kathleen Jones questions our consumer life styles, the pollution this is causing, and the damage to the natural landscapes. K’e yil yal tx’i; ‘Saying something’ by Leslie Hsu Oh is equally thoughtful, and anyone who has taken their own children climbing when young will understand the trials and tribulations one must face over this; their over enthusiasms, but on occasion lack of same, and the worries over safety, toileting and sustenance. This essay also has something to inform about how native USA people saw, and still see the rocks and mountains of their homeland.

 Bouldering at Ardmair Beach: Deziree Wilson

The essay ‘Memory Ten’ by Libby Peter is set in more familiar territory, winter climbing in Snowdonia with her daughter, at that date a 13 year old, climbing Yr Wyddfa’s Trinity Face by its Central Gully. Despite earning her living as a mountain guide, you realise that with her own daughter the relationship is different to that of a client during such an ascent. Two other climber’s essays have unusual slants, Hazel Findlay in ‘No-self’ and Katie Ives ‘Unmapping’. The first is self analysis, and its author is well schooled academically in philosophy and psychology for such a mental challenge whilst the second author is a climbing journalist of stature writing about night climbing.

To anyone who has deliberately set forth as other climbers are descending at the end of the day, this will bring to recall memory of the excited anticipation tinged with apprehension that planning such climbs and trips can bring which quickly disperse once into moon or torch lit action. There are so many different topics covered in the other essays within this book, that it is not possible in this review to cover them all, but one I cannot ignore centres on the joy to be found in the simple pleasure of a continued observation of a brook that falls from high ground on the eastern edge of Dartmoor. 

Illustrated by photographs and an accompanying essay ‘Counterflow’ by Jen Benson or ‘Lost in the Light’ of West Antarctica, sleeping in tents at minus 50F, melting snow for drinking water where daily living demands so much of Tara Kramer, who nevertheless feels so alive in such an environment. Whilst ‘Rewilding’ poses a different kind of scenario, but just as alive, describing a 550-mile self supporting mountain-bike time trial around Scotland’s most rugged and remote wilderness for Lee Craigie, but with an acknowledgement that despite the chasing and racing, it is something more than that which drives her to such physical demands, at the end of which the memories of the scenery passed through remain dominant and fast to recall.
 Climber: Hazel Barnard
So far in this review I have not written of the many and varied poems included in Waymaking or the paintings; poetry is such a personal like, but running throughout the book are a series on the Camino de Santiago by Cath Drake which have a resonance for this reader. ‘To Follow’ by Claire Carter and ‘Falling’ from Joanna Croston will be recognised as the truth by any climber as will a reading of Helen Mort’s contribution ‘The Climb’ of just how and when it begins! Other verses were more difficult for me, but some were rewarding at a second and third reading, typical of which was ‘Last night I dream we walk up to the Point again’ by Imogen Cassels, or ‘By the Way’ a crossing of Kinder and more by Sarah Outen. Publishers always declare there is no money in poetry (that is unless you were based in the old USSR where poetry outsold fiction, and Yevtushenko had the lifestyle to prove it!) so it was brave of Vertebrate to go along with a format where poetry has almost as much emphasis as essay.

The paintings/cartoons do add much to the feel of the work. Four paintings by Pam Williamson, illustrating her poem ‘Walking Moses Trod’ set the scene and why the artist wanted to capture it, whilst the line drawing of a ‘Climber’ by Hazel Barnard does look so real and ‘gripped’. My two favourite pictures however were the wash drawing; ‘Women who Run with the Wolves’ by Tessa Lyons and ‘Bouldering at Ardmair Beach’ by Deziree Wilson. There is humour as well in a series of paintings by Paula Flach of a young tyro taking on challenging situations and by some cartoons, which for me the most laughable was ‘Ken the Cross Dresser’ by Tami Knight. The hero of this is Ken, a one legged, cross dresser hoping to ride his bike to the summit of Mount Everest (without oxygen) but who is beaten to the summit by a more agile one legged lady biker.

Enchantment Larches: Nikki Frumkin
The book ends with C.V’s of the 56 contributors who have essays and their pictorial work appearing in WAYMAKING. Only three or four of these were personally known to me, but what a galaxy of talent they represent? Writers, academics, poets, travellers, mountaineers, canoeists, bike riders etc many undertaking challenges and writing about them in way that any publisher would feel positive about presenting their work. We are informed that this volume of Women’s Adventure Writing would not have appeared with the support of Alpkit, but we are not let into the background story of what that was, but whatever it was we readers are grateful. Finally the book’s four editors are to be congratulated in assembling such an outstanding eclectic work; one that will bear dipping into again and again, a veritable cornucopia of interest expressing an enjoyment in living. 

Dennis Gray : 2018 

Friday, 24 August 2018

The White Cliff....Review

The term 'coffee table book' is generally used to describe an A3 sized doorstop which is brim full of seductive images but sadly lacking in solid writing. However, within the climbing/mountaineering field there have of course, always been exceptions to the rule. Works like Crew, Soper and Wilson's The Black Cliff; Tony Smythe and John Cleare's classic Rock Climbers in Action in Snowdonia- recently republished as a Paperback- and of course Ken Wilson's series of weighty tomes with Classic/ Hard/ Extreme Rock at the heart of the series.

With the recent publication of Grant Farquhar's The White Cliff, The aforementioned The Black Cliff now has a worthy companion within the genre. A diligently researched, skilfully edited and beautifully produced work which features a contributing cast list which appears to include just about everyone who has contributed to north Wales's post 1950's climbing history.

John Redhead on a recent addition to the Gogarth route list with a first ascent of The Golden Fan with Martin Crook

It is fitting that Ynys Mon -the land of the druids- should cast a spell over climbers who were drawn to these complex, intimidating cliffs of Ynys Cybi relatively late in the century. Although the RAF had used the cliffs around Gogarth since the 1940's and local activists had dabbled thereabouts in the 50's, the true birth of climbing on these pale cliffs above the Irish Sea began in the 1960's as word leaked out that a stone El Dorado existed way out West. No surprise then that the procession was led by north Wales's leading activists and new routing pioneers . Hard chaws like Pete Crew, Joe Brown and Martin Boysen in the vanguard. To be quickly joined by just about every 'name' in the UK climbing scene and beyond. All magnetically drawn to this fabled climbing terranova.

This explosion of activity in the swinging sixties is described by many of those who were part and parcel of the scene. Both the living and through the words of the dead. David Dukan, Geoff Milburn, Les Holliwell, Trevor Jones and Ken Wilson included. One of the more fascinating episodes in this period is 'The Great Gogarth Hoax' as described by Peter Gillman. Then a young non climbing Sunday Times journalist.. It recalls a bizarre case of the climbs that never were. A collection of state of the art routes written up by a climbing Walter Mitty character-Keith McCallum- whose activities quickly aroused the suspicions of fellow activists. Not least the Holliwell Brothers and Pete Crew who were in the vanguard of developments at Gogarth at the time.

As the 1970's brought in great advances in equipment and footwear, standards continued apace and essayists including Henry Barber, Martin Crook and Al Evans describe the relentless drive which delivered classic routes like the 3 star E5 'The Ordinary Route', Positron E5 and the 3 star Moran/Milburn/Evan's E3, 'The Assassin'. With The White Cliff now cooking on gas, the clear blue sky certainly was the limit and as the punk era ended, the 80's New Romantics in the form of Johnny Dawes, John Redhead, Ron Fawcett , Jimmy Jewel and Andy Pollitt took The White Cliff by the scruff of the neck and recorded increasing audacious first ascents. The old master's like Brown, Crew and Boyson could only look on admiringly as routes like Conan the Librarian E7, The Big Sleep quickly fell. By the 90's it was open season on The White Cliff and editor Grant Farqhar opens 'The Raving 90's and the Naughty 00's with Sex and Religion, his serious E7 route at the heart of his revealing essay, Bouncing Czechs'.

Henry Barber and Al Harris looking suitably intimidated!:Photo John Cleare

But before I give the impression that The White Cliff is a mere chronological procession, detailing hard routes and their creators, let me quickly confirm that far from being a dry historical account of climbing on the Gogarth cliffs, The White Cliff ranges far and wide across the the entire Gogarth spectrum. Covering developments on every cliff- including Rhoscolyn- but including a broad area of interest with every aspect of climbing covered by over 100 trailblazing pioneers. Contributions ranging from a brief paragraph to lengthy essays and describing the characters, the epics, the exploration, the failed projects, the accidents etc etc. Fascinating and inspirational in equal measure.

It would be unfair to single out any single essay from such a qualitative field of work, or indeed, mention stand out photographs from such a stellar cast of image takers which include John Cleare, Leo Dickinson and Ray Wood. Suffice it to say that the editor has used the whole range of the photographic spectrum to illustrate the essays herein. A worthy project which like the aforementioned tomes mentioned at the start of this review, is destined to be a future classic within the field of climbing literature.

John Appleby; 2018


Friday, 10 August 2018

Tom Price : I'm a Stranger Here Myself

His life was gentle, and the elements so mixed in him, that Nature might stand up and say to all the world, ‘This was a man!’ Julius Caesar

Recently a researcher contacted me to question who I believed in a long life were the outstanding characters of the mountain world I had been fortunate to meet and know. I thought for a short while and advised that the three most stand out personalities known well to myself for different reasons had been Tom Patey, Don Whillans and Tom Price! This latter’s inclusion resulted in my interlocutor being rather fazed, ‘I’ve never heard or read anything about him’ she responded ‘who was he, why was he so outstanding?’ And here is an essay which I hope will help to illustrate why I believe this to be so, for although Tom was not a major pioneering climber compared to the record of Patey, or Whillans he led a much more varied life, and one so rich in incident that few others can have equalled it in its diversity of experience. 

Tom was born in Sheffield in 1919, and for his first decade of life lived in a rural environment near to Wharncliffe Crags, but his father a railway worker in order to find employment moved his family to a sprawling suburb of Liverpool. Price attended there at its Alsop school, winning a Scholarship to the Cities University to read English and History, and it was at that institution he started to seriously climb, having previously as a schoolboy enjoyed hill walking in Snowdonia. The Presiding spirit of that bodies climbing club was Graham MacPhee, and he was a friend of both Kirkus and Edwards, leading pioneers before the last war also originally based in Liverpool. Tom physically short and slight, with a wiry build and a fearless approach to steep rock moved quickly up the grades, and he was soon by the standards immediately before the War leading routes graded at the top difficulty of the day, Very Severe.

MacPhee was a controversial character, famed for his acerbic wit, and one instance of this noted by Tom illustrates this, it occurred on a University climbing club winter meet on Ben Nevis. Walking up the Allt a Mhuillin glen to camp under the North Face of the mountain, MacPhee hired a pony to carry his equipment, leaving his companions to stagger on behind carrying large, heavy rucksacks. Stopping part way for a rest, MacPhee addressed his companions thus, pointing at Tom. ‘Price’ he observed ‘is like an Alpine guide’ a remark at which its recipient swelled with pride, only to be deflated as he went on to further observe; ‘They do not sweat, they only stink!’, MacPhee was however a Nevis expert, and although based in Liverpool, he produced the first climber’s guidebook to the Ben. Despite the preceding anecdote, Tom stayed in touch and friends with MacPhee until his death in a mountain accident in the Canary Islands in 1963.

The outbreak of war then intervened, and Tom confessed that if it had not he might never have graduated, for he was in trouble for spending all his free time, and waking hours, either climbing or thinking about it, and thus he failed to meet the demands of his course work, including failing Latin! But the war changed everything; few of today’s UK population have a notion as to what it was really like, and typical of those who lived through such life changing experiences, though I must have spent hundreds of hours in his company, the only story Tom ever told me about his war, was that whilst commanding a ship in the Mediterranean near the end of the conflict, and of how the crew and he were nearly court marshalled for running a cigarette smuggling racket in league with some American sailors; which became such a cause celebre that it was resolved by him receiving a command cipher from the Admiralty ‘Stop it!’ 

Other details of his war service I have managed to research post his death in 2013 and it makes for gripping reading. On call up he elected to join the Royal Navy, for as he was later to modestly observe, he did this for the lure of the sea and the watery wilderness of the oceans which meant ‘he spent the war safely at sea’.

But nothing could be further away from the truth of his service, for starting out as a lowly Able Seaman he finished the war as the Captain of a rocket ship. Initially he volunteered to serve in minesweepers in the Western Atlantic, spending over two years in that more than dangerous activity, until one night ashore he was arrested for drunkenness and placed on Captain’s report. But instead of being disciplined when his record was examined he was persuaded to apply for officer selection, which surprising to himself he passed. He was then assigned to Combined Operations, planning and training for the invasion of France. At the D-Day landings he was a lieutenant on a rocket ship carrying Canadian forces into Juno beach, one of the most challenging of the landing sites. Of the first eleven soldiers they landed, ten were killed or injured by enemy fire. Post this event he was promoted and given command of rocket ship LCR 405, which he sailed into the Mediterranean to take part in the invasion of the South of France.

At the end of the war in 1946 he returned to Liverpool, back to its University and its climbing club, but he also joined the Wayfarer’s in order to be able to use the system of huts in the climbing areas. He then spent two and a half years completing his studies, ending with a BA degree and a teaching diploma. Although whilst based in Liverpool he had been nearer to Snowdonia than the Lake District, he opted for the latter for much of his climbing, making ascents in Langdale of routes like Gimmer Crack and Hiatus, and Eliminate C on Dow Crag. On completing his University education, the fell tops and crags of Cumbria were not to be denied and he joined the teaching staff of Workington Grammar School. He also became the coxswain of the local lifeboat, and took part in several dramatic rescues in the Irish Sea. In West Cumbria during that era there was a group of outstanding pioneering climbers led by Bill Peascod; and along with Harold Drasdo and Peter Greenwood, I was fortunate to meet up with them in the Gatesgarth barn in Buttermere in the winter of 1950/1.

Without transport, such activists tended to be ‘centrists’, and for Peascod and his rope mates, that was mainly Buttermere, where they were pioneering some outstanding new routes. They had formed their own club, which like so many of that period was short lived, but amongst their members that weekend I remember meeting Sid Beck and Tom for the first time.
  South Georgia.Image:Royal Geographical Society

Tom had by then started visiting the Continent to climb, his first foray had been to the Pyrenees, and later to Mont Blanc and the Valais, managing classic ascents in what were visits, cut short mainly because of money shortage. For quite some years post 1945, British visitors were only allowed to spend a small sum in hard currency on a single trip. You paid for your train journey in the UK (return), but all your expenses abroad had to be covered by this small amount. Some enterprising climbers found ways around this by selling such as a nylon rope to the continentals, but I can still remember how shocked I was as a 18 year old, travelling across France by ancient steam trains that kept breaking down, on the devastation still so obvious from the war, but one could spin money out by living on local produce; mainly bread, milk, eggs and cheese.

Tom was enjoying his life in Cumbria climbing at weekends, casting pearls of wisdom to his pupil’s mid-week, heading out to sea on rescue missions, but an accident on Dow Crag in the early 1950’s shut down his climbing for a while. Fortunately he had just acquired his first nylon rope; tying on this directly with a bowline knot, and with Frank Monkhouse as his second he was leading the classic, ‘Eliminate A’ climb on Dow Crag. Shod in basket ball boots all went well until above the Rocher Perches crux, but on the upper reaches of this route which become vague to follow, Tom lost the usual line and continued ascending up previously unclimbed rock. But as he was moving to gain easier ground, pulling up on a handhold it suddenly shattered, precipitating a long fall. 

Fortunately there were other climbers at the crag that day, and after lowering to the base of the cliff they carried him down to Coniston on an improvised stretcher, a bed spring from the nearby Barrow Boys Hut at the side of Goats Water. 

An ambulance then took him to Workington Hospital, where his injuries were treated; a laceration to the scalp, fractured ribs and an ankle, with sprains to both. He had fallen over 40 feet, and his brand new nylon rope was shredded for almost 20 feet. Tom was always careful about spending large amounts on gear, preferring to kit himself for his outdoor clothes at the Charity Shops, but he confessed the purchase of a nylon rope was one of his wisest choices despite its then high price by the standards of the day!

After serving, quite some years at the same school, in 1955 Tom took a sabbatical to take part in a Duncan Carse led expedition to South Georgia. Younger readers can be forgiven for not instantly recognising the name, but he was radio’s ‘Dick Barton Special Agent’ which attracted 15 million listeners each evening. Carse was an unusual mixture of polar explorer and radio actor. Over four southern summers between 1951 and 1957 he organised, and led the South Georgia Survey. 

This sub-antarctic island is covered in glaciers and mountains, and records a fascinating history, including a first navigation around and exploration by Captain Cook in the 18th century. It is also the island reached by Ernest Shackleton in his dramatic rescue journey in 1916, and it featured much in the engagements surrounding the Falkland’s War in 1982.Even today it can only be approached by a long sea journey, lying in the South Atlantic Ocean 1390kms South East of the Falkland’s, so in 1955 it was a remote destination with uncharted fjords, glaciers and mountains, replete with fantastic wild life breeding on its beaches. 

And now it is once again being keenly visited by climbers, most recently by Stephen Venables and Chris Watts, the former a frequent visitor having made the first ascent of Mount Carse 2300m in 1990. Tom was one of three mountaineers recruited for the 1955/6 party, the other two being Louis Baume and Johnny Cunningham; their task was to get the surveyors into safe positions in the mountains, and they managed a lot of travelling on ski and some technical independent climbing. Tom departed South Georgia with a glacier named after him, and he told me an anecdote about the Dick Barton connection, whose two side kicks in his nightly adventures were ‘Jock’ and ‘Snowy’. Interviewed by the media on his return about this, for Cunnigham a Scot was obviously ‘Jock’ and Tom they decided must be ‘Snowy!’

An interesting fact about Tom’s life is he always ‘moved on’, and in 1961 he succeeded John Lagoe as the warden of Eskdale Outward Bound School, where he remained for 7 years. Somehow despite the fact that Tom was a unique kind of English revolutionary, he fitted this post with such distinction that he remained, into old age someone the Outward Bound movement embraced for his sage advice and support. He was a founder member of the Mountain Leader Training Board, and with John Jackson he wrote the tract of its award scheme, which by the time when I was at the BMC and we took over its administration, it had become one of the largest such training schemes in British sport.

But Tom was to move on again in 1968, back to Yorkshire as an adviser to the West Yorkshire Education authority, where his essays and ideas about the development of outdoor education won him wide respect. His attempt to ‘Bridge the Gap’ between educationalists and amateur climbers set out in such format, was published in both ‘Mountain Magazine’ and the anthology, ‘The Games Climber’s Play’. On one occasion he invited me to speak at a Conference he had organised for teachers involved in Outdoor Education, he posited me with the task of preparing and reading a paper on ‘The History of Mountain Literature’. Somehow I blagged my way through this assignment; which was typical of Tom who always expected students and acquaintances to meet his own level of attainment.

And his next appointment in 1973 illustrates this in spades when he became the Dean of Bingley Teacher Training College; which with his encouragement became during that decade a numero uno place for climbers to study, for his students included Gill Price, Jill Lawrence, Pete Livesey, Pete Gomersall and Bonny Masson. In that era he and I were both members of the Plas y Brenin Management Committee, and living down the hill from Bingley in Guiseley I used to drive up there, to meet up and journey to North Wales together. These were some of the most entertaining, amusing journeys I have ever made. On one occasion Tom elicited to me his thoughts about ‘The Sermon on the Mount’. I wish I had then a tape recorder in my car for it was of such worth it should have been recorded, and I guess for the reader to realise how amusing Tom could be, the sparring between Ken Wilson, and Price was a prime example?, they were two outstanding figures in their own milieu.

Original Image : Outward Bound Trust

When Alan Blackshaw became BMC President in 1973 we decided on the need to review the future needs and development of the Council, and so a ‘Future Policy Committee’ was formed which included both Ken, then editing Mountain Magazine, and Tom. To report that these two sparked off each other is true, for as Tom was later to observe about Wilson ‘that he was a passionate defender of a climber’s right to kill himself in his own way!’ We used to hold these meetings in Pubs up and down the country, but on occasion in more salubrious surroundings, such as The Army and Navy Club in London, close to Hyde Park. 

In one of our discussions held there on ‘The future of Mountain Training’ , Ken and Tom became engaged in animated discussion, and Wilson who on occasion could get very exercised in such debate, suddenly jumped up and shouted out loudly ‘ Climbing is all about dying!’. One wondered what the ex-military types at the bar made of this outburst, I thought ‘crikey’ it might cause one of them to choke over their gin and tonics. Tom’s riposte to this was classic and typical of his gentle strain of humour; ‘Well Ken if that is the case, you cannot have been too active yourself!’

Tom was not a bureaucratic type of Principal, and he was always planning some journey or trip himself. With the famous Swiss climber, avalanche expert Andre Roch, and mountain guide who was one of his friends he made a ski traverse of the Alps, with another friend George Spenseley he made a multi-day canoe journey down the Hanbury and Thelon rivers in Northern Canada. He was always keen to get out for a climb and when he became President of the BMC in 1982-1985 we climbed together in Wales, the Peak District and The Lake District. And for some years, even as the ageing process began to catch up with him, he led trips in the USA and did some instructing work for Outward Bound in Southern Africa.

Retiring to the Lake District he lived first outside Keswick then in a small cottage in Threlkeld, for his was a complex personal life, married with two sons, Gareth and Trevor (both climbers) he had a partner, an accomplished musician, a professional harpist Jean with whom he shared his later years. In 2000 he published an unusual autobiography, ‘Travail So Gladly Spent’ which is more a book of thoughtful essays than a life history, but I recommend anyone who has not done so to read it, for Tom’s character as a gentle and amusing man shines throughout its pages. I write the word gentle with some care, for I did see him once roused in temper. When Tom became the BMC President we were faced with a vastly changing scene over a flood of potential new members, many starting out to climb at the large number of climbing walls then appearing throughout the country. 

The BMC had always been in truth before that an affiliation of climbing clubs, but most of these new tyros were unconnected. As they moved outside and started to travel abroad to climb, there was a demand to access BMC services, particularly insurance. We decided to introduce a new membership category to help them to do this, but some of the elderly patrician leaders of the major climbing clubs opposed this. We had a rather fractious meeting with some of them at an AGM, but Tom roused to fiery speech took no heed and eventually won them over; however it was agreed that such individuals would not become voting members, this was changed during the late Mark Vallance’s Presidency, some decades later.
Besides his book of essays during his last decades Tom was painting his beloved Lakeland hills. One of my proudest possessions is one of these, a panorama view of Scafell which I have hung on my living room wall. He also thoroughly recorded his life for the British Library Archive in oral form entitled ‘I’m a stranger here myself’. The last time I was with him in Threlkeld he was 93 years old and as I said goodbye, he was just leaving to traverse the Cat Bells ridge. He died in July 2013 at 94 years of age. Posthumously some of his paintings and artefacts from his long life were exhibited, entitled ‘Inspiring Adventure’ at the Keswick Museum and Art Gallery, late in 2015 into 2016. I will finish by a quote from Tom who when invited to explain his fascination with his time spent in Antarctic exploration; he declared it was.... ‘in pursuit of life’s simple satisfactions and the succour to be found in the wilderness and mountains’. 

Dennis Gray: 2018