Friday, 4 May 2018

Loose Rock : A Memory of Pillar

Pillar Rock: W Heaton Cooper. From the Cooper Studio.....
This impressive view of Pillar Rock was painted by William in the 1930’s when he began to make drawings for the early rock climbing guidebooks, published by the Fell & Rock Climbing Club. Here he has simplified the form of the infamous crag, seen in the fading evening light, to produce a monumental painting that reveals his deep knowledge of ‘rock architecture’.

I may not be alone, among the older generation of climbers, in recalling my return to the fells in 1946, the first year of the peace, as a uniquely emotive experience; for me it was almost an act of thanksgiving for survival. In late August, 1939, as the clouds of war gathered over Europe and my recall to military duty became imminent, my wife and I, with Heaton Cooper, were walking down Easedale towards our rented cottage in Grasmere on a glorious evening of that long, hot summer. We had been climbing on Lining Crag below Greenup Edge. I recall saying to my companions: "Whatever else happens, these hills will still be here when it's all over." A few days later I sailed from Greenock in the first convoy of the war; a copy of Heaton's "The Hills of Lakeland" was in my baggage and this helped to keep hope alive during the months and years ahead of me.

True, there had been a few opportunities to climb in war-time, during the brief spells of leave and while training Commandos in mountain and snow warfare in Scotland and Wales. But I had not returned to the Lakes in all those six years. So it was with a special sense of anticipation that Joy and I came down from Scotland after a few days climbing in Glencoe, to spend Easter with Professor A.S. Pigou at Gatesgarth. His other guests were Philip Noel-Baker, at that time a Minister in Clem Atlee's administration; Harry Tilley, with whom I was shortly to climb in Skye; and Wilfrid Noyce. Wilfrid, a most improbable soldier, had turned up in my regiment at the beginning of the war before being posted to duties more attuned to his talents; I had made the most of his skill and experience during the short spell to help me train soldiers of my Brigade and later, Commando units, in North Wales.

It was during those weeks that we had played truant — or taken busmen's holidays — and climbed together. It was as though to give thanks for personal survival that, on our first day that Eastertide, I suggested we return to Lining Crag after climbing on Scafell. Joy, having the responsibility of being mother to our young family, was not climbing that year, but she came along to watch our antics and meet us when we reached the top. We spent a splendid day on Eagle Front and other climbs in Birkness Coombe on our second day, the pleasure of it by no means diminished by a dressing down from the `Prof' for being late for dinner. For our third and last — and best — day we chose Pillar, my favourite Lakeland crag, which held many good memories from pre-war years.

It was typical of Wilf that he should compose a recipe worthy of the occasion: it was Easter Monday and, for more reasons than one, we were in a mood to rejoice. He proposed three routes which, together, would make a synthesis of strenuous and delicate climbing, laced with a high awareness of exposure. The ascent of Savage Gully would provide that first ingredient: by the standards of over forty years ago it ranked a very strenuous climb. But we had not reckoned on another ingredient of Wilf's menu: loose rock. The guidebook informed me that, while being "one of the most exacting climbs on Pillar, its reputation for loose rock is quite undeserved".

We were in for a shock. Wilf, Harry and I made quick work of the first four pitches, which are shared with the North Climb, and addressed ourselves to a different order of difficulty in Twisting Gully: the guidebook says "it is divided by a fine-looking rib", and so it was. Wilf and Harry negotiated the awkward move, some forty feet up the right-hand groove in the gully and, after pulling up on the rib, had landed on the green stance in the left-hand groove. It was my turn to make the difficult manoeuvre. As I started to ease myself around the rib I became aware, to my horror, that a huge chunk of the rib, which provided the "key" hold for the swing across, was loose and beginning to move.

 I was, of course, quite petrified! But there was an even more compelling cause for concern than my own dilemma. Somewhere in the mists below us another party had started up the lower pitches of the North Climb; there was an imminent prospect of a multiple climbing disaster. To this day I am not sure how I, a moderate performer on hard rock, managed that move while leaving the monster undisturbed. Desperation forced me to take deliberate and meticulous care and some other handhold must have been there to accommodate my searching fingers. Considerably shaken, I rejoined my companions on the shelf. So much for Savage Gully's "undeserved reputation for loose rock".

The remainder of that climb was sheer joy. I, for one, was on what we nowadays call a 'high' as I swarmed up the steep, strenuous grooves, cracks and corners to reach the cairn beside The Nose of the North Climb. Far below, lying on his back the better to observe us, Philip Noel-Baker gave us a cheer and we revelled in our good fortune. It was then that Wilf unveiled the rest of our programme: down the North Climb over The Nose, then straight up North West, to trace a kind of zig-zag on the face of Pillar Rock. The descent of The Nose was the easier for myself for two ascents in the pre-war years. For the North West, Wilf changed his Kletterschuhe for tricouni-nailed boots, by way of indicating his relative assessment of the two VS routes that day What a superb finish it made! I have a vivid mental picture of Wilf, in Lamb's Chimney, poised for what seemed an eternity in time.

My diary records: "Craning my neck, I could see him clinging on toe and finger holds, apparently defying all the laws of gravity. It was a tense moment." I fancy that even Wilf, at that moment, may have been regretting his change of footwear. And Oppenheimer's Chimney! Surely one of the perfect finishes to any rock climb, anywhere in Britain. That was one of my most memorable days in the Lakes. We hastened back by the Old West Climb, intent on avoiding further disgrace at the hands of the 'Prof' who had awarded us his famous cardboard medals for our dilatory return from Birkness Coombe. Two days later, after Joy and I had returned home, we learnt of Wilf's accident on the Napes Ridges, when he was blown off the Shark's Fin in a gale. Dear Wilf! He never learned to discern that fine line which, even for one possessing his brilliant skill on a mountain, has to be drawn between safety and disaster.

Post Script. I have often wondered what happened to that unstable block in Savage Gully, which I reported in the Hut Book at (I think) Brackenclose as weighing about half a ton. Its disappearance, long since, will doubtless have restored the reputation of the climb, as described in the 1935 edition of the Fell & Rock guide-book.

*(The Archivist has been unable to find any reference in the Brackenclose log-book of the entry by Lord Hunt, or of its disappearance or being knocked off. It isn't mentioned in the next two editions of the Pillar guide after this incident. Noyce's accident on the Shark's Fin and subsequent rescue are recounted by Rusty Westmorland in his 'Adventures in Climbing' (Pelham Books, 1964'. 

* Editor of the 1990 F&RC Journal.

John Hunt 

First published in the above journal.