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