Friday, 24 May 2019


Freedom is not a battle you fight for only once and win. It goes on forever......forever!’ Benny Rothman, Leader of the 1932 Kinder Trespass.

Without access, climbing and hill walking cannot take place, and the access we do enjoy today was hard fought for in a campaign that lasted over a hundred and fifty years. Much has been written and discussed about the 1932 Kinder Scout Trespass, and one of my valued possessions, presented to myself by him, is a copy of its leaders view of the event published in an expanded A4 paper back format in 1982. I became friends with its author in the 1980’s who became energised in that decade, to campaign for continued access to Water Authority land at the privatisation of those bodies.

Benny was by that date a genial and persuasive character, barely 5ft tall, a pocket Hercules, but one can imagine that in 1932 he was a firebrand, and an investigation into the social conditions then pertaining among the working class would make any one understand why. There was mass unemployment, and such as there was often smacked of exploitation and degradation and the living conditions were mostly set within poor housing and poverty.
So much of the British story is one of immigration, and Benny Rothman’s was a part of that, for his parents were from Romania. Hundreds of Jews left that country around the turn of the 19th century, and Manchester is where his father Isaac fetched up, to become a market trader running hardware stalls at Glossop and Shaw markets, but residing in the then predominately Jewish district of Cheetham Hill. A high grade student Benny won a scholarship to Manchester Central High School, but tragedy struck when his father died suddenly forcing him to leave at 14 years old to earn a living to help support his bereaved family.

He found work as an apprentice in the motor trade at a garage in Deansgate and one of his older workmates, a Scot Bill Donne invited him to attend the Sunday economic debates in the Clarion cafe in Market Street. The Clarion movement originated in Manchester in 1891, fired up by a radical newspaper, leading on to the forming of cycling clubs, rambling groups, choirs, handicrafts etc. And it had more to do with the Trespass movement to win access to ‘mountain, moor, heath, down and common land’ than has so far been recorded, for a trespass in 1927 which was held in Derbyshire’s Winnats Pass was organised by the Sheffield branch of the Clarion Ramblers. Benny whilst an apprentice studied evening classes at the Manchester YMCA; but by 1927 he had joined the young Communist League, and a part of their activities were camping and rambling. Then 16 years old, he built his own bike from spares, and cycled to North Wales and climbed Snowdon, and from then on he was a keen outdoorsman, eventually to become a leader/organiser for the TBWSF.

The British Worker’s Sports Federation (TBWSF) was set up by the National Clarion cycling club in 1923, and originally it was closely aligned with Labour, but over the next years it became disenchanted with the slow progress in an improvement to access, and so by 1932 it had become a wing of the Communist Party of Great Britain. Parliamentary ‘Access to Mountains Bills’ had perennially failed, in 1884, in 1908 and in 1926, defeated by the landowning lobby, so one can understand the frustration this must have engendered amongst the Rambling/Climbing fraternity.

Labour then set up a competing organisation, for many in the access movement retained their links with that party, and the Manchester Ramblers Federation, made up of over a hundred affiliates refused to support a Kinder Trespass, for it was to be held under the auspices of the TBWSF, made up of a much younger membership, and less experienced in dealing with the authorities. To be fair to those that opposed this (Ramblers and Climbers) in 1929 Ramsay MacDonald had set up a National Parks enquiry, and the resultant Addison report in 1931 had recommended setting up a National Parks Authority to select the most appropriate areas to be so designated; however the Northern Moors were to be strictly preserved for grouse shooting! The worry of the older established outdoor organisations about a Kinder Trespass was that it would set public opinion against open access to the Countryside and the formation of National Parks. But the depression and a change of government meant in any case such initiatives were put on hold.
So how did the idea of a Kinder Trespass germinate? At Easter 1932 the TBWSF organised a camp at Rowarth, and from there a party set out to tramp over Bleaklow, to be met near Yellowslacks by a party of aggressive gamekeepers who turned the group around and back down from whence they had started their climb. This rankled, and the participants in the Bleaklow event, realised if there had been many more in their party they could by sheer weight of numbers overcome the keeper’s demands. 
Kinder Scout was selected by the members of the TBWSF for a trespass because of its history and standing, it was the most forbidden of the Peak District mountains, a part of the ‘Enclosures’ acts from the 16th and 19th century, which had parcelled out public lands to private landowners, and it had become one of the most exclusive landscapes in Britain, preserved mainly for grouse shooting. The would be trespassers then began to publicise their event particularly in the Manchester newspapers, in the Daily Worker and the cafes and pubs around Hayfield; mostly the work of Benny and a 17 year old named Jimmie Miller from Salford, who later morphed into the legendary song writer Ewan MacColl. 

Sunday 24th April 1932 dawned clear and bright and by mid-day Hayfield was abuzz with Ramblers, hundreds of whom had turned up to take part in this act of defiance, The Kinder Trespass. As they were being cosseted by a heavy Police presence and to get things moving, post a quick meeting of the TBWSF personnel present, word went around, to start moving. Out from Hayfield first onto the narrow Kinder Road, leading via White Brow and Nab Brow passing by the Kinder reservoir into William Clough and eventually onto the plateau: but on the Kinder Road was a convenient abandoned Quarry and the march was halted there, and though originally it had been planned for someone else from the TBWSF to address the crowd of trespassers that had swelled to more than 400 participants, the person to do this had put in a no show, and so Benny, a 20 year old was called upon to speak to this audience. Standing on a natural rock platform set out from the Quarry sidings, he began his address with a plea for a peaceful demonstration, and then went on to outline the history of the access movement as he then understood it. Finally a system of whistled signals was agreed, and Benny’s close friend, Woolfie Winnick led the marchers off again. 
One report  said that there were about 400 Trespassers, but that was the number scrambling up William Clough, once on the plateau they met up with other groups, mainly from Sheffield who had ascended from Edale. Before this happened as the mass of Ramblers turned right, in William Clough spreading out widely before gaining the Kinder Plateau they met up with a line of about 30 keepers armed with sticks. And though the majority of ascending bodies moved on and gained their objective, a small group did have a physical confrontation with some of the keepers. One who lashed out with his stick, picked the wrong guy who was a well known amateur boxer who gave him a thump on the chin to make him think again, and a temporary keeper, Edward Beever who had been threatening was pushed over and sprained an ankle. He was not badly injured and actually walked back down unaided to Hayfield, but much was made of this in the subsequent trial. In passing it is surprising who actually took part in the 1932 Kinder Trespass, the subsequently to be famous historian A J P Taylor was there as was the composer Michael Tippett, and I have already noted the participation of Ewan MacColl. Who penned the outstanding ‘The Manchester Rambler’ song to put recall of the Trespass forever into the back story of the fight for, The Right to Roam!

Returning the way they had ascended Benny and his group found the Police waiting in numbers across the Kinder Road, and five of them were arrested. A sixth John Anderson aged 21 had already been taken into custody and he faced the most serious charge, one of grievous bodily harm for allegedly attacking the injured keeper, this was eventually changed to assault, whilst Jud Clyne 23, Harry Mendel 23, David Nussbaum 19, Tony Gillett 19, and Benny were charged with riotous assembly. 
Their subsequent trial in July 1932 before a Grand Jury at the Derby Assizes is I believe the reason why this is such a historic event, for besides it resulting in major media coverage of the case, it highlighted an ongoing movement demanding public access to the Countryside. Everything was legally unbalanced about the trial, which deserves the appellation of being truly a Kangaroo court. Apart, from a sprained ankle no harm was done, but with the biased membership of the jury consisting of two brigadier generals, three colonels, two majors, three captains and two aldermen even those in the outdoor world who had opposed the Trespass became critical. And they were to be even more so when the sentences were handed down, of six months for John Anderson, four months for Benny, two months each for Tony Gillett and Jud Clyne, three months for David Nussbaum-one month of which was extra for selling the Daily Worker! Fortunately Harry Mendel was discharged due to a lack of sufficient evidence to justify a conviction. The Manchester Ramblers Federation approached the Home Secretary, requesting clemency, but became rebuffed by him and in any case by that date the prisoners were well into their months of incarceration in Leicester jail. 

Whilst this was happening, on the 26th June 1932 there was a massive turn out of approximately 10,000 people at a Winnats Pass demonstration demanding ‘Free Access to Mountains’, which was addressed by Dr C E M Joad one of the best known broadcasters and commentators of the period, and in August a protest rally was held at Jacob’s Ladder on Kinder Scout at which recently released, Jud Clyne and other trespass supporters spoke out demanding ‘The Right to Roam’. In September a trespass North West of Sheffield at Abbey Brook was of a different scale, however in October 16th an attempted one at Stanage Edge of Ramblers and Climbers was stopped incredibly in its tracks by mounted police and foot patrols with Alsatian dogs. But a flame had been lit, and there was once again a large turnout in 1933 at a Winnats Pass gathering, addressed by several leading politicians including Arthur Henderson, and in the south of England, a thousand strong demonstration demanding access was held at Leith Hill in Surrey, and later similar rallies took place in Wales and Scotland.
In 1931 The National Council of Ramblers had been formed, and the 1932 trespass seemed to concentrate their minds. Tom Stephenson a major figure in that body, who originally was not a supporter of the Kinder Trespass, admitted that ‘it had been the cockpit of the battle for The Right to Roam’. Praise indeed, for the journalist Tom Criddle Stephenson (1893-1987) held a unique position as a leading champion of walkers’ rights in the Countryside, and like Benny he was from a working class background, a true non-conformist, a pacifist who had been imprisoned in the First-World War as a conscientious objector.

He was however a man of vision who would subsequently inspire the creation of the Pennine Way, and supported the setting up of The Ramblers’ Association on the 1st January 1935. A body which now has over 100,000 members throughout the UK and is today simply called The Ramblers, whose credo is that rambling in the Countryside is a right, and that it benefits the whole of British society. When I was at the BMC we often found The Ramblers were ahead of the game when it came to access and conservation legalities, and they have always campaigned for full rights of responsible access to all of this countries open spaces. Stephenson was a tireless worker for these policies, a lead supporter of the need for National Parks in order to conserve the most significant environmental areas of our Country, and as a means to improve and guarantee access. He became the Secretary of The Ramblers’ in 1948.
The demand for the setting up of National Parks was gathering pace throughout the late 1930’s. In 1936 the first meeting of a body set up to investigate further the needs for such, ‘The Standing Committee on National Parks’ held an inaugural gathering, and in 1938 this resulted in a widely circulated and promoted paper by its secretary John Dower ‘The case for National Parks’ which tipped the balance in favour of such, and in 1939 an ‘Access to Mountains’ bill was finally passed by parliament, but then the war intervened.
In 1945 the newly elected Labour government, under Prime Minister Clement Atlee set up a new committee, ‘A National Parks review’ chaired by a big hitter, Sir Arthur Hobhouse; it reported in 1947 and recommended that 12 National Parks be set up as soon as legally and financially possible. I had by then started to climb and I can remember how in such rambling and outdoor groups that one might meet at Ilkley, there was huge excitement about these proposals. But Yorkshire being Yorkshire a mass demonstration was organised at the Cow and Calf demanding that the Yorkshire Dales be one of the first such Parks to be set up, it was to be 1954 before this happened.

In 1949 post long and difficult negotiations in Parliament, the ‘National Parks and access to the Countryside Act’ was finally passed into law. Guided there by Lewis Silkin, the Minister for ‘Town and Country Planning’, he declared that ‘it was the people’s charter for the open air’. In 1951 the first National Park was set up in the Peak District. I think this was no accident for invoking Tom Stephenson’s views of the Kinder Mass Trespass, but expanding these to cover the whole of the Peak, it had been the cockpit of the battle for a right of access. There are now 15 National Parks throughout the UK; The Lake District, Snowdonia and Dartmoor were also set up in 1951, inviting one to wonder if we will ever experience again another such reforming government as Atlee’s?
I believe the 1949 Access bill was the most important in my lifetime, it did not magically open up all the prime climbing and walking sites, but it set in motion the belief that access was a right, generally supported by government on behalf of the whole population.

Slowly the barriers came down, and concentrating on the Peak, in 1955 the first access agreement for Kinder Scout was signed, and in 1962 also a Stanage Edge agreement. The Friends of the Peak District through a major fund raising effort purchased the Longshaw Estate and handed it over to the National Trust, and in 1980 the Peak Park purchased the Roaches estate etc. Maybe I have concentrated this access history too much on the bodies I know of and have worked with in the past, but many other individuals and organisations put their shoulders to the wheel to achieve the position we enjoy today, including the Open Spaces Society and groups such as SCAM, the Sheffield campaign for access to moorland, and the Woodcraft folk who were involved in supporting the Winnats Pass demonstrations. The Council for the Preservation of Rural England contributed to a voluntary warden system whenever it was felt needed to buttress access and many other persons were also involved.

Young Benny Rothman
In 1982 the National Trust acquired Kinder Scout, and Benny Rothman was recruited as a voluntary advisor on recreational activities, and in 1990 The Rights of Way Act was established by a private members bill. In 2000 the Countryside and Rights of Way Act (Crow) and in 2003 the Scottish Land Reform Act, were both intended to improve access for the general public. Under the Crow act all rights of way, footpaths and open access in England and Wales must be recorded by 1st January 2026, and the rights confirmed in the Scottish Act are even greater than Crow due in part to the work of the late Alan Blackshaw. The final piece in this complicated process is a Marine and Coastal Access Act 2009, concerned with access to such as coastal paths, beaches and sea cliffs.

That is the story so far, on paper a successful outcome, but noting Benny Rothman’s advice about how difficult it is to preserve such freedoms, it is germane to advise those now charged with preserving/improving such to be ever vigilant on the climbing/rambling fraternity’s behalf. But what happened to Benny post the Kinder Trespass? His was a life written large in radical action, battling against the British Union of Fascists in the 1930’s, a Trade Unionist, a shop steward for the Amalgamated Engineers Union working on aircraft production during the war, which was to override his wish to join up into the services, and later to advise and participate in many local and national organisations serving the wider community. In 1991 he presented a programme for Channel 4 about the history of the power held in the British Landscape, who owned what and who had access to it, a subject still of great interest as I write, for in recent news is a finding that despite the attempts (failed?) to create a more equal society, more than 50% of the land in this country is held by just 1% of the population. Owning large tracts of land often leads on to great wealth, and many of the access agreements we enjoy today have come about by either considerable payments to landowners for agreeing to these, or by generous tax benefits.
Mass Trespass:  The Story of the rise of the Access Movement from WellRed Films
In 1996 Benny was made a Hon Life Member of The Ramblers, and when he died in 2002 a blue plaque commemorating his life was placed at his former home in Timperley. In April 2007 The Ramblers celebrated the 75th anniversary of the Kinder Trespass and the imprisonment of five of those who participated; literally many hundreds attended this gathering, which was televised. Previously on the 50th Anniversary in April 1982 a commemorative plaque was placed in the Quarry on the Kinder Road, which has now become a place of pilgrimage to those who realise the real meaning of the Trespass, which was a truly significant event in the movement demanding public access to the Countryside. 

Dennis Gray: 2019

Friday, 10 May 2019

Lost in Time: Napes Needle Mystery Solved.

Who are the two mysterious figures at the base of Napes Needle?
On Monday 31st March, the first female ascent of Napes Needle was undertaken by Miss Dorothea Julia Koecher (aged 26), who was climbing with her two brothers – Otto Julius Koecher and John Edgar Koecher, all from Rusholme, Lancashire. The climb was captured on camera showing her standing on the summit which was later used in the 1914 FRCCJ, in an article Haskett Smith wrote, titled ‘The First Ascent of Napes Needle’. What is interesting about this photo, is not so much that a woman is standing on the top after the first female ascent, but the two men standing at the base of the cliff, looking as if they are posing for the photographer.

Haskett Smith makes no mention of who these two figures in his article let alone the photo of Miss Koecher, as it just relates to his 1886 solo ascent.
Over the years, no other mention was made as to who these two figures were, and so both the photograph and the unanswered question as to their identity, sank into historical darkness, that is until 2018 when their identities were finally established.
During my research into material for the biography of Rusty Westmorland, OBE, Lakelands last climbing pioneer and founding father of Keswick Moutain Rescue Team in 1946, I came across an old sepia photograph of someone posing half-way up Napes Needle. On the reverse of the photo was the date 1890 and the name Thomas Westmorland with a ? beside it (this being Rusty’s father, also an early Lakeland climbing pioneer).

After extensive research, it was obvious that the climber was not of Thomas Westmorland, who was in 1890, overweight, clean-shaven and unable to climb due to a debilitating illness. At that point, I put the image aside and finished Rusty’s biography, although earlier, I had decided that when finished, I would start on the biography of Haskett Smith, as he appeared in Rusty’s story several times at pivitol moments in Haskett Smith’s life.

When compiling material for Chapter Five – Beyond the Needle (1887 - 1899) – I was looking through pages of Edmund Haskett Smith’s diary (which he kept every day since the age of ten), and read that at Easter of 1890, the Haskett Smith brothers (Walter and his younger brother Edmund), travelled to Wasdale as they did most Easter’s and Summers from 1882 to 1911. I was intrigued further when I came across information which stated that the Haskett Smith brothers knew the Koecher family well and were present when she made her ascent.

So, putting two and two together and getting the proverbial four, on further close examination of the two photos, it was apparent that the two mysterious figures standing at the base of the Needle on Miss Koecher’s first ascent is none other than the Haskett Smith brothers (Edmund on the left and his brother on the right), and on comparing the clothes of the individual wearing a hat in Miss Koecher’s photo with that of the individual posing half-way up Napes Needle, it is clearly one and the same person, even down to the moustache – i.e. Haskett Smith.
Haskett Smith posing on the Needle. Limited Edition prints available from the author. Details below.

Then to substantiate my findings, a few weeks Iater, I came across a scribbled note in Edmund’s diary, stating that he and his brother (Walter), had climbed Napes Needle in 1890 before Walter was to go to the Alps with Cecil Slingsby and Geoffrey Hastings a few months later in August.
So there we have it, mystery figures identified; another interesting fact about Haskett Smith and the Napes Needle; and another gap in Lakeland climbing history filled.
Note: The 1890 Haskett Smith photo posing on Napes Needle has been made into a limited (numbered) print run of 50 (mounted – 35cm x 46cm) and can be obtained from the author: for £36 [includes postage]. 

Frank Grant: 2019 


Friday, 26 April 2019

Michael Gill's 'Edmund Hillary: A Biography'...Reviewed

Edmund Hillary A Biography, by Michael Gill, is the story of the man who took a photograph that electrified the world: his companion, Tenzing Norgay, ice axe and flags held aloft, on the summit of Everest. Unheard of for the first third of his life, Hillary was thrust from obscurity in distant New Zealand to front page news on the day of the Coronation. His name transcended the narrow world of climbing and mountaineering, and, like Yuri Gagarin eight years later, everyone knew who he was.

In the pantheon of action heroes for boys growing up in the 1950s, none ranked higher than Hillary, seemingly the embodiment of the expression 'larger than life.' And what a life his was. Over its span the author describes a string of remarkable metamorphoses: from unsure boy, the smallest in his class, to physically assertive young man, and force to be reckoned with on the rugby field; from conscientious objector, to wartime service with the Royal New Zealand Air Force; from abandoned university career, to honorary doctorates; from loose cannon on the Commonwealth Trans-Antarctic Expedition, to New Zealand's High Commissioner in Delhi, and Garter Knight.

But what lay behind the received narrative of the self-effacing bee farmer from Auckland, and how did he wear the mantle of New Zealand's favourite son for over 50 years? Having known his subject personally, the author is well qualified to tell us. His primary sources include the Hillary archive in the Auckland museum, personal contact with many of the Everest team, and access to private letters. In an outstanding book of over 500 pages there is scope for width and depth, both of which he develops to advantage, writing with an engaging style, light on jargon for the general reader.

Ed and Harry Ayres on the summit of Aoraki-Mt Cook, 1947. © Hillary Museum Collection 
Gill lays out Hillary's ancestral line from 19th Century New Zealand to his birth soon after the end of the First World War. The subject is neatly placed in his time, as when describing his own young country as 'makeshift', and, on a 1950 visit to London, himself as 'British first and a New Zealander second'. A brief aside tells us of the young man's awareness of bygone attitudes to the indigenous Antipodean people, still an uncomfortable subject today.

From the front cover Hillary's face, bearded and unsmiling, looks hard into the camera lens. We read of the restless son of an austere father, finding his metier in the snows of the Southern Alps; later going on his first expedition, to the Garwhal Himalaya, in 1951. On Mukut Parbat he experiences the rigours of climbing a big mountain, dropping nine kilos in body weight, and learning a hard lesson... 'that the race is not just to the strong, but to those who have the courage and tenacity to see it through to the end.'

Gill is particularly good on Hillary's interactions with family members, friends, and contemporaries: the relationship with his father; his ever dependable brother Rex; his long friendship with George Lowe; his respect for John Hunt and mentor Harry Ayres, and many more. Neither is Gill's objectivity compromised by friendship with his subject: whilst Hillary was generous in praise of his climbing companions in published writings, diary extracts show that in private he could be sharply critical, even of his closest friends. His winning affability served him well, but was not always enough. On the Garwhal trip, Gill contrasts the waggish humour of Hillary and Lowe with the more cerebral Earle Riddiford, who...'with his cool intellect just wasn't Ed's sort of person.' We learn that Hillary could be sensitive to criticism, and, in Gill's words, 'preferred his own version of his life,' admonishing an unauthorised biographer with “I write my own books!” Public appearances brought contact with the political class, for whom he showed scant regard; there were clashes with two Prime Ministers, Keith Holyoake and Robert Muldoon. This spikier side shows in the account of the 1958 Commonwealth Trans-Antarctic Expedition, when, disregarding team orders, he made a 500 mile dash for the Pole, upstaging the British party approaching from the Weddell Sea. It went down badly in the British press, and his own Antarctic Committee in New Zealand disapproved. 

Ed with companion (probably Jack McBurney) and two unknown young women outside a corrugated iron hut. © Hillary Museum Collection 

Inevitably, the narrative leads to Everest. Gill addresses the question of why success was so long in coming, when a 19th Century French scientist had shown in the laboratory that breathing supplementary oxygen could overcome the debilitating effects of altitude. In chapters examining the early attempts on the mountain, the author's skill in portraying the individuals and institutions at work shows far reaching consequences flowing from random interactions and prejudices: in London, the Everest Committee; on the mountain, the solid Lieutenant-Colonel Howard-Bury, leader in 1921; the pithy General Bruce, of 1922 and 24; George Mallory, outstanding climber though 'technically illiterate when it came to equipment such as cameras and oxygen apparatus'; and Australian George Finch, Mallory's equal as a climber, possessing the technical skills he lacked, but whose independent views offended the establishment. 

Following the tragic end of the 1924 attempt, the 1930s expeditions fared no better. Still the view held that given the right conditions, an ascent without oxygen was achievable. After the hiatus of the Second World War, geopolitics intervened. With the opening of access from Nepal, success in 1953 became imperative after the Swiss got close in 1952, and the French were booked for 1954; 'merde!' the author observes, further comment clearly unnecessary. The 1951 Everest reconnaissance, led by Shipton, showed Hillary's credentials. In London, a more single minded leader was appointed for the next attempt, and now was the time for oxygen to be fully embraced. Digressing occasionally, Gill imagines a parallel universe where events diverge from the version we know: what if Finch had gone back to Everest with Mallory in 1924? What if Hillary had not been the youngest in his school class? The conclusions are invariably thought provoking and point to how history might have been written very differently.

Having climbed Everest, how does one follow that? There would be no further Himalayan trips for some years; instead, marriage, and a young family. The hitherto male dominated story is leavened by extracts from personal letters from the time of Hillary's courtship of his wife Louise, showing his reliance on her for emotional support, and later for active help with his work in Nepal. There was international travel, and authorship too; High Adventure, his account of the 1953 success was published to critical acclaim in1955. From a bizarre early 60s expedition to find the yeti came the seeds of development work among the Sherpa people. Schools, hospitals, and airstrips followed, and a close association with the Khumbu area for the rest of his life. 

Aoraki-Mt Cook. The prominent rock ridge between sun and shadow is the South Ridge which was first climbed by Ayres, Hillary, Sullivan and Adams in 1948. It leads to Low Peak. The summit ridge continues to Middle and then High Peak. © Colin Monteath/Hedgehog House 

The latter years are passed over briskly. Gill suggests that a later biographer might write more fully of this time, yet I felt an opportunity was missed. At the close of the narrative the author quotes the Everest tribute by Jan Morris, referring to '...the last earthly adventure before humanity's explorers went off into space.' In this context, it would have been entertaining to read of the 1985 meeting of Hillary and Neil Armstrong. One can imagine a conversation on memorable one-liners.

For the climber, the book will be essential reading, but there is much here too in the more general appeal of a life well spent, in making the utmost of one's talents, and in man's pursuit of goals at the limit of human endeavour. A minor criticism concerns two useful maps, one of New Zealand and one of Antarctica, among the appendices, which could have been placed to better effect in the appropriate chapters.

Mike Bailey: 2019

Edmund Hillary A Biography, by Michael Gill. Published 2019 by Vertebrate Publishing £24.00
ISBN 9781911342960 


Friday, 12 April 2019

Peter and the Icicle

The alarm rang as usual about seven and, as usual, was ignored. The debris attendant on three climbers sprawled across the floor of Blonde Nick’s caravan while the climbers lay on the bunks and struggled silently with their dreams, their bladders and whatever else came to hand. The van rocked now and then on its rusty springs as gusts of wind blustered down Glen Nevis. During the next half hour mummy like figures struggled half upright one by one and pressed their noses to the cold and misty glass. One by one they lay back down without a word and, as sleep crept back in, a first peculiar ritual of the day seemed complete.

Outside it was snowing.Not up and down snow, but side to side snow. Although each climber was silent and appeared to be asleep, their thoughts were already up and wandering dreamily around the hills outside. They wandered slowly up to the highest gullies of the Ben,down which spindrift poured, and over which cornices creaked.
Down from the ridges and buttresses where a rope of three would shuffle their feet on the ledges and freeze in the bitter wind.
Down to the C.I.C, down the soggy path to the dam, down to the Golf Club, and finally back to the sordid dripping interior of the Van. This was the strenuous reasoning that lulled the climbers back to sleep, a process often mistaken by the inexperienced eye for simple laziness.

An hour later I woke to the sharp and painful knowledge that a second ritual of the day must shortly be performed, or a sleeping bag shortly be watered. I’d had a dream, I’d looked over the mountain and seen Hendrix on stage in Coire Cas. I kicked Phil awake and started to describe the scene. He rolled his head toward me and, with the air of an old and tired confessor, asked: “What the fuck are you on about now?”

But he wasn’t the problem. I’d known him for years and we had developed a range of understanding about life and, broadly speaking, were in favour. Anyway, he’d been climbing all week, an achievement almost unique in an inglorious decade of mountaineering and was consequently knackered. The problem was Pete. He’d arrived last night fresh and keen from a conference in Aberdeen about how to die in the North Sea. It seems this is quite an easy thing to do and so, naturally, Pete spent the evening briefing us against such a possibility. Short of a partner and a doss, a few beers later he had both, and we had the usual highly defined plan. Tomorrow we would have a look at ‘something’ and it would be ‘short’. Now, even though confronted by the white hostility of the day, he was up, obviously driven by a stronger will, or weaker bladder than mine. He made a brew and we sat the three of us with glazed eyes and hands round steaming mugs, like refugees waiting for negotiations to begin.

It was from such unpromising beginnings that the fragile possibilities of the day grew slowly into an Icicle that flows from the undercut base of Number Five gully on Aonach Dubh. A rare and elusive pitch this one, creeping down slowly through the empty air on cold nights, a tantalising possibility seldom strong enough to bear the schemes of those who stood beneath it. But this was the year of the Icicle when everyone’s local crag became an icecrop, guide books were left where they fell, and trails beaten to the most unlikely places.

So, our Icicle had come of age…’ Thirty feet…no more…good landing’ according to the authorative Englishman in the bar last night. Weeks ago, in another bar in Keswick, Davie MacDonald had wizened up his face and quoted us twice that height. But then who would buy a second-hand icicle from a man who was playing pool with one ball? Second hand because Cubby had climbed it but not before showing in passing that the ground below was indeed good to land on.

So that was it, just what we needed, short walk, one pitch climb and
‘…you can always come down if you don’t like it…can’t you?’

A few veils of snow drifted up and down the Coe and the Icicle was revealed, now and then, as a very small icy incident on a very large crag. A sabre-toothed gully with the empty mouth of the rock open and dark behind. It seemed to shrink to our kind of size as we slunk up the slope beneath, only to sprout up fast when we stood with our necks bent back at the dripping bottom. A clear forty feet of it hung completely free, it’s tip tickling the slope below, with a further fifteen or twenty so feet of vertical clinging to the rock until it eased back into the gully above.

It was Pete’s pitch. He’d been here before and this time was psyched up to push things to a conclusion. Phil and I slouched about smug in the knowledge that today at least there would come no moment high and lonely on the Ice with all the choices gone. From this comfortable position we generously offered Pete our various assessments of the problem.

He racks up his gear in a suspiciously systematic way for someone who claims this is his third Scottish ice route. Nobody’s fooled though
because he’s swopped us a Devils Appendix for a Curtain and the Karakoram for a Carnmore. Mysteriously events have now developed their own momentum and the cold shower of meltwater in which we stand evokes no more comment than Pete’s throwaway line about his jacket being not much good below twenty thousand feet.

He climbs up and down the first dubious ten feet or so to satisfy himself that the ice is ok and, since it seems to be, he ties on the ropes and makes a start. The first few fragile moments pass to the sound of tinkling ice and withheld breaths, until Pete develops a rhythm, switches off the relevant part of his brain and clunks slowly up into the sky. The placements are good once the surface crud is cleared away and at about thirty feet he takes a rest, arms dangling, hanging from his hooked in Terrors and apologises for the delay.

I begin to realise that he won’t be climbing down now and fumble superstitiously in my sac for a helmet as odd lumps of ice begin to sneakily appear at speed from high up the gully. Phil scurries about from side to side, framing it, composing it, wide angling and zooming it, calling for smiles and bows. Pete, with some feeling back in his arms, sets off again, almost out of my sight now, round bulges of dripping ice. He’s completed the detached section of the Icicle and moves left to a small grotto in search of some protection more solid than the screws that slid too easily into the ice below. After much mumbling and hammering he gives up the search and moves back onto the ice leaving behind a tied off peg, unconsoled by our encouraging shouts of ‘Only fifteen feet to go!’

I realise now that soon I’ll be hanging up there and so begin to scheme the easiest way from A to B. I’ll find all his placements and just hook up it, no scrabbling about with manky ice for me. I’ll leave all the screws for Phil to struggle with by persuading him he’ll need them for rests being so knackered from his big week. I’ll just scamper up with the minimum of brain damage and then I’ll be able to say how easy…BANG!’…..Shit!’ … I dive into the cave …briefly glimpse a pillar of ice in the sky settling for a moment on its fang into the slope like a factory chimney might just before it tilts out and thunders down. Three successive violent blows to my helmeted head follow as the screws attached to lumps of ice rattle down the ropes amid a dense cloud of ice dust.

All you have to do is close your eyes and then when you open them again its gone. Two ropes hanging and spinning round a roof of ice and rock fifty feet up and fifteen feet out. Pete clings to his Terrors
just above the dotted line. Phil gazes through his lens at the pitch
now noisily receding down the hill. A few feet to my left there is a crater about four feet deep littered with ice blocks as if a mortar bomb had landed. ‘Incoming or outgoing?’ I wonder, before deciding it must have been a bit of both.

The fracture had sprung from the tip of Pete’s right axe, run down beside him, curved under his feet and then broke away. Although he’d felt the screws pull he seemed to have some trouble believing that the whole pitch was gone. When he got his mind round this he also realised that going on was definitely too freaky as we could now see all too clearly how much water was draining behind the ice. Pete crept back to his peg slotting the Terrors tenderly into the placements he’d made so confidently a few minutes before. Phil and I felt helpless and silently began to heave the biggest blocks of ice from the landing strip.

Three boys from Devon piled around the corner to help dig our bodies out having heard the Bang and seen the bad news churning down the slopes. Upstairs Pete slowly made his calculations and rigged two ice screws to back up the tied off peg then gently, very gently, floated down through the air to the snow below. We swopped amazements, reliefs and useless wisdoms as passers by did double takes and stopped on the path below.

We slowly packed our sacs with much looking and wondering and shaking of heads. The weight of it…the mechanics…’If I’d ever for a moment, even a moment, thought there was the remotest possibility’….
We could now see exactly how the whole tonnage of the thing was hung from a sheet of ice eight inches thick and eight feet across.
So, treat it gently if you should ever, because there’s a trigger there, a lever, a hidden spring. We came back down as the sun came out and clambered over the blue ice blocks beneath a rainbow.Ducks on the loch stuck their bums into the air and we sat by the river and laughed.
Up there something was missing.Tomorrow was All Fools’ day.


Footnote from Phil Swainson.

The “three boys from Devon” who piled around the corner to dig out our bodies were not. They were three Scottish guys, two of whom, John Mackenzie and Duncan Macallum became friends, and sometime climbing partners. Shortly after this wee epic, I left Newcastle to live in Sheffield, where our new pal Pete Thexton became a firm friend. His skill, tenacity and formidable motivation secured him a place on a winter attempt on Everest, and other trips. He died too young in 1983 on the descent from the summit plateau of Broad Peak. And now, forty years on, John Given and I are still hauling our beer bellies up steep(ish) rock, provided there are enough bolts. The combined age of the this pair is 141.

First published in Mountain 71, this attempt at the second ascent of Eliot’s Downfall took place 40 years ago. We walked away without a scratch. Article by John Given, pictures Phil Swainson.

Friday, 29 March 2019

Tony Howard's Quest into the Unknown...Review

Di on the first pitch of The Beauty, Jebel um Ejil, Wadi Rum, late 1980s. © Tony Howard

There’s a race of men that don’t fit in, a race that can’t stay still’ Robert Service

This book is a life affirming read, confirming the joy of life. Few other climbers have led such an existence or known or had experience of so many lands, peoples and cultures. Howard’s story is of one that happens to climbers as horizons expand, at first it is the meeting of challenges on rock and mountain faces that is the raison d’etre of their being, but travel begins to widen their mindset and becomes ever more appealing.

The author’s life is laid bare in 68 short chapters; and the sheer breadth of place and event these reveal is impressive. His story begins in Greenfield, on the edge of the Pennine moors in the West Riding of Yorkshire. He was born there in 1940, at a crucial date in the history of this country for in the May of that year, the Dunkirk evacuation was under away. It was also in 1940 that rationing of food and petrol began, and continued for some years after the end of hostilities. It is interesting to speculate how these constraints affected all of us who lived them, for many British climbers active in the late 1940’s and 1950’s once it became possible, travelled ever more widely to pursue their mountaineering ambitions, but I am getting ahead of myself, although Tony Howard is an exemplar of such a theory.

Greenfield is probably a good place for a future climber to grow up, for it is ringed around with crags, Wimberry, Ravenstones, Dovestones etc set in the Chew Valley, and over the moors is to be found Laddow and Shining Clough. Initially it was the immediate Pennine countryside that became the author’s childhood playground, but then longer excursions and inevitably seeing climbers in action on his local outcrops, intrigued him and friends to have a go. There was a group of climbers some of whom lived in the area, The Chew Valley Cragsmen, which morphed into the Manchester Gritstone Club, and the author became friends with Roy Brown one of their number who lived in a converted chicken hut near to the Wimberry rocks. 

Di on the committing sixty-metre abseil into the Hidan Gorge. Once the ropes were pulled, there was no way back. Jordan, 1998. © Tony Howard

By then a schoolboy at Hulme Grammar School in Oldham he was influenced by Roy’s enthusiasms, and began to travel to Wales, the Lakes and Scotland. Quickly moving up the grades, and including meeting some of those he would in later years enjoy exploratory trips with to Jordan and the fabled Wadi Rum area. I guess the author was lucky to have started to climb when he did, for the area he lived in was rife for development and by 1958 he and his friends had pioneered almost 200 new routes in that district. Leaving school that year with three A levels, he was determined to follow an adventurous life, school was over and he was going climbing! With his group of local climbers they formed their own Club, the Rimmon and this like other such small groups of that era were to have a major influence on the forward progress of British climbing and exploration.
But life is a succession of accidents, and via a family connection he obtained a job on a Norwegian whaling ship the ‘Southern Venturer’. In 1958 environmental concerns were not what they are now, the International Whaling Commission decided on how many and what type of whale might be caught, and as the author points out he was ignorant then of the human impact on such species. In 1975 when Greenpeace began a campaign against whaling the author was one of the first to join up for he had seen the slaughter. However this Antarctic journey had a real impact on his thinking, and it must have been educative for someone so young. He had volunteered to act as assistant to the Doctor and this meant a real emergency when a crew member fell from the Crow’s nest resulting in severe internal injuries, which needed a nine hour life saving operation, during which the author was the one acting as the nurse, handing into the hands of the operator the instruments he needed to cut, stitch and stop the internal bleeding.

Returning via South Georgia once back in Greenfield he picked up where he had left his climbing days, travelling at first on an ancient Royal Enfield motor bike (which he crashed) hitching to Llanberis, off to the Lakes, and winter climbing in Scotland. In 1962 the Rimmon organised its first expedition to Arctic Norway, five took part in this journey which included pioneering some new routes in Lofoten, inspired by Per Prag’s guidebook to the Island. The author and another Rimmon member Jonah ran out of money and from then on to get back home meant working on the way in a cafe and a hotel, jumping ferries and hitch hiking. This was a life style that was typical of the 1950’s/1960’s climbing scene, peopled by some truly memorable characters like Barry Kershaw. Who along with Don Whillans was the most talked about figure then around, and well framed in the author’s anecdotes, but who tragically succumbed to cancer whilst still a legend for hard climbing, and bar fighting! 
Once home again the author had to earn a living, and for this he began to work towards qualifying as a guide. He started his instructing career at Plas y Brenin, then moved on to a post working for the Mountaineering Association based at their hut, above Llanberis. Working alongside Eric ‘Spider’ Penman, Rusty Baillie and his old Chew Valley friend Roy Brown, he instructed beginners in the Pass, at Tremadog and in Ogwen, later he worked at the Outward Bound Schools in Ashburton, and Tywyn. A useful skill he learnt there was canoeing, making what he and his fellow instructors believed was the first crossing of Cardigan Bay and in 1965 he passed the then guides test. 
Back in the Chew Valley there occurred in the big winter of 1962/3 an unprecedented event in the modern era, a huge avalanche. Unfortunately four climbers who had been out on a nearby hill climbing up the Wilderness Gully were caught in this. The two in the lead Graham West and Michael Roberts were buried deeply, and the two below not so. They managed to extricate themselves and go for help. Arriving back from Wales the author set out immediately, and helped to dig, but by the time West and Roberts were found the next day it was too late. Like the author: I knew both of them, and they were climbers who had made their names known by their pioneering, particularly on Peak limestone to which West had written a guidebook.

With the above foregoing the author was now set on a life of adventure, in 1963 a trip to the Dolomites, and then a mind expanding journey in Morocco the following year, ascending Toubkal in winter conditions then heading to Tafraout in the Anti Atlas. My memory had failed me on this, for the author points out that this was the first visit by any British climbers to this, what has become one of the most popular rock climbing venues. I thought I was the first in 1987, returning the following spring with John Beatty and Ron Fawcett but I stand corrected. But of the climbing he had done up to 1965 it was dwarfed by the authors and other fellow Rimmon club member’s successful ascent of the Troll Wall in Romsdal, Norway. This the largest wall in Europe was thought to be unclimbable, and the fact that this ascent was achieved in good style by a team of mainly unknown British climbers really figured in Scandinavian and European climbing circles. Joe Brown noted having climbed in Romsdal himself that this was ‘one of the greatest ever achievements by British rock climbers’.

This ascent led on to the author more or less living in Romsdal for quite some time, he wrote a Cicerone guide to ‘Walks and Climbs in Romsdal’ and continued to make first ascents there, but then life overtook him, for he fell in love, married a Norwegian girl Mille in 1969 and later became the father of a daughter Tannith .Meanwhile a spin off from the Troll climb was that the webbing belts and other equipment they had designed for the climb became much in demand. With Alan Waterhouse, Paul Seddon, and the author the Troll Company was formed and in 1970, after prompting from Don Whillans who suggested the original design, a sit harness was developed, the first of what is now an essential piece of equipment used worldwide by rock climbers and access workers. The Troll Company became legend, and any time we had an event at the BMC I would call them, and they would donate a barrel of beer to make the evening flow with bonhomie. I recall one outstanding ‘Mountain Literature’ evening we held with Harold Drasdo, Tony Barley and Ivan Waller as the speakers whilst their donated beer flowed!
 Exploring Zubia Cave, then pristine but much of it now damaged by tourism. North Jordan, 2007. © Tony Howard

But the author would not sit still and the call of the wild he could not resist and soon he was packing and off to the Yukon, working in extreme cold in an opencast mine and eventually moving his wife and daughter to join him. Whilst in the Yukon he took on with another novice a 1000 mile canoe journey following the gold Miner’s trail of ‘98’,from the Mackenzie Delta to Dawson City, a journey which took six weeks of hard and dangerous paddling. They stayed in Canada for a couple of years, but then returned back to Greenfield and Troll. The author’s ongoing adventurous life was set, designing and promoting Troll equipment, but off whenever possible to explore and climb in remote areas of Greenland, Iran, the Sahara including the Hoggar, Morocco once again and the Sudan.

Putting strain on his relationship with his Norwegian none climbing wife, who left him but agreed to the author having custody of their daughter. So ends the first half of this fascinating story, with enough action to justify being a standalone book, but there is more, much more to enjoy in part two, beginning with the discoveries in Jordan initially around the Wadi Rum area but then further afield in that country.

The idea to visit this unexplored region for climbing came about through the author watching at Christmas 1983 a viewing of the film ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ with some of its settings being in the Rum Mountains of Jordan. And so in September 1984 the author and companions set out to investigate the climbing potential of this area, and found in the Wadi Rum one of the best desert climbing destinations in the world. An extra bonus being its friendly Bedouin people, who for generations had climbed to the summits of some of the areas peaks whilst on their regular hunting trips; and their help and advice was crucial to the author and his friends in their ongoing successful explorations, which they have carried out now for over thirty years, including eventually developing a long distance ‘Jordan Trail’; which took its first completers 39 days to follow this challenging trek. The author published in 1987, supported financially by the Jordanian Tourism Board a Cicerone guide to ‘Treks and Climbs in the Mountains of Rum and Petra’ which encouraged climbers from many countries to visit. 

Desert travel is a unique experience and having spent time and journeys myself in parts of the Sahara, the Gobi and Taklamakan I think I understand how the author became so enamoured of such exploration. He also had a new soul mate, Di Taylor who could climb and hack it as well as the author and his friends, who eventually was to become his second wife. A criticism here about the eleven Jordan mountain chapters, a map would have been helpful to orientate the reader, for I became lost in the Rum canyons.

The success of the author’s explorations in Jordan led on to invitations to explore in Oman, Egypt, Libya, and Palestine. In the latter the development of a new trek ‘The Nativity Trail’ partly in Israel lead the author on a return visit, to become openly critical of the political situation that pertains there. But between times he was also off trekking and climbing in Thailand, India, Ethiopia, Madagascar and Mali. Having sold the Troll Company he along with Di are now free agents, and I note from a post on the Internet last night they are back in the Rum mountains. This despite the difficulties posed presently by Middle Eastern travel and the Syrian tragedy.

So this is a book to savour, and the second part with its myriad of travel stories stands comparison with the writings of such as Dervla Murphy, Bruce Chatwin and Colin Thubron. It is also an important historical document, covering the development of life and climbing in this country during the immediate post war years. The only weakness for me is a lack of character delineation, for not a few of those who appear within its pages such as Graham Desroy, Andy Perkins, and Don Whillans their personalities and histories are known to me but I have no knowledge of the lives and fates of many of the authors other companions. 
 Di and me exploring the Jordan Trail, 2015. © Tony Howard

Sadly I read near the end of the book of the death of Bill Tweedale one of the participants in the Troll Wall climb, who I have no knowledge of his character and life. But that apart this is a volume to dip into again and again, for it is an inspirational read, well illustrated by over a hundred colour photographs in three inserted sections, and of an overall quality of production that is now of the high standard set by this publisher. 

Dennis Gray: 2019 

QUEST INTO THE UNKNOWN : Tony Howard. 440 pages perfect bound paperback. Published by Vertebrate £14.95.