Friday, 19 July 2019

The French Napes Needle

Two identical needles a 1000 miles apart???

On a wet and windy day in March 1908, a day far from being conducive for climbing, Rusty Westmorland, [Lakelands’ last climbing pioneer and founding father of Keswick Mountain Rescue Team in 1946], entered the photographic shop at the top of Lake Road, in Keswick, where he met George Abraham. They liked each other instantly and became lifelong friends. A year later, in March 1909, George and his brother Ashley, invited Rusty to join the newly formed Fell and Rock Climbing Club. Soon after joining the club, George invited Rusty to accompany him and his brother Ashley, to North Wales to do some climbing. This was to be for Rusty, his first time to Snowdonia and his first ever to ride in a motor vehicle - George’s open top car which just happened to be missing its front windscreen. Both new experiences were to make a lasting impact! 
Twelve months later, George, Ashley and Rusty, took the train from Carlisle to Folkestone, boarded a ferry to Calais, then boarded a train for Paris and another to Geneva. During the train journey from Paris to Geneva, George persuaded Rusty to have a beer in the dining car. Given his temperance background, this was the first-time alcohol passed through his lips and he was to note later in his memoirs, that he enjoyed the taste although he never became a regular beer drinker, despite liking a wee-dram of whisky or two, now and then! They first went to the Engadine, a long valley in the Swiss Alps, located in the canton of Graubünden in southeast Switzerland. It follows the route of the River Inn from its headwaters at Maloja Pass running northeast until it flows into Austria, 63 miles downstream. The Engadin is protected by high mountains on all sides, many of which had never been climbed. However, after a week of foul and unsettled weather, they had two choices. First was to return home via Dover, and second, was to move south to the Dolomites. The latter choice won the day and they duly made their way to the Dolomite region of the Italian Alps, near Cortina d' Ampezzo where they found ample accommodation given that they were the only tourists there at that time. 
The following day, they set off with all the camera equipment, making their way up past the foothills across Alpine landscapes, until they came to the shores of the Dürren See, a lake amongst the Limestone monoliths with the Alps in ruins due to erosion by countless storms that rage in and around the area. Such was the vista being presented to them that George wanted to take a picture. Ashley and Rusty set about getting the tripod and camera set up, when they were unexpectedly visited by some disgruntled Austrian soldiers, who whilst not speaking the English language, made it clear, that no photography was allowed and if they did not desist immediately, they and their equipment could well end up in the lake. They complied and later when ensconced in a Pension, they set about hiring a suitable guide - Sigismundo Mendari. Rusty admired the tenacity and endurance of both the Abraham brothers as climbers, and especially George who he said of him later in life: “George had a temperament which was equable and good-natured yet he could show strength and determination.”

Whilst taking photographs as they climbed the Cima Piccola route, the hardest of the climbs on the Tre Cime di Laveredo, they noticed a thunderstorm was gathering. Their guide wanted to make a retreat off the mountain but George said in tourist German; “No Zsigmondy Kamin, no pay”. As it turned out, they went on up despite the onset of the thunderstorm and ignoring their guides feelings on the matter who doubtless thought he was working for an English lunatic and that he was going to be made to earn his fee!

Reluctantly, Mendari led the rope with Rusty following, whilst George being the ablest and most competent climber of the two brothers, led Ashley who had the task of carrying the tripod and camera and other associated equipment as he climbed, in order to leave George’s hands free to lead the climb. Once George decided on a place to take a photograph, he would belay Ashley up to him so that George could be held on a tight rope whilst he got the equipment ready and took the photograph when he was happy that all was in order.

Rusty recalls on one occasion, seeing George high on a ledge with his head under the cloth cape with only two of the three legs of his tripod touching the rock, whilst Ashley held his brother tight with the rope as George took the photo. George’s photos were not action shots, which meant that Mendari and Rusty would have to stay still in a posed position for at least 40 seconds or more until George was happy with the pose, before taking the photo.
Not all their climbs went smoothly. For example, on the Great West Face of the Conque Torri, Mendari was leading a high pitch up a loose chimney when he lost hand contact with the rock face, causing Rusty who was belaying below, some consternation as he himself was not tied into the rock face which meant if Mendari fell, so would he!

Both George and Ashley (who were climbing below Mendari and Rusty), knew something was amiss when they heard the loud plaintiff cries from above accompanied by a hail of rapidly falling stones. George described the incident: “A minute or so later there came from above a terrifying sound of falling stones due to our guide losing his head and his handholds simultaneously, but fortunately he slid and jammed in the narrow crack, whence he was yelling promiscuously the most dreadful language.”
The outcome was that George lost an inch of skin to one of his fingers when he automatically reached his hand out to shield his camera lens from the onslaught of stones whizzing past. 
The photographs from that trip were world class, and some of the first ever seen from high up in the Dolomites. It is just a great pity that as Rusty and Mendari appear in a great number of the images, they are so far away that their features are indistinguishable. It is also a great pity, that in George Abraham’s book: ‘On Alpine Heights and British Crags’ (1916), not once does Rusty get a mention by name unlike Ashley and their Swiss guide. He is instead referred to as “our friend”. Perhaps this was George’s way of paying respect to Rusty by calling him ‘our friend’ rather than by name?

The area Rusty and the Abrahams were climbing in 1910

Without any shadow of a doubt, all four climbers made a significant number of routes during their time in the Dolomites, many of which historically, are only attributed to George Abraham and to a lesser degree, Ashley and Mendari. Rusty however, does not get any recognition for his daring climbs which when you view them in one place, is both impressive and worthy of such recognition: West Face Cinque Torri at 7,746ft (2,361m); Croda da Lago at 8,887ft (2709m); Kleine Zinne Traverse at 9,373ft (2,856m); Rosengartenspitze at 9,780ft (2,980m); Grohmannspitze at 10,255ft (3,125m); Langkofel at 10,436ft (3,180m); Sella Joch Haus at 7,349ft (2,240m); Weisshorn at 14,783ft (4,505m); Aigulle Blaitier at 11,555ft (3,522m); Monch at 13,474ft (4,106m); Torre Grande at 7,709ft (2,349m); Croda da Lago at 8,907ft (2,714m); Torre Inglese at 7,415ft (2,260m) and the Zsigmondy Kamin route on Cima Piccola standing at 9,350ft (2,849m).

In November 1975 when Rusty was aged 89 and his memory was starting to fade, he gave a tape-recorded interview over several days with the late Alan Hankinson, journalist and author from Keswick. When Rusty was asked about the 1910 Dolomite trip, he mentioned a story relating to Napes Needle that Haskett Smith climbed solo in 1886 (the year Rusty was born), and that the Abraham brothers made famous with their iconic image which prompted O. G. Jones to visit the Lakes to climb, and later, became the logo for the Fell & Rock-Climbing Club in 1907.

It appears that during a respite from climbing and photographing in the Dolomites, they were sitting at the bar of a guest house, having a pleasant evening with some Austrian climbers, discussing of course, rock climbing. During the discussion, one of the Austrian climbers produced a picture post card of a rock spire, described (in French), as being the Ascension d’une Aiguille in Chamonix. He commented that: “Surely the photographers who made the picture must be frauds” as he had visited Chamonix before and the Chamonix Aiguille looks nothing like the postcard. In fact, the rock spire shown, according to the Austrian, was called the Aiguille de la Nuque!

George and Ashley grinned like the proverbial Cheshire cat as they looked at the postcard, knowing that the Austrian’s comment was true in part as there is such a rock spire called Chamonix Aiguille, but it looked nothing like that on the postcard and of course, it was not the Aiguille de la Nuque!
It transpired, that some enterprising French (or Swiss) photographer, felt that by taking an original photo of Napes Needle in the Lake District and “rechristening it and slightly tweaking the image”, he could earn some money from the tourists that visited the Alps believing that the tourists would not know any better!
Mendari belaying Rusty on the Great West Face of the Conque Torri,
the pitch above the chimney where Mendari slipped.

Rusty finished his story by adding: “George and Ashley said nothing but continued to smile sweetly, knowing that at least it was a compliment towards their own original ‘English’ specimen.”

Frank Grant

Note: This article was taken from Rusty Westmorland’s unpublished biography by the same writer.