Wednesday 23 October 2019

Accident on the Cyfrwy Arete

The Cyfrwy face of Cader Idris. The route takes the left ridge.
Climb the Great Gully. A casual remark of Mr. Syme's revealed the fact that Mr. Warren was a rising surgeon on the staff of the London Hospital. Another casual remark disclosed the name of the small village where Warren and Syme were staying. I should at this moment be wearing an artificial leg but for this lucky series of accidents, beginning with the nailed boots which Syme was wearing and which had effected our introduction. On the following day Lindsay felt like a rest, so I set off alone and climbed the east ridge of Cyfrwy, off which I fell two days later. It is an interesting climb, not very difficult judged by modern standards, but quite amusing. The steep face looks sensational but is really quite easy. The best thing on the ridge is a miniature Mummery crack which calls for skill if one wishes to climb it without disproportionate effort. On August 28th I started for my last climb. Lindsay was not feeling fit, and he left me near the top of Cader Idris. I decided to descend the east and to climb the north ridge of Cyfrwy. I was carrying a short rope which I had brought along on the chance that Lindsay might join me. The day was perfect.

The burnished silver of the sea melted into a golden haze. Light shadows cast by scudding clouds drifted across the blue and distant hills. The sun flooded down on the rocks. I slid down the crack and reached the top of the steep face of rock above " The Table." The usual route dodges the top fifteen feet of this face, and by an easy traverse reaches a lower ledge. But on that glorious afternoon I longed to spin out the Joys of Cyfrwy, and I found a direct route from the top to the bottom of this wall, a steep but not very severe variation. It was one of those days when to be alive is " very heaven'. The feel of the warm dry rocks and the easy rhythm of the descending motion gave me an almost sensuous pleasure. One toyed with the thought of danger, so complete was the confidence inspired by the firm touch of the wrinkled rocks. In this short span Between my finger tips and the smooth edge, And these tense feet cramped to a crystal ledge, I hold the life of man.

Consciously I embrace, Arched from the mountain rock on which I stand To the firm limit of my lifted hand, The front of time and space ; For what is there in all the world for me But what I know and see ? And what remains of all I see and know If I let go ? I was glad to be alone. I revelled in the freedom from the restraints of the rope, and from the need to synchronize my movements with the movements of companions. I have never enjoyed rock-climbing more. I have never enjoyed rock-climbing since. But, at least, the hills gave me of their best, full measure and overflowing, in those last few golden moments before I fell. A few minutes later Lindsay, who was admiring the view from Cader, was startled by the thunder of a stone avalanche. He turned to a stray tourist, urging him to follow, and dashed off in the direction of Cwfrwy. And this is what had happened. I had just lowered myself off the edge of  'The Table'  There was no suggestion of danger. Suddenly the mountain seemed to sway, and a quiver ran through the rocks. I clung for one brief moment of agony to the face of the cliff. And then suddenly a vast block, which must have been about ten feet high and several feet thick, separated itself from the face, heeled over on top of me and carried me with it into space. I turned a somersault, struck the cliff some distance below, bounded off once again and, after crashing against the ridge two or three times, landed on a sloping ledge about seven feet broad.

The thunder of the rocks falling through the hundred and fifty feet below my resting-point showed how narrow had been my escape. I had fallen a distance which Lindsay estimated at a hundred feet. It was not a sliding fall, for except when I struck and rebounded I was not in contact with the ridge. The fall was long enough for me to retain a very vivid memory of the thoughts which chased each other through my brain during those few crowded seconds. I can still feel the clammy horror of the moment when the solid mountain face trembled below me, but the fall, once I was fairly off, blunted the edge of fear. My emotions were subdued, as if I had been partially anaesthetized. I remember vividly seeing the mountains upside down after my first somersault. I remember the disappointment as I realized that I had not stopped and that I was still falling. I remember making despairing movements with my hands in a futile attempt to check my downward progress. The chief impression was a queer feeling that the stable order of nature had been overturned. 
The tranquil and immobile hills had been startled into a mood of furious and malignant activity, like a dangerous dog roused from a peaceful nap by some inattentive passer-by who has trodden on him unawares. And every time I struck the cliff only to be hurled downwards once again, I felt like a small boy who is being knocked about by a persistent bully—" Will he never stop ? . . . surely he can't hit me again . . . surely he's hurt me enough.-When at last I landed, I tried to sit up, but fell back hurriedly on seeing my leg. The lower part was bent almost at right angles. It was not merely broken, it was shattered and crushed. I shouted and shouted and heard no reply. Had Lindsay returned home?

Would I have to wait for hours before help came ? Solitude had lost its charm. I no longer rejoiced in my freedom from intrusion. On the contrary, I raised my voice and called upon society to come to my assistance. I set immense store on my membership of the Human Club, and very urgently did I summon my fellow members to my assistance. And then suddenly I heard an answering cry, and my shouts died away in a sob of heartfelt relief. And while I waited for help, I looked up at the scar on the cliff where the crag had broken away, and I realized all that I was in danger of losing. Had I climbed my last mountain? During the war the cheery dogmatism of some second lieutenant home from the front was extremely consoling, for the human mind is illogical and the will to believe very potent. And so when Lindsay arrived and replied with a hearty affirmative when I asked him whether I should ever climb again, I was greatly comforted, even though Lindsay knew less of broken legs than the average subaltern of the chances of peace. 

Lindsay was preceded by an ancient man who keeps the hut on Cader. He examined my leg with a critical eye and informed me that it was broken. He then remarked that I had been very ill-advised to stray off the path on to " rough places " where even the natives did not venture. He grasped my leg, and moved it a little higher on to the ledge. This hurt. He then uncoiled my rope and secured me to a buttress which overhung my narrow perch. Then Lindsay staggered on to the ledge, gave one glance at my leg, turned a curious colour, and sat down hurriedly. He suggested breaking off a gate and carrying me down on it. The ancient manor of Cader hazarded a tentative suggestion in favour of sacks. I demurred, for a sack may be appropriate to a corpse but is not conducive to the comfort of a wounded man.

Lindsay, by a lucky accident, remembered Warren's address, and so I sent him off to find him. He left me in charge of the tourist who had followed him, and departed with the man of Cader. Lindsay's chance companion was useful while he stayed, for I was lying on a sloping ledge, and was glad of his shoulder as a pillow. Ten minutes passed, and my companion remarked that he thought he ought to be going. I protested, but could not move him. His wife, he said, would be getting anxious. I hinted that his wife's anxiety might be ignored. "Ah, but you don't know my wife," he replied, and, so saying, left me. He consented to leave his cap behind as a pillow. A month later he wrote and asked me why I had not returned it. This struck me as unreasonable, but—as he justly observed —I did not know his wife. I fell at 4 pm. About 7-30 p.m it became colder, and shivering made the pain worse. About 7.45 p.m. the old man of Cader returned with some warm tea which he had brewed for me, and for which I was more than grateful. Half an hour later the local policeman arrived with a search party and a stretcher. Luckily the ledge ran across on to easy ground, but it was not until midnight—eight hours after my fall that I reached the Angel Hotel. My leg was broken, crushed and comminuted. Twice the preparations were made for amputation. Twice my temperature fell in the nick of time. At the end of a week I was taken home, and lay on my back for four months, much consoled by a Christian Scientist who assured me that my leg was intact. But it was to the faint hope of the hills that I turned for comfort in the long nights when pain had banished sleep. 
Four months after I fell I left my bed bed and began to walk again with the help of a splint My right leg was slightly crooked and was two inches shorter than the left. An open wound on the shin did not disappear for eleven years, but in spite of these and other defects, Warren's skill had left me with a very serviceable leg. I began to ski again fifteen months after the accident. Unfortunately, I wasted two seasons trying to ski with ordinary bindings, and it was not until I secured spring bindings that I began to feel reasonably confident. My toes were very stiff, and in Huitfeldt bindings it was impossible to fall forward with any real pleasure. Two years after my fall I climbed the Dent Blanche. I ought to have chosen an easier and shorter expedition, for I was very heartily sick with pain and weariness long before I reached the top. But the moment of arrival on the summit stands out—unique in my mountain memories. Nothing mattered now that I had finally routed the fears which had haunted me for two long years. I could still climb, could still say

I have not lost the magic of long days, I live them, dream them still . Still am I master of the starry ways, And freeman of the hill. Shattered my glass ere half the sands were run,I hold the heights, I hold the heights, I won .

Arnold Lunn: 1924 

First published in ' The Mountains of Youth.'

Wednesday 9 October 2019

Gary Gibson's 'Blood, Sweat and Smears'...Reviewed

Good, bad or indifferent, beyond death one leaves a reputation. For one thing I’m sure, Gary Gibson from whichever category he comes to fall, will leave behind five thousand new routes and often forgotten, a legacy of guidebook work which, from the voluntary sector is unlikely to be surmounted. If you climbed English or Welsh rock you have made a connection with this incredibly driven man and you’re likely to have climbed one of his routes or handled a guidebook in which Gibson played some part.

A huge man with an even bigger ego, he recently wrote his autobiography, how he found the time I am not quite sure? One of the most controversial and outspoken figures in UK climbing history, Gibson ruffled more feathers than a pheasant plucker’s son! He writes of his father, ‘My dad was something of an enigma … But my dad also had an awkward, almost belligerent side, one that seems to have been passed on to me.’

Edited by the respected, Mick Ward with a forward by Mark Pretty, one friend read the book in just four days, a measure of its fascinating content. Pretty argues, ‘He was (and is) a rule breaker, something of a maverick who had the vision and the nerve to change the nature of the game in the UK.’

His climbing career started as a boy, inspired and encouraged by his brother Phil and as a young man, unapologetically ‘wagged college to climb’. Although good, he was not destined to be, a ‘top’ climber by grade, he developed a quest for stardom, inspired by a photo of Ron Fawcett on the cover of Crags. ‘I wanted to be on the pages of Crags. I wanted my name there. I wanted fame.’ Gibson, described as, ‘the man who bleeds climbing’ in OTE Magazine spent his honeymoon new routing with his new wife Hazel — enough said!

Lemon Crushed
Gibson’s book is easy to read, funny, informative and yes absolutely controversial, his words reflective and diplomatic. Having met the man I cannot help but feel Gibson has mellowed with the passage of time. At a recent book event, Gibson was prodded then poked, his response measured and polite! He once remarked, ‘opinions are like arseholes. Everyone’s got one, and they all stink.’

If you want a job doing look no further than Gibson, recently retired, he has an energy rarely found in men a third his age. In my mind, the way he promoted the book with dozens of talks demonstrates a man driven, a man for whom the words, ‘I did it my way’ are not only accurate but, seem to sum up this complex, ebullient and ambitious character.

A target of, ‘innuendo and hatred’ to this day, Gibson did make mistakes, bolting where he shouldn’t, chipping holds and making false claims. I find his open admission that he, ‘lied’ refreshing, his over enthusiasm perhaps a symptom of his drive, ambition and determination. Make no mistake, now repentant he achieved his goal, to make his mark in the climbing world. Not alone in his misdemeanours, he states, ‘I am of course, not the first to cheat; nor sadly will I be the last.’ Keith McCallum appeared to make up first ascents, in 1969 a Sunday Times article suggested he was a fantasist who even invented climbing partners. And Si O’Connor, a one-time UKC moderator, claimed boulder problems with outrageous exaggeration in grades. Unlike Gibson, McCallum and O’Connor disappeared from the climbing world, perhaps a reflection of his often conciliatory mood.

Many of the words written in magazines and on-line, revolve around controversy and his, ‘crap routes’, not my words by the way! Gary writes, ‘But 1983 would bring new climbs and plenty of controversies, mostly of my own making. One would turn the climbing world upside down, others would be forgotten and one or two still come back to haunt me publicly or privately, even today.’

Chapter eight, ‘A Kind of Death’, describes the time Gibson came close to death. In 1988 a 70 foot ground fall at Ban-y-Gor whilst new routing left Gibson fighting for his life. When help arrived, Hazel said, ‘He’s down there; I think he’s dead.’
On humour, Gibson has a comic side, on one occasion challenged by a Tarmac representative and police officer whilst new routing, the angry quarryman was escorted off his own land by the constabulary; a well written and hilarious story. Another day another quarry, questioned for alleged ‘egg stealing’, it was said, ‘you might have had a gun’. The reply — ‘It’s not fucking New York you know.’

Obsessive to the un-educated, bodacious to those who know. It’s new routes and controversies Gibson will be remembered for. With a tally fast approaching five thousand lines he writes, ‘I am what I am. I do what I do. My mission isn’t over until I’m finished.’ To me that sums him up. He is very much his own man, to climb his routes is your choice. In my mind, it takes a very big man to hold his hand up and admit he was wrong! I make no excuses for past actions however, the Lycra loving Gibson is now reformed, an honourable man who just likes to do what he does. Would I trust him with my pin number — yes I probably would!

Blood Sweat and Smears is a great read about a very interesting and without question, an energetic and enthusiastic man. I would have liked more detail in this book, perhaps his side of the 1999 Wye Valley guidebook fiasco in which Gibson threatened legal action against the BMC. This a result of Geoff Milburn’s words about Gibson. Differences were settles in the form of retro stickers with revised text, but Milburn, editor of over 20 guidebooks for the BMC and Climbers’ Club resigned over the matter — I know he is still bitter today! And, I would have liked to see some correspondence reproduced in this book, there must have been some memorable and explosive letters.

With the last word for his wife Hazel, his Second Lieutenant. A lady who was and is, always there. Although not exclusively his second, Hazel must have spent half a lifetime holding his ropes, an act I am sure will never be forgotten.

A few quotes for your consumption.

‘As regards whether Gary has done any classic first ascents, bollox, of course he has, the list is endless.’ Al Evans

‘As a psychologist, I found Gary very interesting. He turned out to be NOT NORMAL, but not disturbed either … A friendly, driven guy, who has been misinterpreted, misrepresented and misunderstood.’ Nadim Siddiqui

‘To quote the old magazine article " Gary Gibson routes are like Michael Caine movies - so many, some have to be good" (or something on those lines)’. Chris Fryer

'While the elite of British climbing have consistently ignored or dismissed his achievements … they cannot be so easily ignored. He is someone who, more than anybody else, has advanced easy to mid-grade sport climbing in this country — not to mention his trad routes.’ Mark Petty

‘He has undoubtedly given a lot to climbing both in terms of time and effort. Many of his routes are very good quality, and his guidebooks speak for themselves … he has an impetuous streak, an impatience that leads him to over-step the mark.’ Keith Sharples 1996

‘A more serious accident occurred when a block hit him on the head at Ban y Gor, necessitating surgery. Not that it stopped him. Probably nothing could, for Gibson is probably the epitome of the climbing obsessive. Like a dog on diuretics in a lamp post factory Gary has been there, seen it and done a new route on it.’ Colin Wells

‘I guess, in the end, it boils down to whether you believe in redemption. Can a man truly reform, revisit the mistakes of his youth and do his best to effect redress? I believe in redemption. I believe that Gary’s redeemed himself again and again. Cleaning up old crags which have fallen into disrepair? Rebolting other people’s routes? No glory in that. But he does it.’ Mick Ward

The man they love to hate

‘If Hazel ever asks me to give up climbing, I will, but I don’t think she ever would!’ Gary Gibson
David Price:2019 

All images supplied by the author

David Price is an enthusiast and collector of climbing and mountaineering books with a special interest in UK climbing guidebooks. He is keen to meet fellow collectors to swap, buy and sell books, journals and magazines.You can contact David by emailing him at