Hard Rock. Great British Rock Climbs from VS to E4, compiled by Ian Parnell, made up of 288 pages with colour illustrations throughout. Case Bound, Hardback with Jacket. £39.95.
‘It’s an old Ken Wilson maxim; a picture is worth a thousand words, so snap away, snap away!’ From a song by the author.
This is the fourth edition of one of the most influential climbing books of the 20th century. The first edition appeared in 1975, and a third in 1992; their compilation being by the late Ken Wilson. This new edition compiled by Ian Parnell is now appearing in a changed world, heralded in a new century with digital publishing and communication, and a sea change within the sport of rock climbing, impacted by equipment innovation, the spread in the UK of over 400 indoor climbing walls, and the increasing popularity of Sports Climbing and Bouldering; some might suggest to the detriment of Trad. Hopefully this new re-vamped edition of Hard Rock will capture the imagination of the many newcomers emerging into our sport, mainly now from indoor climbing to embrace all that is adventurous, and challenging about traditional British rock climbing. Set in some of the most beautiful landscapes to be found anywhere.
When a large format Hard Rock book appeared in 1975 its inception by Ken Wilson is now misreported by some of the pundits. Its origins began on the Continent, when in 1970 Walter Pause’s book ‘Im Extremen Fels-100 Classical Extreme Climbing Routes’ first appeared. This was an immediate publishing success, and a staffer who was something of a climber at the London publisher, Hart Davis-MacGribbon noted this and phoned Ken Wilson, who was by that date editing Mountain magazine for his views about producing such a volume of outstanding British climbs. Ken who was always a man with strong opinions, retorted it would need to be different here in the UK; a book with essay type descriptions, literary with good photographic cover, highlighting our tradition of bold and self protected rock climbs, keeping the route, not the climber centre stage. His interlocutor was impressed and Hart Davis-MacGribbon commissioned Ken to compile such a book. In passing, also in 1975 there appeared in France, ‘The 100 best climbs in the Mont Blanc Massif’ compiled by Gaston Rebuffat, which was another ground breaking publication and instant success. But both this and Pause’s book were more of a guidebook style than Wilson’s ‘Hard Rock’.
Life is a succession of accidents, if that ‘phone call had not occurred then Ken’s later publications of ‘Classic Rock’ ‘Extreme Rock’ ‘Cold Climbs’ all in the same format as ‘Hard Rock’ might never have appeared. And if he had not been editing ‘Mountain’ magazine he possibly would hardly have been known to a staffer in a London publishing house. Not enough credit has been heaped on the historical development of this by recent commentators, for ‘Mountain’ magazine would never have come into existence without its predecessor ‘Mountaincraft’, the house magazine of the Mountaineering Association formed in 1947 by another controversialist Jerry Wright. Many climbers of the 1950’s cut their teeth on ‘MA’ courses in the UK, and the Alps and Ken and a school friend, his early climbing partner Dave Cook learnt their Alpine craft on an ‘MA’ course in Arolla. Allan Austin learnt to climb in the 1950’s on a beginners ‘MA’ course in Llanberis instructed by Robin Collomb. But the Mountaineering Association was kept functioning by Jerry Wright, and at his demise it began to unravel.
The editor of ‘Mountaincraft’ was a Guardian journalist, Roger Redfern, someone I knew from having written articles for him, and he was far seeing, realising that with the winding up of the ‘MA’ a buyer had to be found for the magazine. How he settled on Ken is another story, but to Wilson’s credit he gave up a secure job in architectural photography in 1968 and took this on, eventually changing its title to Mountain which he edited from 1969 to 1978.
Those who were never privileged to know Ken Wilson, who died in 2016, missed meeting perhaps one of the most controversial and influential figures of the British mountaineering scene in the last half century. His brusque approach did not always win him friends, but as a climbing publisher he was pre-eminent and his final effort, a total re-vamp of ‘Classic Rock’ published shortly before his death was his 60th publication! There are so many stories surrounding him that I will only give a single illustration of how his character impacted on his fellow climbers. In 1972 he applied to be a member of the Alpine Club, an application which generated a previously unequalled wealth of correspondence. A group of members threatened to resign if he were ever to be elected, but those were offset by those who threatened to resign if he were NOT elected. Happily he was elected and his scene setting, original historic introduction in the new edition of ‘Hard Rock’ is included in full and gives some measure of the man.
Created from Ken Wilson's original photo of John Beck climbing the now departed upper section of Deer Bield Crag.
This new edition is truly impactful photographically with colour included throughout, but I would have kept a few of the original black/white prints, for instance Leo Dickinson’s picture of Gogarth’s ‘Dream of White Horses’ would have been a must to include for me; as it was for Wilson who on one occasion in a considered judgement awarded this as ‘One of the ten best of all climbing pictures!’ Black/White is sometimes more atmospheric, more moody and sharp edged than colour. The original ‘Hard Rock’ included sixty climb essays, this new edition has sixty-three, but some of the originals have been dropped, including Kilnsey Overhang and The Scoop of Strone Ulladale, the first by Dave Nicol the second by Doug Scott. But their essays appear at the end of the book, as an addendum removed by the fact they are now climbs outside the grades of this volume, existing today as high standard free climbs. Two other originals which have also been axed, really hurt for one is the North Crag Eliminate of Castle Rock, pioneered in 1952 by Harold Drasdo and myself (I was 16 years old at that date), and Deer Bield Buttress, Arthur Dolphins masterful 1951 climb, the essay for which was also by Harold, one of the best in the original book, for both routes have now subsequently fallen down!
The original essays were by some of the then best known personalities of the British climbing world; Hamish MacInnes, Pete Crew, Chris Bonington, Ed Ward Drummond, Al Alvarez, Ian McNaught-Davis, Jim Perrin, Allan Austin etc but it was the lesser known in 1974 who for me wrote some of the most memorable ones, e.g. Dave Cook on the North West Girdle at Almscliff and Robin Campbell writing about Swastika on the Etive Slabs. Other stand out originals were Royal Robbins on ‘A Dream of White Horses’ and Jimmy Marshall on Carnivore, the first because it is about an ascent Royal made of the climb partnered by Ken Wilson, and he so captured his character in his writing, wittily but kindly and the second because it was such a breakthrough Scottish climb in which he wrote of how Pat Walsh presented him with his piton hammer, left hanging by Jimmy off a retreat peg, after he had made a second ascent attempt on the route; for I was the one who partnered Pat on the occasion when we had actually succeeded.
I hasten to add that Jimmy soon returned and he too sent the route. And in passing (once more), in the late 1950’s Walsh was amongst the most outstanding rock climbers in the UK. One of the ‘great’ climbs in Hard Rock is Shibboleth, Robin Smith’s route on the Slime Wall of the Buachaille Etive Mor. Pat had opened up that feature long before Robin, and he felt you could climb it almost anywhere! At a desperate standard; Joe ‘Morty’ Smith and I experienced real difficulties whilst attempting to repeat his climbs for so vague were his verbal descriptions.
The routes included in this new edition stretch across the Scottish Highlands and Islands (including the Old Man of Hoy and Pabbay), the Lake District, The Pennines, The Peak, North and South Wales, and down to South West England; and the climbs chosen include Mountain Walls, Gritstone Outcrops and some epic sea cliff adventures. It includes thirteen routes and essays by nine new authors (which were not in the original), some at a higher grade than the earlier editions which were aimed at the trad connoisseurs range of VS to E2. I think these would be within the capabilities of a majority of climbers, but E3 or E4 has to be a maybe? Unless there has been a vast grade swing upward in the last decade? Of the new authors a couple really did grab me, Dave Pickford writing about Swanage and two climbs at the Boulder Ruckle, one by an old mate Richard Crewe; Mars. I had the ‘grip’ of pioneering a new route with Richard at that cliff, and our equipment included peg hammers with curved picks to climb out up the last section of loose ground to the finish, and Kevin Howett writing about the Vulcan Wall on Skye. Originally pioneered by another old mate Ian Clough and Hamish MacInnes, the latter I first met on the Cobbler in 1951 as a 15 year old.The Author soloing on the Pembroke cliffs
For me the whole book is a climb down memory lane, so many friends from the original have now departed the scene and re-reading about their great climbs, Whillans on Extol, Pete Biven on Moonraker, Dolphin on Kipling Groove, Tony Barley on Carnage, and Nat Allen writing about Peak classics like the Chee Tor Girdle etc (I lived at Nat’s mothers house in Derby for three and a half years) brought them back in their pomp for me. One figure resplendent, who still remains with us, is the Baron; Joe Brown. I speak to him regularly by ‘phone, but I can guess anyone reading ‘Hard Rock’ and coming new into the sport as a newcomer must think on reading ‘Hard Rock’ how could one climber pioneer so many of the most outstanding rock climbs in this country? The 1950’s were his decade, and the 1960’s almost the same, in no other sport do I know where one participant has been such an influence for such a long period. We both agree that to be active in those decades was indeed a happy accident of birth.
Being a pedant I feel I need to provide some further information for Frank Cannings who wrote the essay about Suicide Wall/Bow Wall on Bosigran in Cornwall. He was correct that on the first ascent on the crux pitch of the first route, Peter Biven, stood on Trevor Peck’s head and placed a peg for aid to gain a pair of cracks leading up to the next stance. He also mentions in his article that The Rock and Ice Club visited Cornwall in 1957. On that visit Joe Brown and I, were guided on occasion by Biven and Peck and we all four made the third ascent of Suicide Wall. Joe led the route including the crux free, and Peter and Trevor joined our rope, not wishing to try to emulate Brown’s free lead of the crux. So Brown led the first free ascent of the Suicide Wall. Readers may be interested to know that I had been to Cornwall in 1956, and met on that occasion a very ancient A.W. Andrews who is acknowledged as the original pioneer of sea cliff climbing in this country, and my waywardness in spending my precious holiday time climbing in an area such as West Penwith was met with scorn by Don Whillans. ‘You should save climbing in such areas until your old and past it!’ he advised when we agreed to go to Cornwall in 1957; Don was heading for Masherbrum!
I noted in Cannings article that he seemed surprised that we did not achieve more on our visit, but in those days we all worked and enjoyed restricted holidays. So a week in Cornwall was as much as most could manage. Joe by then had his own, one man property repairing business, so he could afford to stay on after we left, and he pioneered the first section of Bow Wall but could not find anyone to second him up the rest of that route.
Leo Dickinson's classic shot of Ed Drummond and Dave Pearce on the first ascent of A dream of White Horses
So all in all, this ‘Hard Rock’ is a worthy successor to all that has gone before. I can imagine Ken Wilson looking at this from on high and doubtless he would have something to add on incorporating some ideas into the new edition of the book. It is fitting that Ian Parnell has been the one to take this on; for I would guess that in Ken’s eyes he would be a ‘real’ climber, with many different disciplines under his belt; of bold and badly protected leads on British cliffs, a pioneer of Scottish winter routes, an ascent of the North Face of the Eiger, and outstanding success in the Himalaya etc. Wilson would have revelled in that? Finally the books, layout and quality, is what we have come to expect of Vertebrate. The line drawing end papers by Malc Baxter add to the whole excellent appearance of the work. But as a tight wad I am wondering if the price of £39.95 is one that will put it out of reach of most of the young and or the impecunious? However maybe a case might be made that in view of the dreaded coronavirus; a grant to purchase might be forthcoming from the DHSS to help any such activist while away their boredom whilst in self imposed isolation?
Dennis Gray: 2020