Monday 23 March 2020

Hard Rock 2020.....Reviewed

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 

Tuesday 17 March 2020


El Capitan-Original Photo- Mike Murphy

An Open Letter From Ed Drummond

The following relates to an attempt in October, 1984 by Ed Drummond to solo El Capitans's North America Wall, and his rescue,after days in a snowstorm, a pitch short of easy ground below the summit. Two other climbers died on the nearby route-Zodiac-in the same storm.

Epilogue: To Search and Rescue Officers Mike Murray, John Dill and all SAR Personnel, National Park Service, Yosemite, California. 

Dear John, Officer Murray and all SAR people...

It's now almost a month since — in a very I real sense — you all brought me back to life. The operation was difficult. After two weeks alone on the North American Wall, I had become a possibly terminal patient in the grip of a condition so overwhelming, as to render it almost impossible for a team to even get near me, let alone operate: ice on the brow of the captain, the sudden relapse of snow that forced even the most skilful and experienced climbers to inch their way for hours tied together, where in summer they could amble with their hands in their pockets. The first October snow in 20 years. It was like trying to get blood from a stone. And I was a long way down. Too far I had begun to think, sunken beneath great overhangs like some pitiful heretic, shivering, beginning to repent. I started to call out, almost embarrassed to be raising my voice: to a  gap in the cloud, to a toy-red and white helicopter spiralling past, wondering if they a could lip-read but worried that they might think I was simply hailing them good-day and a not drowning in the bathtub that my porterledge had become. And to the drab valley floor with its sudden lichen of onlookers.  I — and to the cloudy void where the wind was lurching like a drunk smashing bottle after bottle of distilled water at the wall and tearing a at my fly until that hymen of self-assurance, intact these forty years, had started to come apart... I, I,.... well I, at first shyly, then shamefully — suddenly — savagely — desperately — miraculously — screamed.. "Help! . . . Help!"

I had heard that there were two others in trouble on the Zodiac. And some haunted, hurt part of me knew, just knew, they'd go for double, rather than one on the NA. I in became my own dentist: 'get what I deserve',poking in childhood cavities I'd forgotten I had, living in California these past eight years after chilly Britain. Then I'd start grabbing the drill and imagine I heard voices right next to to my head, like the couple next door . . . to Nothing. 

I'd listen again . . . Just footsteps in my a chest. The pipes kept running. Does hearing go first?  An hour. Two. Three. The web of suspension straps inside the hanging tent had become chains of ice-water. My sleeping bag, like a shrunken mummy in some flooded museum, was oozing through my hands. I had eaten all my food. Is insolite edible? I imagined not, and given the rate of loss of my core heat, even the vomit would be cold. I envisaged the headlines in the National  Enquirer: "Man Saves Life by Eating Bed". And the tawdry photograph of me with the ectoplasmic taco, grinning . . . But the bizarre  scenario helped me stay awake for a minute and generate the idea of padding my back with  insolite. Then a roll inside each trouser leg.  Pretty soon I looked like some punk Galbraith  with my hang dog face and bean pole limbs. Intellectually and emotionally I was a scarecrow — flash of a young man in Reagan country, sleeping beneath the freeway in San  Francisco last winter, with a sheet of cardboard over him. Why do I do this?

Something fluttered in my trousers. Greasy, slow bubbles down my thigh, not at all my usual colourful fart. And cold too. Now that alarmed me .. . Suddenly sleepy I tried to curl up — like when the bullies, Ormerod, Evans or Jeremy Bentley would corner me. I felt nine years old, just lying there in the freezing water, like I used to in the bath at home a long time ago. And wait and wait and wait for my mother to come and get me out and pat me, and dry me and warm me .. . Deep, soft, sweet, Death was brushing my hair, running its reptilian fingers across my  damp forehead, whispering in my grubby ears: "Relax, relax. Try to sleep." "He's here." Out of my mind, out of the flapping tent, hanging like a lynching as he swayed to fro, there he was: the other, thou, my not-me, the god-man with a radio, out in space at the end of a white and blue line, swimming in towards me, with the new moon on his shoulder. "How are you?" 

Words stick in my throat. John: young, shy, quietly competent as a carpenter straddling the roof beams as he comes in, hand over hand down my tied-in haul line and plugs me back in. I touch him. "Can you jumar?" "What about all your gear?" The rest is history and this story. How you all came back to me, one by one. Walt — Cagney-tough at the last edge, snapping pits and talking down the great north american wall that hung under us; Werner: silent, reassuring, with a wink in his eye as I dredged myself upwards. And then, now, there, here, all of you: grinning, grubby as pirates, efficient as pilots, snow sticking to your ears and beards, eyes shining: Gary, Des, Mike, Livia handing me her head torch — the clan, the tribe, my family I never really believed in or knew I belonged to — reaching for me, clipping me in, guiding, slapping me quietly on the back "Too bad, so close" — my eyes tighten, glowing, liquid, making their faces wavery, dream-like as they peer in, pushing, pulling me across dark, slick slabs and shepherding me past the boney rope in its integument of ice, through bottomless brush, feet dying a bit now in tight Fires, eddying upwards on faint trodden tracks through the fourteen inches that had clubbed the Sierras, to Paradise: huge, orange tongues, crackling logs, melting the snow, illuminating the big tents, licking the night. 
 Ed- Image John Cleare.

And two witches, with warm clothes, tending the fire, ladling from an ancient cauldron, dripping spaghetti over sourdough bread, passing dry socks, hot coffee and, unbelievably, when only the embers were glowing, large, flashy, red apples, under the stars, scattered like implacable dice. No matter — who can say whether for or against us? —I was home. Without all of you — from those in the office who made vital calls and kept the lines open; the drivers, the pilots, Jim and the camp people, those two women who'd downed tools from trail repair to go up in the snow and keep house in the night for total strangers, the climbers themselves; the anchor men, those at the edge, and John — you who all came in like surgeons, parting the dark blue void and the webs of red and blue knotted together, searching beneath the polypropylene clothing, inside the sodden sleeping bag and the funny reputation, for that unique, red flower, each carries from the cradle to the edge of cliff, fading and fountaining every second —without everyone of you, I would be dead. Thank you from the bottom of my heart. Edwin Drummond 

Ed Drummond: January-1985

First published in High