Friday, 30 April 2021

Colin Kirkus: Pathfinder


The motor cycle roared north from Kendal, over Shap, towards Scotland and Ben Nevis. Crouched over the handlebars was Maurice Linnell; behind him, with a mountain of camping gear, Colin Kirkus. It was Easter, 1934, and in the previous three years or so these young men had shot like brilliant meteors across the British climbing scene. As the snow clad Highlands opened up before them it seemed as though the motor bike was carrying them into a glorious future. Seven years before, young Colin Kirkus had persuaded his parents to take the family holiday at Betws y Coed. Usually they holidayed on the Welsh coast, but Colin, fired with a love of mountains and stirred by George Abraham's British Mountain Climbs, wanted to be nearer the heart of things. Betws y Coed was a compromise. He had nobody to climb with, but this did not stop him from setting off alone for Craig yr Ysfa, armed with a rope. He climbed Arch Gully, then tried B Gully and fell at the crux — a smooth overhanging chockstone. Picking himself up he tried again, with the same result. He gave the mountain best and went home. 

Kirkus was born in Liverpool in 1910. He first went to Wales when he was seven and right from the start there was something about those wild hills which appealed to him. He scrambled and walked whenever he could and by the age of twelve he was acting as "guide" to his younger brothers. His first real climbing, however, was on his Betws y Coed holiday. Not content with near disaster on Craig yr Ysfa, he tried his luck on the Holly Tree Wall at Cwm Idwal, choosing Lazarus as a likely looking solo climb. He got out of that one by lassoing a bollard and swarming up the rope! But Kirkus didn't seem to mind; already he seemed to have those nerves of steel which became the hallmark of his great ascents. In the following year, when he was 18, Kirkus joined the Climbers' Club. Of medium height, slight of build, with a longish face and characteristic quiff in his hair, one of his contemporaries who met him at Helyg thought he was "rather strange looking". He had the reputation of being a gannet where food was concerned, and also, since rumours of his solo climbs had got around, of being slightly crazy. At Helyg he met Alan Hargreaves (The Little Man) who also had a reputation to consider, so together they tackled Holly Tree Wall in nails in the pouring rain. The other members referred to them collectively as The Suicide Club. Nevertheless it was a fruitful partnership, with Hargreaves transforming an untutored climbing genius into a brilliant technician. 

The classic 'Kirkus Route' on The Great Slab-Cwm Silyn 

Twice in the course of this partnership Kirkus came off and Hargreaves held him: once on the Craig yr Ysafa Pinnacle and again on Great Central, Dow Crag. It was with Hargreaves that Kirkus produced the guide book to Helsby Crag; a fine sandstone outcrop in the Wirral which has always been popular with Liverpool climbers and where, at that time, men like Marshall, Hicks and Edwards were climbing. Marshall, in fact, was exploring for the book when he fell and was killed. Kirkus and Hargreaves took up the work and Kirkus added nineteen new routes, mostly of a very high standard. Strangely enough, Kirkus did not like gritstone, but he did climb on the Cornish cliffs — the well known Pendulum Chimney on Chair Ladder is one of his creations. The other outstanding Helsby tiger of that immediate period was F. E. Hicks and it was inevitable that he and Kirkus should meet. In fact they met quite accidentally at Helyg in 1929 and at first Hicks was not keen to have the young Liverpudlian join his party — Colin's reputation was a handicap at times. But they did join forces and the result was Lots Groove on Glyder Fach and Central Route on Tryfan's Terrace Wall. On the former route only Hicks was able to follow Kirkus and on the Terrace Wall, even Hicks could not follow the powerful lead. Three days later, with Hargreaves, Kirkus made the second ascent of Longland's Climb on Clogwyn du'r Arddu. It took them four and a half hours; much of the time being spend gardening. In a way this second ascent of Longland's marked the end of an apprenticeship. Now he was an acknowledged master and the next three years were ones of brilliance. 

In 1930, with Graham MacPhee, Kirkus put up the Great Slab route on Cloggy. Today regarded as one of the easier climbs on that great cliff it was then a major breakthrough for not only did it penetrate the over-hangs which prevent access to the West Buttress but it involved run-outs which were quite exceptional. Kirkus had more than 120 feet of rope behind him on his first pitch — all unknown, very severe, exposed, loose and vegetated rock. Today, of course, the climb is sound and picked clean by a thousand grasping fingers, but in 1930 it was quite different and it is doubtful if any other climber of the period had both the nerve and skill to do what Kirkus did. Incidentally, it was after this climb that the nickname Cloggy was invented. To the chagrin of ardent Welshmen it has stuck ever since. Turning his attention to the Lake District, Kirkus looked at the black, forbidding East Buttress of Scafell—the result was Mickledore Grooves, the first breach in that cliff. Thus in one season Kirkus had demonstrated the possibilities of the two great cliffs which were to dominate the immediate post-war years of British climbing. In Wales, before the year was out, he also climbed his famous Direct Route on the Nose of Dinas Mot. All these climbs represented exploration and skill of a high order, not to be despised even by today's high standards — indeed, for twenty years they represented the ultimate in British rock climbing. 

Unlike Edwards, who lived on his nerves and was eventually consumed by them, Colin Kirkus seemed not so much to conquer fear as to be completely fearless, which is quite a different thing and very rare. Marco Pallis said that Kirkus could stand for what seemed like hours on next to nothing, a hundred feet above his second man, with complete indifference. Perhaps he had supreme confidence in his own technical ability —certainly it never let him down, and he was not a strong man (as Edwards was) able to rely on muscle to get him out of a tight spot. He climbed slowly, often ungainly to watch, yet all problems dissolved before his technical mastery and superb aplomb. A comparison with Edwards is inevitable since both were the great innovators of the 30's. There were others to match them in skill — Linnell, for example — but none had that vital spark which they possessed and which makes for progress. Yet they had it differently; Edwards pulgging away at the Three Cliffs and the Devil's Kitchen area and altering basic conceptions of the sport; Kirkus flitting like some glorious butterfly from cliff to cliff, armed with a Midas touch, picking off lines of greatness. In 1931 he made his remarkable solo first ascent of the Pinnacle Wall, Craig yr Ysfa. Then came Chimney Route and Pedestal Crack, Cloggy, and a couple of routes on the much neglected Great Slab of Cwm Silyn. A year later, on his birthday, came Birthday Crack and the ever popular Curving Crack, on Cloggy. He kept fit by cycling to Helyg from Liverpool and on occasions even walking it. 

There is no doubt that he thought he would be picked for the 1933 Everest Expedition (though his Alpine record was undistinguished) and he might have been, too, but for opposition from certain influential quarters. His failure to be chosen was a bitter disappointment but he gained some consolation by going on Marco Palls' Gangotri Expedition. He took a leading part in the ascent of Bhagirathi III (6,866 m), a climb said to involve some of the hardest rock climbing ever attempted at high altitude. And so to 1934 and that fateful Easter journey to Ben Nevis. They camped below the mountain which was well covered with snow and on the Saturday set off to climb the Castle; one of the standard routes on Cam Dearg. They made good time and had reached the treacherous slabs just below the top when a step broke, and Linnell, who was leading, hurtled down the cliff. There was nothing Kirkus could do. Plucked from his steps he tumbled after his leader, alternately banking from rock to rock and hissing through snow slopes. Linnell was killed outright, strangled by the rope. Kirkus was seriously injured, temporarily half blinded. Yet even in this extreme situation his supreme calmness never deserted him. He anchored Linnell's body, carefully laying out the rope so that place could be easily recognized and only then did he drag himself off the mountain, all the weary tortuous miles to Fort William and help. For Colin Kirkus it was the end of a brilliant climbing career. 

Though he recovered completely, the impetus of exploration left him and he confined himself to modest climbs, frequently instructing beginners. He made a brief comeback to do the Glyder Fach guidebook, and though this showed that he hadn't lost his nerve or skill, the old fire was gone. It was during this time that he wrote his delightful Let's Go Climbing, one of the best introductions to the sport ever published. On the outbreak of war he joined the R.A.F. and became a navigator. In 1940 his plane failed to return from a bombing raid on Germany. 

Walt Unsworth:

First published in 'The Climber' August 1967.

Kirkus was killed in WW2 in September 1942. He was serving as a navigator with an RAF Pathfinder squadron. He was one of four brothers, all of whom saw flying service in the RAF, and three of whom were killed in action in the Second World War.