Friday, 25 March 2016

Tinkerbell...Ronnie Lee Remembered

Ronnie was born in December 1926; she was christened Veronica. In early childhood, to her elder twin sisters and friends, she became the little fairy, the ubiquitous Tinkerbell, that tiny nymph of J.M.Barrie's immortal Peter Pan, someone 'whose light, like that of a star, only went out when she was asleep.' In 1941, when I first met her, everyone called her ‘Tink’. Keen on games, swimming, on all athletic activity, Tink had a natural gymnastic agility and wanted to be a gym mistress but such opportunity never came; there was a war on. She left school at 16 to start work at Derby's telecommunications centre. Cycling then became her prime recreational sport and provided energetic introduction to the hills and dales of her native Derbyshire. She loved the hills, their rocky tors, so it was almost a natural progression from cycling to climbing.

Late in 1943, after attending a Walter Poucher lecture and marvelling at his wonderful colour slides of Snowdonia, two cycling-club friends suggested going to North Wales for Christmas; they even managed to procure some second hand, clinker nailed boots and a rucksack too. Our journey to Wales at Christmas was by a mixture of trains and bike, to reduce cost and provide transport to get to those mountains. The first was rocky Tryfan by its Heather Terrace. Next we scrambled up Crib Goch and over the Crazy Pinnacles to reach the summit of Snowdon. On our last day, in mist and rain, we went up Moel Siabod. These three, wonderful, mountain days made the light shine brightly for Tinkerbell; she lost the gossamer mantle of Peter Pan's capricious little fairy companion to become more mature Veronica, her proper name, later shortened to Ronnie. Soon in 1944 our roped rock-climbing began at Cromford's Black Rocks; the light shone brighter still.

There followed four full years of intense climbing activity; intense, that is, by standards of the day, for wartime im-posed its own restrictions and working hours, longer then, were spread over six days, sometimes seven.Black Rocks was the nearest crag and became our most frequent haunt where, occasionally, one might meet other climbers; the Dyke brothers, who cycled from Mansfield, or Ernie Phillips, (whom Ronnie later married), he cycled out too, from Burton-on-Trent. Sometimes we would go further, to Cratcliffe, but visits to more distant gritstone crags and to Wales or the Lake District were rare and usually confined to holidays.

Peter Harding on the first ascent of Black Rocks'Promontory Traverse,July 1945.Photo: Ernie Phillips
By 1945, a small group of Black Rocks habitues, Veronica Lee, Johnny Wellburn, Tony Taylor and me, with a young newcomer called A. J. J.Moulam, formed the Stonnis Club, (Stonnis being the old local name for Black Rocks). It proved to be a stimulus for the climbing there; Ronnie was soon the first woman climber to complete all the existing routes, leading most of them. The quest for new lines then began and she was in on the first ascents of Moulam's Green Crack, V.J.Crack and a hard climb we named Lean Man's Superdirect. Later this was found to have been led, 15 years earlier, by Alf Bridge. His second, Ivan Waller, considered it to be unjustifiably severe and left it unrecorded.

Ronnie was now climbing to a very high standard and it was fascinating to study her technique. Due to her diminutive build she developed a style all of her own. Cycling had already given good stamina and a steadiness of leg which enabled her to balance on the smallest holds, in rubbers or in nails. Light of weight combined with strong arms gave exceptional power to weight ratio. But her speciality was `mantelshelving`; this was practiced with either hand until it could be performed on steep slabs or walls using only the slightest undulations in their surface. In this way she managed to climb pitches where the normal holds were spaced well beyond her reach, simply by making intermediate mantelshelf moves. They often looked impossible.

For dealing with cracks, of course, she knew the secret of hand-jamming, in the days when so few climbers did. Without doubt at this time she was one of the leading women climbers and it was on gritstone and sandstone where Ronnie really excelled, competently following climbs which were then at the very highest grade of difficulty; Frank Elliott's Unconquerable at Cratcliffe, Jim Birkett's Morgue Slab on Helsby, (a second ascent), the Promontory Buttress at Black Rocks where she seconded Norman Millward's third independent traverse, (the first by a woman), and Goliath's Groove on Stanage. However, the crowning exploit, one which confirmed her as the top woman gritstoner, was on Suicide Wall at Cratcliffe when, in May 1946, she seconded its first ascent. During those years a Stonnis Club guide to Cratcliffe and Black Rocks had been compiled by Tony Moulam and myself, with Ronnie giving great help and support.

She was presented with her own, personal, leather-bound copy and in 1948. I borrowed it back, (it was the only copy still intact), for updating and later publication by the Climbers' Club. Afterwards our paths diverged and I only saw her again on two or three isolated occasions though she continued to take an active interest in climbing for many years, first with the Valkyrie Club, (forerunner of the Rock and Ice), then later joining the Oread. Some years ago, at an Oread dinner, she told me her interest had moved on from climbing to skiing, the enthusiasm with which she talked on skiing showed the light still shone.

At some more recent time the light failed and earlier this year, in May, just 41 years after her brilliant conquest of Cratcliffe's Suicide Wall, Ronnie found the wall of life too steep and escaped from it, tragically, incredibly, by suicide.

Author Peter Harding at the Roaches in 1995:Photo-Gordon Stainforth

In every generation of climbers, bright stars emerge to shoot across the mountain firmament then fade and disappear. Their brilliance is not always reflected by lists of new routes led, but sometimes in the memories of friends,. and by the light they shed. Tinkerbell was such as star. 

Peter Harding: First published in High November 1987 

Friday, 18 March 2016

Whisper the Wind

John Syrett and Gordon Stainforth: Chamonix 1972.Photo Andy Long

Whisper the wind around the rocky outcrop
Moving the long grass at the base of the Crag
Listen carefully to the noise it keeps making
Sighing and dying as it rises then falls

It tells of a warm day at the height of a summer
And the three young climbers who came here to play
Their laughter remembered as I reach the rock face
Their faces I recall as I stand beneath the Green Crack

Above are the first two verses from a poem included in my published collection, ‘On the Edge’*. This was about a visit to Almscliff Crag in the summer of 1969, by John Syrett, Roger Baxter Jones and myself. At that date we all three were studying at Leeds University, I unlike the other two being a part time student. Both of my two companions subsequently made their mark in the history of British climbing, but each suffered a tragic death. Verse three is intended to set the scene of how we felt and enjoyed our activities at that date.

But the wind is rising and I cannot now confirm
Just who led and who lay out bare back in the sun
We were happy then for it seemed to be never ending
A life without strife with such good friends it was fun

Both John and Roger arrived at Leeds for the Autumn term of 1968, the first to read mineral sciences the second to study English. They were 18 years old at that date, and fetched up as members of the University climbing club, which over the next few years was to also include other outstanding activists such as John Porter, Brian Hall, Alex MacIntyre, Bernard Newman, John Stainforth and a host of others.

John Syrett on Cloggy's Shrike: Gordon Stainforth

John hailed from a village in Kent, and when he arrived in Leeds he was almost a novice rock climber, but immediately he settled to assiduous practice on the then famous university climbing wall. It seemed any time you visited that facility he would be there, and he quickly developed into one of its star performers. It is hard now to appreciate the standing of the Leeds Wall in that era, with the massive developments that have taken place in such facilities subsequently, but it is fair to report that it was then the most important wall in the UK. Only 15 feet high, it nevertheless boasted a hard landing, and some of the problems were very bold, and not a few fractured limbs resulted from falls at the facility. John’s climbing style was quickly developed as being particularly adventurous, and to watch him on his classic roof traverse, at the top of the wall, laybacking on small undercuts with a fractured spine as a real possibility if he fell, was real commitment and nobody else in the early 1970’s seemed keen to emulate the feat.

Thus John was one of the first to realise what such wall training could achieve in developing rock climbing skills, and within a few months he was transferring these learned abilities out onto the local gritstone outcrops. I first met him at the wall and in February 1969 arranged to climb at Ilkley with him. I had recently married and my wife and I were staying with my father in North Leeds, whilst working to refurbish a weaver’s cottage we had bought out of the city in Guiseley. On the Sunday morning early, John arrived having run the five kilometres from his shared flat in Leeds 6. He was wearing flared jeans, desert boots, and an open neck white shirt, assiduously ironed and clean. In each hand he carried a P.A. rock boot; that is all, despite it being an icy cold day with snow on the ground. My former wife Leni, later remarked on John’s startling good looks, being of average height, lithe, with sharp lit blue eyes, topped by a mass of thick black curly hair. Pete Livesey noted his ‘blue eyed god-like expression’.

That first time climbing outside with John made me realise what a phenomenon he really was. Ilkley Moor is known for its biting cold, yet he spent most of the day outside soloing, wearing only his open neck shirt, and jeans whilst my wife and I cowered in our ancient Dormobile sheltering from the elements and brewing up to combat the cold.
Over the next four years John was to pioneer some of Yorkshire’s finest routes, it was to be his golden period with over 40 new routes on gritstone, such as Joker’s Wall and the Brutaliser both at Brimham, Earl Buttress at that Crag, Propeller Wall at Ilkley and some of Almsciff’s outstanding test pieces; The Big Greeny, Encore, and his eponymous ‘Roof’ still a 6B challenge, plus many more and one of the earliest repeats of The Wall of Horrors. Most of his new climbs were at the highest standard of the day, and although he tended to concentrate on the gritstone outcrops his new climbs on limestone, such as Midnight Cowboy at Malham were also challenging to the other activists of that period.

Image: Brian Cropper
John graduated in the summer of 1972, but stayed on in Leeds for he seemed to then be enamoured of the climbing, social and clubbing scene. I once saw him disco dancing at a climbing club dinner,and he really was a mover but disaster struck in late 1973 when at a drunken party, he cut through the tendons on the fingers of one of his hands, opening a beer can. His climbing was never to be the same again and though he continued to be active, he was to be limited by these injuries. He visited Yosemite in 1974, and spent the winter of that year in the Ben Nevis area, soloing classic routes on that mountain.

He remained in Leeds until 1978, but then moved to live in Newcastle where he embarked on a physiotherapy course. He continued to do some climbing and pioneered an E4 5C on Northumberland sandstone, Stella at South Yardhope. Finishing his studies in Newcastle, he took up a position working on the North Sea Oil Rigs. A mutual friend, Mark Clark who met him around this time, reported back his worries about John’s behaviour which he found to be concerning, erratic and drinking heavily whilst worrying about a fatal accident to one of his workmates, for which he seemed to believe he was somehow partly responsible, although an enquiry into the incident absolved him from any blame.

One weekend in June 1985 I was at Malham, and early on the Sunday morning a climber came running into the camp site to tell there had been two accidents which had occurred up on the Cove. Could we go and help. One of these was up on the right wing, so my companion and self headed up there, to find a Scots climber lying at the foot of Wombat. He had set off to solo this, but he had fallen from low down on this route. He was badly cut in the thigh, but with support he could stand and between us we helped him down the hillside and then along to my car. As we moved away from the Cove we met Pete Livesey who was heading up to help at the other accident. All he knew at that juncture was someone had fallen from the top of the Central Wall of the Cove.

We drove the Scots climber to hospital, to accident and emergency, where he needed several stitches to close up his injury, and then I took him to catch a transport back North. He assured me he would be OK doing this on his own! Arriving home late that night, Pete Livesey phoned me with the terrible news that the body they had found at the foot of the Cove was John’s. He had turned up at Pete’s home in Malham the previous evening, holding a bottle of whisky. They had drunk most of this whilst talking late into the night whence John had insisted on going off into the gloom to sleep at the top of the Cove. There is a large cave up there at its right side and on arriving John was to find two other climbers in residence. He bedded down alongside them, but almost at first light he went outside, walked to the edge of the Cove and leapt off.

Pete informed me that there was a note attached to his body, and he definitely had intended to carry out this tragic action. He had taken the note off his body, and he would hand this to John’s relatives in confidence. Pete and I were good friends, and I agreed with him that this was for the best.
So ended the life of John Syrett in only his 35th year, a star that had burnt so bright in his rock climbing career, but who set himself such high standards, that when he could no longer meet these, his life moved on to what seemed to be an inevitable slow sad demise. He remains however in my memory forever young, and inspirational to recall the way he moved up a rockface.  Below is the fourth verse of Whisper the Wind:

It is a long time though since we were here together
And alas it never can be again, for I am the only survivor
The others were killed by their love of the mountains
Leaving me to grow old and trying to remember them

Roger Baxter Jones was from London, and I first met him in late 1968 at Almscliff where we ended by sharing a rope, and climbing together. I was immediately taken by his extreme good humour and strong personality, which led on to some of the other members of the university club to note that ‘It is all the way with RBJ’.  Subsequently I met him occasionally in the Pack Horse pub, the meeting place of the university climbers, but unlike John he was not a regular at the Climbing Wall, preferring to concentrate on spending time on a nearby dry ski slope, set up in an old chapel building on the edge of the campus and he eventually became a highly proficient off-piste skier. He was however a solid rock climber, but he would have been the first to admit that he could not emulate the outcrop feats of John, although they did several difficult climbs together such as the Great Wall on Clogwyn du’r Arddu, with Roger in the lead in 1970.

Roger Baxter-Jones on Rimpfischorn: Morgan Friis Andersen

From his earliest climbing however Roger was orientated to mountaineering, he had a powerful physique, above medium height, but during his first alpine season in the summer of 1969, he suffered a serious accident whilst climbing on the Piz Badile. This meant a long period of recovery and a drop out from his studies in Leeds. On his return, he began to work in Centresport (one of the first climbing/skiing specialist retailers), and to teach dry slope skiing at which he had become highly competent.

Once fully recovered he returned to alpinism, and from thereon he accepted that this was where his all round abilities were best employed. After summer successes he began to also visit the Alps in winter, and a significant climb for him in that season was the Super Couloir on Mont Blanc du Tacul. In summer 1972, he took part in hosting along with myself on a BMC invitation visit to Snowdonia by a party of French climbers, which included such outstanding performers as Simone Badier, Patrick Cordier, and Jean Afanassief. They made a big impression on Roger and were for him a booster to his growing sympathies for all things French.

He then studied at Sheffield, and finally obtained a degree, and a standout climb for him at the end of this period in 1977, was the second ascent of the Whymper Spur Direct on the Grandes Jorasses with Nick Colton.  And later still the first winter ascent, solo of the North Face of The Aiguille des Grands Charmoz.

Over the next half decade his life was dedicated to climbing in the Himalaya, commencing in 1978 with a bold alpine ascent of Jannu with Rab Carrington, Al Rouse and Brian Hall. In 1980 he attempted the south east ridge of Makalu with Doug Scott and George Bettembourg. In 1982 he played a notable part in the successful ascent of a new route on Shisha Pangma, by its south west face with Doug Scott and Alex MacIntyre. In 1983 he summited Broad Peak with Jean Afanasieff, and subsequently took part in two attempts to climb K2 climbing alpine style.

Back in Europe, more and more he became enamoured of the Mont Blanc range, in which region he became a leading exponent of first winter ascents, allied to his by then highly developed abilities in off piste skiing. He also became a disciple of inner game theory, a system of mind control developed by Tim Gallwey (USA), and adopted by some skiers besides other sports enthusiasts.

Roger continued with his French odyssey, in language, tastes and attitudes. In 1983 he married Christine Devassoux, he took French nationality, and became the first Briton to become a Chamonix Guide, whilst setting up with Christine their marital home in that valley.

Old friendships remained, and that winter when my eldest son Stephen had an accident above Le Tour, Roger was the first to offer to help us. But following his dangerous calling, where he specialised in guiding experienced clients up major climbs, he was to die guiding the North Face of the Triolet when a serac broke away obliterating all in its path, including Roger and his partner on the 8th July 1985 (Dying just one month later than John Syrett!).

Trying to make sense of both John and Roger’s life and deaths is  difficult, but they were two outstanding personalities who eschewed conformity and followed, their own chosen paths. Few of us have the courage or ability to be so bold. Here is the final verse of ‘Whisper the wind’.......

Whisper the wind around the outcrop
Moving the long grass at the base of the Crag
Listen carefully to the noise it keeps making
Sighing and dying as it rises then falls

* 'From the Edge Selected Poems' .Published by The Flux Gallery Press, 2012. Limited edition,quickly sold out. 

Dennis Gray:2016 

Friday, 11 March 2016

Lost World: Seventeen days on the face of Roraima

 Whillans and Brown....carry on up the jungle.

Currently showing on BBC2 in the UK is an adventure programme which the makers advertise thus...

Adventurer and naturalist Steve Backshall embarks on one of the most dramatic and dangerous expeditions ever filmed by a BBC crew. His mission is to explore Venezuela's tepuis - ancient, sheer-sided mountains, lost worlds cut off from the jungle below.

With an elite team of rock climbers, Steve attempts the first ascent of an unclimbed wall on a remote tepui to search for wildlife on the summit. But nobody could have predicted what would happen, nor the kinds of decisions they'd be forced to make. A white-knuckle ride from the start, the team encounter river rapids and hazardous wildlife, and survive a close shave with a rickety biplane. Yet nothing can prepare them for their climb to the island in the sky. ( Extreme Mountain Challenge)

However,the following article recalls a remarkably similar adventure from over 40 years ago when a crack team which included Joe Brown, Don Whillans, Hamish McInnes and Mo Anthoine took on a climb inspired by Arthur Conan Doyles' 'The Lost World' novel in the Brazilian/Venezuela rain forest.

"Mo Anthoine and Joe Brown tell in their own words of their climb to the Lost World. Together with Hamish Maclnnes. They arrived home on November 21st — Mike Thompson had returned home with an injured foot early on while Don Whillans — always a glutton for punishment — continued down to Patagonia for more thrills.'

The cliff dominates everything. There's a sort of ridge that runs up to the Face with a big drop on either side. Roraima is a two-tiered job and you by-pass the bottom tier by going up the ridge. We climbed the top tier. I've got a newspaper cutting from one of the previous expeditions and you'd think it was the most bloody desperate climb in the world just to get to the foot of it. You walk for three days through flat forest, not bad going. Then the vegetation changes as you go up the ridge. There are jellyish icicles of nasty grey slime hanging on all the trees. Eventually you reach Eldorado Swamp, that’s a height gain of about 2000‘and there we had Camp 7. It  was named by the botanists, for 'them it was Eldorado, for us, well we were up to our calves in mud and stuff. It as the first you could see the Face itself and the left-hand skyline is Brazil and the right Venezuela.

Anyway, from Eldorado Swamp the ridge gets steeper and it's about a 1000 feet, and about one and a quarter hours to the foot of the Face. It's only technically scrambling but we put fixed ropes on parts to stop having to get hold of nasty plants. We'd been told there would be no nasties on the Face but above Eldorado Swamp I caught five snakes! And these are tarantulas. We'd not seen them before and they suddenly started leaping around. They'll get up on their back legs, you know, when they're in an attacking mood, and jump at you. I was collecting them in polythene bags but Don was throwing my bloody collection away. Spiders, you can usually see them because they're so big, but scorpions are things I didn't like. They were what worried me most.

Mo and Mike arrived first and receed the thing up. It's metamorphosed sandstone — quartzite actually — and very, very hard. It's horizontally bedded so you get hardly any vertical cracks and the horizontal ones are shallow. It's desperate to drill. We had a bolt gun but even then the bolts wouldn't go in, just poof — they turned round and came out. Bloody hopeless! Hamish couldn't understand it. Anyway, Mo started off and did about 130 feet in two hours and Mike and I jumared up to him and I started the next pitch. There were lots of little holds with vegetation in and everyone I cleaned out had a scorpion under the vegetation and this slowed things down. You had to look into each hand-hold before using it. If there was a scorpion you just belted it with a peg hammer. The tension got me very fed up. Next day I used 12 drills trying to put in one bolt but we got to the Cabbage Patch, a sort of long ledge six inches wide where you get onto it, but widening to six or seven feet.It was covered in plants like huge leeks and full of water with mosquito larvae in that wriggled around. But we had to drink it and they stopped wriggling when you boiled the water.

Next day Hamish led off with Don. Eventually I was leading and when I was getting onto a big ledge I reached up and there was a really big fist-sized tarantula. I jumped off on to my last peg, got me hammer out and jumped back, splat, So we called it Tarantula Terrace. We had a camp under a roof here where we slung hammocks from pegs. Then the cliff, steepened with bare sections and overhangs and this Africa Flake thing. There was bolting for 50 feet and then some really exciting pegging for 200 feet. (Joe: "I found the whole lot bloody exciting! All expanding flakes and loose rock and horrible tie-offs. It was incredibly overhanging. You started off on jumars and swung thirty feet out, with three stances in etrier. It was really gripping I thought. To give you some idea, for the first 900 feet you never got a drop of water on you and it rained three inches every day. You'd be climbing away completely engrossed and you would hear the brrrrrrr, it would be rain beating on the forest below and you and you would be looking out to these fantastic waterfalls pouring down everywhere and the water wasn’t anywhere near you.But after we got around Africa Flake and the big right angle roofs,you were absolutely bloody soaked and really cold all was gruelling.

On one occasion, was leading towards what I thought was a stance, but it wasn't. I was soaked to the skin, the vegetation was desperate and the pegs really manky. There was only one hour of daylight left. I said, "We've got to go". Don and Hamish had jumared up behind with the bivvy gear and there was a bit of a panic. We went down as fast as we could and there was a real snarl up with the ropes. I was going hand over hand down thirteen ropes. It was a bunch six inches in diameter and I hadn't a clue what they were. Bloody chaos. Don was stanced in etrier and he had to pull Mo in. We abseiled in the dark. At that time I thought, "This is bloody crazy and we're finished". No-one disputed that. We went down to Camp 7 and rested for two or three days. Don and Hamish had a crack next and we watched from the bottom. You could shout up to the face and we jollied them on. Hamish was leading in his sugarcane-cutter's boots and they only got 15 feet above our high point when the weather was bad so they came down.

 Eventually Mo got to the start of the Green Tower, a nice ledge full of hundreds of fantastic huge insects. (Mo: "One looked like a JCB earth mover, all hooks and spikes and things...Then I led 30 to 40 feet up vegetation to our haven. At this ledge on top of the Green Tower we spent five nights, but the tent was only three feet wide and one side was hanging over the edge, but it was somewhere to work from and we felt a lot better. It's strange that on what must have been one of the wettest cliffs anywhere, you couldn't get any water. You had to do a swing round the corner on jumars with a poly bag to collect drips. Above this Joe tried his controlled descent. Only a few feet but I thought, "A peg's come out", but it hadn't. Joe said in a very calm voice, "I tried lay-backing up an etrier. I'm going to put a bolt in now". Then up an evil looking chimney to a tennis court — a really huge ledge and you could see the top 120 feet above.

We went back down the ropes to the camp. Don and Hamish had this squalid little bit of ledge and they didn't believe there was a big ledge above no they had this real miserable night under just a bit of awning. Hamish had a gaz stove for a pillow.

They're both seasoned gamesman those two, and they were trying to outwriggle each other. We were in hysterics. We persuaded them to lead a bit the next day but Don said, "Who do you think you are? You've led most of the way, so how about finishing it off?". Hamish agreed to do some. We got to a hard 40 foot pitch and Hamish got some krabs on a rope and hurled it across into a chimney and it stuck on a chockstone and he jumared up.

Then there was some steep vegetated stuff where Hamish  stood on Don's back to start and then I got the top pitch to do. I was worried and the rock got soft and the pegs were all duff. When I tried to get onto this pinnacle I pulled a ledge off and I didn't shout, "Below" until a second after it had landed on Hamish! It flattened him! (Joe: "Christ how d'yr get a really injured man down the Face? How d'yr get yourself down? Really gripping! It was mostly soil but Hamish was adamant there was a great big block in the middle. Quite a whoompf! The last part looked hard, but it was a piece of duff. Suddenly, poompf — and I pulled over the top and the sun came out. It had been raining for a month. Bloody amazing! The top was incredible. Just as good as you'd imagined it to be. Just flat, just bare rock.

Back a bit there were these ravines. Some were 150 feet deep at least, all eroded sandstone, water courses where the waterfalls start. It was a real maze. So we spent one and a half hours on the summit and came straight down. We left all the gear, all the fixed ropes from top to bottom. They'd frayed through and we left them. We'd spent 17 days on the Face, we thought it would be 4 and it was a lot harder than we thought. I've never been on an artificial climb that has been as continuous as that for so long. I've been on more difficult ones but they were much shorter, If you have something which is as hard as the hardest artificial climbs say in Derbyshire or Yorkshire, and put them one on top of the other and think back how long it took to climb Gordale Scar and Kilnsey Crag for the first time, well — that's why it took 17 days. I thought it was good going in fact. At one time we were all trying to psych out. I wished I could get stung by a scorpion, or get a spike through my foot and be sent home like Mike. We had this one drill left and if it broke then the climb would be finished and I was tempted to snap it.

"If it had been snow and ice it would have been interesting but it was just boring rock", that's a quote of Hamish's that is, but Hamish says he gets bored with rock climbing!

Footnote: Roraima, at 9219ft the highest point in the highlands where Guyana, Venezuela and Brazil meet, was first climbed in 1889— not of course by the same route as the recent expedition but by less steep but more jungly slopes on the opposite side. The ascent was made by Sir Everard im Thum, at that time the Government Agent for the N.W. District of the then colony of British Guiana, accompanied by Mr Henry lnnes Perkins. It was subsequently ascended by Mr F. V. McConnell in 1894 and 1898 and in 1916 there was a first ladies' ascent by Lady Clementi.

Mo Anthoine/Joe Brown in conversation with Chris Brasher:First published in Mountain Life Dec 1973

Friday, 4 March 2016

The Chasm of Buachaille Etive Mor

ON THE SOUTH-EAST side of Stob Dearg of Buachaille Etive Mor broken rocks and scree descend for about 500 feet beneath the summit in a sort of wide funnel, below which the mountain face is cleft by a great, vertical rift between precipitous cliffs for about 1,500 feet or more, ending on the gently sloping moorland not very far above the road in Glen Etive, about a mile and a half below its junction with the main road west of Kingshouse. The early age of British rock climbing specialized in the ascent of gullies, and its most exciting problems were encountered where the gullies were bridged by huge boulders with caves underneath them. Such difficulties were usually accentuated by a stream of water coming over the chockstone and clothing the rocky walls with spongy, green moss, circumstances in which the older pioneers appeared to put forth their best efforts and find keen enjoyment.

The Chasm of the Buachaille was bound to attract attention in the early days of Scottish rock climbing, and its history is, in fact, a long one. In July 1898 J. H. Bell (a past president of the S.M.C.not related to the author) and J. Maclay were forced to retreat after a hard struggle, from below a 100-foot waterfall pouring down over a seemingly impregnable, vertical cliff. This point is now recognized to be less than half-way up the Chasm. In June 1903 the ablest Scottish climber of his time, Harold Raeburn, accompanied by Dr and Mrs Inglis Clark, entered the Chasm above this difficulty. They found a good deal of old snow and, at one place, traversed about fifty feet through a snow tunnel. Time was against them, for Raeburn had to catch an evening train at Tyndrum. They escaped on to the south wall at a point where two severe pitches still remained to be tackled, above which was the culminating difficulty, now known as the Devil's Cauldron. Their climb ended on the Lady's Pinnacle, about 200 feet high, situated on the south wall. Dr Clark considered that this was the most prolonged piece of difficult climbing in his British experience. Raeburn, however, returned to the assault in April 1906, accompanied by W. N. Ling.

Although it should have been obvious that the Chasm would be most likely to yield its last secrets as a pure rock climb, uncomplicated by snow or water, and preferably after a long, dry period, the pioneers of those days were in the habit of doing their Scottish climbing in the early part of the year and spending their summer vacations in the Alps. Climbing the Chasm was thus rendered much more difficult by the presence of masses of old snow which had partly melted away from the side walls of the gully, the rocks of which were often exceedingly smooth and water-worn. If the weather was fine and the sun was hot, copious streams of descending water added to the difficulties. Raeburn and Ling put up a very good show. At certain places stocking-sole technique was necessary. At others the snow was of some assistance, as it piled up against the walls and lessened the effective height of the pitches. Raeburn reported that this applied to most of the pitches which were climbed in 1903. Finally, they too were driven out on to the south wall at a point where the last pitch- "a black, slimy slit of smooth rock, down which gurgled enough water in gallons per minute, to furnish an ample supply to a fair sized town"- loomed high above them. The next attempt resulted in a successful ascent of all but the direct route up the back of the Devil's Cauldron. A reconnais-sance on the previous day solved the problem of the 100 foot pitch which had frustrated the party of 1898, and a fixed rope was left hanging down the pitch.

The ascent was started at six-fifteen a.m. (from the foot of the first pitch) on 13 April 1920 by R. F. Stobart and Mr and Mrs N. E. Odell. There was plenty of snow and running water. The mist closed down on the party after second breakfast at half-past ten. Combined tactics were necessary at a pitch where smooth, waterworn, vertical walls converged at middle height and permitted the necessary bridg-ing tactics. At the back of the Devil's Cauldron the waterfall hung suspended as a 100 foot curtain of great icicles, but the party was able, by a second use of combined tactics, to climb a vertical chimney on the south wall. So ended the Chasm and its difficulties at five-twenty p.m. The first direct ascent of the back of the Devil's Cauldron was effected on 30 August 1931 by J. G. Robinson and I. G. Jack. They took four hours to reach its floor and another three to climb the pitch. This triumph was the climax to a number of attempts by a small band of enthusiasts. Colin Allan and I had no part in the exploration of the Chasm. Our first visit, entirely unplanned, was in May 1932. It was not a complete success, as we were defeated by a considerable flow of water at the middle section of the Cauldron, but we returned to the Chasm, year after year, as a sort of standard climb which never failed to yield a grand day of strenuous rock work in magnificent surroundings. If we could climb Buachaille by the Chasm, run down to the Etive and enjoy a swim in its long pool and feel no fatigue, we concluded that we were in reasonably good training.

We spent a pleasant evening at Kingshouse, but left our friends after eleven p.m. in order to pass the night in our own way. About midnight we were seated on the pier at Lochetivehead, watching the full moon rise over the shoulder of Ben Staray. We sat for so long, absorbing the peace and beauty of that perfect night, that a half-formed impulse to climb the mountain died away of itself. About four miles back on the way to Dalness we found a little wood where we spread our sleeping sacks on a carpet of pine needles and went to sleep. There is nothing more delightful than such a bivouac in a cool, spring night. A few midges awoke us between four and five a.m., but they were only a handful of skirmishers, and not the hordes of summer-time. Our day commenced with a swim in a cold, deep pool of the river Etive. Then came plenty of breakfast—kippers toasted over a wood fire, boiled eggs, pork pies, bread, cheese, marmalade and tea. We paid tribute to dietetics and vitamins with a final course of oranges. Nowadays, even were it possible, I should doubt the value of such a preparation for a day's climbing.

Then, the procedure was normal, and most enjoyable too. A few introductory pitches loosened our muscles before the walls of the gully closed in about us. A triple pitch loomed ahead, with three huge chockstones in succession, each surmounting a cave. The ascent was effected on the right wall. This is almost the only vegetatious pitch in the Chasm, but even here there are good rock holds where required. We made one pitch of it and traversed back on to the floor of the gully above the waterfall. The next long pitch was up a slabby wall of red rock, on the left, with an awkward traverse to the right at the top of the difficulty, where the holds were not in-cut. The leader should have adequate length of rope for this pitch. In wet conditions it can be very wet at the bottom. Little need be said of the successive difficulties which we encountered below the 100 foot waterfall pitch which had defeated the earliest explorers. They are all interesting and varied, but Colin Allan and I, in successive visits, became so familiar with them that we did not use the rope at all on this lower section. This is a confession rather than an example to be followed.

Some of the pitches are exposed and difficult. If we took guests with us we always roped them up. The reputed. sixth pitch is a test of the dryness of the Chasm. It is a straight-forward staircase with the usual waterfall pouring down. In wet weather it means a certain drenching on the stair on the left. We discovered an alternative through-route by a cave on the right, but this is mossy, slimy and difficult and unlikely to be drier. If the sixth pitch is dry one has a reasonable expectation of being able to climb the rest of the Chasm. The last pitch below the Cross Roads is a delightful, airy problem on a nearly vertical rib on the left, followed by a lofty traverse back to the bed of the gully above a waterfall. Now we arrived at the Cross Roads, where a transverse, eroded dyke forms two gullies, to left and right. It was a good place for lunch. Any party that has had enough difficulty or enough climbing for the day can escape here on either side, the more interesting being the right or north side, with a pleasant descent from the crest of the north wall, involving some good practice scrambling. Allan and I contemplated the waterfall. The only possible route was obvious enough, by a near-vertical, shallow cleft on the right-hand buttress of the fall. The first thirty feet to a little pinnacle, with stance and belay, were easy. Then the holds became small and more widely spaced.

At a return visit in 1945 I found some loose rock in this upper section, but there are still sufficient sound holds. It is an exposed pitch with small but adequate holds, technically excellent if one goes about it with care and deliberation. At the top there is a perfect stance and belay. Although it is possible to continue up this wall, the better way is to make a short, difficult traverse into the gully bed, cross this and go up the other wall for a few feet to a narrow ledge which goes almost as far as the lip of the next waterfall. The handholds are few and wide apart. The ledge peters out towards the finish and the rock is very smooth and rounded. Delicate balance and a long arm span are necessary if one is to be successful in negotiating the Piano Pitch, as it has been named.

Careful selection of holds and study of the direction of stresses are essential to make each movement safe, especially for a short man. Brute force and rush tactics may land one in the pool beneath the waterfall. I have seen two seconds who have slipped in at the last move. It is only eight or ten feet down to the water. Those who slipped were, of course, lowered into the pool! After some inclined, water-worn slabs, which are not too easy, we came to a narrow rift with smooth walls, about sixty feet high. About twenty feet up on the left was a rounded bulge projecting from the wall, and just above this point the walls converged to their narrowest aperture, about three feet or so.

The stream came down in a fall at the innermost part of the rift. This pitch may, unfortunately, be avoided by climbing out of the gully on the left. The back of the rift is somewhat undercut, which would make it altogether impossible to climb up there by orthodox chimney tactics. I have never tried, as it must be a very wet proceeding. It is not a cave pitch, and the neat solution of the problem makes use of the bulge of rock on the wall. Combined tactics were used by the Stobart-Odell party in 1920. I think that Colin Allan was the first man to climb the pitch unaided by the direct method. He climbed it in boots, which makes the performance all the more creditable on smooth, rounded, waterworn rock, taking into consideration the corresponding qualities of Allan's boots, which seldom had many nails at all! I led up to the bulge by bridging movements with feet on one wall and hands on the other. There is a good stance at the bulge, hardly enough room for two people, but no belay. Colin pushed up past me, wedged between the walls, reached across to a handhold on the opposite (north) wall and pulled himself over and up with both arms. He was strong enough to do it in that way and I respected his performance.

Somehow, I failed to get the knack, so that I had to accept a good pull on the rope. This failure made me think on ways and means of making up for my relative lack of stature and arm strength. The solution is applicable to many other, difficult, cross-stepping traverses on severe rock climbs. The guiding rule is to spare no effort in order to get high enough, and somewhat above the holds which one is aiming for. One should also study the holds for one or two moves ahead. Accurate co-ordination of eye and limb replaces brute force and hard pulling. In 1933, when climbing the Chasm with G. C. Williams, I led the Converging Walls Pitch and found that I had a good reserve of energy. The landing on the north wall is still on rounded rock ledges, but is perfectly secure. If you lead the pitch and have doubts of the ability of your second it is a good idea to make him take off his boots and proceed in stocking-soles. There is a belay on the north wall some distance above. On one occasion Colin was taking a lady climber up to the first bulge, when the latter had the misfortune to slip. Colin was obviously enjoying himself as the lady executed a few pendulum swings below him on the rope.

Then he simply took in the rope, pulling her up as if he were landing a fish. He was a good man to climb with. As in first-class drama, there is now a breathing space. The Chasm is walled in on both sides to a height of over 100 feet. Numerous pitches succeed one another, all in the line of the watercourse where there should now be only a trickle of water. At one point there is an easy exit on to the south wall. A somewhat difficult, short cave pitch lies below the great hall of the Devil's Cauldron. There is an undercut handhold near the top on the right wall of the cave and a good hold above.

The Devil's Cauldron is a savage and magnificent place, the north wall of 200 feet being vertical and unclimbable. The impressive wall on the south side is cleft by a narrow vertical chimney. At first sight the wet repulsive slit at the back of this narrow enclosure appears to be utterly unclimbable, so that it is small wonder that the earlier parties never attempted to do so. Unless after dry weather in summer, and preferably no earlier than June, as there is often snow in the Chasm till well on into May, one should not attempt the direct route up the back of the Cauldron. The weather had deteriorated when Allan and I got thus far. I was deputed to lead the first fifty or sixty feet to a small platform underneath a narrow undercut chimney which was the crux of the climb. Although reasonably dry at the start, the last ten feet below the platform sprayed me fairly effectively.

Colin joined me on the stance and I belayed him for his attempt on the crucial chimney. Conditions were altogether against him. Like all strong men he delighted in forcing himself up and pulling with both hands, keeping far too close inside the chimney and so becoming the butt for a vigorous stream of water from above, which poured over his head, down his neck and down his sleeves. He failed to gain a foothold on the north wall, but was wise enough to retreat in good order. I was so overawed by the sight of my friend in the guise of a mermaid that I called out for a complete withdrawal while we were still not too chilled to grasp the rocks. On the floor of the Cauldron I took off all my clothes, wrung them out and put them on again. It was worth doing. We traversed out of the Chasm by the south wall, but we had enjoyed a good day's climbing. The next time I visited the Chasm was in the company of G. C. Williams on 9 July 1933. There was only a trickle of water at the back of the Cauldron. I had a hard struggle with the crucial chimney, and retained a wholesome respect for the place. Above it I found a little rock arch where Williams belayed me for the final, straight section of the pitch. From below, this appears to be far worse than what goes before. The side walls are vertical and the water comes trickling down over mossy slabs which seem to be almost as steep. The reality is much more comforting.

The technique is orthodox backing-up, such as is used for most chimneys, and the exposure, with a sensational drop to the rocky floor of the Cauldron, need not worry any confident expert. With feet pressed against the wall in front and palms of the hands at my hips pressed against the wall behind, I progressed upwards, a few inches at a time, with very little effort and almost as much comfort as if I had been seated in an armchair with my feet against the sides of the fireplace. At intervals I could rest across the gap and take a bird's-eye-view of the countenance of my second. Fortunately, the holds improve below the upper overhanging chockstone, which is the last difficulty. In the first edition of the Central Highlands Guide the exit pitch from the Cauldron is given as 175 feet high. The earlier explorers thought it must be 200 feet at least. Debunking is a sordid occupation, but I have measured the height with a reliable surveying aneroid with a 4-inch dial, and the result was between 105 and 110 feet. Climbers are but human: they would not indulge in such an irrational sport without a lively imagination, singularly sensitive to the impress of difficulty and the self-satisfaction of victory. Even the crux is not so difficult and strenuous as I have suggested. In August 1945 I led an English climbing friend up the Chasm.

The Converging Walls Pitch pleased him, but it was only at the Cauldron that he became visibly impressed. Then it dawned upon me that, after a lapse of twelve years, which had taken my own age very close to the half-century, I might not be able to lead the crux at all. I discounted the effect of those years in better co-ordinated movements and economy of effort. By keeping as far out of the chimney as possible and resting frequently I was able to gain the critical foothold on the north wall without any undue effort. It is true that the other wall shrinks away to nothing at a certain height and that the position feels and appears to be highly precarious, but exposure is not the same thing as danger. August 1945 was, however, a dry month in the West Highlands. It is seldom that conditions are good enough for a comfortably dry ascent of the back of the Cauldron. On all other occasions but the two already mentioned Allan and I were obliged to climb out of the Cauldron by the chimney on the south wall. In 1920 the Stobart-Odell party used combined tactics for climbing this severe chimney.

About 1938 or so, E. R. Zenthon climbed it alone, and W. H. Murray has also climbed it. Our problem was to find a safe way up the south wall for more ordinary climbers in conditions when the back of the Cauldron was too wet. We found the best solution at our second attempt, using the chimney only for the first twenty feet or so. The second can then safeguard the leader over a severe traverse out of the chimney, by an exposed corner and along a smooth, narrow ledge on the south wall. The movement is as difficult as anything on the direct route, but it is safe and dry. The leader can then climb straight up to an excellent stance and belay, from which he can safeguard his second. The final ascent to the top of the wall is by a moderate, upper chimney.

The climb finishes on the top of the Lady's Pinnacle, which was first reached by Harold Raeburn, Dr and Mrs Inglis Clark in 1903. So history tends to repeat itself, but there is no easy ascent of the Devil's Cauldron and the Chasm keeps its best pitches for the end. 

JHB Bell: First published in 'Bell's Scottish Climbs'