Saturday, 28 November 2015

Scrambles in Yorkshire and further gritstone adventures

I was waiting at Arthington Junction, near Leeds — a station specially constructed to inculcate the virtue of patience, though it is believed that the complaints of incensed passengers have done much to modify its original useful purpose,when my eye was attracted by a singular clump of timber standing out solitary and conspicuous on a bare hillside. A gentleman in corduroys was near me on the platform, regaling the evening air with his views on railway companies. Of him I inquired the name of those trees. 'Trees! Haw, haw! Why that was Awmescliff Craag.' I was unacquainted with gritstone then, and knew not its little ways. Of course, I had met it walking down the street, with a man behind it bawling out 'Knives and scissors to grind!' and I had no idea that it lived in mills and ground up corn and things; but I had never before encountered it in its wild state on its native heath.

I did not then suspect the facility with which it can simulate the appearance of the bosky grove, nor had I the slightest idea of the amount of sport that Almes Cliff — Great Almias Cliff of maps and guide-books — would someday afford me, or of the quantity of clothes and skin I should leave thereon by way of compensation. Gritstone may popularly be described as a glorified lump of petrified sandstone. This great roughness allows of climbing methods which would be out of the question on almost any other kind of rock. You can take liberties which ordinary rock would resent; and for this reason gritstone is not good  practice for a beginner. In other words if the gritstone climbs were composed of rock of the Borrowdale or Snowdonian series, half of them would not 'go', ie...would be impossible.

On the other hand, gritstone has certain little peculiarities of its own. Without decency or warning the roughness changes to an absolutely smooth bevel, of course entirely to your disadvantage, affording no possibilities for either grip or friction.Or else the rock bulges out unexpectedly and knocks you backwards. Also, when it comes on to rain, the surface is transmuted into a nasty, mossy, greasy slime. Almes Cliff Crags give some of the finest gritstone climbing I know. In appearance they are insignificant, two escarpments of grit, one below the other, and neither more than sixty feet in altitude at the highest point. Sixty feet! What is that? Men who get killed in the Alps do the thing in style and tumble half a mile or so. All very well. Sixty feet is quite sufficient.

Anyone who doubts this has only to step off the coping of his house on to the pavement to be convinced. Happily this danger can only be obviated by sending round a friend with a rope to the top of the cliff to play you up, and this should invariably be done until you have assured yourself by frequent ascents that the climb is well within your powers. I italicize these words, because the cliff is visited by climbers of exceptional skill, and climbing of a somewhat desperate nature is occasionally indulged in.

Onlookers who know nothing of the game may be tempted to follow in their foot and hand holds (if they can find them), and may hurt themselves. One of the best climb on Almes Cliff is the Great Chimney on the High Man. It gives some fifty or sixty feet of straightforward back-and- knee-work.The climber enters the chimney right shoulder first, and with a little difficulty works his way up till his toes are lodged in the lower crack. Then comes the tug of war. The next ten feet are quite holdless and the roughness and angle of the crack something to the climber's disadvantage. The body is firmly braced across the chimney by lateral pressure of the arms, knees and feet, and is then lifted vertically a few inches by a desperate wriggle. This is repeated several times, till the hands can be reached into the upper crack, when it is usual to rest awhile. It is not so easy to get the feet up to that crack as may appear at first sight. Closer inspection will show the (proper) right wall just above it overhangs it considerably.

The finish of the climb, a long a, reach over a rounded edge, is not quite nice in a high wind. Who was the first tailor? I don't mean Adam, with his fig leaves, but the first man who took up tailoring commercially?  Because I'm sure he invented gritstone. It plays the dickens with ones clothes, especially when you back up. Once have I been compelled to depart hurriedly to the nearest village to be, like a newly paid bill,reseated. After my last day's scrambling there I pursued my homeward way with my hands pensively clasped behind my back whenever I sighted anybody. The climbing at Almes Cliff is almost inexhaustible. I could name half a hundred problems right away, and some courses are of first class severity. I know of no harder in climb in England than Parsons' Chimney. I have seen it done once, and attempted it more than once, but, like Mr. OG Jones's  friend, I do not like that 'infernal dangling'.

The Leaf Climb is quite a hard little struggle. The left arm and knee are wedged between the jammed boulder and the containing wall,and the body is levered up until the right knee and arm can be thrown across. Then a comprehensive wriggle brings the top of the stone within reach of the climber's left  hand.

The Leaf can be passed easily on the climber's right, and this course is to be preferred in heavy wind. There is a Stomach Traverse on the famous Pillar Stone in Ennerdale, Cumberland, and there is a Stomach Traverse on Almes Cliff. The Pillar Traverse is not very difficult, quite reasonably safe though in emergency sensational. The difficulty consists in hauling oneself about forty feet along a diagonal crack on the face of the precipice; the safety lies in the fact that it is possible to wedge the left arm and leg so firmly in the crack that it is something of a tussle to get them out; the sensationalism arises from the fact that a considerable portion of your frame is supported by some two thousand odd feet of the thinnest of thin nothingness, with a nice, accommodating, and entirely finishing bump about three hundred feet down to speed you on your short cut to the Liza Valley.

The Almes Cliff Traverse is somewhat different. It is fairly safe — you cannot fall more than 40ft; the sensationalism is to be found — easily — in the realisation that you are quite likely to come off anywhere between the 4ft and the 40ft. And the difficulty! There is no mistake about that. There are two points of attack curiously resembling each other, yet differing as far as the right from the left. The right shoulder attack :The right arm first, and afterwards the knee, are wedged in a crack, and the body is then forced upwards by desperate wrigglings aided by wild scrapings with the left foot (clearly shown by the white scratches) until both hands can be reached to the top of a ledge to the left of the climber. The left shoulder attack is very similar, except that the arm has to be braced, elbow and palm and rather less vigour and a great deal more delicate balance are required. On the ledge the climber generally lies on his 'tummy'

This position, however, is not the origin of the name of the climb. The next move is to traverse laterally and upwards across the face of the cliff, with the fingers in one horizontal crack and the toes in another. This would be comparatively easy were it not that the rock between the cracks bulges out like a typical alderman's corporation. The balance in places is nice enough, even for a thin man. Whence the name of the climb. The bouldering at Almes cliff is second to none. Ilkley would be another happy hunting ground were it not that it is more frequented than the Almes Cliff district. There are one or two good things on the Cow and the Calf, but the best of the scrambling is in the Valley of Rocks. The Split Rocks Climb is not easy in itself, and is specially valuable as instructive in the art of feeling at ease on a dangerous face. The Crooked Crack is one of the stiffest little bits in broad Yorkshire; and there are many others. Gritstone climbing is not mountaineering of course.

Nevertheless, much can be learnt. Balance, backing up, something of the management of the rope something of the art of climbing with the least possible fatigue, and all sorts of little things that go to make the complete climber.

CE Benson: First Published in Fry's Outdoor Magazine-1906

Saturday, 21 November 2015

A Black Rainbow: The life and times of Menlove Edwards

Edwards (standing) and friends.Crib Goch 1935
Nearly quarter of a century after his untimely death, at the age of forty-eight, the climbing career of John Menlove Edwards, one of the most curious in British climbing history, still exerts a compelling fascination. As an innovator, he was the most prolific cragsman of the thirties, pioneering at least ninety new climbs or variations. Not interested in aesthetically pleasing lines, Edwards usually selected a less-popular cliff and dissected it over a period of time, sometimes in the process producing mediocre climbs on loose, vegetated rock — a factor seized upon by his critics- but as posterity has shown,a pointer to the future. It is impossible to divorce his traumatic and tortured life from his mountaineering activities, or indeed, the remarkable feats of rowing, sailing or swimming in which J.M.E. indulged at various times — each were an integral part of his complex make-up. Towards the end of his life he considered himself a failure, yet he was a man gifted with an array of talent. As a writer he has been described as having one of the most exciting styles of prose-writing between the wars.

His poetry, original and deeply expressive and has received similar praise.He was a proven success as a clinical psychiatrist with a brilliant career ahead of him but it was enough for him and he entered the maze of experimental psychiatry, devoting many years of study to the subject. Mainly because of the war, little progress was made in the field of psychiatric medicine in this country and Edwards was ploughing a lone furrow — the intensity of the work, the deprivation and isolation he imposed upon himself, the inner conflicts of his suppressed homosexual tendencies and the extreme social pressures which he was forced to endure as a conscientious objector during the war years, all helped to erode his resilience. Now in a weakened state, the total rejection of his theories by his fellow psychiatrists, much of it in crude note form, was to him, unacceptable — the tragedy was drawing to its inevitable end and after at least two suicide attempts, Edwards had to suffer the mortifying experience of being committed to Denbigh Mental Hospital where he underwent electric shock treatment.

It was to no avail and sometime later he gave up the battle for life before darkness and despair submerged him completely. On the 2nd February, 1958, he ended it all by swallowing potassium cyanide. Since his death two generations of climbers have journeyed through British mountaineering and there is a danger that the deeds of the great figures of the past, like Edwards, will be lost in the passage of time — this would be a tragedy because the climbing world owes him a debt that will probably never be fully realised.

Menlove Edwards was born in 1910 at Crossens village, near Southport; he is remembered as a rather shy and sensitive lad, who despite his already powerful build, was usually the family peacemaker whenever his two elder brothers were involved in childish squabbles. At the age of thirteen he won a scholarship to Fettes public school where the lack of privacy and the astringent atmosphere were completely alien to his retiring nature. He shone at sports and distinguished himself at swimming, hockey and cricket. After winning the Begg Memorial Exhibition, he disappointed his family by refusing the possibility of reading medicine at Edinburgh University, choosing instead to enrol at Liverpool University where he could be near his family, concerned about his father, who was forced to retire through ill-health on a vicar's meagre pension. At Liverpool University he was introduced to climbing by his brother, Hewlett—this was in 1929 and his progress the next year was phenomenal!

In August, 1930, he pioneered Ochre Slab on Lliwedd, followed a few months later by Route V on the East Wall of Idwal Slabs and by the end of 1931 he was responsible for fourteen new climbs in Snowdonia, the pick of these being Flying Buttress and Spiral Stairs on Dinas Cromlech, the Girdle Traverse of Idwal East Wall and the Final Flake on Glyder Fach. On the 29th August, 1931, he emphasised his arrival in British climbing by becoming the first cragsman to lead Flake Crack, Scafell Central Buttress, without aid at the chockstone and without prior inspection —Edwards was only twenty at the time. He made the ascent in rubbers and later returned to claim the first lead in nailed boots. In the same year, Edwards seconded Kirkus when he pioneered the Chimney Route on Cloggy, and in 1933, Kirkus followed J.M.E. up Nebuchadnezzar' s Crawl on Dinas Cromlech — the only two routes these master climbers ever essayed jointly.

Edwards was arguably the finest climber produced in this country before the war —although many may feel that Kirkus should hold that distinction. Comparisons between them, hypothetical or not, are bound to happen. Strength was the main characteristic of Edwards and his leads of Flake Crack (HVS), Lliwedd Central Gully (HVS) and Brant and Slape (VS) on Clogwyn y Grochan all typify this attribute (he was also quite capable of leading courses of a delicate nature, i.e. Bow Shaped Slab, Shadow Wall, and Western Slabs — all high standard routes in their day. In contrast, Kirkus appeared to prefer the more delicate balance movement on open faces that reached its highest expression with climbs the calibre of Mickledore Grooves on the East Buttress of Scafell. J.M.E. was considered a safer mountaineer than Kirkus, whose judgement at times was suspect, being involved in a series of spectacular falls, the results of which would have probably had dire consequences had it not been for the belaying expertise of A. B. Hargreaves.

Edwards was greatly affected by moods, and on an off-day, has been known to fail on lowly climbs such as Hope on Idwal Slabs. He safeguarded himself when soloing with a rope loop, probably putting it to the test on a number of occasions — on the subject of falling his notes read: . . . 6-10 times, depending whether one counts. The longest about 40' .Others have bettered that by a long way. 80'. C.F.K. [Kirkus] 200' on steep rock . ." Writing of Edwards, Hargreaves has this to say: 

But there is one thing no one could say about him — and this is quite extraordinary considering the enormous amount of climbing he did and the exceptional difficulty of much of it — that he was prone to falling-off whilst leading. I do know that he once came off that notoriously holdless place in the Cioch Gully, but I never heard of him making a serious mistake which could have endangered his party." (He also came adrift on Eliminate I on Helsby, where others have been killed, but his sling method of protection stopped him hitting the ground.)

He led many of the hardest routes of the day in nailed-boots. These included Longland's, Great Slab and the Chimney on Cloggy; Belle Vue Bastion- Tryfan; Routes 1 and 2, Pillar Rock; Innominate Crack and Sepulchre, Kern Knotts; and Botterill's Slab, Scafell. It was also on Botterill's Slab in pouring rain, three-quarters of the way up, that he decided to proceed further would be stretching his safety margin — he finished the climb on a top rope from a young Wilfred Noyce. His enormous power was displayed to the full during the second ascent of Great Slab, Clogwyn Du'r Arddu, in 1932. One of the team, a man of fifteen stones, fell free of the face on the end of a 150 ft. line, with the diminutive Alan Hargreaves the unfortunate anchor man. Edwards came down to the belay and without any fuss grasped the rope with his hands and just lifted the dangling climber until he made contact with the rock.

Such was his immense faith in his own ability, he would literally climb with anyone, irrespective of their experience — on the first ascent of Grey Slab, Glyder Fawr, he was partnered by a twelve year old boy by the name of Frank Reade, who was instructed by Edwards to lean out from the wall on the rope and walk up the 150 ft. pitch — with a little help from J.M.E. He was not an enthusiastic club man, despite serving the Wayfarers' as vice-president and being made an honorary member of the Climbers' Club — he did not mix easily and it suited his temperament to climb with casual acquaintances. Wilfred Noyce, a cousin of Colin Kirkus, who was one of the few climbers to establish a regular climbing partnership with Edwards recalls his first meeting with J.M.E. in 1934:

"As a boy of 17, I was staying at Helyg over the Easter meet. On the Friday evening, while the others descended to Capel, I stayed in. The only other person in the hut was a man in a tattered coat and seaman's jersey, a man with powerful looking shoulders and a strange face, handsome in its way.The hair was auburn, almost woolly; he jaw firm and jutting, so as to force a hollow between the full lips; the face smooth, rather childlike but for the eyes, which were those of a man who had seen a great deal." He took Noyce to climb in Llanberis Pass, where they sampled Long Tree Gate, one of JME.' s recent discoveries on Clogwyn y Grochan. En route to the cliff Edwards conceded that he never derived any pleasure in walking uphill for its own sake and that he enjoyed the tranquillity of having a rock face to himself. Edwards believed that climbers skilled in their trade could safely utilize loose rock and any vertical vegetation that they may encounter — it was a revolutionary idea which opened up cliffs that had been considered out of the question by the experts of the past. Here is what he wrote in 1934:

Of Wales in general what strikes one most is the large number of unclimbed faces still staring down upon a pretty stiff-necked veneration. What is the fascination of young climbers in the old Slabs and that still older face of Tryfan? 

The dank, brooding walls of the Devil's Kitchen were approached by Edwards in this way, and of course, his pilgrimage on the three cliffs of Llanberis Pass. He was no doubt considered eccentric and was subjected to a certain amount of leg-pulling concerning his horticultural pursuits — nevertheless, he was responsible for it least twenty-five pre-war routes in the Pass, paving the way for the climbing mecca this area has since become. It was during the early thirties he became associated with 'The British Mountaineering Journal' — the first commercial climbing magazine to be produced in this country. He eventually became editor and although the journal filled an important need in mountaineering literature, its appearance received a mixed reception among senior climbing clubs.

Edwards, keenly aware about the lack of information on new climbs, started a series of ' Guides to the British Hills' — the first areas written by him and dealt with the East Wall of Idwal Slabs and Holly Tree Wall. The advantage of a handy pull-out section for visiting climbers was obvious and subsequently the Climbers' Club took over the Welsh Guides, with J.M.E. playing a major role. And it was as a guide book writer that Edwards made his mark with the general climbing world, devoting about seven years of his climbing life to these works. In 1936 he compiled his Cwm Idwal Guide and to many pundits of the time, it was the finest ever produced. He attempted to show not only technical information, but the climber's state of mind and the whole cliff in relation to the most prominent features. Kelly's Lakes guides were an economy of English, a strong contrast to Menlove's literary style. Viewed across a gap of nearly fifty years, some of his descriptions have not been bettered.

On the first pitch of Belle Vue Bastion he writes, "Numerous scratches lead easily up and round the main corner and on to and up a little subsidiary slab on the edge of all things." Clogwyn-y-Geifr warrants this description, "It has every natural advantage, being steep, composed of pretty rocky sort of rock and being covered with vegetation: also parts of it have been long over-due for public exploitation. It is the sort of place where one can feel the full glory of stepping in perfect safety on someone else's considered opinion." Cwm Idwal was quickly followed by the Tryfan Guide and in 1937 saw the start of Lliwedd — it was two years in preparation and a perpetual battle against adversity. Despite atrocious weather conditions, Edwards camped at the foot of the mountain for a month before being washed out of his tent. Handicapped by a lack of helpers who were willing to endure the rigours of an inhospitable terrain and the standards imposed by J.M.E. Its publication in 1939 was the finale of a monumental effort. During the early war years J.M.E. and John Barford were co-authors of a provisional guide to Clogwyn Du'r Arddu using the controversial continental system of grading routes — it is also interesting to note that Menlove's only creation on Cloggy is Bow Shaped Slab which he climbed on the 20th September, 1942.

On the subject of big cliff mentality he related to Noyce: Nobody, in these days, would climb without being certain of a good jughandle hold at the end of it. All a question of habit and nerve training. Soon we will be able to get over that, the leads will come longer and people more able to stick around on small holds for a long time without worrying. The top part of the Pinnacle on Du'r would be climbed. It wanted the right leader, that was all.

It was a prophetic statement which Joe Brown and others were to fulfill many years later. Before the recent upsurge of tolerance and enlightenment, the bigoted prejudices society held against homosexuality in the thirties must have been a constant source of deep anxiety to Edwards and a major contribution to his agonising decline. Few knew of his social impediment. It became general knowledge with the publication of his biographical study after his death. It was during the Winter of 1931 he rowed a boat from Arisaig to Skye in a storm — the first of his many amazing aquatic exploits. In the Easter of that year he swam through the Linn of the Dee in full spate. The Linn is a narrow gorge through which the River Dee is compressed with considerable force, especially in the Spring, when the winter snow is melting on the Cairngorms. Apart from some bruising he was unhurt. Not long afterwards he spent sixteen hours alone in a collapsible canoe, paddling from the Isle of Man to the Cumberland coast — an incident which was given wide coverage in a local newspaper. In 1935 he persuaded Colin Kirkus to join him in an attempt to row across the Irish Sea — it became an epic as the pair spent many hours battling against heavy seas and a freezing gale before Edwards amitted defeat and returned to Conwy, only to be swamped by a wave under the jetty.

Several months later he hired a fishing smack and left Fraserburgh to sail to Norway — it was to be his most enterprising project to date. He took six weeks' supply of food but was convinced he could do it in three. After sailing through the night his boat was spotted by a Scottish drifter, who went to investigate. It appeared that his boat had a damaged rudder and was made less effective when the drifter ''accidentally" rammed it — Edwards was forced to return to port, much to his disgust. Throughout the towing operation Edwards sat back in his boat and refused to help in any way, suspicious that his friends, worried about the perilous journey, had arranged the fortuitous meeting with the Scottish boat. In January, 1936, he rowed across the Minch to the Isle of Harris. The outward journey took him 28 hours before he reached at a deserted cove — he returned in 24 hours after spending 3 days on the island.

His last recorded marine exploit took place in the summer of 1944 when he hired rowing boat at Skye and crossed to the Isle Rhum, then over to Canna, spending 18 hours at sea in poor visibility, being continuously buffeted by wind and rain. One pre-war holiday found him systematically swimming across every large expanse of water in the Lake District and in the early forties he developed an amazing technique of using strong waves off the Cornish coast to lift him on to a cliff, where-upon he would pick out a line to the top. Three commandos who were watching tried to emulate this feat but were tragically drowned.

Apart from the obvious physical challenge to his exceptional strength, why did he project himself into these situations of extreme danger, forcing himself to endure hardship and acute discomfort in his obsessive compulsion to come to terms with powerful volumes of water? After swimming the Linn of the Dee, he wrote: " I have always been amazed at the strength of water. But what stands out to me, in the Linn, is the sudden strong fragments of feeling in me that answered that terrific command under water." As a psychiatrist, he may well have been his own guinea pig as he subjected his mind and body to the outer limits of fatigue and self-analysis. Edwards rarely made an effort to reach a summit and displayed little liking for Alpine climbing, but his potential as a mountaineer was beyond question. On a rare excursion to Norway in 1937 he spent a week traversing a fjord, carrying all his equipment on his back and at the age of thirty four he made the first solo-traverse of the main Cuillin Ridge, including Blaven and Clach Glas. He had not been over the ridge previous and all he carried in the way of sustenance was a packet of sandwiches supplied by his landlady at Glen Brittle

He set off casually, had breakfast at 08.00 hours and no drinks for 24 hours, spending 12 hours, 30 minutes on the actual ridge, returning over the rough terrain from Garsbheinn to Glen Brittle in the dark. He saw the war as civilisation gone mad and registered, on pacifist grounds, as a conscientious objector. Imposed austerity meant the closing of his child guidance clinic in the Liverpool area where he was consultant psychiatrist, and where he did some of his finest work. It was a body blow to his professional idealism! After a short period as a warden fire-watcher, he retired to North Wales, taking up residence in Hafod Owen, a farm cottage he rented from Colin Kirkus, assuming an almost reclusive existence as he committed his theories to paper. These were grim lonely years for Edwards and it is generally thought that this period was the beginning of the end and the onset of his mental instability.

Colin Kirkus:Wayfarers Club
His brother-in-law, the famous Red Dean of Canterbury, and many friends rallied round, offering help and encouragement when they realized J.M.E.' s low state. With funds short he applied for a study grant which was refused and in the September of 1942, Colin Kirkus, a navigator with the RAF, was lost over Germany. For a time he worked at Tavistock Clinic and Great Ormond Street, both posts of tremendous prestige, but he did not settle. Paranoid tendencies were now deeply entrenched and he became hypercritical of his seniors. Although his mind was impaired, his old power remained and he resurfaced on rare occasions to pioneer several new routes. These include the Central Gully of Clogwyn Y Grochan and a harder variation two years later in 1951, both of very severe standard. The Route of Knobs on Clogwyn Y Ddysgl in 1952, was another in the typical Edwards mould and rated at Hard Very Severe. Incredibly, he graded neither of these routes above Mild Severe, contesting that a climber of his age could not possibly lead above this standard — he was only 42 years old at the time!

On the 26th June, 1957, J.M.E. made his last visit to North Wales, returning to the Devil's Kitchen where he climbed a short crack-line near the final chockstone which he dubbed The Waterfall Route. Eight months later Edwards was dead. After the cremation his ashes were scattered by his sister and brother-in-law on a Welsh hill-side, not far from Hafod Owen and under the craggy shadow of Yr Wyddfa, the tomb.

Hafod Owen. Above which Menlove Edwards' mortal remains were scattered by his sister in 1958

And as we went back home that night following the scratch marks over the rocks and through the heather the evening cleared as it had cleared before and the view was still fair to look upon, golden and with line upon line of hills through the sheen of the air and with the sound of the hills. 
From False Gods (Unfinished) by J.M.E.

*Footnote Edwards documents his adventures during the compilation of the Lliwedd Guide, in Up Against It', published in the Wayfarers' Journal, circa 1939. 
Ken Smith: First Published in Climber and Rambler-September 1983

Friday, 13 November 2015

Ulysses...anatomy of a first ascent

The Poisoned Glen-Donegal.
The Castle is the big buttress just left of Bearnas Gap in the Poisoned Glen (see 1955-’56 journal)* Its left-hand edge, overlooking Green Grass Gully, forms an attractive but formidable line which was first seriously tackled by Harold and Neville Drasdo in 1954, after notable pioneering routes in the neighbourhood. They started from the bed of the gully, and climbed a short wall to get onto the edge of the rib. This was followed with slight difficulty to a ledge at about 40 feet. Above this the rib becomes very steep, with an overhang or two to increase the effect. So they looked out onto the face to the right. A horizontal traverse leads right to the base of an overhanging corner which is hopeless, though almost every subsequent party got into it. 

More inviting were two steep gangways slanting, one above the other, from the ledge and passing above the overhanging corner towards a large grassy ledge in the centre of the face. The lower gangway is easy to start, but almost immediately becomes holdless. So the second shelf was chosen. This proved hard to start, but then led up with comparative ease for 30 feet where a serious bulge broke its continuity. A retreat was made from here.

The next attempt was made later that year by Paul Hill and myself, not knowing of the previous attempt. We took the same first pitch to the ledge on the rib, and we also chose the upper gangway as the most likely route. Soon after starting this I found signs of gardening. Then I came to the bulge. I was able to reach a small, sloping hold at the top of the bulge. It appeared to have been gardened out, and so I was encouraged to continue. The hold was muddy, however, and the rock around was wet from recent rain, so I placed a piton–unfortunately right under the bulge. The hold was still too slimy, but a handkerchief over it gave enough friction for the pull-up. A few hectic moves followed, and then a stance was reached.

Winter Guide Book topo of The Castle
I should have taken Paul to here, because the friction of the rope through the badly-placed piton was already considerable. But the grass ledge was only 30 feet away, so I took off my boots and started on a hand-traverse. At first this was on a good flake–I got a runner on here–but then continued by finger- holds on a vertical wall. I had to cling with one hand at intervals to pull the rope through the piton. This left me with just enough strength to grab for the last hold, and when this broke I had nothing in reserve. The runner near at hand slowed the fall, but Paul assumed that I had arrived on easy ground and paid out the rope until he saw me descending the overhanging corner on his right in spider-like fashion. When he stopped me I climbed the lower shelf with the aid of the rope from the runner and belayed on the steep grass ledge.

Paul then came up and found an easier variation by traversing under the bulge, but did not take his boots off for the hand-traverse. Dismayed by the wetness of the rock and the weight of the rucksack and my boots, he gave up half-way and disappeared down the overhanging corner before I could stop him. The haul up the overhang was discouraging, so we abseiled off.

The next attempt was made in the following summer by Betty Healy, Harold Drasdo and myself. Again everything was wet when we started, but it rapidly dried out and we were able to climb the whole way in vibrams. This time the first two pitches went uneventfully. Following Paul’s variations, we traversed under the bulge–a couple of airy but reasonable moves. This took much of the sting out of this pitch, though the hand-traverse was still a very interesting exercise. We then ascended to the top of the grass ledge. Above this a steep and high wall runs right across the centre of the buttress, and to the left the rib rises uncompromisingly. Between the two lies the weakness–a steep groove ending in an overhang. I went up this to see what would happen. Below the overhang a nice rock mushroom appeared on the edge to the left.

By swinging out and mantelshelfing onto this I was able to peer over the overhang. The slab above was steep and smooth, and eventually I had to put a piton in a small crack and use it to pull over the overhang. I scurried up the rest of the slab and half-way up a chimney above before I had time to feel frightened. The rest of the chimney, fortunately, was easy, but the pull out at the top had to be done on poor vegetation. The party then reassembled and considered how to continue. 

We felt that the main difficulties were past, but there was still a lot of rock above and careful route-finding was required. When planning the route from the ground we had seen two prominent grooves and we were making for these. We could not see them now, but from memory they were directly above. An interesting passion-pink wall and a series of broken steps were climbed, and sure enough we found ourselves at the base of the first groove. The groove was climbed, easily at first, but it became thin after about forty feet, so we traversed out to the right and ascended a short wall to the base of a slab. The slab would have been sheer delight in rubbers, but my clumsiness in vibrams enabled it to leave an impression on my nerves. The second groove now lay above and seemed rather fierce. We looked at it with doubtful eyes and then lazily moved right and found an easier series of walls. Then the buttress suddenly relaxed, leaving us to scramble for the last couple of hundred feet.

Donegal Pioneers: Neville Drasdo belayed by brother Harold climbing on Craig Rhiw Goch in north Wales.

I have written about this climb, which we called Ulysses, and which is in the Hard Severes, partly because my earlier attempt illustrates some of the things which it is wiser not to do, and partly because it was a problem mainly in route-finding, which I enjoy. It still is a problem in route-finding–a very strong English party tried to find it this summer. After the first pitch the sling that Paul and I had abseiled from drew them into the overhanging corner which defeated even them. Having a totally wrong impression of our standards of climbing, they assumed that the climb was just too hard and retreated. 

Frank Winder: * First Published in the Irish Mountaineering Club Journal: 1956/57. 

Friday, 6 November 2015

TH Somervell-Man of Everest

TH Somerville-front left with G Bruce right.1924 Everest Expedition. Photo, Bentley Beetham.
HE WAS already the grandest of old men when I met him in the early summer of 1970. He was then 80 years old, rotund, rubicund and happy, living in a house above Ambleside looking across at the Langdale fells — those same fells on which he had started his climbing career at the turn of the century. And now he is dead —Theodore Howard Somervell, a man of great stamina and even greater ideals. We, in the mountaineering world, will remember him as one of the two men who on June 2, 1924, reached a height of 28,000 feet on the North face of Everest but in India he will be remembered as a surgeon who devoted his life to healing the sick and teaching a new generation of surgeons and physicians. He was born in Kendal in 1890, the son of W. H. Somervell who was then the head of the boot and shoe manufacturers that still exist in that town. Soon he was wandering alone in the Lakeland Fells and extending his horizon to mild rock climbs.

And soon he graduated to the Alps where his father offered to pay for some guides. 'I looked very carefully at what the guides were doing and I saw that a guide isn't a magician — he's a man with experience who knows what snow and ice means. Well, I already knew what rock climbing meant so after that season in the Alps, I never had a guide and I did all the route finding.' He was lucky to survive the war —his ship was delayed by submarines on the way to the Dardanelles — and in 1921 he graduated from University College Hospital as a doctor and surgeon. In 1922 General Bruce chose him for that first assault on Everest. Howard Somervell himself was very modest about the reasons for his selection. He talked about the many better climbers who had been killed in the war and thought that he was chosen because of his stamina.

He told a story of being challenged by some friends to try to beat the record for the Cuillin ridge in Skye which at that time stood at just over 12 hours. He knocked some two and a half hours off that record. When I talked to him he laughed at his own performance compared to the modern record of four hours nine minutes set by Eric Beard. On that 1922 Everest expedition he was involved in a terrible avalanche on the North Col: 'I was quite certain that we were going to be carried over the ice cliff — so certain of it that I don't remember being frightened. I think that one is only frightened if there is some doubt about it but I thought that in five seconds I would see what wonderful things happen after death.'

But his patch of snow stopped and he dug himself out only to find that seven Sherpas were missing. 'We climbed down to the bottom of the cliff and dug them out and all except one was dead. And that was the end of the 1922 Expedition.' He was back in Darjeeling by August and had to wait two months for his boat home so he spent his time travelling around India: 'As a result of what I saw I decided that I must spend the rest of my active life (he was 32 years old at the time) trying to help. There were so few surgeons working in that immense country and there I stayed in a mission hospital for 25 years and then I went on to teach the coming generation.

Original Somervell watercolour

 We could have done so much more if only we'd had more time. ‘Coming from a civilised country you could hardly believe the things we saw every day.' But Everest was to call him away again and in 1924, he and Norton were selected for the second push to the summit after Mallory and Geoffrey Bruce had retreated. Their epic climb to well over 28,000 feet is well documented but I shall always remember this gentle giant sitting in front of a window overlooking the Lakeland fells and recalling the descent: Norton with increasingly painful snowblindness and Somervell, with a plug in his throat that was on the verge of stopping him breathing: 'We were unroped and Norton was ahead and I couldn't breathe in or out so I sat down in the snow and made violent efforts to cough. But I couldn't and I thought "Oh well, this is the end. Cheerio everybody!

And then I remembered my medical training — that most of our breathing is done with the diaphragm and so I gave one huge cough and at the same time pressed hard with my hands into my tummy. That did the trick. Up came a horrible black slough which I think was the inside of my larynx. Intense pain —but complete relief. It hurt like hell but it was air in sufficient quantity to keep me alive. If only it had happened higher up, we might both have gone on very much further.' And now he is dead at the age of 84 and I am proud that I met him: mountaineer, surgeon, musician and artist but above all, a man who loved his fellow men, a man who enriched all those diverse people who came into the Christian aura which surrounded his life.

On what happened to Mallory and Irvine I always think it is quite possible that they did get to the top and then had an accident on the way down. We know that Norton and I reached our highest point at about three in the afternoon whereas Mallory and Irvine were seen on the Second Step at 12.30, I believe. So they were two and a half hours in front of us and a couple of hundred feet higher. With oxygen and going at least twice as fast as Norton and I, they could have got to the top and back to Camp Six if they'd hurried a bit. Many accidents in climbing history have been on the way down. I think it's probable that one of them slipped while the other was not in a position to hold him. I've always thought that the probable place was a snow and ice slope on the way down and that they would have fallen down that terribly precipitous South-East Face.

On his personal equipment for Everest I had a woollen vest, a flannel shirt and three cardigans — not pullovers but cardigans with buttons so that you can take them off easily — and then a short mackintosh coat with buttons up to the top. On my legs I had long woollen underpants and some sort of loose riding breeches. My boots were very light and made in Kendal but big enough to take four pairs of socks. With four pairs of socks, the sweat from your feet settles on the outside pair so that the inner pair stays dry and as long as that stays dry you won't get frostbite. I never got frostbite on Everest or any other mountain on my feet. I'm perfectly satisfied with that as a rational rig-out for climbing. 

On danger I am sure of this: that many adventures like Everest have certain dangers which have to be faced and any adventure is not worth the name unless there is a certain amount of risk attached to it.

On Mallory himself One of the disasters of the First World War was the death of so many good people who might have influenced our nation for the better. And I felt that about Mallory — the tragedy of his death on Everest was not just a personal one. He was an idealist who wanted our nation to be a leader in the world: not in the sense of military power or the bossing of other nations but as an example of what civilisation can do for a people to make them happy. He was not exactly communistic but he did believe in an equal chance for everybody as far as it can be given in a well organised society. I should think he would probably have called himself a Fabian type of socialist.

Everest 1924: Irvine standing far left,Mallory next to him.Somerville-Sitting third right.

Chris Brasher : First Published in Mountain Life: Feb/March 1975