ROBIN SMITH was the sort of man, and the sort of mountaineer, who soon exhausts superlatives. In five years of activity at the cutting edge of British mountaineering, he racked up a CV of routes old and new, at home and abroad, that few could match in an entire lifetime. He did this by combining incessant climbing with unbounded enthusiasm, clever and scrupulous research, and an unequalled ability to persuade others to participate in bold and improbable escapades. Moreover, he found a new way of writing about climbing that put the reader in the predicament, let him feel the danger and exposure, and at the same time carried him along on a bubbling wave of wit and literate exuberance, and left no nasty aftertaste of bombast or braggadocio. Menlove Edwards achieved the same clever mix, but wrote much more grudgingly, disabled by diffidence and depression. There has been nothing like Smith in Scottish mountaineering since the mighty Harold Raeburn's 15 years of dominance before the Great War, and an account of his life and climbs is long overdue.
Jimmy Cruickshank's biography does an excellent job in describing Smith's progress from shy fumbling tyro in 1955 to Man of the Moment in 1962. Cruickshank follows the traditional chronological plan, splitting Smith's life into three parts. Part One describes family background and climbing apprenticeship, Part Two the five years of heroic achievement, and Part Three the catastrophe of the British-USSR Pamirs Expedition. "Apprenticeship" is not really the right word for Smith's early days, and I suspect not right for most other potent climbers. Those who might teach you the craft (like schoolmaster Archie Hendry in Smith's case) are usually not ready to go away every weekend, climb in all weathers, hitch-hike and sleep in howffs and bothies! Smith cut his climbing teeth leading the long-suffering Cruickshank (and later Jim Clarkson) astray. I found this part of the biography particularly interesting, since much of it was unknown to me, and since it sharply recalled my own "apprenticeship" - those years in which you can't quite tell what you can and can't hope to do, or get away with, and during which strong excitement, joy and disappointment (and if unlucky, accident or death) form a part of practically every outing. We hear the voice of Cruickshank, in Part One, describing their struggles with the various badly undergraded mantraps that littered Scottish crags in the 1950s. In the later parts of the book, however, Cruickshank is content to let Smith and others tell the remarkable story.
Part Two is the meat of the biography, the years in which Smith rolled off classic after classic new rock route: Yo-yo, Shibboleth, The Bat, The Long Wait, Thunder Rib, Gob, The Clean Sweep, Boggle, The Needle - to name a few - and, along with Jimmy Marshall, raised the bar in winter climbing to such an extent that other lesser climbers have had to resort to a chronic use of prosthetic devices in order to keep up. The secrets of Smith's success, aside from his enormous ability and drive, were his promiscuity in the way of climbing partners - even the clannish Creagh Dhu, not disposed to like a middle-class Edinburgh boy from Watson's School, tied happily on to his rope, and wept as copiously as the rest of us when Smith died - and the support and competition provided by the remarkable grouping of the Marshall brothers and the "Currie Boys" Haston, Moriarty and Stenhouse. In Chapter 20, Jimmy Marshall provides an assessment of Smith and his times that is both an accurate history and a moving tribute. It is the best new thing in the book. At the end Marshall comments "Nearly 40 years on [he wrote the piece some time ago] I recall him as if it were yesterday". That is the common experience of all who knew Smith: the force of his personality was so great that he is still constantly with us. And for those of us who were fortunate enough to play some part in these golden years of joyous exploration, the rest of our lives has been something of a tedious scree descent.
As well as Marshall's fine piece, there are many other memoirs and parallel accounts from Smith's partners at home and abroad. We must be grateful for what Cruickshank has managed to extract and assemble, and not complain too much about what is not there, but it is perhaps unfortunate that there is no attempt made to set Smith's Scottish climbs in the context of what had been achieved before 1957, and what was achieved by his peers. On crag after crag he produced routes that made all previous routes look like cowardly evasions of the obvious principal line. Another omission is the absence of evaluation of his strikingly novel approach to writing about climbing. Although SMC Journal editor Geoff Dutton offers a memoir (in Chapter 18), it is more about the man than about his writing. However, Cruickshank has scrupulously included every published word of Smith's (and many excerpts from unpublished letters), so the material is all here between two boards for someone to do this job.
I read Part Three with little enthusiasm. Who cares about the bickerings and squabbles of the Pamirs expedition? Who cares about these rotten Russian mountains? We know all we need to know to fuel our rage, that Smith died there in a stupid accident, surrounded by strangers. The man who could and did organise the sharp end of British mountaineering to good effect in the greater ranges - Chris Bonington - came a little too late for Smith. But for those who care about the Pamirs expedition, Cruickshank provides a careful description, with new material added to Malcolm Slesser's Red Peak and other contemporary accounts.
Canongate have done a very good job of production. Jimmy Marshall's iconic photograph, cleverly enhanced, glowers rebelliously from the cover. The other illustrations might seem a bit thin to some, particularly in the poor coverage of Smith's routes, but I found them evocative and moving. Most of the available images of Smith are here. There is an index and a number of helpful appendices. For £16.99 it is extremely good value. Smith would have laughed at the silly title. Wheech! would have been a better choice, and easy to find with Google.
In sum, I think Cruickshank has produced a fitting memorial for his friend - surely his principal writing goal - and a decent history of his times.
This review also appears in the March issue of Climber.
TAC 67 Index