Off the wall

Whos Who in British Climbing, by Colin Wells

The Climbing Company, 2008, vi+576pp.

ISBN 978 09 556 6010 8, price £20

Review: Russ Clare

“I thought you might be interested in this,” said the Editor, passing me Colin Wells’ weighty compendium of climbers’ biographies. We were on the way from Stirling for a day on Beinn a’Ghlo, but I scarcely noticed the journey, such was my fascination with the book.

You see I used to be a mad keen rock climber, although, unlike the characters portrayed by Wells, I was never more than an average performer, even during the ten years or so when the fire burned brightest. But in the climbing village, bumblers and stars climb on the same crags, if not on the same routes, and hang out in the same pubs and cafes, the hotshots of the day easily recognised from the magazines. So over the years I have found myself a casual observer of several of Wells’ colourful subjects. The North London Mountaineering Club weekend rally driving team, for instance, and various generations of Sheffield’s climbing mafiosi, are all on the receiving end of his humorous and occasionally waspish pen.

A few entries warranted closer comparison with my own memories. Would I agree with Wells’ assessments?

In the late sixties and into the mid-seventies an extraordinary collection of climbing talent passed through Leeds University: big-mountain guys such as John Porter, Alex MacIntyre and Brian Hall, and craggers such as Al Manson. I arrived there in 1968 along with three contemporaries who were all to make their mark in different ways — as a professional mountaineer, as an artist on rock, and, for want of a better term, as a climbing journeyman.

I recall Roger Baxter-Jones (1950–85) as ever-cheerful and good-humoured, a casual and easy-going temperament at odds with the stereotypical image of the hard climber. An incident at Tremadoc, though, revealed his mettle. A crowd was milling around the club’s coach, waiting to start the Sunday-night journey home. Snow swirled, and the rock must have been plastered and cold. Yet, on an exposed prow poking above the trees, RBJ could be seen completing the final moves on Vector, now graded E2 5c, and at that time a significant test-piece of delicate climbing.

RBJ’s personality is well captured by Wells in his account of a high-altitude and alpine mountaineering career seemingly guided as much by pleasure, friendship and a stable domestic life as by naked ambition; a life cut short by fate, not recklessness.

John Syrett (also 1950–85), altogether more enigmatic and mercurial, gave not a hint of the ability locked within during the first year I knew him. In that time I don’t recall him doing much beyond a winter walk on Great Gable, and at a post-exams gathering in Langdale he left early to pursue his own undisclosed agenda without climbing a route. Twelve months later the same crew reassembled in Langdale, where, from some modest route on Raven Crag, I watched in awe as Syrett danced his way up extreme rock nearby, his movement balletic, gymnastic and beautiful.

The following November he made the first onsight lead of Alan Austin’s Wall of Horrors (E3 6a) on Almscliffe crag. A photograph splashed in the student newspaper showed a figure “resting” on the crux moves with the rope arcing away in the wind.

The key to Syrett’s transformation was the Leeds University climbing wall designed by physical education lecturer Don Robinson. Sporting embedded lumps of rock, narrow shelves and concrete-lined cracks, the wall provided a closer simulation of outdoor climbing than anything else around. As a training tool, it pre-dated by decades the climbing walls so popular today. (Wells incorrectly describes this innovative design as “a brick wall with some bricks missing”, although, curiously, he elsewhere provides an accurate description in his biographical entry for Graham Desroy, Robinson’s one-time collaborator.)

By chance discovery or wilful exploration, Syrett found a medium on which he could unlock, express and develop his talent. In the summer of 1970, after months of effort, he emerged on the top of the game, and went on to put his name to many fine and difficult new routes. In so doing he pioneered the winter training regime now routinely adopted by leading and lesser rock climbers alike.

Wells captures this heady time very well, and, as far as anyone can judge, gives an accurate account of what followed — Syrett’s climbing at the highest standard curtailed by tendons damaged in a party accident; depression, alcoholism and an unsettled lifestyle; decline to the ultimate tragic conclusion.

The last of my trio, Bernard Newman (1950–), I knew least of all. Indeed, Wells has filled in some biographical gaps for me. Nonetheless, Newman’s commitment to the climbing lifestyle was obvious, and some outlet for his enthusiasm within the sport’s mainstream seemed inevitable. Thus, with burgeoning editorial skills and a flair for layout and design, it came as no surprise to find his name on the masthead of Mountain magazine and then Climber.

Dipping into Wells’ book stirred many memories of climbs, crags and characters, and prompted reflection on how my own attitudes to climbing have changed over the years. That was good to do, and I thank him for it.