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Ron Fawcett and Ed Douglas at Outside, Hathersage for the official launch of Ron Fawcett, Rock Athlete
UKC Articles, Mar 2010
© Mick Ryan - UKClimbing.com
I don't like this book, I love it. I read it twice in a day, and was still reading bits of it out aloud to myself that night.
Writing about yourself is particularly hard especially when you are a down to earth homeboy from deepest darkest Yorkshire. Without the excellent helping hand of the very capable Ed Douglas, I don't think this book would have happened so well. That it did happen at all I am extremely thankful for. That it has been written in such an honest and frank way has caused me joy.
Big Ron was the great climber of the 70s and early 80s. There were other people who shone from time to time, but it was Ron Fawcett who did it all so well. This book does much to reaffirm his place as the great climbing icon of this crucially important era in British climbing.
“if you cut Ron in half it will say 'rock' all the way through”
Why was he so important? The full title of the book is 'Ron Fawcett, rock athlete', and there you have it. Ron was the first climbing athlete and climbing professional in Britain. We had had professional mountaineers before but not a rock climbing professional. Ron paved the way for the Sharmas of the future.
Ron was a man who lived rock climbing, who put the hours in; he breathed climbing and dreamed climbing for more than two decades. It has often been said if you cut Ron in half it will say 'rock' all the way through.
The book begins with Ron soloing 100 routes of the extreme grade in a day on grit. It's the perfect, and gold standard route day for a Peak district climber. Some of the routes that Ron did are not easy extremes, not soft touches at all, they are routes people would be proud of leading. As the writer points out Ron didn't care if this feat made the climbing tabloids or not. Ron's 100 routes day were climbed for himself. If another climber said this I'd be suspicious, but knowing Ron and his deep love of soloing, it's perfectly easy to accept.
It must have been around 1973, in the Lakes. It was raining, so we took a chance and went up to see if anything was dry on Castle Rock, it being steep we thought we might get a first pitch in.In the second chapter his early years growing up in a small Yorkshire village of Embsay near Skipton are recounted. His family, are all described with openness and love. It is a charming and warm recollection, and gives us background to Ron's shyness and old world manners. It is of a time gone by, a less complicated time perhaps, but a time with opportunity that sometimes enabled country folk like Ron to realise their special talents, and liberate them to experience the wider world.
A young lad was doing The Ghost, it was the first ascent after the flake coming off as far as I knew. I thought the lad might not know so I shouted up to tell him.
'It'll be reet' was the reply.
He passed the scar and proceeded to flow up the rib above which was sopping. When he got down we got chatting and arranged to meet up at Stoney the following weekend.
Ron was about 14 at the time but by his third visit to Stoney he was leading 'Our Father', at the time reputed to be the hardest route in the country.
Shortly after I saw Ken Wilson, editor of Mountain Magazine and told him I had discovered the next star of British climbing.
'I've seen 'em come and I've seen 'em go Al, talk to me about him in a years time'
Al Evans talks about Ron Fawcett
Ron's early climbing before he became well known was very interesting, lots of hit and miss experiences, so full of near accidents and maybes. The story about Phil Webb and Paul Trower's accident at Gordale is very famous to old hands, but here will benefit from a larger audience. It had me laughing because I can still hear it being told by Paul or Ron in a Yorkshire voice. The tale of John Allot however is particularly sobering.
How Ron lived through these early years is a wonder, and a marvel, but I almost feel the hand of destiny at work.
The book goes on to deal with Ron's association with the Machiavellian top climber of his day Pete Livesey. Very much the younger apprentice to the master craftsman, Ron learnt to train from this outdoor and physical education teacher. It was this association that brought huge rewards for Ron, and a rise in knowledge and expertise that have contributed greatly to climbing performance.
It also brought a certain distrust from some in the climbing community. Pete occasionally used strange climbing tactics, the rules of climbing were more flexible then, before redpointing and onsighting were defined and widely understood.
The incredible climbing prowess of this team in the Verdon and the Vercors is often overlooked, and this book states this high point very clearly, and its importance. If I may highlight in particular their hyper fast ascent of the Livanos Route in the Vercors, a 400m route with English 5b or 5c moves that Pete and Ron soloed together in an extraordinary fast time. This ascent predated swift alpine team ascents of rock routes, and was a shining example of what two fit lads could do with confidence in each other.
Many climbers became jealous of Ron's fame later on, he did get lots of exposure in the magazines, but it's often forgotten what he did and when. Whilst there was the odd flash of brilliance, or extra brilliant route from other notable climbers, Ron's dogged strength often won through when brilliance would fade out.
And you must look at what he did over more than 15 years and not a few particular months. It was his professionalism, and the sheer hard work that put him at the top. Just look at the legacy of hard three star routes Ron has left us all over the country, on every rock type. He did indeed dedicate his life to climbing and made huge personal sacrifices.
The photos in the book are fantastic, some in black and white, have a lovely archaic feel to them, and they are full of history and sentiment. Older climbers will be familiar with many of them and it's good to reacquainted with them. They amply illustrate the climbing of the time, with some of the main players. They also easily and graphically show how fit Ron was, honed to perfection by huge amounts of climbing. Ron's body was a machine, and if he did lack some of the technique of others this was made up for in huge fitness, and untiring stamina. His list of routes (see sidebar) that he left us is his proud legacy, not just defined by grade but are some of the best most aesthetic looking lines on British rock.
We must also thank Ron for his more than honest glimpses into his personal history, his frankness is so refreshing and revealing. Many people would choose to gloss over the ups and down of real life, with its woes and troubled times, but not Ron. A full life has been revealed to us, and a very full one it has been. Many of Ron's friends are dead, and we can feel the loss but overall the book is full of joy. Right up to the present day, Ron's enthusiasm now directed at fell running is remarkable, as is his talent for this demanding sport. We are left with a profound love of this man's life in the outdoors, and much admiration also. Thank you Ron and Ed for sharing, I thoroughly recommend this book. My personal inscription says a few things but 'memories' and 'keep on cranking' sum it up perfectly. Have I a complaint? Yes, the book could easily have been an hundred pages longer.
Ron Fawcett - Time Line
1955, May, 6 Born Ronald Norman Fawcett in Embsay, near Skipton, West Yorkshire
1969 Introduced to roped climbing at Rylstone Crag by Arthur Champion, with an ascent of Dental Slab (S 4a, Bill Bowler 1935).
1971 First recorded new route, Problem Wall (E2 6a) at Malham Cove, climbed solo.
First ascent (FA) of Cove Crack (E2 6a) at Malham Cove.
First free ascent (FFA) of Mulatto Wall (E3 5c), aged 16, at Malham Cove.
Numerous new routes, particularly on local gritstone crags like Crookrise and Deer Gallows, climbed around this time, often solo. Includes Ron's Crack (E3 6b).
1973 First visit to Verdon Gorge with Pete Livesey and friends, aged 17. Free ascents of Triomphe d'Eros (F6c), Solanuts (F6c) and Necronomicon (E4 6b, F6c).
First ascent of Slender Loris at Malham Cove, with one point of aid. Freed by Fawcett in 1979 at E4 6a.
Inspired by Al Evans' discovery of Trowbarrow in Lancashire, makes first ascent of Alladinsane (E1 5a).
1974 Second trip to Yosemite, again with Livesey. Made first ascents of Crack-a-go-go (5.11c), The Cookie Cliff, and Bircheff-Williams (5.11b), Middle Cathedral. Also made an early ascent of Astroman (5.11c), Washington Column.
1975 Near-free ascent of Cave Route Right-hand, Gordale Scar, Yorkshire, with Livesey.
1976 FFA of Liberator (E3 6a) at Bosigran with Livesey.
FFA of Cream (E4 6a) with Livesey during BMC International Meet.
Second ascent of Mortlock's Arete with Livesey (E4 6a, FA: Tom Proctor and Geoff Birtles), Chee Tor, Derbyshire.
FA of Cream Team Special (E5 6b), Raven Tor, Derbyshire, with Geoff Birtles and Al Evans.
FA of Supersonic (E5 6a), High Tor, Derbyshire.
The bold first ascent of Slip'n'Slide (E6 6a), Crookrise, Yorkshire. Arguably the most serious gritstone climb in Britain at the time.
1977 FFA of Void (E3 6a). Early attempt on Strawberries.
FFA Vulcan (E3 6a), Tremadog.
FFA of Citadel (E5 6b), Gogarth.
1978 FFA of Milky Way (E6 6b), Ilkley, Yorkshire.
FA of Desperate Dan (E7 6b), Ilkey. Some now grade Desperate Dan as hard E6, particularly following the development of bouldering pads, but it is a contender for the first E7 in the UK.
FA of The Cad (E5 6a), Gogarth, Gwynedd. Controversially places two bolts, which are later removed.
1979 FA of Lord of the Flies (E6 6a), Dinas Cromlech, Gwynedd.
FFA of Carnage (E2 6b), Malham Cove.
FFA of the Livesey classic Doubting Thomas (E5 6b), Malham Cove.
FFA of Déjà Vu's first pitch (E5 6b), Kilnsey.
1980 FA of Strawberries (E6 6b), Tremadog.
FA of Atomic Hot Rod (E5 6b), Dinas Cromlech.
FFA of Dinosaur (E5 6b), Gogarth.
FA of The Big Sleep (E6 6b), Gogarth.
FA of Psycho Killer (E6 6b), Clogwyn Du'r Arddu.
1981 Visits Frankenjura, making FFA of The Blue Roof.
FFAs of the Cave Routes, Gordale: Cave Route Left-hand (E6 6c), Cave Route Right-hand (E6 6b).
FA of Piranha (E6 6b), Rubicon Wall, Derbyshire.
1982 FFA of Indecent Exposure (F7b+), Raven Tor
FFA of The Prow (7c), Raven Tor
FFA of Body Machine (F7c), Raven Tor, completing a trilogy of high-quality routes of the hardest standard.
FFA Scritto's Republic (E7 6b), Millstone, Derbyshire.
FA of Tequila Mockingbird (E6 6c), Chee Tor. Use of bolts proves controversial both for being too few and too numerous.
FAs in Pembrokeshire: Stennis the Menace (E6 6b), Yellow Pearls (E5 6b) and Boss Hogg (E6 6b).
1983 FA of Master's Edge (E7 6b), Millstone, Derbyshire. Although Fawcett abseiled down the route and checked out the holds, there was no top-rope practice.
1984 FFA of Yosemite Wall (E5 6b), Malham.
FA of Crimson Cruiser (E5 6a), Craig y Clipiau. Another Fawcett route know for its high quality.
FA of Mescalito (F7c+) and New Dawn (F7c) at Malham Cove, and Defcon 3 (F7c+) at Gordale.
Fast repeat of Revelations (F8a+, FA: Jerry Moffatt, 1984) at Raven Tor.
1985 FA of Zoolook, the first F8a at Malham.
1986 Solos 100 gritstone Extreme-grade routes in a day near his home in Derbyshire.
FA of Toy Boy, Froggatt (E7 7a)
1987 FA of Careless Torque at Stanage, one of the first Font 8a boulder problems in the UK.
FA of Moon Madness, Curbar (E8 6b)
1991 FA of Jasmine (E6 6b), Bamford Edge, Peak District.
Stevie Haston is one of Britain's top rock and winter climbers. He recently climbed F9a at the age of 52 and also flashed the super-crack of Greenspit, reportedly F8b+, although Stevie thought it easier.
UKC Articles, Feb 2009
© Laurence Gouault Haston
You can follow Stevie on his blog and he has a series of articles coming up on UKC.
UKC Articles and Gear Reviews by Stevie Haston: