My life was changed irrevocably as were the lives of many thousands of climbers worldwide. Typically I failed to realise we were witnessing the birth of a unique social phenomenon. Four cult magazines followed in a row, from the 1960s to the 1990s.
Eventually I ended up behind the scenes, encountering some of the personalities with their egos and intrigues. So much of our modern media world comes from their all too easily forgotten achievements. This is my telling of their story.
My gaze alights upon copy after copy of some magazine called… Rocksport.
Autumn 1968. At the fabled Bloat House, in the Mournes, nobody’s actually come out with it and said,“Don’t mix with those naughty Glenfoff boys!” Even to my callow ears though it’s heavily inferred. But hey, I’m sixteen and pulsating with testosterone so it’s predictably inevitable.
Yet when we first meet at Wee Binnian I’m still very much aware that in probably the most tribal country in Western Europe every tribal chasm imaginable divides us. To their undying credit, the Glenfoffs (a kind of Irish version of the Creag Dhu) don’t give a stuff about tribal crap, they take you as they find you. And when I save one of them from a nasty groundfall, that’s it - they’ve made up their minds. Generously they give me a lift back to the Bloat House and tactfully pass on my offer to come in for a brew.
As the battered minivan lurches alarmingly around dodgy bends on narrow, twisting Mourne lanes, sliding helplessly across the obligatory tatty mattress in the back, my gaze alights upon copy after copy of some magazine called…Rocksport. Bloody hell! I’d no idea this stuff existed! The Glenfoffs burble on as frenziedly I flick through page after page after page of climbing porn. Bloody hell!
And, of course… there was another reason for rushing to the climbing shop - the Edelrid girl.
Memory is so capricious. For decades I’ve had fond memories of rushing to the climbing shop for yet another reason to buy Rocksport – the Edelrid girl. And now Al Evans has confirmed that Leo Dickinson’s lovely photos of her appeared in Mountain, not Rocksport after all. Seemingly nude, apart from her chaste garland of Edelrid rope, slightly more would be revealed each month as the rope was carefully paid out. I fell hopelessly in love with the Edelrid girl, yearned for her. For years afterwards I was sure that, if only we’d met, we could have held hands and talked about poetry.
With climbing magazines, Rocksport was my first love. And you never quite forget your first love.
It’s Mountain 4 – the iconic, legendary Yosemite issue.
August 1969. On a lovely summer morning we drive from Belfast to Sligo, en route to a climbing meet in Connemara. “Here, you might be interested in this.” John Forsythe reaches into his bag and flicks the slim magazine across. “It’s got a potted history of Irish climbing.” Indeed it has and eagerly I devour neat rows and columns of First Ascent details. “What’s Cunib?” I innocently ask. John, the Mournes guidebook writer, shrugs, “Don’t know - never heard of it.” (Unwittingly I’ve found probably the only error I’ll ever find in this publication, one that’s almost certainly not the fault of the editor).
But hang on a minute. Never mind Cunib. And (oh perfidy!) never mind my beloved Mournes. For what in God’s name is this? I gaze at page after page of photos of soaring granite shields, cracks, dihedrals. Dihedrals?? It’s a climbing paradise, from the other side of the world. Some weird name which so many British climbers will struggle to pronounce over the next few years.‘Yoss…eeee…might.’
Green as lush Irish grass, even I cannot fail to realise that something different is going on, that, ‘We’re not in Kansas any more…’ But how could I possibly have known that I was clutching arguably the most famous issue of any climbing magazine ever published? It’s Mountain 4 – the iconic, legendary Yosemite issue.
The great wave of climbing magazine journalism was coming – but it hadn’t yet broken.
Now I know what you’re going to say and of course you’re absolutely correct. Rocksport and Mountain weren’t the first climbing magazines, not by a long way. But they were the first modern climbing magazines – and that’s the crucial difference.
Let’s go back even further. For much of the 20th century, the main forms of media coverage of climbing were club journals such as those produced by the CC and the FRCC. Entirely understandably they were aimed at club members so, if you weren’t a club member, it’s unlikely you’d ever come across them. Only the top clubs tended to have leading climbers whom you’d want to read about. And only the top clubs had writers whom you’d want to read. The rest? Well to this day you have article after article by indifferent writers about indifferent routes. Yes the writers get published and thereby perhaps gain a fleeting sense of self-importance. But as the writing is invariably of the ‘We went up and came back down again…’ variety, the poor old reader is left wondering, ‘And so bloody what?’
Climbing magazines such as The Climber and Mountain Craft were sporadically better. Occasionally you’d have good articles by people such as Allan Austin and Paul Ross. Gwen Moffatt had a column in Climber and Hillwalker but sometimes filled it with AOC (Any Old Copy). Her daughter Sheena at a gymkhana - what the hell had that to do with climbing? Whereas if Ms Moffatt had bothered to write about the immensely talented Sheena leading the most outrageous death route I’ve ever done, in bare feet, well… that would have been a very different matter.
The later stages of Mountain Craft gave a clue as to what was to come. The editor asked John Cleare for some photos. Back came about thirty – absolute stunners, as you’d expect from the man who’d just given us the uber-classic ‘Rock-climbers in Action in Snowdonia’. The editor was clearly gobsmacked – and he courteously expressed his gratitude. As with Mountain, a few years later, it was obvious that Cleare was operating in a completely different realm. The great wave of climbing magazine journalism was coming – but it hadn’t yet broken.
You never quite forget your first love…
Rocksport was the first dedicated climbing magazine I ever saw and it was the first of the four cult climbing mags which emerged from the late-60s to the early-90s. And yet it’s the one about which I know least. So for me the mystique still lingers. During one of our last telephone conversations, I asked the late Brian Cropper about Rocksport. After all he’d known Les Ainsworth, the chief editor, for decades. Brian’s recollection was that Les, Phil Watkin (the other mentioned editor in the mag) and a couple of their mates had put it together when they were students at Nottingham. (As I recall though, the address was in Cardiff.) So a bunch of kids, just a few years older than me, had got their act together to produce a national climbing magazine. Impressive or what!
Sensibly Rocksport’s ambit was rock-climbing rather than mountaineering and the UK (principally England and Wales) rather than wider afield. Even in the late 1960s rock-climbing was still widely regarded as training for mountaineering. But the term ‘crag-rat’ was already a few years old, as was the term ‘pirate guidebook’. Both originated in Borrowdale I believe, courtesy of Paul Ross and Mike Thompson. Sticking to UK rock-climbing allowed Rocksport to portray important areas while also giving breaking news on cutting-edge developments. The latest Gogarth horror by Drummond? You had it in Rocksport. What was happening in Borrowdale, Cheedale and Cheddar? You had it in Rocksport.
In some ways the timing couldn’t have been better. The late-60s/early-70s was the era of the fabled Crag X. Most Crag Xs such as Llech Ddu, Langcliffe, Cilan Head and Hoy were for the distinctly adventurous. But ambitious climbers were slinging their gear into the proverbial minivan and bombing off each weekend to ever more far-flung locations. The late-60s/early-70s was also the era of the ‘hard-man’, who chain-smoked, got well bevvied, partied until dawn, wrapped his minivan round the lamp post and still managed to climb Extreme all day long. Yes you probably disapprove but that’s just the way it was. Routes such as Suicide Wall, Woubits, Vector and The Boldest got their first solos.
But Rocksport wasn’t just about the cutting-edge. It used to run a regular feature where they’d pick a crag and ask people to contribute short articles about significant routes at different levels of difficulty, from say Hard Severe to HVS. I thought this was great. It was a chance for the common man (and common woman, if she wanted) to make their voice heard. Given the unashamed elitism which came after, for me this was one of the best attributes of Rocksport. You felt that Les Ainsworth, Phil Watkin and their mates, such as Derek Ellis, really cared about rock climbing.
The climbing world had its own Young Meteor, who never became portly and whose genius never descended into mediocrity, although it was extinguished cruelly.
In 1957 the British Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan, confidently declared, “You will see a state of prosperity such as we have never had in my lifetime – nor indeed in the history of this country." From the same speech came his famous soundbite, “Indeed let us be frank about it – most of our people have never had it so good." Macmillan was absolutely right. Although most people lived in what we’d now regard as dire poverty, things had got better, year on year, for a whole decade. By the late 1960s most people’s living standards were still abysmal. But they were better. Now they’d been getting better for two consecutive decades. For the baby-boomers who’d grown up during those two decades of unbroken improvement, there was a massive air of self-confidence. Anything seemed possible. Why, we’d even beaten the Germans to win the 1966 World Cup!
In 1967 Jonathan Aitken wrote a book entitled, ‘The Young Meteors’, about the movers and shakers who were making London the most coveted city on earth. Decades later, Aitken would chance upon portly mediocrities at vacuous parties who’d sidle up to him and mutter, “Remember me, old chap? I used to be a Young Meteor.” The climbing world had its own Young Meteor, who never became portly and whose genius never descended into mediocrity, although it was extinguished cruelly.
In about 1968, Ken Wilson became editor of Mountain Craft. I think it was then owned by the Mountaineering Association. Ken once told me the mechanics of what followed though sadly, yet typically, I’ve forgotten them. But the gist of it, as I later wrote, was this:
‘In the first age where the medium could be the message Wilson, with a single Promethean bound, transformed Mountain Craft into Mountain. It no longer mattered whether you lived in Southport or Seattle. With Mountain, you were plugged into a global network spanning continents and eras, outcrops, big walls and great ranges. If there had been a mission statement for Mountain surely it would have read, 'mountains and men who matter'. Unashamed elitism from a didactic autocrat?
Well unsnap the ring binders and consider those first sixty or so issues from over forty years ago and what do you find? Classic, after classic, after classic. The great routes, the great personalities, the great debates. As Flaubert noted aptly, 'You don't make art through good intentions.' Good intentions, yes...but there must also be iron in the soul. And Wilson fashioned Mountain from a motherlode.’
The front covers of Mountain had an incredible symbolic potency. Ken was a superb photographer and he was a superb judge of other people’s photographs. You had a front cover shot which was always outstanding. It might be a big snowy mountain. It might be a big wall. It might be someone on a really hard, iconic route. You had the simple title – Mountain. And that was that. No sub-headings, no ‘special offers’, no clutter, no crap. The Mountain logo was a tacit quality assurance that you were getting the best standard of climbing journalism in the world. When someone in a climbers’ pub clinched a drunken argument with, “I read it in Mountain!” there were no queries, no comeback. If he’d read it in Mountain, it was right.
It’s virtually impossible to overstate the importance of Mountain under Ken’s editorship. Quite simply, it established a standard which has rarely been equalled and never surpassed. Even now, over four decades later, if you’re the ambitious editor of a climbing magazine, you have one person above all against whom to measure yourself – Ken Wilson.
Now I don’t wish to imply that Ken was a one-man act; far from it. He canvassed opinion far and wide. The editorial associates of Mountain were culled from the great and the good. Yes they gave an air of legitimacy (Ken was always canny) but there were no sinecures. You pulled your weight. Ken pulled his weight, far harder than anyone else. When it came to hard work, he was an utter beast. When it came to painstaking, punctilious detail, his standards were well-nigh absolute.
One person whose opinion he canvassed was Allan Austin. Unlike most, the wily Yorkshireman was unimpressed.“If I write an article for a club magazine, it’s preserved for posterity. But if I write an article for a climbing magazine, why it’s like putting something in a newspaper. It’s here today and gone tomorrow. There’s no sense of posterity.”
Austin had made a highly pertinent point, even more relevant in our current world of internet journalism. Yes you may be reaching a much wider audience, but it’s one which will quickly flick to the next diversion. There’s exposure but very little sense of posterity.
Where Mountain excelled was the historical retrospective.
Ironically though, in view of Austin’s highly perceptive comment, many of the essays which graced Ken’s editorship of Mountain have become cherished classics. For instance Reinhold Messner’s ‘The Murder of the Impossible’ beautifully portrayed the perennial tension between achievement and style. Sure we can bolt our way up Cerro Torre but…what’s the point? Apropos of Cerro Torre, while Ken was more than willing to tackle controversial subjects, he was also keenly aware that if he got sued it would almost certainly spell the end for Mountain. So his crusading zeal was always tempered with practical caution. He managed this delicate balance better than anyone I’ve ever known.
Where Mountain excelled was the historical retrospective. It might be the development of Gogarth, it could be the mid-1970s wave of cutting-edge aid routes on El Cap. Again and again Ken would zero in on the main protagonists and inspire them to write the best essays of their lives. He expected the highest standards of professionalism and probity. He demanded them. And he bloody well got them. The result is that, to this day, many classic Mountain essays are remembered and appreciated by a well-informed, highly literate international audience. “I read it in Mountain!” – once the gold standard for veracity - still rings true all these years later. Those of us who care are still reading it in Mountain.
The times had changed.
Everything has its heyday; all things come to an end. Rocksport ran out of steam and spluttered to a halt in the early-70s. By 1978 Ken had been at the helm of Mountain for almost a decade. He’d done the ‘unholy grind’ of magazine publishing. With the success of ‘The Black Cliff’ and ‘Hard Rock’, his eye was set firmly on the next horizon. He sold Mountain to Geoff Birtles and founded Diadem to publish mountaineeering books. Birtles was editor of Crags (more of this anon). Paul Nunn, who’d been involved with Mountain for years, remained to provide continuity. And Tim Lewis arrived as editor.
Throughout Mountain’s reign, many people contributed. In the early days Ken was helped by a young aspirant writer named Jim Perrin. In about 1972 they fell out and Jim decamped to Wales. Crucially he’d contributed half a dozen essays for Hard Rock. These proved to be his breakthrough.
Earlier we touched on journals. In the early-70s, the Leeds University scene boasted luminaries such as John Syrett, Al Manson, Alex MacIntyre, and Roger Baxter-Jones. Ken’s fellow Brummie, Bernard Newman, captured their zeitgeist in two consecutive journals which, as with Mountain, have never to my knowledge been surpassed in their genre. This secured him a job as editor elect at Mountain, though almost certainly with Ken breathing heavily over his shoulder. Interestingly, in the first of his Leeds journals, Newman had published ‘Hubris’, a stunning essay of Perrin’s.
Back in the 1970s I’d got pissed with Tim Lewis in the Nash and the Padarn. In the early-80s he published a short piece of mine in Mountain. No it wasn’t nepotism; he didn’t remember me. The piece was about Drummond and touched on his rivalry with Perrin. ‘Drummond on Censor’ (Jim’s route) attempted to shed some light on a highly enigmatic character. Wilson’s ‘Black Cliff’ photos of Drummond on Great Wall had always intrigued me. And Drummond’s ‘Great Wall’ essay in Hard Rock belongs in climbing writing’s hall of fame.
I’ll always be grateful to Tim. Although he had a reputation for being caustic, he was kindness itself to me. But (and I’m sure he’d agree) he wasn’t as good an editor as Ken. Sadly he died of cancer in the mid-80s. Bernard Newman came in as the third and final editor. But, as with Orson Welles, somehow Newman couldn’t quite realise his stellar early promise. And the times had changed. All the bright-eyed promise of the 1960s had been leeched away by the brutal barbarism of Thatcherism. The golden 1970s summers were long gone.
Mountain 100 probably marked a watershed.
There was a provocative claim that climbing had become a different sport. And there was ‘The Great Historical Mountain Review’ by Perrin - a very good retrospective on those first 100 issues.
So much of 1980s climbing journalism was fixated on one debate – bolts. Bolts have probably sold more climbing magazines than anything else. In my humble view, many people, pro and con, made complete asses of themselves with a surfeit of articles and letters. It was patently obvious that climbing had to split into trad and sport. Bolt wars were as ineffective as real wars. Coexistence was the way forward. And that’s where we’ve got to – but boy it’s taken one heck of a long time. And there was far, far too much ego-driven nastiness on both sides.
I always felt that the letters were the weakest part not only of Mountain but of any climbing mag. So often they just seemed ego-driven petty point scoring. Although Drummond penned a rare gem with his riposte to Keith Myhill’s criticism of Linden et al. ‘It’s not your hill, Myhill…’ was a thing of beauty. Even Myhill must have struggled to supress a wry smile.
The golden age of the splenetic review.
The ’70s and ’80s were also the golden age of the splenetic review. One of my childhood inspirations, ‘The White Tower’ by James Ramsey Ullman took a fearful drubbing. ‘The Mountain Spirit’ by Tobias and Drasdo was ripped to shreds by Perrin. Again, as with the bolts farrago, it was unseemly. When I reviewed climbing books in the ’90s, I read each one several times, took copious notes, reflected and wrote pensive reviews celebrating what was good. Criticism should never be an ego-driven hatchet job. If a writer has spent hundreds, maybe thousands of hours, on a book, reviews shouldn’t be bashed out with little thought, in a few minutes.
By contrast, the Mountain INFO column by Lindsay Griffin in High magazine was superlative. I’d known Lindsay in Ireland when he was studying there in the early ’70s. A brilliant guy, a true scholar and gentleman. Birtles bought him a humble pub lunch and unashamedly pitched him. With typical good grace and enthusiasm, Lindsay accepted. He brought to Mountain INFO a degree of scholarship which hearkened back to the Wilson era.
But not even that could have saved Mountain. In the recession of the early 1990s, maybe nothing could have saved Mountain. Increasingly it seemed a dinosaur; still large in aspiration but cruelly outside its time. Then suddenly it was gone.
The long, hot summer of 1976 seemed to last forever.
People who went to Wales and the Lakes most weekends found that, with so little rain, they got more done than ever before. High crags stayed in condition for weeks, then months. Testpieces got more…and more...and yet more ascents. Word travelled on the grapevine. The numbers of people doing hard routes surged. The wave seemed as though it would never break. Finally of course it did break. But seemingly with impeccable timing, a brash, vibrant new climbing mag had sprung up to celebrate all this frenetic activity. It was called Crags.
Crags was the brainchild of Geoff Birtles. Essentially it was Rocksport on steroids. But even though it began just a few years after the demise of Rocksport, already the mood of British climbing had changed. Sure most of us still bombed around in battered mini-vans, smoked like chimneys and drank like fish…but training had spawned a new athleticism. The old XS fractured into E grades. E5 replaced HXS as the ultimate in sexiness. FAs (first ascents) were rapidly getting FFAs (first free ascents). A new term was emerging: jackal, the ruthless, steel-fingered predator, waiting in the wings to swoop and transform your knackered old HVS, A2 into state of the art E5.
Crags was the right product in the right place at the right time. As with Rocksport, it generally stuck to developments in England and Wales. None of this snowy mountaineering stuff: leave that to Mountain. And crucially Crags had its very own poster boy, Ron Fawcett. Ron was snatching the crown of top UK climber from his former mentor, Pete Livesey. We all wanted to be like Ron. Hell even Ron probably wanted to be like Ron.
The Cream Team.
So Crags just couldn’t go wrong. There were Pete and Ron on the one hand and Peak stars John Allen and Steve Bancroft on the other. There was hydraulic man Tom Proctor. Al Evans was new routes editor, struggling to chronicle successive waves of development. Of course – to state the obvious – all these characters were based either in the Peak or in Yorkshire. All knew each other very well indeed. Why you could even have them bundled together in one stout package as the Cream Team.
Which is not to say that other activists were totally ignored. Pat Littlejohn was busy in Pembroke and the South West, consolidating his status as king of the sea cliffs. Two unknown youths, Jonny and Andrew Woodward, challenged the establishment with routes such as Wings of Unreason and Piece of Mind. (Could ‘the hardest route in the world’ really be at the Roaches?) Another unknown youth, Gary Gibson, was producing first ascents at a hitherto unknown rate, each gap seemingly replete with potential. But were they any good? In the opinion of the new routes editor, they were little more than, ‘a ceaseless tide of utter crap’. Lest anyone think that Gary and Al fell out, they didn’t. When Gary ended up in hospital courtesy of new routing (a highly dangerous activity as I can readily testify), Al was first in to see him. Since then of course Gary has become somewhat of a national treasure. His tally of circa 5,000 new routes is only surpassed by an even greater statistic: it’s rumoured that he’s been to even more Stranglers concerts than the Stranglers.