The tragic abseil accident that happened to Ben Wintringham, new routing in the Moroccan Anti-Atlas, on 21st October, has ended an unbroken run of fifty years of dedicated climbing at a consistently high standard.
Ben started climbing when at school in Yorkshire at the age of 14 and was clearly talented when he moved to London and joined the North London Mountaineering Club. He immediately became one of the Club's stars and served it in several capacities, continuing to support it to the present day. A few years later he also became a member of the C.C. and was a very popular character in that club too.
Adventure was in the blood. His father was Tom Wintringham, a controversial figure in politics and leader of the British of the International Brigade in the Spanish Civil War and later inventor of The Home Guard and head of training SOE agents. His mother was an American journalist, Kitty Bowler, who met Tom while covering the war in Spain and became his second wife.
Ben inherited neither any warlike ambitions nor inclination to be involved in politics, having discovered Almscliff, and went to work in Blacks. Sadly, his father died when he was only 2, and his mother when he was still in his teens, but it was already clear that his life's dedication was going to be to climbing. His choice of someone who was his most regular and faithful climbing partner, Marion for wife worked immensely well for keeping up the impetus and they even worked well together when they went into gear manufacture. They were a close couple, mostly inseparable, and the extent of Marion's loss can be barely imagined.
When Ben was 21 he came into a legacy and was altered not one whit, despite it being quite a lot of money for a young man at the time, save that he seemed to be determined to spend it as quickly as possible. The procession of fast cars he owned earned him the appellation 'E-Type Benjy' .Quick though the turnover of these was, the biggest drain on his resources were two business ventures, one probably ill-advised, but both unlucky.
Entering the retail outdoor trade was first contemplated but then Wintergear was conceived and what a success story that was. The designs were right up-to-the-minute and the quality, with Marion holding tight reins in the workshop, exemplary.... The first bivvi bag that worked, the gloves, the tents, the clothing, all excellent and long lasting. Sadly, Wintergear were if anything too successful and, like many small firms, in order to be able to expand were obliged to seek new partners. Wild Country continued the designs with great success but Ben and Marion soon left. An alliance with Lowe failed to engage their interest for long and since then Ben reinvented himself as a software expert of some repute and Marion has continued manufacture in a small way. In the outdoor gear field the value and impact of Wintergear should not be underestimated.
All the foregoing is rather by the by, however, it was the climbing that is more important to the rest of us.
Once one gets into doing new routes, it can become an obsession, but even if not pursued to excess still has a pull that is hard to ignore. I still find myself going to suss out new crags and new possibilities, even though I am unlikely to be able to do anything about them. I understand why Ben was still full of enthusiasm for exploration to the end.
Ben had a few things to his name already but it was Baggy Point in 1969/70 that really set him off. He got some gems here that have now become classics, but my personal favourites were the two girdles, Fools Rush In and Peeping Tom, and the later addition Soft Touch, but that may be due to the fact that I was with Ben on the second one, with Ben and Marion on the last and elected to take photos on the first. This was a disaster, and my results 'a bit disappointing' as I managed to drop a sack containing Ben's camera and tele-lens, and one of my cameras, into the sea. Ben was amazingly calm about this, as he always was. In fact I can remember other occasions when he had cause to be really mad, but he was never more than a bit cross.
I think the Wintringhams moved permanently to N Wales in 1977, just in time for the new CC Gogarth guide and they were ideally situated to take advantage of the revealed spaces. Living as they did, beautifully situated on the Menai Straits, Gogarth was their local crag. They got five new routes in before almost everyone else noticed.(These were Hyde Park, Heathen, Atheist and Puritan in August/September followed by Bitter Days as the first route of 1978.) There followed a steady campaign producing gem after gem, increasingly often in the company of Joe Brown, who became a close friend. Marion was away in the Karakoram that year and I got to climb with Ben (and Joe as well in one case) on a couple of first ascents. He wasn't totally committed to Gogarth because one of the latter was at Tremadog.
I should say now that they weren't just a couple of crag rats. Up to this point, they had been all over, numerous trips to the USA, 2 trips to Norway, Kenya and in the earlier days Chamonix in summer and Scotland. However, if you're frustrated by not being to climb every day, you eventually try to forget the last two. He was by no means a fair-weather climber. One typically Welsh summer day I went with him to Tremadog. No sitting in Eric's for hours for Ben. As I slithered my way up the green first pitch of Vector the rain got harder. The next pitch was almost dry as Ben had predicted it would be as long as the rain kept coming straight down. He also led the top two pitches as the top half of the crag had now turned into a waterfall.
The next great development was South Pembroke. Ben's weekly weekend drive from N-W Wales to S-W Wales went on for months after the news got out, and the general rush was phenomenal. Those of us who still lived in London had the good old M4, a much easier drive. I even went myself on occasion. Ben produced almost 70 routes of his own, with Marion, and partnered other notable pioneers such as Jim Perrin, Pat Littlejohn and Jon de Montjoy. The competition was mostly of a very relaxed nature, as it had been on Gogarth where Ben climbed with Martin Boysen, Al Evans, Jim Moran and of course Joe. Ben thought his best route in Pembroke was Star Wars, but I could recommend many more to you. Look in the guidebook. There are some dogs, but not many, a horror show or two (again as on Gogarth), and at least one has evidently fallen down completely. Ben had an eye for a line and was good at finding hidden zawns and faces. Most of them are in amenable grades, but there are a good number which are really bloody hard.
I would say that throughout this time from Baggy, to Gogarth, to Pembroke, Ben's ethic was definitely ground up and most often without any pre-inspection or cleaning. He was also a long-standing member of the Clean Hand Gang. He was also a great technician, a protection arranging genius and perhaps the safest partner I have ever climbed with. Joe has an extremely high opinion of Ben as a climber in all respects, and he's picky.
They got a place in Spain, for the winter rock in the sun, but I don't think he was really into the sports climbing. It wasn't all that sunny when it needed to be, and going to and from the Costa del Sol took up a lot of time when there was work to be considered. However I visited them there and had some fun, and failed to follow the routes Ben led with ease.
I was pleased that Ben found the crags around Tafraoute in Morocco, or rather was led to them by Joe Brown. I discovered the area before Joe first went there, but only climbed on roadside granite crags, not even being able to find the way up to the monster quartzite cliffs on the south side of Jebel m Kesh.
Joe and his team, 'The Old Farts', as Ben fondly referred to them, took over the place each spring in the following years and produced a plethora of brilliant, long and sometimes hard routes, until Ben was persuaded along. Ben wanted to go further afield and explored the north side of the mountain, discovering a paradise of impressive crags. There is a new guidebook just out which seems to have pre-empted Ben's online guidebook that he was working on and this shows the amazing potential for classic adventure climbing of all grades. I saw them myself when I was present in 2008. Naturally Ben was in his element with this sort of adventure climbing and instituted an autumn trip as well as a spring trip, and introduced new blood to the area in the persons of Paul Donnithorne and Emma Alsford. Emma says Ben's route list runs to hundreds. When I was there, his energy that I remembered was unabated, his enthusiasm undimmed, his concern and consideration for others undiminished, his weight a little up on the tiny sprite that he was, but well, super-fit and probably physically stronger. He was clearly not yet deserving the appellation, 'Old Fart'.
It is ironic to note that next year, Ben said to Marion, he would retire and they would go to wider destinations, travelling again and this would be the last trip to Morocco for a while. One may trot out the platitudes...'he died doing what he loved', or,,, 'he will never actually become one of the old farts, with our weakening muscles, failing memories and pain racked joints', but these words don't help one bit for the loss Marion must suffer, and for the rest of us the loss of a good friend and for the climbing world, such a dedicated pioneer.