Al Alvarez, poet, writer, critic, poker play – rock-climber, died peacefully aged 90 on 23 September at his home in Hampstead. Anthony King is a close friend of Al's son, Luke, and was taught to climb by Al. Luke asked Anthony to write a climbing obituary for his father. Read Al's literary obituary in The Guardian.
Ifirst met Al in 1982. He taught me to climb at Harrison's Rocks, as a friend of his son Luke. On Sunday mornings, Al and Luke picked me up from Holborn tube station and we flashed in his mustard Saab through suburban London and out to the weald of Kent; Zero Mostell or Johnny Cash singing loudly on the cassette player.
We parked at the back by the rail-tracks and Oast House – not in the official carpark and its long walk in. Partly as a result of an ankle he had broken badly in Wales in the 60s, Al hated walking. We climbed over the stile and up the cut steps on the sandstone block to the Isolated Block. Al had a routine; we would climb his favourite routes on the Block – Birchden Wall and Birchden Corner and, then, we would move down to Niblick and beyond to the Flakes area. On moves or routes he found 'desperate', he called for 'G-sharp' – a tight rope from his belayer.
For an awkward teenager, Al was extraordinary company; lyrically profane, witty, playful. His laughter was unforgettable; it began as a little chuckle to descend into a bass, elemental roar. And, yet, beneath the clowning, his sensitive intelligence was periodically visible; his eyes were always kind and a little sad.
No one could describe Al as the most elegant climber. He climbed with purposeful and bold muscularity, often running up the rock to the next big ledge rather than finding more precise intermediate foot placements. He was quite uninterested in equipment and we climbed on ancient hawser ropes, holey EBs and worn Whillans harnesses: later, he was lucky to escape serious injury, when, predictably, one of his ropes snapped.
Al was born in 1929. He began climbing in the 1950s and only finally gave up at 63. He was a notable figure in the post-War climbing scene in Britain. He may not have been the very best climber of that era. However, he was highly capable, rated by his peers. Consequently, at a time when the scene was small, Al knew almost all of the most prominent climbers of that era: Joe Brown, Chris Bonington, Martin Boysen, Ian MacNaught-Davis and, of course, Mo Anthoine.
There were many impressive achievements in his career. Excluding the Lakes – where he struggled with the longer approach walks after his accident - Al climbed very widely in the UK. He climbed extensively on Southern Sandstone and in North Wales with Ian MacNaught-Davis and Mo Anthoine in the 60s and 70s. He especially loved the South West and, above all, Cornwall and Bosigran, where Little Brown Jug was his favourite route. He visited the area frequently to climb with his old friends Pete and Barry Biven and the artist Cliff Fishwick, putting up several new routes, including the excellent Last Exit to Torquay with Pete Biven at Daddyhole in June 1967. He also made an early ascent of Moonraker, which he brought to life in Hard Rock. Later, he climbed the Old Man of Hoy at 50; he was rightly proud to have found it easier ten years later when he repeated it.
Al also climbed extensively in Europe, especially the Dolomites, the Appenines and the Calanques. Indeed, in the Dolomites he had one of his most memorable personal epics; he almost froze to death when he and Mo Anthoine were benighted on the Comici Route on the North Face of Cime Grande in 1964. He was a British pioneer in the USA. Al climbed Ship Rock in New Mexico in 1959 and was also one of the very first British climbers to visit Yosemite Valley, where he climbed with Royal Robbins and, later, with John Long.
Al was certainly attracted to climbing by the risk; climbing, poker-playing and driving were all forms of thrill-seeking for him. He confessed that he 'made a practice of sticking his neck-out'. Indeed, his great friend and climbing partner, Ian MacNaught-Davis, described how Al was very unusual in the 1960s in that, as a leader, he seemed to enjoy falling. For MacNaught-Davis it was proof of his recklessness – if the furious journeys to Snowdonia had not already demonstrated it.
Yet, risk-taking was only part of it. Climbing was 'deep play' for Al. Climbing was a small, ludic rebellion for him. Al had been an outsider his whole life. He was a brilliant student, scholar and, then, writer and critic. Yet, he was never clubbable. Perhaps his estrangement was a result of his Jewish background – or, more likely, his restless and vivid personality. The anarchic, counter-cultural and raw world of post-War mountaineering was ideal for Al.
There was a second element: the challenge. Al had boxed and played rugby at school; indeed, his broken nose, juxtaposing his high, intellectual forehead, was a result of a blow in the ring. Climbing was a form of pugilism for Al; it was a duel. This understanding of the sport is particularly apparent in Feeding the Rat, his fine biography of his close friend, Mo Anthoine. Anthoine was as good as the celebrated professionals, like Chris Bonington or Doug Scott, yet he was barely known outside elite climbing circles. Climbing for Anthoine – and for Al – was a wild, personal quest, pursued with friends for the pure joy of it, not as a publicity stunt.
We climbers are lucky. Our sport is full of characters. Over the decades, I have been impressed by many of them. But Al was the one who made the biggest impression on me. I do not think I was alone.