Anthracite Eyes - A Tribute to John Syrett Article

© Gordon Stainforth

UKC user Mick Ward pens a poignant tribute to John Syrett - a talented and influential climber active in the 1970's:

'John Syrett was an incredibly charismatic guy who sadly killed himself over 30 years ago. He may have suffered from depression - or he may simply have had enough. I don't know. Everybody who uses a climbing wall owes something to him, although almost nobody realises it. I've tried to give something of his story.'

Today there are thousands of climbing walls all over the world; millions of people use them. And yet their popularity came from one wall, one route and one person.

John Syrett making the third ascent of Wall of Horrors (E3 6a), Almscliff, in a howling gale in November 1970.
© John Stainforth, Nov 1970

Life is expression. We have the capacity for so much good, so much harm. Either way, the years must be paid for. Sometimes the payment is cruel, implacable.

Suddenly he was with us. A single black-and-white, full-page photograph. More than 45 years ago; then state of the art. Unseasonal November. Twin ropes curving in a taut arc. Crouched, poised at the crux of Wall of Horrors. A single reach and he would step up into history.

He reached, stepped up. Dolphin and Austin were gone. He was the one. The legend of Wall of Horrors was supplanted by the surprise of his emergence.

Where had be come from?  Less than a year’s outdoors experience but, crucially, an awful lot of time spent on the Leeds university wall. The first, revelatory product of wall-trained technique and finger strength; untold thousands have followed. A southerner - from Kent, of all places. A strange name, strange, dark eyes. Anthracite eyes.

Anthracite eyes… in the pub next summer, my first in North Wales. Quietly ticking the hard routes of the day. Quiet and dark and chillingly handsome. English as a county cricketer.

John Syrett and John Stainforth on Shrike (E1), Cloggy, August 1970
© Gordon Stainforth

Later that summer I saw him again, noted his undisputed authority on rarely travelled sandstone testpieces.

Back at Almscliffe he reigned supreme. Dynamic, eclectic, flowing. Open shirt and dark curls. Utter unpredictability. Sidling and twisting into the inverted horizontal. Each improbable move vibrant with talent, wild and alive with burgeoning promise.

Although there have been many who were more efficient, never have I seen one who matched or even approached his casual style of charismatic grace.

My first visit to the wall… meeting him on the stairs. The wall - his kingdom.

And then the fall. A drunken party in Leeds. The careless handling of a razor-sharp blade. A severed tendon rudely curtailed genius.

In crisis our lives are abruptly transformed. Crisis imposes its unique insistence - for development, for regress. Crisis can make us realise undreamed potential and it can confirm our darkest, most secret self-doubt.

John was left with fame and a seeming inability to recover his astounding prowess. As hopes of cure faded, life started to close in.

Who knows what drove him, what drives any of us? We all feed the rats in our bellies. What strange desire prompted John to prove nemesis to Wall of Horrors? Had that desire somehow invoked another, grimmer nemesis?

John Syrett making the first ascent of Joker's Wall (E4 6a), solo, at Brimham, 17 April 1971
© John Stainforth, Apr 1971

I saw him just once more. Another windy November afternoon at Almscliffe, probably much like the day on Wall of Horrors but six years later – a climbing lifetime away. I swung across the start of the North West Girdle, glanced up in homage to Big Greeny, then across to the boulders. John, eternally boyish, dark curls tousled by the wind, a girl, blonde and lovely, beside him. A casual wave and he was gone.

Later of course stories emerged. The most courteous of people when sober, his drinking was the infliction of great harm. His self-exile to Newcastle and physiotherapy – the discipline which had seemingly failed him – is well known. Less well known perhaps were solitary bicycle trips to isolated Northumberland outcrops. Almscliffe mockingly reborn in lonely ascents? Fame must have seemed fleeting. What now was left?

John Syrett climbing at Jesmond Dene, Newcastle upon Tyne sometime in autumn 1978
© nickprior

The last few years are bitter to contemplate. Life on the rigs, where life is very hard. A fatal accident, for which no-one but himself blamed him. His dark shadow, close by him, ever closer, touching.

The end came at Malham. To a sport climbing generation, he must have seemed passé. Arriving with two bottles of whisky in his rucksac. A long night talking with a former rival. What redemption was there?  Could some tiny fragment of living be saved?

A day later, at dawn, he jumped. From the lip of the Cove, he took the long, savage plunge through empty space, cold air. We’ve all secretly thought of it. He did it. In the twinkling of early morning light, through the eye of a bolt head, he was gone forever.

A couple of scanty obituaries served only to emphasise our lack of understanding. As a climber, he was yesterday’s hero. Climbing obscures so many facets of life, of ourselves, which we can’t resolve. His climbing genius perhaps obscured him.

Was John too brave to continue with a life which was insufficient?  Did he have something which is denied us - and did he lack something which we take for granted?

Life is expression. John’s genius was paid for most dearly. May he have peace.

John Syrett making the first ascent of Problem Rib, Earl Crag, Yorkshire, c. June 1970?
© Gordon Stainforth

Support UKC

As climbers we strive to make UKClimbing the kind of website we would love to visit, with the most up-to-date news, diverse and interesting articles, comprehensive gear reviews, breathtaking photographs and a vast and useful logbook system. As a result, an incredible community has formed around the site - we’ve provided the framework but it’s you who make the website what it is today. If you appreciate the content we offer then you can help us by becoming an official UKC Supporter. This can be a one-off single annual payment or a more substantial payment paid monthly or yearly which includes full access to Rockfax Digital and discounts on Rockfax print publications.

If you appreciate UKClimbing then please help us by becoming a UKC Supporter.

UKC Supporter

  • Support the website we all know and love
  • Access to a year's subscription to Rockfax Digital.
  • Plus 30% off Rockfax guidebooks
  • Plus Show your support UKC porter badge on your profile and forum posts
UKC/UKH/Rockfax logo

26 Feb, 2016
Brilliant bit of writing, Mick. What a legend and what a tragedy. Thanks for sharing. Dunc
26 Feb, 2016
Really great Mick.
26 Feb, 2016
Lovely piece Mick. It makes you think what might have been?
26 Feb, 2016
Great article. Would be a nice to see it extended - always great to peek in to the lives of those who forged the path in which we follow.
26 Feb, 2016
Depression is a sometimes deadly disease.
More Comments
Loading Notifications...
Facebook Twitter Copy Email