INTERVIEW: Gary Gibson and Andy Pollitt

Andy Pollitt follows his interview with Ron Fawcett by reminiscing with another of Britain's top climbers in the 80s and prolific new-router, Gary Gibson. Gary now lives in Stoke-on-Trent with his wife, Hazel.

'Some people collect records, some people collect football programmes and some people train spot: I collect new routes.'

Hi Gary, Hi Hazel. Hey, you're a podiatrist, what do you recommend for spurs please? (No, not the Tottenham footy team – even though there's a quirky connection here) coz my mate Mick's sick of hobbling 'round in severe pain?

GG: I'd try some chaps or leather trousers, I found they helped when I first got my spurs. Mine kept rubbing against the back of my legs when I spurred the horse I was riding on!

But seriously, you'll have to pay me good money for a consultancy but I retire in four weeks so I won't be able to help you then. Thirty five years in the job and representing my profession at a national level for seven years now as I am a member of my professional body's council and even a Vice President.

Hazel's early opinion of Gary whilst having a relaxing time after a Podiatry exam.
© Gibson Collection

Now Gary, following on from my earlier chats with the illuminati on here, when I was a teenager and doing first ascents along the North Wales coast it seemed that for every new route I put up you'd've done about 259 - and pretty much from Land's End to John O'Groats plus all points east and west.

But! And let's face it, some of your additions were not exactly 3 stars but here and there you'd unearth a complete mega-classic. Chances of probability really hey?

GG: Probability works for me too, I have always worked on the assumption that if I did enough, I'd get one or two good ones!

The irony for me was always to get my name in the press come what may and I didn't, and probably still don't, mind what I do. I didn't really gauge what was and wasn't a line, I just did what hadn't been done, enjoyed it and publicised it.

I had the philosophy that if I couldn't touch the routes on either side it was a new route: unfortunately my arms shrunk on some routes so that I had my left hand in one route and my right hand in another. It was a learning process.

It wasn't about grade or line or length, more just about the first ascent.

But I love every minute of it, despite not always giving the impression that I do, and it has become something that defines me. I new-route, I hoover the crags of every last drop of potential and even today I share the same philosophy.

You can't say a cliff is worked out until I have been there!

Some people collect records, some people collect football programmes and some people train spot: I collect new routes.

There was a delightful little climb – Duchess, a HVS - you put up at my local cliff Craig Y Forwyn and tho' it was 60' of grassy ledges the little 15' of immaculate grey limestone with Verdon-like 'gouttes d'eau' beneath the typical cotoneaster finish was superb. Now I only know those plants that cornice over the top of Forwyn are called cotoneaster coz my great friend (Stoke, like yourself) Pete Bailey's a horticulturalist and he told me, Andy Boorman and 'Hot' Henry how to spot the difference between cotoneaster 'micra filla' and cotoneaster 'henry anus'. Well Henry copped some ribbing over that obviously but with the plant surname 'Clover' it felt quite apt.

A couple of years later you returned to Forwyn and wreaked even more havoc by stripping an 80' wall of a (quite possibly) rare and precious species of creeper and left what you claimed was 'the best extreme on the crag' – Space Mountain E5 6b.

"How dare he, this is our home crag" I whinged to Pete, 'Necky' Norman [Clacher] and Andy Boorman so was 'in like Flynn' for the second ascent. I mumbled & grumbled all the way up muttering to myself "sh*t, this is flippin' brilliant, the jammy sod".

Simply had to downgrade it to E4 6a though didn't I, Ha!

GG on an early revisit to his Forwyn classic, Space Mountain.
© Allen Williams

Another new one of yours [you did with lovely Andy Popp] and I repeated was up on Craig Yr Ysfa high above the Ogwyn Valley. Paul Williams took Moffatt and me up there once and we skinny- dipped in the lake as it was so hot. Haunted it was named and a truly brilliant E5 6a. So atmospheric.

I must say though, it was impressive that you'd claimed a new route in The Lakes in the morning, this Welsh one which is a mammoth walk in and back out and something else in a little quarry near Liverpool somewhere all on the same day and all with different partners. Remarkable stuff. I wondered whether you travelled in a flying police phone box like Dr Who!

Despite you climbing all over the country our paths never crossed 'til you caught wind of the booming Pen Trwyn thing happening and spent many weekends there sharing all the fun 'n games with us.

GG: The story about me doing one in the Lakes, one in North Wales and one in a Liverpool quarry aren't quite true, I was kicked out of the quarry before I got started!

It is true that with Andy Popp I did a new route on Craig Yr Ysfa in the morning and a new route on Dinas Mot in the afternoon.

I scabbed a day off work, you know, threw a sicky, and sort of bullied Andy into coming out with me on a Tuesday to do those two routes. I had certainly got the urge back in 1983.

And I've done even more bizarre things. I travelled to Pembroke with my wife to bag a new route that I thought others would steal and travelled back the same day – eight hours driving for one route.

And I've taken people climbing for a weekend, got up as dawn broke around 5am, went cleaning, came back and dragged them out of bed and propped them up at the bottom of the cliff to belay me. The same was done the following day. They didn't usually sign up for that treatment again.

And those routes at Forwyn, thanks for building 'em up and knocking 'em down again, you were only jealous. And I refuse to admit that I did all that damage to the flora and fauna. You are just using that story to get at Hot Henry?

Incidentally that E4 one was Space Mountain, another day 'poached' from work, this time by my brother. Incidentally, when he got home his boss had been around to see where he was. Not sure how he got out of that one!

GG enjoying the cold water whilst trying to get access to a water bound crag in the USA.
© Hazel Gibson

That's right – your brother Phil of the exceptional crag pen and ink drawings – lovely fella too.

I suppose I was rather sceptical of your claimed bona fides (as were many others back then – particularly after Big Bug, an E3 that nobody could touch – not even Ron and JR when they joined forces) but, yourself and Hazel were just so, so friendly and down to earth and you climbed very forcefully – route after route after route – and all new ones. I made a complete re-evaluation of 'who you were' and it was indeed a great pleasure to share the new lines with you Gary, you got some absolute corkers.

GG: Appreciate the comments, I'm really flattered but people just don't get it - or me, they want to judge without understanding.

Having said that, I can't deny I twisted the truth a bit here and there but I wasn't the only one, it's just I did more than anyone and rubbed people up the wrong way by being direct: I suppose my character is still the same but it does gaul me somewhat that people are still on a witch-hunt!

I haven't done that sort of thing for many a year but the past still comes back to haunt me. I'll have to live with that, I'm big enough.

Hmm, let others be the judge eh?

I was deeply concerned some years ago upon hearing of your dreadful accident (from down here in Australia) and it wasn't much later that another old friend 'Necky Norman' Clacher suffered a similar fate. Then so did Pete Bailey in Spain. How fragile life can be eh?

GG: A nasty memory for me but even more so for my lovely wife Hazel, she was there, watched it happen and helped save my life.

I was hit on the head by what we think was a sharp piece of rock when abseiling to clean a route at Ban y Gor: it cut my rope and I fell 70ft – is that 18m in new currency? I smashed my head to bits, fractured skull, jaw, orbits etc and was in an induced coma for five days: I now have a large titanium plate in my head so be warned!

When the area rescue arrived, Hazel was there and she said 'he's over there, I think he's dead'. That's how bad/close it was.

I got my revenge on the route though and called it Head Tennis. You have to have irony in your life.

And as for Hazel, she really is a superstar, look what she has to put up with all the time, I am like a bear with a sore head if I can't go new routeing.

GG discovering the first ascent of an esoteric gem in the Peak almost now lost in time. Private Targets at Hall Moor Quarry.
© Gibson Collection

So GG, please wrap this up for us with some treasured memories (but please don't forget – it's not all about you you know, I want a mention too ta, ha!).

Keep working on that autobiog.

GG: Memories, too many to mention here really but I am writing them up as I go along.

Here are a couple:

I found this new crag down near to Matlock, just as the quarrymen left the place and I got completely obsessed by the cleaning bug, nothing new there you might say. I cleaned and bolted up one wall relatively easily, leaving work on a Friday and getting there about 3pm in the winter months and cleaning and drilling in the dark with a head-torch.

The other wall wasn't so easy to clean, some 40m high and not very well featured.

I had spotted this superb-looking thin crack system and realised quite quickly that the whole face was covered in a veneer of fine orange dust. I placed the bolts in what I thought were the correct places and scrubbed the thing clean, which took me a couple of hours. When I'd finished, I packed my stuff up and drove home, never having looked at myself in the mirror.

When I got home, Hazel just laughed at the colour of me: I looked like someone who had just been 'tangoed' – completely orange from head to foot, even underneath my 'orange suit'.

GG after a heavy bout of cleaning and 'absorbing' Peak district limestone
© Gary Gibson

I had a bath and when the water drained out there was a half inch layer of orange sediment on the base of the bath which took some washing down. I called the route The Orangemen and incidentally I think I have more of the Peak District in my lungs than any other climber in history.

On another occasion, I had been cleaning at the foot of a crag on land owned by Tarmac [a quarry company] and one of Tarmac's employees came up to escort me off the cliff.

I informed him that I wasn't leaving until I had finished and that I knew the law for trespass and that he couldn't legally move me until he had obtained a civil writ, which takes about 10 days and I was leaving later that day anyway.

On that note he started to wave his arms about and said he would get the police, which I said was fine by me: he stormed off.

About ninety minutes later he was back, this time with the local 'bobby' from Cromford, who when he got to the top of the slope appeared to be on the verge of a seizure.

The conversation between the guy from Tarmac and me resumed, this time with the other guy getting even more apoplectic and aggressive.

I again, rather dangerously, advised him in a very calm manner that I wasn't leaving for another hour or so and again explained the law to him.

The guy from Tarmac then started to berate the policeman. The policeman rather calmly retorted that I was correct in my assessment of the law and that he was there more to keep the peace than remove me from his land and that he was rather more concerned about his attitude than mine.

At that point the guy from Tarmac completely lost it and the policeman took matters into his own hands by escorting him off his own land!

I never saw either of them again.

OK. Hmm, err [shakes head and goes "flubberlubberlub"] where were we Gary, finished?

Thanks lots. A reader or two might think (apropos 'Big' Ron's), this really is all about you seein' as I never got a mention, Ha!


Andy P.

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