Mike Owen writes a tribute to close friend and bold soloist Phil Davidson, who passed away after a battle with cancer on 15 February.
Phil Davidson 22/08/1959 – 15/02/2021
It began with a message from Phil back in August 2018. Typical Phil, he just came straight out with it, no beating about the bush. "You're going to have to write my obituary" was how it started, and then he went on to explain that he'd been given six months to live. Kate (Phil's wife) says that he described the next two and a half years as "living with a terminal illness" and he continued to live normally, never complaining or feeling sorry for himself. In fact you'd never believe that he was ill at all, as he set about packing in as much as he could; he was a man on a mission.
I'll do my best to honour his original request. Here is the story about a remarkably talented, dedicated, single-minded and sometimes brash person who became possibly one of the best climbers in the world for a few years back in the early '80s. His name is little known as he tended to operate under the radar; he didn't put up first ascents or live in Sheffield. However he should be regarded as a hero for his no-fuss onsight approach to hard trad climbing back in the day. Please think of this story as a celebration of Phil's wonderful life.
Phil was born in Manchester and was adopted at birth by his doting parents Sid and Jean Davidson from St. Helens. He started climbing at Pex Hill, a sandstone quarry nearby, with Dougie Gardiner and Gaz Healey in 1975. Ken Latham recalls: "We climbed a lot together at Pex in the early days, all of us there like a gang of mates, plenty of banter, piss taking, and pushing each other on the routes, Phil, Gaz, his brother Joe, Robbie Mallinson, and Chris Hunter." He quickly developed incredible finger strength and perfect technique to enable him to use the tiny holds. He also worked hard on his upper body strength and flexibility, doing lots of pull ups, press ups and leg stretching (he could do box splits without warming up). Soon after that he was taken on several trips to North Wales by Hugh Banner. Apparently, at the time, it was obvious that Phil had great potential, but he had a long way to go regarding acquiring the vital skills of rope work and placing nuts before he was able to start pushing himself. In fact, I don't think Phil fully mastered the art of placing gear, he never seemed to spend long fiddling with runners, he simply preferred to keep on going, his ability and confidence always got him up.
I first met Phil in the Llanberis Pass during the incredible summer of 1976. The weather was amazing; all the crags were dry for months. It was a wonderful time to be a teenager feeling the call of the mountains after a hard week at work (Phil was an apprentice at BICC). There were a few keen teams around at the same time, working their way through the classics in Pete Hatton's "Three Cliffs" guidebook. John Roberts, Brian Jones, Pete White, Sandy Dobie, Mike Griffiths and I made up a group of climbers based in North Wales. Andy Sharp, Steve Lewis, and Pete Lewis from South Wales were usually around most weekends. And of course there were Phil and Gaz Healey, whom we called "The Psychos", due to frequent bouts of outrageous adolescent behaviour. While it's fair to say that we were all climbing well, Phil quickly became much better and left us all behind when he nonchalantly strolled up "Right Wall", thus making the fifth ascent in 1977. It was an amazing ascent to witness, by far the most impressive piece of climbing I'd seen up to that point.
Soon after Elaine and I moved to the Merseyside area in 1980, we went round to see Phil at his parents' house. We were surprised to see an immaculate, shiny black and gold Ducati 900SS parked in the corridor between the back door and the kitchen, which his mum used to regularly dust and polish! He briefly introduced us to his lovely mum and dad, quickly gave us a mug of tea (not full, which we referred to afterwards as a "Davidson measure"), turned off the TV his parents were watching and then put on The B52's. It was such a surreal experience sitting there listening to "Planet Claire" at full volume in his mum and dad's living room.
As springtime arrived, the weather improved and the days got longer. We joined the local climbers at Pex in the evenings. There was a really great scene with lots of ruthless banter and lots of encouragement too. Regulars included Joe Healey, Willy Simm, Al Stewart, Steve Foxley, Eric Rooseberry, Pete Chadwick, Ewan McCallum, Steve Tonks, Mark Hounslea, Steve Boote, Lew Brown, Jim Hewson, Pete Trewin and Buzz. Phil would arrive on his motorbike and park it above the Dateline Wall. He'd then step through a gap in the fence and announce his arrival with a humongous burp! Then he'd down-solo "The Dateline" in his motorbike leathers, with his helmet in the crook of his elbow. We used to greet each other fondly with "alright yer spaz" (of course that was back in the days before political correctness). Once EBs were laced up and he was on the rock, everybody admired and envied his climbing ability. Ken Latham recalls: "Phil was soon searching out the blanker walls of Pex and produced outstanding problems such as Black Magic, Catalepsy, Monoblock, and Staminade. We mere mortals looked on in awe and sulked over to the naughty corner. Phil always had an infectious smile and was a joy to have around; he always had a tale to tell but never boasted. Watching him move on rock was mesmerising but scared the heck out of you. Climbers like him come around very rarely, they light up the tight knit climbing community and leave you wondering 'what the f***, how did he do that?' He never said he was better than the next guy and would give you a nod of confidence if he knew you were capable but unsure."
In the late '70s/early '80s Phil went across to Germany, with his great friend Jim Jewel, with the intention of finding some work. He didn't actually stay very long but made a lifelong friendship with Uwe Hofstaeder. True to form, he made early ascents of some of the hardest climbs in the Frankenjura at that time, for example the classics "Chasing the Train" and "Hitchhike the Plane".
During the next four years Phil climbed with a number of "belay slaves", including me. I remember watching Ron Fawcett climbing "Sardine" at Raven Tor on the TV, the evening we arrived home from a two week holiday in Corfu in 1982. As soon as the programme ended the phone rang. I knew it was Phil before I picked it up. I knew what he wanted. Next day he walked up "Sardine" whereas, being unfit after two weeks of sunbathing, I got dragged up it. He even lowered me down into the nettles as he was far too busy chatting away with a young hot shot called Jerry Moffat. Incidentally, sometime later, Jerry lent Phil his Fires so he could do Narcissus at Froggatt.
Around the same time, Phil repeated (onsight of course) one of Britain's first E7s (Pete Gommersall's very bold "Death Wish" at Blue Scar), and also on-sighted "Cave Route Right-hand" (then known as "Tiger Mountain") at Gordale. Having found "The Cad" and "The Long Run" both fairly straight forward, he made an onsight attempt on what would have been the second ascent of "The Bells! The Bells" but lowered off the peg. Not surprisingly he made mere E5s look like "paths", for example "Golden Mile" at Chee Tor and "El Coronel" at Malham. One day at Forwyn, after leading a load of E3s and E4s, he soloed "Great Wall". As if that wasn't enough, we then went to Pen Trwyn where we both led the soon to become classics "Axle Attack" and "The Bloods".
Phil was on top form in 1984 when I held his rope on "Obscene Gesture" (onsight of course). A few days later he rocked up at Chee Tor to do "Tequila Mockingbird" with Jim Hewson. Jim recalls that Phil had to wait his turn, as there were a number of very strong Peak climbers trying it that day. He refused to have the first bolt pre-clipped and set off. Apparently, as he climbed higher and higher, reading the moves quickly and climbing perfectly, the jaws of the onlookers sagged lower and lower. Unfortunately a foot slipped right at the top and he was off (to the sound of much cursing). One of the onlookers (a young Ben Moon) says that he was sure he was going to do it. Phil lowered off straight away, pulled the rope, tied back in and quickly climbed the route. Pretty impressive or what? That was the same year he soloed "Right Wall", not once but twice! The second time was for photos. Who remembers that iconic poster? Who still has it? I'm sure that it has inspired many climbers over the years. Other gobsmacking solos included "Cockblock" and "Linden" (on-sight).
Later that year Phil started a B Ed (Hons) in Outdoor Education at I M Marsh teacher training college. He stopped climbing, just like that. He suffered the embarrassment of being bottom of the class in everything apart from climbing. So he rose to the challenge (as to be expected) and set about getting better, much better, particularly at white water kayaking. Within a few months he was out there with the best, literally "pushing the boat out" (one of Phil's favourite expressions) on the most difficult rivers in Snowdonia, for example the Dee, Conwy, Ogwen, Glaslyn, and the Fairy Glen. He also enjoyed late spring trips to the Alps, to kayak the snow melt with a tight-knit group of friends including Dave Howard, Steve Priestley and Ian Walsh.
Phil really loved jazz. Charlie Parker's famous alto break was one of his favourites, which he aspired to play. That was no problem to a bloke who never did things half-heartedly. He learnt to read music and taught himself to play both the alto and tenor saxophones, so that he could play it too. Phil also went on to play in a local band, Brass Roots, which several of the Pex Hill faithful turned up to watch one night in Widnes. He was also a very stylish skier whose knees seemed to be permanently welded together. We went away on several trips together over the years; the week at Les Arc with Tim Lowe was one of the most memorable, filled with loads of hardcore skiing and constant banter.
In 1990, after a couple of years teaching, he made a comeback (not 1992 as he has logged on UKC). However, the sport had changed in the six years since he'd hung up his boots. Climbs had got steeper and it had become acceptable to "work" routes before a "redpoint" ascent. Not surprisingly, Phil adapted quickly, though he often had problems memorising moves and I usually had to shout up the beta mid-crux. It was almost as if every attempt was like an onsight attempt. Nonetheless, he flashed "Obsession". The draws were in, but it was a big shock when he arrived at the belay to find there was no quick draw to clip. Even worse, finding that the gate of the belay carabiner was stiff and wouldn't open! With an arm painfully locked in the belay chain, he eventually managed to open the gate enough to clip his harness belay loop in and finally thread the rope through. As you can imagine, there were lots of loud Davidson expletives.
That same summer, we camped for ages at Gordale Farm and Phil ticked loads of the Yorkshire limestone classics, such as: "New Dawn", "Mescalito", "L'Obsession", "Defcon 3", "Pierrepoint" and "Man with a gun". Unfortunately "Zoolook" proved too much for him and the magic 8a grade sadly eluded him. It was the first time I'd ever known him unable to do something, but he took it well. He did prove that he was still very handy on bold trad though, when he made a very controlled, onsight ascent of "Souls" in Huntsman's Leap (Phil has mistakenly logged that ascent as "Ghost Train" on UKC).
Soon after he met Kate in 1992 and other time-consuming interests took over. He raced two-stroke karts and mastered the art of clay pigeon shooting with their adored black Labrador Parker, who Phil trained to the gun. But there were occasional rumours filtering through that he'd been spotted at Pex or Helsby (where he was still able to solo "Beatnik" despite having not climbed for ages). No doubt he was keeping himself fit and maintaining his low carb, low fat, sugar free diet.
More recently, social media enabled Phil to get back in touch with lots of his old climbing friends and ultimately he got back into climbing. With his friends Daz Devey and Dave Greenald he appeared to be making up for lost time and was as keen as ever. Daz recalls: "Phil has been a fantastic climbing partner and become my closest friend over the past few years. Never any drama with him, just turns up and climbs everything with ease. And the odd time he doesn't climb it first go, he is back until he gets it done." Dave Greenald summed up Phil's inspiring ascent of "My Piano" at Nesscliffe in 2017: "E8 at 58". Once again Phil proved that he was still up there with the best. Total respect.
The last time Elaine and I saw Phil was when he came, with Kate, and spent a week with us here in the Gorges du Loup, in 2019. In many ways it was just like old times; he hadn't changed (though he'd finally caught me up and lost his hair). The wonderful thing about the climbing community is it's like we're all part of an extended family; despite not seeing each other for years it's always fantastic to catch up with the new and relive the past. That's exactly how it was seeing Phil again. For one week we were almost transported back to our teenage years, sharing banter, laughing and having fun, we even managed to climb every day.
Phil was still climbing hard and tearing up the tarmac on his latest Ducati until just a few months ago. Unfortunately, he'd had to stop kayaking and skiing a couple of years ago as he couldn't cope with cold temperatures anymore because of his treatment. True to form, he didn't moan about it, he just carried on doing what he could. Eventually, his illness finally caught up with him and he has been taken from us. Sadly, it is time to say farewell to a true legend, who set the benchmark for us all to follow. Phil will undoubtedly be very sadly missed by so many. The world is going to seem a sadder place without his infectious laugh and radiant smile. Listening to Wayne Shorter won't ever seem the same to me.
My sincere condolences go to Kate, who was always there for Phil, right up to the end.
Now my friend, it's time to set off on that last lonely lead, there's no gear and I can't give you the beta this time…
Many thanks to the friends who have helped me compile this celebration of Phil's life.