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The Crux

© Bâton Wicks Archive
John Streetly on the first ascent of Bloody Slab, Clogwyn d'ur Arddu, 1952.
© Bâton Wicks Archive

To mark the 25th anniversary of the Kendal Mountain Film Festival it was decided to try to achieve the near-impossible - to celebrate the whole history of British mountaineering and rock climbing achievement in just 25 classic photographs from 1880 onwards - the concept of 'crux' meaning pictures that represent a step forward in climbing history, not necessarily a crux photograph.

Very soon we realised that this was concept was flawed because one of the most important chapters of British mountaineering was the Golden Age of Alpinism that reached a climax in the 1860s. Also, many of the photographs taken before the 1890s are extremely dull - mostly landscape shots, or posed static pictures because of the long exposures that were required with early photographic emulsion. Accordingly, two of the pictures are drawings.

25 pictures covering 15 decades from 1860 to the present day - that's only about one and half pictures per decade! How was I to achieve such a compression of history? In practise, I quickly deemed some decades to be more important than others, and the final compilation breaks down as follows: one picture per decade from the 1860s to the 1940s, then 2 for the 50s, 4 for the 60s, 3 for the 70s, 3 for the 80s and 2 for the 90s. The whole gamut of the sport had to be represented too, covering the whole of Britain as well as the Alps, Himalaya and other ranges. 12 of the pictures are of mountaineering, and 13 of rock climbing, in England (4), Wales (6), Scotland (4), the Alps (4), Himalaya (5), other ranges (2).

The Crux exhibition at Kendal
© Mick Ryan, Dec 2005

The nature of the pictures is very varied too: from superb photos of great artistic merit to technically imperfect shots that capture a unique moment in climbing history: no fewer than five of the rock climbing pictures are of such crux moments - and then there's the classic reconstruction taken in 1915 by the incomparable Abraham brothers, a year after the first ascent, of the Central Buttress of Scafell. Quite a few of the pictures I've selected are such obvious classics, but there are several others that I hope will be less familiar. Amongst the better known photographers represented are Chris Bonington, John Cleare, Cubby Cuthbertson, Leo Dickinson, Doug Scott and Ken Wilson. A huge number of other archivists and experts have also been consulted. Many of the pictures were extremely difficult to track down.

Tony Riley has applied state-of-the-art Digital Restoration techniques to a wide range of original material to maintain the image integrity.

One thing's for sure: this unusual and perhaps controversial exhibition will attract a good deal of debate!

Gordon Stainforth

Below is one of the extended captions that accompany each of the photographs and the full list of photographs that Gordon chose. Gordon and the Kendal Mountain Festival are now securing printing rights for as many of these photographs as possible and high quality prints will be available for purchase at Kendal Mountain Festival website.

Dougal Haston arriving at the summit of Everest, 6pm, 24 September 1975 by Doug Scott

Dougal Haston arriving at the summit of Everest © Doug Scott

This is undoubtedly one of the great moments and greatest iconic photographs in British mountaineering history.

One of the biggest outstanding challenges in the early 1970s was to make a direct route up the SW Face of Everest from the Western Cwm. There had been three previous, unsuccessful expeditions, including a Bonington-led one in 1972. In 1975 the Bonington-led team consisted of Doug Scott, Mick Burke, Dougal Haston, Pete Boardman, Martin Boysen, Nick Estcourt and Tut Braithwaite (the latter two finding the crucial way through the difficult Rock Band).

Doug Scott's photograph has captured the crucial moment at dusk on the 24th September in all its dramatic glory, just as they are about to be the first Britons to put their feet on the highest summit in the world (the summiteers on the successful British-led 1953 Expedition had, of course, been New Zealander Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay).

Scott and Haston then had to spend the night in a hastily-evacuated snow hole on the South Summit without any oxygen or protective equipment, the highest bivouac that had ever been made. Two days later, Pete Boardman and Pertemba also made it to the top.

Although this was one of the last old-style Himalayan expeditions on a grand scale, supported by a huge team of Sherpas – Pete Boardman memorably described it as 'one of the last great Imperial experiences' – it was another huge triumph, though marred, yet again, this time by the death of Mick Burke.

1850 - 1865: The Golden Age

A cannonade on the Matterhorn, July 1862
© Freda Raphael Historical Archive

1. A cannonade on the Matterhorn, July 1862

Edward Whymper/James Mahoney Scrambles amongst the Alps, 1900 edition/Freda Raphael Historical Archive

1865 - 1900

2. On the Messer Grat

H G Willink, 1891 Bâton Wicks Archive

3. Napes Needle, Great Gable, Wasdale

Gordon Stainforth

4. Beatrice Tomasson and her guide, Arcangelo Siorpaes, in the Cortina Dolomites, 1898

Bâton Wicks Archive

1900 - 1950

5. Tower Ridge, Ben Nevis

Tony Riley

6. Central Buttress, Scafell, Easter 1915

George & Ashley Abraham, Bâton Wicks Archive

7a. Siegfried Herford and George Mallory at Pen y Pass, December 1913

Geoffrey Winthrop Young, Alpine Club Photo Library

7b. The last picture of Mallory and Irvine, Camp IV, Everest, 6 June 1924

Noel Odell Mountain Camera Picture Library

8. Edward Norton at 28,100ft on Everest, 4 June 1924

T Howard Somervell, Somervell family

9. Fred Pigott on the crux of Crack and Corner, The Roaches, c.1922

Eric Byrom, Rucksack Club Archive

10. Joe Brown making the first ascent of The Right Unconquerable, Stanage, April 1949

Ernest Phillips

1950 - 1965

11. Rusty Baillie starting up Cenotaph Corner, Dinas Cromlech, Llanberis Pass

John Cleare

12. John Streetly on the first ascent of Bloody Slab, Clogwyn d'ur Arddu, 10 June 1952

E A Wrangham, Bâton Wicks Archive

13. Pete Crew repeating Great Wall, Clogwyn d'ur Arddu, 1965
John Cleare

1965 - 1970

14. Layton Kor on the Central Pillar of the Eiger Direct, 5pm, 19 March 1966

Chris Bonington

15. Rusty Baillie at the crux on the first ascent of the Old Man of Hoy, 18 July 1966

Chris Bonington

16. Ed Drummond & Dave Pearce pioneering A Dream of White Horses, Craig Gogarth, Oct 1968

Leo Dickinson

17. Doug Scott on The Scoop, Sron Ulladale, June 1969

Ken Wilson

1970 - 1980

18. Ian Clough on the South Face of Annapurna, May 1970

Chris Bonington

19. Dougal Haston arriving at the summit of Everest, 6pm, 24 September 1975

Doug Scott

20. Alex MacIntyre below the summit of Changabang, Garwhal Himalaya, 1978

John Porter

Leo Houlding on the crux of The Passage to Freedom, El Capitan

1980 - 2005

21. Tasker, Boardman, and Renshaw on the NNE Ridge of Everest, 5 May 1982

Chris Bonington

22. The Screaming Ab Dabs, Isle of Lewis, Outer Hebrides

Dave Cuthbertson

23. Johnny Dawes making the first ascent of The Indian Face, Cloggy, 4 October 1986

Paul Williams, Chris Williams archive

24. The Arwa Tower (6352m), Garwhal Himalaya, April 1999

Mick Fowler

25. Leo Houlding on the crux of The Passage to Freedom, El Capitan, October 1999

Andrew McGarry

Keep your eye on the Kendal Mountain Festival website as prints of some of these photographs will soon be available.

Also see our Kendal report.

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19 Dec, 2005
Looks really good & sorry I couldn't get to the fest. Well done Gordon on the article & nice to see some of the piccys Si
21 Dec, 2005
Gordon, do you know which photos we will be able to buy prints of?
21 Dec, 2005
We will be putting details on the Kendal website shortly (realistically, in the New Year now - as other personal matters have kept me away from this for a few days.) Later today I may reply on this thread to tell you which pictures I know so far will definitely be available.
21 Dec, 2005
Sounds great, thanks very much.