His talent was climbing, but his gift was reducing grown men to tears of laughter
There are few climbers who deserve the tag 'legend' but to everyone who knew Tony Preston that is exactly what he was.
Tony will be remembered by everyone who knew him as a fantastically humorous character, always ready and up for a laugh and also a superb raconteur and mimic.
Probably unheard of by the vast majority of climbers these days, Tony won't be remembered for leaving a raft of new routes though he did make one or two such as early inroads into Egerton Quarry (with Dickie's Meadow in 1975) and a free ascent of Proline in Wilton One. He was also involved in the early attempts to free climb the aid route The Shakes in Wilton One and for some reason the Lancashire histories don't recognise his free ascent of Spike (climbed with Hank Pasquill) though it was left completely unrecorded and was left for others to claim at a later date.
Tony began climbing in his teenage years and soon entered into a close-knit team involving himself, Doug Shaw, Nigel Holmes, Alan Mason and Nigel Bonnett, and it was with this team that Tony began to really cut his teeth on the rock in his local Lancashire quarries, the Peak District and further afield, often hanging around with the Regan and Siddiqui brothers, Steve Bancroft, Chris Addy and other well-known names of the day.
In the 1970s and early 1980s Tony and partners climbed the hardest routes, and fell off most of them. They laughed their way up most routes; usually as a result of Tony's irreverent humour and immaculate delivery.
On Bonnett's 18th birthday in September 1976 Tony and Nige ignored Gabe Regan's advice and set off on an early repeat of the then dirty Mortlock's Arete only for Tony to hold a considerable leader fall when Nige came off whilst battling with the mud that was evident in a number of places on the route in those early days. Nige had tied on round his waist and Tony had belayed him round the waist – these being before the days of belay devices. On lowering Nige back to the ground his first words to him were “happy birthday son” just as he handed Nige a lit King Edwards cigar and the two of them sat under the route chatting and enjoying the adventure until the cigar was finished and climbing could begin again.
Tony was also an early visitor to the Verdon Gorge in the south of France, a trip that was not without hilarious incident, beginning with the train strike and the nuns that took pity on Tony on the train by searching out food from the train's other passengers before handing it to our impoverished-looking Tony, who repaid them with a couple of slurps of the whisky that he'd bought duty free. Tony, Nige and the nuns spent the remainder of the train journey together down to Marseilles and ended up thoroughly drunk, as did the nuns who seemed to have taken to their new English friends.
Besides the United Kingdom and France, Tony joined Ron Canty on a 20-week trip to the United States in 1980 and completed a number of high-profile routes at the Gunks, Seneca Rocks, Eldorado Canyon, the Diamond on Longs Peak, plus a bunch of routes in Tuolomne Meadows and Yosemite. During the trip Tony and Ron probably climbed over 200 routes, many of them 3-star classics and largely of a result of the Bolton boys' personalities and befriending a number of influential US climbers on the trip.
Highlights of the road trip would have been routes such as:
Foops (5.11) – Shawangunks (an early British free ascent), Terra Firma Homesick Blues (5.10) – Seneca, Sheharzade (5.10) – Needles (climbed with Howie Doyle; Tony was sandbagged into making the 2nd ascent by Kevin Bein who had laid siege to the route the previous year with a team of partners to finally bag the 1st ascent), Naked Edge (5.11) – Eldorado Canyon, The Diamond, many routes at Tuolomne Meadows ,The Good Book, Snake Dyke and Lost Arrow Spire in Yosemite.
Tony had strongest fingers, and his foot work was immaculate. Mick Lovatt recently declared Tony to be the most naturally talented climber he'd ever seen, and there can't be much higher praise than that.
In 1986 Dai Lampard's Gasherbrum team ran a fundraising dinner and beer-fest at the Clachaig in Glencoe. It was here that for many was the most potent image of Tony's respect by other climbers was seen.
It was late in the evening and someone suggested that it was 'games time' and so the dreaded crocodile clips were brought forward. During the evening there had been much Bolton vs Lake District niggling going on and consensus seemed to suggest that the clips would resolve the issue.
There was no discussion, no cajoling, no arguments. Tony stepped forward and said simply “me”.
The Lakes team – Phiz (Al Phizacklea), Andy Atkinson, Al Shand and the others went into a tight huddle to decide which of them should be the sacrificial lamb - they already knew the moment that Tony stepped up to the ockey that whoever they put forward was doomed.
Shand was chosen and took his place on the altar that was a chair directly opposite the smiling Tony. At the chosen moment both Tony and Al had the clips affixed to their fleshy soft parts (in this case the nose, but there were times when...) and the crowd gasped in awe as they struggled to maintain their poise. At this point it should be mentioned that the clips in question had grown up from Lampard and Bonnett's Halfords cheapies when the game was first devised, to a pair of crocodile clips of almost industrial strength and which consequently dealt an excruciatingly impossible-to-bear pain to whichever bodily point it was applied to.
As Shand sat there in clear pain with tears streaming down his face and his eyes bulging with the effort and ears a burning red colour, the determination on Tony's face grew and was not shown in sheer effort, blood, sweat or tears, but in a wry smile. A smile of determination and of confidence that he'd already won and it was basically just a matter of time.
Tony did win of course; Al screamed to be released and his nose burst open. Tony got up slowly and took his own clip off, to a huge round of applause and adulation and the legend that was 'The Prophet' was sealed in everyone's memory.
Friends of Tony all have different and varied memories of him, all of them good and many which bring a smile to the lips or often a full-on belly laugh.
Geoff Mann recalls Tony's skills at cooking whilst in camp:
“I remember when he used to cook breakfast when we were camping. Depending on the size of his sausages they were either 'little boys Jimmies' or 'widows memories'. Oh, and his ham shank broth!!”
Andy Roberts remembers:
“Tony never lost that twinkle in his eye for a well-timed hysterical comment, a chance to ham it up for a crowd, or for a good old piss taking session.”
Most of the Americans we met struggled to understand Tony's broad Bolton accent at first and I was sometimes intrigued as to whether they really figured out what he was saying. I asked Howard Doyle about this once and he said to me, “Ron, you know, Tony is such a funny guy you don't need to understand him – he would make you laugh just reading a bus timetable”
Nigel Bonnett tells of the Menstrual Wind Incident:
“We were in the Ardeche and some really attractive girl who didn't speak English (or so we thought) was belaying next to us. All we talked about between us was would she take her top off. On the last day Tony bet me a pint that she wouldn't. Much to our surprise, she turned round smiled at us both and took her top off........... her nipples stood out and Tony announced in a loud voice that they were like that because of the cold Menstrual Wind. The young lady burst out laughing and thanked us both in perfect English for the funny stories she'd been listening to all week!”
A true personality, Tony was an inspiration to all that knew him, and names such as Lovatt, Geoff Mann, Paul Pritchard, Mick Johnston, Mark Leach and a whole host of others would be proud to admit that they would be on that list.
Tony also seemed to befriend every tramp that walked the earth; he was a breath of fresh air compared to today.
Professionally Tony worked as an engineer and shop steward at British Aerospace in Lostock and also was in charge of the company's 'Brewing Club' at the site.
Tony enjoyed life to the full and eventually life seemed to catch up with him and say that enough was enough. Life was tired of keeping up with Tony. He retired a number of years ago due to his personal struggle with alcohol and sadly passed away aged only 53 to a blood clot on the lung.
Tony was divorced from his wife Sue and is survived by his two sons, Matthew and Jonathan.