And I thought he was out of his head
Being a young man I just laughed it off
When I heard what the old man had said
He said I’ll never again turn the head of a lass
Or lead an extreme in the Pass
I’m three quarters home from the start to the end
And I wish I was eighteen again.
(With thanks to George Burns – 1896 to 1996)
Ian Campbell, born in 1938, was brought up in Birmingham where he trained as a metallurgist. He started climbing in North Wales in 1958 and was instantly attracted to the whole scene. He worked as an instructor in the early days of Ogwen Cottage, climbed extensively in Wales and went on to climb in other regions of the UK, the Alps and the Himalayas. Ian taught at a college in Sheffield for ten years before moving to Canada to work as an aerospace engineer. He now lives in the Okanagan Valley in British Columbia.
In this article, Ian reflects on his climbing career and asks himself the question: "Would I do it again? If I were 18 today would I take up climbing?" Would he experience the way of life that he was so heavily drawn in by in the 50's, 60's and 70's? Has climbing nowadays lost its 'lifestyle' aspect that Ian so revered during the "Golden Age" of mountaineering?
Read Ian's honest and amusing account below to find out more...
I was brought up in post war Birmingham, a nice city now but pretty drab then. I missed out on university for various reasons, instead doing a “student apprenticeship” which, apart from being quite boring, paid miserable wages and gave you all of two weeks holiday a year. I needed to get away and at weekends I would hitch-hike or cycle to local Youth Hostels and did an Outward Bound course at Eskdale. This led to me wanting to be a climber, but Brum was not exactly the best place for that.
Getting into climbing
In 1958, motivated by college classmate Harry Richards, I started to hitch hike to Wales after work on Friday and stay at William’s barn in Ogwen. It rained all the time, the barn was full of rats, but that was where that I wanted to be. It was there that I met Mo Anthoine who was to become my climbing partner for the next sixteen years and best friend until his untimely death from cancer in 1989. We felt we were different and the characters we met seemed larger than life. However, they were not all good climbers and they were certainly not all nice people. We worked our way through the V Diffs and Severes in Ogwen in all sorts of weather wearing curly Vibram boots. After a few months building up confidence we ventured round to The Pass to find the rock steeper but the holds better. Of course we climbed Spiral Stairs and looking up at the Corner and across at the Gates they both seemed impossible! Equipment was poor to say the least and the guiding principle was that the leader never fell off.
Mo got his name as a boy from his likeness to Moe Howard of The Three Stooges - the “nasty little one with the fringe”. He had a natural talent for climbing and was very strong – the exact opposite of me. Mo left home in 1959 and camped in the pass for some time until Trevor Jones, who he met on Cloggy one day, offered him a job as handyman for one pound a week at the newly formed Ogwen Cottage. This gesture changed history in that Mo was just about to sign up for nine years in the Marines! A year later, having passed all my exams in Metallurgical Engineering, I put my career on hold and joined him at “The Cot” as an instructor on the princely sum of three pounds a week. Mo qualified as a teacher later but only stuck at it for one year. In 1968 he went into business with Joe Brown making helmets in Llanberis. He went on to make his mark on the greater ranges and as a very popular and entertaining person in the climbing world.
Ogwen Cottage and Ron James
The next three years were indeed special and it was perhaps the best segment of my life. I think we instructed well, but it was the ranting, the women, the beer and the hard climbing that really made it. Ron James was the guru and he influenced us all – he was the master of rope technique and runner placement. He would climb with people of all abilities and always made sure that they enjoyed the climb and did it properly. As a guide he was unique in that he would take clients up routes that were near to his own top standard – there was nobody else guiding climbs like Cenotaph and White Slab in those days. Ron was one of the best climbers of his time and so much underrated. We also dated two sisters from Bangor for a while (Heather and Adrienne) and had some great times and parties at Ogwen. Climbing in boots, sometimes nails, plus handling thousands of feet of wet rope paid off and both my technique and strength improved. I moved on from being a VS leader (just) and after about six months I had led Cenotaph Corner, my second extreme, the first being Slape Direct. I always climbed with good mates and led all of the hard routes, except when I climbed with Mo, Ron or Dave Yates, when we led through. All climbs had to be done in complete control with good technique - I never fell off, leading or seconding!
I should say something about the first ascent of The Groove on Llech Ddu which I did with Mo and that is a story in itself. In one of his articles Trevor Jones had ended it by saying “I’ll throw my PA’s in the van ……. and there’s always that groove on Llech Ddu”. Mo and I were obsessed with doing it despite what we had heard – there was supposed to be a partly detached block the size of a bus in the groove and even Bonnington had backed off. In the end we left it so late that Mo was due to leave for New Zealand and we had a few days to do the climb. The weather was not good, the rock was vegetated and very loose, everything Mo touched on pitch two fell away and I did the traverse on pitch three too high. The result was that we used too many slings and it was me who recorded them all and gave the climb a name. Others said, no names, that I should not have been so honest due to the nature of the rock and have changed the description a little.
Breakthrough – Beyond Cenotaph
After Mo left for New Zealand in Oct 1961 there was only Ron and myself at the Cot and very few clients. We climbed a lot together, doing Joe Brown’s routes at Tremadog such as Fang and the Slips and that’s when it all came together – by the end of the year we had done Vector and Thing and I had led the hard pitches. I still remember (fifty three years later) the crux move on Vector, pitch two in my opinion, just above the ring peg on the Ochre Slab. There is a good crack for your right hand and a blocky spike to the left so I put my left hand on the block, my right hand in the crack and ran my feet up the slab until I was looking towards the ground – I really wish I had a photo. I then hopped my left foot on to the block and the rest was easy. I kept up that standard for the next year, 1962, and ticked off a good number of hard routes, mainly on Cloggy. At that time Ron and I would go to Bethesda to buy paint and building materials for maintenance work but call in the Douglas for a pint or two. We played snooker and Mr Davies would let us play all afternoon (no more drinks) so I guess my game also progressed that winter.
But all things come to an end and after three years of getting soaked to the skin (no Goretex in those days) it was time to move on. My qualifications were just good enough to get me a job as a lecturer at a technical college in Sheffield – pretty much perfect for a climber. Things were good for the next ten years, climbing in Wales, Scotland and the Alps and ranting with Mo and Al Harris. I was never that good in the Alps but I did do about thirty routes. One memorable three day weekend in the winter of 1972, Paul Nunn and I drove up from Sheffield to Ben Nevis in my Morris van. We did three climbs, including Point Five Gulley, drove back to Sheffield overnight and both showed up to give our 9.00 am lecture on Tuesday morning! As regards drugs, which have been mentioned in other articles about this period, there really was not much action. Harris would go for anything but in truth we were beer drinkers - all we smoked was a bit of pot and even that was in the early seventies. But I had got bored with the job and become more and more nervous about climbing. As I said before I had to climb in complete control and in good style and sadly it was not the case in my last couple of years in the UK.
To anyone of my era the Himalayas and their history were magic and I never dreamt of going there. I had decided to move to Canada and Mo and I thought that we could do an overland trip before I left. So, in 1974 I went to the Himalayas with Mo and Jackie Anthoine, Bill Barker and Malcolm Howells and it was a memorable trip. We drove overland in a Volkswagen minibus, courtesy of Bev Clark, in the interim between Greek/Turkish wars, before the overthrow of the Shah of Iran and at a time of relative peace in Pakistan /India. If only the world was like that now! We climbed a peak of around 21,000 feet on the Chinese border and the whole experience was memorable.
Moving to Canada
After the Himalayas I moved to Canada and still intended to climb but circumstances intervened. After ten years teaching at a college I was not exactly God’s gift to Canadian industry and finding a job was difficult. Hazel and I moved to Northern Alberta where I was in charge of the laboratory at a natural gas plant and we saved lots of money. Driving back from Edmonton after purchasing our first set of ski equipment we were involved in a near fatal head on collision and it took a few years to recover – particularly me who had difficult to diagnose internal injuries. Things did get better and we moved back to Vancouver, but by this time it was 1980 and I had barely climbed in six years. I did do a few routes at Squamish with Al Hughes and a bit at Leavenworth but it wasn’t the same – I also climbed in California with Jeff Morgan and in North Conway with Henry Barber, but of course I was nearly always the second. I guess I just drifted out of climbing but kept in touch with many of my old friends.
I think that I was lucky to be a small part of the “Golden Age” of mountaineering – I really don’t think things are the same anymore. What do I see now when I look at the present climbing scene? At the top end phenomenal performances on rock, sport and the wider ranges, to say nothing of the amazing achievements on the distaff side. At the other end overcrowding from Snowdon to Everest and somehow a different attitude all round. I am not sure where I would fit in, or even if I would want to.
My climbing years were the best of times and I would do it all again. Thanks to UKC I can submit some of my old photos and share some of my memories of times that really were special – I really appreciate the comments. I’m still a committed outdoors man and I hike, ski and mountain bike - but if I were eighteen today would I take up climbing? I’m not talking about doing a few routes on Tryfan or Stanage, but committing myself to a lifestyle which I don’t think exists anymore. You know, I’m not sure, but I don’t think I would.