© Mark Reeves

Will Perrin - A Child of Light

Mick Ward 14th May, 2024

Will Perrin (1980 – 2004) was the son of Penny Perrin and Jim Perrin, the celebrated climbing writer. Along with friends such as James McHaffie, Pete Robins and Ben Bransby, he was a leading climber of the late 1990s/early 2000s. He embraced such different worlds as hard bouldering and terrifying trad. Twenty years after his untimely death, he still holds a unique place in many people's hearts. Mick Ward reflects on a life extinguished too soon.

*Content warning: contains description of suicide*

Dark Night on Dinas Mot

The first time I saw him, I knew. He was a child of light. I should have turned and run away and never stopped running.

Michèle and I first came across him in Bus Stop Quarry: a traumatic meeting. He was fourteen, feckless and out of control. Recalling that first afternoon in 'The Young Kings', I wrote, 'Above, Joe is tackling the runout that is 'bolder than life itself', with an indifferent, reckless aplomb. Unbidden, from memory, comes a sepia snapshot of a lone soloist (his father), a quarter of a century before, nearly fatally playing to the gallery. If Joe comes off, he'll hit me. Why then am I far more concerned about him?' 

Will slacklining by Llyn Padarn. He took up slacklining after a trip to Yosemite.
Will slacklining by Llyn Padarn. He took up slacklining after a trip to Yosemite.
© Mark Reeves

Shortly afterwards, 'things go from bad to worse. Various hare-brained, badly communicated options emerge. Joe starts to unrope, changes his mind, ties indifferent knots of dubious provenance around the bolt. Ten feet to one side, my stomach churns…  Joe mysteriously becomes untied from the rope; his second isn't properly belayed. Despite their protests, I grab the free end of the rope and grimly hang on to it until all is safe.'

'Later, much later, mellow with music and wine, we gaze up through soft evening light to Yr Wyddfa. "There was so much happening on the rippled slab…" Michèle gently murmurs. And, later still, drowsy with post-coital languor, hovering over the edge of oblivion, it wantonly flits through my mind. For it's not just Joe - it's all of us, who start out foolish and brave, not knowing with what currency our experience must be paid.'

Yes, Joe started out foolish and brave. But, you see, he wasn't really Joe. For the magazine article I changed the name, to save possible embarrassment to him and likely attacks on his father. He wasn't Joe. He was William – who became Will.


When I sent Steve Dean a draft of the article, he was aghast. "Mick, you've got to get in contact with Jim!" Somewhat shamefacedly, I explained that I'd not had any communication with Jim Perrin for fifteen years. Back then, I'd had it on sound authority that he'd verbally stabbed me in the back. As far as I was concerned, my erstwhile hero was a hypocrite; I just didn't want to know. "Sod all that bollocks!" Steve scoffed. "The lad's going to kill himself if he carries on like this. Here's Jim's number. Phone him!"

On the phone, Jim's hoarse cackle came as a wry surprise. Feeling like the school snitch, I recounted a sanitised account of the happenings at Bus Stop. But, of course, this wasn't just boring old farts; it was also climber to climber. More than anyone, Jim knew the score. "Don't worry," he rasped, "I'm going to see to William's climbing education. And now that we're finally talking, why don't you come back down to Wales?"


The first day with Jim was, almost literally, ordeal by fire. The country was caught in a stifling heatwave. "Any crag in Wales – as long as we can do something in the shade," I begged. So Jim took me to the blazing furnace of Craig Rhiw Goch. On the crux of The Riparian (The Red Perrin?), too spaced out to place decent gear or focus on the moves, I almost fainted. Afterwards, the second ascent of another of Jim's routes (Riverrun Past Adam and Eve?) without the crucial wire, was a runout, tenuous affair. That evening, back in Llanberis, we chanced upon Andy Newton, looking for partners for Lleyn adventures. Jim vouched for my climbing bona fides. I must have passed muster.

The next day, we did the frightening Avernus Direct. Tethered to the rope, William dozed happily on ledges in the sun while Andy and I nervously swapped leads. They say you can always tell how hard Paul Williams found routes by how much guidebook space he devoted to them. The lowly-graded Avernus gets almost two full pages, culminating in, 'descend the incline to collapse in your car!' Exhausted, William and I staggered back to Arwelfa, brimming with post-route euphoria. Jim cheerfully hacked loaves into butties, which William and I ravenously attacked, with scant respect for social niceties. It was the perfect end to a wonderful day. Years later, Andy and I would remember that day - in very different circumstances.


Later on that summer, Jim and Andy went on their ill-fated trip to Shivling, a fraught affair, with the deaths of Paul Williams and Paul Nunn hanging heavily over all of us. On the day he left, Jim had keyhole surgery in his knee. I didn't want him to go, was terrified he'd catch infection and lose the leg. He wrote to me. "If I don't come back… look after William's climbing."


Look after William's climbing? Towards the close of day, we wandered up to Dinas Mot. At the top of the first pitch of West Rib, the heavens opened and torrents of rain cascaded across the sparsely protected slabs. "It'll be all right," William blandly affirmed. I'd been climbing for nearly thirty years; William had been climbing for about six months. Not bothering to question his advice, I soon found myself miles above my last gear, totally committed and gripped shitless. William yawned and daydreamed as I collapsed onto the belay ledge, my heart pounding. By the time I was ready to bring him up, the rain had stopped and the sun had come out. William wandered up a rapidly drying slab, doubtless wondering what all the fuss had been about.

Although by then it was late, the pair of us were still mad keen. William led the first pitch of The Direct and casually belayed off a single nut behind a block. Concerned that we were moving too slowly, I ran the next few pitches together, hoping to reach the top in one. Alas, the rope came tight at the base of the top cracks. By the time William reached me, it was pitch black.  Neither of us had a head torch. There was nobody else on the crag.

Decisions. Lacking moonlight, the top cracks were a hopeless affair. It was too dark to traverse off. The only thing to do was abseil. Groping my way back down the previous pitches in the darkness, I eventually reached William's belay. With infinite care, I pushed the nut he'd used back down the crack and clipped in. But I couldn't see a damned thing.

Sometime later, William arrived. Still no sign of the moon. By now, I knew, we were only about forty feet above the ground. But abseiling off a single nut, placed purely by touch in pitch blackness? Not an enviable proposition. If I went first, I could shoulder the risk and sort out the ropes on the way down. But every instinct I possessed told me not to leave William alone on that ledge in the dark. I had to be sure that, when his turn came, he was properly tied into the ab ropes and in the right position not to pull the nut out.

Will enjoying a trip to Fontainebleau.
Will climbing in Fontainebleau.
© Mark Reeves

So - he had to go first. In the darkness, I checked the single nut belay. Then I put William on the rope. Then I checked both the belay and William's setup again. Everything seemed fine.  Finally I unclipped from the belay. If it ripped, William was dead. Every tenet of mountaineering wisdom told me it was worthless to throw away a second life.

Except that I couldn't; I simply couldn't do it. 'Look after William's climbing,' Jim had written. The very first day out; what a farce! And it was all my fault. So, if the belay ripped, was I really going to sit on that ledge all night long and listen to William's moans as he died on the rocks below? Was I really going to face Jim afterwards and explain what had happened? Not bloody likely! In 'Touching the Void', one decision was taken. On a dark night on Dinas Mot, a very different decision was taken. I'm not justifying my stance. As far as I'm concerned, it was moral cowardice, pure and simple. But, for me, one thing was certain. Both William and I would walk off the Mot that night - or neither of us would.

The belay held; I wouldn't be writing this if it hadn't. But only I know how close the pair of us came to dying, that night. Back then, William was too young, too inexperienced and unconcerned to realise the potential deadliness. As I wrote in 'The Young Kings', at his age, 'life stretches onward and upward. Injury and death are boring games for other people.'

The next day, William seemed to have forgotten all about the episode, although I was a complete bag of nerves. In the years that followed, I wanted to confess to Jim, but, in my shame, I couldn't. I just couldn't.


In the years that followed, William the child became Will the young man. Severe became E7. For a while we climbed together and oh, how I loved it! Of his father's generation yet freed of the emotional baggage that necessarily comes with family, he could ask me about a route or an unfamiliar word with no taint of embarrassment. He was endlessly supportive when climbing. And he was endlessly gentle. Yet, slowly and inexorably, we grew apart. I told myself it was better that he climbed with others of his own age. Now, like a miser, I hoard the memory of each precious time we had together. Now I curse myself that it was not more.


The Day of Reckoning

On a golden evening on Portland, the phone rings. In my last moment of innocence, I pick it up. "Mick, it's Tony Shaw." My stomach lurches. The smile dies on my lips. The untasted glass of wine is cast aside. There is only one reason why Tony has phoned. Jim is dead.

But it's not Jim. It's Will. My questions are short, brutal; the answers are worse. "How did it happen?" 

"He hanged himself." (Oh dear God, no!) 


"They don't know. When the police broke in, they thought he'd been there for about a week…"

A week…  Bad enough to die climbing. But, in Will's loneliness and despair, to come to such a terrible pass. And to hang insensate for day after day, he who was so loved. Slowly, insidiously, the horror spreads through me. Everything goes numb. My world turns black.


It's tragi-comic but Michèle's cat has gone missing and she's frantic with worry. So I can't tell her. I feign normalcy, hug my guilty secret. The next day brings a bedraggled cat, amid great relief. With a traitor's guile, I suggest our favourite walk past the bouldering wall of the Neddyfields.

There's a belvedere by the side of the path, a stunning view, down and across the crashing Dorset surf, past the towering cliffs of Cheyne. This I mark as the place, the killing ground. Yet, as we get closer, successive waves of unreality wash over me. I tell myself that, if I don't say anything, we can just carry on as before, nothing will have changed. 

"Michèle… I've got something to tell you." One glance at my eyes and she pulls away in dread. It's as though I've put a spear into her. "It's William. He's dead." We cling to each other, sobbing, on this lovely headland that, for me, is forever cursed.


The heavens open and torrents of rain cascade across the slabs of Dinas Mot. I drive down Llanberis Pass. Every summit, every crag, every feature, is indelibly imprinted upon my memory. Yet I'm hollow. The Pass is merely another wasteland.

Numb, I camp in the field under Ynys Ettws, below the Wastad, where Noddy (Neil Molnar) died, soloing. Numb, I get up the next morning, stand naked in the stream and cleanse myself in the pouring rain. I stare up at the Wastad; it's as though it's trying to tell me something. When Noddy died, I overdosed on pain, knew that I was no more than a broken creature who could never again endure such torment.  And yet it has come again. Only now, with awful hindsight, the pattern screams at me. Why couldn't I see it before? What kind of sleepwalker am I? I was supposed to be good at this kind of stuff. Physician, help thyself. Help thy bloody self.

Noddy. Will. The same precocious spirit, the same lovable vulnerability. Children of light, both of them – far too good for this world. And yet both had what this world desperately needs. Both brimming with promise, both with so very much to give, both with an immensity of love for which we yearn in these strange days of spiritual aridity. And both in need of protection – which I, fatally, failed to provide.

Could I have saved one… both? An unanswerable question. Yes – but did you try? Well, that's much easier. Helplessly entangled in my own struggles, in each case, I failed them. When Noddy was brain-damaged in Pembroke, when Will did Deathtrap Direct, the signs of impending destruction couldn't have been clearer. And now it's too late – for Noddy, for Will. Beneath the Wastad, standing naked in the stream, in the pouring rain, I swear a terrible vow that, from now on, things will be different - very different. It proves a hard vow to keep.

Will enjoying some mountain boarding around Padarn Castle.
Will enjoying some mountain boarding around Padarn Castle.
© Mark Reeves

The crematorium in Bangor was overflowing with people. Half of Llanberis was there and much of climbing's history. Will was well loved. If his death was sad, lonely and terrible, his valediction was a sight such as I could never have envisaged. The collective emotion was massive. He was well loved. Jim's friends were friends indeed, there when he most desperately needed them. Ray Wood scurried about, unobtrusively fixing all the things a social gathering needs. Tony Shaw, whom Jim had first met at Windgather forty years previously, presided with immeasurable authority and grace. Yet seeing Sarah Gregory again, her face ghastly white, remembering how appreciative she'd been of Will's many kindnesses at Arwelfa. And Will's mother, Penny; Michèle and I had stayed with her on Anglesey. We'd joked about Will's room being the typical chaos of teenage detritus, its walls littered with bouldering photos. No more. No more…

When Jim stood up to speak, he faltered. For moments he just stood there, looking thin and frail and lost. No words came out. Just as it seemed he was going to crumple, he began. What followed, his leave-taking of Will, was extraordinary, something which I shall never again witness and could not bear to witness. I had thought Jim's eulogy for Paul Williams 'the best valediction that any climber gave any other climber'. But I was wrong, so very wrong.

I don't know how we managed. It was as though all our decades of carefree folly had to be paid for on that one terrible day. Certainly, without John and Barbara Lumb and Tony and Sue Shaw, I could never have got through the 'crowded hour of glorious life' at the crematorium. I owe a particular debt to Barbara and to Sue. As always, when it came down to it, the women were stronger.


Back on the island, things did not go well. The blackness was in my soul. The world was devoid of joy. When Michèle was out, I'd stand like a fool, staring dully at Will's photograph, while minutes slid into hours. Then I'd go soloing, down the east coast. Then I'd drink. Sometimes I'd burst into uncontrollable fits of tears, and sometimes I'd feel the sense of an abyss where my heart had once been. Although I knew all about grief cycles, such knowledge proved utterly irrelevant. Grief held me in thrall.

Michèle did her best and more. Although we tried to talk, she too had her problems. And we had our own problems, present before, but heightened now by my emotional distance. I desperately wanted to contact Jim, but I couldn't face him. I just couldn't. He had his own troubles.


One day it came to me that the soloing had to stop, at least on the east coast, before it was too late. Soon afterwards, the drinking also got back under control. I returned to life's battles. There seemed nothing better than to fight on. But, with Will's death, something vital had gone from me. Life was a joyless spread of days, to be endured until it was all over.


How do you love someone with no joy? Michèle struggled, but things got worse. In the end, for both of us, I had to quit the island. Quixotic or not, I wanted to leave a legacy in stone for Will. For two years, I'd explored the crags, searching for the right line, yet too mentally and physically drained for the necessary cleaning and bolting.

Finally, running out of time made everything brutally simple. The weather was horrendous as once again I shouldered huge loads of new routing gear to the top of Wallsend. Swinging around in space, in a spider's web of ropes, in howling gales, prising blocks from the wall. Skyhooks popping. Jumaring back up at day's end, body numb with cold, mind numb with fear. It was a kind of penance.

On a dire day, with very little time left, I finally set off up the chosen line, my last new route on Portland. Steve Muncaster, bless him, belayed. The good handhold at the base of the main groove was slick as a bar of soap. I flew off, repulsed by the only easy move on the entire route, beaten before I'd properly begun.

So… back up then. A hopeless venture, but you're here, so why not? Touch the bar of soap for a necessary moment, then quickly move past. Furiously chalk up. Increasingly technical moves lead to the overlap and a sopping, vital, crimpy layaway. More chalk. Giving it all I've got now, I somehow teeter past, into the rest, and hang there, panting like a dog. I fight to get my breathing under control. Slowly my pulse comes back down. But I know, deep inside, that the struggles below have taken too much out of me. I'm fucked. The crux is just above. Steve is silent. There's just the emptiness of Wallsend. The silence. Me. And the crux above.

With the pain of a wounded animal, I contort into the first Egyptian, then the second. Reach for the crucial crimp. It's not there. My frozen brain tries to comprehend. It can't not be there. And I can't hold this position any longer. Each precious second draws me closer to inevitable conclusion. My body is gone now. I'm almost off. I know that when I fall, I'll be too shattered, too beaten to try again.

My time is long gone, yet somehow I'm still there. Far too late, questing fingers brush against the crimp, reflexively lock. With infinite delicacy, I step through, pirouetting on a tiny smear. All of Wallsend is spread out below me. Disbelievingly I reach for the mono. With dying arms and shaking legs, I slap for the greasy break, then the next soaking one. For the third time I slap, by some miracle catch the undercut and hang from it, breath coming in great shuddering whoops. I'm dimly aware of Steve, far away, can sense his uncertainty and encouragement across the gossamer strand of rope connecting us.

It's an old, tired man that leaves the security of the undercut and heads out across the top wall. Pinch, undercut, crimp, pinch. And then finally there is joy beyond compare in those last few exquisite moments as I realise that, against all expectation, it's going to happen. There's a hallucinogenic sensation of utter incredulity as my rope goes through the belay karabiner. Thus does Will come into being. Just beside it is Michèle. It means far more than I can ever express that, barring rockfall, these two routes will remain, side by side together, long after I've gone. My beloved Wallsend has given me so many wonderful days. Will and Michèle are mementoes in stone to those I have loved.

Will atop Memory Lane on Cromlech. His ability on rock was outstanding, and he would have been a driving force in adventure trad climb.
Will atop Memory Lane on Cromlech. His ability on rock was outstanding, and he would have been a driving force in adventure trad climb.
© Mark Reeves

Heart of Darkness

At the top of Mowing Word, Jon and I empty our rucksacks. On a glorious September day, the Pembroke coast stretches away from us, replete with promise. In the interval of racking up, we aimlessly talk of this and that. "It's hard to love someone who doesn't love themself," Jon pensively concludes.

"It's hard to love someone who doesn't love themself." Like a depth charge, the words explode in my head. In the end, does it all come down to this? Yes, I'm afraid it does.

After the abseil, we scout around for the traverse line of Heart of Darkness. Although this is really for Jon, I've always been curious. I recall Jim's iconic first ascent photo. There's another, hugely atmospheric one of him in the middle of the wall, on New Morning. And a more recent one, by Ray Wood, of Will happily scampering across the breaks, probably being shouted at by Jim to get some bloody gear in.

When Will said, "Father," God, how I envied Jim!  It can't have been easy at times, but oh, how I envied him. On the previous night, at the campsite, watching a blood-red sunset, I somehow knew that they too had watched the sky from the same place. The pain of loss rose again, like a dull ache, breaking and subsiding.

After some faffing around on greasy rock, Jon belays below an obvious arête. Baffled, I follow him, across a traverse that is trivial. Yet Jim's routes have always given full value. Clearly something's not right. Jon seems to think that the arête beckons the way to more worthy territory.

We reach the belay and swap gear. I hop up on to the arête and peep around it. A series of horizontal breaks curve away from me, in one of the most impressive traverses I've ever seen. Just as well it's absurdly easy.

Just as well it's absurdly easy?  Well no, it isn't. The sun hasn't yet arrived on the buttress; the breaks are damp and very greasy indeed. I take a deep breath, step leftwards and traverse twenty-five feet. I place some protection, but it's token.

In the middle of the wall, I make a horrifying discovery. From here on, the breaks aren't just damp; they're soaking. And they're as greasy as the starting hold on the groove of Will. Crazy to go on. And yet, for some bizarre reason, the thought of going back never occurs to me.

I hesitate, make another move, then another and another. Hands slip into sopping, insecure jams at the back of the breaks. I place the last two cams, both the wrong size, side by side. They're shit. I look back at the huge loops of rope hanging down the wall behind me. I feel sick.

The sanctuary of a corner is maybe another twenty-five feet away. But it's where most of the moist air has been trapped. On this last section, not only are the handholds wet but the footholds are covered in slime. In these conditions, my chances of reaching the corner are well nigh zero. And it will not be possible to place any more protection. A fall is as unthinkable as it is inevitable.

For minute after minute, I hang in the middle of the wall, delaying committing, growing more and more pumped. Finally I go for it, with a boldness I scarcely imagined I possessed. As if in a dream, ten feet quickly passes, then another five. One more move and maybe, just maybe, I can do it. I dare not think about the huge loops of rope hanging down the wall, or the empty space greedily sucking at my heels.

One more move. With necessary overgripping, I'm pumped witless. I reach through but my arms are going, my feet are about to slip. Some primeval corner of my mind emits a silent scream, "Will, help me!" And suddenly I've made the move and am precariously teetering across, into the sanctuary of the corner. Somehow I have done it. Unbelievably, I am still alive.

There's a small alcove in the corner. The first nut goes in, then the second. Yet only with the third and the fourth do I start to relax. Nevertheless I continue methodically placing belays, one after the other, until the whole alcove is festooned with slings and I am attached to every last one of them. Looking back across the traverse, I see sunlight starting to bathe it. I can't bring Jon across until the breaks have dried. I make good use of the time. More belays go in, and yet more. They may be needed.

At last it's time for Jon. God knows what he thinks when he comes around the arête, sees the traverse line and the paucity of runners. At least by now all the footholds and the outside edges of the breaks are dry. But the backs of the breaks may still be as slimy as they were for me.

Jon makes it to the last two cams and takes them out. The ropes hang in a mocking arc between us. He must continue. If he declines, he will certainly fall and smash himself badly. I have to get him across, or at least as close to me as he can, before he comes off. Each foot gained will lessen his fall. The force though will be tremendous. I brace myself.

'Courage is grace under pressure.' That's how Dorothy Parker is said to have defined it for Hemingway. It's as good a definition as any. Well Hemingway would have been impressed with Jon that day, as impressed as I was proud of him. Although not used to such live-or-die stuff, he shows immeasurable grace under pressure. Soon he's with me in the corner. The pair of us exhale sighs of relief, babble incoherently.

From here on it's easy, the sun-drenched delight the route should always have been. A soloist's joy of enticing holds takes Jon away from me, around a second arête. Crouched in the alcove, I remember Ray's photo of Will airily wandering past this very spot. For a moment, I succumb to the pathetic fallacy of make-believe. Oh Will, could you not have stayed here forever, airily scampering across these breaks, in eternal sunlight? Why oh why did you have to leave us?

And then the tears finally erupt in hot gushes. I doubt that Jon can hear me but anyway I don't care. Alone in the alcove, my body is racked by convulsive sobbing. Will is with me and he's not with me. I'm here but I'm not here. I don't understand anymore. But all I know is that I must go on.

Beyond Heart of Darkness is New Morning. For all that I loved Will, I have grieved enough. Yes of course there will still be pangs of loss. But in my life I have endured too much darkness. Now, however hard it may be, I must face the sun.

I strip the alcove of its many belays, solemnly say goodbye, and swing around the second arête, into blinding sunlight, to where Heart of Darkness ends and New Morning soars upwards into the sky.

Will was a child of light. I am so proud to have known him. He will always be with me.

Will coiling a rope below the fantastic Jugs Mawr on Peppermint Tower. Growing up next the slate quarry, Will's skill and knowledge of the Slate medium will probably never be matched. He used to skip school to get some routes in.
Will coiling a rope below the fantastic Jugs Mawr on Peppermint Tower. Growing up next the slate quarry, Will's skill and knowledge of the Slate medium will probably never be matched. He used to skip school to get some routes in.
© Mark Reeves

Many thanks to Mark Reeves, for all his help.

If you need someone to talk to, you can call the Samaritans at 116 123, or you can contact them via their website here.
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