Eric Rayson 1938 -2024 RIP

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 SteveSBlake 29 Jun 2024

ERIC RAYSON 1938 – 2024

I was contacted the day before yesterday by Ken Rayson, Eric’s brother with the news that Eric had died while out cycling. Presently no more is known other than no one else was involved.  Eric was a remarkable climber, both humble and charming, but will only be known to a handful of readers.  It’s noteworthy that Eric’s story and life are not untypical of the post-war period from which he emerged.

I came to know and eventually meet Eric while researching a book on climbing in Northumberland. I had seen his name credited with first ascents in our local guidebooks, but he had emigrated in the 60s and I hadn’t been able to track him down. Then his name popped up on Paul Ross’s Facebook page and I was able to make contact with him.  Over the next couple of years there followed much correspondence and many Facetime chats, and in 2023 I was eventually able to meet him when he visited the UK.  Diminutive, bright and sprightly, in his mid 80s he was still very active: climbing locally in Canada, cross-country skiing, competing in the World Cycling Masters and taking part in multi-day canoeing expeditions.

Eric, who was born in Gateshead, was one of a small group of working class climbers active in the North East in the 50s and early 60s known locally as the Crag Lough Group, but nationally as ‘The Newcastle Lads’. This group was in turn the north east cadre of a wider explosion in post-war working class climbers across the country. These Newcastle Lads;  Geoff Oliver, Eric, Nev Hannaby, (Eric and Nev did new routes together on Chudliegh during their National Service) Jock Laing, Davy Moy,  Malcom Rowe , Maurice de St Jorre, John Sloan and others - climbed extensively in the County establishing many routes, but rarely recording them. This was because the outcrops were mere practise for the Lakes, Scotland and Wales, which in turn were practise for the Alps and beyond. Locally, while there would no doubt be more, the only first ascent of his we can be certain of is ‘Canada Crack’ at Bowden Doors (HVS 5a), which he climbed just before his emigration to Canada in 1967.

It seems almost mandatory for climbers of that period to have climbed the most difficult routes of the day with pathetically minimal gear, survived dreadful Scottish winter experiences and crashed motorbikes in the rain. Eric was no exception and did all these and more.  1959 was a notable Alpine season which saw him cycle to Chamonix from Newcastle (to get fit!), taking 10 days, bivying in barns on the way. On arrival a telegram from the lads informed him they would be a week late, so to fill the time he continued to Lake Como, returning a week later! That year he and Geoff Oliver did an early British ascent of the West Face of the Dru (of course, in a storm for which they were poorly equipped), he also did the Dent de Geant, and the South Face of the Mieje. The season sadly culminated in a big storm that claimed the life of another young Newcastle climber, Colin Spacey. Eric was in the party that recovered Colin’s body from Mt Blanc he was involved in the subsequent repatriation of Colin’s body to the UK. All before cycling home. The spirit of that period is captured in a black and white photo of Eric, Paul Ross and Geoff Oliver camping in Chamonix. As Eric recounted ‘we were as poor as church mice’ and they look it! 

In 1962 he and Geoff Oliver had an abortive attempt on the North Face of the Eiger. Ahead of them were Brian Nally and Barry Brewster. Conditions persuaded Geoff and Eric to descend, passing Bonington and Whillans on their way up. Above these four Brewster and Nally had been hit by stonefall, Brewster being killed. Nally was subsequently assisted off by Whillans and Bonington. Eric was much displeased by the ‘bad press’ that Brewster and Nally received, believing them both to be very competent.

During his 1963 Alpine season he and Jock Laing struck up a friendship with Americans Tom Frost and Dave Dornan who persuaded them they should visit the US. In 1965 Eric and Jock headed to the US, meeting Tom Frost and Chuck Pratt in Colorado before heading to Yosemite. Here they met and climbed with the great and good of American climbing: Chouinard,  Sacherer, Robbins, Dornan and Pratt. With Dornan they climbed the Regular Route on Half Dome, perhaps the first British ascent. To make ends meet they worked in Chouinard’s forge, unsurprisingly Chouinard was very interested in Eric’s home made nuts. (Eric was a toolmaker). During his stay he and Chuck Pratt teamed up with Chouinard and T M Herbert for an attempt on the Muir Wall. Unfortunately the night before they were to set off, Pratt, who was very spiritual had a premonition and refused to go on the route. Herbert and Chouinard didn’t want to climb in a team of three, so Eric missed out on the first ascent of one of the world’s great rock climbs.  Compensation came soon after when he, Jock, Doug Thompson and Chouinard did the first ascent of the classic traverse of the Howser Spires in the Bugaboos.

Chouinard, accompanied  Jock and Eric back to the UK principally to experience Scottish winter climbing, but, he did come down to Northumberland for a long weekend and was entertained by Eric and the ‘Lads’, dossing in the shack in Rothbury Quarry, exercising on the routes they had established (famously failing on one of the quarry test-pieces, a route called ‘Ogre’, so-named using Eric’s and Geoff Oliver’s initials), and partaking of a spot of poaching in the River Coquet.

In 1966 he, his wife Min, and Jock made an overland trip to the Cilo Dag area of Turkey, meeting up with Dave Dornan. Details of new routes/first ascents are lost, but, again, he was involved in a casualty retrieval, this time a member of a Nottingham University expedition.

In 1967 he and his wife Min emigrated to Canada (‘Canada Crack’ was his parting shot!) settling in Kelowna in the Okanagan,  working variously in Outdoor Education, Ski Patrol, a vineyard and eventually returning to engineering.

He never stopped climbing but gradually added other sports to his repertoire: cross-country skiing, mountain biking, and eventually road cycling in which he and Min participated in the World Masters competitions.

Sadly his life and partner in many of his adventures, ‘Min’ died after a short illness in 2022. He missed her terribly, but supported by his son Sean was getting on with life planning canoeing expeditions, and still getting to the climbing gym on a regular basis.

I was eventually to meet Eric in 2023 when he visited family in the UK; (John Spencer my co-author had been able to see Eric at home in Kelowna the year before.) During his short stay he visited Nev Hannaby  (with who he did national service and climbed) and we  arranged a meal and trip to Rothbury Quarry and the ‘Shack’ they used as a doss, we were joined by Davy Moy another Newcastle Lad, now resident in Scotland. It was fantastic to meet this charming, understated man who was still a little bemused by my interest in his climbing.

Only last week he had sent me an account of his adventure on the Dru with Geoff Oliver and now he is gone. I am consoled by the thought that his inclusion in our book will prevent his adventures being lost forever.

 Postmanpat 29 Jun 2024
In reply to SteveSBlake:

  What an amazing life! Thanks for writing a great piece about a man who played an unsung  part in climbing history. 

 Officerchumpy 29 Jun 2024
In reply to SteveSBlake:

What a brilliant read

 Rick Graham 29 Jun 2024
In reply to Officerchumpy:

> What a brilliant read

I was just about to say the same .

Bring on the book, if the authors maintain that standard it will be an excellant  read and final acknowledgement for some very dark horses.

 jon 29 Jun 2024
In reply to SteveSBlake:

Excellent, Steve ! Sounds like a star.

 Offwidth 30 Jun 2024
In reply to SteveSBlake:

RIP Eric

such articles are the very best of UKC ... cheers Steve.

 Sean Kelly 30 Jun 2024
In reply to SteveSBlake:

Thanks Eric for the excellent Inkerman Groove at Chudleigh. Repeated again last year as it's that good.

 Greenbanks 30 Jun 2024
In reply to SteveSBlake:

Thank you. I agree with the sentiments expressed so far: a lovely read and a respectful tribute to a man who appeared to cram more into a single season than others do a lifetime. 

 Andy Johnson 30 Jun 2024
In reply to SteveSBlake:

A lovely tribute. Thank you for writing this.

 MadProfessor 30 Jun 2024
In reply to SteveSBlake:

Herewith a few photos from Eric's visit to Northumberland last year to supplement Steve's excellent obituary

Post edited at 13:33

 JDal 30 Jun 2024
In reply to MadProfessor:

Do you know what the flag represented?

 MadProfessor 30 Jun 2024
In reply to JDal:

I think they said it was a French Alpine club or guide…

 JDal 30 Jun 2024
In reply to MadProfessor:

Cheers. Beautiful tribute, Steve.

 Iain Brown 01 Jul 2024
In reply to SteveSBlake:

Excellent tribute and look forward to finding out more in the book (my uncle was a member of the Crag Lough Group too).

 Allovesclimbin 01 Jul 2024
In reply to SteveSBlake:

A sad loss. I love the history of the climbers who put up the countless brilliant routes around the County and beyond.Climbing their routes with modern equipment only serves to underline how good they were . The stories and old photos bring them to life. Can’t wait for the book either ! 

OP SteveSBlake 03 Jul 2024
In reply to SteveSBlake:

I have had an error pointed out to me; Doug Thompson should be Doug Tompkins, he and Chouinard lifelong friends  of  Eric. Tompkins was later to create  The North Face business. He wrote an account of the Bugaboos traverse that was published in the American Alpine Journal.


 MadProfessor 03 Jul 2024
In reply to Iain Brown:

Was that Norman Brown? Mark Savage interviewed him for the book a few years ago...

 John Cuthbert 03 Jul 2024
In reply to SteveSBlake:

marvellous.. what a life..

Pleasing to have their exploits not forgotten.

 Iain Brown 03 Jul 2024
In reply to MadProfessor:

No, Jim Teesdale.

Is 'the book' referred to the new coffee table one coming out soon or another? Whichever, look forward to more stories of times past.

 dgbryan 04 Jul 2024
In reply to SteveSBlake:

What a great piece of history, & what a good life!

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