/ ARTICLE: How the Leeds Wall Changed Climbing History
Most of the significant developments in rock climbing over the last forty years can be traced back to this unique occurrence.
That was a great read Mick; thanks for taking the time to write it.
Thanks for this Mick - I echo the others in saying it was a really interesting read.
As an aside (triggered by the mention of Jonathan Pitches), will you be at the Performing Mountains conference in Leeds in March?
Thanks Mick, a nicely told tale where I knew the plot but not all the details. Like you I devoured the climbing/mountaineering section of my local library & have vague memories of a book about climbing walls, maybe by Don Robinson and I guess published in the early 70s - any one else remember such a book ? Maybe Google will find it.
edit - seems the book I remembered wasn't by Don - 'Artificial climbing walls' ? by Kim Meldrum and Brian Royle published 1970
Lovely article, Mick. It was certainly a trip back down memory lane.
I remember many trips to the Leeds Wall back in the mists of time. Countless laps of the traverse did wonders for finger strength and stamina, but I was never able to summon up the courage for Syrett's Roof
Nice one Mick and yet another great read! Cheers Dave
I have great memories of the Leeds wall. I only went once, from Sheffield, but pulled a lovely lass that I saw passing by when I just happened to have my head level with the window.
As she was carrying a Berghaus rucksack I quickly dropped off the wall and ran out to engage her in conversation. Despite looking a right dick head in EB's and vest, it was several days later that I eventually returned to Sheffield.
I'm not sure the wall did much for my climbing, but I still see the lady in question some 40 years later! Maybe those EB's had magical qualities beyond sticking to rock?
I'm a student at Leeds currently and I'd love to know which building the wall was on. Is it still there?
I was there when it was demolished sadly. It was roughly where Stage@Leeds is now.
I was wondering the same so thanks for that. I have a meeting in Stage@Leeds tomorrow so will imagine the building's central stairwell with holds strategically placed.
Many thanks to people for their kind comments. Sorry for not being on here before. After work, we went bolting. It seemed such a good idea at the time. And then the heavens opened!
(To Clare) I just went to Leeds the one time (recently), last Spring. The site of the old Leeds wall is indeed where Stage@Leeds is now. The whole experience was utterly hallucinogenic. Going back, almost 50 years later. Students who might have been grandchildren. I'm so grateful to Jonathan for providing the stimulus for this article. After the discussion, I was angry with myself. 'You've not thought this through properly. You've not understood it.' So I came back to Dorset, promptly wrote the article and... spent almost a year agonising.
I would love to know Al Manson's perspective. It would be great if he would contribute here but somehow I doubt it. Maybe Grimer could tempt him into a podcast?
I think there are portals which history goes through and I think that old Leeds wall was such a portal. I think that climbing history is vitally important to our 'climbing culture'. And I think that climbing values have tremendous relevance for our society - and for all societies.
A lovely vignette from (the appropriately named?) top cat, above:
'As she was carrying a Berghaus rucksack I quickly dropped off the wall and ran out to engage her in conversation. Despite looking a right dick head in EB's and vest, it was several days later that I eventually returned to Sheffield.
I'm not sure the wall did much for my climbing, but I still see the lady in question some 40 years later!'
I was never that lucky...
Ah those games of Rollerwall!
But the Leeds Wall was not completely magical. I went lots of times and remained irredeemably rubbish. In fact I remember being incredibly grateful when the Guiseley Wall opened. You had to pay but at least I could mingle with my fellow punters instead of Manson, Berzins etc
> I was wondering the same so thanks for that. I have a meeting in Stage@Leeds tomorrow so will imagine the building's central stairwell with holds strategically placed.
The outside of the east side of the building is almost exactly the line of the corridor in the photos, if you imagine the photos of the corridor attached to the wall behind the bushes here, you'd pretty much have it.
Forgot to say, really good article Mick.
Great video! It has the exact look of Livesey's ep sport book 'Rock Climbing' published in 1978, that my Dad gave me. There's one photo of (I think) that brick wall in Leeds, with the comment ,about walls, that "Excellent for strength and technique training they are normally used like boulders though they can be very boring after a while. Their effect on climbing standards and ethics, whether beneficial or not, has yet to be realised"
Another great article Mick, thanks!
Ironically, the picture of Chris Hunter on the crux of Wall of Horrors demolishes your argument - we spent a week hanging around with Chris Addy and others, visited the Leeds wall and Chris hated it, spent a few minutes messing about then gave up. He went on to do the second free ascent of Small Brown at Crookrise, Wall of Horrors (after I wimped out) and Forked Lightening Crack during that week.
Mind you, Chris (and Jonny Dawes!) had honed his skills on Slawston Bridge in Leicestershire - sandstone, gritstone and brick in a beautiful setting outdoors...
If you liked Rock Athlete 2, look out 1 and 3 also on you tube, superb!
"Going anywhere this Summer?" enquired the brick-edge cruiser.
A question well put.
Blackshaw, at the time of producing much of his mountaineering book was not a highly trained civil servant but a member of that special group of tough, hard climbing men of the Commando Cliff Assault Wing. This is why so many pictures in the manual contain Cornish granite. He was on a few new routes also. A quick look through particularly the South coast section of the reveals this. John Deacon told me of his preference for boots over pa for rock climbing. There’s a great story about Zeke and Blackshaw and the first ascent of Martell slab at Tater Du which I must tell you some time. It is, as you might imagine, brandy based!
Mick great article, but what about the Henry Price traverse at Leeds ?!
GKate, others from Leeds ?
If you - or anybody else - could get hold of a copy of Mama's Boys, about Alex MacIntyre & Tobin Sorensen's attempts on the Harlin Route on the Eiger, I'd love to see it again. One of the great pieces of climbing writing of that era, and afaik never republished.
Maybe I should just get off my butt one rainy weekend and go and see if the DAV library has copies of Mountain.
Wonderful piece, thanks Mick.
Thanks for another top read Mick.
I love how the 1st photo shows the fella just about to ram the fingers of his right hand into a brick edge slot in the wall. Recessed slots are all over the crags but not so easy to replicate with "plastic" so they are absent from indoor walls nowadays. A fact which indoor-only climbers today will not be bothered about in the least.
Super piece of writing and lovely piece of history, Mick - and a punch line that can be pretty much applied to anything. Although I would also think that the 1000 hours - 10000 hours is pretty valid. Hard wire the routine into your brain so that there is no thought process for that thing, and move to the next. A lot of things in there that I'd not really thought about as being major transitions, but they really were.
[written by someone who is far too lazy to do the 1000 hours!]
How did so many of us survive those early years in the late 60s / early 70s? Beats me. Must say something about the inherent resilience of humans.
Fascinating - thanks, Mick.
I wonder how many orginal DR walls are still in existence? Oxford still has Iffley, and after a lull in the late eighties and nineties, it's become as popular as ever, with a guidebook now in its ninth edition, more than 600 problems, and its own somewhat idiosyncratic grading system...
There were also some wonderfully eccentric manoeuvres to be had at the Leeds wall. Does anyone remember the low level problem that involved passing under the big protruding holds about 1 ft up without actually touching the ground? Or the challenge of grabbing a big spike near the arete and getting your feet onto the ceiling - which would have involved a head first plummet into the concrete if you let go? I never had the bottle for the latter! Best off all though was getting to the top and being able to peer into the dance studio at all the fit women going through their routines unaware of the line of grinning idiots ogling them. (Am I allowed to say that in 2018 or is this my Gary Neville moment?
I have a copy of MacIntyre's Mama's Boys. PM me your email and I'll send it to you.
Many thanks again to people. When I was writing for climbing mags, everything went into a black hole. You hadn't a clue what people thought. The (very) odd letter was generally written in green ink. One of the advantages of this type of format is that you can see where you've gone wrong (very important to a good Catholic boy like me!)
I too remember that book about climbing walls, although I couldn't have hazarded a guess about the exact year.
'Their [climbing walls] effect on climbing standards and ethics, whether beneficial or not, has yet to be realised...'
I find this a little surprising. With a lead time to produce books, sometimes they can be cruelly overtaken by events. But let's guess that a book published in 1978 was written in 1976/1977. By then, we'd had Right Wall (which, as Brown readily admitted, was the big advance in Wales) and Footless Crow (same in the Lakes), both 1974. We'd had Supersonic (1976, if I remember correctly) and free ascents of Positron (about the same time?) It's hard to imagine such ascents without wall inspired finger stamina training. Normally even the most talented pump out at around the E3 level, if power/endurance is thrown into the mix.
Chris Addy was probably the perfect person to show you guys the Leeds wall. A brilliant climber and refreshingly free of the ego so prevalent at that time. There will always be purveyors of climbing genius who can perform miracles - but generally on grit, sandstone, maybe even slate. On the limestone type stamina routes, you need... stamina! Would Slawston Bridge have been used to the same degree if the Leeds Wall hadn't existed? The other advantage to walls was that repeats of hard routes became known. Competition and peer pressure kicked in! More repeats generally ensued.
Many thanks indeed. I've known remarkably little about Alan Blackshaw. I friend went out of his way to meet him in Scotland some years ago and clearly was most impressed. Did he run/write training courses in the military? That book is beautifully laid out. And Colin Kirkus also did his best to lay things out well. I guess Blackshaw spoke to the head, Kirkus to the heart. Those books complemented each other.
I remember Martin Berzins, a decade later, on the Henry Price wall. Impressive!
cheese@4p (am still chuckling at that one, Ian)
Yup, not so many recessed slots on plastic. Indoors versus outdoors. A few years ago, a routesetter I know threw in a 'Yorkshire 5c' (that'll be 6b) crack into (if I remember correctly) the Womens European Championships. Oh, the tears! "But next year, when we tried it again, it didn't stop any of 'em. They'd learned."
How did we survive the 1960s/70s? The honest answer - f*ck knows! (And many didn't survive.) For my money, the generation just before ours', the guys who were leading top-end E2 in the early/mid-1960s were the boldest in climbing history. 5b moves (maybe the odd 5c one) way, way out from protection. Maybe one (good?) piece in 30 or 40 feet. Everything ground up. Loose rock all over the place. I feel that their boldness has never been properly realised.
I was a real shock to realise that Don Robinson had helped to build circa 400 walls. I'm belatedly realising that Don Robinson is a polymath who has given so very much to climbing and caving over the years. A quiet genius who just got on with it.
> How did we survive the 1960s/70s? The honest answer - f*ck knows! (And many didn't survive.) For my money, the generation just before ours', the guys who were leading top-end E2 in the early/mid-1960s were the boldest in climbing history. 5b moves (maybe the odd 5c one) way, way out from protection. Maybe one (good?) piece in 30 or 40 feet. Everything ground up. Loose rock all over the place. I feel that their boldness has never been properly realised.
No kidding. We had much better protection (although still not great, not much helped by dismal skill in using it (in my case, anyway)) and still couldn't touch their hardest routes.
And yes, some didn't make it. In my quite small circle of climbing partners, one lad didn't make it just walking around at Gogarth. Which was a bit shocking, even through the blasé mindset of someone with only 2 decades of life under their belt. But Gogarth always did feel more like a big mountain with all the extra baggage of risk, to me. A love/fear relationship if there ever was one.
I think the protection was crucial. In 1974 Jim Erickson, a leading American climber, took me up The Thing on the Cromlech. It had possibly the most terrifying description of any route ever. For people such as Frank Cannings and Ian Cameron, making early repeats, more than a decade earlier, it would have involved total commitment - above a really nasty landing.
Jim got two wires in and relaxed into a no-hands rest on the crux. I emulated him. Those Chouinard wires made all the difference. The next day, impecunious or not, I bought some.
Even with wires (four years away from the first cams) the weight of legend was often far harder than the technical difficulty. Repeating Brown routes, in particular, was daunting. Nobody I knew had done 'em. It was as though you were measuring yourself (unfavourably) against myth. When people started to swap tales of repeats at walls (even though they'd be canny - if not downright misleading - about the beta) the mystique started to crumble.
Within two years of meeting other climbers, I'd known four who died - one on Crib Goch, one on the Buachaille, two on the Sentinelle Rouge. The guy on the Buachaille was my climbing partner, out that day with someone else (who also died). His mother, who was in the last stage of cancer, gave up the struggle about two weeks later.
An unforgiving game - then, now, always.
Enjoy it - but be safe out there!
I remember leading The Thing in about '79. Having read the terrifying description in whatever guide we were using at the time, the route turned out to be the most delightful anticlimax! Never occurred to me at the time that gear may have made it far easier.
Ouch. That's a harrowing tale. It seems to me that when one is young, these sorts of things don't have quite as much of an impact. I know I hardly ever thought about the impact of my actions on others until I was, ooh... somewhere in my 40s. Or even later. Which is a bit sobering.
But I look back and I think "oh that must have been terrible", thinking of a friend whose climbing partner was killed when they were descending in the alps (separately), or a lad 2 tents away on Snells field who was crushed by moraines the day before his girlfriend came out to meet him. But it seems that actually, at the time, it sort of blew past...
The brain is a strange thing, and the young brain probably even more so. As my wife will (frequently) tell me "guys frontal lobes (the bits concerned with morality, consequences, froward planning, etc) don't really mature until they are in their 30s."
Although perhaps in a "good catholic boy", they mature earlier!
And back on topic - yes the gear mattered. The psychological effect of having a decent runner in was huge, even though, with (dim) hindsight, I'm not sure that my placements were very good. I never really tested them.
Done. Much appreciated, thanks.
I was amused when I saw that Iffley Rd was still in use. My alma mater. In my day - early 80s - nearly everybody used to just grind back and forth along the various traverse variations. Although towards the mid 80s Sean Myles & Mike Dawes, among others, started to put a bit more effort and focus into uphill problems. Mike's kid brother, who definitely showed promise, used to drop by from time to time too.
> Mike's kid brother, who definitely showed promise, used to drop by from time to time too.
Yeah, whatever became of him??
The big development at Iffley came in the late nineties, when we individually numbered the holds - that let us start setting specific problems. It's been consistently popular ever since then.
There is still discussion about us getting a new climbing wall when the Iffley redevelopment finally gets its second phase and the old sports centre is demolished. The powers that be were a little surprised when we quite forcefully said that we'd very much like a new climbing wall, thanks, but please keep those 117 special bricks and make sure they get re-set into a new wall!
I was talking to Jonathan today, about you and this article, in an office whose outer wall ran along the line of the Leeds wall.
Thanks for this article... it takes me back eons of time to when I was totally immersed in that very early Leeds University Wall scene. In the late 60's and early 70's on a Tuesday night, most of the LUUCC (as it was then called) would be there with most of the big players in the YMCC. The wall was a piece of inspiration by Don Robinson, but was very small and very limited. So the exceptional people (i.e. Syrett) invented things like laybacking off the housings of the electrical conductors on the roof, etc etc.
But what I remember most are my conversations with some of the great old timers. Particularly Allan Austin. Several of us were almost religiously trying to remove the crags of metal (i.e. pegs/bolts), which we then saw as an anachronism that would obviously die out in a few years (i.e. by the mid 70's) . I would tell AA that we had removed a peg "for aid" here or there and he would look at me, as though I was nuts, and say "it makes no difference whether it's for aid or protection". I was fascinated by his extreme point-of-view, even relative to "our" strict "ethics" of the day. So I would draw him out on this. His viewpoint had nothing to do with so-called "climbing ethics", nor the gymnastics of rock-climbing with or without pegs/bolts: it was simply climbing-logical. "Climbing a piece of rock is very different from climbing the same piece of rock that has bits of metal stuck in it for our convenience at our chosen places."
Brings back some memories.
I used to go there 3 times a day during my first year at Leeds and it wasn´t just because of the climbing. Rather immature, socially awkward I had no other friends apart from Steve Bancroft, Steve Webster and Al Manson, who was more like a Guru.
Let´s not forget Bernard Newman, he was definitely a solid wall habitue.
There was a famous no feet mono problem, you´d only ever do it once. Livesey used brick edges, tut.
Tobin Sorensen once impersonated frying bacon on the floor of the wall.
Webbo, Banks and I formed a secret club but wouldn´t let Al join, just to annoy him.
I´ve got the artificial climbing wall book. It´s why I ended up at Leeds. There is a close up picture of a gritstone hold that became known as "the famous hold".
> The big development at Iffley came in the late nineties, when we individually numbered the holds - that let us start setting specific problems.
Yeah, when I subsequently moved to Manchester the MacDougall already had numbered holds and a guidebook, which made the whole thing much more entertaining. There was a 6b I only ever did once, on the first day of my first pair of Firés.
Great article. The MacDougall Centre remains to this day but the woodie has been removed to someone's (the creator's?) garage. The chipped bricks must remain, though likely as a storeroom now. It was 60p a go in the early 2000s - a real loss when it closed with Broughton filling some of the void at an outrageous £1.50 or so. The first obvious challenge was a tour of the room, then a tour with hands below the tenth brick course, then picking up the guide and looking in bemusement at some of Dawes's 6bs - mantling a block no bigger, or thicker than Zippo lighter being one that stood in my mind. Good times in there. Thanks for the reminder.
Great article Mick!
A humble counter-hypothesis: it was not one wall that changed climbing, but the social mobility of the post-war period, which facilitated the increasing integration of working-class people into climbing, the demystification of its traditional ideas (e.g. as prep for Alpinism), and, with the expansion of the welfare state, which provided the material conditions for people to doss off and dedicate their time to the pursuit - in a similar way to artists, writers and musicians.
Flesh that out as you see fit!
I seem to remember there were a couple of walls in Leeds in the 70's. The one I recall best is the one where you had to dodge the badminton players.
> I seem to remember there were a couple of walls in Leeds in the 70's. The one I recall best is the one where you had to dodge the badminton players.
I think that was Rothwell?
Early in 1983, I think the state of the art was Altringham, Rothwell and Dickie Dunns in Bradford.
When planning the Ambleside Wall design features we had a (long ) day tour of all three.
We were impressed, and knackered
Another excellent article bringing back great memories, thanks Mick.
> I think that was Rothwell?
I think you are right.
Made me think of "the cigarette stubber" and the "women's hold"and classic problems like The Arete (in clogs) and the dreaded footless circuits. Is it true that Alan rescued some of them when the place was demolished,and who was the old guy who was like doorman in the little office at the foot of the stairs for several years?
Don Robinson was a charming and obviously talented chap, but it seemed to me that he got Leeds Wall right by luck as much as judgement, none of his others that I visited were a patch on it until Streaky got involved with Guiseley. I think it was a lot to do with the "characters" who used the place, how creative you could be with things like 20 problems on the wall between the Squash door and the arete (12 feet by 10?) in an evening.
> A humble counter-hypothesis: it was not one wall that changed climbing, but the social mobility of the post-war period, which facilitated the increasing integration of working-class people into climbing, the demystification of its traditional ideas (e.g. as prep for Alpinism), and, with the expansion of the welfare state, which provided the material conditions for people to doss off and dedicate their time to the pursuit - in a similar way to artists, writers and musicians.
I think that, very often in history, there's a slow build-up (much easier to perceive in hindsight!), perhaps a concatenation of factors and then an incident which somehow ignites things. Yes, I would agree with the factors you've given above, but it still requires an incident to ignite things. And, in my opinion, John Syrett's third ascent of Wall of Horrors was the requisite incident.
I suspect the decisive component was John Stainforth's brilliant photo which got a major display in the climbing magazine Rocksport.
As the late Bill Briggs commented on this photo in the UKC gallery: 'One of the greatest UK climbing pictures, seeing it at the time was a shock, you knew climbing had stepped up a gear.'
This was entirely my recollection. And, in a previous discussion on here, it was other people's recollections too. It inspired a whole generation.
OK though, let's look at counter-hypotheses (always a good thing to do!) When Tony Nicholls made the second ascent in 1964, there was no Rocksport. Climbing media was still in its infancy. The mountaineering ethos still held sway. Hardly anybody knew about his feat. It didn't inspire a movement. I'd argue that Tony Nicholls was an amazing outlier but that John Syrett was the shape of things to come.
OK, let's look at another counter-hypothesis. Ireland had post-war social mobility. Most of the activists from the early 60s onwards came from working-class backgrounds. Although it was harder to doss off, some still did. But there wasn't a climbing wall revolution in the 1970s. In my view (and it's not just mine!) the mountaineering ethos/establishment held back rock-climbing standards for decades.
When I returned to the Mournes in the mid-70s, people didn't understand what had happened. Worse, they didn't even want to understand. It was easier to treat me as some kind of climbing deity (yuk!) than get their heads round, "This is what you need to do to improve."
The climbing wall at Queens uni in Belfast was built well after the Leeds wall. But, with 'a brick sticking out and a brick removed', it was way, way, way behind Don Robinson's design. As an aid to climbing wall improvment, it was useless.
Yes, great routes were done by great climbers (e.g. Eddie Cooper). But grade breakthroughs were generally made by English climbers such as Arni Strapcans and Pat Littlejohn. And, when John Codling did the FA of Warhorse (E4/E5) in the Mournes, circa 1978, the local reaction was... well, let's just say that, in my humble opinion, they really didn't get it.
Fast forward to more recent years. Proper climbing walls. Proper training. Sport climbing trips abroad. Bouldering. A local culture of boldness. And we have arguably the first world-class Irish climber in Ricky Bell.
Ignore the lesson of the Leeds wall and waste decades. Embrace it and you have Ricky Bell making E9 look like VS.
Tuesday night - chalk dust and Denis talking! - look around to see who's in - arête one handed will sort them out ! Alan on the brick edges "floating up the no-holds" - rock overs and figure of fours - competition and innovation. Corner Café curry and some proper beer followed our weekly trip from Sheffield - cheers Nic
> Tuesday night - chalk dust and Denis talking! - look around to see who's in - arête one handed will sort them out ! Alan on the brick edges "floating up the no-holds" - rock overs and figure of fours - competition and innovation. Corner Café curry and some proper beer followed our weekly trip from Sheffield - cheers Nic
Getting close to "jumpers for goalposts!" Careful
> I think the protection was crucial. In 1974 Jim Erickson, a leading American climber, took me up The Thing on the Cromlech. It had possibly the most terrifying description of any route ever. For people such as Frank Cannings and Ian Cameron, making early repeats, more than a decade earlier, it would have involved total commitment - above a really nasty landing.
Very interesting article Mick, even though walls were never a part of my climbing career - I left the UK in 1974 and climbing walls came in sometime later.
Was there really an Ian Cameron who led The Thing in the early sixties ? I think not !
I think you're right Nic, it wasn't the wall it was the people. So why were they drawn there?
Location, location, location.
Right in the centre of the uni. Plus it was free, open all hours and open to anyone. Most of the locals weren't students.
Ian, I'm so sorry! I'd written a monster post about an hour previously, replying to lots of points made by different people, so was a bit brain-dead. But absolutely my mistake. Apologies again.
I still shudder to think of Frank and you leading The Thing back then, without wires. There's that famous photo (of Crew?) in 'Rock Climbers in Action in Snowdonia' failing on it. Entirely understandable. No matter how good you were, back then it would have come down to how you felt on the day. And, if you felt like backing off, then back off (while you still could).
Nowadays, if people go up a popular E1 or E2, say in Wales, chances are they'll have a good topo, decent description, loose rock will have come away long ago, they'll have light helmets and a big rack of wires and cams. Things will be so much less uncertain and generally safer than doing these routes in the 60s. I really do feel that your generation, 'the Vector generation' were the boldest ever in terms of doing pretty hard routes for the time, with rubbish gear, by modern standards. Would welcome opinion from you and others.
Intersting and informative as ever Mick. A good read. The wall on Rock Athlete at 13 minutes is the Bradford University Wall. It had one of the best traverses around in the early seventies. There is even a glimpse of our old friend Dave Cooper towards the end of the clip. Poor old Bradford, a forgotten wall in a forgotten town, with one of the original bouldering venues on its doorstep - for practising those gymnastic skills on real rock on long summer evenings - the Glen.
A great article. I wondered, was this the 1st climbing wall in the UK?
From 1949 to 1951 I had gone from Diff to V.Diff. In 1951 went to Wales with Hughie Banner to show him how to climb and we went from Diff to VS in one week without any "protection" and I was "in nails" For me protection was the most important thing but Hughie said he had an eye defect and climbed as carefully on boulders as a couple of hundred feet up. Incidentally, what is Joe Griffin doing?
Post Mortem on Eagle Crag Borrowdale climbed in 1956 is now graded E4 5c.
With a point of aid.
> Ian, I'm so sorry! I'd written a monster post about an hour previously, replying to lots of points made by different people, so was a bit brain-dead. But absolutely my mistake. Apologies again.
> I still shudder to think of Frank and you leading The Thing back then, without wires. There's that famous photo (of Crew?) in 'Rock Climbers in Action in Snowdonia' failing on it. Entirely understandable. No matter how good you were, back then it would have come down to how you felt on the day. And, if you felt like backing off, then back off (while you still could).
Thanks Mick - I wasn't being serious !
I did the Thing with Ron James in December 1961 and it was a memorable occasion, with the famous quote from the guide book lodged firmly in our minds. Here's how Ron remembers it and I quote.
"One vivid memory I have about winter '61 is that, when we did the Thing, all the streams were frozen, the road was quiet and the silence was amazing. Great days" !
You make reference to the protection available in those days, which was so basic compared to that available from say the mid seventies on. We had nylon slings and maybe eight of them had filed out nuts of various sizes. However, I like to think that I could make the best use of what I had and I do not remember any problems in finding suitable protection on the crux pitch. I was the most cautious of climbers and I am sure I would have backed if I thought the protection was inadequate.
Regards from Boje.
I took the Outdoor Pursuits element of my PGCE with Don Robinson as course leader in the mid '70s. The corridor climbing wall was a regular part of our week. In the summer at the end of the PGCE I spent some time working on the next stage of climbing wall production (putting stones into setting concrete blocks, which would then be built into walls) in a railway arch under Leeds Station (now the rather more hipster Granary Wharf). I suppose this was the genesis of Don's climbing wall business.
In all the recent redevelopment at Leeds Uni the original climbing wall building is still there (last time I looked), and presumably the corridor is still inside it. Given its role in the history of climbing maybe its time for a protection notice?
'Leeds wall, climbing history' offers great insight on an important era of climbing evolution. I would love to see a similar article on the evolution of ice climbing, referencing Hamish MacInnis, Denny Moorhouse and Yvon Chouinard. But is there anyone out there with the knowledge and the inclination to write it?
Lovely to hear from you. I'd seen that clip relatively recently and didn't even recognise it as the Bradford wall where I once spent so more time. And then I saw the red tape which you weren't allowed to solo over (with your feet) but of course everybody did - and got continuously bollocked for! Back then, apart from the Leeds wall, there always seemed to be friction between climbers and bureaucrats, with understandably different concerns about health and safety. I always thought that the solution was for climbers to have their own walls and for climbing to be regulated primarily by climbers. Both have happened and I think it's essential that it remains this way.
I always loved Bradford - still do, and it's not just nostalgia. Went back to Yorkshire last spring and climbed with Leppy (he's posted above). Loved it. Have also heard from Boggie recently.
Dave Cooper was a classic example of wall training - beginner to Lakes E5 in just a few years. A very light frame and steel fingers from traversing. If only Wino had trained properly - my God, what talent!
You want to wander down the local wall yourself, put on some shoes and show the young 'uns a thing or three...
All best wishes,
> A great article. I wondered, was this the 1st climbing wall in the UK?
That's a very good question to which unfortunately I don't have the answer. Presumably the climbing wall book (by Kim Meldrum and another?) does make clear but I've not read it for many decades.
I suspect there were other walls. I met the venture scouts in autumn 1967 and they said there was a wall at their school (Inst, a leading college in Belfast). And it sounded as though that had been up for some years. If I remember correctly, they described it as dusty and forlorn. Don Robinson's Leeds wall was put up 1964 (if I've got my facts straight!)
I'm wondering now whether, if the Inst wall did have wooden pegs inserted into slots, there was a commando influence. I gather that upper body strength was a prized quality and it would surely be a good way of training it.
Overall my critique about so many walls were that they were 'assumed improvement', i.e. you'll somehow get better. But how??? That's where Don Robinson's design prowess kicked in. It was very much - this will let you practise mantleshelfs, this will let you practise hand-jamming, this will let you practise balance moves. Once you abandon 'assumed improvement' for 'focused improvement', the training becomes much more targeted. And you get massively better results. I used to do this in industry. Most managerial training was (is?) pretty worthless in terms of results (so what's the point?) But by quickly improving say, meeting skills (a classic) and showing how improved meetings (with the bollox cut and in a fraction of the time and hassle) would lead to improved results, you could really go places.
That's why I think Don Robinson's influence was so important. I believe that, as with John Syrett, he too was making a paradigm shift.
> From 1949 to 1951 I had gone from Diff to V.Diff. In 1951 went to Wales with Hughie Banner to show him how to climb and we went from Diff to VS in one week without any "protection" and I was "in nails" For me protection was the most important thing but Hughie said he had an eye defect and climbed as carefully on boulders as a couple of hundred feet up. Incidentally, what is Joe Griffin doing?
Sometimes being with a vastly better climber could drag your grade up (and maybe your grade might stay up if they weren't around). But Diff to VS back then was a mammoth leap. Congratulations!
I think something similar happened with Al Evans. He went to Wales in the Sixties, fell in with some very good climbers (including Joe Brown) and suddenly Extremes became as feasible as severes at Stanage.
Because (in physical/skill terms) athletic standards were relatively low (understandable in terms of the possibly terminal penalties!) you could get improvements with a peer group which demystified things. But climbing walls really were the way to get pretty much never-ending improvement.
Am sorry, I don't know about Joe Griffin. Hughie Banner was clearly an outstanding climber. I bet the first ascent of the Hand Traverse was 'interesting', with mud, grass and loose bits in the crack. Going onto Troach in 1959 - bloody hell! You can see why even the likes of Whillans was gobsmacked.
> I would love to see a similar article on the evolution of ice climbing, referencing Hamish MacInnis, Denny Moorhouse and Yvon Chouinard. But is there anyone out there with the knowledge and the inclination to write it?
Rick Graham wrote a brilliant piece on a thread on here showing (if I remember correctly) how significant advances in gear would enable you to climb harder and harder on ice. I agree, there's a similar - but far more comprehensive - article to be written. Perhaps he'd consider writing it?
Overall I think it's important to get our history down while we still can. Nobody's getting any younger and the very act of climbing means that none of us can take longevity for granted.
In the end, you learn to assume nothing, take each day as it comes and make the best of it.
Regarding training and improvement, Allan Austin predicted (on those 1970s Tuesday evenings at the original Leeds wall) that we'd seen nothing yet - the time would come when climbers trained like olympic athletes!
There was no backing off with Allan. On real rock, often in horrible conditions, he would say 'we'll throw man after man at it until someone gets up, and if the men don't succeed we'll start on the women'. Fortunately it never came to that!
Don Robinson in his 90s is frail now, but still as active as possible.
> Rick Graham wrote a brilliant piece on a thread on here showing (if I remember correctly) how significant advances in gear would enable you to climb harder and harder on ice. I agree, there's a similar - but far more comprehensive - article to be written. Perhaps he'd consider writing it?
Now my natural impatience restricts me from expanding too much on any subject but thank you for the compliment. Are you sure it was me?
anyway at first all axes were straight shafted and straight picks at 90 degrees then somebody chouinard or possibly heckmeir had the bright idea of dropping the picks then someone like mcinnes made the picks steeper then somebody in france curved the steep picks the other way but they stuck too well in the ice until it was worked out how file them to make them less sticky then somebody thought of bending the shafts as well but with so many combinations of curve now possible nobody can agree which is exactly the best shape for everything but in general axes work better than they did when they were all straight except when you need to cut a step or axe brake if you fall on a steep snow slope
As Phil the Greek is wont to say, "Jolly good, carry on!"
> Now my natural impatience restricts me from expanding too much on any subject but thank you for the compliment. Are you sure it was me?
> anyway at first all axes were straight shafted and straight picks at 90 degrees then somebody chouinard or possibly heckmeir had the bright idea of dropping the picks then someone like mcinnes made the picks steeper then somebody in france curved the steep picks the other way but they stuck too well in the ice until it was worked out how file them to make them less sticky then somebody thought of bending the shafts as well but with so many combinations of curve now possible nobody can agree which is exactly the best shape for everything but in general axes work better than they did when they were all straight except when you need to cut a step or axe brake if you fall on a steep snow slope
For all round winter stuff and alpine - certainly up to the VI and ED2 ish level - I reckon the Chacal/Baracuda combination is still as good as it gets.
Then again, I do still carry a MOAC original, a stitch plate and Dachsteins!
I'm now off to sow a new patch onto my molecord breeches
Great article. My first experience of a climbing wall was the Bendcrete Kelvin Hall back in the early 90's. I can remember puntering around with gravity tugging at my heels while helium- filled hones like Craig Parnaby stayed glued to the thing on their endless traverses.
I was an occasional user 50 years ago whilst still at school. Does anybody know the complete story of the Russian Ballet dancer who turned up there one day and much to the surprise of the locals present, proceeded to swarm all over the wall. I always thought, not sure who told me, that it was a male dancer, but last year was told quite strongly that the dancer was female.
That would convince me even more that climbing has more in common with dancing that some of the current wall jocks believe.
Thanks for taking the time to reply, Mick.
I'm not sure, after your account about, whether I offered a counter-hypothesis after all. Perhaps the two stories complement each other.
The narrative I'm trying to sketch out about is drawn from Jim Perrin's Menlove, The Villain and Shipton and Tilman, as well as Birkett's history of Lakes climbing. It seems to me, as you argue, that the climbing wall is an inversion of the traditional logic of climbing as mere training for the 'higher pursuit' of Alpinism and big mountains. This classic idea is exploded by the emergence of climbing's 'modernist' moment - a kind of movement within climbing that is irreverent toward the tradition and its ideals, and that transforms rock climbing into something that is more open, unpretentious, and less restrained - but also more specialised.
I think one of the first modernists is H. M. Kelly and his wife, Pat Kelly; the Kellys top-roped routes, inspected lines from above, climbed hard routes in the Lakes and on grit in plimsolls and challenged the gender norms of the mountaineering world. But, I think it's groups like the Rock and Ice club, from Manchester, that really created a movement. And, in many ways, perhaps the grit outcrops of Lancs and the Peak are the precursor to the Leeds Wall: short, technical, bold routes - places to play, to challenge each other, and without the pretences of the 'establishment'; more importantly, they were also accessible from the major industrial cities of northern England.
It doesn't surprise me to learn that the outlook in Ireland was far more conservative; after all, many of Ireland's modernists in literature and the arts found themselves very equivocally received by established opinion. Why should it be any different in climbing? There needed to be a confluence of material, social and ideological factors - and there was a kind of ideological lag.
In the 1940s and 50s, there's a great advance in British climbing, which makes possible the kind of turning point you identify in the early 1960s!
> How many climbing wall users know that the very existence of their local wall - and the popularity of walls generally - came from one wall, one climber and one route?
> Most of the significant developments in rock climbing over the last forty years can be traced back to this unique occurrence.
> Read more
Very interesting history of Leeds wall! Also mentions the old practice (harking back to Oxbridge colleges) of training on buildings and other man-made walls. It would be a fascinating project for someone to collect the history of all the buildings /walls up and down the country that folk trained on. Some will be well known such as the Finnieston railway walls in Glasgow or the Withington sewage pipe in Manchester. Others are probably very obscure, known only to a few. I used to train in the early 1960s on a sandstone wall at Otterspool promenade in Liverpool but never met any other climbers there. I’m sure there must be lots of stories out there.
I suspect that wall is still there, hiding behind partitions in the newly developed halls.
> Others are probably very obscure, known only to a few. I used to train in the early 1960s on a sandstone wall at Otterspool promenade in Liverpool but never met any other climbers there. I’m sure there must be lots of stories out there.
I agree, there must be lots of stories out there. I've fond memories of Otterspool. Apart from one day with David Hooper (late of this parish, RIP) and Jamie Light, I never met any other climbers there either. Lovely position.
There were lots of walls in Sheffield. Mushroom Lane was repointed and Red Lane was taken over by a housing development (Betjeman Gardens - John B would have been outraged!) Endcliffe Park was pleasant but easily got green and mouldy if it wasn't used. Broomgroove Road had great 'brick edge cruising'. My favourite was Tay Street in Crookes - invariably deserted. Always loved Tay Street.
Mick, great article, you’ve a fine way with words.
wrt Sheffield walls, I was introduced to the Red Wall traverse by Geraldine. My abiding memory is of trying to keep up over endless laps and the inevitable step off to let Geraldine overtake.
i lived in Crookes near Tay st once upon a time and loved that wall too.
wrt Leeds Wall, from a different perspective, didn’t it also condemn us to crap vertical walls with lumps sticking out as the status quo until overhanging boards with attached holds emerged from Sheffield cellars? Altrincham, YMCA Sheffield, the corridor at Hucknall Leisure Centre etc. My abiding memory of the Al Rouse wall was everyone training on finger edges screwed onto a wooden beam, which was a glimpse of things to come.
Nice to see th old wall again. I used to use it as a student and then as a member of staff had an office just through the door on one end. One member of staff still has some of the rock pieces (from the balance problem etc) in his garage. They were going to get put in the new Leeds University wall, but there was no room.
The wall and the outside of the Henry Price flats certainly were key to my training at Leeds and in the end it meant I could do the odd traverse simply going down the corridor to the loo! Mind you it could be hazardous. One lad nearly went out the window climbing the corner problem and I remember another burning his arm badly on the heating pipe that ran across the top of the panels that were added! No cheating by diving for the ‘bar’ at the top on those panels. With the serious polish on some of the holds I think it would challenge many present day wall goers. Some bits were worse than a peak grit classic! Although with all the chipping between bricks that had gone on to make ‘extra’ problems I think the wall between the corridor and the squash court must have been getting a bit structurally iffy.....!
> I remember another burning his arm badly on the heating pipe that ran across the top of the panels
The MacDougall wall at Manchester had a four points off dyno problem to a hot water pipe that was *usually* just about cool enough to hold, but not always.
A few weeks ago I was chatting about the Leeds Climbing Wall with a friend who, in the early 80s, had been sent with Patrick Edlinger by the French Climbing Federation on a mission to research the UK's indoor walls. I recalled reading an article (On the Edge/Leeds Uni Journal??) about some long-haired French dude turning up in a pair of ballerina tights and floating up some mantelshelf move that had never been done, while the locals looked on and theorised about his sexuality. John Syrett, Patrick Edlinger - makes you wonder!
By the time Edlinger was on the scene John Syrett was dead. Also Edlinger was a partner in Canyon climbing walls.
The guy in ballet tights was some guy in show down as the Playhouse which was at the bottom of the campus. Which was where the uni multi gym happened to be.
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