Mick Ward remembers the key players in the climbing scene and major British ascents of the 1970s...
In 1972 Tony Willmott died, soloing in the Avon Gorge. To his friend, Al Baker, he was a stone child. His climbing shoes went to a young Londoner named Stevie Haston. Stevie and many others followed Tony Willmott's inspiration. Climbing standards soared; nothing would ever be the same again.
Eroica and Darkinbad were abseil inspected and had preplaced pegs on the first ascents.
Totally agree, Steve. But generally speaking, his approach was ground-up. Wasn't Alien onsighted? And I suspect you'd have a hard time toproping Above and Beyond.
Thanks Mick, a good read but you ignored Scotland almost completely (just an in passing mention of Cubby & a photo of Doug Scott aid climbing) so hardly "the key players in the climbing scene and major British ascents of the 1970s" .
Great article, but I'd have loved to hear more about the Lancashire heroes. Hank Pasquill's route Constables Overhang in Wilton 3 still gets E5 6b. First climbed in 1974 it must have been one of the hardest routes of the time, in fact it's still bloody hard today.
I started climbing in 1983, and despite the advantages of better, gear, shoes and knowledge came no where near matching the acheivements of the generation that came before me.
Great article Mick.
Mick, I'd say the mild critiques of omission i see above are just begging you to write a book about climbing between the late 50s to mid 90s. It's about time for one to be written by a sincere and humble writer. Do it. Just saying. Great piece. I agree with your Big Ron remark (he was our main hero as teens in the 80s), but I'm getting old too now, I find! Dx
Ron was definitely the man, but he's always been quiet and humble on the few times I've seen him - usually just a quiet acknowledgement.
Many years ago (probably late 80s or early 90s), at Froggatt, he's bumbling about when some girl at the top of the crag shouts down "are you Ron Fawcett?", slight pause, "I used to go to school with you". Poor man, he was so embarrassed.
Could have been worse: "Hey Ron, do you remember when we went to the fleapit together and sat at the back and..."
That would be really embarrassing!
Hi David, That's incredibly kind of you. I certainly think somebody should write that book but don't really think it should be me. However you've highlighted the essential problem of this article (and The Vector Generation one). I've just (belatedly!) done a word count. It weights in at nearly 4,500 words. In my experience, once you start to go over 2,000 words in an article, you risk losing your audience. And 4,500 is, in my view, pushing it to the utter limit. So a big thanks to everyone who's read it!
Yes, the Lancashire heroes deserve a book on their own. They've been so overlooked, it's ridiculous. Yes, I totally overlooked Scotland. (Le Monde, by Black Nick - maybe the first E5? A chop route, by all accounts.) I missed out the legendary Positron. Not a single mention of Ireland (despite me being Irish). Because I wasn't trying to be comprehensive. You need a book format for that. I was trying to get at influences and trends. Thus the space given to the three US routes. I think they showed the way forward. Typically it only took me some 40 years to connect the (three) dots! Quick on the mark, eh?
All best wishes, David.
What a great read! Thankyou
Pretty much nailed it, Mick - I was going to mention Alec Sharp as a player and Positron as a route but you have to set a cutoff somewhere!
The photos of "Crags" bring back memories - great mag especially when it was young and totally irreverent - I used to have the whole set (including the Ron on L'Horla poster) but got rid of them many years ago - Tyler of this parish may still have them.
IIRC although Mr Birtles was being deliberately provocative with 6c, at that time there was some debate over whether the technical grade should take the moves before the hardest into account, i.e. should the technical grade be for how hard the hardest move is when you get there (possibly knackered) or should it be as if you were teleported onto it (fresh as a daisy).
I think Ron was using the former at that time (more akin to a sport grade funnily enough) whereas it settled down to the latter.
Steve's Recent Developments was a laugh, in hindsight that guidebook may have had significant responsibility for bunching grades up and making the technical grade useless in the upper reaches, but it did get me up an E3 5c (current grade) thinking it was HVS 4c.
Nice article, and yes I think you could get a decent book out of that era - enough of the participants are still around to dig out plenty of tales.
> Yes, I totally overlooked Scotland. (Le Monde, by Black Nick - maybe the first E5? A chop route, by all accounts.)
A very good read, but there were quite a few Scottish key players in the 70s, Cubby and Murray Hamilton for example.
Le Monde (1976) is E4 in the current guidebook, the first E5 was possibly Morbidezza (1979) at Dunkeld by Cubby.
> The photos of "Crags" bring back memories - great mag especially when it was young and totally irreverent - I used to have the whole set (including the Ron on L'Horla poster) but got rid of them many years ago - Tyler of this parish may still have them.
> IIRC although Mr Birtles was being deliberately provocative with 6c, at that time there was some debate over whether the technical grade should take the moves before the hardest into account, i.e. should the technical grade be for how hard the hardest move is when you get there (possibly knackered) or should it be as if you were teleported onto it (fresh as a daisy).
> I think Ron was using the former at that time (more akin to a sport grade funnily enough) whereas it settled down to the latter.
> Steve's Recent Developments was a laugh, in hindsight that guidebook may have had significant responsibility for bunching grades up and making the technical grade useless in the upper reaches, but it did get me up an E3 5c (current grade) thinking it was HVS 4c.
> Nice article, and yes I think you could get a decent book out of that era - enough of the participants are still around to dig out plenty of tales.
Most of the Cheedale grades in Steve’s guide were arrived at by walking along the other side of the river to crag in question. Looking at the route, then who had done the first ascent then giving it a grade.
Cubby's real impact (often much more shamefully underreported) was in the 80's.
Incredible the acceleration between the late 70s and Requiem free in 1983. It is like reading about two different worlds (reading only, I wasn't in either of them!).
I know an E6 onsighter who warned me of La Monde having nearly got the chop
Nice one. Phil Davidson is still doing impressive big numbers now
> The photos of "Crags" bring back memories - great mag especially when it was young and totally irreverent - I used to have the whole set (including the Ron on L'Horla poster) but got rid of them many years ago
I've got a few if anyone fancies making me an offer...
Another excellent article Mick, thanks again.
I'd heard and read many of these stories growing up. My dad used to have lots of old copies of Mountain and to some extent Crags which I would flick through as my bedtime story. He used to tell me the significance of some of the routes we would see out when climbing in the late 80s early 90s. This was mainly at Avon and Swanage. I remember at the time thinking the standards were high.....and I've never got close. Even today, I like to look at routes of historical significance and imagine the FAs. Keep these articles coming....they are great.
Out of interest did Craig Smith do the first onsight of Grand Illusion?
>Many years ago (probably late 80s or early 90s), at Froggatt, he's bumbling about when some girl at the top of the crag shouts down "are you Ron Fawcett?", slight pause, "I used to go to school with you". Poor man, he was so embarrassed.
I also bumped into him at Froggatt in the mid-80s. I was on my own, messing about on the start of something, and saw a figure in the distance soloing up one route, then down-climbing the adjacent route, and so on and so on, gradually working his way down the crag as smooth as silk. As he got closer I realised it was Ron. He down-climbed the route next to me, so I stood back to let him go up the one I was on. He duly flowed up it and down the next, only pausing at the bottom to turn to me and say (as if by way of explanation for the ease of his ascent) "I've done it a few times". I laughed at said "Yep, that'll be it". And off he went. A seemingly lovely self-effacing man, which is something when you're the best in the world at what you do!
Hi Mick, brilliant writing again. I guess you’re referencing Al ‘shaker’ Baker at the beginning of the article. I had many ‘entertaining’ evenings out with him back in the day. A tremendous, witty person. Like Ron and John Allen and so many of the people you mention, behind the climbing they were great people to spend time with, on or off the crag.
Looking forward to the next episode on the ‘’80s with Ben and crew finally achieving world class status.
Great piece Mick. Did you ever consider ‘The Stoned Children’ as your title? There are grounds...
You've mis-spelt Keith Darbyshire's name.
Actually Mick I hope it is you (that's not intended as pressure by the way). Judging by this article and some of the other things you've written I think you'd do a cracking job. I'd certainly buy it.
(minor quibble about this one - in the list at the end of people of that generation who've died, a good half of them were killed in big mountains after having followed the traditional progression to mountaineering, which runs against the general thrust of the article)
Eek, am so sorry about that. Huge apologies. Will see if there are any other mistakes and ask Natalie to correct them all at once.
Re the (not so!) minor quibble, I totally forgot about Derek Hersey, Jimmy Jewell and Paul Williams, all of whom were killed soloing on rock (in Derek's case, obviously a big route). I suspect that I forgot not from any lack of caring but simply because it's painful.
Back in the '70s, we had a mindset that, if we were hard enough and we could climb hard enough, we could get up anything. And I mean anything! It didn't matter if it was something scary on Stanage, something scary on Cloggy, something scary in the Alps or something scary in the Himalaya. It just didn't matter. Soloing and going light and fast on big, scary faces were prized, maybe above all else.
Looking back, this mindset resembles madness. Yet we all had it! It's not that top young climbers nowadays are any less bold - far from it. The go places where we can't begin to imagine. But there's an immeasurably greater body of knowledge around today which simply wasn't available back then (and I hope they avail themselves fully of it).
If we take something really simple (but crucial) - weather forecasts. So many people of all nationalities died because the weather crapped out when they were committed to big routes, with little/no hope of rescue. They couldn't get a decent weather window. Go to the Himalaya and the problem's massively compounded. A couple of years ago, I belatedly read Arlene Blum's Annapurna book and was horrified. Those ladies were so brave...
Thanks Mick for an excellent article. I was never hard enough but it was great times
> Looking back, this mindset resembles madness. Yet we all had it!
Quick points of order.
I remember an interview with Tony Yaniro when he said that he hadn't started dogging routes at the time he did Grand Illusion. Said he worked on it over 4 or 5 non-consecutive weekends.
Also re. Phoenix: From Mike Anderson I think.
"In regards to Phoenix being the first 5.13, apparently Jardine "did" the route in 77, but he never redpointed it. His idea of "working" a route (a term he apparently coined?) was to get to a point where he could do all the moves in 3 or 4 sections between hangs. Once he achieved that, he moved on. In the case of the Phoenix, he TR-ed it free, and he lead it with 3 hangs. Obviously this would be considered totally invalid today, but back in those days any hang-dogging in the valley was completely cheating, so this style wasn't thought of as any different then hang-dogging on the route for weeks and then ulimately redpointing -- it was all considired "invalid" by traditionalists.
Wow - may thanks indeed. I thought it was appromixately two years for Grand Illusion. Half a dozen weekends sounds a hell of a lot faster. It would be interesting to know how much time he spent training for it.
Re The Phoenix, should the FA be credited to Mark Hudon?
'And there were drugs. After reading Doug Scott’s article about Jim [Fullalove], a friend noted of those far-off days, “Was it just hard-core climbers who took drugs – because I didn’t know any hard-core climbers and I barely knew anybody who took drugs?”
My feeling is that many hard-core climbers were searching – searching via climbing, via alternative lifestyles, via drugs.' (The Golden Age of British Climbing)
Certainly drinking was a big thing. Drinking and soloing were a potentially lethal combination and yet so many of us did it. It retrospect, it was senseless folly. We simply didn't know any better. Our greatest strength was our ignorance. (Pretty unwise to rely on ignorance as your greatest strength.)
Drugs were even greater folly. I guess I'm extremely sensitive about discussing drugs on a site where young climbers can read stuff. We got drugs wrong too. If there were any great insights, I didn't experience them. Nor did anyone I knew. Yes, they might have heightened the experience - but at what cost? As Kris Kristofferson said about his deceased lover, Janis Joplin, "Was the going up worth the coming down?" No - it wasn't.
I wouldn't be making any changes without talking directly to Anderson (he's the training manual guy).
Also part of the Yaniro interview is that he found a crack in a garage somewhere in LA that replicated the crack really well and spent a load of time training on that.
I might forward a similar article I have put together in similar vein Mick for your interest. The other massive difference from 1970 to late 80's was the gear for protection, harnesses, rope, cams and nuts, more frequent guides along with an improved grading system, climbing mags, and training at the climbing wall and not the pub.
Another point worth mentioning is that is that on the day Hudon did it he had his rope pre-clipped into his highest pro, so not a whole lot different from Jardines TR ascent.
Hi Sean, that would be great. Look forward to it. But I would strongly urge you to get it on here too. And I would urge others to do likewise. Nobody's getting any younger and, if people don't get stuff out, it'll be, 'All of these stories will be lost in time - like tears in rain...'
Right now, I don't have any plans to carry on from the '60s and '70s, into the '80s and '90s, etc. Although I still climbed a fair bit in the '80s and knew a few of the top climbers, I didn't have the same feel for things, e.g. the Llanberis slate scene. I was desperately trying to save jobs in industry. Was far too exhausted to go to wild parties any longer.
It's a pity that Andy Pollitt isn't still with us. He'd almost certainly have been the ideal person to cover the 1980s. What a lovely person he was! Sadly missed.
Many thanks indeed for both observations - and the earlier ones. Mark Hudon's ascent has always seemed amazing. Clearly he gave it everything he had and seemingly succeeded by the merest whisker. A lesson to the rest of us to put more effort in, try harder!
The problem Mick is that not that many climbers actually put pen to paper so to speak, especially in their formative years. It is often done in retrospect as we come to the end of climbing careers. Stuff I wrote in the early 70s has been lost in the sands of time. Hopefully with social media this will be less so today.
Now I must update my chapter on high altitude mountaineering, the K2 bit!
I read it all, it was ace. Thanks for writing it. I recently met hank in the pass and it was great to hear his old stories about what was done and when!
Another fabulous history lesson - and a boatload of covers that were really iconic in themselves.
Thanks for writing this - yes it is long, but it covers a lot of ground at speed.
Great article, despite being someone who usually skips over the history section, I really enjoyed reading this.
Funny how the reactionaries haven't really changed much since those days (even residing in some of the same clubs haha) but I like Mick's nuanced perspective, a bit of distance in time does make it easier to respect all of the different games climbers play.
Ancient recollection. In 1966 we drove from Birkenhead to peg Constables Overhang. In the quarry were three teenagers soloing all the medium grade climbs dragging a rope ineffectually.
We chatted to them and discovered they had been climbing a matter of days. One stood out for his natural ability.
Of course it was Hank who freed the very route we antediluvians were pegging in the fullness of time.
Thank you for writing this very enjoyable piece. I agree with those who've already said it: an expanded version would be a great book.
15-year-old French climber Oriane Bertone has climbed Super Tanker (Font 8B+) at Cuvier Rempart in Fontainebleau, France.