Good, bad or indifferent, beyond death one leaves a reputation. Of one thing I'm sure: Gary Gibson will leave behind five thousand new routes and - often forgotten - a legacy of guidebook work, which from the voluntary sector is unlikely to be surpassed. If you climb English or Welsh rock you will have made a connection with this incredibly driven man, and you're likely to have climbed one of his routes or handled a guidebook in which Gibson played some part.
A huge man with an even bigger ego, he recently wrote his autobiography, Blood, Sweat and Smears. How he found the time I am not sure. One of the most controversial and outspoken figures in UK climbing history, Gibson ruffled more feathers than a pheasant plucker's son!
He writes of his father, 'My dad was something of an enigma … But my dad also had an awkward, almost belligerent side, one that seems to have been passed on to me.'
It is edited by the respected Mick Ward, with a forward by Mark Pretty. One friend read the book in just four days, a measure of its fascinating content.
Pretty argues, 'He was (and is) a rule breaker, something of a maverick who had the vision and the nerve to change the nature of the game in the UK.'
Gary's climbing career started as a boy, inspired and encouraged by his brother Phil. As a young man he unapologetically 'wagged college to climb'. Although good, he was not destined to be, a top climber by grade. But he developed a quest for stardom, inspired by a photo of Ron Fawcett on the cover of Crags. 'I wanted to be on the pages of Crags. I wanted my name there. I wanted fame.' Gibson, described as 'the man who bleeds climbing' in OTE Magazine spent his honeymoon new routing with his new wife Hazel. Enough said.
Gibson's book is easy to read, funny, informative and yes absolutely controversial, his words reflective and diplomatic. Having met the man I cannot help but feel Gibson has mellowed with the passage of time. At a recent book event he was prodded then poked, but his response was measured and polite. He once remarked, 'opinions are like arseholes. Everyone's got one, and they all stink.'
If you want a job doing then look no further than Gibson. Recently retired, he has an energy rarely found in men a third his age. In my mind, the way he promoted the book with dozens of talks demonstrates a man driven, a man for whom the words, 'I did it my way' are not only accurate, but seem to sum up this complex, ebullient and ambitious character.
A target of, 'innuendo and hatred' to this day, Gibson did make mistakes, bolting where he shouldn't, chipping holds and making false claims. I find his open admission that he lied refreshing, his over enthusiasm perhaps a symptom of his drive, ambition and determination. Make no mistake, now repentant he achieved his goal, to make his mark in the climbing world. He made mistakes, no-one can deny that. Not alone in his misdemeanours, he states, 'I am of course, not the first to cheat; nor sadly will I be the last.' Keith McCallum appeared to make up first ascents, and in 1969 a Sunday Times article suggested he was a fantasist who even invented climbing partners. And Si O'Connor, a one-time UKC moderator, claimed boulder problems with outrageous exaggeration in grades. Unlike Gibson, McCallum and O'Connor disappeared from the climbing world, perhaps a reflection of the former's often conciliatory mood.
Many of the words written in magazines and online revolve around controversy and his 'crap routes' (not my words). Gary writes, '...1983 would bring new climbs and plenty of controversies, mostly of my own making. One would turn the climbing world upside down, others would be forgotten and one or two still come back to haunt me publicly or privately, even today.'
Chapter eight, 'A Kind of Death', describes the time Gibson came close to death. In 1988 a 70 foot ground fall at Ban-y-Gor whilst new routing left him fighting for his life. When help arrived, Hazel said, 'He's down there; I think he's dead.'
On humour, Gibson has a comic side. On one occasion he was challenged by a Tarmac representative and a police officer whilst new routing, but the angry quarryman was escorted off his own land by the constabulary - a well written and hilarious story. Another day, another quarry, we questioned for alleged egg stealing. 'You might have had a gun' said his interrogator. The reply - 'It's not fucking New York you know.'
Obsessive to the uneducated, bodacious to those who know. It's new routes and controversies that Gibson will be remembered for. With a tally fast approaching five thousand lines he writes, 'I am what I am. I do what I do. My mission isn't over until I'm finished.' To me that sums him up. He is very much his own man; to climb his routes or not is your choice. In my mind, it takes a very big man to hold his hand up and admit he was wrong. However the Lycra loving Gibson is now reformed, an honourable man who just likes to do what he does. Would I trust him with my pin number? Yes I probably would!
Blood, Sweat and Smears is a great read about a very interesting, energetic and enthusiastic man. I would have liked more detail in this book, perhaps his side of the 1999 Wye Valley guidebook fiasco in which Gibson threatened legal action against the BMC. This a result of Geoff Milburn's words about Gibson. Differences were settled in the form of retro stickers with revised text, but Milburn, editor of over 20 guidebooks for the BMC and Climbers' Club, resigned over the matter. And I would have liked to see some correspondence reproduced in this book; there must have been some memorable and explosive letters.
The last word is saved for his wife Hazel, a lady who was, and is, always there. Although not exclusively his second, Hazel must have spent half a lifetime holding his ropes, an act that I am sure will never be forgotten.
'As regards whether Gary has done any classic first ascents, bollox, of course he has, the list is endless' Al Evans
'As a psychologist, I found Gary very interesting. He turned out to be NOT NORMAL, but not disturbed either … A friendly, driven guy, who has been misinterpreted, misrepresented and misunderstood' Nadim Siddiqui
'To quote the old magazine article "Gary Gibson routes are like Michael Caine movies - so many, some have to be good" (or something on those lines)' Chris Fryer
'A more serious accident occurred when a block hit him on the head at Ban y Gor, necessitating surgery. Not that it stopped him. Probably nothing could, for Gibson is probably the epitome of the climbing obsessive. Like a dog on diuretics in a lamp post factory Gary has been there, seen it and done a new route on it' Colin Wells
'While the elite of British climbing have consistently ignored or dismissed his achievements... they cannot be so easily ignored. He is someone who, more than anybody else, has advanced easy to mid-grade sport climbing in this country - not to mention his trad routes' Mark Petty
'He has undoubtedly given a lot to climbing both in terms of time and effort. Many of his routes are very good quality, and his guidebooks speak for themselves... he has an impetuous streak, an impatience that leads him to over-step the mark' Keith Sharples
'I guess, in the end, it boils down to whether you believe in redemption. Can a man truly reform, revisit the mistakes of his youth and do his best to effect redress? I believe in redemption. I believe that Gary's redeemed himself again and again. Cleaning up old crags which have fallen into disrepair? Rebolting other people's routes? No glory in that. But he does it' Mick Ward
'If Hazel ever asks me to give up climbing, I will, but I don't think she ever would!' Gary Gibson
- For more about Blood, Sweat and Smears, or to buy a copy, see cordee.co.uk
David Price is an enthusiast and collector of climbing and mountaineering books with a special interest in UK climbing guidebooks. He is keen to meet fellow collectors to swap, buy and sell books, journals and magazines. You can contact David by email