Richard Waterton looks back on the life of Ian Cummins, who sadly passed away recently at the age of 58. Whilst in recent years Ian had stepped back from climbing to concentrate on caving, his influence was still felt across the climbing scene. He was an 'under-the-radar' climber, a talented and prolific onsight climber and an excellent boulderer.
I'm not a writer and rarely put pen to paper, (and hesitate to do so now), but wanted to pay tribute to one of my climbing heroes and mentors Ian Cummins who very sadly passed away in June last year aged only 58.
Ian was an exceptionally talented and stylish rock climber with a bold but calm temperament, who excelled particularly at on-sight climbing – he seemed to have a natural affinity for movement on rock and that ability to unlock sequences first time that is essential in that arena of climbing – and also at bouldering, where he did the first ascents of many problems on his local crags at a cutting-edge level of difficulty. His ability was backed up by dedicated training on his 'board' at home and in the climbing walls that were beginning to crop-up everywhere as the popularity of climbing increased; I believe that being a research scientist at Durham University his training methods were correspondingly scientific and ahead of their time.
I first met him while training indoors, (a common theme as I've subsequently discovered), in my late teens at the old Newton Aycliffe wall where he himself trained and set routes, and I was myself keen and trying hard to improve. Watching him 'caning' the routes – typically long moves between tiny edges with only smears for feet – it was clear how he gained and maintained his somewhat legendary steel-fingered crimping strength and endurance. He was friendly, easy-going and happy to help out with training advice, and I was soon able to join in with a group regularly working-out on the routes there. Really he opened my eyes to the standards that were possible in climbing – he set the bar high and I was eager to try and match the levels of difficulty and apply them to my own projects.
Through his ascents, both outdoors and training indoors, he was an inspirational figure to a number of the North East's top climbers – a contemporary of (amongst others) Nick Dixon, Ian Dunn and Paul Ingham, and mentor to the likes of Nick Clement (who did an early repeat of Reservoir Dogs E8 at Widdop and went on to manage the British Bouldering Team and boulder F8B), Steve Dunning (repeats of Hubble and Dreamtime), and more recently Tom Newman (many hard boulders and FAs up to F8B/+).
Ian was also an exceptional person – he had an understated personality and self-deprecating sense of humour, never at least appearing to take things too seriously (except possibly once he was on the rock?); quiet, but this made his one-liners and put-downs stand out all the more! "Come on Rich – show us how good you are!" I remember him shouting gleefully as I set off on one route, when I guess I was starting to think I might be okay at climbing myself. Or starting out sport climbing on 'Free n Easy' (7c) at Malham when he pointed out to me that he didn't think he'd ever fall off the upper wall no matter how tired he was (while I toiled horribly)!
Ian was never one to shout about his achievements, but when you start to look at his list of first ascents and on-sights and when they were done, you begin to realise that some of them are getting on for world-class in their time, (e.g. on-sighting 7c+ at Buoux in the eighties); and furthermore the scale of his contributions to climbing in the North East and Lakes.
He was a prolific repeater of routes – just a summary is detailed below – and these were typically done in 'good style', i.e. true to his on-sight or ground up ethical principles (worth bearing in mind at e.g. Reecastle in the Lakes where top-roping/ pre-practice is quite possible). After some research, I've come up with the following list which is my best guess at his top climbing achievements.
Traditional: On-sights of the majority of the E5s and E6s in the Lakes that were in existence at the time, including an on-sight of Borderline (first pitch; was E6 now E7!) on Scafell and an on-sight of De Quincy (now E7) on Hell's Wall. In Borrowdale alone his list of repeats (ticked off in his guidebook!) include at Reecastle Crag - The Torture Board (now E7), Remission (now E7) and Grievous Bodily Arm (now E7); at Shepherd's Crag - Geronimo (E7) (applauded through the crux by Chris Bonnington!), The Devils Alternative (E6) and Exclamation (E6); at Bowderstone Crag the First Ascent of Inferno (E7 6c) with Paul Ingham, along with an early repeat of Hell's Wall (E6 6c); and at Goat Crag - Footless Crow (now E6).
Other significant repeats more widely across the Lakes include Centrefold (E6) on Raven Crag (Langdale), Vlad the Impaler and Dusk 'till Dawn (both E7 on Dove Crag), Internal Combustion (E6) on Raven Crag (Thresthwaite), Das Kapital and The Second Coming (both E6) on Raven Crag (Thirlmere), Sixpence (E6) on Pavey Ark, and Western Union (E6) on Iron Crag. I won't even start on the endless list of E5s!
Repeating all the extreme routes on the 'Wave Wall' at Bowden Doors, including the likes of Rough Passage (E6), Barbarian (E5), The Wave (E5), High Tide (E5), Rising Damp (E4) and of course Poseidon Adventure (E4); together with the (flashed!) first ascent of RIP the Lip (E6) (a 25m traverse starting up 'Green Crack' and traversing under the capping roof to finish as for The Wave; could well be unrepeated!).
An early repeat (2nd or 3rd ascent?) of Astroman (5.11c) in Yosemite. Various repeats/onsights in California (e.g. Joshua Tree).
Repeating all the harder extreme routes at Almscliffe.
Bouldering (some of which will have seen minimal numbers of repeats): Goldsborough Carr FAs of Beth's Traverse (V9) and Holeshot (V10) 2000; The Footless Traverse (V7) mid-1980s; George's Roof (V10); Ian's Arete (V6 really?!) 2000. A repeat of Juxtapose (V11) Steve Dunning's link-up problem.
Slipstones FAs of Sulky Little Boys (V7) 1985 (flashed the first ascent of this and then repeated in his trainers!); Holeshot (V9) 2000; Lay-By Arete Direct (V9) 2001.
Sport Climbing (shorter list as he was less interested in this!): A repeat of Overnite Sensation (8a+) at Malham (he flashed the notoriously crimpy start, albeit not the whole thing!). An early repeat of Raindogs (8a). He was also active at (amongst others) Kilnsey, Gordale and Troller's Gill [where he did the first ascent of Cold Turkey (7b) as a virtual trad route]. On-sighting 7c+ at Buoux in the late '80s.
In recent years, Ian spent more of his time caving and cave-diving than climbing (where he also achieved a great deal – tributes have been published elsewhere …), but I saw him occasionally at the local wall where he still did some route setting and he continued to climb and boulder - particularly at Goldsborough which I don't think he'd ever have lost the love for.
Farewell Ian – you left us all too soon!
Below are some pictures and further tributes and memories from some of his friends and contemporaries.
Words from Ian Dunn:
I think I first met Ian at Stockton YMCA climbing wall on a winter Wednesday night, it was the only wall in Teesside at the time that was worth going too, and was a typical sports hall wall, but a number of locals had chipped the mortar out around a few brick edges and we could do laps with poor footholds in EB's! We all certainly got stronger using this facility - that was Paul Ingham, George Hayden, Nick Dixon, Tony Marr, Tony McClean, Alan Taylor, and myself.
Ian attacked the traverses and did some great links and was soon lapping the wall for fun. Outdoors we would often meet at a specific crag and then competition would be high for first ascents and doing routes in good style. Paul Ingham was a hard taskmaster and he was very keen on ground-up first ascents, top roping was looked down on and I can only think of a few of the very hardest routes that were top-roped before being led. Magic In The Air and Psycho Syndicate being two.
Ian often turned up when we were at the crag, he would generally just get on with ticking the routes we had ropes on or cruising up a line he had his eye on. I remember many times he effortlessly did hard routes at Almscliffe, Brimham, Slipstones, Scugdale, The Wainstones, etc. He made early ascents of virtually all the harder routes and we watched in awe and probably a little bit happy that we had got the routes done before he appeared on the scene.
He climbed a lot with Paul Ingham and they developed early fingerboards together, basically bits of hard wood with holes drilled in them and bits of wood bolted on. They also really developed overhanging training on the Dolphin Centre climbing wall in Darlington. The easiest route up the cast concrete DR Wall was around E2 5c and they did it with countless variations many, many times. This fitness allowed Ian to go on and climb hard all around Europe and USA, but especially in the Lakes and Yorkshire Dales.
Ian didn't do many new routes he just liked ticking already established lines climbing in good style, but he did a few things at Troller's Gill and he probably did a lot of boulder problems that he didn't bother to name, as was the style back then.
A really friendly guy, he was always strong and determined to get the routes done and a person that the climbing world is poorer without. I was shocked when I heard of his death as I couldn't believe someone as fit as he was had passed away, at 58.
Words from Nick Clement:
I first met Ian when I started climbing at the Dolphin Centre climbing wall in Darlington in 1983. He was an early role model for me and inspired me by the way he moved effortlessly on the routes. He was also the first climber I saw who trained systematically, lapping the steepest section of the wall whilst wearing a weight belt followed by numerous sets of pull-ups. Ian's climbing achievements were up there with the best at the time and probably went largely unrecognised by the wider climbing community due to his unassuming nature. He did however achieve legendary status in the North East and amongst those who knew him. He was greatly respected as a climber and a person and will be sorely missed.
Words from Steve Dunning:
As a youth we would see Ian training at the Wall and he looked the part: he was shredded, dressed like a Californian climbing hero with 'rock star' hair and was the best technical climber we had seen. We all looked up to Ian as a 'proper' climber - not only did he train like an athlete but he went to the Lakes, did hard stuff and just got on with it. Over the years I really came to appreciate his efforts - his on-sight Lakes trad tick list was comparable to the best climbers of his generation. His boulders at Slipstones and Goldsborough are still prized ticks 30 years later and are sure benchmarks for quality. Awesome climber and a lovely guy.
Words from Paul Cornforth:
I first met Ian at the Dolphin Centre in Darlington in the mid 80's. I'd started climbing with one of Ian's friends, Paul Ingham and he suggested we went over to do some endurance training at the wall. I can remember that Ian and Paul were doing these laps on this old school brick climbing wall in a kind of circular building. I think I did about two laps of climbing up and down before I was pumped stupid. Ian seemed to be able to keep on going, lap after lap, I think he only stopped because he was getting bored. Following this, we met up a few times both in the Lakes and up in Northumberland (The County), where we would exchange beta on routes and bouldering. He wasn't a dynamic climber in the slightest, he moved in an incredibly controlled and slow way and every move was done statically, he could hang on the smallest of holds for what seemed like an eternity before working out the next sequence. I saw him repeat Geronimo at Shepherd's Crag in Borrowdale on quite a hot day. There's a positive flat hold at half-height just by a good peg and the crux is the next few moves. When he got to the flat hold, the sun came out and was beating down which made the next few moves even more difficult. Instead of lowering off the peg and getting back on it when the sun had gone in which I would have done, he hung there on the flat hold for a good half hour until the sun went behind a cloud, then pushed on and completed the route. This outlines Ian's very strict ethics, it wouldn't have been an onsight flash if he'd lowered off the peg then got back on again. It also emphasises what incredible stamina he had.
Borderline (E7) on Scafell's East Buttress was another route where Ian's endurance came into play. Paul Ingham, Ian and myself were all trying to bag the 2nd ascent. It's pretty steady for the first 25 feet up the curving groove, but seriously overhanging and pumpy, then there are some fairly hard moves pulling through the overlap on small pinches up the headwall. I'd been on it before and I knew the sequence, but was pumping out after the crux. After Ian watched me fail again, he had his go and set off up the initial groove. Before the undercut, he hung there shaking out and reaching over the overlap to check the holds out, then back down to beneath the overlap and more shaking out.
I can remember that apart from being very impressed with his ability to hang there and recover, it also annoyed me! After all, there were three of us trying the route and he was taking ages. He'd already been on the route about five times longer than me and there was no way that after hanging there for such a long time he would be able to do the powerful crux – or so I thought. But he did, eventually, he'd done his research, then launched himself up the crux moves to where there is quite a good jug where he again proceeded to hang there and shake until he recovered enough to complete the route. It was so impressive, so calculated and all done with the minimum of fuss. No pumping of the fist in wild celebration, no power screams, all done with quiet confidence. And that how Ian was, unassuming, quietly confident, but a super talented climber. RIP Ian, you will be sorely missed by everyone who knew you.
Words from Steve Crowe:
I first knew Ian as the quiet climber who trained at The Dolphin Centre in Darlington - I recall he would crimp endlessly up the steep concrete overhang section without ever needing to rest. Incredible finger strength coupled with endless endurance! I saw Ian a lot at Goldsborough Carr and I remember that he didn't agree with bouldering pads and had been known to throw them away while folks were climbing above them! Ha ha!
I only climbed with Ian once. He was keen to repeat the routes at Dove Crag and I had been heavily involved in its renaissance so we went over together one day and Ian on-sighted everything he tried including my new route The Brasov Incident E6 6b a superb sweeping left to right rising girdle.
Words from Paul Bennett:
Ian was an early influence in my climbing, and I'd imagine that of Tom Newman; he was by far the best climber who frequented our local wall (Newton Aycliffe) when we were both kids. He'd come in dressed like a 'Stone Master' with (his children) Beth and George. He was very patient with me (apart from when I got sweary) and we'd often make the trip from the NE over to Kendal in his 1L Micra, usually with metal blaring on the way there and the football scores on the way back. He'd get his chalk bag confiscated, regularly.
I've got fond memories of Ian gleefully showing me photographs from his trip to Yosemite with my Economics teacher Ray Marsden. Ray was going through a difficult time in life and looked glum in all of the photos; needless to say, Ian did not. He wore what remained of the vest he'd worn on that trip regularly (it was in absolute tatters, I can't remember which routes were the cause, Astroman was definitely one of them).
Another day to remember was up at Dove Crag. We arrived to see Chris 'Flying Machine' Hope come crashing into the rock uncomfortably close to the floor and leaving a tide-mark on the rock where the gear on his harness had made contact. Unperturbed by this Ian set about cruising various lines. At that time I wasn't the most experienced trad climber, but he pushed me to pull his ropes and just get on with it on things far above my ability.
Before Ben Moon finished off Cypher (F8B at Slipstones), Ian was getting incredibly close. Typically for him, he wasn't using a bouldering mat. I once placed one below him on Atomic (E3 6a) at Slipstones; whereupon he reversed, tossed it out of the way and carried on!
Words from George Heydon:
I've been privileged to call Ian a very good friend having climbed with him for over a decade. We shared some amazing experiences together, travelling throughout Europe and the UK.
We started climbing together at Stockton YMCA with Ian Dunn, Nick Dixon, Tony Marr and Paul Ingham and then progressed to the Dolphin Centre for legendary endurance sessions where Ian and Paul were simply another level. I used to belay Ian for hours as he lapped with his weight belt!
Early raids to Pembroke followed where Ian would borrow his Gran's car - Cavalier SRI and drive flat out during the night at about 130mph, no exaggeration - utter maniac! Brilliant trips by the sea, lots of 3-star classics together over many years, as well as arm-wrestling and tug-of-war with the locals.
Trips to Yorkshire grit were a weekly occurrence where Ian was a technical master, particularly at his beloved Slipstones, establishing some superb micro masterpieces. North Wales was another regular venue for us, working our way through more classics.
He was very bold, underpinned by his incredible fitness, a true athlete, ahead of his time, which was often put to the test when regularly on-sighting E6/E7's in the County and the Lakes. Although he the most competitive person you will ever meet, it was never about the grade for Ian, it was about the movement and being in beautiful places. He was the most controlled, graceful and flowing climber I've ever met. A true privilege to watch!
Our visit to Buoux and Volx again legendary with Ian eventually on-sighting Hueco 7b+ after climbing up and down the route for over an hour, greeted by Ron Kauk proclaiming, 'awesome man, phenomenal resistance man, phenomenal!"
I remember leading Footless Crow and when he arrived at the belay, I commented that he had taken a while to tie in. Ian's response, 'you ran out of rope with about 20 feet to go but you looked cool so I let both ropes come through the Stitch so not to blow the on-sight!' He then soloed up to my first wire, clipped in, tied in and seconded the route in his usual cool manner as if nothing had happened. I simply replied 'f——g hell, Ian.' Some things are definitely better knowing after the event!
We shared amazing times and I could go on and on, but in short, I loved climbing with Ian, he was a cool, calm, steely character with a tremendous sense of fun and adventure. The world is a poorer place without him.