Social climbing....

4th Aug 2017

Napes Needle

As I write this, I’m holed up in a Lake District cottage on a damp and grey August day.  The rain drumming on the window has prompted me to settle in for a relaxing afternoon with a laptop and selection of guidebooks for company.  As long as they don’t happen too often, I quite like these days as it’s one of the few times I will spend time leafing through books - I’ve got plenty of tea and biscuits for sustenance too! 

I try to visit the Lakes as often as possible and love it dearly.  The rolling fells mingle with the broad lakes to create a stunning landscape whilst, nestled amongst all this, the craggy faces add a sense of drama.  The crags are also home, of course, to some amazing vertical adventures.  

I probably most love the Lakes, though, for the sense of history I feel on every visit.  The mountains tell the story of many epic adventures and yesterday, as one example, I was walking below the crags of Great Gable where Napes Needle, considered to be the birthplace of modern rock climbing, stands majestically overlooking the Wasdale Valley.  History is all around you here and it is a special place to explore.

But Napes Needle was climbed in 1886 and, as important as that ascent was in the climbing timeline, by then Brits had been exploring the mountains of the Alps for a least a few decades.  The mountains at that time offered a fascinating escape for the affluent with a sense of adventure and, though those early climbs were largely up snow and ice gullies rather than rock, it was climbing.

Many of those early alpinists still drew inspiration from their explorations in the British mountains and the Lakes played a significant part.  John Tyndall (an early Alpine Club member), who made the first ascent of the Weisshorn, recounted walking up Helvellyn in a snow storm in the 1850’s while Leslie Stephen visited the Lakes in the 1860’s and spent many hours trying to forge a scrambling route up Pillar Rock.  The Lakes were already sharpening the skills and inspiring those early pioneers who went on to push boundaries elsewhere.

I am also fascinated with the way climbing has been formed around changes in society.  At the time of the mid to late 1800’s climbing remained largely the preserve of professionals or the wealthy upper class.  Tyndall, to use him again for a useful illustration, was a distinguished scientist (although he was the son of a policeman) and many early Alpine Club members came from backgrounds in the church, law or the military.

Often it was either having the wealth to travel and the time to explore or geographical mobility linked to jobs that helped the development of mountaineering.  In the years leading to the first world war the wealthy were able to take long summer holidays in the Alps just as army officers posted to India played a big part in developing Himalayan climbing and naval officers had opportunities to explore the polar regions.  It all revolved around opportunity.

It was perhaps the first war that changed the pattern in British climbing most.  Geoffrey Winthrop Young suggested that it eliminated ‘much of the more leisured class and destroyed the balance between work and cultivated leisure’.  Of course, the war also took many young lives who might have returned to set new benchmarks - of the 68 members of the Fell and Rock Climbing Club who served in the war, for example, 19 were killed and many more seriously injured.  

There was some notable development during the war years, of course, and much of this came from pioneering women.  The novelist Emily Daniel climbed the classic route Hope (VD) on Idwal Slabs in Snowdonia in 1915 and there were similar pioneering female ascents, but by and large the opportunities were fewer and priorities often had to be focussed elsewhere.

Following the war we started to see a growing awareness of the importance of ‘escaping’ to the mountains - using the wild areas as a form of sanctuary.  Developments were happening in areas of the UK during this time, but the Lake District remained pivotal in developments.  Between 1922 and 26 a series of new Lakeland guidebooks were published and they contained a series of hard new climbs.  Joe Roper’s 1919 HVS 5b Central Route was one example and it is amazing to sit here and imagine tackling such a grade given the rudimentary equipment the climber’s had available.  

The second world war had less influence on British climbing.  Fewer were lost in battle and some climbing continued during the war years as climbers continued visiting the mountains during periods of leave.  The forces also trained soldiers in the skills needed to undertake cliff top assaults and such like.  During this time the equipment also developed and new materials and clothing came along to meet demanding military specifications.

After the war a new breed of climber was ready to push standards.  The fifties also saw a greater emergence of the ‘working class climber’.  In the post war years wages were rising, people enjoyed more leisure time and there was also a growing desire, among some participants at least, to participate in something that was seen as more anti establishment.

During this post war phase standards rocketed and we also saw the start of a more commercialised sport.  Although the climbing community was still tiny compared to today, there were already a few shops catering to climber’s requirements and by the 60’s we had the first specific magazines. We even had, during this time, the first televised climbing spectacular when a live outside broadcast of Lake District resident Chris Bonington and friends ascending the Old Man of Hoy was shown to a large audience in 1967.  

In the Lakes the post war period was a great time for development too.  Bill Peascod and Jim Birkett were key players with routes like Harlot Face (E1 5b) on Castle Rock being climbed in 1949.  A host of others such as Arthur Dolphin, Harold Drasdo and Peter Greenwood were also instrumental in pushing grades.  

A big development later came along with the move to training for climbing.  Although it had been popular in Europe for some time,  the British ethic seems to have been very much against specific training for climbing.  The legendary Don Whillans probably summed up this ethos nicely when he was asked when he stopped drinking before going on expedition.  His classic response, in true Whillans style, was “When I reach the last pub”.

Eventually, the concept of specific training started to filter into the ethos of British climbers and the effects were clear.  Whereas the typical top grades in the 1950’s were around E2, by the late 1970’s we had climbs at about E7.  This was undoubtedly also helped by developments in climbing equipment and the breaking down of psychological barriers, but training surely still played the biggest part.  

Pete Livesey was a good example of the benefits of training.  His development of an almost obsessive regime led to rocketing standards and he was surely the climber pushing the hardest grades in the 1970’s.  When people like Ron Fawcett came along and pushed the boundaries beyond Livesey’s capabilities, he simply stopped climbing.  Livesey climbed all over the UK but he certainly made his mark in the Lake District.  His 1974 ascent of Footless Crow (E5 6b) in Borrowdale was groundbreaking and in 1977 he climbed Das Kapital (E6 6b) on Raven’s Crag.

The development of climbing as a sport for all classes and for all ability levels has continued apace.  Many climbers train specifically for their sport and access to fantastic quality indoor walls and training facilities has allowed continuing progression.  In the Lake District many cutting edge mountain routes were added by scaffolder Pete Whillance and later by Lake District shepherd Dave Burkett.  The class barriers no longer exist although I imagine, if you saw a demographic of the sport, there would still be a dominance by middle class participants.

We are also all working less, some are lucky enough to be retiring earlier, the amount of disposable income is higher and the ability to travel long distances has never been easier.  We are also inundated with technological developments that make climbing safer both physically and psychologically.  We also have amazing amounts of information at our fingertips.  

Every stage of climbing development has been fascinating and it is so interesting to link development to the social and economic changes that have occurred through history.  I’m not sure what developments await in the coming few decades, but as I see the rain clearing and the skies brightening through the Lake District cottage window, I can’t wait to see where this fascinating vertical sport leads just as I can’t wait to head back to the crags myself.  

Posted by Paul

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