After my initial ventures into rock climbing, courtesy of borrowed equipment from my older brother, at the Cow and Calf and Hetchell Crags, I began to venture further afield. One favourite jaunt was Almscliffe Crag on the way from Leeds to Harrogate. The crag was a very popular site for picnickers and my parents had taken me there on a number of occasions and I loved to scramble over the boulders. Almscliffe had a number of advantages and the main one was that it was accessible by bus. My friends and I, along with our ropes and equipment, would board the bus and sit chatting as it took us slowly to our destination. We would similarly use the bus service to wind our way to Ilkley or Otley Chevin for climbing trips, but Almscliffe was a favourite. The Millstone Grit crag was high enough to provide interesting and not too challenging climbs. As you reached the steep hill that led down to the Wharfe Valley there were Harewood Castle ruins on your left. The castle was a fourteenth century ruin and I have always been intrigued, but never ventured into it. It is now protected and preservation work has taken place. If you looked ahead whilst travelling down the hill, Almscliffe Crag was visible across the valley, standing proud above the fertile valley.
Arriving at the field and stile over the dry-stone wall that led up to the crag there would often be an ice-cream van, if the weather was warm and crowds expected. It was a bit of slog up the path, surrounded by sheep, but they never seemed to take much notice of our passing and seemed content to chew the grass. Weighed down with the ropes, gear and climbing shoes we would drop everything at the base of the crag and decide what we wanted to do. One of my favourite climbs was a chimney on the back of the crag called Parson’s Chimney and that allowed quite a long climb, whereas others were quite short. One of the most enjoyable, easy, but quite impressive feats for the picnickers gathered around, was to abseil off the top. We got overly confident and would race down, cigarette held between the lips, but sometimes we would stop mid-descent and take a leisurely look at the wonderful views and hoped that any teenage girls present would be suitably impressed by our daring and doing. I can only say that, if they were, they never approached to share their feelings. That didn’t stop us as we were eternally resilient, hopeful and stupid. On a really warm day, and there were many at the start of the 1970s, we would abseil without a shirt and our blindingly white skin must have stood out like a beacon against the dark grey rock. After the harder climbs, there was nothing more satisfying than sitting at the top and enjoying a cigarette. Now, I can’t believe how foolish we were to smoke, but at the time, most people seemed to do it. (Almscliffe Crag below)
In 1971, Mr Harding, a Roundhay School teacher, took a group of us to Snowdonia for a climbing trip. I am very sure that the trip would not be allowed nowadays as health and safety would have put a stop to it, but times were different. We set off on a Sunday afternoon and a group of us were in Mr Harding’s old van, most cramped into the back without any restraints. Accompanying us was Mr Harding’s friend, Gel, and he drove a Triumph Spitfire. It was a very relaxed, and can I say, un-Roundhay like excursion with the boys and staff smoking freely. We were staying at Tyn Y Maes near Bethesday in Snowdonia which was the Manchester University cottage. It was very basic with water from the stream, paraffin lamps and a gas bottle fired stove. We didn’t care and it was a great place. For many of us this was our first time climbing in Wales and Gel and Mr Harding led all the climbs with any novice climbers. On the first day we started with Milestone Buttress at the base of Tryfan Mountain. We did some easy climbs and got a feel for climbing in Wales. The Buttress was fairly easy and it was a good place to gain confidence and then we moved onto Tryfan itself. The climbs on Tryfan were much harder, much longer and much more challenging. I was climbing with D Elson and started Grooved Arête which was a 700 foot climb. Both Mr Harding and Gel were good climbers, but Gel was hesitant, slow and it made me nervous watching his progress.
Elson was great and he started off and we worked well as a team. I seem to remember at one point there was a move called the Knight’s Move as it resembled the chess move, forward and across. At the end of the horizontal traverse I had to belay Elson as he moved onwards. The spot where I stood was the most amazing one. It was little shelf of rock, maybe six inches deep, and a foot long that jutted out on a corner promontory. I has fixed to the cliff by a loop of rope fitted through my waistband and clipped into a piton that someone in the past had hammered into the rock. Everything had gone well and Elson had disappeared around the edge and vanished out of sight, but I gradually let out the rope that was attached to him. I had time to just take in the surroundings. We had climbed through the clouds to get to this point and there were breaks that opened up the valley floor and I appeared to just be standing, facing outwards on top of a cloud. It was quiet, apart from the odd seagull that flew below, when suddenly the tranquility was shattered, as there was an almighty roar from down the valley and, as the cloud cleared, a fighter jet shot below me at tremendous speed, barely above ground level. It cast a black shadow on the land below and it weaved through the narrow valley at breakneck speed. The sound followed on behind the fighter jet. Moments later it was followed by another and I couldn’t believe my luck witnessing such a thing. I had never thought I would be looking down on such a sight. The ability of the pilots was amazing. The planes almost scraped the valley floor and their wings appeared, but clearly weren’t, mere inches from the rock faces. The aim for the pilots was to fly below radar and the narrow valleys were ideal to practise their skills. There was no room for error and they would be lucky to eject if they miscalculated. The nearest thing to it was the x-wing fighters in Star Wars as they flew around the Death Star. If I gained nothing else from the trip, that single memory was worth it and has lasted all my life. Elson and I made the top of the climb well before the others and we rested and had a cigarette. I am now really anti-smoking, but at the time there was nothing more pleasurable than having a cigarette at the end of a challenging climb. I was elated and life was good.
The next day, as is often the case in Wales, it was raining and so it was decided to go to Tremadoc and climb the old sea cliffs. On the coast we found the weather was good and there were lots of climbers about. Many had a similar look: bearded, wild and woolly and often accompanied by very attractive wild and woolly young ladies. The girls were not bearded sorts. The men often smoked pipes and, intriguingly, so did some of the women. Climbers are a separate breed, who feel the need to challenge themselves. Two of us were paired with Gel that day and despite the climb being quite fascinating as you were often climbing rock through trees and so not exposed in the usual manner, I found Gel’s slow, dithering method unnerving. Climbing, like many sports and activities, is as much about confidence and mental hardness. If you are following someone who seems unsure, this affects you and your confidence. The reality was that he was leading and a fall could be much more serious for him, whereas I was always belayed from above and so a fall would be almost instantly halted. When it came to my turn I did the climbs in a fraction of the time, as did the other boy. We did several climbs over the day before we went back down and had a few drinks with other climbers in the village nestled at the base of the old cliffs. On the return to the cottage the Triumph broke down which meant everyone had to squeeze into the van.
Next day was a Wednesday and the weather was fine and we went to Idwal Slabs. The slabs are very popular with climbers and easy to access, with a very enjoyable walk from the van. The slab is very impressive and Elson and I were paired together and we started with the Subwall Climb, which D.G. Elson said is the hardest on the slab, which we followed with Tennis Shoe. Much like Almscliffe Crag and the Cow and Calf at Ilkley, there were lots of spectators which did add to the enjoyment and resulted in the odd bit of posing. When the top of the slab was reached the ropes came off and we had to make our way down to then start another climb. Climbing the face looks dangerous, but the way down is much more so. The walk down is graded VD, very difficult, in the guides and facing outwards, relaxed and chatting you were far more likely to slip.
We had lunch at the bottom and then climbed all afternoon. Towards the end of the day, a small group appeared in brand-new climbing gear and there was someone with a movie camera. We ate and watched the drama unfold. They started one of the easier climbs, made very slow progress and were filmed every inch of the way. Pitons were hammered in, which was unnecessary and really vandalism. Climbers around were tut-tutting and eventually the lead got stuck and had to abseil back to the base. The rope was pulled loose, but the pitons, carabineers and other bits and pieces were still left on the rock. There was a hush from the climbers around the rock and as soon as the group started to walk back to their cars, the others ran at the rock with no ropes and raced each other to get to the expensive equipment abandoned on the slab. The group that had left it must have felt devastated with shame and the watching crowd applauded when the equipment was recovered.
We then went back to the cottage and Thursday was the final day. It was raining heavily and it was too bad to climb so most went up Snowdon, but I stayed with one or two and rested in the cottage. On the Friday Mr Harding had to ferry us back to Leeds as the other car wasn’t fixed. He took half back and then turned around and returned to Wales to pick up most of the rest. D.G. Elson remained on his own overnight and then, according to his report of the camp, he hitchhiked back the next day.
It is experiences such as this that have stuck with me and I don’t suppose the others involved would know the impact that their kindness and camaraderie had on others. I have taken many opportunities to assist with my children’s scout camps, caving excursions, and been part of, and led many school camps where children learn new skills, overcome doubts and fears and realise whether a certain activity suits them or not. Some people love team games and sports, whereas others don’t. Finding what you enjoy is part of growing. My lifetime activity has been running, but that is a different tale.