Out with the Boys & Girls again – KMC in the 70’s

By Sean Kelly

In Manchester, on the first morning of my PGCE course when the induction day had concluded, I wandered into the city centre looking for a gear-shop. I found Len Stubb’s SOS Sports on Deansgate and entered. Gathered at the counter were Eric Byrom, Alf Gleadhill and John Atkinson. A short while later Len also appeared. I was looking for someone to climb with, and they suggested that I should get myself down to the Karabiner MC on a Thursday evening. They met at the ‘Wheatsheaf’ near the Town Hall. That coming Thursday, I ventured down and teamed up with another aspirant member, Dennis Hickey. That first weekend we headed for the Lakes and Borrowdale in particular. My first climbs were on Shepherd’s Crag, a good introduction to Lake’s climbing as it turned out. There were lots of middle-grade routes and the road was close by. We started up Eve, a mild VS and very enjoyable it was with nice climbing and good stances. Ged Carradus suggested Adam, another VS, which proved a much tougher and more strenuous proposition. We had been sand-bagged!

Eric Byrom was a lovely old man who happened to live quite close to my first house on the edge of Hazel Grove. We often met on Friday evenings at the local supermarket. Eric was a long-standing member of the Rucksack Club and a respected photographer. Many of his photos can be found in the early Peak guidebooks and also club journals. One Karabiner Annual Dinner weekend at breakfast, he introduced me to an even older member, one Stan Bradshaw. I asked if he was going out that day, and he retorted that he had already done a seven-mile run before breakfast. He made the local TV when he was filmed going out on his regular long runs over the moors, at the grand old age of... eighty-five!

At this time the Karabiner Club were moving from being a Lakes centred club to Wales, and had recently purchased Ty Powdwr. The roof of the old hut at Coppermine’s, above Coniston, had blown off during one of the winter storms and replacing it involved much expenditure for what was quite a small hut. The Wales hut offered much more room and more importantly, was much better placed for the rock-climbers in the club. Gogarth had recently been developed, and the Slate boom was just around the corner. For the walking fraternity, the Lakes probably offered more variety. However, the die was cast and Wales it was. It seemed that almost every weekend we were at the hut, sometimes renovating, but usually more often climbing. If a promising weather forecast clashed with a working party, we climbers headed to the Lakes instead or the Salford University hut across the valley.

One of these weekends I was dossing with ‘R.N’ in the bus shelter at Chapel Stile and at first light, headed for Pavey Ark. A Very Severe, Rake End Wall had a good write-up in the guide so we uncoiled our ropes beneath the climb. The first pitch was dispensed with in no time and we fetched up below an imposing corner with an obvious crack that asked to be climbed. I started up and soon realised that this was no pushover. As I moved higher up the crack mostly laybacking, I very slowly started to lose my balance and began to barn-door. One moment I was holding on with just one hand and one foot, the next I was airborne. I fell a short distance as I had a good thread, then suddenly I carried on falling for what seemed a good distance, but in reality was nearer ten metres until the rope at last went tight around my Troll belt. When I had sufficiently recovered, I asked ‘R.N’ what the hell was going on. It appeared he had deliberately let go of the rope to avoid rope burns to his hands! The rope fortunately jammed in the crack somehow and had actually prevented my early demise. There were no ‘Stitch’ plates in those days. I never climbed with ‘R.N’ again.

A few months later climbing in Ravensdale in the Peak I met up with ‘R.N’ once more. He was tied into Gavin Anderson’s rope. They were on a cracking little Very Severe called Medusa. Gavin leading, unfortunately pulled off a loose rock and came flying onto the rope, stopping a short distance above my head. The next second he landed heavily beside me with a crash and continued running madly down the steep hillside as breakneck speed eventually coming to a halt when all the rope had run out. The air was blue when Gavin realised that ‘R.N’ had yet again let go of the rope! I do not ever recall him appearing with the club again.

In the early seventies the club was going through a transition as older members departed and new people appeared. Two of the more forceful and leading members had died in tragic circumstances. Danny Murphy, a brilliant climber, had killed himself. I don’t think we ever found out why, but there was some rumour about a girl in Sheffield. So sad as he was only twenty-six. He was making many early repeats of some of the hardest routes in Wales at the time such as Woubits Left-Hand, climbed with Mike Peters, a fearsome climb that has seen very few ascents since. Another, Brian Ripley had been killed on Malubiting Peak in the Karakoram by rockfall. Both had made a large contribution to the club through their climbing. Aside from having a brilliant alpine record, an early British ascent of the Bonatti Pillar for one, Brian along with his brother Alan, had also attempted the first ever continuous round of all the Munros. Although ably supported by Len Stubbs and Dave Summerfield, they eventually had to admit defeat after ticking 230 peaks, when their feet and boots gave in, and winter arrived with a vengeance. They had started too late!

Another infamous character from this time was Keith ‘Sutty’ Sutcliffe. He used to get into all sorts of scrapes both climbing and relationships. I think I am right in stating that at one time he was thrown out of the club for knocking some woman member down a flight of stairs. Or as one revered senior member of the club bluntly put it, “Throw him out, throw him out! It’s attempted murder!” I really enjoyed his company and we did a lot of classic climbs together. We had a great day on Castle Rock ticking routes such as Direct Route on South Wall and especially Overhanging Bastion, a marvellous climb. Today, most of these classics seem to be falling down. (Overhanging Bastion finally parted company with its parent cliff in December 2018!) There was also a rescue on Shepherd’s Chimney when the second fell over twenty metres, and was rather smashed up. Sutty put his experience of working with Hamish MacInnes and the Glencoe Mountain Rescue team to good use as we evacuated the injured climber, strapped to Sutty’s back while I, using karabiner brakes, lowered them to the base of the crag ready for when the Keswick rescue team arrived.

One summer ‘Sutty’ teamed up with Don Whillans on some desperate route in the Dolomites, when they were caught in an alpine storm and a virtual waterfall coming down their route. Somehow only Whillans’s tenacity and grit got them up. I shared a flat about this time with a couple of nurses and got invited to a party. ‘Sutty was also along as we were off to Wales afterwards, but not until he had ‘floored‘ Norman Ingham, I suspect a disagreement over some woman. He turned up out of the blue after all this time, at Len Stubbs funeral.

Over a period of perhaps three years during the Early 70’s twenty to thirty new members arrived, and many made a major contribution to the life of the club. Nat Allen, Gavin Anderson, Louise Beetham (Hall), Keith Bolton, Dave Booth, Bill Deakin, Tony Dilger, Roger Dyke, Joe Flynn, Alf Gleadell, Jim and Sandy Gregson, Dennis Gray, Norman Ingham, Phil Kendell, Roy Lee with a very young Duncan in tow, Barry Lindsey, Tom Morgan, Alan Payne, Chris Thickett, Dave Tracey, Bob ‘Parbatti’ Millward, John Warburton, and John ‘Wacker’ Whittle were just a few. The hut log book details much of the activity from these productive years. Some migrated to foreign shores, some to the ‘Tans’ later absorbed into the Rucksack Club, others to the Mynydd CC, some simply disappeared into the ether, and a few resilient hardy souls are still with the club today.

Alf usually teamed up with Wacker and Keith with Dave Booth. They were out every weekend climbing the classic hard routes of the day. Keith had a memorable time on Ed Drummond’s Moon at Gogarth which was still waiting for a second ascent. He managed to get across the crux pitch on two occasions but his second was unable to follow. If you know this area of Gogarth then you will realise the seriousness of the route and the difficulty Keith had getting back. Let’s just say that the word overhangs comes into the equation! Other memorable ascents were Alf doing the Nose in Yosemite, and Bill Deakin, the Eiger North Face.

Bob ‘Parbatti’ Millward was another leading light in the club, always looking for another epic or so it seemed at the time. Why else would you spend seven cold winter days and even colder nights on the Sassolungo South Face, the temperature dropping to minus thirty degrees centigrade. As he summited, he was featured on Italian national television. Other epics and frostbite followed on the Brenva Face with Norman, and even more tribulations in the Himalayas, having to rescue the expedition doctor struck down with respiratory problems on a summit attempt. Our epic descent after climbing the Curtain on Ben Nevis in a blizzard was trivial in comparison. One weekend Bob and Norman decided to tackle the three great overhangs on Yorkshire Limestone, Kilnsey, Gordale and Malham Main. As Bob was crossing under the roof of Gordale Main, the ceiling was composed of many downward pointing flakes, some peeled off and fell towards the stream below, and also a sizable crowd that had gathered underneath to witness this spectacle. It was amusing to see them all scatter like ants when the stones came crashing down.  Everything had gone well as I photographed them on the first two routes, but when I abseiled down Malham Main Overhang and duly pointed the camera at the two intrepid lads swinging under the biggest of the overhangs, I ran out of film. No digital in those times. Fortunately, Derek Seddon was on hand to record the ascent and the subsequent photos appeared on the front cover of the Climber Magazine. Another ‘Parbatti’ epic involved repeated attempts on a massive line up the Llech Ddu cliffs with an assortment of climbing partners, readily understandable when you consider that it was dirty, vegetated, loose and a long walk in. First belay bunny was Noman Ingham, then Tony Dilger, and finally the integral ascent with me holding Bob’s ropes on a wet, misty and miserable day. The Psychlist sees very few ascents in what is a rather unfashionable cliff nowadays. 

It seemed at the time that everyone in the club had a mini-van usually travelling up to the mountains at great speed and it was not uncommon to leave bits of them behind on the road travelled. John Warburton was lucky enough to retrieve his number plate from a demolished roundabout near Chester, on his return journey back from the hut! Alan Payne was generally credited with the worst reputation, or is that best driving record, wiping out hedges and other road users with gay abandon. On one infamous occasion driving up the Fachwen road he met Norman head on and both cars suffered major damage, which was difficult to understand, as both drivers claimed vehemently to be stationary at the time of the collision. We could hear the resulting hullabaloo from the hut! A few years later Gary Thornhill was reputed to have raced up the Fachwen track from the Lake to the old school at the top inside two minutes. The spirit of Al Harris is alive and well!

When I was heading to Tremadog one snowy winter morning with Frank Richards, a very nervous passenger but brilliant climber, my car left the road in Clocaenog Forest because spindrift had been blown across the road. As we exited my new car none the worse for wear, another car, wheels still spinning, was imbedded in a drift in front of us. When we checked it out the two occupants were still inside strapped to their seats, and upside down of course! We eventually arrived at Tremadog following tractor extraction, and started up Vector a brilliant E2. Before starting on the top pitch, Frank, who had been continuously moaning about my driving and the tight fit of his new rock shoes, hurled them down from the cliff, and proceeded to climb the top pitch, snow and all, in bare feet!

Over the years camping has featured on many club meets but I have to award the prize for worst tent hovel, a joint award, to John Alexander, camping with Dudley Moore on a Dinner weekend at Derwent Hill.  The other to ‘Parbattii and Andy Coleman when camping on Arran during a particularly wet weekend. Andy was a musician and played the penny whistle and recorder, along with Parbatti on banjo, and Mick Green, were the club’s impromptu folk group. Andy sadly was killed in an avalanche on Raeburn’s Gully on Lochnagar. Nigel Young was also in this little ensemble before he left for Antarctica where he stayed for three winters. The last I heard, he was competing in the famous Point Barrow dog-sled race, a skill he picked up during those long dark Antarctic winters. We had a great winter-climbing week in Scotland when I climbed South Post with Joe Flynn, and Nigel and Mick did Centre Post. Nigel, not renowned for his sartorial style, was wearing some oversized postman’s trousers, which has a great rent all down the inside, repaired with string. We mostly dossed in Nigel’s mini-van which had no insulation and the condensation was dreadful, and all our clothes and sleeping bags soaking wet. Another weekend saw us at Gogarth Main cliff, where to access the climb it was necessary to traverse across the base of the cliffs with the sea lapping at our heels. As I carefully made my way across to climb Gogarth, a stiff HVS in those times, I bumped into Nigel coming back. He was soaked to the skin.

‘Been swimming Nige?’

‘No’ he replied, ‘I’ve been washed off the rocks by a giant wave!’ Indeed, he had and was apparently going down for the third time, no help in sight, thinking his time had come, when another large wave fortuitously washed him back onto the ledge. A very lucky man!

Another annual event during this period was the traditional football match between the Karabiner and the ‘Tans’, reffed by Ken Beetham. I’m not sure that Football Association rules were strictly adhered to, or the reffing unbiased, but the Karabiner usually ended up on the losing side, and Gavin in the ref’s notebook. The other sport was ‘Trundling’ usually with the biggest rocks that could be unearthed. At the Bus Stop quarry there used to be an enormous hole with a lake located in its depths, and proved a popular trundling venue before it was filled. In nineteen seventy three, we ventured into the quarries one wet Saturday afternoon to evaluate the climbing potential. Alan Payne opened up Vivian Quarry with Badge, a route up the fang that rises directly from the lake. ‘Parbatti’ Bob followed with a bold climb on the giant friable slab opposite the Dervish slab, ‘Warby’ climbed a corner to the left of what is now the Conscience Slab, and Mick Green and myself tackled a frighteningly loose line on the very edge of the Dervish Slab. We pushed numerous splintered blocks of razor-sharp slate into the lake, terrified that they would slice through our ropes. The resulting climb, unnamed by us, was Wendy Doll. It was fully ten years before Stevie Haston‚ armed with cutlery from Pete’s Eats‚ investigated the potential of the slate quarries. A short while later the council decided to develop the quarry as a diving centre, but first had to drain the lake. When empty, it revealed dozens of old bangers, mostly insurance write-offs. One wreck was speared on a rock pinnacle. It was even rumoured that Whillans had ditched one of his old motorbikes into the lake before reporting it stolen, and so claiming for his unfortunate loss!

We always seemed to be raising money for the hut development at that time and various schemes were concocted including getting sponsored for as many climbs done in a day on Stanage. ‘Alf and ‘Wacker’ managed a magic one hundred. Bob and myself fifty, which was quite an achievement as I had forgotten my rock shoes, and climbed in big boots. Another climb done in big boots for the same reason was Diadic, an E2 at Tremadog. This was more testing as it mostly traverses through overhangs and the top-rope not much assistance in my circumstances.

The big issue concerning the club in the late seventies were the ‘Hangers on’, people that climbed with the club, used the hut, but had no intention of joining. One was Dick Kerr, a good climber, who took exception to this label and quietly disappeared from the scene. Shortly before this, we had a cracking few days at Tremadog ticking off a number of classic hard routes. By now the club met at the Grapes on Quay Street in Manchester, just behind the Granada TV studios. Al Evans worked there at the time and so he and some of his friends also started appearing on a Thursday evening. I always got down an hour or so earlier than most because of working late at school firing kilns and the like. So, Al and I played pool. Then ‘Black Nick’ Colton showed up and joined us. It wasn’t long before a who’s who of the climbing world would meet up at the Grapes. Rab Carrington, Brian Hall, Pete Boardman, Joe Tasker, Alex MacIntyre, Jim Moran, Choe Brookes, ‘Blond Nick’ Donnelly, ‘Little Sid’ Siddiqui, Steve Beresford, Andy Fanshawe and Con Carey. It was just climbers meeting up to talk climbing, with perhaps upwards of sixty plus people down on a Thursday evening. I always caught the train home with Al, usually getting off at Hazel Grove while Al alighted at Dove Holes. However, one evening we nodded off, obviously too much amber nectar, and ended up in Buxton. We luckily caught the milk train back!

All clubs go through different phases of activity, people move on and new faces arrive, but by the end of the seventies this group had mostly broken up, and a new active group emerged, together with their own epics and adventures to add to the club’s rich history. But that’s another story, and for others to tell.

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