Guest Blog: Roger Hubank – The Novice Years Part Three
- Monday 17th February 2020
It was John Brailsford who introduced me to Millstone Edge. In those days, the early 1960s, most of the climbs there were pegging routes. It was regarded as a basic training ground for aspirants to the big routes in Chamonix and the Dolomites. John, a blacksmith who’d learnt his trade in the Sheffield foundries, had his eye on a line – I think it might have been Knightsbridge – for which he’d forged his own micro-pegs. ‘Ace of spades’, he called them. He’d also made me my own peg-hammer which I still have. Knightsbridge was awkward. Being the size I am, I found I had to climb to the top rung of the étrier to clip the next peg, then retreat to the bottom to hammer out the one below. The angle of the line made the work left-handed – it was an exhausting business. I think I probably hit more rock than I did metal. Yet, after a couple of hours or so, when we came off the pegs and étriers to free climb the final traverse I was suddenly conscious of the exposure in a way I hadn’t been before.
At that time there weren’t that many climbers around on the grit, and almost all of them were northerners. I’d heard there were such things as climbers in the south. I’d even heard of Boysen and Ingle – HK had actually climbed with Martin Boysen – but those I mixed with on the edges were all northerners. As a climber I wasn’t in the same league as any of those men, but I admired them immensely; their courage, their physical and mental toughness.
Even so, I revelled in their company: the boisterous bonhomie of riotous club dinners – I used to wonder if any club ever dined twice at the same hotel – at which were enacted those rituals of robust masculinity; the good-humoured banter, the rough and tumble sports, the hanging off hotel bannisters, competing in one arm pull-ups. Tony Smythe’s recollections, in Rock Climbers in Action in Snowdonia, brings back for me the ethos of those days; the daredevil escapades, the high-speed crashes, the narrow escapes. I remember the Friday night race from Derby to Llangollen to arrive before the pubs shut. Then to the chippy. Then the final dash chasing the white line to the Pass. And I remember a friend – she had no love for climbing – saying we were like the Lost Boys swanning off to Never-Never Land to have adventures, fighting pirates and dodging crocodiles, because the thought of joining the grown ups was too appalling. Small wonder, she said, some of us came home to find we weren’t welcome anymore.
Though some never came back. That year saw the first deaths of friends: Sid Webb, killed on the Ben; Brian Jackson, struck by stone-fall on the Tour Ronde. The news reached us in the bar at Cobden’s. My wife was devastated. She loved Jacko. Earlier that day I’d led her up Hope – she never climbed again.
But for me the mystique persisted. It took me twenty years to recognize that th men I’d so admired were not legendary heroes, not creatures out of some preposterous mythology, but simply fallible men of flesh and bones. And that all our mysticisms of heroism end in self-estrangement. Gradually I came to understand that behind it all lay a conflicted longing for a further world beyond the safe, the domestic, the everyday world of the flat-landers. Perhaps Martin Conway put it best (though he was quoting Michel de Montaigne):
‘What truth is it lies behind those mountain walls, that is a lie here in the world beyond?’
Of course Conway was an Edwardian, and the chroniclers of mountaineering in those days were governed by an impeccable good taste which determined how their history should be recorded. They wrote of a timeless place which was for them eternally present: a place free from envy or malice, where mutual sympathy, springing from shared adventures, sealed the bond between loyal and generous hearts. That same idealising bent is evident in the Lakeland water colors of Heaton Cooper. Yes, it can still look like that. Those Edwardian gentlemen would certainly have recognised the place. You stand at Styhead, or under the Napes when no one is about, trying to ignore the orange peel, the cigarette ends, wrappers, ring pulls from canned drinks, fells red raw from the tramp of a million boots. You look, instead, at the light washing over the grey stone walls, the little patchwork fields and whitewashed buildings bathed in the pure elegiac glow of a morning when the world was young – the world of Christopher Robin, or Mole, or Ratty. A world in which no one could fall, no one would ever fall. Until we did.