Guest Blog: Roger Hubank – The Novice Years Part Two
- Monday 10 February 2020
Eventually I acquired my own gear: a nylon rope (120 feet, full weight, hawser laid), some slings and karabiners, a pint Primus stove, a Black’s Icelandic sleeping bag, and a tent (single pole, no sewn-in groundsheet). It arrived from Edgington’s minus its flysheet. Then it was off to Wasdale. After my 'rite of passage’ on the Needle (I was suitably gripped), we pitched the tent in the little paddock opposite the hotel.
‘There was a roaring in the wind all night;
The rain came heavily and fell in floods …’
Washed out, we decamped to the barn to find the Army already burrowed comfortably into the hay, their petrol stoves roaring away. The next morning it was over to Borrowdale, there to meet with Don Whillans.
I’d been told I was ideally built for a rock climber. Some of the best men of the day, it seemed, were small, light, with a high power to weight ratio. Mention had been made several times of Don Whillans. I’d only to set eyes on him to realise the ludicrous nature of the comparison. Yes, we were more or less the same height. But that was all we had in common. He was built, as a Sheffield friend succinctly put it, ‘like a brick sh*thouse’. The next morning, while Whillans and HK went off to tackle Devil’s Wedge, a vertical V-shaped horror, I continued my education on Donkey’s Ears, sharing the lead with a casual pick-up and then fell off on the descent crashing through the branches of a tree.
The lasting memories of the trip, though, concerned two events that took place off the rock. I was fiddling with a pricker, trying to clear a blocked jet in the Primus. ‘Give it ‘ere,’ growled Whillans. Seizing the stove, he subjected it to a vigorous pumping. A sudden whoosh heralded a fountain of flame gushing up to lay hold of my new tent roof. The scorch marks were still there years afterwards.
The second incident, though, was the more damaging of the two. HK was addicted to Tate & Lyle’s Golden Syrup. He used to swallow spoonsful of the stuff straight out of the tin. The tin itself, set between our two sleeping bags, served as a base for a candle. That particular night, for whatever reason, the tin toppled over. Off came the lid, and my new Icelandic bag, being on the down slope, received a liberal coating of treacle. I must have rolled around in the gloop. So ended my first trip to the Lakes.
Back on the grit I began to make some progress. It was still largely Gardom’s and Birchen’s, with occasional forays to Chatsworth Edge to be put through the mill on Sentinel Crack or Emerald Crack. Can’t means won’t, and won’t means you’re not trying.
Being without our own transport made Stanage more difficult to get to. That would come later. But I was beginning to get the hang of things. Gradually I began to acquire the techniques appropriate to grit. I learnt to layback up the corner crack of Gardom’s Unconquerable, discovering what HK had said about a high power to weight ratio had something to recommend it. However, I was lured into attempting to finish via Whillans’ Blind Variant. Needless to say, I fell off the traverse. I should explain that HK did not believe in tight ropes. He had this theory that a certain amount of slack concentrates a second’s mind wonderfully. Even so, I expected to be stopped. I wasn’t. I kept going. I suspect HK was lighting a cigarette at the time.
It all seems so long ago, and yet still so vivid. As Wordsworth put it in the second part of Prelude:
‘So wide appears
The vacancy between me and those days
Which yet have such self-presence in my heart
That sometimes, when I think of them, I seem
Two consciousnesses, conscious of myself
And of some other being.’
Yes, some other being doing the hard pull-up to start Nelson’s Slab, followed by that high jam for the left hand; the swinging hand traverse on Sail Buttress, which was unprotected in those days; the equally unprotected Trafalgar Wall where I learnt to trust the friction. Most satisfying of all, perhaps, was Topsail; getting my feet as high as I could under the overhang, laying off the undercuts and going hard for the flake on the wall above. A long, long reach for me. Then in 1960 HK took off with Whillans and Wilf Noyce for the Karakorum. Meanwhile I headed for Wales and my first mountain leads. But that’s another story.
That summer I received a couple of reports on HK’s expedition, addressed to me at the Bell Hotel, Derby. I was by then enough of a regular for the pub to serve as a reliable poste restante. Tuesday nights at the Bell were climbers’ nights, mostly members of the Oread and Summit clubs, some from the MAM, with one or two of the recently reconstituted Rock and Ice, most notably Dennis Gray and Nat (JR) Allen. I bought a rucksack from Nat. It still had his name on it, and I was very proud of it. Not long before he died I came across him soloing on Froggatt. He was the best of men – everyone liked Nat. Thinking of him now, and of so many others no longer with us, might be a point at which to pause these reflections.
Read the first instalment of The Novice Years here.