Guest Blog: Roger Hubank – The Novice Years
- Monday 3 February 2020
They face west, the gritstone edges. Sharp at dawn with the sun behind them, a long black silhouette. Blocky, capped with squares and oblongs. Then, as the sun climbs higher, a network of dark lines picks out the angular corners, the cracks and fissures that will take fingers or a jammed fist. Where sun touches a buttress, the smoky grit turns a faint grey, honey colour. By mid-afternoon they are a study in black shadow and slabs of golden light.
For me it all began on grit. I still remember my first sight of three great mill wheels propped on blocks above Burbage Brook. The edges east of the Derwent are littered with those stones: massive six-foot wheels, thick two-foot grinders. Abandoned long ago. Most folk I suppose slog past without a second glance. But they’re worth stopping for. Two hundred years of rain have pitted that dressed stone. Heather sprouts in the hollows of the hubs.
But if you look closely, the stones become contemporary. Marks of the chisel bring to life the calloused hands of those that squatted there gripping the hammers. Day in, day out, rain or shine, chip-chip-chipping the grindstones for the Abbeydale forges over the moor. It’s a grim job, dry-grinding … breathless at twenty, knackered on the slightest hill. Soon coughing up the metal dust in balls. Dead at thirty. The hard drinkers, they say, lived the longest – they stayed off work the most.
It takes its toll, the grit. Good jamming hurts. You have only to look at the names: The Vice, The Rasp, The Mincer. Yet submit yourself to its discipline, and it may do something in the way of grinding and polishing you.
Not that I ever had much ambition in that direction. I was no great shakes as a novice climber. Nothing about my abilities, such as they were, would have justified any such hopes. Yet I had for my instructor a very good climber indeed. H.K. Limpet-Smith was one of the best. (Incidentally, since he’s still alive and I’ve no wish to embarrass him, I chose the first pseudonym that came to mind.) Though the nursery slopes he chose for me were not exactly ideal: Black Rocks and Chatsworth Edge. It was only many years later that I was to discover them listed among that select group described in Carl Dawson’s On Peak Rock as ‘Grit for Thugs’. Well, this was fitting. H.K. was a bit of a thug. He could be a bastard: ‘Can’t means won’t, and won’t means you’re not trying.’ How often I heard that. Though that’s not all he was – I never fell out with him. It was a friendship far too valuable to fall out of. It remains a debt I could never repay.
In those days there were just two Users’ Manuals in general use: ‘the little red book’ (Eric Byne's The Sheffield Area), and ‘the little grey book’ (Eric Byne and Wilf White's Further Developments). The guiding principle remained that of yesteryear: ‘the leader must not fall’. A single line prefacing the description of Moyer’s Buttress left one in no doubt as to the consequences: A serious and dangerous expedition for a leader. There were no Friends. No hexes. No Moacs. The only nuts were the drilled-out variety, threaded on slings. No helmets, and no harness. It was still the era of moleskin breeches, jammed knots and long run-outs. What’s more, such ethics as then existed frowned on the top-roping of a route unless as a preliminary to a lead.
The Users’ Manuals contained a few black and white photos (still, for me, the most evocative of those days). Peter Biven hanging from the lip of the huge overhang of Quietus; Trevor Peck spread-eagled on the crux move of BP Super, the key being a pebble hold high up on the left (a manoeuvre so delicate and difficult I could never imagine myself in such a position, except to fall off it); Peter Harding’s Goliath’s Groove, ‘one of the hardest and most exposed on the edge’. An inserted chockstone just below the overhang offered the only chance of a thread. Was it still there, I used to wonder as I stared at the picture. Joe Brown laying away on the Right Unconquerable: ‘The difficulties, extreme and sustained, only to be undertaken by a strong party.’ And yet the Left Unconquerable was even harder. One man I knew of would send his second up to fix the runner (there was only one) before starting the climb. So it was said.
Oh yes, I’d heard the stories. Alf Bridge on Stanage demonstrating how to fall off safely; the Biven brothers hitching a lift in Trevor Peck’s white Rolls-Royce, and so inaugurating the Biven-Peck connection, a foreshadowing of their eponymous route on Moyer’s Buttress: ‘harder and more strenuous than the Original’. Then there was Inverted V, first climbed in the 1920s by little Cyril Ward of Hathersage, one of the boldest unprotected leads of its day. A later climber who’d neglected to fix the runner (once again, there was only one) fell from the overhang and broke his back. So rumour had it. How much of it was true? That didn’t matter. True or not, in those days such stories were the stuff of climbing lore, and they were meat and drink to me.
I was just then beginning as a writer. At least, I knew I wanted to write, and that was all I knew, for I had nothing to say. Bit by bit, though, I was to discover what it was I wanted to write about. And when eventually North Wall began to take shape its characters grew out of those half-legendary figures who loomed so large during my novice days. If I set myself through Raymond and Daniel on the north wall of the Piz Molino, perhaps it was because I was so drawn to these figures and that further world which they seemed to inhabit. And when I killed myself off, so to speak, on the summit, it was a mark of that self-dramatising egotism which is inseparable, I’m afraid, from the life of a writer.