Hard Rock


RIP Ken Wilson 1944 – 2016

For an excellent article about Ken and his immense contribution to the world of mountaineering publishing see Ken Wilson – The Man who gave us Mountain by Mick Ward.

Hard Rock

An Appreciation

by Derek Walker

When Hard Rock was published in 1974 it was immediately recognised as a must for every climber's bookshelf. Ken Wilson had assembled a distinguished group of climbers, including Bonington, Crew, Perrin, Boysen, Drasdo, Nunn and Drummond, who, in an inspired series of essays, relived their experiences on some of the finest and hardest climbs in Britain.

The result was a feast of climbing literature, a celebration of 60 of the best routes in the land ranging from Mild Very Severe to Extreme, illustrated with a superb collection of crag and action shots.

Here was a book to dip into, to savour past grips and excitement but, better still, to lure you to new crags and fresh adventures. It was the first of its kind in Britain and a forerunner to the later companion volumes of Classic and Extreme Rock, and the series of walking books in a similar vein which Ken was to produce.

Hard Rock was published just as the revolution in rock climbing standards from the mid-70s was taking shape, brought about by a number of factors including Pete Livesey, a key figure in the new advance, training, chalk, climbing walls and later, Friends and sticky boots.

First Edition of Hard Rock

published 1974 (Granada)

The cover shows climbers on Sloth (HVS) at the Roaches

2nd Impression 1975

3rd Impression 1977

Up to then the most difficult routes were all simply "XS", and the hardest grade in the book was 5c. It is probably fair to say that until the early 70s, the fiercest routes were not much harder than those of Brown, Whillans and Smith in the late 50s - the real advance was yet to come.

Second Edition of Hard Rock

published 1981 (Granada)

The cover shows a climber on Shrike (E1), Clogwyn du'r Arddu

Reprinted 1985

Once the book was out, it was common to meet climbers rushing to crags all over the country ticking off the routes. One of the most prolific tickers was Will Hurford who, by the late 70s, had done all but "the big stopper - the Scoop on Strone Ulladale.

After four days of desperate and dangerous pegging, Will was stopped by pitch four. He'd had enough and decided to tick all the routes in Classic Rock instead. I've heard that Lakeland climber Stephen Reid has completed the Hard Rock set, and no doubt there are many others who have done all but the Scoop.

Terry Parker tells one lovely story of seeing a young lad arrive at the top of Kipling Groove on Gimmer with a copy of Hard Rock tucked down his shirt!

Nearly all the Hard Rock routes are brilliant and represent all that was best in British climbing at the time. If you haven't yet got the book and have a sense of history, atmosphere and tradition, then go out and buy the new edition. You'll enjoy the reading, the photos and the climbing.

Third Edition of Hard Rock

published 1992 (Diadem)

The cover shows Rob Matheson on the Rasp (E2), Higgar Tor

Adapted from the article Hard Rock first published in Climber & Hillwalker November 1992

© Derek Walker 1992

Since this article was written, three routes in Hard Rock have been badly effected by rockfall, all in the Lake District. Deer Bield Buttress has collapsed completely, as has the upper half of North Crag Eliminate. Also the chockstone has fallen out of the Great Flake on Central Buttress. This has increased the difficulty of the original route from HVS, 5b to E3, 5c. Fortunately an alternative way has been found up the front of the flake at a more reasonable E1, 5b: described in the latest FRCC guide. This is all reflected in the 4th edition, edited by Ian Parnell and published by Vertebrate Publishing in 2020, sadly too late for Ken Wilson to have seen it - how he would have loved to argue over the changes!

Hard Rock

Fourth Edition of Hard Rock

edited by Ian Parnell

published 2020 (Vertebrate Publishing)

The cover shows Mary Jenner on Central Buttress via the flake (E3), Scafell

In addition, to replacing the fallen routes of Deer Bield Buttress and North Crag Eliminate (with Totalitarian and Nimrod respectively), a number of extra climbs have been added in from Scotland, Pembroke and the South-West of England (though Ken Wilson's plan to add in some Irish routes was not carried out). More controversially, the old aid climbs of The Scoop and Kilnsey Main Overhang have been dropped, though their essays remain in the back of the book. Overall, it is a sumptuous production featuring superb photography, and one feels that Ken Wilson would have thoroughly approved (though that would not have stopped him grumbling!), so congratulations to Ian Parnell and Jon Barton of Vertebrate Publishing.

The Hard Rock Routes List now includes all the climbs from both first and fourth editions.

Ken Wilson adds:-

On Hard Rock, the mainspring was the parochialism that I saw in the 1960s when it was very difficult to get the teams I was associated with to go away to anywhere but Wales, the Peak and the South West. I could never get my friends in those days to head up to Scotland or the Lakes. Equally those in the Lakes and Scotland never seemed to come south. As soon as I showcased all these climbs they became desirable and people started to travel. I thought that once people had sampled the big cliffs they would return to do more and to some extent (Carn Dearg, Shelter Stone etc that did occur). This was the reason that I thought the whole idea of ticking them all wouldn't have struck anyone (Drasdo said differently ... he was right). When it became clear that people were doing this in Hard Rock I tried to moderate the effect (that became jocularly known as "puerile ticking") in Classic Rock by adding lists of comparable routes. The real aficionados are those that have done not only the Classic Rock routes but all the climbs in the other list too. That is verging on genuine curiosity and even a collector's instinct that I, as an ex-train-spotter, can identify with. I once remember Dave Cook saying to me with amazement - regarding the Idwal Slabs - "I have just realised what you want to do Ken... you want to climb all of them!". There are obsessive route repeaters and obscure crag visitors but not too many of them.

Ken Wilson
Photo: Ian Smith

My feeling is that we have thousands of rock climbs all over the country and all of them represent somebody's adventure and endeavour. At any given time there are a score of obscure routes that I am lusting to do and I know that others feel the same - somehow we need to pass on this interest in detail and history. There is a Severe that looks like Vector above that road that leads up behind Cioch Nose, there is Christmas Buttress on the remote Aran Fawdwy and scores of others. I thought it was marvellous recently when people started going round climbing all of Mallory's routes on places like Lliwedd, Llechog and Y Garn to find out just how well he was climbing. Another climb that interests me is Raeburn's route on the North-East Buttress of the Ben. Archer Thomson was a wonderfully curious pioneer. He did a big route on the Megaton/Thor cliff on Skye in the first decade of the century. Another area that intrigues me that I think should be an area for some big classic climbs is that big cliff on the Rivals that Tony Moulam developed in the 50s. Two mates of mine went there to repeat one of the routes and had an accident. It took two dozen of us (checking every car-park and crag approach in North Wales) all night to find out where they were.

The three big influences behind Hard Rock were "Rock and Ice" by Andre Roch (for its very detailed captions), "Rock for Climbing" by C.Douglas Milner (for its marvellous sense of period and its sequences), and "In Extremen Fels" (Extreme Alpine Rock) for episodic discipline and Wolf Jurgen Winkler's marvellous crag photos with very precise detail that can be picked out easily as they were taken in sunlight at exactly the correct moment.

What was less of an influence was "Rock Climbers in Action is Snowdonia", though I do think that it is a fine book, but it is not my style. It is all about the feeling of climbing and its verve and position and very "photographic" and the captions are poetic rather than factual. Leo Dickinson, Ray Wood, Bob Keates and John Beatty are photographers that might be said to be part of that school. I favour a more scrupulously factual (some might say boring) approach and I particularly like to see the climber in his architectural setting. Malcolm Griffith is one who I would associate with. His marvellous picture of Stevie Haston on Creag Rheadr in Cold Climbs is very much my cup of tea. Another fine photographer of that style is Dave Dillon of the Karabiner Club and Dave Simmonite took some marvellous pictures of John Dunne on a new route in Ireland. Colin Foord and Doug Scott are also good photographers, very good at capturing action during alpine or snow climbs.

You only have to look through these books - both the walks books and the climbing books (and in that I would include The High Mountains of the Alps) to see what a range of talented photographers we have. Probably in the tradition of the Abraham brothers and people like Donkin and Milner we are lucky to have a great photographic head of steam in Britain. There are scores of really talented photographers and these books of mine have given me a valuable opportunity to become familiar with the work of many of them and I have been greatly privileged to use their work. It is a real buzz to get a good photo and then showcase it properly in the correct context and well captioned so that it achieves its maximum potential. The books allow the various styles to be "picked and mixed" to great advantage. For example John Cleare's picture of Left Wall in Extreme Rock (a very conventional silhouette though a very good example of the type), is juxtaposed against Bernard Newman's very factual pictures of Basher Atkinson leading Right Wall (all taken in the Douglas Milner tradition) with every detail of the climb in full view - essential information to anyone who wants to do the climb.

One point that everyone should remember is the vital importance of snap-shots (impromptu conversation pieces and even formal groups) that capture for ever a moment in time that is unique. These pictures are almost always far more interesting after a few years that action shots or landscapes, unless the former is an actual moment of history like a first ascent. My call to everyone is take more snapshots. Remember that you and your friends and what you are doing, what you are wearing and where you are doing it is a unique moment in time and history. Make sure you capture it!

In addition to these photographic musings there is a whole literary tale to tell about these books. Suffice to say that there is little point in publishing any written passage unless the writer has something interesting to say. The various permutations of this and its various styles are what constitute a good or bad article, the judgement of which is very subjective anyway. I have been really lucky in the great efforts the authors have gone to for these books and I think we can claim a reasonably high success rate, though sometimes the most talented writer gets it wrong and their essays have to be diplomatically "sidelined".

The main charge against the books is the honey-potting effect, most notable on limestone climbs that can get very polished. This is a fair point, but in general the widely spread and distant location of many of the climbs schemes against this. The compensating encouragement to young climbers to get out and check out climbs and crags that they might never otherwise visit (thus keeping at least a skeleton of our marvellous repertoire in working order) is well worth the odd bit of wear and tear on the more popular routes.

Another point that I think should be noted is the value of these books as a grading "corset" preventing, to some extent, the devaluation of grades. Climbs like Main Wall, Doorpost, Bracket and Slab, Ardverikie Wall and Cioch Direct should remain as challenging hard Severes in my view and not be upgraded to VS just because todays climbing-wall trained luvvies cannot bear to think that they might find a severe hard. These are all tough hard Severes and they should remain as such. I see no reason why a climb like Black Slab on Stanage should be upgraded, especially as footwear and protection equipment are so much better these days. These are the type of climbs on which young climbers should "learn their trade" and in doing so they will be far fitter to face the serious business of "staying alive" rather than wobbling up some fashionable HVS or (these days) more likely a bolted E1 on Pen Trywyn or Portland. Equally, Right Unconquerable (HVS), White Slab (E1) The Crack (VS) and Praying Mantis (HVS) might be considered yardsticks for their grades.

The website looks splendid. I am impressed!

Ken Wilson

Hard Rock Articles

The Big Tick Stephen Reid’s story of completing all the Hard Rock routes over a decade.
Hard Rock Derek Walker’s efforts to achieve the same aim – when he only had 9 routes to go.
Hard Rock or 40 Years of Peurile Ticking Derek Walker’s further efforts to achieve the same aim – when he only had the Scoop to go!
Lakes Hard Rock Tour John Topping and Simon Berry’s amazing 3 day walk in the Lake District taking in all the Lakes’ Hard Rock climbs en route.
Bob Wightman Bob’s personal website includes lists of all the routes in Hard Rock, Classic Rock, Extreme Rock and Cold Climbs, plus information on the routes he has done.

Please click for the Hard Rock Routes List.

Have you completed all the Hard Rock Routes, in first or fourth editions, or do you know anyone who has? Or have you just got some comments? If so please let us know! 

Hard Rock Compleaters

A special mention should be made of Wil Hurford who by 1978 had done every route except the final hard pitch of the Scoop - the term Puerile Ticker was allegedly coined by Ken Wilson with Wil in mind!

The following are known Hard Rock "Compleaters":
July 1988, Stephen Reid (started 1978)
20th July 1997, Peter Hardman (started 1987)
8th October 2000, John Elwell (started 1984)
17th August 2007, Rich Mayfield and Mark Stevenson compleated all the Hard Rock Routes (substituting Totalitarian for the collapsed Deer Bield Buttress) in an amazing 5 weeks, having started on Friday 13th of July In 2007. Actually Rich finished the compleat tick slightly early than Mark as he had climbed many of the routes before starting with Gogarth in 1983 and finishing with Dwm on 14th August 2007! To climb all the routes in five weeks is an absolutely phenomenal achievement especially considering the foul weather that they had to put up with during that period.

Left: Mark Stevenson (leading) and Rich Mayfield (belaying) on a rather damp ascent of The Crack (VS), Gimmer Crag, The Lake District.

Below: Mark Stevenson, Sam Mayfield (organiser extrordinaire), Rich Mayfield and Tufa the three-legged dog, with the Hard Rock Challenge van in 2007.

(Photos: Stephen Reid)

For information on the other books in this series, please click the links below.

For information on these companion walking volumes please click here:

The Big Walks, Classic Walks, Wild Walks

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