Hard Rock

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.

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.

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!

As with many other books, Hard Rock has influenced and inspired my climbing over the years, though I never became a dedicated ticker like Will or Stephen. By 1975 I suppose I had done about 20 of the routes and now there are eight left which I hope to knock off in the next few years (the Scoop apart).


So what are my own most memorable routes? Naturally I remember the first, which came at the end of that golden summer of 1959. With much trepidation we ventured onto Cloggy for the first time to climb Great Slab with its long, unprotected first pitch, followed by the famous 40ft corner, and the delightful slabs above.

This was the year the sun came out after several dismal summers, when many ofJoe Brown's routes had their early repeats, when Hugh Banner climbed Troach — the first big Cloggy wall route, and an unknown 17 year old called Paul Nunn led Vember, another of the Hard Rock classics, named by Brown after Mrs Williams' daughter at Halfway House.

Carnivore on Creag a'Bhancair wall is etched on my memory. It was Whitsun 1962 and the first time I climbed with Whillans. Don had a score to settle with the route, for he had solved the entry pitch and reached the final crack four years earlier with Johnny Cunningham before rain stopped play. Cunningham returned to complete the climb with a difficult but meandering finish, claiming it as the hardest route in Scotland.

One grey, drizzling afternoon, Don coaxed me across the long, exposed entry traverse, swarmed up the vicious overhanging crack using only one peg for protection, then pulled me up behind him. It was a tour de force - Don's last great British route and unrepeated for nine years.

I led it last year, 29 years on, with all the benefits of modern gear and remain in awe of "the Villain's" enormous strength and drive. As my hand slipped onto the tat above the overhang I imagined I could hear him chuckling from on high "Yer daft old bugger!"

After being abroad in the late 60s and effectively missing five years of British climbing, I returned in 1971 to find that nuts on wire, hexes, Moacs and other "cheating" devices had effectively reduced many of the old hard routes, especially the crack climbs, to voies normale.

Climbs thought desperate a decade or so before were now within the reach of mere mortals, rather than the elite few prepared to risk the big leads. And Gogarth had been discovered and worked out. There was a whole new world of climbs to go at, and a few years later Hard Rock pointed us to the best of them.

Over the last 20 years I've continued to enjoy those classics, often in the company of Hugh Banner, a great Anglesey devotee. At Anglesey there was Dream Of White Horses, Mousetrap, Gogarth and Big Groove - outstanding climbs in immaculate surroundings. Also with Hugh I did Slanting Slab, with its dubious pegs and big league atmosphere: a climb unrepeated from 1955 to 1962, and a route with which Hard Rock essayist Dave Cook seems still emotionally involved.

A quick dash south-west in October 1978 with Trevor Jones for Coronation Street and Malbogies revived my Bristol memories of2O years earlier when only Bonington was brave enough to venture on to the Main Wall at Avon.


The same year, with family and friends, we had a brilliant little trip to Hoy with a now rotund Donald as anchor man in a team of five. Whillans' comments on first seeing the Old Man were typically classic: "Bloody 'ell fire. If I get my weight on that bloody thing it'll topple over!"

Three more perfect days over Whitsun 1984 allowed me to pick up Trapeze, Yoyo and The Bat. Yoyo, one of the great lines in Glen Coe, gives 300ft of superb crack climbing in a spectacular position with no move below 5a/Sb. But The Bat seemed the big one. We'd been gripped years earlier by Smith's vivid accounts, relished Curran's re-enactment in the film, and now here we were reliving the epics on the "little hoodie groove" and the fierce crack above where Dougal Haston took those horrendous fliers.

The most memorable of all the Lakes routes for me must be the Central Pillar of Esk Buttress, and Extol. Central Pillar is steeped in history and folklore. Thirty years ago, the golden boy of Welsh climbing, Pete Crew, just pipped Lakeland expert Alan Austin to the post for the first ascent of that current "last great problem", and Austin's consolation was aptly named Black Sunday.

Extol gave me as much pleasure and adrenalin flow as any route in the book. It had a ferocious reputation after Don's ascent in 1960, even though at the time he informed Les Brown: "I've buggered up that route had to put a peg in!"

Twenty-six years later there I was leading Les and Claude Davies (all of us in our 50th year) up that incredible line, now made safe and protectable with nuts and Friends. The guidebook's description: "E2 Sb/c a good old-fashioned climb" belies the myth, adventure and tradition that my generation felt for Extol.

Early last year I led Malcolm Cameron up Carnage, and in the autumn he took me up Cloggy's Great Wall, so two more routes of great character were ticked. Not so many left.

My only one this year was on a Saturday afternoon in July following a meeting in Leeds about competitions and coaching, at which the cream of British sports climbers were present - Moon, Moffatt, Gomersall, Ryan, and Butler among them. But would any of them accompany me to nearby Almscliff? No way! Even Angela Soper, an Almscliff devotee, had another engagement, and the rest departed for Sheffield cellars or limestone overhangs, so I went alone.

Fortunately, I chanced upon Mike Mortimer, and in an hour we traversed across the Almscliff Girdle for his sixth and my first time.


Now there are only eight to do, of which six are in Scotland. A fine weekend at the Dubh Loch will account for Goliath and King Rat, and I'll have to make the long walk in again to Carnmore for Dragon. I can't continue to avoid what's generally recognised as the worst route in the book, Raven's Gully, and I'll have to take the ferry again to Arran and hope for sunshine instead of torrential rain. A dash to Devon will pick up Moonraker, and they'll all be done bar the pegging!

Mark Leach has told Ken Wilson it is still allowable to climb Kilnsey's Main Overhang in the old-fashioned way, so I'll have to sneak up there one midweek afternoon when no-one's looking and aid across it.

And as for the final stopper, the Scoop on Strone Ulladale - may as well forget it; unless, of course, Johnny Dawes and his mates fancy another go with an old man in tow!

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.

First published in Climber & Hillwalker November 1992
© Derek Walker 1992

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