Hard Rock or 40 Years of Puerile Ticking

by Derek Walker

‘Like a double-sized Cenotaph Corner topped by overhangs.’ Colin Mortlock’s words echoed in my mind as I tried to rest, perched with half a cheek on a tiny ledge on Dove Crag1. Les and Claude were 80ft below on the stance. I gazed at the view and tried to get myself calm enough for what would surely be one of the biggest leads I had ever undertaken. Eventually, I straightened up and confronted the rock.

The hard bit of Extol is a very steep wall to an overhang where there is a horizontal crack. Although I probably got a nut or two in, I was really relieved to get a Friend in the break. To the right, the overhang is broken by a groove; getting into this is the crux. There is supposed to be a piton here. Les Brown, who had done an early ascent, told me he had found this section very hard, even admitting to being gripped - a rare thing indeed, for this taciturn and unflappable climber:

"I felt as if I’d done the hard bit getting to the overhang, but when I got there, I thought, ‘Good God, where’s the peg?’ I’d met Whillans the day after he had done the first ascent, and he told me that he’d ‘buggered up the route’, as he’d been ‘forced to put a peg in’. But what impressed me was that he had left placing it so late! I thought the climbing lower down was harder and couldn’t understand why he hadn’t used a peg earlier."

Even though the modern gear made me feel reasonably secure, this was still no place to hang about: I was all graunched up under the overhang. Groping round the roof and feeling the peg at last, I clipped it and pulled quickly into the groove. As I finished up that final groove, which was still hard, I felt huge relief and the exultation that comes after climbing a great route.

Looking back, this was one of the most memorable ascents in my Hard Rock odyssey: in 1986, a few weeks before my 50th birthday, I had just completed a climb which, as a young climber, I’d regarded as one of the hardest routes in Britain. Clearly, today, Extol has been overtaken in difficulty by many more desperate routes, but Mortlock’s image of a ‘double Cenotaph’ stayed firmly implanted in my mind, keeping me too scared to try it for years; I had thought it quite beyond me. How lucky we are now, to be able to do these great climbs. In the 1950s and 1960s when most of them were first done and repeated, the gear was pretty rudimentary by comparison with today. Mortlock describes Don as leading right up to the groove with minimal protection; the peg would have been essential. Some of today’s climbers may sniff at the pegs used by those pioneers, but they will fail to understand the sheer coolness under pressure of a first ascent lead such as Extol. Mortlock, no mean climber himself, described Don’s ascent (he took two and a half hours to do the pitch) as: "the finest piece of rock climbing I have ever seen."

"Bloody ‘ell fire, what kept yer?" would have been Don’s comment when I finally completed the Hard Rock routes (bar The Scoop, of course) in 1999, after 40 years of ‘ticking’, "Must be the slowest bleedin’ collection in climbing history." And he would, of course, have been right. I doubt if anyone who has been seriously ticking them, has taken longer to complete the climbs.

It all began for me walking up to Cloggy at the end of that perfect golden summer of 1959; the Black Cliff still had a formidable reputation then. Paul Herbert and I chose one of the easiest routes: Great Slab features a long entry pitch; a struggle up the Forty-Foot Corner and a romp across the delectable final slabs. It was my first Hard Rock tick, 16 years before the book was published.

The second two routes came the next year, following Johnnie Lees up Diagonal and Geoff Sutton up Cenotaph Corner. ‘The Corner' was only just beginning to lose its fierce reputation. On an earlier attempt, Geoff, failing just below the niche, had to down-climb after five hours on the route because the ‘pudding stone’, the crucial place for a thread runner, was missing. 48 years after Joe’s first ascent, it is incredible to remember the aura which surrounded this route, possibly the most famous of all Welsh climbs. But the climb’s reputation was fully justified then because the protection consisted mainly of chockstones which were quite awkward to thread, and the pegs below and above the Niche.

In 1962 I was with Don Whillans on Carnivore when he led the Direct Finish, his last great British first ascent, which went unrepeated for nine years. The climb has remained etched on my memory because each pitch was hard and the last pitch quite desperate: the initial steep section (where I’d slipped from wet rock on an earlier attempt, the exnosed traverse (which Don coaxed me across), and then that horrendous final pitch (where Don shot up to the overhang, put in a peg and stormed the vicious crack to gain the rain-swept final slabs). I followed with considerable help from above. Our ascent of Swastika during the same week seemed relaxed in comparison with the Carnivore epic. In those early days, there were also several more trips to Cloggy, which included an ascent of Bow Shaped Slab with Jim O’Neill, before I left for a Chilean teaching appointment in 1966.

My return to 'Hard Rock' climbing at Easter 1971 was sudden and effective: Trevor Jones gave me a crash course in the new ‘cheating’ equipment of wired nuts, hexes and Moacs that had been developed during my residence abroad. Before the early 1960s, the big unprotected routes were the preserve of the best climbers of the day - - the likes of Brown, Whillans, Banner and Bonington. But, by the end of the 80s, an eager new pack of Alpha Club ‘upstarts’, led by Crew, Boysen and Ingle were beginning to tackle these routes, with Soper and Gregory also doing early repeats. These were climbers who could be relied on to keep their cool and stay calm when the protection was poor; the rest of us just gibbered.

But by 1971 it had all changed: the new equipment, placed on lead, but offering hitherto unimagined security, and nearly always obviating the need for fixed pegs, allowed ordinary climbers like myself to attempt the hardest routes of the 1950s. In two days, Trevor and I climbed Bloody Slab (which did not make the book) and The Grooves (which did). We would not have been keen to venture on either of these routes a decade earlier. Later that summer, and over the next few years, we ticked North Crag Eliminate, Gimmer Crack, Dwm, Centurion, Suicide Wall, Gormenghast and The Great Prow — the latter in old-fashioned style in boots, half-weight rope and a couple of slings, en-route to Blaven after traversing Clach Glas.

Sitting in bed at Christmas 1975, I leafed through my brand new copy of Hard Rock. Ken’s cast list of famous climbers had written essays reliving their experiences on some of the finest and hardest climbs in Britain. I eagerly scanned the chapters on the routes I had done and realised that there were many more great climbs still to do. Harold Drasdo warned Ken what might happen as a result: "People will start rushing all over the country wanting to tick them".

"Surely not," replied Ken, thinking that ‘puerile ticking’ would be ridiculous2. But he was wrong; and I was among the many who wanted to tick them. One notable sighting at that time, by Terry Parker, was of a young hero struggling up North Crag Eliminate with the book stuffed down his jumper! The original ‘Puerile Ticker’, Will Hurford, did the lot by 1978; but he was unfortunately stopped three times by the fourth pitch of The Scoop, and it was to be another decade before Stephen Reid managed to complete them all3. My own quest for the Holy Grail of the list continued - albeit at a much more leisurely pace.

Trevor and I went to Cheddar in 1978, where we climbed the famous Coronation Street. Set incongruously above the tourists and traffic of Cheddar, this has to be regarded as one of the best outcrop climbs in Britain. The big groove pitch above the shield, in a truly commanding situation, is particularly fine. With a style he was later to make his own, Chris Bonington boldly attempted the route in difficult conditions and then, accompanied by the first of many a TV retinue, snatched the first, almost free ascent, in a visiting raid. But he was already an old hand hereabouts. One of his best discoveries was Malbogies on the Main Wall of Avon Gorge, which Trevor and I climbed the following day. When Chris and Geoff Francis forced this fine route in 1957, I was a student at Bristol; but apart from the easier Malpractice, the UBMC members at that time were too nervous to venture onto the Main Wall. Malbogies went unrepeated for five years.

Another of Bonington’s fine collection (this, like others, masterminded by Tom Patey) was The Old Man of Hoy. Earlier in 1978, I was one of a team of five to climb the original route. One of the team was the now tubby Don Whillans. He’d quipped: "You get me up, Derek and I’ll get you down." Don’s comments on first seeing The Old Man were typically ‘Whillansesque’: "Bloody ‘ell fire, if I get my weight on that thing, it’ll topple over."

Ron Leather, one of the Hoy team had previously joined me on ascents of Gogarth and Sirplum. The latter, though only an outcrop climb, is another example of the ‘big grip’ factor you get on so many Hard Rock routes. On the main pitch, having gained the first 20ft and clipped the peg, the trap is sprung: you must now step boldly up and out between the huge overhangs with a terrifying drop below.

Ron Kenyon on the third pitch of Big Groove
Photo by Stephen Reid

By the mid 1970s, I had begun to climb regularly with Hughie Banner, who was of course a star climber. The hero of Troach(surely one of Cloggy’s finest routes), Hugh had become a great Anglesey aficionado. Among many great routes we did there were Mousetrap (which winds its way up some amazing rock, described by Trevor Jones as ‘like climbing potato crisps’), Big Groove, and A Dream of White Horses. On our first visit to Cloggy together, we climbed Slanting Slab, a bold, impressive and spooky Whillans route, on which Trevor advised me to lead the first pitch, despite the dubious pegs, and leave the longer second pitch to Hugh. Debauchery and Bishop’s Rib were also ticked with Hugh at this time.

Bob Allen and I climbed many great Lakeland routes together, including Engineer’s Slabs and Deer Bield Buttress (R.I.P.). On Carnmore, in 1977, we grabbed Gob during a storm break, and in the same season we climbed White Slab, Bob managing to lasso the tiny spike on the first attempt.

After a long lay off, Richard Carter got back to hard climbing in the early 1980s. Over a perfect few days at Whit 1984 we climbed Trapeze, Yo-Yo and The Bat, all Hard Rock ticking at its very best, but The Bat felt like the big one. We’d been gripped for years by Robin Smith’s vivid account of the first ascent, an account which Jim Curran’s fine reenactment in his film reinforced. So it was amazing to remember those epics as we tackled the ‘little hoodie groove’ and the fierce overhangs from which Haston had taken his fliers.

The last great Glencoe route came in 1987 when a chance encounter with Al Churcher gave us the opportunity to snatch Shibboleth before the rains came. A similar fortuitous meeting a year later, with Dave Roberts and his 14 year-old son, led to an ascent of The Needle; Stephen demonstrated his burgeoning talent by leading ‘the crack for thin fingers’.

In 1976, I had climbed Central Buttress on Scafell with Roger Salisbury, and about the same time did Praying Mantis with Ginger Cain. By the mid 1980s there were left to do only the three hardest Lakes routes, all of which I would have thought completely beyond me 20 years earlier. However, the equipment and footwear had improved to such an extent that I could seriously consider taking them on. I climbed Ichabod with visiting American friend Larry Giacomino in 1981, but although we walked to Esk Buttress the following day, I could not persuade him to come on to the Central Pillar. it was not until 1987 that Malcolm Cameron and I at last achieved that historic route, 25 years after Pete Crew had picked the plum. Then there was Extol, described earlier, which gave me as much pleasure and adrenaline flow as any in the book.

Back in Wales, I’ve followed Vector a number of times, most memorably on an International Meet with Jan Wolf (who to my consternation was more concerned with filming me on his video camera than keeping the rope tight). Jan was the husband of the talented Mrufka, who died in that same awful, protracted tragedy as did Al Rouse, on K2. Sadly, Jan too, was to die soon afterwards in the Himalaya. Although I never led the upper crack, my first time on Vector’s Ochre Slab was a memorable lead in 1980. A couple of years after this, Tony Edwards and I helped to repair the Cwm Glas Bridge and then just had time to rush up to Cloggy for Vember, one of the first of Joe’s brilliant Cloggy routes.

At the beginning of the 1990s I had about 10 routes to do. In the spring of 1991, I led on Carnage with Malcolm Cameron and a few months later he reciprocated in grand style, leading both pitches of Cloggy’s Great Wall, perhaps his personal best. That same summer, with Malcolm, but with me leading the first and last pitches, I laid the Carnivore ghost to rest, 28 years after my epic with Don. Don’s finish is still hard, but psychologically, so different. Before reaching his ancient peg, I could place three good wires; then, dangling from the overhanging crack, I espied a long piece of tat, just waiting to be clipped. For me, it was still an awesome struggle, full of memories and nostalgia, but now safe and secure, courtesy of the modern gear. It was a far cry, though, from Don’s lonely lead in 1962.

In 1994, with Trevor now in his mid-60s, but always enthusiastic for new places, he cycled and trekked with me in 1994 to the marvelous Creag an Dubh Loch to climb King Rat. The following year, retirement left me time for unfinished business: in 1996, Kilnsey’s Main Overhang was climbed with Mike Simpkins. He had done it before, 30 years earlier as a youth and was happy to give me the big pitch. Mark Leach’s recent bolts (placed for the free ascent) helped relieve the terror as I swung under that enormous roof in distinctly traditional style. The other big aid route, however, was to elude me. In June 1998, plans for an attempt on the free version of Sron Ulladale’s The Scoop with two hot shots were stillborn: disappointing but perhaps as well, for I might have had to be winched up it, and the route was, after all, included to deter the ‘puerile tickers’.

Like me, Les Brown had now retired and was always keen for new adventures in Spain, Morocco or nearer home. In 1996 we went to Arran for South Face Direct, and the following year with Pete Tumbull to Devon for the scary sea level traverse and spectacular climb up Moonraker. Les had never been to Carnmore, so, in 1999, carefully avoiding the May Bank Holiday, we had three days in the Fisherfield Forest where we saw no-one in this remote mountain area: consequently, a mist-draped Dragon was enjoyed to the full. Having dropped the guidebook, however, we needed Les’s exemplary route finding skills to keep us on route; but finally, I swarmed up the overhanging Droopy Flake and so to the top.

The last two big ticks, Goliath on the Dubh Loch and Raven’s Gully on the Buchaille, just had to be climbed with Ken Wilson, the architect, but unwitting instigator of all my peregrinations. He responded to my suggestion of a trip with a degree of narrow-eyed suspicion, yet those three days will be enduring memories. Ken was enthusiastic and exuberant; the banter on the long journey north never faltered. He congratulated me on finding a fellow chatterbox and we gossiped as the miles rolled by (broken only briefly by a dram with Professor Dutton) on the road to Ballater.

Derek Walker on the first pitch of Goliath
Photo by Ken Wilson

We revelled in the remote beauty of the hills as we cycled and walked to the crag. He took the first pitch of Goliath, a long and poorly protected traverse, and I led the steep groove above. Two exhilarating and exposed slabs then led us to the top. As we descended the gully, however, a modern phenomenon occurred: we were approached by an anxious young climber asking us if we had a mobile phone. Apparently, his mates were cragfast on King Rat and he wished to contact the rescue team. We were flabbergasted. Here we were, in late June, in perfect weather, with five full hours of daylight left. So what was the problem? Luckily, by the time we’d reached the foot of the crag again, his chums had ‘considered the position’ and were making progress up the crag. As we walked out, Ken and I reflected on contrasting attitudes to risk and responsibility.

From Ballater we hastened to the FRCC Hut at Kinlochleven. Next morning, and somewhat strangely for such a big crag, the approach to Slime Wall and Raven’s Gully seemed an anti-climax after the Dubh Loch experience. The weather was damp and misty, the rock, appropriate for the location, wet and slimy. Ken sported full waterproofs and we hauled the sacks on most pitches. There was much talk about character-building experiences and undergraded 5a pitches; we gave full praise to Jock Nimlin for his great efforts in 1937.

The next morning we called to see Hamish Mclnnes, who Ken had got to write the Raven’s Gully chapter in the book. The old fox of Glen Coe regaled us with all his Raven’s Gully anecdotes, Bonington and Chouinard figuring prominently. Chattering all the way, we drove home in pouring rain.

* * *


1An account of the first ascent of Extol by Colin Mortlock: ‘Entity’, CCJ 1961

2Ken Wilson explains: ‘The term "Puerile ticking" was coined, half in jest, and rather later, during an interview I gave to Geoff Birtles at the time of the publication of Classic Rock. I did not wish to encourage slavish adherence to the list, it was merely a guide line. To counteract the tendency, a list of other equally good climbs was added at the end of Classic Rock.’

3See article by Stephen Reid : ‘The Big Tick’, High Magazine, April 1989

This article is a celebration of 40 years of great climbing. Nearly all the routes were done with Club members, many of them great friends over a long period, and some of whom reached the dizzy heights of President of the CC. As one who was never in the ‘first division’, I have been privileged to have climbed with those, like Don and Hughie who were, and with many other fine climbers. It has been remarkable that advances in gear have assisted experienced climbers to maintain their standard, and climb well into late middle-age, on routes which were, 40 years ago, considered among the most difficult in the country. Such has been my good fortune. I have tried to include most of the routes in the book and the names of my climbing partners on my first ascents of these climbs, but just for the record I’ll try to include the others I left out:

1971 Kipling Groove Peter Gerrard
  Chee Tor Girdle Chris Calow
1975 The Groove Jane Mortimer
1977 Elder Crack Mike Mortimer (Id)
1978 Suicide Wall Rod Valentine (alt & ld)
  Bow Wall  
  Valkyrie George Bintley (probably before)
1980 Alcasan Paul Stewart (alt)
1984 Right Unconquerable Larry Giacomino (but almost certainly before)
1992 Almscliff Girdle Mike Mortimer (alt)
First published in the Climbers Club Journal 1999 - 2000
© Derek Walker 2000

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