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planetFear - Rock Climbing, Adventure Racing, Mountain Biking

Who's Who in British Climbing by Colin Wells

Review by Alan Heason
Monday 5th January 2009



“Dad,” said Son Number One, tossing a substantial paperback towards me, “I think you’ll enjoy this; keep it by the loo.”

I flicked through it. Familiar names appeared: I was holding an anthology of nearly 700 mini-biographies of (British) climbers.

'Hey, this looks good' I thought as I cherry-picked. Yep, know him. And him. And her. Climbed with those three. He was in our club. Oh, he’s dead, then.

I put it with a pile of other books and went into hospital to get a couple of new knees. And read. And read. After a while I stopped being picky and read page by page. Although I was making good progress I was a bit taken aback when Son One said he wanted me to review it.

But how could I check whether all its assertations were factual? Colin Wells’s style of writing is eclectic and usually amusing. Either he has an enviably encyclopaedic knowledge or he, too, has perforce had to take quite a lot of information on trust and hearsay. So take the book as it is intended; as entertainment. This is not and does not claim to be a cross-referenced and unimpeachable work of fact.

But how else would we learn that, well before the scourge of climbers’ chalk was introduced to facilitate route-finding ‘sticky grapefruit juice rubbed into … hands aided adhesion on rocks.’ Now that’s more like it.

Occasionally, reductively opinionated comments surface. It really wasn’t necessary to have denigrated Chris Woodhead so scathingly. Wells's diatribe on Mr. Woodhead is the moral equivalent of throwing a stone through someone’s window and running away, and the author appears petulant for its inclusion.

But despite these myopic downfalls, this is an amusing and enaging book, and one which should be beside everyone’s water closet (although not, perhaps, one's coffee table). It is probably of more value to the older generation of British climbers, being for them more a list of contemporaries instead of misty figures of yore.

And now a self-indulgent paragraph, recording for completeness The Who's Who of British Climbing. (Actually, I can think of no other method of drawing the following to public attention)

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Early March 1962, Nottingham. A vicious, clamping, paralysing frost gripped the Midlands. After a brief phone call we sped off to the Peak in John Moore’s mini van.

First ascent of Mam Tor's crazy main face. Not the gully. The Face.
And not frozen.
Very not.

Hot spring sun was melting the ice grip as we watched: no time to lose.

We roped together - hemp of course - and moved Alpine Style, ice-axes and crampons. Thick swirling steamy mist enveloped us. Memory is sketchy, but I have clear recollection of a block the size of a Steinway Grand falling silently into the steam as David Hughes stepped from it.

John, David - where are you now, lads?

It was utterly bonkers, but we did it, finishing a bit below and to the right of the summit. We drank a flask of black tea and chewed banana and sugar sandwiches.

Was it a First Ascent? Come on, humour me.

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