Rock climbing a lot of change in so many years?

Cioch Direct Skye 1950 - Dan Stewart Collection.,

Cioch Direct Skye 1950 – Dan Stewart Collection. RAF Kinloss MRT.

When you look at the photo above of Dan Stewart climbing in Skye in the 1950 ‘s it is incredible how simple the gear was and how talented they were to climb in this era.  The gear was simple aA rope round the waist or a rope sling wrapped around simple ex – war gear and limited protection apart form some slings, wild climbing. How it has all moved on from these early days and how much safer it is.

simple gear!

Simple gear!

They were still many talented climbers as the times shown in the SMC Journal for the RAF Mountain Rescue Team Leaders Course show. I would not have made a Team Leader in these days.

1956 Skye ridge Times

1954 Skye ridge Times

I have always enjoyed climbing despite never been any good especially on rock but had some great days and still love a climb with my pals. I am lucky to have climbed all over the Uk and abroad and even managed to complete “Soft Rock” Ken Wilson Classic Rock book a few years ago in Cornwall a journey of nearly 30 years. 30 years of tight ropes. It took me to many cliffs now pretty busy but what a great adventure with so many friends.

All the gear and no idea - Devils Slide Lundy

All the gear and no idea – Devils Slide Lundy

I was lucky to be in  North Wales  from 1979 – 1982  and regular visits to the Lakes, The Peak District and other areas gave me some amazing climbing days. These were great times with so much rock so nearby and a team of steady climbers. The weather helped and we were never short of a place to climb.  We had our annual Summer rock climbing Course in Wales and the constant climbing always made it a popular course for all.

John Hinde and Johnie Lees in the late 50's.

John Hinde and Johnie Lees in the late 50’s.

We climbed so much even I got better and with even the occasional visit to Gogarth on the doorstep and the always dry Holyhead mountain. Add to that the great Welsh cliffs and easy walk ins it was a specail time in my life and I cannot thank those who made these days specail, Pete Kay, Jock Cameron and Nige Hughes.  My final routes were on Lundy  The Devils Slide and Cornwall – Demo Route that famous route first climbed by the Royal Marines what a great way to finish these wonderful climbs.

The Classic Demo Route Cornwall

The Classic Demo Route Cornwall

The book Classic Rock was a great introduction and way to climb on many of the UK great cliffs and share some wonderful adventures. How varied the cliffs and rock are in this small island. This book takes you all over and was a great way to learn about the easier routes and some of the history of those who climbed many years before.

The Classic Rock by Ken Wilson.

The Classic Rock by Ken Wilson.

When you see the gear that climbers used in the early days where the leader must not fall it is incredible the improvements in every aspect. The RAF Kinloss Mountain Rescue Team that I was part of had many skilled climbers through the years. Dan Stewart, Ian Clough, Terry Sullivan. Spike Sykes and many more who put routes up all over Scotland as they travelled with the team. They found many new crags and these were the days that you rarely reported these routes especially in the far North West.  These must have been specail days when most climbers new each other and the cliffs were quiet.

1950 congloorate Early days

The Team had access to the RAF Engineering workshops and many bits of gear were made by Team members as they tried to improve their simple gear. We had started to run our own Summer rock climbing course in Wales where we learned to climb and did the dreaded Falling Leader practice a tyre some times a three tonner tyre was  thrown simulating a fallen climber down the cliff. We all hated it and it took its toll on knees but gave you an idea of what the weight would be in the result of a leader fall on a belay. Crazy days before Health and Safety.

Falling leader practice

Falling leader practice

They like their civilian climbers adapted engineering nuts for protection, made simple harness’s and descenders (abseil devices) and home made pegs for protection. I was issued with a yellow Joe Brown waist belt when I joined the RAF Kinloss Team in 1972 and a very heavy screw gate carabiner, one off , 2 Scott snap links and some simple slings, from size no 1  to 4 to make up my rack. We climbed in big boots all the time.

Tarbuck Knot

Tarbuck Knot

The knots were simple  we tied on with the Tarbuck knot,bowline,  figure of eight, Alpine butterfly, clove hitch and prussick. We made simple harnesses out of slings and regularly burnt shoulders and hands on classic abseils, wild days.  It was a scary time and I remember my first abseil off the Dubhs ridge in Skye a classic one with no back up at all.

The Joe Brown helmet at Longehaven Sea cliffs me in the middle looking lost as usual.

The Joe Brown helmet at Longehaven Sea cliffs me in the middle looking lost as usual. Feeding the ropes out on the stretcher Lowers.

Things improved in gear and the climbers in the team bought  the Whillians Harness when it came out and rock boots but had to climb Very difficult routes in any weather in big boots and a bag!  Then we were issued with them and the Joe Brown Helmet, big heavy and hard to wear but better than a whole in the head.. We often had a weekend  of techniques  year at places like the Longhaven sea cliffs where we were instructed in the technical side of Rescue and this is where the climbers came into their own. The big abseils on our long ropes were interesting times with basic abseil techniques and no back ups

From the Scottish Mountain Heritage Collection

Scott - photo The Scottish Mountain Heritage Collection.

Scott  Karabiners – photo The Scottish Mountain Heritage Collection.

This little clutch of Scott karabiners has been collected by Mick Tighe over the years. A little bit of history borrowed from our sister organisation the ‘Mountain Heritage Trust’ might be of interest.
The ‘Scott’ karabiner was designed by a member of the (then) Ministry of Supply to meet a requirement for the RAF Mountain Rescue teams. Some advice and assistance was given by the BMC at the time, but subsequent events showed that the karabiner was considerably over-designed, being much stronger than necessary. One consequence was that the section of the body was too thick to pass through many pitons and the internal space available for ropes is rather on the small side. It was made of high tensile aluminium alloy by one of the leading firms making high-grade aluminium forgings for aircraft. It was prohibitively expensive, thus not marketed due to cost.

Terry Sulavain Letterchuilin

Terry Sulivan Letterchuilin crag early 60’s

I was so proud of my basic gear and one of my first route was Savage Slit with Kas Taylor in the Cairngorms and its been downhill since then for me. We even did some aid climbing that was the thing to do then, wild days but fun at times. We would cycle to Cummingston cliffs and late on Huntlys Cave at Grantown On spey and Duncheltaig Crag at Inverness.  On one of my first big call -out on Ben Nevis I climbed Tower Ridge with John Hinde after 3 Navy climbers were killed on a fall from the ridge that morning. It was a sombre experience for me and makes you think as a young 19-year-old. After that it was the Cairngorms, Creag Dubh, Glencoe, Ben Nevis and Skye climbing in boots and bags in the rain and even at times in socks. Early on after a bad fall at Huntlys Cave where I hit the ground and was knocked out I was taken to the pub on the way home for a whisky and then the RAF Doctor on camp for stitches on my chin. He was not impressed and kept me in overnight. It put me off climbing for a while and then Kas Taylor took me onto Skye and the Cioch and Coire Ghrunda in a long summers, day. He hardly followed any guide book and just made it up as he went, a wild man.

Early 70's Huntys Cave Grantown On Spey

Early 70’s Huntys Cave Grantown On Spey – Aid climbing !

In these early days in the 1950 -60’s  of simple ropes that could and did break, limited protection, slings and old nuts from engineering for runners. They even made wooden blocks that fitted in cracks as crude runners, the rope round your waist and a flat cap maybe with a piece of carpet in it to stop any falling stones. A fall would be serious.

1960 Rope break Ben Nevis

They were brave talented climbers yet though there were bad accidents due to gear and rope failures and the kit improved as did the climbing but so many great routes were done in this period. Just read the guide books and imagine the simple kit and huge run outs.

Home made gear - Scottish Mountain Heritage Collection.

Home made gear – Scottish Mountain Heritage Collection.

There is an incredible collection of gear held by “Sir” Mick Tighe of the Scottish Mountain Heritage Collection and has a wealth of information on old mountaineering gear and well worth a look on their great website. Do you have any old gear Mick may have? He is always looking for donations and the website is fantastic and a must for all interested in the heritage of our sport.

The Scottish Mountaineering Heritage Collection.

The Scottish Mountaineering Heritage Collection.

Never take all that gear for granted and think of those who went before! How much it has changed from these early days and how the accidents have drastically been cut down as gear and equipment and safety became more prominent.

1980 gear summer course

1980 gear RAF Mountain Rescue Summer course held in Wales. A change completely from past days..

The days like these shown below are now gone Jack Baines at Polldubh a regular haunt of the RAF Kinloss Team. There are many routes there named by the team Kinloss Grooves Very Severe 65 metre route climbed in 1959 . Some other routes all over Scotland. Kinloss Gully in Skye on Sron Na Ciche near Vulcan Wall climbed in 1957 still a very Severe climb. Kinloss Corner on the Buachaille 120 metre hard severe ( near North Face route the classic) I did them all in my time they were interesting routes .They were a hardy bunch those in the team who climbed and the many others of this early era.

1960 Jack Baines Polldubh

In 2014 at Polldubh Big Al with all the gear!

2013 Pollduch BiG aL


I do not miss the classic abseil, I still loose sleep over some of my near misses.

Classic Abseil

Classic Abseil – interesting.

About heavywhalley.MBE

After dinner speaker Lecturer and Mountain Rescue Specialist. Environmentalist. Spent 36 years with RAF Mountain Rescue and 4 years with a civilian Team . Still an active Mountaineer and loves the wild places.
This entry was posted in Books, Equipment, Gear, mountain safety, Mountaineering, Rock Climbing, Views Mountaineering. Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Rock climbing a lot of change in so many years?

  1. Hi Heavy, a great look back there. I didn’t start climbing until the early ’80s so missed some of those horrors, but one thing you didn’t mention was the weight of the Joe Brown helmet. It weighed a ton, and it’s no wonder many climbers risked their lives by climbing without. I was so shocked and happy when I got my first lightweight helmet after year’s of neck strain from Joe’s! 🙂
    There was also that winter essential – the woollen balaclava, which when worn under a Joe Brown would gradually revolve around your head so that by the end of the climb you had iced wool obscuring the view from one eye and a frostbitten ear! Ah, happy days!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. KragRags says:

    Lovely insight into times gone by, thanks Heavy. The classic abseil is still a useful technique to have in your tool box, for short descents when only the rope is available. In fact, BMG Steve Long was recently coaching ML leaders in this dark art in Jordan.

    Liked by 1 person

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