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Adventure

Historical Rock Climbing Images

Victorian Gentlemen The adventurous gentlemen who defined the Golden Age of early British climbing (1882-1903) were, for the most part, middle and upper-middle class professionals. They relished their annual Easter and Christmas vacations and summer holidays at Wasdale Head, the centre of Lakeland climbing. These men – for brief periods – left their jobs, their families, and their cares behind, to journey to the Wastwater Hotel, where, full of a fresh and invigorating sense of adventure and exploration, they proceeded to define a wonderful new sport.
George Abraham leading younger brother, Sidney, 13 at the time, up a cliff on Blencathra. The use of a climbing rope had been introduced to the area only a few years prior, but rope technique was non-existent. In later years the Abraham brothers called this picture “How not to Climb

George and Ashley Abrahamcaptured images of the sport they were helping to formulate from this first photo, taken in 1890, through the 1920s. All climbers are in their debt for these historical treasures.

1890

Haskett Smith Walter Parry Haskett Smith is considered the father of (British) rock climbing. A classics scholar at Oxford who was better known for his athletic prowess than his academics, Haskett Smith first visited Wasdale Head with a reading party from the University in the summer of 1881.

He began scrambling and then climbing up the broken cliffs of Wasdale Head in the summer of 1882, accompanied by his younger brother. They did not think of their activities as an aspect of alpine mountaineering, and used no rope.

ropeless climbing style

Original rope-less style of rock climbing – on Kinder Scout(pre 1900)
Photo G. A. Fowkes


In the summer of 1886, on the last day of his holiday, Haskett Smith set off for a close look at the cliffs on the face of the Great Gable. Warmed by his exertions, he succumbed to the temptation to try for the summit of the Napes Needle. He and others had reconnoitered the spire on several previous occasions, but had failed to climb it. On this day Haskett Smith succeeded, and he reached the tiny summit by himself, using no ropes or equipment. 

Its situation and shape made it unique, unmistakable; it seemed impressive and impregnable. Just as the Matterhorn had made itself the dominant challenge in the Alps simply by the thrilling beauty of its outline, so Napes Needle – on the infinitely smaller scale of Cumberland – came to represent the climbing challenge of the Lake District. Photographs of the Needle, in magazines, newspapers, and books, carried the message of what was afoot on the crags more vivedly than any words can do, and did more to attract adventurous men to Wasdale Head than any other single factor.” – Alan Hankinson in The First Tigers, 1971.

Napes Needle
Photo Abraham Brothers

Haskett Smith
Photo C. Douglas Milner
Haskett Smith in 1936, on the 50th anniversary of his landmark climb of the Needle. He reached the top once again, but this time with ropes and fellow climbers.

J. W. Robinson cheerfully “belays” two novices up Scafell Pinnacle in the early 1890s. Robinson and two of his comrades introduced the climbing rope into rock climbing activities in the Lake District in 1885. Scafell Spire

Photo Abraham Brothers


O. G. Jones 1890s
Photos Abraham Brothers
O. G. Jones 1890s
Owen Glynne Jones belays a novice up a cliff in the Lake District. Again – little regard for rope work, although Jones was very strong and his young friend was probably safe enough.  ca. 1895.

O. G. Jones – who humorously called himself the “Only Genuine Jones”, was the physics master at the London School. He is often accorded the title of the first rock gymnast, since he delighted in an acrobatic climbing style and was regarded as very agile. There are (or were) many tales of his extraordinary strength – a few of which may actually have been true. His flame burned brightly for a short period of time – then he was gone, killed in the Alps in 1903. Jones was probably the equal of any of the Elbsandstein climbers during the 1890s.


Kern Knotts Crack – O. G. Jones first did it using a top rope after several abortive attempts, then became so efficient at it hewas said to be able to run up the crack and descend in the gully to the right, all in seven minutes. This may have been one of the many tall tales told of him.  By current standards, the crack’s about 5.7 – but it was done in 1897. However, Jones’ style evoked criticism.  According to Alan Hankison (The First Tigers, 1971), “Before this no climb had ever been subjected to such careful and intensive investigation, and there were probably many, especially among the veterans, who shared Crowley’s view that the tactics were unfair and damaging to the tradition of pure climbing exploration.” Also, it seems that, initially, entrance to the crack required “combined tactics” and judicious use of an ice axe. Kern Knotts Crack
Photo Abraham Brothers
Kern Knotts Crack
Photo Abraham Brothers
Getting into the crack the proper way, George Abraham belays his companion, who uses his nailed boots efficiently as he edges on small holds. ca. 1900

How does the technical difficulty of this climb compare with what was being done in the Elbsandsteingebirge at the time?  I’m guessing both areas were at approximately the same climbing grade, although it is difficult to reconcile the substantial difference in the type of rock: shattered volcanic in the Lake District and softer sandstone near Dresden. But this is only speculation.

 

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