WHY DID AROUND 2000 PEOPLE, from kids to veterans, stand silent and bare-headed in a biting wind for two minutes on top of Great Gable last 11 November?
At the end of the Great War, the Fell and Rock Climbing Club (FRCC) bought Gable. After Lord Leconfield had also donated the Scafells, the peaks were given to the nation as a war memorial. Since then, this most unmilitaristic of remembrances has been adopted by the mountaineering community as its own observance. The FRCC is one of Britain’s largest and most influential mountaineering clubs, with well over 1000 members nowadays, but in 1914 membership stood at 68. There are 20 names on the summit plaque.
Reaching Gable by 11am demands a pre-dawn start from Glasgow. I peered, bleary as my windscreen, self-pity rising as I bit into the motorway pasty that passed as breakfast, then subsiding as I wondered whether the 20 had been given breakfast before being sent to their deaths. Laurence Slingsby’s name is there, “blue-eyed, soft-voiced Yorkshireman”; his father, Cecil Slingsby, was the “father of Norwegian mountaineering”. Also named there are talented climbers Lehmann J Oppenheimer and Edmund Hartley. Stanley Jeffcoat gave his name to Jeffcoat’s Ledge across the valley on Scafell, where he stood for hours holding the rope as Siegfried Herford explored his Central Buttress route in 1913. Herford’s name is next to Jeffcoat’s on the bronze tablet.
Herford was the outstanding rock climber of his generation and the Central Buttress of Scafell was probably the most significant British rock climb until the great proletarian outdoor movement that followed the next war. Seventy years after Herford’s death, his route gave me one of the most vital days of my climbing life.
The FRCC dead came from the class that supplied many of the young subalterns who had such a short life expectancy in the trenches. Herford, however, on account of his German mother, was refused a commission and thus joined as a private. It was considered cowardly to keep your head down in the trenches, and his blond hair must have been an easy target for the rifle grenade at Festubert. What a partnership he and his friend George Mallory might have formed on Everest in the early 1920s. Like Mallory (and indeed Sandy Irvine), Herford had the qualities required to be selected by the Everest Committee in those days: good family, good education and, most of all, good looking. And he could climb as well.
My own regiment of pals were not at Honister quarry when I arrived in battleship-grey murk. I hurried off, assuming they were ahead. I passed more and more people, and realised just how many had come to make this pilgrimage. Rain and sleet blattered our ascent and we wrinkled our noses at a little mud on the path. Mud: that has something to do with the day, too. But as I came towards Grey Knotts and Green Gable, blue windows opened and closed to the west.
My mates, having misjudged the time, arrived at the last moment. “Bent double, like old beggars under sacks / Knock-kneed, coughing like hags … Many had lost their boots, But limped on, blood-shod.”
When Geoffrey Winthrop Young completed the original eulogy in 1924, the sun broke thorugh. “By this symbol we affirm a twofold trust: that which hills only can give their children, the disciplining of strength in freedom, the freeing of the spirit through generous service, these free hills shall give again, and for all time.”
Winthrop Young, pre-war inspiration of British mountaineering, had lost a leg on the Italian front and this was his first climb on his home-made peg. After the war he married Laurence Slingsby’s sister. What a close family we were then.
They say that Herford has been seen about these parts in the 90 years since his death, and one could imagine that all of the 20 were among us as we stood hushed in the swirling mist. At 11:02am, we turned west and continued our walk into sunlit hills that had been so tragically taken away from so many in that most futile of adventures.
I suspect that many of us go up Gable each Remembrance Sunday to renew the vow “never again” — a vow more hollow than ever in the light of current events. But then hillgoers always were given to hope in the face of the apparently insurmountable. See you in November.
Ed. — Also with regard to the Gable Remembrance, Ian Jones has sent in this cutting from the Daily Mail, where the fine rocky lump above Wasdale has been elevated to Munro height. Jones adds, “and did I hear Melvyn Bragg talk about Broad Strand on Scafell the other night? I despair!”