Horace Cecil Diss: Story of a Rock Climb he lead in 1914

Rock Climbing Horace Cecil Diss was a keen member of the Fell & Rock Climbing Club and often climbed with his friend Gibby Milligan of Lakeland Laundries until he married.The following article was published in the Journal of The Fell & Rock Climbing Club No 58 1964 and relates the story of a climb 50 years earlier.

R.L. Heelis was a boy at the time and his father was a Doctor, perhaps in Barrow. I (G.D. Diss) stayed with R.L. Heelis in either Nottingham or Derby when I went for assessment for aircrew.

The days we remember, are not the easy sunny ones, but the days when all the elements are against us, the wind, the mist, and the rain. The rain more than anything else makes vivid that memory of a day some fifty years ago. [1914].

An arrangement had been made that Horace should join us at Thorneythwaite during the second week of our annual holiday on the farm. We all looked forward to his arrival, not only because he had rashly volunteered to conduct my father and myself up the North Climb on Pillar Rock, but also because he was always the life and soul of any expedition on the fells. He was brimful of fun and humorous anecdotes, his eyes twinkling behind his pince-nez, which were secured against the elements by a slender gold chain and hook behind the ear; he was an ideal companion.

September is not the best of the months for weather in the district and we had not had a day without since our arrival. However my father had us out every day on the fells, so that the Jopson's kitchen was draped with our wet garments each evening. The day Horace arrived was no exception and the next day saw us trying to get some rock practice in the shelter of the Dove Holes up Coombe Ghyll.

Tramping back that evening in our usual sodden state, my father suggested we collect some dry clothes and continue from Thorneythwaite over the Stye to Wasdale. If we were lucky we could stay the night there don our dry clothes in the morning and set off for Pillar Rock. I had no option being only a teenage son, and Horace, as usual, was game for anything, so the expedition was on.

We reached Wasdale as darkness was falling and secured a room in the hotel annex. I remember there were a double bed and a very rickety camp bed in the only room available. Lots were cast to decide to decide who should have the camp bed and I think Horace wangled this in deference to the elder member who resented preferential treatment. However certain strange noises in the night were later attributed to Horace being deposited on the floor when the brick supporting the broken leg of the camp bed gave way.

We all had hoped that it would be clear in the morning, but when we looked out, there was the rain drifting up towards Black Sail in misty columns for all the world like ghostly giants advancing to the attack.

There were a number of climbing notables staying at Wasdale, but each took one look at the dismal scene and retired to some more billiards fives which was popular in the old billiards room in those days.

My father was not to be balked of his chance to do the North Climb on the Pillar, but it seemed that I was too puny to assist in the lowering of the leader into Savage Gully and a third adult would have to be co-opted. Luck was with us in the shape of a hardy Northumbrian who admitted he had never done any climbing. However he sportingly volunteered to accompany us. A pair of climbing boots were borrowed, as he had none, and these being on the tight side for him, were carried slung through his rucksack straps. So we set off up the valley, three men and a boy .I cannot think that many would have chosen this sort of a day for their first introduction to the Pillar Rock. Certainly Horace had been up the North Climb before but had not led on that occasion. However, he said he could find it, which was some consolation. Still, for all that I felt a little doubtful of the outcome as I sat eating my sodden sandwiches at top of Black Sail.

Looking back on it now, I am sure that my father was supremely happy and sure that we should accomplish our task. Most of the year he dedicated himself to ministering to the sick in the dingy surroundings of an industrial practice and looked forward to getting away from it all once a year.

We were lucky to hit off the High Level track as visibility was limited to a few yards in any direction and we had feelings of relief when Robinson's cairn loomed out of the mist. Here our North Cumbrian friend prised off his wet boots and struggled into the borrowed climbing boots. Depositing the discarded footgear. Under a stone at the foot of the cairn, we started off again to find the foot of Pillar Rock. Doctor and Horace arguing hard that it was this way and not that way, we trekked backwards and forwards beneath the Rock looking for the small cairn said to indicate the start of the North Climb. However they both finally agreed on the same pile of stones, so we roped up. I was second behind Horace, then my father who was responsible for the safety of our volunteer, who thus became last on the rope.

I have had no experience of modern nylon ropes but the old alpine rope with the familiar three red strands became more like a steel hawser when wet, and with very cold hands as well, was a monstrous thing to handle. The first three pitches I remember only as miniature waterfalls, and not so miniature either. I found myself craning my neck upwards looking for the next hold, only to get the full force of the waterfall in my face. Leaning back enabled me to see but resulted in the water pouring down the open neck of my shirt, finding its way out by the seat of my breeches. Never have I been so wet, not a dry stitch of clothing. I was glad to escape from the last of these pitches. Moving over to the right where the rope led, I could not see the leader, being confronted with what looked like a long groove going diagonally upwards from left to right. Here at last was the famous Stomach Traverse I had read about. I remember finding this much easier than I imagined for although my right leg dangled over an abyss with no hold for my foot, my left leg was reassuringly jammed in the groove, so I squiggled my way up and came out to find Horace by the Split Blocks. Peering through the mist ahead, our way seemed blocked by a formidable buttress over which water cascaded, shooting out into the depths below. This was the Nose, the crux of our climb. The whole party assembled on a grass ledge below the Nose and started to unrope, so that Horace could be lowered down over the edge into Savage Gully. My father was to supervise the lowering business whilst the Northumbrian belayed him. I, as an extra precaution, belayed myself.

Some people describe themselves as being 'hard of hearing' which usually means, jolly deaf. My father came into this category. The resulting conversion went something like this. Horace --------"Lower away Doc". Doc ------- "What's that?" Horace ------- "Lower away I can't get off this hold." Doc pulls the rope in slightly. Furious cries from Horace, " Heigh, you've pulled me off". Doc ----- "Can't you get down?" Horace ------" Not unless you flaming well let go of that something rope."Doc (hearing at last) ----- "right, down you go". Loud and anguished cries from Horace, "You've knocked my specs off, and I'm dangling in mid-air, pull in a bit". Well finally he landed at the bottom, rather like a sack of coals, I fear. We then unroped, and threw our end down into the mist. We knew it had reached its destination by the yell of pain, which drifted up as the sodden rope landed on our leader's head. An ominous silence ensued, whilst Horace coiled the rope. After a time we could hear the scraping of boots on rock and the occasional dislodged stone thudding down as the leader made his way up Savage Gully. I was almost startled as a familiar voice above my head said, "Heigh there, I'm throwing the rope down".

Now, we had carefully read the description of the climb, in Abraham's book, which quite cheerfully said that the leader, having arrived above the Nose, brings the rest of the party up. Unfortunately for us he omitted to mention how. None of us three, left shivering damply below this ominous beak, could see any hold beyond the initial stance. Some discussion then ensued, talk ricocheting twixt those below and the superior person above. Finally a suggestion seemed very popular, that I, being the lightest member, should go first. They said that when I had joined Horace, I could then belay him whilst he struggled with the heavyweights. As it was he appeared to be perched insecurely on the tip of the Nose. Thus it was that I found myself standing on a narrow flake of rock on the bulging wall below the Nose. For the life of me I could see no further means of advancement. Stretching up as far as I could, I could find no sort of handhold. I shouted, "Can you pull me up?" "No, I cannot," came back very definitely. So there I stood getting stiffer and more unsteady on my ledge and it seemed to me there was only one thing I could do. I shouted to Horace to hold my rope tight then I climbed hand over hand up the rope, landing sprawling beside him, with my length of rope hanging down in a great loop. If I had not already realised what a heinous offence I had committed, it was soon made clear to me by Horace, who pointed out that I had broken all the rules of safe climbing, and might have pulled him off and caused a fatality.

There was certainly no justification for what I did, but in fairness I must mention, that the great Owen Glynn Jones in his Rock climbing in the English Lake District, describes this route, which he did for the first time in 1883 under the guidance of John Robinson himself whose cairn perpetuates his memory. He tells how Robinson showed him how to bring his man up the Nonse by using a stirrup loop in a spare rope. The method is then described and can be read by anyone lucky enough to come across this climbing classic.

Considerably mortified, I slunk away up the crags behind him, and finding an enormous belay, secured the rope between myself and Horace.How the other two go up I could not see but I know Horace had prodigious strength and did a lot of heaving.fter this the ascent to the Low Man and on up to the High Man was easy work but by no means an anticlimax for me. I will never forget the excitement inspired by being actually on the top of the Pillar Rock and being shown the tin box in which were the visiting cards, left by some of the early pioneers. I looked down into the Pisgah gap, and was glad that this time the rope above me would be firmly held. Soon we were all off the Rock and picking our way down to Robinson's cairn. By this time it was getting late, and after picking up our friend's boots, we made all speed back to Wasdale. We had told them at Thorneythwaite that we would be back that night, and so we ate a late high tea in our wet clothes and said goodbye to Our staunch Northumbrian ally. He said he had enjoyed himself and was now looking forward to a hot bath in the hotel. How we envied him. The hotelkeeper said we were mad to attempt to cross the Stye in the dark and mist, but as we knew they would be anxious at Thorneythwaite, we accepted his offer of a collapsible candle lamp, and set off. We very soon lost the track and decided our only certain way of getting to the top of the pass was to follow the stream all the way. The going was rough but we steadily made headway. My father led the way and in single file I followed with Horace bringing up the rear. We were assured of the latter's presence by the sound of his songs, which ranged from, "Number one, number one, I've done a climb so I'll sing you a song" to the more lugubrious, "Don't send my boy to prison, it's the first crime wat'e done, and the judge 'e says in earnest, take back thy erring son"

We didn't find the collapsible lamp much use, except at collapsing, which it did at the slightest provocation. At last we reached the top and to our joy saw that the mist had cleared enabling us to discern the waters of Stye Head Tarn gleaming dully in the moonlight. We all heaved a sigh of relief. My father took the opportunity to stop and light his pipe. Horace strode on ahead, thinking it was now but a simple walk home, but solid rock looking like a clump of heather, soon brought him down. No damage was done fortunately, this proving our only mishap in our fourteen hours on the fells.

When we got over the brow, by Taylor Gyll and were able to look down into Borrowdale, we were intrigued by a sort of glow-worm, which appeared to be moving up the track below Stockley Bridge. We hurried on as fast as we dared, haunted by the suspicion that the glow-worm could be a string of lights carried by a search party. We met the stretcher party, headed by Fisher Jopson at Stockley Bridge. Their joy at finding us safe and well cut short our apologies for causing them so much trouble. We were soon laughing at the now incongruous stretcher they bore, as we set off again for Thorneythwaite. Soon we were being welcomed by my mother and sister and the hospitable Jopson family. So ended a day forever etched in my memory.