These days Stan Thompson is a regular visitor to Abraham’s Café here in George Fisher, but take a look at the black and white image and you’ll see among others Stan and George Fisher training with the recently formed Keswick Mountain Rescue Team back in 1947. George is standing to the right with the rope around his torso; beneath him, sitting in the white jumper, is Stan.
On one of his recent visits I joined Stan for a coffee and a chat. He began by telling me he’d made his first trips to the lakes from Harrogate as a teenager before the war, climbing Kern Knotts Crack at the age of 14 in his nailed boots. The following year he climbed Napes Needle. “It’s not a difficult climb,” he tells me, before describing how Haskett Smith had first climbed the Needle in 1886, alone and without any protective devices.
At the start of the war, Stan moved to West Cumbria and took up a post as a trainee engineer at Drigg. He was a regular visitor to the Naylor’s farm in Wasdale, young Joss being just two years old at the time. It was also around this time that Stan began climbing in Langdale with Jim Birkett and Charlie Wilson. Stan had come from the gritstone; “If you could climb gritstone you could climb anything”, and laughing recalls how Jim wouldn’t allow him to rope up for the first few pitches of a climb, then near the top would say “This is the last pitch Stan, we’ll not need the rope for this.” Stan added, “Ropes weren’t used as a climbing device, they were just there to keep you all together.” As for Jim, “Jim was a quarryman, he knew rock, and he knew how to handle it, how it behaved.”
Having a reserved occupation forced Stan to miss the first two years of the war until eventually he was allowed to join the Air Force and trained as a pilot, but as a skilled engineer was sent back to Cumbria when High Duty Alloys, makers of aircraft engine components began extending their factory at Lillyhall.
Whilst home, Stan had his first real taste of mountain rescue assisting the Home Guard, not so much with climbers but with airmen. Around 150 planes came down over Cumbria during the war. A B-17 Flying Fortress came down on Skiddaw, and on another occasion a US training plane crash landed on top of Green Gable; although pitch black some of the men managed to walk to Ennerdale Bridge where the police set out for rescue, but sadly the captain died.
It was Lieutenant-Colonel Horace ‘Rusty’ Westmorland who identified the need for a coordinated Rescue Team after the fall from Sharks Fin on Tophet Bastion, Great Gable by Wilfred Noyce in 1947. Noyce, who was later to become a member of Hunt’s 1953 Everest Expedition, broke his leg in the fall and Stan recalls the rescue was hampered by poor equipment and lack of experience. “All we had to hand was a St John stretcher with no real means to attach rope to it, or the proper techniques to lower it.” It was a long and arduous affair but in the end they managed, and seeds were sown.
So training began under the watchful eye of Rusty. “Training techniques were all a bit primitive”, says Stan and recalled to me one occasion when poor Muriel Sawer spent 8 hours curled up on Round How whilst the team searched for her without dogs, and without success. “Only Rusty knew where she was, he had to go back up for her.” Stan is now laughing as he describes the naivety of it all. “Our equipment was no better either, we had an old taxi with a stretcher, and a first aid kit with some morphine, that was it.”
If there was an accident in, say, Wasdale, police from Whitehaven would have to come out with a St John ambulance crew and meet up with the rescue team. The police would phone Stan in Gosforth and he’d set off on his motorbike with a rope over his shoulder. “It looked good, and the police would wave me through in traffic.”
Keswick weren’t alone; other teams were setting up too. Jim Cameron and Heaton Cooper had a team in Coniston, and Sid Cross from the Old Dungeon Ghyll had a team in Langdale.
Things were about to improve for the team, however, when one of its members called George Fisher went to Stan to tell him he was thinking of opening an outdoor shop in Keswick. The only decent outdoor shop at the time was Robert Lawrie in the west end of London. “You went to his house, were a given a cup of tea and then you shopped from what he had around the place.” Stan told George opening a shop was a great idea. George stocked his new shop with Alpine clothing and climbing equipment from Innsbruck, Austria.
Around this time Stan, George and some of the others would travel to Europe to climb. In fact Stan laughs again as he recalls a trip to the Swiss Alps, “We were British you see, so we were given lifts everywhere, we were viewed as the saviours of Europe.”
In 1949 Stan took a job at Fort William and joined Lochaber Mountain Rescue Team. “There was no radio, no HQ in fact”. Stan tells me. “We positioned ourselves in the hospital in Fort William.” As he’d done in Langdale years before, Stan was once again rubbing shoulders with the best climbers around; Hamish MacInnes, Tom Patey and W.H. Murray.
During the late 1950s and indeed right through until his return to the UK in 1980, engineering took Stan all over the world; Australia, India and Saudi Arabia. “They were good days for engineering, we had 22,000 overseas workers at one time,” he tells me. Climbing continued during these years, “I climbed the Oman Mountains, the locals thought we were off our heads,” he laughs, “They wouldn’t go up anything if there wasn’t a road up it you know.”
Skiing is Stan’s other great passion, in fact he and Des Oliver (another name you’ll recognise from The Update) were heavily involved in the early days of the Lake District Ski Club on Raise. While working abroad holidays were spent in Austria, France, Italy and Switzerland, skiing and climbing, St. Moritz being Stan’s favourite ski destination. I asked which peaks Stan had climbed in Europe; Mont Blanc and Monte Rosa are among the names he recites with a charming modesty. “I wasn’t a top notch climber, I was always too careful, I had a lot of respect for the mountains. You have to.” Had he witnessed too many accidents with the mountain rescue team? “Yes” he replies with a nod.
Stan’s final climb was a favourite of his, Gillercombe Buttress beneath Grey Knotts in Borrowdale and it wasn’t through choice either, despite Stan being 86 years old at the time. An illness shortly afterwards affected his balance and that put paid to his climbing, although he did ski on until he was almost 90.
My final question to Stan was on the origins of the white jumper he’s wearing in the black and white image from 1947. A big smile comes over his face. The story goes that a local guide by the name of Stanley Watson always wore one, “I really looked up to him and so took to wearing one myself, no matter what the weather.”
If you are reading this in Abraham’s Cafe, look around you. If Stan’s there - and he is quite often - don’t be shy, say hello. Why not ask him about Hamish MacInnes firing rockets with ropes attached, over sea stacks in Scotland so they could shimmy onto them, or about the lady they lowered off Kern Knotts on their first training exercise, or about the marvellous Dr Mitchell, or indeed the Heavy Fall on Scafell? Oh, you didn’t think that was everything did you? No, we talked and talked and talked. The truth is, I could talk with Stan all day every day!