Working alongside Patagonia we have spent the past year exploring some of our climbing history at George Fisher. We wanted to retrace the journeys and routes first taken by the Abraham brothers and to tell new stories that recapture the essence of adventure that inspired them. The walk up to the crag, the time it takes to climb a route, the experience you have with the people along the way adds up to so much more than an hour on an indoor wall. Climbing is about the excitement of exploration that the Abraham brothers pioneered. So we followed in their footsteps to rediscover adventure for ourselves.
So join us as we reclimb in the Abraham Brothers’ handholds and rediscover the adventure that trad climbing can be. Read the stories of our excursions, see photographs and beautiful hand-drawn line-scape drawings of the routes. In our first blog, we speak to Ron Kenyon and find out about his passion for climbing in the lakes.
A life-long Penrith local, Ron Kenyon started climbing at Borrowdale in the 60s and has gone on to play a crucial role in the Lake District climbing community. From his tireless work with the FRCC (The Fell & Rock Climbing Club of the English Lake District) and the British Mountaineering Council, to his authoring and co-authoring of a number of essential Borrowdale guides, his years of commitment and passion for Cumbrian climbing has helped make the renowned Borrowdale crags the climbing destination we know and love today.
With so much knowledge of Keswick and Borrowdale’s rich climbing heritage, and as a long time customer of George Fisher’s, we thought it would be great to catch up with Ron to find out more about how he became involved in climbing, what Keswick was like growing up as a climber, and what he loves so much about those Borrowdale crags.
Hi Ron, thanks for dropping in. Firstly, tell us how you got into climbing and the outdoors in the 60s.
For me, my inspiration for getting outdoors was my Auntie Kate. She was a keen walker and took me out and opened my eyes to the Lakeland fells. On the rock climbing side it was Keith King, the woodwork master at Penrith Grammar School. Keith took out quite a few pupils, often in his Singer Gazelle car, and showed us a new world awaiting on the crags.
And were you heading over to Borrowdale back then?
Borrowdale was the nearest location for climbing from Penrith. As a 14 year old lad, I used to get the bus to Keswick then on up the valley, usually up to Shepherds Crag. Many days were spent there in the mid to late 1960s.
A photo of Keswick taken from Ron's office at Saint and co accountants on the main street in the 1960s.
How did the routes then compare to what’s being climbed today? Was it easy to get hold of guides?
In the mid-60s, the only rock climbing guide available for Borrowdale was that written by Bentley Beetham which was first published in 1953 – well before climbs like Fisher’s Folly and The Bludgeon on Shepherds Crag or The Niche and Plagiarism on Falcon Crag.
The FRCC guidebook editor at the time, Harry Kelly, had been editor since 1933 and, while he’d once been very active in the rock climbing scene, he was well out of it by the 1960s. This meant the Beetham guide was still getting reprinted in 1960 and 1966, despite a huge amount of route development.
So you needed new guides...
There was a big need for new guides. Eventually Harry Kelly ceased as editor in 1964 and was replaced by John Wilkinson (Wilkie). Wilkie started on a remarkable period of editing and producing nine guides for the Lakes between 1967 and 1970 – a tremendous achievement and an excellent series of guides.
Meanwhile local climbers, Paul Ross and Mike Thompson also felt that a new guide was well overdue. In a period of six weeks they produced their own Borrowdale guide, a selective guide that covered Borrowdale together with Castle Rock and Raven Crag in Thirlmere. Before long, we had two guides to Borrowdale and this opened eyes to what else was available in the valley.
Talk us through the kind of equipment you were climbing with then. Could you get your hands on good gear?
Equipment and gear was developing but compared to today it was rudimentary. For a rope there was choice between a hawser laid rope and kernmantle, which had a sheath like modern ropes. For protection there were no friends, stoppers, hexes or quickdraws - slings were about it with nut protection developing.
Harness technology started to develop in the 1960s, but before that the rope was just tied around the waist with attendant problems should one fall off, especially into space. Our clothing was very rudimentary too. There were very little synthetic materials available back then, so cotton was the main fabric with ventile as the magic breathable fabric. Breeches were often made of materials such as moleskin and whipcord. Boots were nearly always leather and heavy.
Photos taken by Ron Kenyon, Ryan Dempsey on Conclusion at Shepherds crag 1990s. Second photo Simon Sena on Bleak Howe Buttress 1986.
What was it like being a climber in Keswick in the 1960s? Was there much of a scene to speak of?
Keswick was a different place in the 60s and a real mecca for rock climbers. As regards to the town, however, there was a saying that all the shop owners shut up shop for the winter, as not many people visited the town at that time. Many of the business owners seemed to winter in the Seychelles!
But climbers still had their haunts. George Fisher had opened his shop in Keswick in 1958 and his shop was a great place for climbers to go to for equipment and clothing and I used to go in as if I was visiting Santa’s grotto. Having a dedicated shop to the outdoors in the town was a huge step and George was well immersed in the local climbing scene as an active member of the Keswick Mountaineering Club and Keswick Mountain Rescue Team. I used to enjoy meeting and talking to Mike Nixon and Dave Weeks who worked there too.
Climbers often frequented the Lamplighter Cafe. This was run by local climber, Paul Ross, on Lake Road and I was always slightly in awe of it. I remember I visited once and Xanado by Dave, Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick and Tich was blaring out of the jukebox.
Were there any characters that stood out at that time?
There were many characters about but one interesting encounter was in 1961. I remember going for a walk up to Easedale Tarn with Auntie Kate and on the way up I met a very sprightly old chap and we had a pleasant chat. A few weeks later, I was in the Lakeside Tea Gardens, near Derwantwater, and this old chap appeared again and came over to talk to me. As a 10 year old I did not appreciate who this chap was but worked out he was George Abraham! I very much appreciated him speaking to me – I only wish I could go back in time to have a good crack with him, knowing now what I know about him and the time and adventures he was involved with.
What do you think is so special about Borrowdale?
I have been to many parts of the world but I always look forward to returning home to the Lake District and there is always a thrill just after the roundabout outside Keswick and seeing the BORROWDALE sign with the valley beckoning ahead. Is it the familiarity ... the fantastic scenery and apparent symmetry of the mountains ...... the breadth of rock climbing available in the valley .... or just a home from home?
We'd love you to share your old climbing photos with the George Fisher community. If you would like to get involved in our celebration of climbing please send your climbing shots to us using the link below and we'll share your climbing stories.
In honour of the Lake District's rich rock climbing history we’ve asked some of today’s British Climbing legends, friends of George Fisher and Patagonia UK climbing ambassadors to take on some of the Abraham Brothers’ first ascents. [check back on our blog to read the stories as they’re posted].