The Only Genuine Jones
|“He [Jones] was never so happy as when in a really 'tight' place, and to many climbers the spirit and energy shown by him under most trying circumstances will act as an incentive to worthy imitation. As a climber he was unique, and many years must elapse ere another can hope to fill his place worthily; but, as a friend under all circumstances, he was always to be depended upon, for the weakest and heaviest members in every party were generally his special care, and many can never forget his true unselfishness and the kindly way in which personal blunders were criticised.” |
George Dixon Abraham quoted in A Memoir by W.M. Crooke (1900)
|Portrait and signature of Owen Glynne Jones from his book Rock-climbing in the English Lake District.|
|Photo: Abraham Bros.|
In hindsight, perhaps it would have been wise for the young George to have been wary of his friend’s advice, because his friend on this occasion was one Owen Glynne Jones, a man not only liked and respected for his extraordinary achievements as a climber, but also for his sharp wit, mischievous sense of humour and munificent personality; there have been few climbers, before or since, blessed with as much charisma as this one man. But before the writer begins to lay out his subject’s life as best he can, perhaps a short introduction to the era in which he climbed is first required.
The penultimate decade of the 19th century saw what is widely regarded as the birth of British rock climbing. Hitherto, the attentions of Britain’s mountaineers had been drawn away from their native hills to the more coveted prizes of the Alps and Caucus and it wasn’t until a young Walter Parry Haskett Smith, after a field trip to the English Lake District, hit upon the notion of climbing for its own sake that the opportunities that lay closer to home began to be realised. Although slow at first, his example led to a growing stream of imitators, and the ensuing period of intense exploration was only cut short by the intervention of the Great War, which whisked away Britain’s young men to less rewarding occupations.
In these few decades, many men, and to a lesser extent women (these being less enlightened times), made their names on the pillars and precipices of the Lakeland Fells, Welsh Moels and Scottish Creags; they came not only with a taste for exploration, but with a keen intellect, a sharp wit, and a romantic eye. Owen Glynne Jones was one such man, who in a short but explosive climbing career was to have a significant and lasting influence on the sport we know today. Known for both his ability as a climber and for his generous character, between the years of 1888 and 1899 he climbed extensively both at home and abroad, established some of the hardest routes of the time, experimented with new techniques and styles, many of which were years ahead of their time, advocated the rights of all to access the countryside regardless of class, and in his guidebook, Rock Climbing in the English Lake District (1897), laid the foundations for the British Grading System we know today.
The Early Years
|“I learned that Jones was at South Kensington ; he told me he first learned serious climbing on Cader Idris; I marvelled at his wonderful grip of the rocks, his steady head, his extraordinary power of balancing himself on one foot in what seemed to me then almost impossible positions, and I felt that his enthusiasm would soon lead him to the Alps... his heart was already there.” W.M. Crooke – A Memoir (1900)|
Jones’ upbringing was in many ways typical of its time; early in the 1860s his parents, David, a carpenter and stonemason by trade, and Eliza (née Griffiths), decided to follow the growing trend of rural out-migration and left their family home near Barmouth in North Wales for more prosperous occupations elsewhere. But unlike so many of their fellow countrymen, instead of choosing the coal fields of South Wales or the mills of the English Midlands, they chose to settle in London, and so on the 2nd of November 1867 Jones was born into the centre of the world’s greatest empire.
|The mountains and crags surrounding the Mawddach Valley were to quickly become Jones' own special preserve. On the right-hand side of the photograph is Barmouth Bridge, which was completed in the same year as Jones’ birth and is still used by the trains of the Cambrian Line to this day.|
|Photo: Dan Harris|
He was schooled at a boarding-school in Ealing until his mother’s death in 1882. This being a time before state subsidised childcare, Jones’ father, finding himself unable to both earn a living and care for his two children (Jones had a younger sister, Margaret Ellen) on his own, decided to move back to his family in Wales, taking up residence with relatives in Barmouth. Since the family’s absence much had changed in the town, which thanks to the arrival of the Cambrian Railway in 1867, had been transformed from a remote ship building village into growing tourist destination. It was still worlds apart from London though; the traditional way of life was as ever strong, and Welsh, was in general, the language of the street and the dinner table. Although Jones was to be schooled elsewhere, he spent the remainder of his childhood here, growing up under the shadow of Meirionnydd’s most imposing peak, Cadair Idris. Holidays were spent exploring the surrounding hills and high places, and it is arguable that if he had not returned to Wales at this time, then he may never have taken up the embryonic sport of rock climbing. Cadair Idris was to have a lasting effect on the young Jones, it was to be the scene of his first proper rock climb, and it was in many ways to become his own special preserve. The photographer Ashley Abraham would later write that Jones’ enthusiasm for the mountain was infectious and that when climbing together, his appreciation of the finest Lakeland climbs was invariably tempered with some remark about the Great Gully on Craig Cau. – “’Ah’, he [Jones] would say disparagingly ‘this is not bad, but wait until you see Craig y Cae’ or ‘oh yes, this pitch is all right as pitches go’ (he was now sitting on the top of the Great Chimney in Deep Ghyll), ‘but it is nothing to one I know in Wales’ ”.
|The jagged profile of the Cyfrwy Arête forms a striking backdrop to the Mawddach Valley.|
|Photo: Dan Harris|
It was during his time at the Central Institute that Jones makes his first appearance on the British climbing scene. On the 18th of May 1888, while holidaying in Barmouth, he set out for the northern flank of Cadair Idris. Here the grey screes of the mountain stretch out discordantly along the Mawddach Estuary; at their centre they are pierced by a sharp ridge of broken granite jutting out prominently from the bulk of the mountain. Armed with nothing more than what he had gleaned from the assortment of alpine books and journals of the Institute’s library, Jones proceeded to ascend the ridge solo, thus completing the first recorded rock climb on the mountain – the 142m East Ridge of the Cyfrwy Arête. The route is still held in high regard and is given the modern grade of Difficult. Despite Jones’ enthusiasm for the mountain, he would not record any further significant ascents there until he returned with a strong party in 1895 when Great Gully and East Gully on Craig Cau were both reduced. Both ascents were highly impressive feats for the time; the former is now given a grade of Severe and the latter Hard Severe. Over the next few years he would claim most of the exploratory routes on that mountain.
Conquering the Alps
|“A good series of Cumberland climbing photographs were lately at the Schwarzsee, and under the shadow of the noble old Matterhorn, a, party of German cragsmen were ridiculing the idea that anything good in their line of sport could be found in England. Whereupon a, patriot rose and brought them the photographs. "Ach Gott! These men are terrible, they attempt the impossible!" and they, with strenuous verbal effort, decided that Englishmen at home must be madder than when abroad.”Owen Glynne Jones - English Climbing Considered Mainly from an Alpine Standpoint (1898)|
Jones completed his first Alpine season in the summer of 1891, shortly after obtaining the newly created post of physics master at the City of London School. Jones was a natural teacher and his stories of climbing and the mountains enthralled the boys under his tutelage; one of his favourite tricks was to climb around the school’s common room without touching the floor, although even his skills were no match for one impossible pitch by the fireplace. More importantly, schoolmastering provided Jones with the time he desired for climbing, and henceforth this activity consumed all his spare time and money. It also introduced him to his great friend and climbing partner Frederick William Hill (1863–1935), who was the second master at the school; the two were to climb with one another frequently hereafter.
Despite being new to Alpinism, his 1891 season was a busy one and his summit count included Dent des Bosses, Grande Dent de Veisivi, M. Capucin, Tete de Cordon, Tote d'Ariondet, Grand Combin and Grivola. Having acquired a taste for large mountains, he returned the following year and bagged an even more impressive tally, which included Thalihorn, Rossbodenjoch, Mittaghorn, Egginerhorn, Combin de Corbassiere, Pic du Tacul, M. Redessan and the Matterhorn.
April 1893 (there was to be no summer expedition this year) saw Jones back in the Alps where he climbed the Dente Blanche (4356m) from Evolène, completing the entire expedition in less than thirty-six hours. In an interview, which appeared in the press in 1894, Jones said of the climb:
|The Dom, where Jones received his unfortunate case of frostbite.|
|Photo: Andre Hangaard|
"The longest day I ever had afoot was at Easter, '93, doing the Dent Blanche. We took two guides and a porter, and had great difficulty in getting them to attempt the last two hundred feet. We were out in the open for thirty-six hours, with very short rests, no sleep, and excessive labour, but we revelled in every minute of it. The mountain was in a dangerous condition, and the last five hours on the way home we spent in wading, waist-deep, through soft snow. It was rather painful, of course, but there was a certain pleasure even in our pain, for it helped to make philosophers of us. We agreed to think of other things in the midst of our sufferings, and we succeeded creditably well. I believe now that I could stand almost anything in the way of pain or exposure."
Over the succeeding six years he climbed most of the great peaks around Chamonix, Grindelwald, Zermatt, and Saas Fee and in 1894 even turned his rock climbing skills to the Dolomites. One incident in his short but splendid Alpine career is rather bizarre. To treat himself for a case of frostbite received while climbing on the Don, a mountain he had visited many times before (this in 1898), he plunged his hand into a vat of boiling glue. The result was a hand deformed into a kind of permanent claw, which he cheerfully rationalized as being of benefit to his climbing!
On Native Rock
|“His attitude towards himself was precisely that of a marine engineer towards his engines. He quite admits that the machinery is high-class, but his modest pride centres in the fact that he knows how to make the most of it, and can get more work out of it than another man would. He is great on the relative values of different sorts of fuel and different lubricants, and can tell you exactly what his beloved engines have done under "forced draught" or " all-day-steam," with a leading wind or against head-seas... The book before us gives many hints of this tendency, and also of his extraordinary faculty for climbing under unfavourable conditions. Cold and wet seemed to stimulate him, and the worse the weather the better he climbed. In Wales and Cumberland this gave him a great advantage, but in the Alps it led him to under-estimate the importance of weather, and brought him a reputation for imprudence. Mr. Crook's estimate of his powers as a rock climber will probably meet with general approval. For what is called "style," he perhaps trusted rather too much to his unusually powerful grip ; but, in all-round effectiveness, he had scarcely a superior among amateurs.”Anonymous Writer - Reviews: Rock Climbing in the English Lake District, Second Edition (1900)|
While the Alps may have become something of an obsession for Jones, he did not turn his back on his own country, and while summers, and sometimes winters, were spent among Europe’s greater ranges, the majority of his time was spent on his home crags. On Easter 1890 had paid his first visit to Wasdale Head in the Lake District, which was at the time the centre of English climbing. 1890 appears to be a pivotal year for Jones as it marks a change in his focus from the crags of Wales to those of Cumbria. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that his father died in the same year, and his connection to Barmouth and the surrounding area weakened. At Wasdale he was by chance to meet W.M. Crooke, who Jones, in the first paragraph of his book Rock Climbing in the English Lake District, was to thank for introducing him to Lakeland Climbing. Later, Crooke described this first encounter:
|Climbers on the East side of Pillar Rock, the scene of Jones' first Lakeland climb.|
|Photo: Abraham Bros.|
"Having broken away from the party with whom I had been spending most of my holiday in Borrowdale, I made my way to Wastdale Head Inn. I picked up a chance acquaintance with two young fellows in the inn, and we agreed to go together to climb the Pillar Rock with the aid of a ' Prior's Guide ' which I had in my pocket.Jones’ enthusiasm for climbing was boundless, with his appreciation for the sport extending far beyond the ‘simple’ physical challenges it presented. The first chapter of his book Rock Climbing in the English Lake District (1897) is an ode to this love, in which he writes:
When we commenced the ascent, which proved very easy - I believe we went up the easiest way - the dark, slim young fellow somehow naturally assumed the lead. Before we started he had discovered that I had been to Switzerland and had done some climbs there, so he was very modest about his own powers. A few seconds on the rocks dissipated all doubt. With great confidence and speed, climbing cleanly and safely, he soon showed he was no ordinary climber. I had been out with some very tolerable Swiss guides, but never before with a man to whom rock-climbing seemed so natural and easy. My curiosity was excited. He could not be one of the great climbers, for he had never been out of the British Islands, but he could climb.
On the top we found a small, rusty tin box, in which were a number of visiting cards... One of us produced a card, on which the other two wrote their names. The dark young fellow signed his name ' O. G. Jones.' I wonder if that card is there still."
"It [climbing]satisfies many needs; the love of the beautiful in nature; the desire to exert oneself physically, which with strong men is a passionate craving that must find satisfaction somehow or other; the joy of conquest without any woe to the conquered; the prospect of continual increase in one's skill, and the hope that this skill may partially neutralize the failing in strength that comes with advancing age or ill-health”.
The next key event in Jones’ career came six years later when he made an unexpected call on a small photography shop in Keswick and introduced himself to brothers George and Ashley Abraham. Unbeknownst to the brothers, several years earlier Jones had come across one of their photographs of Napes Needle in a London shop window and it had been this moment that had inspired him to take up the sport. By now Jones was an experienced climber of some distinction. Cool of head and bold in movement, he was from the gymnastic school of climbing, able to rely on his considerable strength to push him through any encountered difficulty; this combined with his natural balance and sure footedness made him a formidable presence on the crag. It’s not for nothing that he was known amongst his friends as ‘The Gymnast’. George Abraham even claimed that "One Christmastime an ice axe was arranged as a horizontal bar . . . He [Jones] grasped the bar with three fingers of his left hand, lifted me with his right arm, and by sheer force of muscular strength raised his chin to the level of the bar three times". What’s more, his genial personality had made him extremely popular with his contemporaries; he climbed with a great number of partners regardless of their previous experience and all were said to be comfortable in his presence and to have been given confidence by his lead; the Abraham brothers for example appear to have almost idolised their friend and Jones’ partnership with the two photographers, along with his skilful self-promotion, was to have a huge influence in popularising the sport.
With the two photographers alongside he undertook an exploration of some of the most formidable crags in the Lake District, and in doing so gained a great number of first ascents to his name. For the Abraham brothers, the finest of these were Scafell Pinnacle, from the second pitch in Deep Ghyll, and Walker's Gully on Pillar Rock, both of which had long been thought to be unclimbable. Today the former is given a grade of Hard Severe, while the latter receives a grade of Mild Very Severe 4c. Technically Walker's Gully was Jones' hardest climb, which he claimed in the unseasonably mild January of 1899.
|How do you spend your Christmas'? Jones and co. on the first winter ascent of Napes Needle, 25th December 1896.|
|Photo: Abraham Bros.|
While Jones may be best known for his work on rock, his achievements on snow and ice should not be underestimated either. It’s unfortunate that traditionally winter first ascents were never recorded in Wales, so what he accomplished there remains to be a relative unknown. In the Lake District however, first ascents were recorded systematically and so we have a good idea of what was going on there at the time. Many of his winter routes it seems were simply repeats of rock routes, which owing to the season were garnished with a dusting of snow. For example, on the 25th of December 1896 he and several others recorded the first winter ascent of Napes Needle. These were not a winter climb in the true sense, since they did not require the specialist skills of the winter climber (such as they were in those early days), but there is no doubt that the addition of snow and ice would have made for a more challenging climb.
Jones did more than just climb old rock routes though and Christmas holidays were often spent in the pursuit of true winter ascents. Of these, Oblique Chimney on Great Gable and Moss Gill on Scafell Pike stand out as being the most impressive. In purely technical terms, Oblique Chimney, which is given a modern grade of IV, 5, was almost certainly one of the two most difficult winter climbs undertaken in the Lake District prior to the Great War. In Rock Climbing in the English Lake District, Jones wrote that "the smooth walls of the gully were black and shiny with ice", but this of course failed to deter him and he set about the challenge with characteristic gusto, emerging victorious an hour later. While Jones revelled in his triumph, his partner Leo Amery was feeling slightly less enthusiastic, he later wrote: "I remember being able to look down between my legs into what seemed a bottomless abyss of writhing snow. It had been snowing all day and by the time we had overcome the chimney and were nearing the top of the mountain it was not only blowing a blizzard, but it was dark into the bargain". This was on January 3rd 1893. Six days later Jones climbed Moss Gill, which while being less technically demanding (it is given a grade of IV, 4), is probably an even greater achievement for Jones ascended it solo. This is even more impressive in light of the fact he did so despite the encumbrance of a clinometer and a couple of broken ribs sustained by a fall from the Collie Step (luckily saved from worse thanks to the backrope he had fixed through a chockstone).
Though his climbing was now largely concerned with the crags and buttresses of the Lake District, he still made regular visits to Snowdonia, introducing many friends to the area, climbing almost all of the established routes and putting up many of his own. Here his Welsh roots shone through; he would humorously refer to himself as ‘The Only Genuine Jones’ and playfully chide his English companions over their mispronunciation of Welsh names. While he may be better known for his Lakeland climbs, today his most repeated line is probably the Ordinary Route on the Milestone Buttress of Tryfan, which he recorded in 1899. Today it's given the modern grade of Difficult. The Abraham brothers were to accompany him on trips to Wales in 1896, 1897 and twice in 1899 where he was to be their ‘local guide’. It is fortunate that he did so, because as events were to turn out, the brothers were to become key figures in the development of Welsh climbing.
The Kern Knotts Controversy
|"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."Alan Hankinson – First Tigers (1971)|
Jones’ tactics did not go unnoticed. While rock climbing may still have been a young sport, around the dinner tables and mantelpieces of Wasdale Head and Pen-y-Pass the ethics in which it was to be conducted were already the source of much discussion. Many felt that such methods were contrary to the spirit of climbing, which was borne out of a desire for exploration and self reliance, and that the only ethical way in which a route should be climbed was ground-up and on-sight. Such ethics may seem trivial to some non-climbers, but in a sport that has no real rules, such ethics are paramount, and in Britain at least, are now engrained within its very fabric.
One of his most vocal critics was a young Cambridge student named Aleister Crowley, who will be know to most for other reasons. In his Confessions (1929) Crowley not only attacked Jones’ methods but also his ability:
|“Jones had been blowing his trumpet about the first ascent of Kern Knotts Chimney; the top pitch, however, he had failed to do unaided. He had been hoisted on the shoulders of the second man. I went to have a look at it and found that by wedging a stone into a convenient crack, and thus starting a foot higher up, I could get to the top, and did so. I recorded this in the Climbers' Book; and the following day a man named H. V. Reade, possibly in a sceptical mood, followed in my footsteps. He found my wedged stone, contemptuously threw it away, climbed the pitch without it, and recorded the feat. That was a double blow to Mr. Jones. It was no longer a convincing argument that if he couldn't do a thing it couldn't be done.|
But this was not all. Scafell is separated from Scafell Pikes by a pass called Mickledoor; and on the Scafell side it is precipitous. The ridge of the pass is well-marked; by going down a little, on one side one can climb the cliffs by the Broad Stand or Mickeldoor Chimney, on the other side by the North Climb; and so on. But it had been the ambition of every climber to start from the exact top of the ridge. This was called the direct climb of Mickledoor; and nobody had done it. That seemed to be a shame, so I did it. This time the fat was in the fire. My good faith was openly challenged in the smoking-room. I shrugged my shoulders, but offered to repeat the climb the following day before witnesses --- which I accordingly did. I suppose I am a very innocent ass, but I could not understand why anyone calling himself human should start a series of malicious intrigues on such a cause of quarrel. I must admit that my methods were sometimes calculated to annoy; but I had no patience with the idiotic vanity of mediocrities. I took the Climbers' Record to be a serious complication and never wrote in it without the fullest sense of responsibility. So when I found a solemn Te Deum being chanted on account of the fifth ascent of the Pillar Rock by a 'lady', I took my dog to the top and recorded, 'First ascent by a St. Bernard bitch.' When Jones, after the usual practice, had climbed Kern Knotts Crack, and three public school masters, who ought to have known better, said they had seen him do it, and it was a marvellous exhibition of skill and so on, I completed their remarks by a colophon: (Advt.) So much fuss was made about Kern Knotts Crack that Eckenstein took a young girl named Miss. Nicholls and asked her to lead up it, which she did".
It should perhaps be noted at this point that Crowley, while lavishing praise and adulation upon his friends, would treat those he did not like with a scorn and contempt that had an almost gleeful ferocity, and he does not seem to have liked Jones. Again, this is more than evident in his writing:
|Great Gable - the scene of many of Jones' triumphs.|
|Photo: Dan Harris|
This animosity is perhaps as much a result of Crowley’s prickly nature as it is a result of the prevailing attitudes towards sport and recreation during the late Victorian era. Practicing regular sport, at least for the masses, would not have been possible if it had not been for the social and technological advances made during the second half of the 19th century. In 1853 Wordsell’s of Birmingham became the first factory to give its workers Saturday afternoon off, a revolutionary practice that quickly spread to the rest of the country, this combined with the growth of the railway network created a mobile population with leisure time to spend. This mobility, to a degree at least, extended into Britain’s social fabric, whereby hard work, a bit of luck and the ownership of some land allowed entry into the upper classes. It was this mobility that probably led to the well known British phenomenon of snobbery, as people attempted to emulate classes above their own; it was inevitable that these conflicting social characteristics were reflected in sport.
As a result, amateurism was held in the highest regard and it is no coincidence that those who were able to peruse its ideals were those wealthy, landed individuals for whom work was an unnecessary sideline. For example, in rowing, the "mechanics clause" excluded manual labourers from amateur competition, and as late as the 1920s, Olympic gold medallist Jack Kelly was banned from rowing at Henley because he had once been a brick layer. These attitudes also filtered down into the small world of climbing.
By the 1890s two distinct, schools of climbers had grown in England and Wales, which perhaps illustrate these characteristics like no other, namely the Lakeland climbers and the Welsh climbers. Since there was a great deal of permeability between the two, the schools can never be seen as being entirely separate, with individuals enjoying the mountains and company of their respective areas and ‘members’. The Welsh climbers, who were in fact mostly English but did most of their climbing in North Wales, were by and large upper-class gentlemen, intellectuals and professionals. They were wealthy, clever and cultured and had among their ranks some of the highest regarded poets, authors, philosophers and scientists of their day; perhaps there has never been a group with a higher combined IQ than that which gathered at the Pen-y-Pass Hotel at Easter and Christmas each year. They saw the mountains, and their sport of climbing them, through romantic eyes and believed that their sport could only be practised and fully enjoyed by individuals such as themselves. It is telling, how in his inaugural speech as President of the newly formed Climbers’ Club (of which Jones had been a founding member), C.M. Matthews gushed with satisfaction over the club's membership:
Lakeland climbing on the other hand was more of a local affair and its main participants were, in general, Cumbrian professionals and tradesperson’s who while being well educated and cultured, did not quite match the levels at which the Welsh climbers considered themselves. Jones fit in well here, he was not from an affluent background or particularly wealthy himself, he did not attend Eaton, Oxford or Cambridge and while his job as a schoolmaster was a good one, it was not remarkably so. That said, with the exception of Crowley, he seems to have been able to transcend this divide and was apparently liked and well received by all. Most animosity seems to have been directed towards his two companions, the Abraham Brothers, who through their photography business made a living from climbing, thereby offending the fragile ideals of the amateur.
|“To write realistically about rock climbing is one of the hardest things in the world; and to understand what the writer is striving to explain, when he is narrating the overcoming or circumvention of difficulties, is often almost impossible even with the work of the most gifted authors. ”Owen Glynne Jones - English Climbing Considered Mainly from an Alpine Standpoint (1898)|
|“Altogether, author and illustrator are to be heartily congratulated on a book which should find a place on every climber's shelves. Old frequenters of Wastdale, turning its pages, will live over again days of their own upon the fells, and many to whom Wastdale is only a name will be drawn to come and see for themselves. May newcomers be fit though they be not few, may the best mountain inn in Britain never become a "fashionable hotel," and may Mrs Tyson and her hospitable household still, in the rush of new friends, keep a corner for the old ones.”|
|“Our [British] Alpine climbers of the highest rank are born, not made. But most of the others, taking with them some natural aptitude and plenty of money, are made abroad. Why do they not take their preliminary training for a year or two in Wales, or Cumberland, or on the Scottish hills? It would be much wiser and cheaper to support the ' home industry' so far as it goes, before making their debuts on the high Alps. Our British hills can give them no glacier practice, but they can learn a vast deal concerning rock-climbing before they leave the country. To such as these the book is primarily dedicated. There are no professional guides in Cumberland who know anything about the rocks. The amateur must come out and manage for himself. But it is here intended to show that the Cumberland school is a well-graded one; that the novice can start with the easiest and safest of expeditions, and can work his way up to a standard of skill comparing favourably with that of the average Swiss guide. There is nothing so instructive as guideless climbing, be it ever so humble in character. It makes the man wonderfully critical when taken in hand by guides later on, and renders him also much more able to profit by their practical instruction.”|
British climbing as preperation for the Alps is a recurrent theme in Jones’ writing, and he published several articles on the matter, the most notable perhaps being English Climbing Considered Mainly from an Alpine Standpoint, in Volume 1 of the Climbers’ Club Journal. It strongly eludes to the way in which he viewed his respective pastimes, namely rock climbing and Alpinism. According to Crooke, Jones was rather inclined to underrate his work on the rocks of Snowdonia and the Lake District and considered his Alpine feats to be his greatest accomplishments. Crooke felt, and with some justification, that while his friend’s Alpine career was highly impressive, it was no match to his home one, and that his greatest influence would always be on his native rock. Time perhaps, was to prove Crooke right.
The Accident on the Dent Blanche
|“The musical gatherings in the evenings seem now to lack one voice, and nought but sadness can be left for many of those who remember companionships which can never be replaced.”George Dixon Abraham quoted in A Memoir by W.M. Crooke (1900)|
The summer of 1899 saw Jones back in the Alps. The first part of the season was spent in Zermatt, and then onto Arolla where he met F.W. Hill at the Kurhaus Hotel. They began their climbing with the two Dents de Veisivi and the Dent Perroc, which they completed in twelve hours from the Kurhaus and back. Then followed the Aiguille de la Za, a traverse of all the peaks of the Aiguilles Rouges, Mont Blanc de Seilon and the Pigne d'Arolla in one day, the Dent des Bouquetins, and a traverse of Mont Collon. On the 28th August, Jones and Hill set out on a hot and dusty Sunday morning for the West, or Ferpècle, Arête of the Dent Blanche, a route graded today as D+. In the sort of bizarre coincidence that often seem to occur in mountains both home and abroad, the night before Jones had bumped into his old friend W.M Crooke in the Kurhaus, who now accompanied the party on their stroll. As they slowly walked along the valley the two chatted freely; Jones spoke enthusiastically of all his climbs, of their first meeting nine years before, and of all that had happened since. At around 12.30 Jones and Hill met their three guides Furrer of Stalden, Zurbriggen (Clemens) of Saas-im-Grund, and Vuignier of Evolène at Hauderes, and here, after arranging to meet up in Zermatt on Tuesday afternoon, Crooke bid the two farewell and continued on his way, while Jones et al made their way towards their objective. According to Crooke, the party had intended on spending the night under a rock on the Ferpècle Arête, but for reasons unknown altered their plans and slept at the Bricolla Alp instead.
For reasons unknown, the rope between Vuignier and Hill had failed, but it almost certainly saved his life. Later he would recall the event:
|“It is difficult to analyse my sensations at that moment. My main feeling was one of astonishment that I was still there. I can only suppose that Vuignier had belayed my rope securely to protect himself and me during our long wait on the traverse.”|
He was now alone and in a difficult position, and what followed was a feat of quite remarkable courage and endurance that would eventually see him safely back in Zermatt. Save for five raisins, he had no food or water, he had no watch and his knowledge of the ground that lay before him was sketchy at best. Due of the technicality of the ascent, it was now impossible for Hill to down-climb via the same course, and naturally he did not wish to attempt the same line that Furrer had failed to complete. The only option he felt left to him was to attempt to turn the gendarme on the right and continue the climb to the summit. With difficulty, this was accomplished and he gained the crest of the ridge; within another hour he gained the summit itself. On reaching the summit he fancied he could hear someone shout a faint ‘cooey’, which he thought must have come from the party he had seen earlier that day; but he could not see them now and when he called back he received no reply. Fortunately, their footprints were still visible, and with reasonable speed he made his way down the mountain’s South Ridge, hoping to catch-up and overtake them. But by the time he had reached the ridge’s lowest gendarme, the fickle Alpine weather intervened and a sudden mist, which was followed by snow, obstructed the view. Thus, at around 2 pm, progress was rendered impossible. The poor weather compelled him to seek shelter and there on the gendarme he wedged himself into a shallow cave, tying into his remaining rope and jamming his ice-axe in two clefts in the rock to prevent himself from falling out. The cave was to be his home for some twenty-two hours.
Later that day a telegram from Zermatt arrived in Arolla bringing news that “A tourist and three guides have fallen from the Dent Blanche”, though it made no mention of names. When news of Hill’s survival reached the town though, it was clear who the casualties had been. Search parties were sent out from Zermatt, Arolla and Evolène, and among the Arolla team was W.M. Crooke. The men searched through the night among the crevasses, ice falls and seracs below of the Dent Blanche and shortly after 10 am on Thursday, in the cool light of an Alpine morning, the indistinct shapes of what looked like bodies were spotted high among the rocks of the Ferpècle. Their bodies were soon recovered and carried down the mountain on wooden poles to Hauderes, where their caskets awaited them.
The following Saturday Jones’ plain black coffin, which was adorned with a simple gilt cross, was bought down from Hauderes and he was buried, along with Vuignier, in the little graveyard of the Roman Catholic Church in Evolène, almost in sight of the glorious but terrible mountain on which they met their fate. The little church was packed with the men, women and children of the village, who save for the acolytes and choir who wore brown, were all dressed in coarse white robes. A small group of Englishmen, tanned from their own mountain exploits, congregated at the rear of the building to witness the solemn service, which took place in a faith not of their own. After the service the two coffins were taken out into the graveyard where an Anglican chaplain performed an English burial service over Jones' grave, which was marked with a modest wooden cross. It is with grim irony that on the day before his death, when asked about the huge amount of climbing he had done, Jones had replied: “You see there are only a few years in which I can do this sort of thing, and I want to get as much into them as possible”. How few he could not have known.
He was just 31 years old on the day of his death; he had not married and was survived by his only sister Margaret Ellen who he had been supporting.
|“Mountaineering may be regarded as one of the youngest of our sports, and its development amongst the homeland mountains is of comparatively recent origin. Until the late Owen Glynne Jones wrote his book, Rock Climbing in the English Lake District, which is now regarded as a classic, intimate acquaintance with the British mountains was confined to a select few. He had tasted to the full the keenest joys of the sport, and used to urge that every healthy Englishman would be improved, morally and physically, by mountaineering. Now, ten years after his sad loss on the Dent Blanche, it is seen that his favourite theory is being put into practice beyond all expectations.”George Dixon Abraham - British Mountain Climbs (1909)|
One of Jones’ greatest achievements was his popularisation of climbing by means of his tireless self promotion; however, without his great ability as a climber this alone would have amounted to very little. For in the field of rock climbing, there is no doubt that Jones was among the most able of his day. It could be argued, as many have done, that his ability was largely a result of his strength and boldness, rather than pure technical ability; this however, would be to ignore the bigger picture. For example, his achievements on Kern Knotts and Walker's Gully were superior to anything else in Britain at the time and are comparable to those of the contemporary Saxon free-climbing pioneers of the Elbsandstein area, making him one of the true forerunners of modern rock climbing. It is also important not to underestimate the importance of his use of headpointing as a means of exploring potential routes. While the British climbing community may have been slow in warming to the idea, it is now a common technique used by those climbing at their limit, and it could be argued that without it many of our hardest routes would never have been climbed by conventional means.
Perhaps Jones’ greatest legacy is the one he did not fulfil. In the spring of 1899 he had been planning an expedition to climb in the Himalaya with the Abraham brothers; how different might the landscape of British mountaineering history be had he managed to do so?
ReferencesBooks and Journals
Anonymous writer (1898) Mountaineering Literature: Rock-Climbing in the English Lake District, Scottish Mountaineering Club Journal Vol. 5 No. 1, 42-44.
Anonymous writer (1900) Reviews: Rock Climbing in the English Lake District, Second Edition, Climbers’ Club Journal, Vol. 3 No. 9, 42-44.
Archer Thomson, J.M and Andrews, A.W. (1909) The Climbs on Lliwedd, Edward Arnold, London.
Abraham, G.D. and Abraham A.P (1906) Rock Climbing in North Wales, G.P, Abraham and Sons, Keswick.
Abraham, G.D. (1909) British Mountain Climbs, Mills and Boon Ltd, London.
Crocker, M., Jones, E., Rosser, M., Sumner, J., Taylor, T. and Wrennall, D. (2002) Climbers' Club Guides to Wales: Meirionnydd, Ernest Press, Glasgow.
Crooke, W.M. (1899) The Accident on the Dente Blanche, Climbers’ Club Journal, Vol. 2 No. 6, 81-86.
Crowley, A. (1929) The Confessions of Aleister Crowley, Mandrake Press, Cambridge.
Davison, B. (2006) Lake District Winter Climbs: Snow, Ice and Mixed Climbs in the English Lake District, Cicerone Press, Milnthorpe.
Fell and Rock Climbing Club (2003) Lake District Rock: Selected Rock Climbs in the English Lake District, Ernest Press, Glasgow.
Goedeke, R. (2003) The Alpine 4000m Peaks by the Classic Routes, Bâton Wicks, London.
Hankinson, A. (1972) The First Tigers, J. M. Dent & Sons, London.
Hankinson, A. (1977) The Mountain Men: An Early History of Rock Climbing in North Wales, Heinemann, London.
Jones, O.G (1897) Rock Climbing in the English Lake District, E.J. Morten, Manchester.
Jones, O.G. (1898) English Climbing Considered mainly from an Alpine Standpoint, Climbers’ Club Journal, Vol. 1 No. 2, 29-42.
Those unfamiliar with some of the more technical terms used in this article or the British grading system can find a little help over on www.ukclimbing.com:
A Glossary of Climbing terms: from Abseil to Zawn
Grade Comparison Tables