Climbing with Gwynn

(by Joss Lynam, from IMC Newsletter Autumn 2003)
Obituary of J.G.G. (Gwynn) Stephenson, 1922-2003, IMC member intermittently 1949-67.

I first met him in Arolla. I was leading the 1951 IMC Alpine Meet based there and he strode up the path from Les Haudères looking, (as I wrote in my diary) the picture of an English gentleman climber so that one looked, but in vain, for the unobtrusive “AC” badge.

I was glad to see him – I needed another experienced climber and over the next two weeks grew to appreciate both his skills and his forthright manner. We clicked at once – we both enjoyed argument and it was the beginning of a long, very close friendship. He was then teaching at Sherborne, an English public school in Dorset and later he used to use our house in the Lake District (where I was working in the 50s) as a staging post when he took boys from the school climbing in Scotland.

In 1952 Nora, Gwynn and I went to the Oberland. We had a good trip, climbing the classics, including the Wetterhorn and the Finsteraarhorn. But what we remember most clearly is a bit of typical Gwynn; Nora and I were using new-fangled (!) vibrams with crampons and had to wait, not always patiently, while Gwynn, in tricounis, cut his way stubbornly up the slopes. That year we began to notice his bad eyesight – one eye was gone and the other just beginning to fail. (IMCJ, Winter 1952).

It was only Gwynn and myself in 1953; Nora sprained her ankle just two days before we left. We revisited Arolla and worked our way west to finish up Mont Blanc by the rarely-climbed Rochers de Mont Blanc route on the Italian side.

In 1955 Gwynn and I were in Zermatt in mixed weather with lots of snow. However we managed our best season ever, including the Matterhorn, Weisshorn and, best of all, the Rothorngrat of the Zinal Rothorn, an epic on snow-covered rock when wiser parties turned back. (IMCJ 1955-56)

1957 was Zermatt again, with Gwynn and two friends. There was a somewhat epic traverse of the Täschhorn, and an “interesting” traverse of the Nadelhorn group. However, our main objective, the Weisshorn traverse, was frustrated by bad weather. His article on the Nadelhorn climb in IMCJ 1956-57 was typical – mixing sarcasm, praise and enjoyment.

In July-August 1958 with two friends, David and John, we went to Spiti in the Indian Himalaya. It was a wonderful trip, exploring and mapping as well as peak-bagging. The climax was crossing two unmapped glacier passes and two unknown valleys from the Spiti Valley to the Bara Shigri glacier in Lahul. The crossing was only possible because Gwynn self-sacrificingly went round the long way with the heavy baggage to meet us (IM 1958). It was typical of his generosity. We completed the trip by driving back to England. This was an epic for sure, we were broken down for four days in the desert in Iran! We’d had a training climb in Scotland in the Spring, which ended with the four of us and two Sherbourne boys falling 100m down the big gully on Bidean nam Bian, finishing in a heap of bodies, axes and crampons. Total damage one broken thumb!

In 1961, while working in India, I joined Gwynn and two others in the Bara Shigri again. This time climbing was the main objective and we made the first ascent of the highest peak at the head of the valley, Shigri Parbat (21,800 ft.).(IM 1962). Gwynn crossed a col to the head of the Khamengar valley, nearly to the point reached from the other side by Paddy O’Leary and Co almost forty years later.

In 1962 Gwynn, David and I (I was on leave from India) climbed in the Bernina-Bregaglia. The highlight was the Biancograt of the Piz Bernina, just escaping a storm which hit us when we were barely past the difficulties.

That was the last of our big climbs together. Looking for more challenge than an English public school could offer he went to teach in Kenya. On his holidays, using a jeep he covered most of East and South Africa. He said once that the African years were the best years of his life. My sister was working in Uganda, and we met Gwynn when we joined her in Kenya for a family holiday in 1972. We went to Mount Kenya to climb. Gwynn led my son Nick up Pic Lenana, while the A-team for Mount Kenya itself, Ruth and myself, groaned with altitude sickness in the hut and had to stagger down to a lower altitude. Gwynn was already packing to leave for his next challenge – a Comprehensive School in London’s East End. We wondered how he’d get on with his English upper class accent. We needn’t have worried; what came across to the pupils was his great feeling for young people and he was a great success. After retirement he settled there, perhaps the only white face in his street of terrace houses.

His blindness was worsening, but it never stopped him travelling; the scrawled postcards came from five continents. He came to Ireland quite often, to see his family here (his sister Euphan was an early IMC member) and we mostly got on the hills together. The photograph shows him on a typical day on Djouce. He always stood us a restaurant dinner when he came over, where we always argued joyfully and loudly about anything and everything – somewhat to the embarrassment of the rest of the party.

“Registered blind”, he still walked, sometimes alone in nearby Epping Forest. Nora and I joined him there one day, and he directed us through the forest, with complete confidence, though where at one place he directed us to turn left and Nora protested it was a wall of brambles, he said “oh, I just push through them!”. When he came to Dublin it became increasingly difficult to find hill walks to suit him in Wicklow – they had to be hill walks. There were more phone calls from London – “time I phoned you for an argument”.

Then eighteen months ago he had a stroke, became totally blind and diabetic and confessed to having cancer. He fought on and persuaded the social services to let him stay at home. We saw him last April, weak and in pain, but still reminding me of all my sins in our climbing days together. Over a takeaway from his favourite curry house at the end of the road we had a great evening of chat. He died five days later – a release.

He often climbed in Scotland, but I only remember three climbs with him there. About 1954 a joyous ascent of January Jigsaw on Rannoch Wall, in 1958 the aforementioned catastrophe on Bidean and in 1978 a traverse of Aonach Eagach with him and Liam Convery. He climbed surely and quickly along the ridge, but as soon as he started the descent he became painfully slow – the sloping ground that bit further distant a blur to his failing sight.

He climbed at least once in Norway – Ronnie Wathen describes climbing with Gwynn in Lyngen in IMCJ 1955-56.

His name is in the Dalkey guide – he made the first ascent of Charleston with the late Charlie McCormack in 1958.

As he requested, his ashes were scattered from the top of the Great Sugarloaf on 27th September.

Re-reading what I have written, perhaps Gwynn comes across as opinionated and obstinate; but his purpose – good-tempered but with wicked grin – was to rouse you to counter attack. In her funeral oration, his great-niece Beatty summed him up perfectly – irrepressible, impossible, irreplaceable.

For Nora, Ruth, Clodagh and I he is … irreplaceable.