FM 1967-1976 by Mick Ward

FM 1967-1976 by Mick Ward

Summer 1967

I leave our little caravan early and start up the Bloody Bridge river valley. At the first bend, I turn and look round. Silver light glimmers on an azure sea. My mother waves wistfully from the caravan door. Stifling my doubts, I wave back to her.

My first whole day in the Mournes is spent determinedly peak bagging. First Slieve Donard (prize of prizes) once more, then the scarcely less dominating Commedagh -mountain of the watching. Then across Slievenaglogh to the huge bite of Hare’s Gap.

Tiring on the long slog up Bearnagh. Then Meelmore. Finally Meelbeg. In a few crowded hours of glorious life, my tally of two thousanders has leaped from one to five. Ecstatic, I stand alone on the summit of Meelbeg. My Annapurna!

Yet as with Herzog on Annapurna, ecstasy rapidly dissolves into awkward choices. It’s getting late. In my fourteen-year-old naivete, I haven’t paced myself. I’ve also completely disregarded the consequences of success. I’m in the innermost part of the Mournes. The coast must be regained before dark. Weariness dictates that going back the way I came isn’t a viable option.

My experience of navigation is well-nigh zero. Nevertheless I make a bold, direct choice, charting a course between Doan and Ben Crom, dropping steeply beneath the latter and crossing Silent Valley via the dam wall. But then comes a critical error. Shaky with fatigue, struggling up the steep hillside, aiming for the col between Lamagan and Binnian, I go too high. Unwittingly traversing the nape of Lamagan, I encounter a mass of smooth granite slabs flush with the hillside, dropping hundreds of feet to a dark, evil little loch.

Time mercifully shields me from the full memory of that terrible afternoon so long ago. The hills are deserted. There’s no help to be had. I smother the trembling urge towards blind panic. Trapped on these bare five-hundred-foot slabs, with sickening exposure, I must fight my way across. Somehow progress is made. At one juncture, I hang from a clump of heather roots which slide from the soil with horrible finality. ‘This is it,’ an inner voice murmurs, ‘You’re going to die.’ Yet the final tendrils stubbornly grip. I survive.

Afternoon yields to evening. I stagger across a menacingly empty valley and up the long grind of hillside. By my calculations, the Mourne wall must be directly ahead, beckoning the way to the Bloody Bridge river valley and safety. I plod up a hummock and peer anxiously. No wall. Up another hummock. No wall. The acid bile of failure rises within me.

On the third hummock, I trip sprawling in the peat hag. Picking myself up, shaking with exhaustion, filthy with black mud, I disbelievingly stare at the beautiful symmetry of the Mourne wall. Clambering over it, peering at the valley and the far-off sea, I could weep with relief. I plod downwards, ignoring the pain of long-burst blisters. Finally there’s the refuge of the caravan and my mother, frantic with worry. I’ve been out for fourteen hours, one for each year of my life. Little food and no water. Not once saw a soul. I make light of it to my mother but, in my heart, I know the bitter truth. This day, ignorance nearly got you killed. It’s a lesson I never quite forget.

***

Autumn 1968

Through knowledge we progress. I’m the proud owner of a climbing guidebook, skeletal by contemporary standards, yet an endless source of delight. Apparently Slieve Lamagan means ‘the mountain which must be ascended on hands and knees’ – which sounds about right. (Where was my Irish when I needed it?) With interest, I learn that there are four routes on the slabs – FM, Upper FM, FO and the evocative Cherchez-La.

Although long, none of them are graded particularly hard, even for the time. The memories of terror have long been subsumed by wounded pride. I want a rematch.

On a dour late October day, the rematch happens. Bitter winds whip across the face as Mickey Rooney and I struggle to get established on the route. I’m traumatised by a bad fall on Slieve Beg several months previously. And my head rings with Seamus Rooney’s dire warnings. (“You’re far too pushy – you won’t survive.”) Mickey leads out two full rope lengths with a lonely runner apiece. Not knowing whether we’re on route or off it, we stare at the sweep of slab and headwall above. It’s an easy decision to traverse off into the vegetation at the side. Not so much a rematch; more a rout.

***

Easter 1969

It’s boiling hot. Day after day, I’m out on the hill with a big Dublin contingent. The craic’s good. We totter back to the Bloat House in the dark, ravenously assault anybody’s food, collapse in our pits, get up the next morning and do it all again.

Somewhere along the way, Tom Woulfe realises that, although I’ve led the odd pitch, I’ve never led an entire route.

The next day we do FM together and I get every pitch. My first proper lead! Progress is slow on the five hundred feet of baking slab. But Tom’s an excellent tutor, patient and cajoling by degrees. At the aptly named ‘mauvais pas’, a faith and friction step through an overlap, I find a perfectly positioned runner. I only get a few runners on the route, maybe one every hundred feet.  On the final headwall, my confidence is brimming, The climbing flows. The trauma of Beg is past. I never dreamed it could be like this.

At sunset, Tom and I romp up Upper FM to the summit of Lamagan. The Annalong valley lies beneath us, bathed in warmth and light and stillness. Tom has been a true friend to me this day. The gremlins are vanquished. My happiness is complete.

***

1971

On wet days, Mickey Rooney and I mess about on Cove and Lamagan. There’s a move on FM where you step round a corner and confront a welcome piton, to which we attach a variety of cumbersome ornaments, such as the toucan cage from the Bloat House. Mourne stalwarts curse vividly as they struggle to clip the peg. Rooney minor and I are greatly amused.

One day, Mickey finds a World War Two artillery shell pensively placed at the bottom of Hares Castle. We knock it about for a while before getting the bright idea of taking it up to the top of the crag to pitch it off. But passing it to each other is awkward, so we hurl it from half-way up the descent gully instead. Boringly, it bounces back down again. Jaded, we leave it for the next contender.

The following day, Dave Armstrong, after carrying the shell for several miles, walks into the local police station with it neatly tucked under his arm. The police scatter, then tentatively return. Muzzles point menacingly at Dave. Urbanely he hands over the shell which is duly exploded by a bomb demolition squad an hour later. “Hell of a bang…” he casually remarks. Mickey goes deathly white when I tell him.

These are strange days. Perhaps in imitation of the artillery shell, the whole country has exploded into violence. Mickey’s off the dole and training to become a bank manager. He tells me about an old countrywoman coming into the bank with a stack of cash from the sale of her land. To her chagrin, Mickey discovers that the wily neighbours have paid her in monopoly money!

One day we find a 1950s vintage photograph of Mad Carew on the mauvais pas of FM, varsity scarf and Harris tweed jacket, corduroy trousers tucked into thick woollen socks. A memento of a sadly vanished age.

And yet our age too is vanishing, as priceless murals on the Bloat House are wantonly whitewashed. With pyromaniac frenzy, Mad Carew torches the toucan cage. In a desperate bid to go straight, Mickey gives up climbing altogether. And me? I cut and run – to Bradford, of all places.

***

Summer 1974

I’m twenty-one. I climb Hard Extreme. I can walk up to any crag and do virtually any route. Yet I feel old, so old. I follow a winding trail from gritstone to Wales, to the Mournes, to the Lakes and back again to Yorkshire limestone. Vainly trying to escape a broken heart.

As easy to evade your shadow. Ironic to be so accomplished yet so unhappy. The solo record for FM is eight and a half minutes. I demolish it – again and again. With Tom Woulfe, it was seven hours of pure happiness; now it’s less than five minutes of emptiness.

***

1975

The slabs are greasy, streaming. Uncaringly, I solo pitch after pitch. Concentration is fleeting, tenuous, my mind shot through with drugs and drink and grief. There’s an awkward move on the top wall of FM which never bothered me before but now nearly hurls me into hundreds of feet of space. Trembling, I claw my way to safety. Last year, I only failed on two routes; this year, it’s been dozens. The only good thing was rescuing a guy on the Peigne, the president of the French Alpine Club, as it turned out. He really deserved a better class of rescuer.

At the bottom of the slabs, there’s another sac by mine. I look up in surprise. Somebody’s soloing Cherchez-La. In a thin drizzle I set off, catching him up at the top crack which by now is a sluice. Boots, breeks and a ready banter. Unbelayed, he dangles a sodden, frayed scrap of bootlace, suggesting I grab it if I get gripped. Politely I demur. (Well you would, wouldn’t you?)

Laughing, in the pouring rain, we so far forget ourselves as to clasp hands. “Sammy John Crymble,” he affirms. Mourne pioneer, Glenmore Lodge instructor, seriously hard Alpinist. And, beneath the ready banter, a true gentleman. May it go well with you, Sammy John.

***

Autumn 1976

My life is spiralling through the years. I’m free of drugs and will be for evermore. After Post Mortem in the Lakes with Deak, I’ve clicked back into gear, am climbing nearly as well as before. I’ve coveted climbing success, had it, then lost it. Now I have it again. This time round though, it’s very different.

In the middle of the week, Young Irish Womanhood arrives with a Finnish guy called Bjorn. Despite his Viking name, he’s small and dark and endlessly intense. Late into the night we talk about writers and writing and the grim, terrible dread of not being good enough.

The next day, we all do FM together. Again, it’s late October. A bitter, freezing wind howls like a banshee across the bare slabs. We only have one 120-foot rope for the three of us. Bjorn has never climbed before. He’s wearing green wellies which he uses for slogging across the tundra.

I lead, get Pat up and belayed, solo down, tie Bjorn on, unbelay him and solo back up beside him, for pitch after pitch. It’s a wild day, a fun day, a lovely day. And yet there’s a tinge of sadness for I know in my heart that I’m finally leaving the Mournes and I’ll never climb FM again. And maybe there are things with Pat that are unsaid and now never will be.

As we traipse down the Annalong valley to the distant refuge of the Bloat House, I look back, again and again, drinking in the holy wonder of the Mournes for one last time, holding the memories deep within to sustain me through the long years to come.

***

Wallsend, Portland, Summer 2023

Jumars bite into a taut rope. I unclip from the belay and hurtle sideways into space. Silver light glimmers on an azure sea. Swinging wildly, something stirs in the limen of consciousness. Silver light glimmers on an azure sea. And suddenly it’s 1967 once more and my mother is waving wistfully from the caravan door. Magically the years are swept aside, they’re all with me now, a pantheon of ghosts, Mickey Rooney and Tom Woulfe and glorious Mad Carew and Sammy John Crymble and Pat, in all her desperate loveliness. And I could howl with grief for what was and will never be again.

The arc of swing lessens. A gossamer thread disappears into beetling overhangs, high above. I grip the jumars and start to ascend.

© Mick Ward, 2024