Stories about friends who were climbing in Newlands valley in the 60s when one fell 100 feet and the belayer who was belaying with the rope around the waste was more injured than the climber. About pushing someones brain back into their skull who had taken a bad fall, about Pete Whillance being unbelievably bold and taking 100+ foot falls off Top gear and Life in the fast lane. Histories of Millican Dalton living in his cave in the side of Castle Crag, the Abraham brothers and their Victorian climbing photography and endless stories of the Lakeland mountains.
He loved Borrowdale and would often be at Shepherds café when he wasn’t building footpaths for the National Trust. He said climbing had saved him from a life of trouble and from some of his stories it sounded probable. He used to be a ‘Teddy’ boy and when sat in the pub with some fiends once a guy wanted to have a fight called Erton Cole. It was rumoured that Erton had killed someone and Ray was bricking it. They left the pub and when walking down some steep steps to the area they meant to fight Ray kicked Erton in the back, down the stairs and beat him unconscious. A few weeks later they saw each other and Erton said it was lucky Ray had done it as he would have killed him otherwise. Ray said that they became friends but I found this hard to believe.
Back to the Borrowdale valley. Anyone who has been there can see why you’d fall in love with it. It must be the greenest valley in the Lakes. I hitched a ride from Ambleside to Keswick many times in the late 90s and one time an artist picked me up, they said that many artists struggled to paint the valley as there was just so much to take in.
From 1962 if you look in the back of the Borrowdale guidebook you’ll see his name on many first ascents with a good find of a now popular cliff in the early 90s which is well worth a visit, Sergeant Crag Slabs. He did quite a few first ascents on here, Lakeland Cragsmen, Endurance, Holly Tree crack and Death stroke are well worth a walk for. His partner for these was Joe Bosher who was one of the nicer guys I’ve bumped into and who also very generously gave me my first set of RPs as a gift.
Ray worked in a wood factory in Carlisle before he moved to Keswick and soon after married Margaret (mum) and became known as ‘Mac’. Workwise he’d do everything from rock climbing guiding, labouring, building, working for the water board, slide shows to eventually working for the National Trust building footpaths for many years. After getting home from work my main memory of him was watching him stand with his back to the fire in the living room and often saying to me and my sisters, Jennifer and Heather “I’ve had a hard day on the hill” followed shortly by advice to get an office job when we grew up.
He had his smelly ropes and climbing gear stashed under the stairs and mum would often tell him off for leaving a mess. He also had a fondness for fry ups and would use the same oil/fat in the frying pan for weeks, gammon, bacon, sausages, eggs, beans and a ton of butter were staples.
He didn’t drive so his main transport was a push bike or else talking mum into dropping him off or friends picking him up. When I was a kid I thought he was weird biking down the valley all the time to go climbing, although some Sundays when my mum and sisters were at the Jehovahs Witness meetings he would sometimes take me for walks over hills like Walla crag I would really enjoy.
To supplement his National Trust wage he’d do 3 slide shows a week in the Moot Hall (church like building in the main square in Keswick, used to be a market place back in the day). The 3 shows were; Walking the Lakeland fells, Climbs and fells of Lakeland and the last was Lakeland in Winter. For quite a few years I pressed the button on the projector for him and could probably recite the talks even now.
A story which stuck with me in his climbing show was one regarding one of the UKs great climbers. The story went…
“I was at Shepherds crag one day when a guy came up to me and said”
“Hows it going? Do you fancy doing something hard?”
Dad wondered who this guy was and pointed him up a hard route.
He climbed up to a hard bit with dad belaying before shouting down
“Is it alright if I fall off?”
Dad couldn’t believe his ears, being from an era of ‘the leader never falls’
He shouted back “Pardon?”
The guy shouted with more urgency “Is it ok for me to fall off?”
He fell and lowered to dad saying “I don’t mind falling off”
He got back on and did it fine next go.
A week later dad was in the pub and a guy with long hair came up to him and said
“Eye, eye, I hear you’ve been climbing with Douggie”
Dad said “He fell off!”
The guy with long hair said “Douggie Hall is one of the best climbers in Britain, he falls off every week”
At this point the audience would normally laugh but for me I was just starting to get into climbing and the story seeded the idea of the importance of facing the fear of falling.
His favourite climb which he did well over 1000 times was on Black crag in Borrowdale, Troutdale Pinnacle. It is a brilliant and varied climb and most times I’m in the valley I try and do it too although I doubt I’m into triple figures yet. He was also known for climbing the classic Shepherds route, Little Chamonix in boxing gloves and roller skates.
When developing new routes on Grange crag there was some competition from other climbers, Colin Downer and Chris Bacon. Apparently Colin had heard dad was keen on doing some new ones that he had wanted to do and was incensed, he found out where dad lived and got Chris to cover the back door incase ray tried to et away. As it turned out after they talked they became friends and ended up doing quite a few new routes together.
I remember being a pushy little sod on Shepherds telling him I wanted to lead. I set off up Brown slab corner, a VS and put in what is surely one of the most catastrophically shit performances on a first lead climb. Disco legging, slipping off and sliding down being caught on a foothold, scrappling back up in a flurry of fear and thoughtlessness. Although Ray couldn’t see too well he’d clocked well enough it had been a shitshow. Thankfully sometime later he let me lead again. We had 6 quickdraws and on my first HVS, Lakeland Cragsmen he said to space my kit to make it last. On a few Christmas days we’d bike out to do routes, like Overhanging bastion on Castle Rock and the Shroud.
We did a few new routes together. On the left hand side of Shepherds I belayed him on a short rib, I remember I’d bought a micro wire and he tugged like hell on one of them to seat it firmly and I stupidly had a go at him, thinking he was wrecking my new wire. He informed me that your life was worth more than the cost of a runner, which was another good lesson and if the opportunity to back up an abseil by leaving a runner I’ve always taken it. I went looking for this climb 15- 20 years later and couldn’t really see where the climb went, there appeared no line and the rock that was there was plastered in thick moss. We did do some better new ones together at some point, up on Castle Crag, but looking back we mainly did a lot of climbing up grotty bits of rock, moss and heather.
We’d sometimes argue, unsurprisingly with me being a stroppy and ‘ambitious’ teenager. I remember having a hard time on an e2 on Goat Crag called Manpower, struggling to see exactly where to go. I shouted down to Ray who had done it before and expected him to tell me exactly how to do the move and couldn’t believe he couldn’t remember, I was incredulous you could forget a move. A couple of years later mum was concerned about my soloing and dad would give me a chat about being careful. Looking back it must have been awful as parents of a teenager who mainly climbed without a rope.
One of our last climbs together was an ascent of Interloper on Lower Falcon in 2002 that he’d done the first ascent with Adrian Liddel 40 years before. The very last one was with Ray and my sister Jennifer on Hedera grooves, also on Falcon crag, and again although he would struggle on the walking side his ability to talk never waivered. He would be down Shepherds cafe chatting to anyone he could at most opportunities.
Julie bailey was a star in organising his funeral and Yorky and Les Kendall gave lovely tributes. We scattered his ashes in a small hollow above Black Crag and his favourite climb, Troutdale Pinnacle. The jaws of Borrowdale, aka Mac, he was a hard git and a great dad.