Congratulations to climbers Dave MacLeod and Andy Turner on their epic series of climbs on Ben Nevis last week.
The pair were repeating six winter routes that had originally been climbed exactly 50 years earlier by two men whose names are probably unfamiliar to most TGO readers. Yet, in their own way, Jimmy Marshall and Robin Smith were Scots who were as ground-breaking in their own sport as Eric Liddell or Chris Hoy were in theirs.
Marshall and Smith were from Edinburgh and were well known in the climbing circle of the fifties. In early 1960 the pair went to Ben Nevis to enjoy what was meant to be a swan-song for Jimmy Marshall. I had the pleasure of interviewing Jimmy for a television programme and he told me that he was about to get married at the time and wanted to build up his architect business. He was also getting a bit fed up with climbing:
“I had become so pissed off with the weather the previous summer,” he told me. “It rained, rained, rained, so I thought, to hell with this. I had no intention of packing in climbing completely, but I had enough of this crap of going off every weekend into the rain.”
With his wedding looming, Jimmy Marshall decided on a final big bash on Ben Nevis. With his companion Robin Smith, who later died in the Pamirs aged 23, he climbed six new routes on Ben Nevis in an incredible week of mountaineering, a sustained effort that has never been bettered. In the history of Scottish mountaineering that week on the Ben was pivotal.
In his book, Ben Nevis, author Ken Crockett suggests, “Smith and Marshall were to bring to a climax the end of a decade of exciting developments in Scottish mountaineering. In one sense, they were to gain a pinnacle of achievement which can never be bettered.”
In that astonishing week the pair made first ascents of Great Chimney on Tower Ridge, Minus Three Gully, Gardyloo Buttress via Smith’s Route, Observatory Buttress, Piggott’s Route on the Comb, and Orion Face. Bear in mind too that while our modern climbers had all the benefits of high-tech gear Marshall and Smith used the old-fashionedsingle axe, step-cutting technique on all the climbs.
Amazing as the climbing was, another event took place which the modern climbers didn’t repeat. During a ‘rest’ day between the climbs, Marshall and Smith decided to go for a wee walk, so they strolled over the Carn Mor Dearg Arete, climbed over Aonach Beag and traversed the Grey Corries to Stob Choire Claurigh. From there they dropped down to Spean Bridge where they caught a bus back to Fort William.
After a bite of food and a few pints in the pub Jimmy decided to ‘borrow’ the draughts set from the bar and take it up back up to the CIC Hut on the mountain but the barman took a dim view of this, called the police, and Jimmy and Robin were arrested.
Some time later the pair were released and they caught the last bus back along the road to the old distillery from where they walked back up to the CIC Hut below the North-east cliffs of the Ben. So much for a rest day!
Despite not repeating the antics of that rest day, Dave MacLeod and Andy Turner managed to complete all the original routes, and have been full of respect for the earlier heroes.
Dave said it was great to formally mark the achievements of Marshall and Smith 50 years on. “When I started in climbing, and I guess it was the same for a lot of people of my generation, I read the articles and essays by both Smith and Marshall and was completely inspired by them and by their climbs and by Ben Nevis,“ he said.
“When you have read about that and dreamt about it and you come here and do it for real it is really, really amazing.They were really far ahead of everyone else at that time.”