Doug Lang: Trailblazing mountaineer who transformed winter climbing
Monday 16 May 2011
Doug Lang was one of the leading players in an intensely creative period of Scottish climbing during the 1960s and 1970s.
Not only did he bequeath a legacy of hard and classic Highland mountain routes to future generations, but he was one of the very last "step-cutters"; an extremely skilful and energy-sapping technique required to climb demanding snow and ice climbs before the invention of modern ice tools.
Based in Dundee, Lang began climbing seriously in the early 1960s, his first new route of significance being theice climb B Gully Chimney on thenearby mountain crag of Corrie Fee, north of the city. But Lang was never restricted to his local Angus hills,and over a long career he ranged all over Scotland.
In 1967, climbing with Graeme Hunter, he made one of his best-loved climbs, Ardverikie Wall on Binnein Shuas in the central Highlands, a delectable 550ft severe slab and wall climb on peerless micro-granite. Today regarded as a superb and much-sought-after "classic rock" climb, it was just one route climbed by Lang and Hunter in a "summer in which they camped and climbed themselves to a standstill". From the late 1960s into the 1970s, Lang and Hunter made major contributions to Scottish rock-climbing, most notably of the forbidding north-east-facing granite crag of Creag an Dubh Loch near Lochnagar, where their extreme routes, such as Falseface, were then at the cutting edge of exploratory climbing.
But it was in winter that Lang arguably made his greatest impact. In the early 1970s he climbed regularly with his fellow Dundonian Neil Quinn and the pair were remarkable for being among the last teams to convert to "front-point" technique.
Until the 1970s, British winter climbing had scarcely changed since Victorian pioneers had first hacked ladders of snow steps up the great couloirs of the Scottish Highlands. The method could be almost unendurably exhausting. Holds were fashioned for hands and feet in the ice using an axe and the pitches then free-climbed. It was an incredibly tough way to climb, being time-consuming, difficult and very, very cold and was restricted to an élite body of (mainly Scottish) climbers.
After 1970, however, the way winter routes were climbed was changed forever by new technology that opened up the dark months to all climbers, not just those with bulging biceps and exceptional stamina. The Californian climber/engineer Yvon Chouinard marketed an ice axe with a steeply curving pick which stuck firmly in ice, enabling the climber to make a direct pull up holding the shaft. This was revolutionary: a traditional ice axe pick was usually straight, and a downward pull resulted in it popping out. Using one of the new curved tools in each hand however, the climber could advance up steep ice rapidly, placing the axes, pulling up, removing a tool and inserting them higher like a portable hold. The feet could also be kicked into the ice without needing to cut footholds thanks to forward-pointing spikes on the latest design of crampons which stuck in a similar way to the ice picks.
Thus armed, the hardest routes immediately became easier to climb. Almost overnight, as the climbing commentator Paul Nunn put it, "generations of technique and mountaineering practice of considerable sophistication went out of the window, jettisoned like an old sock".
But Lang and Quinn remained stubbornly wedded to the traditional approach. They somehow competed with peers benefiting from the new technology and achieved astonishingly difficult ascents, cutting their way strenuously up vertical hanging ice sheets, weaving their way up alpine-sized faces and spindrift-lashed buttresses, and conquering almost all the steep snow-packed gullies of note.
As a result they were almost certainly the only people ever to climb Ben Nevis's Hadrian's Wall Direct (V, 5), then among the hardest winter climbs, by cutting steps, their epic 17-and-a-half-hour ascent being undertaken in February 1973. The duo eventually converted to the new technology and were responsible for a host of climbs across the breadth of the Highlands, but among their stand-out climbs are routes such as Left Edge Route (V, 5) on Ben Nevis and Slav Route (VI, 6) in 1974 – at 1,400ft one of the longest routes of this grade in the country and still regarded as a challenging and very serious climb even with sophisticated modern equipment and protection.
Lang would continue to contribute significant new winter climbs well into the 1990s with route names such as Roaring Forties and Fifties Revival making humorous reference to the fact that despite advancing age, his enthusiasm was far from waning. He served as President of the Scottish Mountaineering Club from 1992-94.
His beloved Corrie Fee remained one of his favourite places. After one glorious day's climbing he had written: "Once again, we marvelled at the quality of the climbing, over 1,000ft of immaculate ice. On returning through Kirriemuir, we passed by JM Barrie's Window in Thrums. Reminding us of the ageless Peter Pan, exciting hope that we could return again and again to the ever-fresh delights of these perfect ice-climbs". Lang kept that hope alive, remaining a fit, energetic and active mountaineer to the day he died, caught by the caprice of a Scottish avalanche, a fate he had skilfully evaded for so many years. He was found on the slopes of Corrie Fee, holding his ice axes, close to the site of the climb with which he had begun his pioneering career nearly half a century before.
Douglas Fairgray Lang, climber: born Dumfries 1941; married Denise (one daughter); died Corrie Fee, Angus 18 March 2011.
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