John Sumner

Exploratory rock and ice climber in mid-Wales

ohn Sumner, climber and draughtsman: born Blackburn, Lancashire 13 March 1936; twice married (three sons, two daughters); died Stafford 10 February 2004.

Historically, British rock climbing has been influenced by individuals whose vision and activities have exerted a disproportionate effect on the climbing development of a particular region. Well-known examples include the Aberdonian Tom Patey's affinity with the north-west Highlands of Scotland in the 1960s, or Arthur Andrews' pioneering exploration of Cornish sea-cliffs in the 1920s.

After the early 1970s, however, the incidence of such climbing "auteurs" declined markedly. A huge rise in the climbing population, better communications and the advent of mass car ownership meant that intense competition evolved for new routes nationwide. These developments largely spelled the end for the phenomenon of the regionally dominant climber. John Sumner was one of the few that bucked this trend. As an exploratory climber in his chosen domain of mid-Wales, he remained without compare.

His peers would come to acknowledge that, without his exceptional energy and enthusiasm, rock climbing on the remote crags and cliff-faces south of central Snowdonia would never have been developed so thoroughly or so effectively. Even more outstanding was the longevity of his climbing campaign, which was spread over the best part of half a century. Starting with cutting-edge routes pioneered in the mid-1950s, Sumner continued to generate exciting new climbs right into the new millennium, when he was still climbing "extreme" lines.

Born in Blackburn in 1936, Sumner moved to Stafford in his youth to take up a job as a draughtsman with the English Electric Company - a post he would retain with the firm's successor companies for the rest of his working life. It was here that he joined the town's vibrant Mountain Club. His initial impact on the world of outdoor pursuits came not with climbing, but with what might be termed "extreme fell-walking", in the nearby Peak District.

Sumner and his fellow Mountain Clubber Ronald Lambe's 37-hour, 60-mile circumnavigation of the Peak's gritstone moorlands in 1953 remains one of the most arduous challenge walks undertaken in the region. Their effort was especially impressive given that it was done mainly in rain and low cloud, requiring compass navigation for much of the way.

Sumner's first forays into serious pioneering rock-climbing followed shortly afterwards with what would later become much sought-after routes in the Peak such as The Thorn (graded "Hard Very Severe") at Beeston Tor.

Not long after this, Sumner acquired the Germanic nickname "Fritz" from the legendary climber Don Whillans. Sumner had become briefly interested in difficult "aid climbing" and, with Ron Moseley and others, succeeded in overcoming the brutally strenuous Main Overhang at Kilnsey Crag in Yorkshire in 1957. The blunt Whillans, unimpressed by the young climber's use of pitons and etriers, but recognising his skill and courage, likened his efforts to the pre-war death-or-glory Austrian and German climbers on the Eiger Nordwand. His ironic nickname for Sumner stuck.

Around this time, Sumner began pioneering climbs in the area that he would make his own; the mountainous parts of Merioneth and adjoining counties (collectively known to climbers as "Mid-Wales"). Using a base camp of the Stafford Mountain Club's newly acquired hut below the brooding cliffs of Craig Cywarch east of Dolgellau, Sumner would end up being principally responsible for the creation of over 150 routes in the area.

Many of them were of an extreme degree of difficulty such as Pardon Me for Breathing in the Berwyns, or Little Red Rooster on Craig Cywarch, but others were of a less technically difficult nature, reflecting Sumner's range, and zest for climbing in general - and for the company of others. "Fritz was prepared to climb with anyone, anywhere," recalled his friend Peter Benson. "He was a great bloke to be with on the hill - he always felt it was important to see others enjoying themselves."

Sumner was prescient in perceiving the potential that mid-Wales held for the rigorous pursuit of ice climbing. Most climbers had previously disregarded the pastoral green folds of rural Merioneth as unpromising terrain for winter climbing but in 1979 Sumner and his friends pulled off a multitude of icy climbs. Among these were two of the most impressive and enjoyable pure ice routes in the United Kingdom.

Sumner and Glen Kirkham's discovery of the frozen Maesglasau Falls (IV) produced a magnificent 400ft route up a great cascade of tumbling ice. That winter the pair, along with John Codling, created another great route in the area: Trojan (Grade V) on Cader Idris. "Trojan's streak of near-perpendicular ice beckoned siren-like and sinuous," Sumner wrote later. "[It] called to every 'ice-man' worthy of the name to come and climb." The route required hair-raising climbing on splintering, brittle ice, and a "mind-blowing pendulum" on a rope strung from a poor piton to reach a stance part way up, before it succumbed. Only someone used to testing their limits on unknown terrain was likely to succeed in such a situation.

Despite Sumner's predilection for mid-Wales, his climbing vision extended far beyond the parochial. He climbed extensively in Canada and the Alps, where he had an excellent record which included several first ascents and first British ascents of testing routes in the high mountains, such as the difficult Cassin Route on Cima Ovest in the Dolomites.

All this activity was achieved, remarkably, despite the time constraints of family life and a full-time job. Indeed, his employers were reluctant to let him retire early, and he continued in post until the age of 65. Age, however, hardly appeared to weary him. Every autumn he would undertake the arduous 40-mile Derwent Watershed Walk across some of the most calf-sapping terrain in the Pennines in order to test his fitness. He had also become an increasingly keen practitioner of the tough and serious activity of winter alpinism, at an age when most climbers would be thinking of giving it up.

Sumner continued rock-climbing to a very high standard to the end of his life. During the 1990s he struck up a climbing partnership with the leading (and considerably younger) south-west climber Martin Crocker and together they pioneered many new extreme rock routes in the Rhinogs and elsewhere. "He was always out in front," recalled Crocker, who is renowned for his own strength and stamina. "It was simply impossible to keep up with the guy's energy and enthusiasm."

It seemed, therefore, both unlikely and shocking when Sumner succumbed to a heart attack. His death ends a remarkable era in Welsh climbing and a climbing life always lived to the fullest.

Colin Wells