Obituary: A. B. Hargreaves

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The Independent Online
A. B. Hargreaves was one of the few pioneers from the golden age of rock climbing to span both the Lake District and Welsh groups of leading climbers. He was one of the select group of three individuals to serve as president for both of England's leading climbing clubs; the Fell and Rock Club, 1952-54, and the Climbers' Club, 1960-63. He was also a member of the Alpine Club.

Hargreaves and his contemporaries of the late 1920s and early 1930s showed their dissatisfaction with mundane urban life by taking to the hills. In the days when there were few safeguards and a simple slip spelt disaster, they challenged the order of what was possible, pushing rock-climbing standards to new heights. Along with a select band of talented climbers, notably Alf Bridge, Menlove Edwards, Ted Hicks, Colin Kirkus, Maurice Linnell, Sir Jack Longland, Marco Pallis and Ivan Waller, he helped to open the great mountain faces of Snowdon's Clogwyn du'r Arddu (the Black Cliff), and Scafell's East Buttress.

Hargreaves was the eldest of four brothers; his father had a successful retail tobacco business, and Hargreaves was sent to Denstone College, a public school in Staffordshire. He loved public school and Denstone's emphasis on strict religious doctrine. Hargreaves's younger brother died during an operation to remove an appendix, performed at home on the kitchen table, and this had a profound effect on his attitude to life. He declined to join the family business, and took up officer training for the Merchant Navy on HMS Conway in Liverpool. He left after two years and in 1923 joined a firm of chartered accountants to become an articled clerk.

It was in the mid-1920s that Hargreaves took a mountain biking holiday to the Lake District. This was real mountain biking, long before the imported wave of interest from America. On his traverse of the rocky ridge of Mickledore, having descended from the summit of Scafell Pike, he observed some lone figures moving intricately across the high exposed face of Scafell Crag. In his forthright manner, he quizzed them about what they were doing. They were rock climbers, tackling a route known as Keswick Brothers Climb. Hargreaves took to it with a vengeance and rock climbing was to be his passion for the rest of his life. Strong, wiry, of diminutive stature, full of energy, mentally and physically tough, he was of the right proportions to excel at the relatively new game of "rock gymnastics", as opposed to mountaineering.

Hargreaves was a founder member of the Wayfarers' Club and joined both the Fell and Rock Club and Climbers' Club in 1927. He soon took under his wing the young climbing genius Colin Kirkus - who had been climbing new routes solo for lack of knowledge and companionship - and provided him with direction and the benefits that experienced organised groups can bestow. They, and others of their group, made two significant first descents together, Curving Crack on Clogwyn du'r Arddu and Bridges Route on the Esk Buttress of Scafell, both in 1932, along with numerous second ascents.

The combination of Hargreaves and Kirkus came to be known as "The Suicide Club" because of their daring exploits. They pushed very near to the limit and, certainly in the case of Kirkus, sometimes beyond. It was thanks to Hargreaves that Kirkus was not killed when he took a 70ft fall from the top of South America Crack on Great Central route on Lakelands Dow Crag. In those days, the manner of protecting the lead climber, in this case Kirkus, from a fall was for the second man, Hargreaves, to hold the rope diagonally across back and shoulder, with it wrapped around each wrist. The strain on the second man holding the rope thus became quite terrific in case of a fall; so the basic rule was that the lead climber should not fall. By an incredible feat of strength, Hargreaves held Kirkus's fall from South America Crack, so that while Kirkus was relatively unhurt, Hargreaves suffered a re-aligned nose, having been smashed into the rock, and hands lacerated to the bone.

From the beginnings of his rock-climbing career, Hargreaves had the means to travel abroad and indulge in the world of alpinism, yet he often eschewed it with typical self- effacement; "too bloody cold". He stayed true to pure rock-climbing, delighting in wet, cold and difficult conditions. His method of overcoming the slippery nature of wet rock was to climb with socks over his footwear, held in place by rubber bands.

Hargreaves left Liverpool in the mid-1930s, invited by W.G. Milligan (a fellow climber and President of the Fell and Rock 1933-35), to join his firm, Lakeland Laundries, as secretary. Rising to become director, and chairman in later years, Hargreaves stayed with the company for the rest of his professional life. He lived in Ulverston, on the doorstep of the Lake District, until his death. He was a founder-member of the Friends of the Lake District and, up to the late 1970s, a member of the planning board of the Lake District National Park Authority.

Hargreaves was one of the great characters of the climbing world, and his involvement with climbing, climbers and the mountains, endured to the end. Ever popular with younger members, and known simply as "A.B." by the climbing fraternity, he continued to attend most club functions and, though only partly sighted and badly lame, he was a constant source of amusing anecdote. It had been known for him to stand on the furniture so all could see and hear "A.B." in full flow.

I remember on one particular Fell and Rock meet at Wasdale Head, with the rain teeming down outside and the hostelry particularly crowded with would-be climbers, when an ancient, stooped figure thumped his walking stick on the stone-flagged floor. The resultant crack was like that from a 303 rifle and it stunned the bar into silence. "Gullies. You can always climb gullies in the wet," a voice barked across the room. His chin out, his straight-lipped smile mocked and laughed at the same time, eyes twinkling.

Alan Bennet Hargreaves, rock climber: born Blackburn, Lancashire 22 April 1904; married 1935 Maud Gordon (marriage dissolved 1954; one son, three daughters); died Ulverston, Cumbria 14 November 1996.