Peter Harding

Pioneer of extreme climbing who perfected the modern 'hand-jam' technique

Peter Reginald James Harding, rock climber and engineer: born Blackpool, Lancashire 30 December 1924; married (one son, three daughters); died Dewsbury, Yorkshire 24 October 2007.

In the half-decade following the end of the Second World War, two contrasting men vied for the unofficial title of "Best British Rock Climber". In the Lake District, the undisputed star was Arthur Dolphin, who was tall and thin, almost to the point of emaciation, while among Welsh crags and northern English gritstone, it was the Derby engineer Peter Harding, who was thickset and solidly built, with very long arms.

Both men were intent on pioneering a new brand of "extreme climbing". But it was Harding who, as editor of the Llanberis climbers' guidebook of 1950, would define the new climbing, using the term "extremely severe" for the first time to describe the grade of these desperate new routes.

Like so many influential British rock climbers, Harding honed his skills on the gritstone of the Peak District, not far from his home in Derby. There, according to climbing myth, he "invented" the modern "hand-jam" – the art of using a clenched fist, or a bunch of fingers, in a crack, and flexing muscles to jam the hand against the sides and form a secure hold. In fact, Harding had more likely rediscovered a technique used by late 19th-century gritstone climbing pioneers. However, like most ideas of genius, the hand-jam, which seems so intuitively obvious to climbers today, was a concept of such simple sophistication that it took the type of analytical mind that Harding possessed to perfect it.

This was demonstrated by the time it took for many of his peers to catch on. Even after being shown the technique, many persisted with exhausting layback manoeuvres or, even worse, followed textbook suggestions of the day which advocated climbing vertical cracks by forcing fingers and palms onto opposing walls of the fissure as though trying to part heavy sliding doors. In the end, Harding resorted to stunts to prove the efficacy of his technique, holding a lit cigarette between his fingers while he jammed smoothly up fearsomely steep gritstone cracks.

Thus armed with his "secret weapon", plus the newly available ex-War Department karabiners and slings made from new-fangled nylon, Harding started testing the limits of their tolerance. He announced his arrival with his ascent of "Promontory Traverse" at Black Rocks near Cromford in 1945; at the time of his ascent it was one of the hardest routes led on gritstone.

Emboldened by his success at Black Rocks, Harding, with his fellow Derby climbing partner Tony Moulam, went on a route-bagging spree in North Wales, repeating most of the test-pieces of the era in nailed boots or, when it was raining, in socks. The young men were running considerable risks. Protection equipment was rudimentary to the point of insignificance. A fall could easily mean death and in 1946 Harding had a hair's-breadth escape while attempting to make the first repeat of what was then arguably the hardest climb in Britain, "Suicide Wall" in the Ogwen Valley."Some fair way up I made a silly mistake", he recalled.

I mantleshelfed, intending to slip my toe into a small hold . . . but the toehold wasn't there! With a hand push I leapt backwards, turning half-about in mid-air, to make a splendid three-point landing. Tony tightened the rope at touchdown and there was no bounce. But I ate my lunch standing up: 30 feet is farther than it looks.

Undeterred, the tiros headed for the ferocious Yorkshire gritstone crag of Almscliff. Here, Harding made the second ascent of "Great Western", then one of the sternest tests on gritstone. His joy was tempered by the fact that his Lakeland rival (and originator of the climb), Arthur Dolphin, followed them solo – in nailed boots. "I realised afterwards that we had experienced competitive climbing for the first time," Moulam remembered.

In response, Harding's new routes in 1946 included the incomparable "Suicide Wall" at Cratcliffe Tor in the Peak District – an intimidating route even today, and an extraordinary leap into the future given the laughably inadequate protection equipment of the late 1940s. "We had not yet been brainwashed about safety or Tarbuck knots, and anyway our cotton or plaited hemp ropes would have broken under the impact of the slightest fall," Moulam said. Courage and confidence were the climber's best safeguard on such routes. The same year, Harding also climbed "Valkyrie" at the Roaches in the western Peak – a route now accepted as one of the all-time classic gritstone climbs.

Now armed with a motorbike, Harding set forth to conquer Welsh climbing. In 1947 he climbed the breakthrough route of "Spectre" on Clogwyn y Grochan, followed by "Ivy Sepulchre" on Dinas Cromlech, two austere cliffs on the north side of Llanberis Pass. They were among the hardest routes in the area for the remainder of the decade; "Spectre" repulsed all attempts to repeat it until 1949. (Harding emphasised his superiority by making the second ascent solo in 1948).

In 1948 Harding continued his Welsh campaign on Clogwyn y Grochan to create "Kaisergebirge Wall" (alluding to the part of the Austrian Alps where "mechanically aided" climbing had first been developed). The route was controversial, for Harding employed pitons to overcome its difficulties. Although commonly deployed in continental Europe, they had been shunned as unsporting by British climbers. Harding's example would open the door to the eventual acceptance of limited "pegging" in the Fifties and for some years "Kaisergebirge" became, in Moulam's words, "the test piece, a sort of bench-mark, for aspiring XS leaders". Indeed, in the Fifties it was probably "the most fallen-off route in the Pass".

Nineteen forty-nine proved to be the apogee of Harding's spectacular climbing career. In just two weeks in April he climbed 38 routes, eight of which were first ascents, including the celebrated "Brant Direct" on Clogwyn y Grochan which involves an unremittingly steep and sustained pitch of bridging and jamming. The latter showed just how good Harding was, and also put the kibosh on accusations that he was too fond of aid. The route had already been attempted by members of the Climbers' Club who had been trying to "peg" their way up it for three days. As Harding approached they taunted him, saying that when it was complete it would make all his routes look like a "Sunday school picnic". In response he simply free-climbed it there and then. (When his audience had recovered from their astonishment, they signalled their appreciation of his effort by urinating on him as he abseiled back down.)

Back in Derbyshire, Harding made a short but outstandingly bold and technical route at Black Rocks, "Demon Rib". It would be a further two and a half decades before routes of this degree of difficulty began to be tackled by top climbers on a regular basis. Its ascent was all the more remarkable for having been undertaken almost nonchalantly after Harding had cycled from Burton to Shrewsbury, (where he was by now a lecturer in engineering at the town's technical college), in just four hours, before motoring to Black Rocks with Moulam to lead the route in the evening.

In 1950, Harding and Moulam brought out an influential guidebook to Llanberis Pass which indicated how far Harding had advanced the sport. It provided a spur to a new generation of ambitious climbers – such as Joe Brown, a plumber from Manchester. Together with his peers in Manchester's legendary Rock and Ice Club Brown would soon change British climbing forever with a host of breathtaking routes. Harding's brief reign at the top was over.

Harding instead concentrated on his engineering career with the Mintex brake-linings company and on raising a family. But the audacious climbing skills remained and he continued to climb well into his seventies when he was still capable of startling a younger generation by escapades such as his solo of the long and difficult "Younggrat" alpine route on the Breithorn in Switzerland in 1996.

Colin Wells