Tom Proctor

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The Independent Online

Thomas Edward Proctor, climber, caver and craftsman: born Holymoorside, Derbyshire 1 September 1947; married 1972 Kathleen Toyn (one daughter); died Chesterfield, Derbyshire 9 September 2001.

For a too brief but significant period, Tom Proctor was "the climber's climber". The Proctor era opened in 1968 when he led the first ascent of a route named Our Father on overhanging Derbyshire limestone and ended in 1981 on the spectacular ice-bound spire of Cerro Torre in Patagonia. Again the strongman Proctor was pitted against gravity, tackling a huge overhanging groove as he and Phil Burke made the first ascent of Cerro Torre's 6,000ft east face. They were on the route for seven days.

Proctor was never a celebrity mountaineer. Climbing was not a life-style image sport in those days and there was certainly no sponsorship for the young tigers competing against each other on the mean crags and disused quarries of the Peak District.

He started rock climbing with schoolfriends when he was 14 years old. The Peak, with its wealth of coarse gritstone outcrops and vertiginous limestone cliffs, was not far from his home at Holymoorside, near Chesterfield. By 17 he was ticking off the district's hardest routes. He gained notoriety for feats of strength, lifting the side of a car or doing an unbroken series of 2,500 squeezes of a hand grip. The "hydraulic man", as he was dubbed, was in a way ahead of his time, for training would soon become the norm for top-flight climbers.

Proctor's finest arena was Stoney Middleton Dale – though "dale" is something of a misnomer for the quarry-scarred place. The late Paul Nunn, in his guidebook Rock Climbing in the Peak District (1975), said Stoney "attracts devotees of the ferocious, steep and uncompromising". That fitted Tom Proctor. Here, at the age of 20, and partnered by Geoff Birtles, he put up Our Father, the hardest rock route in Britain at the time. Climbers came from all over the country to attempt a repeat ascent, Proctor occasionally deflating their egos by soloing around the initial overhang in Hush Puppies, then laying over above the desperate aspirant and advising ". . . and you can rest here". Many failed.

Over the next decade Proctor's first ascents in the Peak District ran into three figures, notably Green Death at Millstone Edge, Wee Doris at Stoney Middleton and Behemoth at Water-cum-Jolly. Further afield, he twice attempted a coup on the highest sea cliffs on the British mainland, the 1,000ft bastion of Cape Wrath on Scotland's north-west tip. On the second visit, he and partner Barrie Dixon had negotiated the crucial overhang and were asleep, suspended in their harnesses, when the Royal Navy opened fire. The cliffs are in a gunnery range. The pair had ignored warning flags and sneaked past a sentry post, but under fire were forced to retreat.

Proctor's reputation went world-wide with Cerro Torre in 1981. Reared improbably against the furious elements of the Southern Patagonian icecap, it is one of the most testing peaks in the world. An ingenious craftsman, Proctor had engineered a camming device, expanding to some eight inches, that enabled he and Burke to climb its wide cracks. However, though they overcame the formidable east face, the pair were stopped 100ft short of the final summit by soft, overhanging snow cornices.

Cerro Torre proved Proctor's climbing swansong. After that, he almost literally disappeared, taking to the even more esoteric pursuit of cave digging. Inventive as ever, he made winches and fashioned an underground railway system from iron bed frames. As in other spheres, he was a true craftsman. Leaving school with a handful of O levels, he had trained as carpenter and became a specialist for a Sheffield-based furnishing house. There are, apparently, villas on the Mediterranean with motorised curtains fitted by Proctor.

But, for climbers, his legacy is there in the Peak guidebooks and the simple legend by scores of hard routes, "First ascent, T. Proctor".

Stephen Goodwin

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