Obituary: Jim Birkett

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The Independent Online
Robert James Birkett, rock climber: born Little Langdale 22 April 1914; married secondly 1950 Ruth Holt (two sons); died Kendal 30 December 1993.

JIM BIRKETT was the finest climber ever in nailed boots. He did nearly 50 new routes all over Lakeland, many of them still classics, carrying the three-star classification in climbing guidebooks that signify the highest quality.

A rock climber par excellence, he was a working-class man who dominated Lakeland climbing from the late Thirties till the dawn of the Fifties. Splitting slate blocks day after day in a Lakeland quarry fitted him for his struggles with vertical unclimbed rock. When his friend Charlie Wilson told him of a gymnast who could do a back somersault landing on his feet again, Birkett responded by doing a perfect back-somersault - although he was shod in the heavy nailed boots that he habitually wore for new climbs.

He was fortunate in living in the Lake District, and could wait for the rare dry periods for his exploration. He worked in the Honister Pass quarries, surrounded by cliffs, and lived in the quarry barracks, which enabled him to climb in the summer evenings and made him even fitter physically and mentally than his rivals. His first new route was 'Tarsus' on Dove Crag in 1937, the last, 'Kestrel Wall' in 1954.

On one of his first classic routes on Scafell - 'May Day' in 1939 - Birkett used two pitons (metal spikes) driven into the rock to hold the rope and provide better protection. Until as recently as 10 years ago, strict codes of etiquette discouraged the use of protective equipment in climbing. 'Look on the gentleman's side of Scafell' said Bentley Beetham, the Everest climber, loftily, taking a swipe at Birkett's humble background, 'and you will not see a single piton'. Rock climbing had previously been the reserve of the the rich; Birkett was the first successful working-class climber.

On Castle Rock of Triermain, four miles from Keswick, Birkett put up not the hardest, but one of his most impressive, new routes - 'Overhanging Bastion'. It was a difficult vertical cliff which had been eyed enviously by men of previous generations, and his route set a standard for future climbers. Also on this cliff in 1949, he put up the hardest climb in the Lake District at that time - 'Harlot Face'. It is still a respectable 'E1' - at the time, E1 indicated the most difficult grade of climb, although the scale has now been expanded - and one wonders at the dangers he overcame with the pitifully poor protection available 45 years ago.

The only son of a roadman, Jim Birkett was first taken to the high fells by an uncle who followed the local fox-hunting pack. He was drawn to the mysteries of the Cumbrian crags, both for their bird-life and the unclimbed cliffs too hard for the previous explorers. He ended his working life as manager of Moss Rig Quarry. An active member of the RSPB, he was licensed to protect peregrines' nests.

(Photograph omitted)