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Living for Adventure: An Interview with John Martin

John climbing Bishops Rib at Chair Ladder, with DW2 belaying. Photo by Andy Clarke

John climbing Bishops Rib at Chair Ladder, with DW2 belaying. Photo by Andy Clarke

Over the last couple of years I’ve done a lot of climbing with John. There’s nothing quite like mid-week trips if you want your pick of the routes at popular crags and your pick of the tables at popular pubs. Ah, the joys of retirement. We may be grey and grizzled with a combined age of 130 plus and counting… but we can still tick off the odd scary number if the wind’s in the right direction and the pain killers are keeping the arthritis at bay. But there is one serious disadvantage to partnering John – he’s already climbed practically everything everywhere! I’ve spent hours trawling through my library of guidebooks, looking for rock that hasn’t yet felt the caress of the Martin touch. And I got to thinking: John’s decades of climbing really should be recorded and celebrated by the club. So Sue (my long-suffering wife) dug out her recipe for beef wellington, I ordered in plenty of booze, and shortly before Christmas we invited John and Sandra over for dinner and interrogation…

Andy Clarke: How did you first get into climbing?

John Martin: Through pub crawling! This was in the 1970’s. Our pub crawls just got bigger and bigger and the pubs got further and further apart until we crawled into Wales, so we weren’t just walking between pubs, we were walking over mountains – and as soon as you’ve done the traverse of Snowdon and Crib Goch, you want to go climbing. I remember sitting on top of Snowdon, looking at Lliwedd. I could see somebody climbing and I thought, I’d love to do that. It looked like freedom, it was “out there” – and that’s where I wanted to be, out there… because that’s what the 70’s were all about!

AC: Can you remember your first actual climb, and what sort of gear you had?

JM: It was Canyon Rib (Sev), in the Aberglaslyn Gorge, and we had three slings and four rocks. I was with my brother and we’d chosen it because it was supposed to be easy. But it was adventure climbing – it’s not on a roadside crag, it’s in the trees, you’ve got to work to find it – and that’s what I love: adventure-eering.

John Martin lay backing on Double Dip (5.6), Joshua's Tree. Photo by Chris Dale

John Martin lay backing on Double Dip (5.6), Joshua’s Tree. Photo by Chris Dale

AC: Out of the thousands of routes you’ve climbed, can you pick out three of the most memorable?

JM: One has got to be Shrike (E2 5c) on Clogwyn Du’r Arddu. Again, because it’s “out there.” It’s an incredible route, it’s on Cloggy and it was one of the hardest things I’d ever lead at the time. I did that with Chris Gilbert, otherwise known as Boris.

Second, perhaps my most memorable route ever – which I also did with Boris – is Eroica on Pentire Head. It now gets E4 6a, but back in the day it was graded E2 with a point of aid. It’s a proper epic climb: even though it’s in a holiday paradise and there are tourists watching you from the passing pleasure boats, you are completely on your own, at your limit, without any chance of rescue – and it’s superb climbing with very little protection.

Third, going into the big mountains of the Alps, it’s got to be the Traverse of La Meije (D+). That was with Sean Penny, who wasn’t very fit at the time, so I had to drag him up most of it while he stopped every so often to puke! It’s a magnificent route that takes in two of the best huts in the Alps. The Promontoire especially is perched in an outrageous position, part way up the ridge, sticking out over nothing. And it’s the best food I’ve ever eaten in an alpine hut!

John Martin on Metaphysical Scoop, E4 6a, Nth Cloud, The Roaches. Photo by Andy Clarke

John Martin on Metaphysical Scoop, E4 6a, Nth Cloud, The Roaches. Photo by Andy Clarke

AC: What’s been your scariest moment?

JM: (Gives the famous menacing Martin chuckle, the one all John’s partners have learned to hear with alarm, when we’re stood at the bottom of the pitch and it’s our turn to lead…) Probably not climbing, but caving. It was in the Gouffre Berger, in the Vercors region of France. At one time it was thought to be the deepest cave in the world. The expedition was a joint venture of the Wolverhampton Caving Group and the Bristol cavers, who went in and rigged the cave in the first week; we followed to bottom out and de-rig it in the second week.

All was going well until we were about fourteen miles in and over a thousand feet down inside the cave, after two days. I was abbing down the last but one pitch when the sheath on the rope failed so that it just kept sliding down over the inner core. When I finally realised what was happening I had to lock off on my ab device, while I swapped to my jumars – not easy when you’re hanging in a waterfall! – to re-ascend on just the strands of the core. Unfortunately, when I got back to where the sheath had ripped, the jumars jammed, leaving me just dangling there in space. By now I was really knackered: because my waterproof suit was sealed at the wellies it was rapidly filling up with water and I was getting extremely heavy. I was amazed to find that although I was scared, I was also quite calm. When the jumars jammed on the mangled rope, I thought, Shit, I’m dead. But my very next thought was, Get your head together and work it out.

I made a few more tentative moves upwards and then I realised that I wasn’t too far below the next bolt above me. And by this time my partner had come down to the bolt to find out what was going on and we could see each other. My jumars wouldn’t go any further up so he strung together every bit of climbing and caving tat he’d got and made a chain. It just about reached down to me and I was able to aid my way to safety.

AC: You’ve climbed with many different partners over the years. Tell us something about those you remember most.

JM: There has been a lot. But perhaps the two most memorable ones are the two Steves, Walker and Boyden. Steve Walker’s probably the best climber I’ve ever known: completely natural, no training, he just climbed. Sadly, he can’t climb any longer, after an accident at work: a severe electric shock, which robbed him of his balance. Some of the hardest, most frightening and best climbs I’ve done were with him – the most memorable of which was probably Hunger (E5 6a) on Gogarth, right in the middle of the Main Cliff.

The other Steve, Boyden, was a Wolverhampton protégé. He did climb a bit with his dad before he joined the club, but I think he did his first ever winter route with me, Sinister Gully (III) on Clogwyn y Ddysgl. Although he’d never been on ice before he just waltzed up it on second. I thought, Bloody Hell! We went on to do quite a bit together. He worked as a guide in Chamonix for a while, but he’s back in this country now, living near Llanymynech. He still tells stories of one of his greatest epics, which was with me in winter on Idwal Slabs with just one ice axe and one hammer between us… and no crampons! We started up Ordinary Route (III), but the snow ran out so we traversed across into the corner of Charity (Sev), leaving us with a pitch to get to the big ledge, on cruddy ice about an inch thick. Steve needed both axes to lead it – so he couldn’t put any gear in, because he had to get the axes back down the rope so I could second it. He ran it out for about 130 feet, cutting steps since we had no crampons. We just about made it to the ledge before nightfall but the icy descent needed an abseil in the dark!

John Martin on Dark Shadows (5.8) at Red Rocks. Photo by DW1

John Martin on Dark Shadows (5.8) at Red Rocks. Photo by DW1

AC: What makes a great climber?

JM: Natural ability more than anything. Steve Walker is the climber who impressed me the most. I know lots of people claim they don’t train, but Steve definitely never did anything other than yoga. And he was never stressed, no matter how hard it got. Even if he couldn’t do it, he wasn’t stressed. I’ve seen him on a 70 degree overhanging crag, where he couldn’t go up and he couldn’t climb down, so he just put a skyhook on and lowered off – completely relaxed and at home!

AC: If you could take just one crag to a desert island what would it be?

JM: There’s only one: it’s got to be Gogarth. It’s a proper adventurous mountain crag… at the seaside. You’ve got all the best aspects of climbing rolled up into one magnificent crag.

AC: What are your favourite routes there?

JM: A Dream of White Horses (HVS 4c) is high on the list, and The Strand (E2 5b)… but there are just so many great routes. And there’s now a new route on Main Cliff: Absolution (E3 5c), first ascent by T Larrad and J Martin, quite a bit of it done by mistake, but a fine route!

AC: Over the years, the WMC has done some pretty epic partying. Which are you still trying to recover from?

JM: Oh God, there’s been a few of them! The Night of The Seamstress sticks in my mind: the middle of February, a night of hard partying, a few newbies. They all wanted to go climbing, so about eight of us, all very inebriated, left Tal y Braich around 3 am and set off for the slate quarries. I led The Seamstress (VS 4c) – I don’t know how! – and about four of the party managed to follow. I think it was Dale’s first ever rock climb. There were a few failures. Steve Woodward had to be rescued on the way there, after he fell off the track: we got him to the route, but he fell asleep at the bottom!

Then there was the Bryn Hafod party at the Stafford hut in Cwm Cowarch. We partied well into the early hours. At 7.00 am it started to get light, but it was peeing down with rain – still, we didn’t feel like going to bed, so we went out climbing. Four of us staggered up Will o’ the Wisp (HVD) in the pouring rain. We couldn’t look down in case we passed out. By the time we got back to the hut the sun had come out, so we had a cup of tea and headed off to Barmouth Quarry.

For jet set international partying I remember one lasting nearly a week and based mainly in a Jacuzzi in Calpe, Spain. In fact the week was spent pretty much either on the rock or in the Jacuzzi. The water did get a bit rancid towards the end. Sandra stopped going in after day two, when scum began to form. How some of the party avoided drowning I will never know.

The most memorable Xmas party took place at Tyn y Coed a good few years ago, and featured a festive tug of war between WMC and the North London MC with the pub’s Xmas tree. We won and the tree later went straight onto the fire at the club hut. The party ended with Ralph getting punched in the face by the barmaid – although no one can quite remember what for!

AC: What are your most memorable trips?

JM: There are many that stick in my mind – such as the early hot rock trips to the Verdon Gorge: what an incredible place! But capping them all has to be Yosemite. It’s the climbers’ mecca, with fantastic multi-pitch routes like Snake Dike (5.7) on Half Dome and West Crack (5.9) on Daff Dome in Tuolumne. Or Cathedral Peak (5.6), which I’ve done twice. The second time we topped out as the sun was setting: great views but we had to descend in the dark! There’s also stunning cragging with routes like Superslide (5.9) and Bishop’s Terrace (5.9) – maybe the best 200 feet of single pitch HVS in the world. But everywhere else we visited in California was superb: Bishop, Red Rocks, Joshua tree. We had just a two week road trip after the Valley: you could easily spend two years.

AC: You’re not showing much sign of slowing down, so what’s next?

JM: I’m looking forward to Arapiles, if it comes off. (Not yet unfortunately – Ed.) One place I’ve always wanted to get to, but never made it so far is the Calanques, the limestone sea cliffs near Marseilles. (Possible club trip? – Ed.) But I’m not a great one for setting targets, I take it as it comes.

AC: Looking back, what has climbing given you – what have you got out of it all?

JM: A very good life!

John Martin going for a dive into the sea

John Martin going for a dive into the sea

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