Climbing out of old age

The Guardian, August 1 1995

There is something about climbing that lends itself to symbolism – the struggle towards the highest peak, the search for footholds on the future – and so naturally, it is tempting to take one look at Sid Thompson and Cliff Sandham, clinging to a rock tower in the Lake District like two gnats on a knitting needle, and see them as a metaphor for the conquest of old age.

It is true that Thompson is 81 and Sandham is 77, that they are up there regularly with their ropes and their wedges, scaling some of the most difficult peaks in Britain, and it is clear that while other men and women of their age are devoted to decline, they remain fit and as happy as boys. But when you look more closely, there is something more than the mere banishing of time in the tale of the two old men and their mountains.

It has something to do with taking your chances, since both of these men grew up in circumstances where they had almost no chance to fulfill their dreams. Thompson was born in Bolton a few months before the Great War and he developed an ambition to go to college, to become an architect and build beautiful buildings which would have no resemblance at all to the smoke-blackened mills of his home town. But his father lost his job, he left school early, there was no money for college, and he never got within distant sight of his ambition.

He ended up spending ten years as an apprentice joiner on weather-beaten building sites, studying at a nightschool to improve himself, qualifying finally as a public health inspector. However, early on along this dark and difficult way, he was offered a fleeting chance of a kind of freedom when a lad he had been at school with offered to take him climbing. Since he was mortally scared of heights and had never been near a craghead, Thompson was tempted to say No, but he was bored and he felt trapped and so he shrugged and said he’d give it a go.

So it was that one Saturday morning in the summer of 1932, Thompson and his schoolfriend set out on their bikes, with ragged Dunlop gymshoes on their feet and washing lines wrapped round their chests for ropes, and all seemed well until his friend stopped at the foot of a vertical rock face and pointed at the top and Thompson had no doubt at all that this was impossible. But his friend roped them together and started upwards, Thompson gritted his teeth and followed his friend’s footholds, the rope was nice and tight between them, Thompson told himself he couldn’t give up and so he scrambled further and, to his amazement, he made it. He emerged at the top, feeling that this was the most marvellous experience of his life – the air, the sheer beauty of the hills rolling away on all sides, and the knowledge that he had achieved the impossible. He was 18. Without knowing it, he had just opened a door on the rest of his life.

Cliff Sandham’s chance came at the end of a longer, more difficult road. Like Thompson, he grew up in the Depression, in a village just outside Keswick in the Lake District where his father owned the general store. All across Cumberland, the old mines had shut down, there were soup kitchens in the towns and by night, the men ran raids into farmers’ fields to steal turnips. Like Thompson, he had an ambition – to go to the Royal College in Manchester to study music and play his violin – but he couldn’t afford the train fare, let alone the college, and he was left to help his father in the shop.

Sandham was 31 before he came across what looked at first like his chance to break out. It came on a bicycle. He habitually cycled up to 50 miles a day just getting around the place and delivering goods from the shop, so he joined a local cycling club, found himself taking part in a race, lost hopelessly and determined to do better. He started training and became a prolific long-distance cyclist.

Over the next 12 years, he broke 13 British records. He’d peddle huge distances – all the way from Gretna to John O’Groats in one non-stop ride lasting 22 hours, 55 minutes and 4 seconds. He won the Wessex 24-hour marathon. He was covering nearly 20,000 miles a year and he had his sights set on a new 1,000-mile record when, in April 1960, as he trained outside Workington, a motorist careered into him, sending him and his bike spinning into the air. He landed on his back and broke his spine in two places. It was about a year after this that Sandham started climbing mountains.

Of course, that must be another one of the morals of this story – that you never give up. Sandham couldn’t ride races any more after his accidents – he couldn’t bend. By rights, he shouldn’t even have been walking. When the doctors at Whitehaven Hospital first saw him, they thought he wouldn’t survive the night. But he did and he spent weeks in traction waiting for his bones to fuse together again, refusing to accept his immobility until eventually he tottered back to life. He was still encased in a spinal jacket, he still couldn’t bend, and periodically he was in pain, but he was mobile and he was looking for excitement.

So when, shortly after leaving hospital, Cliff Sandham found himself chatting in a local shop to a man he knew only by sight, and when this man invited him to come out climbing with him, he set aside fear and pain and inertia and he took his chance. The man was Sid Thompson who had moved from Bolton and married a local girl. The two men were soon up a crag face together.

Thompson had fallen in love with the Lake District peaks: the Praying Mantis at Goat Crag and the Engineers Slabs at Gable; Troutdale Pinnacle with that tricky last move out over the edge of the overhang; Nape’s Needle where he liked to scramble right up to the lid of the little top block, which is no bigger than a couple of arm chairs and wobbles as if it is balanced on a pebble; the Central Buttress at Scafell which he had scaled so often that other climbers called him “CB Sid”.

Thompson did not patronise his new student with easy climbs. He took him out to Shephard’s Crag in Borrowdale and showed him how to drive wedges into the cracks in the rockface and how to use sticht blades to control the ropes and how to move safely in the classical manner, with three limbs on the rock and only one in motion at a time, and together they set off up some of the toughest climbs in the area. Soon they were clambering up The Crack at Gimmer Crag (rated “very severe”) and the North Crag Eliminate (rated “extremely severe”).

The two men became fine friends. The more they stretched themselves, the more they felt the bond that tied them together. Thompson always led the way but he always said that Sandham was a braver man than he was. Sandham always made the decisions but what he really meant was that he always decided to go along with Thompson’s newest bright idea. As the years passed they found there was nothing to stop them. There was something that drove them on.

You might look at Cliff Sandham and say that he was fighting the shadow of his father, who was known as ‘the pocket Hercules’ – built like a boulder, strong enough to wrestle a local rugby hero to a standstill when he was over 50, quick enough to win the 100 yards bare foot at the local sports days – but Sandham isn’t like that. He is proud of taking after his mother and he has always preferred his violin to any kind of competitive sport. You might look at Sid Thompson and say he was climbing away from pain, leaving behind the memory of the terrible accident which took his young wife’s life and left him alone with three children.

But the truth is simpler than that. These two men take pleasure in their lives and they have lived them their own way. Taking chances and refusing to give up and stretching themselves – all it really amounts to is that somehow they have managed to defy the rest of the world with its mass culture and its consumer epidemics and its ceaseless spray of conformity and they have succeeded, where millions have failed, in following the dictates of their own characters, living their lives as individuals.

They have had their nasty moments along the way. Sid fell one time as he was leading the way up the Central Buttress at Scafell. There is a particularly difficult phase of the climb where you have to put all your weight on one arm while you use the other to drive a wedge into the rock and, by the time he moved on, his arm was just dead from the effort. When he leaned on it again, it gave way, and he fell 15 feet before the rope snatched him back. Another time in Thirlmere, he was standing on a rock the size of a horse, stepped off it and heard an almighty crack behind him as the whole rock broke away and tumbled away down the cliff. You have to have luck.

There are times when their age catches up with them. Earlier this summer, the two of them set off for the Isle of Skye to tackle the toughest route up the Inaccessible Pinnacle in the Cuillins. They had been there before but the last time they had made the climb, they found there was a group already on top of the pinnacle who had left a rope hanging down behind them. They had used it, then later decided that was cheating and so they had resolved to do it again.

They set off in mid morning, walking up the gentle hill over the moors to the foot of the mountain and then started scrambling upwards, up the steep slope littered with enormous boulders. It was stunningly hot. They did not know it at the time, but that day the Isle of Skye was the hottest place in Europe and, as the slope became steeper, they began to tire. Soon, they were stopping every 50 yards and gasping for breath. Sandham, who always likes to strip to the waist when he climbs, found it was too hot to bare his back to the sun. They realised that they were carrying far too much kit.

After several hours of this, they felt beaten, but neither wanted to let the other one down, and so they plodded on. Normally, they would have reached the base of the Inaccessible Pinacle in three or four hours. This time it was nearer six hours before they got there and by that time, they knew they had to give up. With heavy hearts and a hint of shame, they turned back down the hill. They were diagnosed as suffering from heat stroke, and Thompson was in bad fettle for four days.

But for the most part, their age now has become a running joke between them. When they climbed Nape’s Needle a few years ago – with a combined aged of more than 150 years – and scrambled up on to the wobbling top block, Thompson sat, as he always did, controlling his vertigo, while Sandham insisted on standing up to his full height with nothing but thin air around him to admire the mighty view. Thompson shook his head and told him he was young and daft.

They say they haven’t got used to the idea that they are old, though Sandham began to realise that he must be looking different when young men started calling him ‘mister’. Thompson says there’s nothing to it. “It’s not wisdom but cowardice that’s kept me alive. Not like young Sandham, always racing around the place.”

Alexander Pope once wrote that: “Years following years steal something every day; At last they steal us from ourselves away.” In a world run on profit and pragmatism, it is a fate which is avoid by few.