Articles - Book Review: Ron Fawcett - Rock Athlete
John Horscroft - Posted on 06 Apr 2011
Rock Athlete – Ron Fawcett (with Ed Douglas)
(£20, Vertebrate Publishing 2010)
This is a brave book. It makes no compromises to the mainstream market, there’s no handy glossary of terms, no tortuous explanation of climbing techniques, no dumbing down. It is not a book for armchair mountaineers but for those as steeped in the minutiae of the sport as its subject. It is courageous in its punishing honesty. In other words, it’s exactly what you’d expect from a down-to-earth, working class Yorkshireman, a man such as Ron Fawcett.
More than anything it is an evocation of a period of flux, when climbing changed irrevocably as talented climbers found they had a chance to make a living from the sport, of an uncomplicated man thrust into the limelight only to find it uncomfortably intense. It was perhaps inevitable that Fawcett, whose childhood was spent almost entirely within a few square miles of tiny Embsay in the Yorkshire Dales, would find the new professionalism both blessing and curse. Growing up surrounded by moors and crags had instilled a love of the peace they conferred, and climbing was a means of enjoying that solitude just as bird watching and trout tickling had been. As Fawcett began to climb the hardest routes of the day and then ground-breaking routes of his own, his relationship with climbing would subtly change, not least because of his friendship with the late, great, Pete Livesey.
Fawcett is cheerfully irreverent about Livesey and his drive to be famous but the fame for which Livesey strove simply happened to Fawcett. He didn’t lack for ambition and was determined to climb the hardest routes of the day, but where Livesey was the artisan, Ron Fawcett was the artist; a naturally talented prodigy who simply redefined what was possible.
The recognition that followed, the film and TV appearances and his ubiquity in the climbing press, allowed Fawcett to live the climber’s life, to travel the world and climb the hardest routes of the day. In contrast to Jerry Moffatt, however, Fawcett was never fully comfortable with that level of exposure. Where Moffatt revelled, Fawcett endured.
This is also a very honest book. Fawcett is hard on himself and admits his flaws where other climbing biographies have glossed over. He pulls no punches with tales of infidelity, drug-taking, bolt-placing and petty theft which simply made me respect him even more. He is candid about his frailties, his ambivalence about placing a bolt on The Cad, his shyness and a memorable feeling ‘like an old fart’ at the ripe old age of 28. The pressures of meeting sponsors’ expectations do not sit well with a quiet lad from The Dales.
Yet Fawcett never falls out of love with climbing, only with the inherent pressure of being the top dog. The book opens with him setting out to climb 100 extremes in a day, clearly an attempt to remind himself what it is he really loves about climbing. It culminates with a delightful picture of Fawcett as he is now, living a simpler life, delighting in his daughters, fell-running, climbing and joining in the craic at Sheffield’s Climbing Works bouldering wall. The impression is of a man who quietly enjoys the affection he inspires, who has found some peace.
The subtlety of Ed Douglas’ work behind the scenes is such that the voice is very much Fawcett’s, the language straightforward and unembellished and all the better for it. Douglas points out that Fawcett was one of his boyhood heroes, a climbing God Almighty in the '80s and it says much that even now, it is simply enough to refer to Ron, and everyone will know who you’re talking about. This book is a fitting celebration of a climbing life well spent, of a decent ordinary man who just happened to be an extraordinary climber.
This review first appeared in the June 2010 issue of Climber Magazine