Phil Davidson: A Rock Legend
- Thursday 25th February 2021
Phil Davidson, a legendary bold climber as a well as a gifted paddler and musician, is remembered by Keith Sharples.
‘If you’re reading this I’m afraid I’m out of it…’ the Facebook message said. Somehow, I’d skipped the entire opening paragraph of the post on Phil’s timeline and was drawn to that sentence. Starting over and reading the full post, it started to make sense. The news than many had feared for some time had happened – Phil Davidson had lost his battle with cancer and passed away.
It seems Phil had written a text detailing his later life with terminal cancer and left instructions for it to be posted when he had passed away. Despite the unimaginable pain she was clearly feeling Kate, his wife, had posted Phil’s words on his timeline. To compound the desperately sad news still further, Phil’s description of his recent life living with terminal cancer made an utterly harrowing read. His family and friends had lost a true fighter and a great character; the climbing community, another legend.
Back in the day I, like many other climbers of that era, was shocked by, and in awe of, Phil’s bold climbing; the poster of him soloing Right Wall remains etched into my very psyche. My own ascent of Right Wall, roped, of course, came in July of 1983 so the year after Phil’s incredible first solo ascent. I prepared long and hard for my own Right Wall attempt by doing endless traverses back and forth on the sandstone edges of the then very popular Broomgrove wall in Sheffield. My approach, lacking as it was any romanticism whatsoever, was entirely based on function and, I suspect, in stark contrast to Phil’s. In the event I found Right Wall okay – dare I say a little soft for the grade even; certainly it was much easier than London Wall which I did two days later. I say it was okay, however, I, of course, had all the trappings of safety i.e. ropes and the latest gear; Phil had been soloing and hence operating on an entirely different level.
It had all started for Phil in 1975, the year after Livesey’s first ascent of Right Wall. Phil documented his early years, including his exploits at both Pex Hill and North Wales, in a personal perspective piece titled Brats, Bikes and Boldness published in the BMC’s 2012 Cheshire & Merseyside Sandstone guidebook. Like many of that era, including myself, Phil headed off into the wilds – Pex Hill in his case – with a climbing book from the local library under one arm and a hemp rope slung over his shoulder to try climbing. ‘We were hooked’ Phil wrote, adding, ‘every spare moment involved climbing and Pex Hill was the venue’. Still aged 15, the young Davidson struggled to connect with the local club, the St Helens Mountaineering Club, given they met in a pub. Faced with rejection, Phil and his mates tackled the problem head-on. Hitching to North Wales and camping at Humphries Barn they had soon ticked off the classics such as Cenotaph Corner and Cemetery Gates. It seems Hugh Banner took kindly to the young upstarts. Trips up to Cloggy with Banner followed as Phil confirmed, ‘Trips up to Cloggy with Hugh allowed me to develop my forte of bold wall climbing and Pex Hill allowed me to train and refine it’.
Climbing not only at Pex Hill, but in Lancashire as well as North Wales, honed the young Davidson into an incredible climber. In 1977, and then just 17 years old, Phil made a very early repeat (said by Phil himself to have been the fourth) of Livesey’s Right Wall. Remarkably, Phil had only a couple of years climbing under his belt when he made his ascent in 1977. Located on the Gromlech in Llanberis Pass, Right Wall (E5 6a) was then one of the UK’s hardest routes. Livesey, at that stage one of the country’s very best leading free-climbers and new route developers, had inspected the line and prepared for the ascent as a consummate professional. By comparison, the 17-year old Davidson had – in what became the characteristic Davidson style – climbed Right Wall both on-sight and with no falls. Justifiably, Phil’s remarkable ascent – especially from someone with such a short climbing history – earned him rock prodigy status.
The young Scouser, despite being insulated and remote from the Pennine cutting edge in which Livesey and his contemporaries such as Ron Fawcett operated, had developed both the confidence and the required skill-set – and this at a fraction of Livesey’s age remember – to successfully dispatch Right Wall in fine style. The walls at Pex Hill had taught the young Davidson exceptional wall-climbing skills and given him steely fingers to boot and, although short, the walls of Pex Hill had also taught faultless execution as falls from the top of Pex wouldn’t have ended well. Davidson’s young skills were equally as sharp as others climbing at the higher grades.
We can gain more of an insight into Phil’s climbing from others who climbed with him as he started out. John Hart is one such climber who, having studied medicine and then practicing as a young doctor in Merseyside, saw Phil climbing a lot at Pex Hill in the mid/late 70s: “He seemed to live at Pex. Almost every time I went to the crag he was there, spreadeagled in complete control on tiny holds.” John summary of Phil’s climbing ability, whilst short and sweet, is unequivocal: “Phil was a phenomenal climber.” Phil, typically in the company of Gaz Healey, made numerous ascents at Pex and John, like many other observers, is clear about their additions: “Phil, and his mate Gaz Healey, made so many ascents of a high standard at the quarry it is hard to exaggerate how good they were.” Typical of young lads the days at the crag were full of good craic as John recalls: “Phil was the more extrovert of the two and his wide grin and endless banter gave us lots of laughs. On a low-level traverse of Dateline wall with four climbers traversing along when the first climber slowed down a voice would shout, ‘What are yer doing — are yer in-situ or summat’.”
John remembers too the style in which Phil climbed: “Phil climbed the routes at Pex without bouldering mats, solo with non-sticky rubber on his boots. His style was precise and unwavering and in absolute control. There was no slapping for a hold.”
Likewise, John recalls how magnanimous Phil was when it came to others: “Phil was kind enough to name my own contributions to Pex after me (Hart’s Arête) and my wife, Kit (Kit’s Wall). This was an important indication of his character as Phil and Gaz were the true kings and ‘owners’ of Pex and he could easily have given the routes anonymous names. (I had not named the routes when he wrote the guidebook.) It was a time when climbers were very possessive and ego-driven and seldom gave credit to others but this was not the way with Phil.”
Phil’s incredible wall climbing ability and strong fingers were key components of many of his other ascents that followed. In 1979, Phil did the third ascent of Ron Fawcett’s Lord of the Flies (E6 6a), also on the Gromlech. It seems that Davidson’s psyche and the Gromlech were perfectly matched. However, just how matched was spectacularly demonstrated when Phil went on to make the first solo ascent of Right Wall in 1982. Remarkably, Phil returned to make a second solo ascent of Right Wall for photographer and writer David Jones in 1984. The poster of that solo became the poster to have; it transcended the act itself and became a symbol of climbing passion, achievement and, of course, ultimate commitment.
In previous generations young climbers had turned to soloing to make their mark within the climbing community. Al Rouse, for example, had graduated from soloing on Chester sandstone – Beatnik (E5 6a) at Helsby was a regular solo of his – to soloing on the bigger stage in North Wales. Soloing was increasingly in vogue again in 1982 and Andy Pollitt, one of the climbers involved, soloed Great Wall and Quickstep, both E4s at Craig y Forwyn. However, Phil’s solo of Right Wall was an unprecedented achievement, the ultimate audacious act from a man seemingly free of inhibitions and any notion of limitations. It was, at the time, the hardest route ever soloed in the UK. It had taken Phil just five years to mature from rock prodigy at the age of 17 to rock legend at 23. Both terms are often banded about but in Phil’s case both are entirely justifiable.
Phil’s inclusion, within ‘The Legends’ chapter of David Jones’s seminal book, The Power of Climbing, not only cemented Phil’s reputation as a great rock-climber but it offered a fascinating insight into his thinking and attitudes towards climbing and what made Phil tick as a person. Talking about his solo of Right Wall, Phil offered the following rather brief description of the circumstances and his thoughts, ‘I wandered up there on my own one evening and soloed it; it didn’t seem any big deal’.
Understandably, that wasn’t how others saw it, Nick Wharton included. Nick, himself a climber with a reputation for bold, fast and - at times - solo climbing, had been climbing in Llanberis Pass with a friend, John Wilson, when, after returning to their camp in the Gromlech boulders, they looked up and saw Phil on his solo ascent. Nick recalls: “When we got back to our cave, we could see someone climbing on the Gromlech way up above us. We noticed because it was a quiet day in The Pass with very few others around. We watched with interest as best we could as we were always interested in seeing what other teams were up to. The person we could see was climbing on Right Wall but we couldn’t make out where their second was belaying them from – they should have been visible from where we were stood, albeit we were way below them. After a while it became apparent that whoever was up there was on their own and soloing Right Wall.”
Obviously, it was worthy of closer investigation. Nick explains: “In utter amazement we scrambled up the steep hillside as quickly as we could. It was Phil Davidson making his monumental ascent – the first solo of Right Wall. There was no-one else around, no audience, no photographer, this was a very understated act.”
Nick offers his own insight into Phil’s ascent: “It was a personal performance – done just for himself – not for others. I can relate to that; I’ve done some fairly audacious solos of my own in the past (not quite to this standard) and none of those have been for other people – I would rather do a hard solo without anyone else around. By the time we reached the base of the crag we just found his shoes at the bottom of the wall. Eventually he came wandering back, appearing almost embarrassed that we had caught him in the act yet obviously very pleased with what he’d just managed to pull off. This was a massive achievement at the time by one of the most unassuming climbers the UK has ever produced. He would return sometime later and repeat the feat, with a photographer on hand to capture some truly iconic images.”
Phil’s solo of Right Wall was just one of number of very impressive ascents he made. Given his proximity to North Wales it was inevitable that it should continue to feature in his climbing. A solo of Cockblock (E5 6b) on the Grochan was, in Phil’s words, ‘Another decent effort’. Likewise, the first complete ascent of Midsummer Night’s Dream (E6) was another stand-out ascent. Interestingly Phil also touched base and left his mark in the hot bed of the Pennines too. For example, Phil notched up a number of impressive repeats in the Peak District, climbing routes such as Indecent Exposure, The Angler, Tequila Mockingbird and Linden – all E6; the latter two being especially noteworthy. Phil’s efforts on Tequila were very impressive, sadly, he didn’t quite make it to the top on his first attempt but coming within a whisker of a flashed ascent was enough to further add to his already considerable standing. Linden, already a controversial route given Ed Drummond’s original ascent methodology, had stood idle since its first free ascent by Mick Fowler in the late 70s. Chris Gore is believed to have made the first on-sight lead (and is credited as such in Peak Rock) whilst Phil believed is own on-sight ascent was the first (as stated in The Power of Climbing). Phil’s ascent was, however, characteristically, done solo. Also, at that time, Jerry Moffatt soloed Linden.
Interestingly, and in contrast to Pex Hill, Frodsham and other sandstone venues where he climbed numerous new routes (often solo) Phil wasn’t drawn to new routeing elsewhere. Reflecting later on his lack of new routeing it seemed as though he regretted that somewhat, ‘In retrospect I really should have done more new routes but I wanted to be driven to a piece of rock, where the challenge is, then to do it with the minimum effort. New routes usually take a lot more effort than just going and doing one which is there to be repeated’. Phil, of course, is not the only top climber to have had that attitude. Amongst others, comparisons can easily be drawn between Phil and Dougie Hall who, whilst doing a few new routes of his own, largely concentrated on repeating routes in his heyday often doing hard second ascents typically in faultless style. Dougie has often been called a ‘climbers’ climber’; the same could certainly be said for Phil too.
Central to Phil’s climbing was his attitude to risk. David Jones, interviewing Phil for The Power of Climbing, asked Phil if he ever had any problems controlling himself in dangerous positions. Characteristically, Phil hadn’t, ‘… even facing 90-100 foot ground falls from soloing, I can never really say I’m frightened. I always had the confidence in my ability and never really got worried’. Then, whilst contrasting the relative dangers of sport climbing or doing a ‘death route’ like The Bells… it was abundantly clear where Phil’s admiration went: ‘The people who are going to lay it on the line are few and far between, those are the people I admire in sport, the dudes who take the risks’.
After what was clearly an intense period operating at the highest levels Phil’s interest began to shift away from climbing in 1984. Having started an outdoor education course Phil transferred the bulk of his attention to other sports – chief amongst them canoeing – after being marked down for his poor ability in a canoe. ‘I don’t like doing things badly’ was Phil’s reasoning, ‘Lots of people can’t cope with me; they can’t understand my obsession and fanaticism, but I hate doing things badly’. he added.
Phil eventually returned to climbing in the late 80s after having had a five-year break. Accepting that he’d had time away and that a return would be difficult he clearly wanted to climb well again as he said in The Power of Climbing, ‘…I wanted to try to portray myself as a reasonable climber. After a five-year lay-off I was anything but. Having said that it didn’t take that long for me to get back into it, which is a good thing and I don’t think I’ve lost that much as far as psychological control’. Phil was soon climbing well again and climbing a number of the longer routes in The Dales doing hard and dangerous trad repeats such has Death Wish (E7 6b) as well as mixed routes like Cave Route Right-Hand (E6 6b) and sport routes such as Obsession (F7b+), New Dawn (F7c) and Defcon 3 (then F7c+). Although climbing well, Phil never hit the harder grades that were being climbed by numerous climbers by that stage. Also, about that time Phil started to play the saxophone; once again Phil had to do that well so that took time too. Although he was a passionate advocate for adventure climbing and risk-taking in his youth, Phil – having broadened his interests – included more sport climbing in his later years, especially when travelling to overseas venues.
When Phil’s health issues came to light, five years or so ago, his interest in climbing continued to be strong. Having climbed with numerous of Phil’s contemporaries over the years it wasn’t until May 2017 and a chance encounter that I, finally, met Phil, as it happens, at the top of Cyrn Las. We shared the descent off the crag and chatted throughout. Phil was thoroughly engaging and delightful. One of the things I distinctly recall was our conversation about forearm tendon problems, something from which I’d suffered in the past and from which Phil was suffering at that time. In typical Phil style he was excelling in that too; his elbow problems forcing him to wear epicondylitis straps – on both arms. At no point did the conversation veer away from our lifelong love of climbing and only when I subsequently heard about Phil’s underlying health issues did I understand Phil’s absolute desire to keep climbing rather than to perhaps take a break and sort his elbows out.
Nesscliffe, arguably the finest sandstone cliff in the country, offers a bold, technical vertical sandstone playground which could have been made for Phil. During 2017/18 he worked through numerous hard routes there climbing Yukon II, Marline Direct, Gathering Sun and 10 O’clock Saturday Morning – all E7. His hardest route was My Piano (E8 6c), which he climbed aged 58, once again, another remarkable ascent – not least considering his on-going medical issues. In addition to overseas trips to many popular sport climbing venues such as Chulilla, Phil delved deep into the home delights climbing extensively in the UK in places like Portland as well as those in his backyard such as the Devil’s Gorge where he endured a battle or two on the steep Euro-style routes.
Despite his failing health Phil continued to climb for as long as he could and by all accounts never complained about his ongoing cancer battle. His humour too stayed with him too. It was a sharp humour as well, as John Hart, having re-established contact with Phil some 40 years after leaving Liverpool, recalls. John asked him a while ago whether he ever gets over to the Peak: “Not if I can help it,” was Phil’s reply.
It seems appropriate to leave the last words to Phil himself. Here he is talking once again about his beloved Pex Hill. It’s an interesting view of the climbing world and well worth repeating as it might strike a chord with a few just beginning their climbing. ‘Fashions change and with the growth of sport climbing Pex is no longer deemed steep enough for serious training and there are often more climbers indoors at local walls than there are in the quarry. But one should never underestimate this innocuous hole in the ground: it will give a grounding in technique, finger strength and boldness that will carry you far’. Certainly, it helped make Phil into the legend that he was and carried him far in the process.
I’m very grateful for the help with this piece from the following: John Hart, Nick Wharton, Chris Gore, Ramon Marin and Ian Smith. Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of the dates but there may be some errors therein as there inevitably are in records in the public domain. The following publications have been used: Welsh Rock (Pic Publications 1986), The Power of Climbing (Vision Poster Company 1991), Cheshire & Merseyside Sandstone (BMC 2012), Peak Rock (Vertebrate 2013)