The John Allen interview – Crags 8, 1977
- Monday 25th May 2020
This interview by Geoff Birtles was recorded in December 1976, before John Allen, who recently died in a climbing accident (here) emigrated to New Zealand. It was featured in Crags issue 8 and Geoff has allowed Climber to reproduce it here:
He is now 18 years old although there was a time when he seemed to be 14 for ever. They were the days when rumours flew around of a child star who would be better than any before.
In some respects, he lived up to them. He was a trained thoroughbred in PAs, the product of attention of the kind more commonly associated with organised sport. He may go down in climbing history as a shooting star that soon disappeared over the horizon, rather like John Streetly. On the other hand, he may return to continue the exciting development that is bound now to spread from the outcrops to the mountain crags.
In this brief chat before he left, he questions today’s attitudes and recognises the missing touch of romanticism that inspired an older generation of climbers.
Routes like Profit of Doom, Hairless Heart, London Wall and Old Friends will remain as his own lasting contribution to the new era.
He went the way of many a young man. Well, just what does make a young man pull up his roots — a young woman?
Just how young were you when you started climbing?
I would be about 10 at the time and a friend of my dad’s, Les Gillott, took me out climbing. We first went out on Stanage one evening and the hardest route we did was Heather Wall, a Severe, which felt pretty desperate.
Was this just top-roping?
Yes, we used to top-rope everything at that time. That was Les’s plan to train the best climber in the world — I think he succeeded. (Only joking.)
Why train you? Or didn’t it matter who it was?
I think he enjoyed taking me out and reliving his youth in a way. It was also to improve my character because I was a pretty horrible person before I started going climbing.
Just what did Les’s plan entail?
Well, he wanted a leader for when he got older but he gave in before that time arrived. We used to go round all the crags in Derbyshire, Staffordshire, Lancashire, Les used to go up to the top, take a belay and sit there for about three hours, sometimes in the rain and snow. We used to fancy ourselves as Joe Brown you see. Then we just top-roped as hard as we could at the time.
Were you the only young lad getting this treatment?
No, there was my friend Neil Stokes who lived next door. He used to come with us all the time for two or three years, until we had been leading Extremes for about a year and then he packed in.
When did you start leading for yourself?
When I was about 12: I led The Dangler which was the first thing of any significance. My father was holding the rope on that occasion. I think I had quite a bit of tension — proud father didn’t want me to fail. I also remember doing Right Eliminate on Curbar when I was about 13 or 14. I remember that as being really desperate because I just used the arete instead of the crack because I couldn’t wedge properly. I think I was probably too small to wedge. I don’t think my bum touched the other side of the crack. I got up it eventually.
Did you go through all the Derbyshire hard routes, what were then the Joe Brown classic Extremes?
Yes, all the Brown and Whillans routes. We used to read all the books and go out to do their climbs.
How did you fare on the harder Brown and Whillans routes such as Sentinel Crack and Quietus?
I did those about a year later, although I didn’t do Sentinel for quite a while. But Neil did that quite early on.
Neil was good then, was he?
Yes, he was. But the thing with Neil was that he wouldn’t push himself to his limit. If he ever did anything, you could be sure he did it in quite good style.
Just how old were you when you started making first ascents?
I would be about 14 then I think. That was probably Premiere on Stanage. That was about HVS. Old Friends might have been the first significant one when I was say 15, also on Stanage. That was Extreme, a bit harder than the Brown type extremes on grit, about 5c.
Old Friends was a route that had previously been climbed with aid, wasn't it?
If it was done by Drummond yes. I wouldn’t know about that.
You said that Old Friends is about 5c. That might be considered a bit low by some standards. How do you see the present grading system catering for the harder routes?
Well the technical grading seems to have been abused, because, the way I look at technical grades, the only way it can function is for the hardest move on a pitch to be graded regardless of strenuosity or seriousness.
That would be for a second rather than a leader then, and of course on first acquaintance?
Yes, without the psychological problems. The rest of the route can be covered in the verbal description of the climb. That would be more interesting and give more life to the route: a good romantic notion.
What then do you think of this idea from the Lake District to simply have Extreme 1, 2, 3, etc.?
It seems a sensible move really but it lacks a human element. It only serves the same purpose as the tech' grades. There’s no point changing that. You can cover the general undertaking of the route in the description. I don’t know about guidebook costs but I would like more interesting descriptions.
Did you go along to the last guidebook meeting?
Yes, but there were too many people there to get a condensed view. There was a lot of talk about rest points. I think a rest point should be different from an aid point. You've really got to use your personal values while you’re climbing. If somebody is going to cheat, then they will anyway.
How can you justify grading London Wall on Millstone 5c? It did after all take Pete Livesey, one of today’s very best climbers, all day with much upping and downing to repeat it.
But it is for each move. There’s no move harder than 5c. That’s my view on technical grading.
So what about Pete?
Perhaps he’s no good.
You know better than that.
Don’t get me wrong. I like Pete and I know he has the best record of top new routes in the last few years — but, is he technically efficient? He’s not a very inspired climber.
I would agree that he is not the smoothest mover on rock but my point was that he can dispense with a 5c in better style than he did London Wall. I suppose you don't think that Fawcett creaming up everything is very good either?
I prefer Livesey. The climbs he has put up bear his brand of seriousness, stuff like Footless Crow and Right Wall. He’s a frightening climber to make a repeat ascent of. I suppose Ron is but I can’t think of any of his new routes.
Maybe Ron is yet to emerge with new routes.
He’s been around long enough now if he is going to emerge. He’s a very good climber and very impressive to watch but put him on hard technical problems, on actual routes rather than climbing walls. I wonder then how he’d fare.
So you place more emphasis on technical difficulty?
Yes, it seems a bit of a contrast to my romantic notions.
How then do you see Pat Littlejohn? He probably couldn’t get off the floor on Leeds Wall but when it comes to new-routing he has no peer today.
I admire him because he adventures, he puts new routes up himself. But Ron doesn’t seem to contribute to new route development as far as I can see. It’s not sour grapes, I wouldn’t like to repeat some of his new routes — if I could think of one. It’s Livesey that will be remembered as the most impressive climber of this time.
Is it Livesey’s products that you appreciate rather than his basic abilities?
Yes it is really. As I’ve said, I like Pete but I think he’s doing something to destroy climbing and I suppose I’m part of it also. But there is no romanticism in climbing anymore. It’s dead.
Are you trying to say the Spirit of the Hills is missing?
Yes, bring back the flora and fauna.
You mean in the way that one would go out walking in the rain just to get into the hills for the sake of being there?
Yes, I really feel for that.
But your image and your friends’ is that of sitting in the cafe half the day and suddenly bursting out on a 20-foot problem.
That’s because we are idle but the feeling is there in our minds. If you can embody the romanticism into the technical — I mean there are now so many routes that were believed impossible before, there is something special about that.
Which of your new routes fall into that category?
Castellan, Prophet of Doom, Hairless Heart, White Wand, Nectar. Hairless Heart is a serious undertaking which I can’t believe I’ve really done because I’m such a coward at heart. Prophet of Doom was something I enjoyed because it was so technically hard: a very well protected challenge of ability which you can’t really fake if you are honest with yourself. You could fake that climb by pulling on the runner but that depends on your personal satisfaction.
Had you inspected Prophet of Doom before you climbed it?
Yes, I abbed down it and what I liked was that it gave me no idea of how to climb it. I thought I was going to layback it and when I got up I bridged it — and it felt completely new, which is something nowadays. You go round doing new routes, abbing down them and there’s no adventure from it. But you have to do this because if you don’t someone else will and beat you to the climb. So you get the route, a superb climb, but it doesn’t really mean much to you. Climbing has gone down to efficiency rather than adventure.
How did you find Castellan as an adventure?
I really think it’s a superb route although I didn’t actually second the first pitch. I was really pissed off with Steve (Bancroft) about that.
How come you missed out on that?
I don’t know really. I was very moody all night after that. I didn’t speak to Steve much. That’s the truth. In the old days when I was better than Steve, he said that I would have to lead that pitch.
Steve is a climber that only came to prominence quite recently.
Yes, that’s true. His finger strength got much stronger, quite by accident of course. I was quite shocked when he became good. I think that’s perhaps why I’m giving up. I couldn’t believe it.
What have you done outside Derbyshire?
Great Wall free on Cloggy is I suppose the most notable thing. Because I could do that on sight, I couldn’t compare it with other routes in Derbyshire which I had inspected. So I naturally assumed it to be easier but I really enjoyed it. I found out that I did a couple of extra moves and did it completely the wrong way and made it harder for myself. Apart from that I did Moon free on Gogarth — which was the first free ascent, despite claims from elsewhere.
Where do you go now?
The way I look at climbing, just what do you have to do to break through a barrier? It might sound egotistical but if somebody could do something absolutely phenomenal that nobody else could believe, that’s the thing to do.
The way I look at it is that limestone is characterised by the sloggers’ sort of routes, the impressive climbers. But I come back to grit because I’m used to climbing on that, I feel a bit more affinity with it. You are faced with the technicality of the problem and you know what holds there are to use and you’ve just got to use those to get up. It may not be a particularly good attitude but gritstone is where you could make a real showpiece of a route, something like Ulysses Bow, absolutely desperate that only talented people could climb.
And yet Livesey who you say cannot climb technical stuff has done it.
Has he now? Pete Livesey could not do it. Has he soloed it?
No, he had a runner high in Goliath's Groove and fell off a few times before managing it.
You’ve got to solo that route. If he wants to record that!
He says he isn’t claiming it.
Good! Well I admire him for that.
But the point is that he technically climbed it.
Well technically I’ve top-roped it. If you’re going to solo that, there’s only talent going to get you up it. It’s a very pure line. There’s no positive holds on it. I was quite obsessed with it for about six months. It’s the only thing I wanted to do.
Again you have a conflict of opinions. While you argue for the romantic notion of climbing you admit to being obsessed by technicality.
I have actually. I’ve just realised that.
You can read Keith Sharples’s look back at John’s extraordinary legacy here.