The Anabasis: the Life and Times of a Mountaineering Club

Posted by Dave Atkinson on 22/02/2021
Photo: A winter dawn in Garth, The Peter Llowarch Memorial Hut.

The Liverpool-based Anabasis Mountaineering Club has reached the end of its journey, 60 years after it began back in 1961. Long-standing member Dave Atkinson captures the Club’s history in this warm tribute:

Happily, thanks to an agreement with the Rucksack Club, brokered with BMC support, our members are able to ‘migrate’ to a new home, where a warm welcome awaits and three Huts to an Anabasis one.

Arrangements that bring people together in pursuit of common goals, whether it be exchanging goods for money or supporting participation in the ‘sport’ of mountaineering, are creatures of their time, products of a social and economic eco-system that is not fixed. Our Club was founded when consumer goods were only attainable through high street shops and mail order catalogues. Limited information and scarce personal resources meant that the ‘Climbing Club’ played a key role in brokering safe passage for thousands into adventure in the mountains. 

Things are different now, the current pandemic suggesting we do not need high street shops. The Climbing Club, if it does not adapt, may be made an extinct species by readily available information, widespread access to personal transport and arrangements easily made through social media. Over time, our members no longer needed the Club to help them with their mountaineering, they just needed it to look after our Hut in Snowdonia. Now, the changing economics of rural life, sharpened by loss of income in the Coronavirus lockdown, compel our farmer landlord to take back our leased Hut with a view to maximising its asset value in more lucrative markets.

Origins: Breaking with Conformity

Our story began one freezing winter night in 1961 when founder members Keith Britton and Ian Cass were turned away from the Hut of one of the established Clubs, in Langdale. This chilling experience was as kindling to a bonfire of ideas about ‘freedom of the hills’, held over from pre-war Kinder Scout trespassers. ‘We had to join or form a club’, Keith wrote. ‘The former could give us a climbing base, but the latter could offer a home for those like us, the opportunity to build at least an irritant to the advance of conformity, and...perhaps find a base of our own.’ Driven by demons akin to those driving the Rock and Ice in Wales, they placed an advertisement in the Liverpool Echo inviting people to come to a meeting to discuss the formation of a new climbing club, free of the rules and tradition that froze them out in Langdale.

It is said that over a hundred came to that meeting, and Honorary President George Murphy, himself a child of Liverpool’s hard knocks streets, remembers being astonished at the level of abuse exchanged by the different factions present. Battle-lines were drawn between potholers and climbers, but going below was a Club thing for many years. We even had our own ladders. A ‘grimstone’ group was determined on the pursuit of excellence over friendship. For many years vitriol was an ‘odd form of entertainment’ at Annual General Meetings. Over time, things settled, some spinning away on other trajectories and friendship prevailing alongside excellence.

People and Place: the Making of a Club

Photo: A work party poised Manhattan skyscraper-steeplejack style. 

One of the delights of the Club has been the variety of individuals it draws together. There were sufficient over-educated persons in its founding group to persuade the baffled rest that it really would be a good idea to name the Club after Xenophon’s tale of a march from the coast to higher ground. The plumbers, sparks, roofers and boiler makers were of more value than the social workers and teachers when it came to looking after our Hut at Capel Curig. A ‘lost’ member (one of many) ‘discovered’ an empty cow shed on a sheep farm known as Garth. The farmer proved amenable to letting his shed to a bunch of townies from Merseyside. Enthusiasm was needed because even after the initial knee-deep deposit had been removed, sheep and mice regularly marked their visits in similar style. Over the years, our Club has made many improvements, although Hut users were not spared a trek over the fields until a washroom and toilets were added in 2014. As often, substantial achievement begins with a few of us, depends on rest of us. The few were then Chair Di Murphy and Hut Warden Clive Lane who magnificently harnessed the muscle and money of the rest to pull it off.     

The Hut has been the heart of our Club, our people its lifeblood. Thanks to an enduring relationship with successive generations at Garth Farm, our luck has been to enjoy a special place, with its sublime view of the Snowdon peaks, for so long. It has been a base for adventures, for making, keeping, imbibing with and climbing with friends, for song around the fire and beneath the stars. It has been a venue for bonfires and barbeques, hangovers and hotpots. Here, children and grandchildren have played and grown, returning as parents with another generation. Here too, we remember our dead.

George Murphy was very much the ring-master in those early days, roping in former colleagues from RAF Mountain Rescue. One was Peter Llowarch, our Hut being named in his memory after he died on Cyrn Las in 1961. George made the way for many who are still members today, including, in 1975, myself. Dropped in at the ‘deep end’ on my first Scottish Winter climbing day, a bad accident to two of ours on Creag Meagaidh called on Murphy’s Mountain Rescue credentials. In the following days, I discovered how this thing called a ‘Club’ worked, everyone rallying round, drinking heavily, getting into the mountains every day, and, by the end of the week, for several us, our first Ben Nevis winter climb. The Club became the safe place where we advanced our standards, sometimes trailing the elite, at others sneaking off with our peers and looking forward to the grudging approval of the first team. Members climbed well, and if not at the cutting edge of the day, we take pride in the achievements of each one, at whatever ‘standard’, because everyone’s success belonged to us all.  As has been wisely said, what you do matters less than being with the right people in the right place at the right time.

Photo: The Anabasis's home from home in the hills.

The Club had its institutions, the annual Winter Meet was one, and until the days when private cars enabled individuals to make their own arrangements, transport was by shared minibus. I remember a jolly when we took off to Ben Nevis for the weekend. Penrith was visited for ‘refreshment’ on the Friday night (not the driver!), Tower Ridge done on the Saturday, haybarn accommodation procured in a Fort Bill bar for the night and Sunday given over to a huge breakfast and heading home. There were raucous Christmas dinners, and foreign Meets in the Slavic states, the Alps and Yosemite. The coming of children fostered new institutions, Malcolm Winstanley beguiling us into thinking that fell running was fun, while we headed off to Pembrokeshire at Easter for proper fun on the sea cliffs. The fit with family life was that these things did not take a whole day, leaving time for Pembroke beaches, and for beer, bonfire and hotpot at our Hut after the November Penmaenmawr Fell Race.    

If the Club had a ‘golden age’, it began to tarnish towards the end of the twentieth century, declining interdependency undermining the Club’s foundations. The ‘Meet’ lost its hold on people’s diaries, climbers favouring lightning strikes when conditions were right over sitting around in a tent waiting for the rain to stop. The treasured Winter Meet gave way to ‘sun rock’ trips to Spain and Morocco. Many were active but no longer dependent on the Club to facilitate for them. A thriving Thursday fringe team was dedicated to the Helsby and Frodsham sandstone and there were friendship group raids on remote Scottish crags, but reluctance to make a ‘Meet’ of such things, you never knew who might show up.     

Photo: Club gathering, celebrating completion of Hut improvements, November 2014.

Endings: ‘Fings Ain’t Wot They Used to Be

By 2010, our fiftieth anniversary, it was evident that the Club had an ageing membership and did not attract the young people who might guarantee its future. In the years that followed, younger folk joined and new excellence was achieved in mountain marathon-type things, but we had become less a ‘climbing’ Club, more a social one. The Hut became a venue for the important work of Sefton Veterans in their work with PTSD survivors. Especially since the addition of toilet facilities at our Hut, the Club has been able to secure its financial position through lettings to outside groups. But the Club struggled to reconcile the twin imperatives of making the Hut available to Members at all times and maximising its value as a resource. The Club felt ‘hollowed out’, virtually all of its transactions being expenditure on, or income from, the Hut.

Dave Appleton has guided us wisely and well to our Rucksack Club future. Now, at the end of our Anabasis, and thanks to our new friends at The Rucksack Club, we look forward to the future with optimism. We will travel as we always have done, collectively as well as individually, caring for each other, and, on the hill as in the trials of daily life, never leaving anyone behind. Sadly, George Murphy, our President and sole Honorary Life Member, passed away on 3rd February. It is fitting that he becomes an Honorary Member of the Rucksack Club.  

Triubute by Dave Atkinson 10.02.2021

 

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