"Mountains My Lab" Part 6

Posted by Jeremy Windsor on Jun 17, 2019

Jim Milledge has been one of the UK's leading figures in mountain medicine for many years. In 2018 he completed a long awaited memoir - "Mountains My Lab". Although Jim's intention was not to publish the book widely he has granted us permission to reproduce extracts on our blog. Over the course of the next year we'll bring you images and text that describe Jim's extraordinary life. 

Part 1 includes an overview of Jim's life. Part 2Part 3Part 4 and Part 5 can be found in earlier posts.

In Part 6 Jim starts climbing in North Wales and graduates from medical school...

It was in my third year at Birmingham that I first went rock-climbing with the University Club known as the Stoats. The name came from an episode when an exasperated instructor had been trying to teach some club members the rudiments of climbing and exhorting them to keep their bodies away from the rock. He is reputed to have said something like, “Keep your bellies off the rock. You’re like a lot of bloody stoats!” One particular friend, a Stoat and a medical student in my year, was Phil Astill. I really owe it to him for getting me off the ground (so to speak) in rock climbing. Unfortunately not long after getting me started, Phil had a fall on Tryfan breaking his leg. He never really got back into climbing after that. Jeff Sellars, my closest friend at university, a medic and Air Squadron member, then became my climbing partner. He was a natural climber and seemed to be quite unfazed by what climbers call “exposure”, that is, the added difficulty of a move made high off the ground compared with the same move made just off the ground. In our fourth year we had a wonderful ten days of climbing at Easter, based at the Climbers Club Hut in the Llanberis Valley, Ynys Ettws. When we started the holiday I was the leader, leading climbs up to V. Diff (very difficult, in the grading system of the time; this is actually quite an easy grade) and by the last two days climbing, Jeff was leading VS (very severe, the highest grade at the time). Our first VS climb was Longland’s Climb followed by Curving Crack, both on Clogwyn du'r Arddu. This was in 1952 when Cloggy was considered the hardest face in N. Wales.

Clogwyn du'r Arddu - The line of Curving Crack (VS 4c) can be seen catching the shade on the left whilst Longland's Climb (VS 4c) is just starting to catch the sunlight immediately right of the dark cleft.

By this time I had got to know John Watson, a middle aged businessman in Birmingham. He was an established member of the Climbers Club and used to go up to N. Wales regularly in his open-top car and gave me a lift. We used to stop at the Pen Y Gwryd Hotel on our way to Ynys Ettws. This was the hay day of the Hotel run by Chris Briggs and his wife Jo. It was patronised by the foremost British climbers of the day including many who made up the team of the successful 1953 Everest Expedition. I remember being in the hotel on the evening when on the day of the Queen’s coronation, the news came through that Everest had been climbed. A group of us attempted to compose a suitable telegram combining congratulations to her and the Everest team with our expressions of loyalty to Her Majesty! The quantities of Worthington E bitter completely defeated our efforts.

The fifth year of the medical course was generally considered to be the busiest for students. We did many of the courses in the so-called minor specialities, including obstetrics and gynaecology, paediatrics, ophthalmology, dermatology, as well as lab based subjects of pathology, microbiology etc and had exams in these subjects. This was the year 1952-3 by which time I was thoroughly bitten with the climbing bug and was going up to North Wales at every opportunity as well as flying and having quite an active social life. At the end of the summer vacation I spent three weeks acting as handy man at Pen-y-Gwryd. My hours were 9-5 each day with Saturday and Sunday off and my pay was, 50 shillings per week £2.50 in to-days money, plus bed, or rather bunk and board. But bear in mind that beer, Worthington’s best bitter, was only a shilling (5p) a pint. The food was wonderful hotel fare prepared by Jo Briggs and two very attractive hotel trainees. I had a motorbike by now and after five I would dash off for a quick climb (solo). At the weekends friends would come up and we would climb or walk whatever the weather. It was during this time that I came closest to killing myself rock climbing. It was on a rather damp Sunday when Tony Champion, a man a couple of years older than me, came to the hotel looking for a climbing companion. I was free and we went down the Llanberris Pass to attempt a classic climb, Main Wall, on Cern Lass. I was leading and on the second pitch, the rock was cold and slippery on an outward sloping gangway ledge. I retreated a couple of times, but on the third attempt got across it. However, I seemed to have used up all the strength in my fingers, and on the next steep section, when I had to pull up with little help from my feet, my fingers just gave up and I fell off. Fortunately my second was belayed on abut the same level as me and I just pendulumed down to a grassy ledge about 20 feet below. 

Pen y Gwyrd Hotel - Highly recommended. If you can, stay there!

On another weekend the Saturday was wet and I went for a hill walk with John Neil, a Climbers Club member. The weather was typical of North Wales, i.e. wet and windy. We had a good day out and got soaked. In the evening we got to discussing our next day’s walk. I had long wanted to do the well-known “Three-thousanders” walk; the 14 peaks of Wales over 3,000 ft but to Moulam’s rules. These stated that you did the walk by including all the peaks and that you started and finished at the same place. The usual way to do this famous walk was to have someone take you to the start and pick you up at the other end. Often people would have friends to bring them food and drink at the points where the route crossed roads in the valleys. I suggested that we have a go at this walk the next day. Chris Briggs and everyone in the pub derided our presumption, it was still pouring with rain outside, but that, and the Worthington E, only made us more determined. Jo said there was no question of any support for our crackpot idea; they were fed up with helping various walkers who had then given up. Indeed Chris was prepared to wager the pub against our doing it! I took him on and put up Ynys Ettws as my wager.

John and I retired to the bunkhouse behind the Hotel and set our alarm clock. At three am it went off. I woke up, stopped it and listened. The rain was pattering on the tin roof of the bunkhouse. John seemed to be still asleep. It looked hopeless and I thought if I just went to sleep again we could say we had slept through and not heard the alarm, and so not lose face. But then I thought I had better give John a chance to agree, so woke him up. “O right”, he said, “Lets go”. Our first problem was that we found we had left our walking clothes and boots in the Hotel drying room so had to burgle our way in to retrieve them. At least they were dry but before we had reached Pen y Pass, short of a mile up the road, we were wet through (no Gortex in those days).

I was grateful to have John lead up the pig track from there to the col, Bwlch y Moch where we left the pig track for the broad ridge up to Crib Goch and it began to get a little less dark. By the time we reached our first of fourteen summits, the rain had stopped but we were only just below the heavy mist. Along the knife sharp ridge we went carefully on the wet rocks to Crib y Ddysgl and on quickly to Snowdon summit. There we encountered a huddle of miserable walkers who had come up to see the sunrise! The only view they had was the inside of a wet cloud. As we strode down the broad path towards Llanberis we came below the cloud. At Cloggy station we dived over the edge to the right, steeply down with no path into Cwm Glas Bach and made our own route down to the road in the Llanberis Valley. Now it was down the main road, past Beudy-Mawr, a climbing hut belonging to the Wayfarers Club. We were quite short of food and hoped we might beg a cup of tea and perhaps a snack but no one was in residence. So we ate our only sandwiches there on the doorstep in our wet clothes. As we went up the long pull up to Elidir Fawr, the first of the next range of peaks, the weather improved and beyond its long summit ridge, the sun came out. Our sprits rose as we hurried along over Foel-Goch and Y Garn to the Glyders, Fawr and Fach. Down beside the Bristly Ridge we went to Bwlch Tryfan and up the rocky ridge to Tryfan summit. It was now one o’clock, the sun was out and I felt great. John had been very good to come with me because he knew he could not complete the walk, as he had to be back at the Gwryd to get his lift back to London at five o’clock. So we said goodbye, he went south whilst I ran down north towards Lake Ogwen, which I reached in about 15 minutes.

Then my path went past Glan Dena. This is a very nice hut belonging to the Midland Association of Mountaineers and I really hoped I might beg some food here as I was getting very hungry and still had the six summits of the Carneddau to climb and return to the Gwryd. The door was open so I haled the occupants, a cheerful couple. Remember, in those days there were far fewer hill walkers and climbers and therefore greater camaraderie amongst us. I hoped for a cup of tea and perhaps a bite.  I said I was attempting the three-thousanders walk and had Snowdon and the Glyders under my belt; pause, just the Carneddau to go; pause, “then I plan to walk back to Pen y Gwryd” I said. “O yes” they said. “Well” I said, “Hm, well, I suppose I had better be on my way – I guess” pause. “Yes” they said, “You better had”. So I left.

Half way up the long pull up to Pen-yr Ole Wen I assessed my provisions. I had part of a Cadbury’s milk chocolate bar with centimetre blocks. I calculated that I could have one small block on alternate summits! I was very hungry. But the sun was out and I felt strong, so on over Pen-yr Ole Wen to Carnedd Dafydd, a detour to take in Yr Elen, back up to Carnedd Llewellyn. There my luck changed. I met a couple of Liverpool businessmen out for the day. Each of their wives had given them food for both and they generously shared it with me. I remember a Penguin bar and it never tasted so good. I completed the last two summits, Foel Grach and Foel Fras by about five o’clock. Then back past Llewellyn and Craig yr Ysfa to the A5 road, as it was getting dark. The final seven miles along the road to Capel Curig and up to Pen y Gwryd were a slog but knowing I had done it against the odds and that I had won the Hotel kept my sprits up. I arrived to a hero’s welcome and a fry up supper at about ten pm.

With my three weeks handy-man job I found I had spent 30 weekends in North Wales out of 52 of that year. My final year was equally enjoyable though without quite so much climbing.

Final Year

The Medical faculty, led by the Professor of Medicine, Melville Arnot, was very enlightened. Arnot explained to us that as we were now adults we could organise our own education in preparation for the final exams. The School laid on a menu, as it were, of lectures, tutorials, teaching ward rounds, outpatient clinics and there was the library. It was up to us to make up our own timetable and attend any of these we felt useful to us. In previous years we had had to study subjects which often seemed to be a far cry from “real medicine”, though I now see were essential to an understanding of the subject but in the final year it was just Medicine, Surgery, Obstetrics & Gynaecology and Paediatrics and I loved it. In the summer I did a week’s locum for one of the House Physicians at the General Hospital. This was great hands-on experience and helped give one confidence for the clinical parts of the final exams. In the finals I did well, it seems and I was awarded my first (and only) academic prize, the Foxwell Prize in Clinical Medicine.

We final year students, in those days, were allowed, to “stand in” for House Physicians or Surgeons (F1 in todays parlance) when they went on leave. The House Physician whose locum I did was Betty Astle, a girl in the year above me. I had long admired her from a distance but she had a boy friend in the same year as herself. However, about this time they split up. She had a holiday walking in the Lake District with a group girl friends and I got to do her locum. After she came back, I asked her out and was over the moon when she said “yes” and we became an item, as they now say.

Graduation day 1954

In August after graduating I went, with John Watson and a friend of his to the Alps. The weather was not very good and we only did some relatively insignificant peaks but had a good time crossing passes and seeing a lot of this unspoilt corner of the Italian Alps. Six months later a group of about ten of us, mostly from my year, but including Betty, went skiing in Austria. Soon after that we became engaged.

Part 7 can be found here.

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