When climbing documentaries were as popular as cookery shows

The most popular programme on British TV last year was the Great British Bake Off, a televised baking competition. I’ve never seen it, as I’m pretty sure watching people bake cakes would bore me to death, but I’m in a minority. A quarter of the UK population – 15.1 million people – tuned in to watch the final.

I can’t imagine why anyone would want to sit in front of the telly watching somebody bake a cake, but cookery programmes are extremely popular, presumably because so many people cook. Most people know what an egg whisk is, how to chop an onion, or boil a pan of water on the hob. There is a cookery programme on mainstream TV pretty much every night, and a handful of chefs, like Gordon Ramsey, Delia Smith and Jamie Oliver, are household names who are unable to walk along a crowded street without being recognised.

Rock climbing documentaries, on the other hand, are not so popular. Hardly anyone climbs. Most people don’t know what a carabiner is, how to belay a rope mate, or perform a hand jam. Climbing documentaries are confined to specialist web-only TV stations or mountain film festivals. Even the best known climbers such as Alex Honnold or Ueli Steck can probably walk around unmolested in most places.

It seems incredible, but in 1967, fifteen million people – the same number that gathered round to watch the final of the Great British Bake Off – tuned in to watch a live BBC broadcast of the second ascent of an obscure 137m sea stack off the coast of Orkney.

And if you don’t believe me, all 50 minutes of a documentary celebrating the 25th anniversary of the event is available on YouTube.

Watch on YouTube

The Great Climb documented an ascent of the Old Man of Hoy over a period of two days (8-9 July 1967) by six of the top climbers of the day: Chris Bonington, Joe Brown, Dougal Haston, Tom Patey, Ian MacNaught Davis and Pete Crew. Chris Bonington repeated the climb on his 80th birthday in 2014.

If you have a spare 50 minutes the documentary is worth watching in its entirety. It’s quaintly entertaining in an old-fashioned way.

“Nowhere round our shores is there a greater challenge to the spirit of the mountaineer than this,” says the presenter Chris Brasher at 12.45 in the film.

All of the climbers were hooked up with microphones so that Brasher could interview them from the cliffs opposite as they completed their moves.

“I’ve got rather a bad hand jam right inside the crack and I’ve got to swing right out,” says Bonington at 17.42 in the film, as he makes his way up a sheer section of rock.

The film cuts between archive footage and later interviews with the surviving climbers as they sit around reminiscing about it 25 years later. At 40.16 in the film Brasher remarks that in 1992 top climbers spent time in the gym training for their climbs, but that didn’t seem to happen back in 1967.

“I used to think standing up and drinking was part of a rigorous training schedule,” replies Ian MacNaught Davis.

One of the more comical incidents takes place at 43.20. Chris Bonington swings in mid-air as he’s lowered down an overhanging column after their successful ascent.

“You know you asked me about vertigo earlier on,” he says to Chris Brasher through his microphone. “I know what it is, I’ve got it now.”

At this point you may be wondering whether you’re watching a Monty Python sketch, or an actual rock climb.

Well, you’ll be pleased to know that Monty Python did do a parody. In fact, if you can’t be bothered to watch the full 50 minute documentary then Climbing the North Face of the Uxbridge Road should give you a decent summary of what you’re missing.

Watch on YouTube

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2 thoughts on “When climbing documentaries were as popular as cookery shows

  • April 28, 2016 at 6:53 am

    Thanks for this Mark and I agree with your observations about changing times.
    Here in Tasmania, I too recall a number of documentaries conducted by local television of climbers attempting two rock towers at different times called “The candlestick” and “The Totem Pole” off the Tasman peninsula on the south east coast of Tasmania.
    Made perhaps in the late 1970’s, but it was frightening to see the climbers in a rubber boat being tossed up and down in the enclosed space to reach the base of these towers and then the vertical climbing…….
    As a lad it certainly frightened me seeing people climbing these towers, but hardly anyone climbs in flat Australia.
    I recently read an article here about a suggestion to helicopter people to “Federation peak” in the south west of Tasmania, as hardly anyone climbs it.
    Sir Edmund Hillary thought it was Australia’s only real mountain of any note and it was first climbed in 1949.
    I sometimes wonder if someone did a proper documentary on an ascent of something like “Federation peak” today, just how well it would viewed by the public.
    Thanks for the retrospective off the Orkneys.

  • May 4, 2016 at 2:29 pm

    Good find,thank you. So much better than watching a cake being baked

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