As part of our 20th anniversary celebrations we are taking a trip through some of the highlights from the Mountain Heritage Trust's collections. For our first collection highlight we are visiting one of the earliest collections in our care, which charts the climbing life of one the greatest rock-climbers of the pre-WWI era, Siegfried Herford. To celebrate this remarkable climber one of our dedicated volunteers, Fiona Cox (climber and writer) has written this piece for us.
Siegfried Wedgwood Herford 1891-1916
Lists - we all make lists: things we want to do, things we’ve done. Siegfried Herford made his on the flyleaves of his treasured copy of ‘The Complete Mountaineer’ by George Abraham (now in the safe-keeping of The Mountain Heritage Trust).
All the available spare pages, at both the beginning and end of the book, are crammed with ink-written lists of routes he had climbed from July 1909 to September 1911. He had divided the North Wales and Lake District climbs into ‘Scrambles’ and ‘Moderate, Difficult and Exceptionally Severe Courses’, with the initials of his climbing partners and the occasional added remark – ‘socks wet, severe struggles’.
These lists have turned out to be a remarkable record of the climbing experience that turned him into ‘arguably the finest rock climber of his generation’. Born in 1891 to a German mother and English father, Herford studied engineering and graduated with a first class Honours degree from Manchester University in 1912.
He was introduced to climbing in the Alps in 1907 and spent his holidays in the Cuillins, Lake District, North Wales and the Dolomites. As an undergraduate, he climbed regularly on Derbyshire gritstone with John Laycock but Herford’s relentless determination soon overtook Laycock’s technical ability. ‘He almost always led, it was his right!’ Laycock observed. By all accounts, he was a tall, blond, likeable man, a climber of great thoughtfulness and steadiness and also great daring.
Herford was introduced to George Sansom and they soon formed a strong partnership. Sansom was the ideas man, pointing out possible lines, while Herford took the lead on the rocks. Their routes were bold but they were careful and planned meticulously. Like many of their contemporaries, they descended routes frequently – it must have been reassuring to know that they could reverse their steps.
They tackled the Direct from Lord’s Rake to Hopkinson’s Cairn, Hopkinson’s Gully and completed the 1000 feet Girdle Traverse of Central Buttress on Scafell Crag in the Lake District. Having familiarized themselves with the crag, they set their sights on conquering Central Buttress itself, a daunting, exposed, 470 feet route up the face of Scafell. It was ranked as the most serious route in the country.
In April 1914, with patches of snow still lingering at the foot of the rock face, Herford and Sansom, with C F Holland and H Gibson, set out. The ascent of the Great Flake was (and still is) the crux and required combined tactics and complicated ropework. A rope was threaded round the chockstone for protection and Herford had to stand on Sansom’s shoulders to reach the Great Flake (being a gentleman, he removed his boots). Once up this obstacle, they were exhausted. They returned two days later, without Gibson, to climb the remaining 150 feet. Central Buttress had been conquered and the role of British rock climbing raised to a sport in its own right, rather than a mere training ground for the Alps.
The custom was to record new routes in the Wasdale Climbers’ Book. Central Buttress was the last entry for 5 years. A few months later the war started and Herford joined up, writing in jest to Laycock ‘I’ll write your obituary for the Fell and Rock Journal. You can do the same for me’. His leadership qualities went unrecognized by The War Office and his application for a commission was refused. In 1916 he was killed at Festubert, France - his life cut short at 24 years of age.
A war memorial on the summit of Great Gable records the 20 members of the Fell and Rock Club who were killed during the First World War, Siegfried Herford’s name is among them. But his greatest memorial is Central Buttress on Scafell, which links his name to mountaineering history forever.
Written by Fiona Cox
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