The mountain climbing craze came and went quickly—after all once the highest peaks had been conquered there was nowhere left to go. It can’t be said to have accelerated the evolution of the motor cycle. But it did leave us with some good yarns and lovely derscriptions of the mountainous terrain. Onward and upward!
BILL LITTLE OF THE CUMBERLAND COUNTY MCC made the first ascent of Skiddaw, the third highest mountain in England, on the 3½hp Premier with three-speed Armstrong gearbox he had ridden in the ISDT. An observer reported: “The great mountain was a mass of common glory; no pen or picture can do justice to the wondrous colouring of the sun-flecked heather or the marvellous outlook over mountains of a thousand forms with the lake of Derwentwater enfolded in their purple hollows…There was just time to gather bunches of wild white heather for luck to the rider ere, from far underneath us, came the sound of his throbbing engine. Then, a thousand feet below, a tiny dark speck sped over the green breast of the lower slope and seemed to fling itself at the first steep gradient. For a few minutes man and machine were out of sight hidden by the underlying bulge of the mountain. This section we knew was to prove the test of the climb. There was a height of 1,750 feet to be climbed in less than a mile, practically an average gradient of 1 in 3 for that distance. Steep steps of almost 1 in 2 had to be negotiated. No plain pathway was available, for most pedestrians choose their own way up the wide front of the slope, and patches of heather hid the loose rocks. Still the daring climber came up towards us without a falter, and the little crowd assembled on Skiddaw assisted him by an outburst of encouraging cheers at the little hut, which is the half-way landmark from Keswick. Then came the real test. About five hundred yards above the hut, the numerous tracks led most steeply up to the left amidst deep ruts and stony
channels. In mid-air most of the time and seldom in the saddle, the rider’s position now seemed desperate. The machine bounded and jumped like a bucking horse At times the front wheel lifted so much that a backward somersault seemed scarcely preventable. Then suddenly all hopes of a non-stop climb were dashed to the ground and the rider with them. The front wheel swung round on the rocky slope—rider and machine skidded bodily into the heather—a bad skid indeed. However, no damage resulted, and Little was soon wriggling his way sinuously and bumpily up to the easier crest of Jenkin Hill, which really marked the end of the most difficult portion. The summit was now in sight, and far northwards stretched that familiar prospect away over towards Carlisle and the Scottish Lowlands. The well-known gate through the iron railings was found to be securely fastened with thick iron bands. Fortunately, a strong file was carried, and willing hands soon opened the way summit-wards. A slight use of the second gear was here possible, and after the passage of the second gate all vegetation was left behind. The rocky wilderness was now climbed and traversed over the lower peaks to the highest point. The six miles from Keswick to the summit were covered in 61 minutes, including 10 minutes getting through two locked gates. A cold nor’easter swept over the summit, and there was just time to note the gleam on the sea, 3,054 feet below, before the descent was begun. Thanks to the splendid brakes this was achieved safely. If anything the descent was more difficult than the ascent; it requires considerable nerve to sit on a bounding motor bicycle when descending a mountain side.”
Little had clearly acquired a taste for mountaineering. Two weeks after conquering England’s third highest he pointed his 3½hp Premier at the second highest, Helvellyn. Here are excerpts from the report written by George D Abraham, who was bylined as “Author of Motor Ways in Lakeland, The Complete Mountaineer, Mountain Adventures at Home and Abroad, etc”.
“HELVELLYN MAY BE CONSIDERED the highest bit of England accessible to anything on wheels at present, for Scawfell Pike, its topmost reaches pathless and piled with rocks and boulders varying in size from a pea to an elephant, is altogether out of the running in this respect…a tiny dark speck crawled along the main road, and then turned up towards us into the region of grey rock and bracken. It seemed a strange invasion…Then ere long the well-known voice of an old friend was wafted up to us. Little, on his 3½hp Premier, was agrip with the gradient. He threaded the lower rocks skilfully and came up splendidly, with Raymond Drinkall on his 4½hp Quadrant close behind. But both were eventually in difficulties. Driving wheels spun helplessly on the slippery grass slope of 1 in 2¾. These were troublous times, and those of us who knew the terrors of Helvellyn’s
upper bulwarks thus early began to think of failure. However, the plan of tying ropes around the driving wheels was adopted. Thus aided, the first difficulty was overcome, and the two riders were struggling for balance on the rock-strewn incline in order to strike a fair way through the narrow gateway…Around a hidden corner a crowd was gathered. Every face wore an ominous look, and the Quadrant lay on its side amongst the boulders. Only Drinkall seemed able to smile, and this was remarkable, for his crank case was punctured and no repair outfit was available. It seemed that in leaping one of the turfy steps the crank case had most unluckily alighted on a solid bit of rock and come off second best. A hole as big as half-a-crown proved to be the result, and a temporary repair with sticking plaster and string was the outcome of much ingenuity. Then onwards and upwards the pair of enthusiasts struggled once more, far up the terrific zigzags to the crest of Birkside…At last the narrow gully filled with loose stones was entered. Few footrests survived the passage through the rocky jaws. With a roar and a rush the Premier emerged from this dangerous spot, and Little soon disappeared out of sight summitwards. Next came the news that he was waiting higher up in a bog, and wondering who would volunteer the descent to Wythburn for a forgotten belt punch. The Dunlop belts had stood magnificently on both machines, but here a shortening became advisable. A twenty minutes halt was necessary whilst, with hairpins, files, and penknives, a hole was made in the tough belting. Little seemed surprised at the success of our efforts, and showed his gratitude by mounting the machine and riding away direct to the summit, almost a mile away. We followed leisurely, and finally arrived with cameras and congratulations to enliven the wait of the first motor cyclist to reach Helvellyn’s crest. Drinkall was half an hour behind, but even this was an altogether unique performance, for the temporary repair of the crank case had broken away, and each charge of oil simply lubricated Helvellyn instead of the engine. Yet machine and man had come through scathless. Why that engine refused to seize must remain a mystery. There was much enthusiasm amongst the spectators on the summit…The climb had taken two and a
half hours, as prophesied by Moffet. This keen sportsman, who rendered such yeoman service during the Six Days Trials, was always the optimist of the party. However, we were glad to turn valleywards. There was just time to notice purple mountains of a thousand forms crouching all round, and silver lakes gleaming in their sun-bathed hollows, ere the huge bulk of Striding Edge cut off the easterly prospect. That glimpse of the blue waters of Red Tarn, a thousand feet below, was a pleasant memory as we raced down the heathy uplands, seldom far away from the brake-weary motor mountaineers. The descent was achieved without mishap. A considerable crowd awaited the arrival of the cavalcade, and one outspoken daleswoman caused some amusement. She said to Little, in his own Cumbrian dialect, ‘Ay! man, thou desarves summat for gaan oop theer!’ ‘Well, mother, what’s the prize?’ up spoke the elated climber. ‘Ah’ll give thee six months in a mad-house!’ came the curt reply, and everybody laughed boisterously.”
PS: What the Blue ‘Un later described as “the finest motor mountaineering feat yet achieved in Great Britain” was achieved the following year when, in the first week in July 1914 Bill Little crossed Sty Head Pass from Borrowdale into Wassdale. “This,” it was reported, “was much more difficult and trying, both for machine and man than the ascent of Helvellyn. Constantly the rider and his mount were flung backwards head over heels. Appalling gradients had to be negotiated, and some of the boulder jumping was astonishingly acrobatic.”
So motor cycles had climbed Skiddaw, the third highest peak in England and Helvellyn, the second. The highest, Scawfell Pike, was covered in boulders and unrideable. Inevitably adventurous eyes turned north to the highest peak in Britain: Ben Nevis. D Bell was the West of Scotland agent for AJS and, having heard of the English ascents he assembled an expedition of two AJS combos and an FN solo to show what the Scots could do. As a contemporary report reveals, it was no picnic.
“IN THE MORNING MIST LOCH LOMOND resembled an immense sea of glass with the surrounding peaks mirrored on its still surface. The towering Ben Lomond, reaching to a height of over 3,000 feet, gave us some idea of the magnitude of the task before us, but in the enjoyment of the surrounding beauties thoughts of the struggle to come were banished from our minds…As it was somewhat late in the afternoon, we did not lose any time in getting to the foot of the mountain, arriving there about three o’clock, and in the afternoon sun the surrounding peaks stood out boldly against a cloudless sky. The narrow and rocky path above us appeared impossible of ascent, but, losing no time, the
plucky rider of the AJS with the lady passenger in the sidecar was soon threading his way among the boulders and ruts, and the first ascent of Ben Nevis by motor cycle and sidecar had commenced…Showers of stones and dirt were thrown backwards by the revolving wheels, and the smell of burning rubber from the tyre permeated the surrounding atmosphere. The higher we progressed the steeper and more awful became the track, and in one place the back wheel sank up to the chain cases in black, sticky mud, caused by water on the loose surface. At one point it appeared that the ascent would have to be given up altogether. Huge boulders lay on the path, and a watercourse ran right down the centre. By some superhuman effort the rider, however, surmounted this difficulty, and, continuing at about ten miles per hour, covered fully a quarter of a mile before coming to a halt again. Darkness now descending, it was deemed advisable to abandon the climb for the day and proceed to our headquarters in Fort William on foot. Mid-day on the morrow found us again with the AJS, and it was splendid to see the easy manner in which the machine started at the first kick. After having lain overnight in the mountain mist, this was an excellent demonstration of the easy starting capabilities of a modern motor cycle. Now came one of the most trying parts of the ascent. Great stones covered the track, and the first hundred yards occupied us fully half an hour. At one portion it was deemed advantageous to take to the grassy sides of the track, but these were even worse than the track itself, which was joined a little further on. Rapid progress was now made, and, although the surface was, if possible, worse than any they yet experienced, a point about a mile from the top was reached without any untoward
incident. Here, however, the back tyre, which had been showing signs of the terrible ordeal to which it had been subjected, burst with a loud report…Saturday was spent in a return to Glasgow for new tyres, and on the Sunday morning these were fitted and the climb commenced afresh…Gradually ascending yard by yard, rounding hairpins with gradients of appalling steepness, the party slowly neared the top of the mountain. In addition to the terrors of the track, the mist descended; completely blotting out the surrounding scenery, and, with nothing but a blank white wall all around, the roar of the engine was the only sound which disturbed the solitude of the scene. Nearer and nearer we got to the summit and the level stretch at the top, and soon the first assent of Ben Nevis had been accomplished by a motor cycle and sidecar.”
“AFTER THE ASCENT OF Ben Nevis by motor cycle and sidecar,” The Motor Cycle reported, “it was only natural to expect that Ben Lomond would fall to the scalp-hunting propensities of the motor cyclist…WB Cramb and T Walkinshaw, the former riding a 3½hp Elswick and the latter a 3hp twin NSU, were bent on the conquering of Ben Lomond…The track leading to the top of the mountain was, at the start, of fairly respectable surface, but afterwards developed into the dry rock strewn bed of one of the many torrents which leap down the mountain side in the rainy season. Progress was naturally slow, and falls fairly frequent. Cramb was particularly unfortunate in this respect, for he and his machine turned a complete somersault into the bracken at the side of the track. The toss was due to a very severe back wheel skid, which swung the rider right off the track. The accident was not without its humorous side, however, as all that could be seen of rider and machine were two feet projecting above the bracken. The NSU rider had also not far to seek for his troubles and had several narrow escapes of coming to grief…after having covered about a mile, darkness compelled a halt until the morrow. The Elswick and its rider had not been long at work on the following morning
before another awkward toss disabled the latter, his shoulder coming into violent contact with the ground, and he wisely desisted from his attempt…Walkinshaw and his NSU were now left alone to battle with the ascent. Up to the first of the cairns, which is about the half-way point, the climb stiffened perceptibly, and the rider took to the grassy slopes of the mountain in preference to continuing over the boulder strewn path. Shortly after the cairn had been passed, it was decided to rest again for the night…Good progress was made to the well, about a quarter of a mile from the summit, but this last bit was the most severe of the whole climb. In addition to the fearful surface there was the ever present danger of a fall down the mountainside, and at one place the path is in near proximity to a precipice which falls practically sheer to the valley beneath. The gradient was approximately 1 in 3, and hairpin bends were fairly frequent. Up this rather terrifying, portion, the rider made good progress, and in the early afternoon succeeded in reaching the summit. The descent was commenced immediately and occupied about 2½ hours, the bottom being reached without mishap. The machine which Mr Walkinshaw used was a 3hp twin NSU of last year’s make, fitted with the makers’ two-speed gear. During the whole of the trying ordeal no trouble was experienced, the engine in particular being in excellent fettle, and on the journey home to Glasgow the machine led the way in fine style.”
“I ENCLOSE A PHOTOGRAPH OF my 3½hp Triumph, which successfully reached the summit of the East Lomond Hill a few miles from here (Kingskettle, Fifeshire). The hill is about 1,500 feet high, and the machine took a coach-built sidecar to within a few hundred yards of the summit, where it had to be despatched owing to the presence of a high wall. The machine received no tuning whatever and although I am over 13 stone, the engine did not overheat. This is the first time a motor cycle has been at the summit of the Lomond.
TR Inglis Melville”
THE MOTOR CYCLE HAD THE LAST WORD on the subject of motor cycle mountaineering: “The adventurous motor cyclist may wake up one morning, find his engine in remarkably good tune, pack his machine before breakfast on his 1,000hp aeroplane, and before lunch find himself at the foot of Mont Blanc. An hour or two later will see him landing at the summit, the cynosure of the envious foot toilers. Yes, he may do this in the wonderful 21st century to come, but I do not think he will carry out such an expedition any time much nearer than 2000AD. But he has gone quite a way towards training for such a project. Already Ben Nevis, Helvellyn, Snowdon, and Skiddaw have had to yield the peace of their rugged sides to the all pervading on-rush of the petrol engine. Where a man, mule, sheep, or goat can go, there it would seem can a motor cycle if geared low and driven by a skilful resolute driver. But, seriously, is it not about time to call a halt in this mountain scaling enterprise? This super-climbing can be overdone. One can almost imagine nature calling out for protection against these ‘freak’ riders…There still remains a few little test hills to be conquered. The fitting of a helicopter device should make Nelson’s Column quite rideable. An easier, but none the less meritorious climb, would be the several hundred steps of the Monument. There are several other likely ‘test hills’ that could be mentioned. But the cold fact remains that many very ordinary motor cyclists, despite the heroic acts of the mountaineers, will continue to fail on ordinary hills, albeit mounted on apparently similar mounts, which gives one to think that the man, more than the machine, is the agent on these freak climbs.”