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SMC Pioneers

John Henry Gibson  (1862-1898)

J.H. Gibson
Photo: SMC Archives

J H Gibson is a neglected figure in the history of Scottish mountaineering, probably because his contribution to Scottish climbing was very short-lived, his prime achievements were in the Alps, and he died at a distressingly young age.  Gibson's climbing career appears to have extended only from 1882, at around his 20th birthday, when he first visited the Alps, to March 1893.  That period encompassed at least 7 Alpine seasons, including four from 1889 to 1892, but as far as we know his Scottish mountaineering career began only in March 1891 and lasted just two years, almost to the day.  His two seasons in the Alps in 1891 and 1892 were also the apogee of his Alpine climbing.

Why Gibson took to climbing is uncertain, but it may owe something to his sad family history.  He came from a prominent and affluent Edinburgh legal dynasty; his father was a Writer to the Signet, while his grandfather had been agent and Trustee to Sir Walter Scott.  But when only 6 years old, he lost his father; when he was 15 his grandfather also died.  At that time the young Gibson had just started as a boarder at Uppingham public school in Rutland.  Uppingham enjoyed a high reputation for a radical approach transcending the narrow classical curriculum of the time, offering modern languages, especially German, which may later have helped Gibson in employing Ulrich Almer and other Swiss guides, and varied facilities for sport including gymnastics; C.H. Pasteur later described Gibson as "a good gymnast and very strong in the arms".  But Uppingham also aimed to identify and foster talents in boys who perhaps had not prospered in conventional schools (Hely Almond's later regime at Loretto owed a good deal to the Uppingham model).  The school had links through masters and former pupils to the Alpine Club; there is evidence to suggest that Gibson was inspired to bold alpine ambitions long before he had done any climbing at all.

On leaving school in 1880, Gibson returned conventionally enough to Edinburgh and took up the family trade as a legal apprentice with Robert Strathern - the firm which later was to employ notable SMCers Arthur and George Russell.  He was admitted as a Writer to the Signet in 1888.

Gibson first appeared on the SMC scene when he attended the 1891 Easter meet at Dalmally as "an Alpine Club man", the guest of R. A. Robertson, a fellow Edinburgh solicitor.  Gibson had been elected to the AC only a few months before, on the basis of five seasons including the 3rd and 1st "English" ascent of the Gstellihorn, highest point of the Engelhorner, and the Gabelhorn, Dru, and Aiguille de Blaitière.  Those achievements, and his later climbs, strongly suggest that he had a particular penchant for big rock peaks.

Gibson made an immediate impact at the Meet.  On the first day he led Robertson up an icy crack on the north face of Beinn a'Bhuiridh on Cruachan, from which they were forced to make a dramatic retreat ending in a 30-foot leap into deep snow; on the second he led a party of six including Munro in what had already become the traditional unsuccessful attempt on the Black Shoot of Beinn Eunaich, diverting on to difficult mixed ground on its right flank; and on the third he distinguished himself on a traverse of Cruachan by "fielding" Rennie in an uncontrolled glissade.

Gibson may well have regarded these Scottish outings as training for much more ambitious objectives.  In July he made his first visit to the Dauphiné with Ulrich Almer and Fritz Boss.  After a warm-up that included a new route on the Pic du Says, the Aiguille de Soreiller, and the traverse of the Barre des Ecrins, the party made the first west-to-east traverse of the Meije along the airy ridge from the Grand Pic to the Pic Central.  Gibson's subsequent paper to the Alpine Club makes it clear that he had been planning this bold exploit, which immediately took on and still retains the status of one of the great alpine classics, for years before.  Moving on to Chamonix, Gibson joined fellow AC members Morse, Wicks and Claude Wilson in two adventurous guideless attempts on the unclimbed Dent du Réquin, the last major unplucked plum of the Aiguilles.  They were repulsed by wintry conditions.

Trailing these clouds of Alpine glory, Gibson was elected to the SMC at the end of the year, nominated by Robertson and seconded by Maylard.  He celebrated with another attempt on the Black Shoot at the New Year Meet with Naismith, Thomson and Lester.  Once more, "although fully equipped with alpine appliances, including ropes, axes, and even spikes, the attempt was unsuccessful".  Nevertheless the route was pushed 50 feet beyond the highest point previously reached.  Next day he was in a large party which climbed the north ridge of the Taynuilt Peak in hard winter condition.

Just a month later, at the end of January 1892, Gibson was in action again at a slightly improbable long weekend meet to Arran, arranged partly to bid farewell to J G Stott on his departure to New Zealand.  He led a party of five on the probable first traverse of the A'Chir ridge, ending in an abseil down the Glen Rosa flank "by the aid of a 'piton', which we fortunately had with us".  T.F.S. Campbell's account makes it plain that the members were mightily impressed by the ridge, and that they relied heavily on their Alpine star: "whenever there was any work of a particularly break-neck description to be done, Gibson was invariably selected to do it first."  The suspicion is that Gibson also supplied the piton.

In March 1892 Gibson and Lester climbed Ben Lui by the eastern bounding ridge of its NE corrie.  Easter 1892 saw the SMC at Inveroran; but Gibson was in Skye instead, enjoying a week in the Cuillin in the company of his alpine team-mates Wicks, Morse and Carr.  In chilly semi-winter conditions they did virtually all of the main ridge between Gillean (by the Pinnacle Ridge) and Sgumain, including the first descent of An Stac.  They also spent one night at Coruisk in a pre-arranged camp, a forerunner of the SMC's later "Climber's Camp" there in 1897.  Gibson's write-up in the Journal shows that particularly under the prevailing conditions they found the Cuillins a test of their Alpine mettle.

A few weeks later, on 19 May, Gibson joined Naismith, Douglas and Lester in yet another assault on the Black Shoot.  Although Lester had been the prime mover in all previous forays, "Gibson was unanimously voted leader".  He readily surmounted the jammed boulder which had stymied the last attempt, but spent an hour trying to solve the puzzle of the wall above, while the rest of the party were subjected to an icy shower - an experience shared by subsequent parties who perhaps approached the Shoot with a sceptical view of the pioneers' efforts.  At last he succeeded in forcing a chimney, and the party emerged bruised and damp on to steep broken ground above, littered with hazardous loose rocks.  Gibson's greatest service to the SMC was perhaps to have finally disposed of this unresolved relic of the classic Gully Era with its mud, slime, and icy water, so that the Club could move on to cleaner and pleasanter climbs.

July found Gibson at Chamonix again, perhaps with a fresh relish for crisp dry granite.  With Morse, Wicks, and Pasteur he made the first guideless ascent of the Grépon, and the first ascent of the west ridge of the Talèfre, in between three further attempts on the Réquin.  The Dent finally fell in the following year to the other great guideless rock team of the time - Mummery, Collie, Slingsby and Hastings.

The New Year Meet of 1892 was at Tyndrum.  Gibson joined parties which climbed Y Gully on Cruach Ardrain, less by design than by accident of route-finding in murk; Central Gully of Beinn Lui; and Ben More and Stobinian.  He was out again with Brown and Douglas in early February, battling filthy weather on a snowy Lawers and Ben Vorlich.

Keeping up the tempo, on the 11th of March Gibson made a reconnaissance of Lochnagar with Douglas.  They were thwarted in a bold attempt in thaw conditions on the monster gully to which their names became attached, and which had to wait 60 years for a winter ascent by the young Patey.  From Douglas' own description, particularly of their tense retreat, the gully ought properly to be called the Gibson-Douglas, rather than the other way round.  By way of consolation they made the first recorded ascent of the Left-Hand Branch of the Black Spout.

And that appears, quite suddenly, to be the end: there seems to be no record of Gibson doing any further climbing.  He attended the SMC AGM in December 1893, and accepted election to the Club Committee.  In the following February he married a young lady from London.  He seems to have withdrawn from both the SMC and the Alpine Club by the end of 1894.  He was not yet 33.  It is possible that like others of that era he abandoned mountaineering either in response to the wishes of his wife, or in dutiful acknowledgement of his responsibilities as a family man - though in the event he had no children.  If so, it seems odd that he should have agreed to serve on the SMC Committee only two months before his wedding.

The one comment we have that bears on this turn of events occurs in a well-known letter to Douglas from Naismith, after Collie's party had snatched the first ascent of Tower Ridge in March 1894:
"the Sassanachs have indeed taken the wind out of our sails maist notoriously …  If their bit hillocks could be detected with the naked eye we might still get Gibson to pull himself together and astonish them on their own ground.  Couldn't he do the Houses of Parliament by the Clock Tower or a traverse of Beachy Head?"

While we can only speculate as to why he needed "to pull himself together", Naismith gives clear testimony that Gibson was still regarded as the man to show the "pock puddens" the mettle of Scottish climbers.  We can only speculate, too, as to what climbs he might have done just a year or so later, when the opening of the West Highland railway brought Nevis and Glen Coe within easier reach.  It is interesting to note that Naismith appears not to have taken umbrage at a rather sharply critical response by Gibson in the September 1893 Journal to Naismith's article on "Snowcraft in Scotland"; one of the few sidelights we have on Gibson's personality.

Sadly, Gibson had only four years to live.  In April 1898 he died of tuberculosis, apparently contracted during the previous winter, at an aunt's home in Southsea; it seems reasonable to surmise he had gone south in hope of benefiting from the sea air.

J.H.Gibson's contribution to early Scottish climbing can appropriately be described as a meteoric passage: he was clearly regarded by his SMC contemporaries as a star - in terms of technical climbing, he may well have been the best of the native Scots talent in the Club's first few years - but he passed quickly from the scene.  Gibson's lasting influence on the Club was perhaps the transmission of Alpine experience, and especially of a bold and dynamic approach that was carried forward all too briefly by William Brown, his near-contemporary and fellow Edinburgh lawyer, and then to much greater effect by Raeburn.

Bob Aitken

Acknowledgements

Thanks to Penny Aitken, Robin Campbell, Peter Hodgkiss, and the late George Russell for advice, assistance and information.

 


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