William Wickham King

(from SMCJ, 27, 81-6, last paragraph slightly amended by RNC)

WILLIAM WICKHAM KING (1862–1959), although not an original member of our Club (he joined in 1891), was so intimately associated with the founders, W.W. Naismith, Gilbert Thomson and A.E. Maylard, as well as such other ‘originals’ and well-known early Scottish mountaineers as H.T. Munro, J. Rennie, W.R. Lester, W. Douglas and Norman Collie (to name only a few), that he may well be regarded as one of that active group. One further consideration may be urged in support of this view. King was not one of those who joined the S.M.C. out of sympathy with its objects, whilst remaining principally devotees of the Alps and the Alpine Club. It was the magic of the Cuillins, their ridges and chimneys, that made a mountaineer of him, as he has so recently told us in a short article on Early Climbing in Skye (S.M.C.J. (1956), xxvi, 37). He first climbed there with Norman Collie in 1888, again in 1889 and met A.E. Maylard there in 1891, who introduced him to Naismith and others, and later proposed him for membership in December of that year.

He went to the Alps a little later with Naismith and Lester in August 1892, at what was almost an S.M.C. Meet on the Gabelhorn, but they were turned back by a snowstorm when 700 feet below the summit. Here again he proved his vigour and enthusiasm. His first list for a month’s ‘hard climbing’, in addition to minor ascents, included the Aiguille de la Za, the Aiguilles Rouges d’Arolla, a traverse of the Rothhorn, the Riffelhorn from the glacier, Untergabelhorn (alone), followed by departure on the same night from Zermatt to climb Monte Rosa (no Betemps Hut then!), the Matterhorn, Dent Blanche (first ascent of the year with Naismith) and also the Obergabelhorn with Naismith and another friend (second attempt).

Naturally he joined the A.C., of which he was a member from 1895 to 1938 ; and also his local organisation, founded much later, the Midland Association of Mountaineers, of which he remained a member until 1938. He maintained his interest in the S.M.C. and its Journal to the end of his life, and, in fact, he has been the ‘father’ of the Club for the last 10 years since the passing of the last of the original members, E. J. McCandlish – although he was, in fact, about 6 years older than the latter.

Perhaps it may be advisable to refer to his Alpine and foreign mountaineering first of all, as we must be content with the brevity characteristic of the ‘S.M.C. Abroad’ section of the Journal. Even so, the record is known to be incomplete as there is no mention of his climbing in the Pyrenees and Tyrol, although he certainly climbed there.
In 1893 he was geologising in the Oberland, but managed to climb the Eiger and the Schreckhorn and also the Finsteraarhorn by the Agassizjoch, a hard way. In 1897 he climbed the Grépon and again went to Arolla, where in a subsequent year, 1902, he made a new descent of the Dent Perroc, and also climbed several other peaks including the Rimpfischorn and the Weisshorn. In 1903 he was in the Mont Blanc area with Naismith and J.W. Drummond, when Mt Blanc was traversed from the Tête Rousse to the Col du Midi and back to Montanvert. His list also included the Aiguilles de l’M, Tacul, Moine, the little Dru, the traverse of the Grands Charmoz, Grands Montets and the Dent du Midi. At least half of these expeditions were done without guides. Then comes a big gap with no records. Finally, with Mrs. King, a Norwegian friend and a Turtegro guide came the ascents of Storen Skagastolstind, the north, middle and Great Skagastolstind peaks (all on good rock), the north ridge of Styggestolstind and the pinnacles of Midtmaradalstind (an excellent rock climb). These earlier expeditions were very long, with Mrs. King left out, but she was with her husband on Dyrhaugstind. There are no later records in the Journal.

The most interesting rock-climbing stories about W.W. King concerned his explorations of the Cuillins, many of which were only briefly recorded in the Journal. The era of balanced climbing on high-angle faces or walls had hardly begun. Skye gabbro was plentifully seamed with trap dykes already weathered down to gullies, chimneys or cracks, which formed most attractive routes, especially if complicated by multiple chockstones and caves. It is with caves and chimneys that the name of King will be ever remembered amongst the climbing fraternity. He did make long expeditions all over the ridges, crossed the Thearlaich-Dubh Gap with Collie in 1891, climbed a face route on Knight’s peak of Sgurr nan Gillean (though this started as an attempt on the gully pitch between the 3rd and 4th Pinnacles); and Collie also conducted him over the Cioch, shortly after he had discovered it. There is only a brief note about King’s Chimney on Sgurr Mhic Coinnich. King said little about it and must have thought it unexciting. A new variation for the ascent or Sgurr Dubh Beag from Dubh Mor also involved a chimney. He always had eye for chimneys, even when far away from the Cuillins. At an Easter Meet of the Club in Aviemore King, Maylard and Solly climbed the Married Men’s Buttress on Sgoran Dubh – hardly a buttress at all) but involving at least two chimneys with the additional attraction of snow.

However, his two most interesting chimney adventures in the Cuillins were the Bhasteir Nick Gully, also known as King’s Cave Chimney where G. Bennett Gibbs was the humorous narrator (S.M.C.J., v, 170-75); and a hard chimney on the north face of Bruach na Frithe, the only recorded climb on that face. Let us take this tale of ‘amazing aerobatics’ first, as part of it is extracted from a letter describing the climb to W.W. Naismith (S.M.C.J., x, 226).

In August 1908 W.W. King, Dr Inglis Clark and party attacked the longest chimney of the face. After 40 feet of back and foot work came 150 feet of easy climbing to a point where an assembly of chockstones blocked the gully. Part of a corroded dyke inside the cave enabled King to climb to a point in the cave behind the outer chockstone. A convenient thread hole for a rope allowed this to be fixed and the rope hung down outside, so that the leader could tie on, with Dr Inglis Clark holding the lower end. Then the leader swung boldly off into space to the outer side of the chockstone. ‘Here the struggle began,’ wrote King in a letter to Naismith. ‘I was on the left wall and climbed hand over hand up the rope till I got my foot on to a minute hold and also found a tiny handhold for my right hand. Then I reached up the rope and twisted it round my left hand and hauled myself up. This manoeuvre was repeated, I don’t exactly know how, till somehow I got my left leg on the sloping outer side of the chockstone, and the friction lightened the load of 12 stone on my hands and arms. What a weight I seemed to be! For a minute I was dead beat and had to rest. I had now lifted myself as high as the hole through which the rope was threaded. Pulling in the slack, I managed to throw the rope over another jammed block above me. It fortunately held, and with the help of the doubled rope I soon got on to the top of the chockstone and found a good hitch.’ Above this formidable obstacle the climbing was free from difficulty and the crest of the ridge soon reached.

No doubt there were giants in those days, but it would be interesting to revisit this chimney using the same method – if indeed nature has left the rock architecture as it was in King’s day.

The King’s Cave Chimney story was related by G. Bennett Gibbs, and must be read in the original account which is illustrated by a beautiful architectural drawing. The gully lends itself particularly to the formation of caves, one above the other ‘and may be said to consist of at least three main floors with an attic and a cockloft (a room above the attic). The second floor has a special chimney at the back, leading right to the top of the gully and it also has a window looking out over the gully.’ Dr Inglis Clark began the exploration from the top, descending to the third floor. The succeeding exploration occupied four separate days between 17th and 25th August 1898, the weather being perfect. Most of the time was spent in moving obstructions and threading ropes behind chockstones. Gibbs remarks: ‘In days of old, Kings sat on the Stone (of Scone, to be crowned) ; on this day, by an unexpected slide, the Stone sat on the King, who presented the appearance of a cobbler horribly overburdened with a huge lapstone which effectually prevented him from continuing his occupation till it was firmly fixed again.’ On the final day John Mackenzie joined King and Gibbs, and a banister rope was fixed. Then it was found that a change of wind sent a strong draught of cold air down the back part of the cave. ‘Now King had a nose for aeronautics (as witness his highway on the Inaccessible Pinnacle). Facing the cold air he went to the head of the cave and thrust his head into a rabbit burrow and disappeared – all but his boots. It is probable that some heathen deity was called upon to witness, by his next remark, that there was a way straight up to daylight, but a very narrow one; and our leader, descending to the similitude of a cobbler, went a step lower and became a veritable chimney sweep! He ultimately made a small hole through which he wriggled up the funnel. Very few minutes after his total disappearance we heard a joyful jodel high up in the free air and the climb was done.’

This is not quite the end of the story. At a later date a worthy President of the Club (probably before he became so), John H. Bell, stuck in the chimney, reputedly on account of his girth ; but perhaps not so, for the writer investigated King’s Cave in 1924 from both ends, and found it to be blocked. A re-investigation of King’s climbs might still be most interesting.

W.W. King was born in 1862, the younger son of Mr, W.H. King, Solicitor, of Stourbridge, Worcestershire. He was educated at High Abbey (Winchester) and Worthing and subsequently at Radley College. In 1880 he became articled to his father as a solicitor, passing his final examination in 1885 and becoming a partner in the firm of Bernard, King & Sons. From 1905 to 1937 he was Clerk to the Justices of the Stourbridge Division, receiving a presentation on his retirement. Retiring from business in 1938, he was succeeded by his two sons, but continued to live at Hagley until 1941, after which he passed the remainder of his life at Ottery St Mary, Devon.

He had many local interests, particularly in the Dudley and Midland Geological and Scientific Society. An acknowledged expert, though an amateur, on the geology of the Midlands, with a geological specimen named after himself, he was a Fellow of the Geological Society for 50 years, and from them received the Wollaston Award in 1913 and the Lyell Medal in 1927. In 1931 the University of Birmingham conferred upon him the honorary degree of M.Sc. in recognition of his gift of a plexographic model of the South Staffordshire coalfield, embodying his own research and fieldwork. He also founded a local building society, was closely concerned with the Stourbridge Institutes and a Social Club, and was an expert in local history. At Radley College he rowed in ‘The Eight’ and later continued as an active member of the Rowing Club.

He married in 1901, and was survived by his widow. He had two sons and a daughter and by 1959 two grandsons and four grand-daughters. To the end of his life mountaineering in an its aspects retained his greatest interest. He read every S.M.C. Journal from cover to cover and then passed it on to his eldest grandson, then at Cambridge and reported to be ‘mountain mad’ and anxious to make good use of his grandfather’s ice-axe, which was by then in his possession. The portrait which accompanies this memorial, kindly loaned by Mrs. King, was taken in the year 1900 during their engagement, when her husband was midway in his climbing career.

J.H.B. Bell