Legend of city's peak performer

WITH just an old hemp rope tied around his waist, the young boy cautiously moved his fingers over the rough rock, seeking a ledge just inches wide which would be enough to take his weight.

Finding it, he pulled himself up, his legs swinging through the air, while his lightweight hiking boots scrabbled to find a foothold. All the while, around 570ft below, the good people of Edinburgh walked in Holyrood Park, unaware that above them a teenager was illegally scaling the sheer face of Salisbury Crags.

But that was the way Robin Smith liked to spend his spare time. And if the George Watson's boarder wasn't climbing Arthur's Seat, he was out conquering some of the most difficult and mountainous terrain Scotland had to offer - despite being just 13.

It's hardly surprising then that he went on to be described as a "legend" by the time he was 20. For by then he had scaled some of the most difficult climbs around the world, at a time when Gore-tex clothing and "sticky" soled boots, which are now a vital part of climbing kit, were decades from being invented.

Indeed so widespread was his fame, that when at the age of 23 he fell 4000ft to his death while on an expedition to the Pamirs, he was described as "to climbing what Stirling Moss is to Le Mans, Jim Baxter to Ibrox, Piggott to Newmarket".

Yet there are probably few who now know the name Robin Smith. Even in Edinburgh, where the "James Dean of mountaineering" as he was dubbed after his death, began his love affair with climbing, his name is little known.

Yet all that is about to change, now that the short life of Robin and his exploits has been put into print by one of his school - and climbing - friends, Jimmy Cruikshank. Containing excerpts from Robin's own diary and recollections of people who knew him best, including teachers and professors at Edinburgh University, where he studied moral philosophy, the book aims to give a full and detailed picture of the legendary man.

"He was a very quirky and complex individual," says Jimmy, 66, who now lives in St Albans. "I found it impossible to sum up his personality in a few words, which is why I asked individuals who knew him to describe him as they knew him.

"One of the main reasons I wanted to write this book was curiosity. I wanted to know whether other people knew the same Robin as I did, and I found out they did. He was an extremely likeable person and a very memorable character."

Born in India in 1938 to Scottish parents - his mother, Mary Reid, was from Edinburgh - Robin was sent home aged eight along with his older brother and younger sister for schooling. First he attended Morrisons Academy in Crieff and then when he was 12 was sent to board at George Watson's College.

His interest in mountains was sparked when he was just 11, and climbed Braeriach in the Cairngorms while on a family holiday. From that moment it became a passionate hobby.

"At every available opportunity he would take to the hills with various school mates and family members in tow," recalls Jimmy. "It helped that his mother, Mary, was also a keen hill-walker and she encouraged such pursuits.

"While we were at school in Edinburgh, we would go to Salisbury Crags which is where he learned a lot about how to climb, thanks to our French teacher Archie Hendry, who became his climbing mentor. Although climbing on them was illegal they were a popular training ground for the city's climbers and Robin and I used to meet there regularly.

"He had to have a partner and I couldn't let him down. We used an old hemp rope and Robin would ferret out a route, often on his own, and if it was not too hard, climb it solo before it was my turn, usually unroped too. On difficult lines we gave each other top ropes. Most routes didn't exceed 30 or 40ft, but they were good practice and made our first mountain routes less hard."

FROM these experiences he never looked back. He had his first experience of winter climbing in the Christmas holidays of 1954 in the Cairngorms and by February 1955 had gone on his first outing with the Junior Mountaineering Club of Scotland.

In 1956 Robin, now living in Comiston, had started university and joined its Mountaineering Club. Many of his first ascents were done with club members and his social life soon revolved around it. Through the club he met other climbers who would become famous such as Dougal Haston, who was two years his junior, but with whom he would make the epic ascent of "The Bat" up Ben Nevis in 1959.

Through the club though there was another Edinburgh outcrop he scaled - Castle Rock - a feat which was an annual event during the university's Charities Week. Robin wrote: "The climbing here is restricted to one day a year . . . the hordes of peasants gather in Princes Street and the Gardens to gape at great strings of colourful noise beetling about on the annual storming of the Castle Rock.

"By the time we get up most of the colour has gone all black, for the whole place is sozzled in Waverley smoke, but things begin to look up when they give us free beer."

As Robin got older his climbing continued to get more ambitious and adventurous. By now he had been invited to join the prestigious Scottish Mountaineering Club (SMC) and was travelling to Europe whenever possible to attempt new climbs.

The French Alps became his main focus in 1959 when he and his partner Gunn Clark became the first Brits to ascend the Walker spur, near Chamonix. At the time it was second only to the Eiger in terms of reputation. He went on to make many more first ascents in the Western Alps and the Italian Dolomite mountains.

His final expedition, though, was to Soviet Russia. In 1960 a group of Soviet mountaineers had come to climb in Britain and came to Scotland as guests of the SMC. It was the middle of the Cold War and relations between the countries were tense.

Jimmy says: "Some British climbers felt strongly that personal contact with Soviets might, in a small way, help international relations."

To repay the hospitality, two years later the Soviets allowed British climbers to scale the Pamir mountains, close to Afghanistan. Robin was the youngest of the hand-picked group of 12. In extremely difficult conditions on July 24, tragedy struck and Robin and his partner Wilfrid Noyce lost their footing on a descent and fell 4000ft to their deaths.

During his climbing career he had made a huge mark on the sport, particularly in Scotland. His climbs on rock and ice are, even 40 years on, still of a quality and severity to make them the benchmark for many and still unattainable for most.

High Endeavours, the Life and Legend of Robin Smith, is published today by Canongate.

Local heroes and their love of the high life

EDINBURGH and the Lothians area have between them produced some world-class mountaineers over the years.

Currie-born Dougal Haston was the first Briton to climb the north face of the Eiger in 1966, and he claimed another first when he successfully climbed Changabang in India in 1974.

He was also involved in the first ascents of the south-west face of Mount Everest and the south-west face of Mount McKinlay in Alaska in 1975.

In 2003, city IT systems developer Steven Fallon became the first person to climb all of Scotland's 284 Munros 11 times.

And last year, Edinburgh civil servant Fiona Murray became the first British woman to traverse Canada's treacherous "Caveman" route.

Back to the top of the page