Now the history of Dougal Haston – one of Scotland’s greatest, and most controversial, mountaineers – is being explored thanks to an exhibition shedding light on the city walls where he practiced for some of his most historic climbs.
In the 1950s the retaining walls along the now-disused Edinburgh to Balerno railway became a practising ground for Haston, who described them as “the best finger-training grounds around Edinburgh.”
Now rock-climbing enthusiast David Buchanan has organised a new exhibition at the Water of Leith Visitor Centre which aims to educate visitors about the history of the Currie Wa’s, as they were named by the notoriously publicity shy climber.
Mr Buchanan, 64, of Colinton, said: “These walls were first used by Haston and his friends to practise their rock-climbing moves in the 1950s, but enthusiasts – including myself – continued to climb here up until the 1980s. It was around this time last year – when the weather was much, much better – that I thought it would be interesting to come back down and see what state they are in now, compared to how they were back then. So I spent a few days photographing them.”
Thanks to Haston, the comparison between then and now should be relatively simple. In 1967 the Currie-born climber described the routes used by him and his friends in a guidebook published by Graham Tiso, even jokingly rating them by difficulty using the numeric alpine grades (I-VI sup.). He gave the hardest Wa’ routes VI sup – the highest grade in use at that time. In the book’s introduction Haston wrote: “The routes are short, but very strenuous . . . To climb every route on The Wa’s in succession is formidable.”
Haston added: “All first ascents were done by D. Haston, J. Moriarty and J. Stenhouse.” Jim Moriarty, who died in 2005, went on to tackle climbs such as the Cassin route on the North Face of the Cima Ovest, and Jim Stenhouse also continued to climb with Haston in later years.
Mr Buchanan said: “Almost all of the walls described in the guidebook still exist. You can still see them and climb on them. Haston could see that cracks and gaps in the stone could be used as holds and that you could use them to navigate the wall. I suppose as you were mainly going sideways some would say it was closer to bouldering than rock-climbing, though you do still go up at some points. But the longest routes along the walls I would estimate to be about 30m in length.”
However, while the routes may be the same, it’s likely some of the dangers faced by the three intrepid climbers have lessened over the years. These possible pitfalls are listed by Haston as “the fast-flowing sewer” of the Water of Leith, which ran under many of the routes, stones thrown by local “urchins” who “have brothers bigger than you”, “annihilation” by train – but only if you happen to be tiring as it passes – and the “shy urchin who gobs over the bridge when you are gripped”.
David Haston, who was born in Currie on April 19, 1940, went from these small steps to becoming one of the most successful mountaineers of his generation. He is perhaps best known as the first mountaineer to climb the south-west face of Mount Everest, but he first came to prominence after climbing many of Scotland’s hardest routes – including Gob on Carnmore in Wester Ross in April 1960 and Turnspit on Aonach Dubh in Glencoe in 1961 – alongside fellow Edinburgh man Robin Smith.
In 1966 he made the first ascent of the Harlin Direct on the north face of the Eiger. It was named after American John Harlin, a fellow climber on the trip who died when his rope snapped during the ascent. Haston and Harlin’s team of British and American climbers had originally been in competition to reach the summit with a group of Germans, but when the harsh reality of the ascent became clear the groups joined forces. However, a commemorative stone laid for Haston outside the post office on Lanark Road, Currie inaccurately states that the local boy was the first Briton to climb the North Face of the Eiger, when the Harlin route up the mountain is actually a much more difficult challenge.
Haston was also hired by Clint Eastwood to act as an adviser on the film The Eiger Sanction, a climbing thriller which was sadly panned on its eventual release in 1975.
But Haston had a darker side to his personality, one said to be fuelled by a fondness for the “demon drink”.
Fellow climber Doug Scott, of Nottingham, who had accompanied Haston to the top of Mount Everest in 1975, often spoke out in defence of his friend, saying he did not recognised the “Mick Jagger of mountaineering” tag given to Haston by the media. But even he could not deny that Haston had a chequered past. In 1965, the year before tackling the Harlin Direct, Haston was sentenced to 60 days in Barlinnie after running down three young walkers with a transit van in Glencoe. One of the walkers, an 18-year-old student, died of his injuries. Haston, who had been drinking before getting behind the wheel, was also said to have ignored a three-year driving ban after being released from prison.
However, to David Buchanan, the main point of the exhibit is to let people know about the history of climbing in their area, and perhaps bring a few more fans to the sport.
He said: “Though climbing walls have been around for a lot longer than people realise – for example, there used to be one at Meadowbank – when I started climbing back in the day your main option was to find somewhere close to home where you could practise. The Currie Wa’s have certainly contributed much to the history of Scottish climbers and Scottish climbing and deserve to be commemorated for that.”
Haston died in 1977 at the age of 36 when he was caught up in an avalanche while on a skiing day-trip from his home in Leysin, Switzerland. Ironically, he was in the process of writing a book where the main character survives an almost identical event.
The exhibition is open now and will run until the end of May.